Restaurant Reviews

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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh