When I walk up to La Vista on Fountain View carrying a bottle of wine, I notice a poster in the window that says the restaurant has applied for a liquor permit. This triggers a wave of panic in me. "We're going to start selling beer and wine, but you'll still be able to bring your own," the waitress says in a comforting voice as she leads me to a table. That's a relief. If La Vista started turning away BYOB customers, Houston wine geeks would be left to wander the streets.
There's often a wait for a table after sunset, so I arrive early and choose a prime outdoor spot, although the sun is still a little warm. There are more tables outside than inside at La Vista, so the people-watching is better out here. Ceiling fans provide a breeze. There's also an impressive-looking bank of thunderclouds building in the distance, and I'm betting a downpour is going to cool us off.
Like every table at La Vista, the one I get is already set with wine glasses. The waiter removes the Louis Latour Chablis from my insulated carrier and places the bottle in an ice bucket. The latest in wine-geek fashion, the bag holds two bottles and has a zippered pouch for my corkscrew and notebook.
My pride in my hip accessories fades rapidly when my dining companions arrive. Not only have they brought a bottle of bubbly, they also have four crystal champagne flutes packed in their wine luggage. We uncork the champagne and order a basilico pizza, which is made with marinated tomatoes, garlic, virgin olive oil and mozzarella. The crust is a little too thick and rubbery for my taste, and there's too much cheese, but the simplicity of the toppings makes it an excellent pizza to eat with a bottle of wine. And at La Vista, everybody drinks wine.
At the tables within our immediate view, there are several bottles of Australian Shiraz, some German Rhines and an intriguing-looking Portuguese rosé. I brought along the Louis Latour to make a point about the misunderstood Chablis region. Ever since cheap jug-wine makers borrowed the name, Americans have come to associate Chablis with wine-in-a-box.
In fact, French Chablis is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes grown in the Burgundy region. Together, the northern climate of the Chablis vineyards and the aging process, which takes place in stainless steel instead of oak, produce a sharp, crisp flavor that the French often describe as "flinty." French Chablis is too tart to serve as an aperitif, but it's a colossal wine with fish.
I order salmon, which arrives in a bowl over grilled squash, sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes. The ample chunk of fish is medium rare as requested, and it's so moist, it flakes apart under the pressure of my fork. I follow my first bite of buttery chargrilled salmon with a sip of tart, cold Chablis and smile in appreciation. I try to share my fish with the tablemate to my right, but he is lost in his own taste sensations. He has ordered the yellowfin tuna, grilled rare so that the center is still bright red. It's served over artichoke hearts, big grilled portobello mushroom slices and a pile of linguine in an olive oil-and-caper sauce. And it's by far the best thing on the table.
A downpour suddenly drenches the parking lot in front of us. It's lovely to watch the rain from our sheltered table. But the hot pavement produces a cloud of steam that leaves us hotter and sweatier than before. I look with envy at the tables inside the air-conditioned dining room.
The woman to my left gets cornmeal-crusted trout, which tastes dry even though it's covered with a forgettable cilantro-poblano-citrus sauce. Another friend gets shrimp 'n' grits, which is disappointing. The original South Carolina recipe calls for shrimp cooked in butter to be served over grits. Here the dish is a mound of cheese polenta topped with grilled shrimp wrapped in prosciutto. I am not fond of the cheese-and-seafood combination, and the ham makes the shrimp too salty.
When I invited her to join us, the woman with the trout didn't quite understand the appeal of La Vista. "Why do wine lovers want to go to a restaurant that doesn't have wine?" she asked.
People bring their own wine to a restaurant for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it makes a luxurious dinner a lot cheaper. About a week ago, on my first visit to La Vista, I took a walk around the restaurant. Every single table had a bottle of wine on it.
