The Perils of Glitz
All the air-kissing should have been a tip-off.
Actually, the noise level was the first clue. Masraff's on South Post Oak Lane is a big, glitzy, almost garish new restaurant with lots and lots of faux marble surfaces, seemingly designed for noise to bounce off. What with the constant din and people jumping up like jack-in-the-boxes to air-kiss people arriving at their table, or even people arriving at other tables, there didn't, in fact, seem to be a lot of actual dining in progress. And given the quality of most of the food, this isn't a bad thing.
Despite the ominous portents, the menu seemed to promise good things to come. It features many of my favorite luxury foods: foie gras, duck confit, roast veal. The food is meant to be classic stuff, tweaked slightly for the '90s. To a solid French base is added an American emphasis on lightness, with dashes of Italian and Asian influences.
Someone seemed to know what they were doing, and I hoped it was the chef, Gregory Masraff, who boasts recent reigns at New York City's Tavern on the Green and Windows on the World. Admittedly, these restaurants are perhaps best known for their ambience, not their food. But here, I thought, was Masraff's chance to show his stuff without competing with a terrific view, to make his mark in a restaurant that bears his own name.
There are two ways for the upscale chef to do this: He can dazzle with explosive flavors and exciting new combinations, or he can entrance the diner with subtlety and painstaking preparation, allowing top-notch ingredients to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, Masraff seems to seek a middle ground between the two, playing it safe and ultimately missing the mark.
It's a shame, because when Masraff sticks with subtlety and first-class ingredients, the food is very good. An appetizer of foie gras and caramelized apples ($12.50) struck a perfect balance, the slightly tart apples and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar playing counterpoint to the rich duck liver. (Granted, unless you overcook foie gras, it's hard to mess up the wondrous stuff. A waitress once described it to me as being like angels' wings, and I think she nailed it.)
Just as remarkable was one of the entrées, diver scallops with polenta ($21.50). When I ordered it, our waiter informed me, in hushed tones, "Mrs. X ordered that same dish two weeks ago!" Presumably, I was supposed to be pleased and impressed that I, a mere mortal, could experience the very same dish recently eaten by Mrs. X, a habitué of the society pages.
As it turned out, I was pleased and impressed. The scallops managed to be good and crusty on the outside, while still moist and juicy inside. But they were almost an afterthought to the polenta. Rich and creamy, close in texture to grits, it tasted marvelously of white truffles: adult comfort food.
Too often, though, the food at Masraff's falls significantly short of subtle perfection. The Black Platter ($18 for two), a combination plate of four appetizers, offered one hit (light, crispy Dungeness crab spring rolls), one near miss (meaty grilled quail brochettes sadly lacking the promised spiciness) and two out-and-out disappointments. "Texas snail puffs" were two snails sitting on the bottom of a tiny hollowed-out pastry puff, with just a hint of garlic butter. No more, no less. And the duck confit fritters were a disaster, greasy little turnovers surrounding a duck confit filling with a few too many bones to make eating them a carefree experience.
As for the soups, I sampled two (both $5.75) -- a Maine lobster bisque and a potato-free "vichyssoise" with littleneck and Blue Point oysters -- and it's difficult to say which was worse. The bisque was hopelessly flat, with some seafood flavor, but none of the luxurious richness that a bisque requires. The oyster vichyssoise was grayish, tasted of slightly off oysters and left a mildly metallic aftertaste.
The "Asian scented" squab ($21.50) was a good meaty bird, cooked to rosy perfection, but the sauce was a mere mild dark reduction with the promised Szechuan peppercorns nowhere in evidence. (No, wait: I think I saw one lonely peppercorn rolling around on the side of the plate.) The squab was butterflied, with the legs cut off the carcass. Beneath the breast hid a filling of sorts, mashed potatoes with almonds. Not bad, a little bland maybe, reminiscent of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking -- but a strange choice for a supposedly "Asian scented" dish.
Our waiter was especially pleased that we ordered the steamed striped bass with summer vegetables, olive oil and lime ($19.50), boasting that the Houston Chronicle had particularly enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the Chronicle didn't choose as well as Mrs. X. In this dish, what should have been a lovely subtle triumph refused to come together as a coherent whole, each ingredient settling instead for drabness, like the worst excesses of spa cuisine. The dish reminded me of something you'd throw together at home when you're too tired for real cooking and don't want to dirty more than one pot.
As for roast veal with morels and tagliarini ($24), perhaps the less said, the better. Medallions of excellent veal rested on a bed of homemade noodles, drowning in a lake of a weak, undercooked, floury wine sauce. The poor veal never stood a chance.
Hoping for some redemption, we moved on to dessert ($6 each). The Stilton was good, accompanied by a nicely toasted walnut bread; the floating island had a lovely vanilla custard sauce; and the dense bread-and-butter pudding comes with luscious roasted apricots. All were fine; none were memorable.
If Masraff's becomes a place to see and be seen, that's all well and good. But its prices are high (figure on close to $50 per person), and the food rarely seems to justify them. One member of my party described the offerings as "gourmet hospital food" -- and I think she nailed it.
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