See the making of Plonk's Guanciale Burger in our slideshow.
It was a little before 10:30 p.m. on a Monday night at Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro, a small neighborhood joint in Garden Oaks, and one patron was in handcuffs as an HPD cruiser's lights flashed blue and red against the taupe walls inside.
My dining companions and I looked on in wonder, finished with our meal of hanger steak, a pepperoni pizza, a guanciale burger and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône Brézème, but now not terribly eager to leave with the cops and an ambulance convened outside. On the flat-screen televisions above the bar, the Redskins game blared on, although everyone's attention had been turned to the events transpiring outside.
It was a study in contrasts. Only a few nights prior, the crowd had been all young professionals after work, button-up sleeves pushed up and ties loosened over glasses of Cabernet.
A man in a dirty gimme cap and a purple SFA Lumberjacks shirt with the sleeves cut off was wobbling near our table. "What happened out there?" I asked him.
"Two friends got into a fight," he answered, nonchalantly. "One of 'em started bleeding all over the place. I guess that's when the cops got called."
The owner of the wine bar, Scott Miller, didn't seem to have been the one who made that phone call. I watched Miller — once the wine director at Houston's venerated Pappas Steakhouse — rush outside to take stock of the situation. Up until a few minutes ago, the place had been rowdy and lively, as Miller played a raucous game of dominoes with his buddies at the bar while an older woman in a leather Betty Boop jacket screamed alternately at the television and her friends, all of whom were plastered to the football game.
"Did we stumble into the Shiloh Club?" whispered my dining companion as we watched the man finally led off in handcuffs, his wife crying next to a pub table while people took turns comforting her.
It's difficult to peg Plonk. Upscale wine bar? Monday Night Football haunt? It's even difficult to peg the food. When it's good, it's great. And when it's bad, it's horrid. But whatever you make of it, Plonk is one thing above all others: a neighborhood joint, for better or for worse.
Longtime wine guy and Oak Forest resident Scott Miller opened Plonk about a year ago, and the place is the rather schizophrenic reflection of his varied interests: Sailor Jerry-meets-Ed Hardy graphics adorn the walls alongside punched metal Texas star sconces; a Robert Indiana-style logo outside gives way to framed 1920s advertisements for wine and cruise ships inside; a massive 1950s-style postcard hangs behind the bar: "Wish you were here...in beautiful Oak Forest." Even the name itself is tongue-in-cheek: Plonk means "cheap wine" in British slang.
This all-over-the-map attitude extends to both the food and the wine menus, where boring $6 and $8 glasses of Merlot mingle with a $16 Weingut Bründlmayer Riesling Kamptaler Terrassen from Austria and a $20 Grilli del Testamatta (oddly listed as a "Sangiovese blend" instead of the more commonly seen "Super Tuscan") that would have wine geeks swooning in their seats.
Likewise, utterly forgettable cheese plates and dip samplers like the Gardenia plate give way to truly inspired appetizers like Ram Balls (named for the area Waltrip Rams), wine-braised oxtail deep-fried and served with a sharp mustard sauce. Painfully mediocre pizzas with soggy crusts are outshined — on-site pizza oven notwithstanding — by eccentric items like muffulettas and the aforementioned guanciale burger, which just might be the best "bacon" cheeseburger in town.
It even extends to the service, which can be alternately fantastic — look for bartender Dwayne during the week, who'll know your name and beer or wine preference after your first visit — or standoffish, depending on the night. Want a water with your wine or beer? Prepare to ask and ask again. And because there's no table service — you order everything at the bar, even food — there's no guarantee that you'll be able to wade through the crowds that perch on the barstools to get anyone's attention on a busy Friday night. One Tuesday evening, the inconsistency of the food was on full display.
GOOF Balls, which is an acronym for "Garden Oaks/Oak Forest," are fairly standard, run-of-the-mill crabcakes. They're one of the two titillatingly titled appetizers on the menu, alongside those excellent Ram Balls. And if you think it's tough to screw up fried batches of crabcakes, then you've never worked with seafood before.
When the order of GOOF Balls hit our table that night, the sudden smell of ammonia was overpowering. My dining companions and I figured the acrid stench came from the kitchen, which is fairly open; we were sitting right next to it, after all.
And then we cut into the GOOF Balls. The smell became almost sickening. I stupidly took a bite, still thinking the ammonia scent was coming from a particularly rigorous kitchen cleaning, and quickly spat the crabmeat back out. Graceful.
The crab had turned. In a mean way.
Ammonia is the byproduct of seafood and fish's deterioration process. In the same way our bodies excrete urine, so do fish and crab and a whole host of other seafood excrete ammonia. Except that when a human being smells like our waste byproduct, it usually means they're homeless. When crab smells like its waste product, ammonia, it means it's well past its prime and quickly on its way to becoming a tiny food poisoning bomb.
We immediately alerted Dwayne, who took the crabcakes back to the kitchen while apologizing profusely. They were comped, as expected, and the poor kid spent the remainder of the night apologizing about the spoiled crab at every turn. Chef Christopher Vega also came out of the kitchen to apologize.
I mentioned the ammonia incident two days later to a friend of mine, a well-known chef at a popular seafood restaurant here in town. "That's the difference between a line cook and a chef," he said, shaking his head. We were both in disbelief that the spoiled crabcakes had even made their way into a fryer, much less out of the kitchen. "A line cook just sends stuff out," my friend said. "A chef needs to be there as a means of quality assurance. A real chef would have never sent that crab out."
It was a black mark that hung over the remainder of our meal that night, even though everything else was extraordinary. And I do mean extraordinary.
My notoriously picky Cajun friend all but devoured his muffuletta, gnashing teeth furiously guarding against stolen bites. Lamb was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, with no gamy flavor present in the pert little chops. Fat mussels were served in a beguiling yellow curry sauce with a hint of garlic, which was soaked up beautifully by ragged pieces of focaccia bread.
And I all but fell in love with the guanciale burger, a blend of ground beef and pork cooked to a still-juicy medium — a good amount of pink left inside — served on a soft onion brioche bun. On top, a tangled heap of caramelized onions and several thick strips of cured pork jowl married into a melted mess of Swiss cheese. I ordered it again on a second visit to further confirm its majesty. It did not disappoint.
The things that did disappoint on the menu are items which I think have room for improvement. It turns out that Miller, not content to simply serve his friends and neighbors in what is more or less a glorified living room, just hired a new executive chef to help out Vega.
Erin Smith, who was just hired a day before this review was written, staged in New York City restaurants Per Se and Mario Batali's Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca before returning to her hometown. It remains to be seen whether the young chef's pedigree will help the kitchen in areas like not sending out spoiled seafood to diners, but — like I said — I have higher hopes now that she's on board. I'll be back to see what she's doing with the place.
Where the restaurant doesn't need help is in its fabulous wine and beer selection. Even a cursory glance over the by-the-glass and by-the-bottle lists shows that nothing here was antiseptically compiled by a wine distributor; these are personally cultivated selections made by a man who knows his audience as much as he knows his wine. It's all carefully stored in a 55-degree-Fahrenheit room and served at the appropriate temperature, something that other "wine bars" in Houston (I'm looking at you, Boheme) still haven't managed to get right.
Those ho-hum, low-end selections seem meant for people who don't know wine but just want something inexpensive to order. Miller is smart in offering a broad if boring array of Merlots to that crowd. But wine geeks, like my dining companion one evening — Marc, a local wine director — will find little gems to be equally excited about here. One caveat would be to mind those more expensive wines by the glass; the clientele here doesn't seem like the type to order an $18 glass of Honig Cab on a nightly basis, so I'd want to check and make sure the bottle was fresh.
I've seen comments online about whether or not a little bistro like Plonk would make it if it were to be plonked down in Montrose or Midtown. Not only is that question inappropriate — Plonk is where it is — it's irrelevant. Plonk is a product of its neighborhood and simply couldn't be located anywhere else; maybe the food and wine would still be as good, but it would be missing that hardscrabble charm that makes it worth the drive north of 610.