Before last week, I had never eaten at the restaurant inside the Hotel Icon - not when it was Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Bank, and not when Michael Kramer was the executive chef of VOICE. So I can't comment on what Houston may have lost in the way of fine dining. All I can say is that based on the dishes I tried on the new spring menu, Greg Lowry is doing amazing work. (See this week's chat here and here.)
We began with the caprese salad, which Lowry described as "simple and straightforward." Perhaps so; when the ingredients are this good, simplicity is the best policy. The house-made mozzarella was sturdy and smooth; the heirloom tomatoes from Bluebonnet Farms bright and fresh, and the micro basil sweet and surprisingly strong, with the mango vinegar providing a tangy accent.
Lowry then brought out a tai snapper ceviche. The mild-tasting fish is flash-marinated -no more than two-and-a-half minutes, according to Lowry--and every bite is a delightful medley of hot, sour, salty and sweet, with a flash of bitterness from the watercress. What's most striking about this dish is the progression of textures, from the tiny, just-barely-resilient spheres of tobiko (a wasabi-flavored caviar) to the crunchy dice of cucumber, shallots, and roasted jalapenos, to the nubby tapioca pearls, all of which play out against the glistening backdrop of the fish.
Next up was a grilled sashimi-grade Hawaiian tuna, coated with pepper, and served with a toothsome array of spring vegetables. Like the caprese salad, nothing fancy, but impeccably executed. The tuna was loaded with flavor, and so tender you could cut it with a fork with almost no pressure.
To wrap up the tasting, pastry chef Joy Vreeland brought out a sneak preview of the new dessert menu, which will be available next week. Vreeland's desserts are homey and comforting, and that's by design; she wants her desserts to evoke the best kind of memories from childhood. I only wish I ate crème brûlée like hers when I was growing up! It's thick and custardy, with a strong vanilla flavor enhanced by the vanilla bean-infused whipped cream on top.
Vreeland then brought out a small vanilla malted milkshake, accompanied by an even smaller serving of french fries, and observed that her mom had taught her how to dip fries in her milkshake. Who dips their fries in a milkshake? I wondered, but in the spirit of scientific inquiry gave it a try. Not bad, but I'll stick to ketchup. That said, the malt was outstanding, with both the vanilla and malt flavors front and center. When the dessert menu comes out, this dessert will be accompanied by a homemade candy bar: something like a peanut buttery Snickers, according to Vreeland.
My tasting ended with some light ladyfinger cookies, a small mound of macerated berries with yuzu juice, and a light, almost floral-tasting aloe vera snowball. In Vreeland's words, it's a "crisp, plate-cleansing way to end the meal without feeling loaded down." Yeah, right. For me, that ship had long since sailed.