Room with a Voodoo

Our reservations were for 7:30. But Anthony's dramatic new Highland Village location was packed to the gills that Thursday night; would we mind waiting in the bar? Thirty minutes passed. We surveyed the prosperous crowd for boldface types, wondering whether Warren and Felicia and David and Suzanne would show. We vetted the bumptious modern art, spotlit to a fare-thee-well on the distressed-concrete walls. We gazed hungrily at the gleaming, showpiece kitchen-under-glass that anchors the room. We had plenty of time to get the point: Tony Vallone, the golden goose of Houston's restaurant world, has laid another of his golden eggs.

There are five by now, all crackling with the festive energy that Tony seems to conjure up at will. From his venerated flagship, Tony's, to the two Grottoes and La Griglia and the reincarnated Anthony's, it is not so much Tony's often-excellent food that has made him one of those rare Houstonians known by first name alone; it is the show he stages.

Consider the pageant that he and his son Joey have fostered here at Anthony's, where the move to a tonier neighborhood and a more dynamic room design has boosted the restaurant's electric charge. Before, Anthony's seemed the staidest of Tony's children. Now the place seethes with that ineffable quality that Tony likes to call "bounce." Table-hoppers perambulate. Air-kissers peck. A clamorous cascade of chatter swells and subsides. Expensively clad women, conscious of the effect they are making, wend their long, slow way to the ladies' room.

Everything seems to move: the kinetic art, all squiggles and blurts and twists of squashed canvas; the Greco-Roman nudes thrusting out of their newly minted 1,200-pound frieze; the ceaseless parade of busboys and waiters and captains negotiating the long room. In the stagily lit kitchen, ladles swing, toques bob, flames leap high in the trendy wood-burning hearth. Tony's trademark high-rise dessert cart rumbles to and fro. And whoa! A whole hearth-roasted snapper comes swimming through, glaring balefully from

its erect pose on a platter, turning as many heads as the Baroness di Portanova does when she lunches with Beverly Sills.

That showstopping fish is a clue to Anthony's latest direction: the lengthy menu, which takes an eternity to read, bristles with pricy, big-effect dishes reminiscent of big-brother Tony's. A number of them require special day-ahead ordering and are served for two people only, a not-particularly-user-friendly notion that requires you and your companion to know in advance that you'll both be in the mood for rack of wild boar, say, or Anthony's highly touted bouillabaisse.

Gone from the menu is any semblance of the Italian influence that marked Anthony's birth (remember that spectacular antipasto table?). Hands have been wrung over this development, but the truth is that Anthony's hasn't been all that Italian -- or all that casual -- for quite some time. At the new spot, Tony and chef Bruce McMillan are turning out what I have come to think of as TonyFood: an opulent hybrid of neo-Continental and New American, with a foundation of superb ingredients. When it's good, it's very, very good. When it's not, it's still not bad.

Case in point: Anthony's first course of "Giant Shrimp Seared and Nestled on top of a Medley of Austere Greens, Lightly Warmed and Surrounded by a Fragrant Mango Sauce," as Tony's ever-more-flowery menu prose describes it. Austere greens, indeed! We're talking big, perfectly grilled shrimp; a pleasantly bitter field of nicely sauteed spinach; and a translucent, pastel pool of mango sauce. Some might call this sweet sauce delicate. I call it insipid and unsuitable, a strange match that detracts from what could otherwise be a splendid dish.

Combining sweet sauces with meats and seafood is a tricky business, and several of Anthony's trendy fruit essences lack the vibrance and kick that have always distinguished Tony Vallone's best sauces. The appeal of grilled snapper with crabmeat springs from the lovely texture of the fish and the captivating surprise of its accompanying grilled orange segments; its meek Tunisian orange essence contributes nothing in the way of excitement. "Tuna filet mignon" with a pear-and-ginger ponzu sauce sounds exhilarating, but alas: while the towering slab of fish and its bed of peppery spinach are impeccable, the carnelian-hued sauce is off-puttingly sweet.

