Still Your Father's Tony's
Two smiling men in black bow ties are violently agitating tiny silver shakers. They uncap them simultaneously and pour martinis into our stemmed glasses. I hesitate before taking a drink to admire the scene. Through the bottom of our icy cocktails, I can see the Versace plates on a little island of white linen tablecloth. Everything else in sight, including the carpet, the walls and my girlfriend's hair, is red. Our table seems to be floating in a crimson sea.
"How do you describe a Versace plate?" I ask my girlfriend, with my pen in hand. (I'm tired of calling her "my girlfriend," so if you don't mind, we'll call her Red.)
"Yours is turquoise and periwinkle," she says as I write. "And mine is terra-cotta and cobalt blue -- the Japanese Imari porcelain colors." Red is an expert in these and other matters of taste. I'm lucky she came along. She is much more at home here than I am.
On our first visit to Tony's a couple of weeks ago, the other diners in the restaurant included some senior corporate types with their wives, several groups of little old ladies and a big table of stylish young men. To a red-blooded sports fan like me, it looked like the audience at a Liberace concert. It was a Monday night, and most of the tables sat empty.
For dinner that time, we ordered some of Tony's old standbys. I was trying to get a "before and after" impression of the menu so that I could compare the old continental cuisine to the "New European" dishes that chef Bruce McMillian was introducing.
For starters, Red had carpaccio, upscaled with shaved foie gras and 50-year-old balsamic. It was pleasant enough, although the balsamic was difficult to notice. I had a bowl of lobster bisque, which was very satisfying. Of course, it's hard to mess up lobster meat drenched in cream.
I followed the soup with grilled red snapper and roasted shrimp in a shrimp reduction. The fish was perfectly grilled, and the shrimp were fairly juicy, but the reduction sauce tasted thin. Red had Tony's scallopini of lobster Milanese, an interesting variation on the traditional veal scallopini in which lobster is pounded and sautéed. Milanese is a bread-crumb-and-Parmesan mixture used for the breading. It was served in a light lemon sauce with mushrooms.
After we finished our entrées, a towering fruit basket was placed on the table. I proposed that we have a cheese course instead of dessert. The waiter wheeled the cart over, and I picked out some Stilton, a little Gorgonzola and a couple of stinky French cheeses. Red loves cheese, but unfortunately she's mildly allergic to it. But when the cheese is this good, she eats it anyway.
Red has filled me in on Tony's. As everybody knows, the gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger held court here and made Tony's the see-and-be-seen spot for Houston society types. There is a hierarchy of sections, with "A" tables reserved for the right people. But many sons and daughters of the society set lost interest in all that, Red tells me. When chef Mark Cox left to start Mark's American Cuisine in Montrose, he took a lot of the younger crowd with him.
Which explains why Tony's seems so frozen in time. When I first arrived in Houston a year ago, I was astonished to find restaurants like Tony's still listed under the "continental" section in newspapers and restaurant guides. I hadn't seen that term in years. I conducted an e-mail poll of fellow restaurant reviewers around the country, and I couldn't find a single one that used the term "continental" without irony.
"We dropped it from our restaurant categories about ten years ago," Dotty Griffith, the dining editor at The Dallas Morning News, told me. "We switched it to European."
In A Restaurant Timeline, John Mariani credits the American introduction of "continental cuisine" to the Rainbow Room, which opened in New York in 1934. The term came to describe an American version of European cooking popular in the 1960s. Many continental cuisine favorites such as Caesar salad (invented at an Italian restaurant in Mexico) and lobster Newburg (invented at Delmonico's in New York) weren't European at all. When nouvelle cuisine arose in the 1980s, the heavy cream sauces and cloaked presentations that typified continental cooking fell out of favor.
Last month Tony's awoke from a long slumber. In a news release that bears the headline "This is not your father's Tony's," the restaurant announced a "New European" menu. The release hedges its bets by saying that the "traditions of Continental cuisine will serve as a time-honored foundation." But the handwriting is clearly on the wall. Continental cuisine can finally be declared dead in Houston.
"Tony's has never fit into a box," says owner Tony Vallone in the release. "In the beginning, in the early 1960s, perhaps Tony's was a Continental restaurant, but I believe we have evolved. As the great kitchens of Europe have evolved -- into a 'New European' style ."
After eating two dinners there in the last month, I'm afraid to say that Tony's still needs a lot more work to pull off this waking giant act.
Content with our martinis, we take our time with the menu. "No cheese this time," insists Red as we debate the dishes. (Her allergies are already acting up.) She orders acorn squash tortellini with lobster in a wine reduction for an appetizer. For an entrée, she asks for the Dover sole with crabmeat, scallions and "a hint of beurre noir." She really wanted the seared halibut, but it's stuffed with Brie. I order the roasted foie gras with spiced apples for starters and a truffled baby hen with mushroom risotto.
