Spy vs. Spy
Scott Tycer, the chef and owner of Gravitas, the hip new bistro on Taft, was standing at the end of the stone counter in the kitchen looking out over the sleekly modern dining room. The restaurant's new construction is intriguingly fashioned from the distressed concrete and vintage bricks of an older building. The effect is new, yet comfortably worn-looking, like a pair of stone-washed designer jeans. Not coincidentally, the uniform for the waitstaff is an apron over jeans.
Tycer lingered for quite some time at his observation post, and he seemed to be staring directly at me. Then the manager of the restaurant came by and shooed away a bunch of busboys who had congregated near our table with a low whisper and a slight nod in our direction. A steady procession of managers and chefs walking down the aisle seemed to glance furtively at me as they went by.
"I think you're busted," one of my dining companions said. It certainly looked that way, although I had no idea how the staff at Gravitas had recognized me.
The extra attention didn't make our appetizers taste any better. One of my compatriots had ordered the prix-fixe dinner, which included an appetizer of duck confit salad, an entrée of slow-cooked pork and a peach cobbler for dessert. I tend to like more salt than most people, so when he kept complaining that his salad was oversalted, I ignored him. Then I tasted it. It was so salty, it had an almost mineral aftertaste. It was awful.
I got some suckling pig ribs, which sounded like a good idea. They looked delicious too, but there was scarcely any meat on the bones. The gazpacho was a huge bowl of bland tomato soup with some avocado cream on top. The corn chowder was the only starter that we all liked, and that was owing mainly to the abundance of applewood-smoked bacon.
Our entrées were uniformly excellent, although a gaffe in the service resulted in only three dinners being delivered to our table of four. Three of us sat there awkwardly watching our food get cold for nearly ten minutes while the fourth urged us to go ahead and eat and the waiter repeatedly came by to reassure us that the fourth dish was on the way.
"Maybe you're not busted," my friend remarked. "Surely they wouldn't do this to a restaurant critic."
The dish that kept us waiting was roast chicken breast with fried corn bread and caramelized shallots, and it was the best thing we sampled that night. It tasted like Sunday-dinner roast chicken with an awesome corn-bread stuffing. My entrée of silky, tender black cod piled on top of a rustic green bean cassoulet was a close second. The pan-fried trout with roasted tomatoes, wilted greens and fresh creamer peas also was sensational.
Gravitas reverses my usual experience with bistros, wherein I start off with an exciting spicy appetizer and end up with a boring slab of meat for the main dish.
My favorite appetizer at Gravitas isn't the least bit spicy. It's an artisanal spin on macaroni and cheese: housemade German spaetzle baked with Gruyère. But it wasn't until my last visit that I finally got to sample it. The first time I visited Gravitas, one of my dining companions ordered it, and I asked for a bite. She blushingly admitted that she had inhaled the entire bowlful without saving any for me. I was extremely disappointed, both because I wanted to include it in the review, and because it looked luscious.
On that first visit, I tried the braised beef bourguignon with potato puree and asparagus. The meltingly tender meat and buttery potato puree were served in a big shallow bowl with a pool of inky purple wine sauce on the bottom.
I hadn't had beef Burgundy since my mom made it when I was in high school. The version served at Gravitas reminds me of how good the original dish was before Mom's recipe, made with cream of mushroom soup and Gallo Hearty Burgundy, turned it into suburban convenience food. The slow-cooked beef in wine sauce and comfortingly creamy mashed potatoes were so good, I had to remind myself to eat slowly so I could savor each bite with a sip of Pinot Noir.
The light and not-too-sweet lemon tart was both the simplest and the best of the desserts, although the flaky-crusted peach cobbler was excellent back when peaches were in season. The cobbler was the last of the three courses the night my tablemate ordered the prix-fixe dinner, but when the rest of us got our desserts, his didn't show up. The waiter claimed that he was confused because my friend hadn't said anything about the cobbler. Evidently, he thought it was our duty to remind him what was on the prix-fixe menu.
The service problems were relatively minor, but they caused my friend to remark, "Nah, they must not have known it was you."
But as it turns out, they did recognize me. While I was talking to an old friend on the phone a few weeks later, she told me to be careful when I went to Gravitas. A guy I had met a couple of years ago at some of her parties now worked there, she said. Suddenly the pieces fell into place.
On a recent Thursday evening, my dining companion and I sat down at the bar at Gravitas to kill a few minutes before our eight o'clock reservation. We asked the bartender if the restaurant had a cocktail list. He said it didn't. So we asked for Mount Gay rum and pineapple juice. They didn't have pineapple juice. We finally settled for rum and OJ.
