Shaved salmon marinated with coconut lime juice, chili tapioca and Asian pear" is an appetizer on the menu at the elegant Bank Jean-Georges in the Hotel Icon on Main Street. But what is it exactly? Sushi and tapioca? Does it come in a bowl like a pudding? One of my dining companions is sufficiently intrigued to order it so we can find out.
What comes to the table is a chilled plate with raw, fatty salmon slices, roasted red-pepper strips and thin slices of Asian pear artfully arranged across it. These are barely submerged in a cold broth of lime juice and chili oil. A little mound of chili tapioca on the side looks remarkably like chocolate dessert, but instead of sweetness, each bite delivers an intense dried-chile flavor.
The three of us pass the plate around, marveling at every bite. The Asian pear is as crunchy as jicama. I compose a forkful with pear on the bottom, some rich fatty salmon on top and a dollop of chili tapioca for a garnish. It's a stunning mouthful of complements -- fruity and spicy, crunchy and gooey. Though it sounded mysterious a minute ago, once I taste it, it all makes some tropical sort of sense.
Who came up with the idea of chili tapioca? Was it über-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who rules his 15-restaurant dynasty from New York? (See Toque Off, "All the Way to the Bank," June 10.) After all, the French-born Vongerichten, who once worked in the top hotel restaurants of Hong Kong and Singapore, has a reputation for innovative fusion dishes. Or was the chili pudding the invention of Bryan Caswell, Bank's brilliant young chef de cuisine who once worked in Vongerichten's Dune restaurant in the Bahamas?
The answer: There is nothing new under the hot tropical sun. Pearl tapioca is made from cassava, a.k.a. yuca, the most important source of carbs in the jungle lowlands of Asia and South America. Chili tapioca is not far from such traditional savory cassava dishes as Puerto Rico's chili de yuca. Yuca and ceviche are also combined in Peruvian cuisine. So maybe the weird-sounding salmon, Asian pear and chili tapioca appetizer isn't such a wild fusion dish after all.
Asian fusion isn't new to Houston. But Jean-Georges's style is different. Its inspirations come from far afield. And in the Jean-Georges empire, chefs from his restaurants in the Bahamas and Hong Kong swap training shifts so that ideas percolate through the whole organization. Innovations from one restaurant end up on the menu of another. And as a result, a whole lot of thought goes into the cooking.
The food is damn good.
In three visits to Bank Jean-Georges, I sampled about half of the menu. It would take a book-length review to recount the circumstances of each visit and deconstruct each dish in the detail it deserves, so instead, let me skip around to some highlights and low spots.
An appetizer of four ravioli stuffed with charred corn, covered with a creamy pesto the menu calls basil fondue and topped with cherry-tomato halves was a summer-garden masterpiece. Another appetizer called ribbons of tuna, made with ginger- marinated sushi tuna over a bed of avocado, was equally sensational.
Sweet pea soup, a purée of fresh peas, was astonishingly bright in flavor. Chicken and coconut-milk soup with shiitakes was a pleasant Thai-style broth with very little chicken or mushrooms.
The salads were probably my least favorite category on Bank Jean-Georges's menu. A salad of stacked heirloom-tomato slices offered perfect tomatoes, but the garnish, which consisted of extremely thin onion rings, tasted like nothing other than batter. Artichoke, almond and lemon salad seemed to be composed of disparate elements that didn't really come together. Crunchy squid salad with papaya, water chestnuts and cashews seemed like an elaborate ruse to sneak some pedestrian fried calamari onto the menu.
The entrée list also includes several sops for Houston's notoriously meat and potato-oriented audience. There are three steaks -- a rib eye for two with steak sauce, a tenderloin with eggplant and a New York strip. We tried the strip, and although the steak was decent, it was the french fries we fell in love with.
Served in a paper-lined bowl, the frites were hand-cut and puffy -- crunchy on the outside and cake-like in the middle. And they came with an eggcup full of ketchup on the side, so you didn't have to ask.
Roasted duck breast was a hit but not a homer. It was served in four big chunks that were a little difficult to carve. Each chunk was topped with a precious little slice of baby turnip. In the middle of the plate was a pile of ginger-flavored shallots, which had been slow-cooked until they caramelized. And on top of the shallots was a triangular package of fried phyllo dough stuffed with a duck confit minced together with mushrooms and foie gras. I liked the fried confit-dumpling garnish much better than the duck breast.
Among the so-so selections, the grilled chicken with kumquat, baby corn and broccoli tasted like a "parody of bad Chinese food," according to one of my dining companions. And red snapper crusted with spices and served over a brown-butter sauce with fava beans and potatoes lacked the spark of the menu's other fish dishes.
The best thing I tried is the slow-baked salmon with fresh-corn pudding topped with fried Thai-basil leaves. Salmon is 45 percent fat. Slow-cooked and served while it's still rare, it melds with the sweet corn pudding like a big pink pat of fish butter. The crispy basil leaves add some texture and a wonderful aroma.
The worst thing I sampled at Bank Jean-Georges was a lobster-salad appetizer. It came with half a small lobster tail in Thai seasonings. But the lobster was mushy, which is generally what happens when you cook a lobster that's already dead. So I explained the problem to the waiter and sent the dish back. He returned with another dish of lobster salad, with equally mushy meat -- made, no doubt, from the other half of the same dead lobster.
Along with the reception area of Hotel Icon, Bank Jean-Georges resides in an opulently decorated former bank lobby complete with high ceilings, stone columns, enormous arched windows and monumental statuary. It instantly has become one of the most elegant restaurants in the city. And yet its Main Street location and techno-jazz soundtrack create a hip, casual atmosphere where you can feel comfortable in a guayabera shirt and sandals.
The service was unobtrusive on my first two visits. But on my third visit, I got a young waiter with an attitude. First he gave me guff for not ordering bottled water (see "The Pushers"). Then, when I asked him to please send a wine steward over to help me select a glass of wine, he replied that he'd received wine training and would be happy to assist me. So I asked which wine from the very short list of wines by the glass would complement the duck. Predictably, he pointed to the two most expensive.
There was a Ribera del Duero on the list, which is a wine made from the same Tempranillo grapes found in the much more expensive Spanish riojas. It looked like a good deal, so I asked him what he knew about it. He described it as a "mild" wine. And he had no idea what grape varietal it was made from.
What this kid knows about wine could be summed up in four words: Order the expensive one. I wish restaurants spent more time teaching the waitstaff about food and wine and a little less time training them how to bloat the bill. When restaurants offer incentives to increase sales, waiters begin to sound like used-car salesmen.
But regardless of the spotty service, this is a restaurant you shouldn't miss. And I wouldn't put it off, if I were you. Excellent restaurants on north Main Street suffer strange fates. Saba Blue Water Cafe once had the most exciting fusion seafood in the city. The last time I checked, they were serving quesadillas.
We only can hope that Bank Jean-Georges will survive with its menu intact, because at the moment it offers one of the most exhilarating, thought-provoking dining experiences in the city of Houston.
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