And I ask the waiter to send over the wine steward. The wines on the list are admittedly wonderful -- burgundies and Bordeaux from France, Barolos and Brunellos from Italy, and famous cabs and chardonnays from California. But who spends $100 or more on wine on a Wednesday night?
We tell the sommelier what we're having for dinner. First he recommends a Mersault or a Montrachet, neither of which I can afford. Then he suggests a "big California butter bomb chardonnay." Since it looks like I'm stuck with California chardonnay, I ask for the exact opposite: a wine with clean fruit flavors. He recommends Patz & Hall, one of Red's favorites. It's $73 a bottle, but on this list, that's cheap. I also want a sweet white wine with my foie gras, a French tradition that I have become fond of. "I've got you covered. We serve the foie gras with a glass of sauternes," the sommelier assures me.
When the appetizers arrive, I dig into Red's tortellini. The orange squash has been lightly sweetened, and the port reduction sauce adds even more sweetness. The interplay between the sweet lobster meat and the squash is absolutely brilliant. It reminds me of the seared diver scallops with butternut squash puree and watercress salad at Saba Blue Water Cafe (see "Split Personality," February 1). Unfortunately, my dining companion has dibs on it, and she fends me off with a fork.
Which is fine, because the foie gras looks lovely. The fatty liver has been seared in the pan with apples and port so the edges are blackened. You taste the liver, the fruit and the burned sugars when you first put it in your mouth. I anticipate the fabulous effect the sauternes is going to have: The honey-sweet wine will explode with the burned-sugar flavor to produce a caramel sort of complexity, I think, as I raise the glass to my mouth and take a sip.
It tastes awful. It's not sweet. It tastes like bad white wine. I signal to the waiter. "What is this?" I ask him, pointing to my glass.
"It's sauternes, sir, a sweet French wine," says the lanky young chap in the tuxedo.
"That's what it's supposed to be, but it isn't. It isn't sweet at all. Could you please go check the bottle and see if there's been some mistake?"
The waiter returns with an embarrassed look. "Well, sir, actually our sauternes tonight is Vin Santo from Italy." How can a sauternes, which is an appellation in the Bordeaux region, come from Italy? It's an outdated restaurant custom. Sauternes is an intense sweet white wine from the Bordeaux region, but "sauterne," without the final s, is a generic term for sweet white wine from any part of the world. The wines are often delightful, but the custom is silly.
At Charlie Trotter's in Chicago the sommelier recommended a Hungarian Tokay with the foie gras. At Les Flambes in Bergerac, I sampled a sweet white wine called Monbazillac, which was far more popular than sauternes in the 1700s. The wine stewards at these places were proud to tell me all about the little-known sweet white wines they were pouring. Why does Tony's think it needs to keep us in the dark? The answer to that question, of course, is an entirely different issue.
My immediate concern is that the wine in my glass has gone bad, and it's ruining my foie gras. I can't send the vino back because I didn't order it in the first place. And the waiter is out of his league on this subject; he wants me to talk to the sommelier. But it took about 15 minutes for the wine steward to show up last time we asked for him. He explained that he was busy running a wine dinner down in the cellar. That's understandable, but it meant I was going to have to eat my foie gras without any sauternes, sauterne, Vin Santo or whatever.
"Our waiter is in the weeds," Red observes. As a former waitress, she knows the telltale signs of panic. He is supposed to carve my truffled baby chicken at the table, but the task is getting away from him. Instead of deftly slicing the two breast lobes and quickly removing the leg quarters as you'd expect, he's all bent over the bird, hacking and sawing at it. Then he walks away to take care of matters at another table. And then he walks back and hacks at the rapidly cooling fowl some more.
He finally delivers the tattered chicken meat and spoons a little truffle sauce over it. Then he starts to walk away. Black Périgord truffles sell for more than $200 a pound, and the gravy boat in his hand had lots more than what he'd spooned over my chicken.
"Can you leave the sauce, please?" I request. While the truffles aren't nearly as pungent as the ones I've had in Dorgogne, they are still quite a treat. I learned long ago that the flavor of truffles accumulates on your palate. The only way truly to enjoy them is to eat a lot of them. Which may be why Colette once said, "If I can't have too many truffles, I don't want any truffles at all." The rare fungus's earthy flavor has been described as a cross between mushrooms and garlic, but that description doesn't really explain them.
Truffled fowl is a French classic, and chef McMillian does an admirable job of sticking to the basics. It's extremely rare to find this dish in the United States, and I salute Tony's for going to the trouble. Red isn't quite so lucky with her Dover sole. After her first bite, she asks me to taste it.
