Ling must be the smiling Chinese gal in the big painting on the restaurant's wall. That would make the Cuban with the high collar in the other painting Javier. The paintings have the look of a bygone era, like they came from turn-of-the-century cigar boxes. The restaurant named after these fictitious characters set out to be hip, high-concept and extraordinary. And it succeeded. The place drips with coolness; diners seem to pose with their forks in the air, as if they were being photographed. And the food is all extraordinary -- in some cases extraordinarily good, but mostly extraordinarily bad.
Our waiter brings a paper cone filled with fried wonton wrapper triangles, lightly seasoned with five spice powder. It's a clever spin on tortilla chips, and my date is charmed by its cleverness. She is also intrigued by the tall, skinny champagne glasses that look like bud vases. And she loves the lighting: Spotlights are placed under plants so that they throw organic shadows on the ceiling. I loved the wonton chips in the paper cone too, the first time I came here. Lord knows I've tried to love this place.
The concept of Ling and Javier is an inside joke. The menu is divided into Cuban and Chinese sections, just like New York's wacky Cuban-Chinese restaurants. Ethnic Chinese who once had restaurants in Havana moved to Manhattan when Castro came to power. There they established restaurants just like back home -- half Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and black beans, and half Chinese standards like pork lo mein. Ling and Javier took the idea one step further by upscaling the menu.
I visited the restaurant three times and tried at least half the menu. The cleverness wore off, and the problems wouldn't go away. The food doesn't come together as anything resembling a meal; the protein, starch and vegetable trio doesn't play here. It's the kind of restaurant that's best appreciated when you aren't very hungry.
The only edible elements I could find in the "stir-fried lamb with plum sauce and crispy noodles" were the lamb chunks. The nest of fried noodles was too sharp to eat. I tried to soften it in the plum sauce, but this was a disaster. The broken noodles flew everywhere, and the few I coaxed into the bowl tasted awful because the sauce was too salty. The lamb was okay, but it wasn't much of a dinner.
Bathed in a broth that seemed to consist almost entirely of soy sauce, the wok-roasted mussels had a similar problem. The flavor of the mussels was drowned out, and you couldn't even dip your bread in the broth -- first, because it was too salty, and second, because the restaurant doesn't serve bread.
Red snapper steamed in a banana leaf came with pineapple salsa and purple designer rice. The presentation was charming -- the whole thing served in a bamboo steamer basket instead of on a plate -- but the fish was utterly unseasoned as far as I could tell. The rice was also plain, and the salsa was sweet. I tried various combinations of the discrete elements, but they remained discrete. No matter how I mixed or matched, I could find no there there.
Maybe Ling and Javier was just not designed with big hungry boys like me in mind. Picking a few mussels or lamb chunks out of a savory sauce, nibbling on unseasoned fish with salsa on the side -- this is how supermodels must eat. Waifishly thin fashion enthusiasts will also love Ling and Javier appetizers like the lobster Cantonese packages with white wine and peach nectar, siu mai potstickers with shrimp, and jade flower chicken wontons. But to my taste, they're bland, skimpy and overpriced.
There was, however, one appetizer I really loved: a roasted corn tamale topped with ropa vieja and jicama-radish salad. It wasn't authentic ropa vieja, as it was seasoned with serranos, but I'm not complaining, since it was the only appetizer with any flavor. A sesame noodle bowl with napa cabbage salad and sizzling vinaigrette was a big hit with me too. Cuban beefsteak, a cumin-marinated sirloin on a pile of mashed potatoes and boniato, is also a safe bet. The steak was top-quality, grilled medium-rare as requested, and the potato-boniato combination was unique and satisfying.
And the wine list is cutting-edge, made up almost entirely of fantastic bargains in the $25 to $45 range with a few big bottles thrown in for fun. Innovative California vineyards are well represented. There are also unusual varietals like Gruner Veltliner that go great with spicy food; inexpensive but tasty bubblies like Roederer Estate; and sturdy reds from around the world, including Argentine malbecs, Australian syrahs and Spanish riojas.
But to say the food is uneven here would be a gross understatement. The dishes that fail aren't just mediocre, they verge on the inedible. Salt shrimp were served with fried leeks tossed with what should have been fried bean thread noodles -- only somebody forgot to fry the noodles. You eat them at the risk of cracking a tooth. In fact, you get the idea that the chef didn't intend for anybody to actually eat any of the vegetables.
Ling and Javier and the Hotel Derek opened in mid-November, and I ate there twice in December. One month is the usual waiting period before we report on a new restaurant, but in this case, I decided to give them more time to get their act together.
The Derek is Houston's first boutique hotel. Ian Schrager, the former proprietor of Studio 54, launched the boutique hotel trend in the mid-1980s when he opened the Royalton and Morgan hotels in New York. These "urban inns" for the supercool attracted throngs of upscale tourists. The bars and restaurants became hangouts for local hipsters and visiting celebrities. The tiny rooms, decked out in cutting-edge fashions, rented for twice the price of other rooms of the same size.
