In many ways, entering the Sam Houston Hotel's new restaurant, 17, is like walking into Jurassic Park -- you can tell they've "spared no expense." The dark hardwood floors are spaced by thin, birch-colored stripes, giving the small room a much larger feel. The plush, stuffed white chairs trimmed in red ribbon are so comfortable, they could make their home in a strip club. Thick columns separate the room, giving it the illusion of privacy.
The menus are sleek and unfussy, cased in padded books with the words "morning," "noon" and "night" in their upper right-hand corners. The waitstaff looks sharp in red ties and striped shirts. The food runners wear black button-ups with black pants and aprons that hang to their ankles -- after each course, it feels like a fashion-forward Jedi is coming to clear your plate.
Before you put a forkful of food in your mouth, you'll notice how well thought out and put together everything feels. It has to be -- 17 is the hotel restaurant's second go-around. First-time hotel owner Barbara Stovall Smith wanted to make some waves when she opened the original incarnation early last year. John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro fame was brought in to create them. He had quite a following among Houston foodies, who stood in tiptoed anticipation of downtown's newest culinary addition, the Riviera Grill.
Those waves turned out to be mere ripples. Mediocre reviews and a lack of diners sent Sheely out the door (see "Sheely Splits," by Marene Gustin, July 24, 2003), and Smith was left holding a Riviera bag ignored by the once-enthused foodies.
But this time around, Jeff Armstrong, the celebrated former chef of posh L.A. eatery Whist in the Viceroy Hotel, has created so many waves he's in danger of being head-hunted by Schlitterbahn. He's brought his distinctly original twist on New American food to Space City.
Like all good purveyors of New American cuisine, 17 offers an eclectic mix of cultural influences and flavors. It's a place where shrimp curry with basmati rice shares menu space with king salmon roasted with Moroccan spices and mac 'n' cheese. Such food can be a disaster -- different tastes and aromas are associated with different continents for a reason. It's a sticky, tricky job getting everybody to live harmoniously on a plate together -- just like in America itself.
Armstrong, it turns out, is a bigger peacenik than John Lennon. His grilled quail is smoky perfection. The succulent bird is complemented perfectly by the sweet corn polenta it rests upon. Winter greens tossed lightly in lemon-scented oil, salt and pepper share the plate. Sometimes being simple can be simply good.
His tuna tartare appetizer is surrounded by clever and greaseless eggplant fritters and micro-arugula. The arugula's pepper bite is compounded by a chile vinaigrette. The fritters sop up sweet soy, painted on the plate in a series of colorful zigzags.
The lump crab salad is an alteration on the traditional. There's more peppery micro-rocket along with avocado. Crab and avocado often are found on menus holding hands; the sweet meat and fatty fruit are a perfectly compatible mix. But added here are sections of tart, ruby-red grapefruit and sharp ponzu sauce. The discrete flavors mix and match, making each bite different and interesting.
The only appetizer in danger of a border skirmish is the foie gras. The liver is seared to perfection and escorted by a grilled pineapple whose caramelized char tastes so wonderful you'll wonder why the two aren't paired together more often (damn you, apples!). The unrest comes from the piece of Texas-size melba toast resting under the foie gras. This usually thin cut of crispy, crusty bread is cut thickly here, and getting a fork through it requires a delicate balance of force and grace. Push too hard and you send a corner flying across the table; less aggressive types won't be able to cut through it at all. Those diligent enough to do the work will have trouble opening their mouths wide enough to sample it, and with a piece of juicy pineapple or liver on it, fuhgeddaboutit.
The tiny misstep is quickly forgotten, however, when the entrées arrive. The lamb osso buco is tender and juicy as it flakes easily from the shank bone. It sits atop a succotash of fava beans and sweet corn, surrounded by a tasty rosemary jus. It's an Italian piece of meat, served with a Southern United States favorite, swimming in French sauce -- and no one is name-calling.
The filet mignon is cooked a perfect medium as requested. Nestled in close are yummy herbed gnocchi that sponge up the dish's rich, dark sauce with delicious ease. A heavenly bed of sweet, browned cipollini onions and tart, oven-dried tomatoes rests beneath the steak. Oddly enough, the filet is paired with a beef short rib. It's here you begin to realize what an incredible knack Armstrong has for slow-braising meats. They're all so tender and juicy, Florida native Armstrong could easily go toe-to-toe with any Texan in a brisket shoot-out. (Mmmmm, brisket shoot-out.)
Lunch a few days later is equally pleasant. The white tablecloths are replaced by faux wicker mats for a more casual atmosphere. The "noon" menu offers the option of two courses at the reasonable prix fixe of, ahem, $17. My dining companion goes for that, and I choose fried calamari after being informed that my first choice, grilled flatbread with figs and blue cheese, has been eighty-sixed for the day.
My companion's prix fixe appetizer is a hearts of palm salad. The second course is halibut with fingerling potatoes and artichokes. Both are excellent. The salad's fresh, full leaves of butter lettuce tossed with mustard-shallot vinaigrette intertwine with thin slivers of Pecorino cheese that mellow the mustard's tartness. The hearts of palm are cut at a bias and stand one inch tall, surrounding the plate like tasty guard posts. The halibut is seared long enough on one side to develop an intense, flaky brown crust, and its potatoes, artichokes and capers in brown butter are a splendid pairing.
The calamari is a holdover from the Sheely days and one of his signature dishes. The squid is tossed in graham cracker crumbs and lightly coated in sweet chile sauce out of the fryer. It's worth a try if you're more accustomed to Red Lobster's version of the fried sea inkers. Its accompanying lemon-coriander aioli will make you wonder how chefs got away with serving this dish with marinara for so long.
For an entrée, I order the pressed Cuban pork sandwich, which, it turns out, is just a plain ol' ham and cheese sandwich that's been grilled on both sides. The bread is crunchy, the pickles and Dijon inside keep it moist, and it is quite good. But you can get the same sandwich at Central Market for half the price.
Still, quibbles about 17 are hard to come by. To bring such wildly different flavors together in peace is quite a feat. Armstrong is one of Houston's most exciting new chefs, and certainly its best new diplomat.
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