"It has cheese in it, doesn't it?" she asks. Yes, I concur, the fish does taste like cheese. Red calls for the waiter.
"I think this fish has cheese in it," she says.
"No, ma'am," he replies. "It's prepared with crabmeat and scallions. What you are tasting is the beurre noir," he says and walks away. Beurre noir means "black butter" -- it's a burned-butter sauce, not a flavor that anyone could mistake for cheese.
Red tastes the fish again. "What kind of cheese is it?" she asks me.
"It's Parmesan," I tell her.
The waiter comes back. "Is everything exactly the way you like it?" he asks diplomatically.
"The lady is allergic to cheese," I tell him.
At the mere mention of an allergy, he looks scared. "Can I bring you something else? How about some red snapper in a meunière sauce?" he asks.
"Sure," she says, and he takes her plate away.
A few minutes later, he returns from the kitchen. "There was some Reggiano in the breading of the Dover sole. Will the lady's allergies be all right?" he asks nervously. He sees lawsuit written all over this cheesy fish. I start to feel sorry for the guy.
As we finish our wine, I explain to Red the conceptual sloppiness that I find so annoying here. The menu has two sides, one titled antipasti and the other pranzo. There are three pasta dishes under the antipasti heading. "Tell me, how can you possibly have a pasta as an antipasto?" I ask rhetorically. Antipasto means "before the pasta" in Italian. Pranzo is an afternoon meal; cena is eaten at night. So are they handing out the lunch menu at dinnertime? Red smiles absently; she doesn't pay much attention to me when I get on a rant.
"And if that's not enough of an insult to the Italian tradition, one of the pastas is crab and Brie agnolotti," I fume.
I learned my lesson about fish and cheese at a small restaurant in Florence. After the waiter grated a big fragrant hunk of Reggiano all over my dining companion's spaghetti with meat sauce, I asked for some cheese on my salmon penne. The waiter looked at me like I had just farted.
"Reggiano con pesce?" he said with one finger waving back and forth in the universal symbol of reproach. "Noooooo!"
Food editor Alice Ann Pazzaglia at the virtualitalia.com Web site tells us that one of the unwritten rules of Italian cooking is that "Fish and shellfish are not paired with any kind of cheese." Of course, the rule is broken all the time at American Italian restaurants. My friend Alan Lazarus, the chef at Vespaio in Austin, and I have been arguing about this for years. Lazarus occasionally serves oyster and scallop gratin. "Okay, it's not authentic," he says, "but Americans like it."
Fair enough. Americans may like Tony's crab and Brie agnolotti, too. Besides, Tony's isn't Italian, it's New European. But that doesn't change the fact that this concoction containing American shellfish and French cheese is posing as an Italian pasta on a menu headed antipasti. The name of the dish includes three languages. "We stay about a million miles away from the craft called 'fusion' preferring the artistry inherent in classical preparations ," sniffs McMillian in Tony's news release. Whatever you say. But do your customers a favor and stop putting cheese on everything that swims.
Just as we finish our wine, the sommelier returns. "And how was everything?" he asks.
"Oh, just fine," I smile wickedly. I have saved the glass of "sauternes." "I'd like you to taste this and tell me exactly what it is," I say passing him the glass. He tastes a little and turns ashen. Then he walks away from the table.
He comes back with a half bottle of a wonderful muscat from the Rhône and pours us both a glass. "I'm terribly sorry," he says.
"So what was it?"
"It was a bottle of Vin Santo that had gone bad."
The wine steward insists on buying our desserts.
On my first visit to Tony's, I was blown away by the service. But in the final accounting, I was mostly disappointed in the waiters and wine stewards. The service is all about making people feel important; nobody is prepared to have an intelligent conversation about food or wine. This hints at a more fundamental problem.
Fine restaurants don't serve the same function in our city that they did 40 years ago. Few people go to a restaurant to assert their place in the social pecking order anymore. The "A" table seating charts and the "right people" snobbery seems laughable to most of us now. Southwestern cuisine chefs like Robert Del Grande, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, brought a new intelligence to Houston dining in the 1990s. They helped create an inquisitive attitude about food among baby boomers. Today, when my generation goes to great restaurants, we go to learn as much as we go to eat.
Bruce McMillian's new menu sounds interesting. But the updated food hasn't changed the fundamental culture of Tony's. The staff knows all about pampering rich people, yet isn't prepared for intelligent questions. Getting rid of the outdated continental cuisine label was a good first step; now Tony's needs to get rid of its outdated attitudes about the dining experience. When they stop calling the Vin Santo "sauternes" and start educating us about the sweet white wines of the world, we will have some reason to go back.
Until then, Tony's is still your father's restaurant.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.