The trend had become one of the hottest in the hospitality business. But September 11 derailed the luxury locomotive. The occupancy rate for New York hotels over Thanksgiving fell from 74 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2001. The hardest hit were unaffiliated properties that lacked the toll-free reservation systems of the major chains. With minibars stocked with Dean and DeLuca chocolates, expensive champagne and condoms, boutique hotels in particular may seem too frivolous in the post-traumatic atmosphere. Suddenly, prices are dropping and the upscale hostelries are offering incentives. "Boutique hotels like The Muse and The Dylan are offering packages as low as $157 that include hotel accommodation, a Broadway show, a dinner gift certificate, parking coupon and donation to the Twin Towers Fund," reports one online magazine. Some industry watchers are questioning the very viability of boutique hotels in the current climate.
Houston had a similarly steep decline in hotel occupancy this fall, and the Derek opened smack-dab in the worst of it. Nevertheless, the hotel drew rave reviews and the bar has been wildly popular since the beginning.
In the lobby, a huge pile of firewood surrounds a television screen playing video of a roaring fire. Nestled in front of the virtual hearth is a conversation pit of textured leather sofas, bizarrely upholstered chairs and a table with a glowing Lucite chess board. Inside the restaurant, a trance-techno soundtrack throbs, and the stylishly thin waiters seem to move to the beat. We nibble on our wonton chips and finish our cocktails. An appetizer arrives, five itty-bitty fried wontons with some dipping sauce. At $8, that's $1.60 per wonton, I figure. Hey, it's the atmosphere you're paying for, right?
Some of the choicest tables at Ling and Javier are right in the thick of the action in the bar area (the place for fashionable singles to strut their leather pants this season). Luckily, there's also a large dining room in the back for those of us in the hard-of-hearing set. The bar is packed, but the dining room is little more than a quarter occupied on a Wednesday night at eight o'clock; business seems slower than on my last two visits. And the entrées set before us tonight illustrate why Houston diners don't come back to Ling and Javier. It's a "boom or bust" restaurant.
The pan-fried grouper with almonds, brown butter and mashed plantains is stunning, the best entrée I've had here. The meaty fish is perfectly cooked and served over a pile of plantains mashed with yams. The hearty tropical starch provides a wonderfully soft, sweet and creamy underpinning while a topping of almonds and brown butter supplies a crunchy, savory counterpoint. I wish I could eat more of this fabulous dish. But, alas, I have to switch plates with my dining companion.
She ordered "saffron potato and albacore tuna with green olives, asparagus and creole mustard vinaigrette." She's surprised that the fish is raw. We call the waiter over and ask for the menu, which we study carefully before calling him back.
"It doesn't say 'raw albacore tuna' or 'albacore tuna sushi' on the menu," we point out.
No, he shrugs, but after all, that's the best way to appreciate albacore tuna. If we would prefer something else, he will gladly take it back, he says. I weigh the decision. The dish is a failure, but the waiter is insinuating that we are Philistines for not appreciating its sophistication. Okay, I figure, if this is what the chef intended, then let's review it.
The saffron potatoes and the greens are quite good together; it's the fish that's the problem. The chef was trying to create a clever spin-off of the classic French hareng pommes à l'huile, a salad of potatoes, greens and herring in oil. It's a good start. Scott Tycer at Aries does a splendid version of this with his own smoked salmon and clams over potato fingerlings. I once had a superb rendition in Quebec with smoked salmon and crispy curls of smoked sturgeon fried as crisp as bacon on top of the greens. In truth, a salad of potatoes, fish and oil is the kind of simple idea that's pretty hard to screw up.
Raw tuna could have been brilliant on this salad -- if the chef at Ling and Javier had spent the money for sushi-grade bluefin. But the waiter's line about albacore being best enjoyed raw is a lot of hooey. Albacore is the premium grade of canned tuna, but not the best sushi fish. Shiro maguro, as it's known in Japanese, is considered hard to work with by sushi chefs because it's so soft and it discolors quickly, says Mia Detrick in her book Sushi. "Even when it is available, shiro maguro is almost never on a sushi-bar menu," she writes.
And whoever prepared this salad is no sushi chef. The slices of albacore are an awful dried-blood color, and some are shot through with white threads. These inedible sinews have to be inelegantly extracted from the mouth after the fish is chewed. Some slices are so riddled with sinew I don't even attempt to eat them.
I manage to get a few more bites of the grouper before my tablemate polishes it off. We've abandoned the awful tuna. The salad could have been a big hit, but the kitchen didn't have the chops to pull off the kind of innovative dish the chef imagined. And that's too bad, because there aren't very many good ideas on the ever-so-clever menu at Ling and Javier.
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