The Boom Is Back

Twenty years ago, I arrived in Houston just in time for the oil boom. The late '70s were the best of times: dizzying, exciting; what I imagine the San Francisco Gold Rush must have been like in the late 1840s. Symbols of opulence and excess abounded: a helipad atop every spanking-new skyscraper, a glittering Rolex on every wrist and a breathtakingly expensive steakhouse on every corner. I was thrilled to be inducted into the oil-business fraternity and introduced to the magic of expense-account dining.

At oilfield bastions like Ruth's Chris, Mrs. Brenner's, The Palm and the long-gone Harry's Kenya, the meats were roasted over flames fed by money -- other people's money. There was simply no way one could otherwise afford to enjoy a meal at these places, with their massive slabs of aged prime beef and tiny dishes of country-style vegetables.

No one wants to say it out loud, of course -- instead, we coyly refer to "economic upswings" and "diversification of investments," wink, wink -- but what we have here in the late '90s, folks, is another oil boom.

As evidence, I offer the renaissance of the Houston steakhouse tradition. New or rejuvenated monuments to the carnivorous appetites of oilmen line Houston's major arteries of Westheimer, Richmond and Kirby as surely as cholesterol coats our capillaries. Morton's of Chicago has moved into the Galleria area; Rhode Island has sent us the Capital Grille; and the Pappas brothers, longtime local restaurateurs, operate their own upscale steak venue.

The latest entry in the red-meat rodeo comes from Tony Vallone. It's called simply Vallone's -- need he say more? -- and is located on upper Kirby hard by the Hard Rock Cafe. Perhaps the days when oil execs sipped champagne from their lady friends' slippers in Tony's wine cellar on Post Oak are gone, but the Texas culinary tradition of excellent meat and farmhouse potatoes lives on. And judging by the difficulty in obtaining reservations during the second and third weeks of Vallone's operation, I'd say it's doing quite well, thank you.

On my first visit to Vallone's, I was relieved to find that it is not as oppressively masculine as many of these meat shrines can be. Instead, it provides an atmosphere of understated Town & Country comfort. Brick-lined walls and dark-coffered wood ceilings are gently lit by Frank Lloyd Wright-ish fixtures. Gas logs in a brick fireplace warmed us on a recent chilly evening, and the night's specials were meticulously chalked up on a blackboard near the entrance.

Although I overheard a good bit of grousing in the clinically clean ladies' room about lengthy waits, even with the hard-to-come-by reservations, our party was whisked to a table almost immediately upon our arrival, some 15 minutes ahead of our appointed time. That's when we discovered the decor's most irritating flaw: The tables are so closely packed that you have to watch your elbows. See-and-be-seensters should be delighted with this arrangement: Eavesdropping on fellow diners is not only de rigueur, it's unavoidable.

In no time, we were reviewing the extensive and fairly priced wine list and grazing from a bread basket that included cornbread sticks with nuggets of sweet corn, dark, dense pumpernickel studded with raisins, and chewy nine-grain rounds. Our appetizers were a mixed lot, ranging from sublime to insipid. The stone crab claws were standouts: two enormous precracked claws on ice, containing solid chunks of crabmeat perfectly firm and delicious, accompanied by the best remoulade sauce I've had since Sakowitz's tearoom closed. My companion, who'd ordered the shrimp cocktail -- another nod to Houston's steakhouse tradition -- quickly abandoned his run-of-the-mill red cocktail sauce and instead began dunking shrimp in my horseradish-tangy, creamy remoulade.

Here, I suppose I should mention that the crab claws were $13 each, and the shrimp worked out to about $3.25 apiece (you get four for $12.95), so they by golly better be good. The stone crab was on the specials chalkboard, where none of the entries are priced, and our discreet server didn't elaborate. If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

Vallone's crispy fried Blue Point oysters ($8.95) were a disappointment. Or rather, the oysters themselves were small and flavorful, masterfully fried and crispy as advertised; they were just pitifully drowned in a dark brown, gelatinous sauce, heavy on the Asian taste register, with drowned strands of seaweedy spinach. The stuffed shrimp ($10.95) were better matched with their buttery white wine sauce, flecked with shreds of parsley.