The only other person sitting at the bar at that moment was Scott Tycer. He took a good look at me, and I took a good look at him. I wanted to be sure he recognized me.
A few minutes later we were shown to a prime table along the front windows. Just as we were seated, Houston Press staff writer Josh Harkinson and his date showed up for their eight o'clock reservation. I had asked Josh to book a table at the same time in order to perform a little experiment.
The point of dining anonymously is to experience a restaurant the same way the general public does. Restaurant critics who aren't anonymous say there is no significant difference between the food and service they get and what the general public experiences. So I asked Josh to help me put that claim to the test.
On this visit, we received excellent service. Our waiter was well informed, low-key and instantly attentive. And the food was terrific.
I finally sampled the creamy spaetzle baked in milk with nutty, full-flavored Gruyère cheese. My date was indifferent about her arugula salad and the enormous disk of goat cheese that came with it. But she liked my homemade noodles and stinky cheese so much, she said she would like to curl up in a bathtub full of the stuff.
For dinner, I ordered steak frites and got a big, thick, tender New York strip steak cooked perfectly to medium rare with a pile of Belgian-style frites so high, I could barely make a dent in them. She got mussels steamed in Belgian beer. I think wine makes a better broth; the beer gets a little bitter.
With my steak, I asked for an obscure beer that I saw on the drink list called Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA (India pale ale). When it turned out they didn't have any, our waiter said that he would have the chef suggest something else. He came back with a Saint Arnold's Elissa and asked if that would be all right. I said sure, I love Saint Arnold's hoppy new IPA-style beer. "But I have a refrigerator full of the stuff," I added. "It would have been nice to try something new." Before I was halfway through with my Elissa, the waiter returned with a plain brown bottle.
"Scott wants you to try this," he said, as if Tycer and I were on a first-name basis. It was a bottle of the chef's own home-brewed porter. If Tycer ever wants to get out of the restaurant business, he ought to consider becoming a brewer, because the porter was outstanding -- just the beer to drink with a thick steak and a pile of fries. And, of course, only the chosen few will ever get a chance to sample Tycer's homebrew. That beer didn't show up on the bill.
I think I could get used to this celebrity-restaurant-critic thing.
Meanwhile, across the restaurant, Josh, our representative of the general public, was not doing nearly as well. His waiter, a gentleman with a goatee, was unenthusiastic, uninformed and prone to mumbling, according to Josh.
When asked about the house martinis, his waiter expressed complete ignorance. But it turned out that there was a list of house martinis on the wine list, which Josh pointed out. The waiter asked Josh if he wanted him to go to the bar and find out about them. Finally, after much ado, Josh and his date ordered two of the signature martinis. Fifteen minutes later, the drinks still hadn't shown up.
When they finally flagged down the waiter again, they faced a dilemma. Their appetizers were coming out, but they still hadn't gotten their aperitifs. After some negotiations, the waiter put a hold on their food and slogged off to the bar in search of the cocktails.
Coincidentally, Josh ordered the same steak frites that I did. But oddly, his chunk of New York strip wasn't juicy and tender like mine was. He said it was gristly and a bit tough. (Do you think they might have sorted through the steaks and picked out a special one for the restaurant critic?) His dining companion's dish of trout and peas was excellent, he said. Josh says he wouldn't go back to the restaurant because the service is lackluster and the prices are too high for casual bistro food.
The general public has spoken. But our pampered restaurant critic doesn't agree.
I think Gravitas is a new restaurant with some high points and some problems that need to be worked out. Its strength is in "slow food" entrées like the roasted chicken and corn bread and the braised beef Burgundy, which have instantly become the best upscale comfort food dishes in the city.
Its weaknesses are the slow service and the bar. Some members of the waitstaff are quite good, but overall the kitchen-to-table flow just isn't happening yet. And the bar, with signature cocktails that neither the waiters nor the bartender has ever heard of, advertised beers that aren't available, and a lack of ordinary mixers, is a mess.
As for the experiment, it's clear I was treated much better than Josh. The point isn't to punish Gravitas for recognizing a restaurant critic. That's not their fault. But their natural reaction -- lavishing me with superior service, providing special items not available to the general public at no charge, and making sure to give me a better piece of meat than the average guy on the other side of the restaurant -- clearly illustrates the value of anonymity.
When I eat at a restaurant unrecognized, I can provide readers with a good idea of what their own experience might be like. When I'm spotted, I can only describe what it's like to be pampered. And unless you're a celebrity, that kind of restaurant review doesn't do you much good.
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