Better to try a luncheon special of gazpacho-style salmon, the deftly grilled fish a satiny melt, its transparent sauce a fresh, springlike breeze of tomato and cucumber. Or a first course of "Atlantic Angel Wings" (there's that menu prose again), which translates as skate -- the faintly worrisome-looking flatfish that flaps around the ocean like a manta ray. I give many bonus points to Vallone & company for daring to serve such an exotic creature, even if they feel compelled to give it a celestial-sounding name. Anthony's skate is interesting stuff, tender and meaty and agreeably stringy in the manner of long-braised pork, embellished with sweet little crawfish tails and a light, graceful sauce that is tartly compelling. It's representative of Tony and his boys at their finest.

Whatever my quibbles about the food, I've found a number of things to love here. The risottos du jour, for instance: rice transformed into an unthinkably luxurious substance, like the one enriched with cream and edgy romano cheese, interspersed with bitterish ribbons of greens and tart tomato, anchored with faintly briny shrimp. Yes, I discovered an iodiney shrimp or two in the batch; no, I didn't care much. The risotto was that good.

It can easily serve as a main course -- preceded, perhaps, by a startlingly pure, refreshing salad of pale, crisp endive leaves and orange sections; it is dressed, according to Late-Period TonySpeak, with "Drops of Absolute [sic] Vodka, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a Fresh Chiffonade of Mint." There's a classy, un-wussy Caesar, too, for those who are so inclined.

I feel conflicted, however, about the lunchtime special of Southern chicken salad. It has wit, along with a heap of arugula and endive and fancy red lettuces, not to mention nuts and pungent blue cheese. But its centerpiece hunks of fried chicken flirted with a too-too fried-y quality. So did the engaging pumpkin-seed-crusted snapper, sauced with a racy beurre blanc and bedded down on a robust pile of cabbage, leek and bacon. In concert with a mahogany-brown filigree of crisped onion strings, the snapper's dark-brown crust and dryish texture bespoke rather-too-enthusiastic frying. Down, boys! With some adjustment, this could be a terrific dish.

No need to feel conflicted about a couple of the desserts. Key lime pie is the exuberantly puckery kind, and Anthony's bracingly tart sorbets of mango, lemon and lime, or berries can send your palate home feeling very much alive.

Glitches do creep into the works, which are not as well-oiled as they are in Tony's formal precincts. The service dispensed by white-shirted fellows in determinedly wild-'n'-crazy neckties is of the friendly, almost chummy variety, subject to fits and starts. Wines by the glass are confined to American choices, which means people who long for a crisper effect than domestic chardonnays and sauvignon blancs can offer are plumb out of luck. Flubs are quickly and cheerfully corrected, though: a flat half-bottle of Schramsberg champagne replaced in a flash; a medium piece of tuna redone rare, as requested. At these prices, you expect satisfaction, and you get it.

You also get the Vallone brand of theater, enacted on the raised stage of the wine-storage room, the handsome bar op-

posite, the well-mannered mosh pit of the central corridor, and the radiant kitchen in back -- which offers entertainment that makes even the rearmost tables, with their limited see-and-be-seen potential, seem fairly tolerable.

The flashy concentration of big names that crowds Tony's does not obtain here, but the people-watching's plenty rich. Isn't that bon vivant Aubrey O'Connor pelting Tootsies owner Mickey Rosmarin with bread? And isn't that attorney Joel Androphy, who's representing Teresa Rodriguez, raising his profile with People magazine's Ann Maier at one of the choice tables beneath the looming frieze? And who, an exotic bird among the faceless ranks of doctors and accountants, is that Lycra-wrapped babe? If you sit there long enough, Warren and Felicia and David and Suzanne will eventually make the scene, drawn, like the rest of us, by the magnetic force of Tony Vallone's voodoo.

Anthony's, 4007 Westheimer, 961-0552.


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