Salads and soups were pretty much a wash, and I'll skip them completely in the future. The Greek salad ($5.95) was marred by too much iceberg lettuce, while the spinach and mushroom salad ($6.95) was simply a huge pile of too-large, leathery spinach leaves dotted with an occasional mushroom slice and soaked with a forgettable vinaigrette. There was no way to eat it gracefully and no room to cut it up, so I left most of it on the plate without regret. The fried corn and shrimp soup ($6.50) sounded wonderful, but tasted unmistakably of raw flour; and the seafood gumbo ($6.50) was, at best, average, even after we sent it back for the warming it needed.

We were relieved to turn our attention to the main attraction: the excellent selection of seafood, beef and wild game entrees. Here, Vallone's shines in quality and in understatement. There are no glassy-walled meat lockers, no sample slabs of raw meat, so you are not forced to contemplate your place in the food chain while choosing your dinner. The menu advertises U.S.D.A. prime beef, naturally aged for 30 days, and goes on to explain that this painstaking treatment "accounts for less than two percent of all beef served in the United States" -- in case you were wondering.

Lobster, of course, can also be had for the asking, in whopping three-, four- and five-pound increments at "market price." We were tempted by the special lobster fra diablo in spicy red marinara sauce until we saw it on another diner's table. He didn't seem to mind that it was twice as big as his head, had to be sent back to the kitchen for recracking and was messily drenched in red sauce, requiring him to don a bib. We decided to pass.

Naturally, we ordered a beef selection. After much discussion with our server, we settled on a 12-ounce filet mignon ($24.95), medium rare, which was all that we expected: balanced perfectly on the textural edge between toothsome and buttery, flavorful and expertly cooked. We also tried the New Zealand red deer chop ($34) from the special board, also medium rare, as the chef recommended. It was delightful, its mild game flavor enhanced by a sweet blackberry port wine sauce. The double Colorado lamb chops were rich, tender and satisfying, and large enough to warrant their $32 price tag.

To round out our survey of the animal kingdom, we chose the boar chop ($26), mostly out of curiosity, I admit. It turned out to be the surprise hit of the evening, an entree I would gladly return for time and again. The boar meat was reminiscent of succulent veal, the grain so fine it was almost undetectable, and each chop was rimmed with a thin layer of subcutaneous fat with a crackly, delicious skin. I used to judge music by whether it gave me goosebumps; this was a goosebump cut of meat.

Perhaps a la carte pricing does make sense, after all: With entrees this good, do you really want, or need, vegetable sides? Is this perhaps some vestige of our early indoctrination in the four food groups? Well, if you want them, Vallone's offers them, ranging in price from $4.95 to $6.50 each. There are six styles of potatoes (cottage fried with gorgonzola, baked, mashed, hash-browned and haystacked); or you might want a plateful of assorted mushrooms ($6.50), sauteed spinach ($4.95) or steamed asparagus spears as thick as first-grade pencils ($6.50); you can even get onion rings, lightly battered and golden fried ($5.95). Frankly, I was so focused on the meats that I barely noticed the sides, though they were simply and blamelessly prepared.

Desserts are selected from another chalkboard -- so you can do your planning early, I suppose -- and we zeroed in on the chocolate mousse pie ($6.50) from the minute we sat down. It proved to be all we'd hoped, with a crushed chocolate cookie crust, creamy cool mousse filling and shaved-chocolate top. The pecan pie ($6.50) was impeccable, as well -- dark and rich and chewy, studded with toasted pecan halves in a flaky pastry crust.

I can't help but compare Vallone's to the old Tony's, and since he's operating under his trademark and vigorously defended moniker, I assume that he welcomes such observations. After only a few weeks, the Vallone's operation is not yet the smoothly oiled machine I expected, but the service is honestly attentive and quick to correct slip-ups. Our server was possibly burdened with too many tables, and readily admitted that it had been quite hectic these first three weeks. There was a mix-up with our bill, as we were charged for another table's round of cocktails; there was a comic deluge of ice water from a busboy. No harm done. I found that I was more comfortable in the Vallone's surroundings than I ever was at Tony's; the newer restaurant is less formal, more relaxing, certainly louder and ultimately more fun.

And I have to admit that I enjoyed the sensation of absolutely blowing cash and calorie cautions to the wind. After these long, dark years of pinching pennies and counting fat grams, I'm ready to be expansive and greedy and indulged. On occasion, at least. Because, like all the other oilfield vendors, executives and headhunters, I promised the Lord that this time I wouldn't piss it all away.

Vallone's, 2811 Kirby, 526-2811.


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