A quick perusal of the labels provided a snapshot of what Houstonians are drinking now. Australian Shiraz was far and away the most common red. Among the whites, I saw an Alsatian Pinot Gris and a lot of Chardonnay. I also noticed an elderly couple tucked away in a corner with a bottle of Manishevitz chilling in an ice bucket. Wines in the $8 to $15 price range seemed to be the most common. Fountainview Liquor, a few doors down from the restaurant, carries plenty of bottles in this range.
BYOB restaurants like La Vista also hold a particular appeal for wine collectors. When you have a few hundred bottles aging in a temperature-controlled cellar, a restaurant like La Vista, with excellent food and a cheap corkage fee ($3 a bottle) holds a special allure.
La Vista is also the perfect place for wine tastings. That's why I invited Kevin Simon, the director of undergraduate studies at the University of Houston's Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, to join me on my first visit. Formerly a representative for a wine wholesaler, Simon is also the director of wine education at UH and the manager of the university's Fred Parks Wine Cellar, which holds a 1,200-bottle collection of rare wines, some of which date back as far as 1904. He arrived at La Vista looking businesslike in a dress shirt and tie. We made some introductory small talk over La Vista's unique "oval bread." Baked in the pizza oven, this incredible little loaf came to the table hot, with cheese stuffing and a topping of figs, caramelized onions, pecans and garlic.
I showed Simon the wine we'd be drinking. Ever since reading that Argentina was making the best Malbecs in the world, I'd wanted to put that claim to the test. The French region of Cahors is the only other place I know besides Argentina that makes a wine from Malbec grapes. But the common wisdom is that a Cahors is so full of tannin, it must be aged at least 11 years. So I bought a bottle of 1989 Château de Mercuès from Cahors and a bottle of 2001 Catena Malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina to see how they compared.
At first whiff, the Cahors smelled musty and the Catena came on strong with bright fruit aromas. After a few tentative sips, it looked like Argentina would take this contest easily. To complement the intensity of the tannins in these massive wines, I ordered La Vista's beef tenderloin. It was served in a bowl over roasted potatoes napped in a port wine, apricot and cherry sauce. The massive softball of tender beef was grilled medium rare with a nice char on the outside.
Simon got the mixed grill, a combination of gamy venison sausage, lean buffalo sausage and rosy lamb and tenderloin pieces presented on a bed of sage polenta and lightly sauced with a dried tomato-and-balsamic vinegar reduction. As he cut into the meats, the rich juices accumulated in the polenta, resulting in a dish that just kept getting better.
While we ate our dinners and sipped the two Malbecs, a curious transformation took place. The young Argentine wine, which started out with bright plum and cherry flavors and a little black-pepper spiciness, slowly began to fade. Meanwhile, the old Cahors started opening up. Too acidic at first, the wine was tasting smoother by the minute. The previously earthy-smelling wine was now giving off wonderful aromas reminiscent of shiitake mushrooms, tobacco and bell peppers.
As we sipped the two wines, we discussed the Houston wine scene. Simon offered a few tips to Houston wine drinkers. Red wine is meant to be consumed at cellar temperature, 60 to 65 degrees, not Houston's summer room temperature of 75 degrees or hotter, he said. When you order red wine in a restaurant and it comes to the table warm, ask for an ice bucket. Don't worry if the waiter thinks you're crazy.
By the end of the night, the Argentine Malbec had begun to come apart. It had a flat taste, and the fruits had all but disappeared. The Cahors, on the other hand, had never stopped getting better, showing itself to be a wine of incredible depth and complexity. Simon thought there was an important lesson here. "We are impatient. We want to buy it, we want to open it, and we want to drink it," he said. As a result, the wine industry is moving away from its traditions. Instead of making wines that get better over time, a lot of wine is being made for immediate consumption, he said. It's getting harder to find great wines in the old tradition. Some restaurants will sell you an old vintage, but it will cost you an arm and a leg.
"A year ago, I bought a wine storage unit," he said. As the prices of wine storage units have come down (a 20-bottle unit sells for a couple hundred dollars), more casual wine lovers are making the investment. If you love great vintages, the thing to do is store your own wines. And then take them down to La Vista.