100 Favorite Dishes

100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 4, Tuna and Bottarga at Tony's

This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once.

On its website, Tony's calls itself "Houston's top destination for innovative fine dining," and it's a rare example of a restaurant providing a completely accurate self-description. Yes, it's some bombastic braggadocio, but that doesn't mean it's not true. And that credit is due to Tony Vallone himself, a restaurateur not content to rest on his laurels and continue serving the same exact dishes to the same exact crowds decade in and decade out. And Tony's easily could: It was the fourth highest-grossing restaurant in America last year, raking in $20 million in gross revenue.

But Vallone has continued to learn, grow and change in his 47 years in the restaurant business, most recently bringing in chef de cuisine Grant Gordon -- a young Houstonian who trained at the CIA in Hyde Park -- and collaborating with him to make some exceptional changes to the menu in the last couple of years. One of my favorite additions is the "Tasting Menu & Nightly Creations" portion of the menu, which changes frequently (although not as frequently as the "nightly" description would suggest) and features seasonal ingredients, international and difficult-to-obtain specialties and fun, modern techniques.

The most current tasting menu features dishes such as a saffron-shellfish veloute with frito misto and black garlic; duck sausage and taleggio garganelli with summer squash and pecans; veal "filet mignon" with summer corn, huckleberries and fingerlime-sunflower seed hash in a cognac jus; and Tony's famous soufflés, which can be made into absolutely any flavor imaginable. (I recently went with a Grand Marnier-flavored soufflé, which came out looking like a fluffy pile of freshly-driven snow, with a silver boat of Grand Marnier whipped cream on the side -- and then had nightmares that evening about my own inability to ever make something so magical.)

But of all the dishes I've tried on three tasting menus so far, it's Gordon's simple tuna and bottarga that left the most lasting impression. A take on the classic spaghetti with bottarga (cured fish roe, ironically called the "poor man's caviar"), this beautifully straightforward dish takes freshly made tagliatelle and pairs it with rosy niblets of barely cooked bluefin tuna, velvety butter, delicately briny tuna bottarga and a light zesting of lemon to perk it all up. There's something to the resistance and eventual give in a strand of fresh pasta -- also employed to great effect at places such as Paulie's and The Pass & Provisions -- that immediately elevates a dish, and Tony's pastas are no exception.

Each nightly tasting menu is $65 for three courses or $95 for five courses, although -- in true Tony's fashion -- you can order the dishes a la carte as well. These nightly tasting menus get even better on Monday nights, when the wine pairings for the menus -- normally an additional $35 or $55, depending on the number of courses -- are complimentary. (This fact was actively ignored by my waiter on my most recent Monday night visit, something which rubbed me the wrong way, but I was too swayed by the perfect Manhattan before dinner and the soufflé at the end to raise a stink at the restaurant. I suggest that if you go, however, you hold the service to the promised Monday-night menu. Even if you don't get the wine pairings, though, the food will still be extraordinary.)

The list so far:

No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F. No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH No. 46: Chicken fried steak at Triple A No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano No. 43: Wings and grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs No. 39: Rigatoni in bolognese sauce at Paulie's No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven No. 37: Sashimi at Dadami No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven No. 34: Whole-fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria No. 27: Brisket and turkey at CorkScrew BBQ No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef No. 23: Lamb at El Hidalguense No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's No. 21: Chicken-fried water buffalo at The Hay Merchant No. 20: Roasted cauliflower at Roost No. 19: Truffled egg toast at Dolce Vita No. 18: 63-degree egg at Brasserie 19 No. 17: Drunken foie gras at Philippe No. 16: Beet salad at Triniti No. 15: Yogi thali at Pondicheri No. 14: Bialy and lox at The Hot Bagel Shop No. 13: Ribs at Gatlin's No. 12: Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong No. 11: Camarones henesy en hamaca at Arturo Boada Cuisine No. 10: Prosciutto and arugula pizza at Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana No. 9: Crawfish at The Hideaway on Dunvale No. 8: Pho at Pho Binh No. 7: Ceviche at La Fisheria No. 6: Ma po tofu at Mala Sichuan No. 5: Machi cure at Uchi

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Katharine Shilcutt