Return of the Irish Cowboy

First the good news: Neil Doherty's back in town. Now the not-so-good news: Once again, this interesting Irish chef holds forth in a big-hotel forum that allows his considerable talents only limited expression. After a stint in the Berkshires, the guy who put the ultra-suburban Adam's Mark on the Houston food map has landed at the Post Oak Doubletree as executive chef.

It's a coup for the Doubletree, a reincarnated post-bust hostelry with a faceless profile that can use the tweak a star chef will provide. Already Doherty has revitalized the hotel's casual grill, the Promenade. (Never heard of it? Guess why.) Its just-introduced menu fizzes with his trademark Irish-cowboy conceits, exuberant vegetables, suave polentas and -- especially -- his tricky fruit-infused sauces, glazes, dressings and relishes.

At lunch, over a regally grilled slab of Atlantic salmon robed with mysterious, startling guava-and-green-peppercorn sauce, it is possible to gaze out the window at nearby Tony's and gloat that the pampered swells within are eating no better than you are -- and at a much higher price. But then... but then. Night falls, the hotel bulges with huge holiday parties, the overtaxed kitchen strains to keep up with the demands of Doherty's ambitious ideas, and it fails. You do battle with a glum, grey lamb T-bone that has all the charm of a Doc Martens boot, wondering where the noontime magic has fled.

The solution, for those who have fond memories of Doherty's venison pot pie and haunting gravlax, is to sample his wares at mid-day. Steel yourself against the soulless, mauve-y decor that second-tier hotels seem to favor (this particular example of the genre boasts singularly ugly upholstered chairs, hideous purply carpeting and flower arrangements two steps up from Fannin Street). Also abandon any lingering gravlax nostalgia: Doherty's current house-cured salmon bears little resemblance to its former subtle self. These days it's wildly oversalted, as I have found to my distress on two separate occasions; even Doherty's accompanying Irish soda bread seems leached of its old dense, moist character.

Avail yourself instead of a black-bean soup, made interesting with smoked ham hocks and rum, that flirts with very-saltiness without ever really getting into trouble. Its expansive white soup plate -- echoed in the Promenade's outsize dinner plates -- makes it even more satisfying.

Down in the menu section labeled "Creativities" -- a name more suitable for a bad party shop -- are a couple of fish dishes that could seal Doherty's reputation in this town. One is that fruitwood-grilled salmon in the sauce that sounds as if it's trying too hard (guava? green peppercorns?) but tastes effortlessly accomplished. Underneath and exploding willy-nilly across the plate is a circus of roasted vegetables: perfect baby beets with their green tops intact; crisp carrot matchsticks; haricots verts and corn and asparagus. Wafery fried plantains, too, plus a stack of mango pico de gallo.

Surprisingly, it all works together instead of flying apart at the seams -- a very real danger posed by some of Doherty's busy plates.

The other must-order at lunch is the swordfish fajitas, beautifully seared and fresh-tasting, to fold into thin, chewy flour tortillas along with jewellike peppers and caramelized red onion. Adding mango pico de gallo (lovely but too timid) and tart avocado relish (superior to any guacamole in the city) may sound like gilding the lily, but again -- it works. Don't ask; just eat.

I wish that rule applied at night, but for now the evening meal here is best approached with extreme caution. There is a very appealing, hard-to-screw-up carpaccio of Black Angus beef with asiago cheese shavings and a sweet-tart wild-mushroom salsa (salad to you) that's a knockout. But the foolproof-sounding crab-and-shrimp quesadilla with mango pico de gallo (yep) features microscopic shrimp and an overbearingly soaked, chili-laced cheese that subjugates everything else.

The offending lamb T-bone encountered on a weekend night might have been medium-rare at one point in its history -- "about five hours ago," snorted my companion as he sawed away at it. The promised whipped parsnips (great, uncommon idea, right?) had not been whipped with conviction; here and there lurked big, slippery root hunks. Not nice. Even the ungrammatically designated "berry au jus" had none of the deep, dark complexity of Doherty's better sauces.

That's the risk in this chef's predilection for fruit: Fruit-laced sauces invite sweet, sappy disaster unless they are superbly balanced. Doherty's molasses- and black-currant-spiked pan gravy strikes a more assertive note in a dish of seared duck breast with duck sausage, but a tarter edge wouldn't hurt; nor would searing the duck aggressively, so that it's pink inside and crisp outside instead of overcooked and flabby-skinned. Good, elusively spiced sausage, though, and a soft cheese polenta will thrill any Southern-fried devotee of cheese grits.

Grilled chicken, that standby of defensive eating, fares pretty well a la Doherty: Its precious-sounding passion-fruit peppercorn glaze is oddly pleasant, its roasted corn salad just right. If only it weren't for that soft, flabby skin!

Nighttime is when the Promenade trots out big-deal desserts like a shortbread-crusted pecan pie with ineffably weird candied-jalapeno ice cream; or a mannered berry shortcake cut into the shape of a (cough) Lone Star, a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream canceling out the dessert's essential shortcake-ness.

In due course the Doubletree's kitchen may get better at executing the notions of its new chef; its new chef may get better at imposing quality control; even the eminently correctable house-cured salmon may be redeemed. I hope so, because Doherty is full of mostly good ideas (pecan-crusted chicken sandwich with spicy greens and citrus mayo) among the occasional eyebrow-raisers (grilled swordfish and mangos with orange ginger fettuccine and orange-blossom vinaigrette). His next project is to resuscitate the hotel's shuttered fancy restaurant, the Vendome.

In the meantime, I'm going to treat the Promenade like the provocative, convenient new Galleria-area lunch spot that it is -- one that delivers bang for the buck and unusually low stress levels, since at this point the clientele is just a scattershot of hotel guests. Of course, Doherty could change that. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Doubletree Hotel at Post Oak, Promenade Grill, 2001 Post Oak Boulevard, 961-9300.


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