Restaurant Reviews

A Matter of Grape Concern

An iceberg wedge already has retro appeal; served with French, ranch or Thousand Island, it recalls the 1960s, an era of more innocent salads. But here at Ibiza, the new "food and wine bar" in Midtown, the quarter-sphere of lettuce is paired with a relic of even more ancient vintage: the original version of green goddess dressing. Invented at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in the 1920s, the thick mayonnaise emulsion with anchovies, tarragon and parsley is so old it tastes new.

Another uncommon dinner starter at Ibiza, chunks of lobster served cold with avocado and bacon-fat aioli, grabs your attention, but owing to the skimpy portion, manages to hold it only briefly. On the other hand, the ravioli stuffed with finely ground escargots and boursin cheese, then topped with shaved Parmesan, are so rich that a small portion is perfect.

Ibiza's dining room features linen-covered tables parallel to a wall of windows that look out onto the parking lot. The floor is covered with gray, black and beige carpet squares. The restaurant's gleaming stainless-steel kitchen is open to view, but a gorgeous blond wood bookcase filled with wine bottles is the real focus of the interior design. Ladders are required to reach the bottles on the highest shelves, and watching the exploits of the nimble waitstaff offers diners continual entertainment.

One reader complained to me in an e-mail that a restaurant named Ibiza ought to have Spanish food on the menu. But Ibiza, a small island off the coast of Spain, isn't exactly a center of Spanish culture. In fact, the pine-covered isle has been a doormat for a succession of invaders: Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and finally Catalans (who allowed pirates to plunder the land at will). During the tourist season the island is now overrun with working-class Germans, Danes and Englishmen on cheap vacation packages. (The current price in London for a five-day holiday in Ibiza, including charter flight and hotel, is $210, or around $300.) Like the island, the primary appeal of the restaurant Ibiza is a low-price package deal. In this case, a list of exceptionally interesting wines is offered at prices close to retail, and then combined with chef-owner Charles Clark's imaginative food.

Clark moved to Spain in mid-1997 to learn firsthand about tapas before launching Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar a year later, so he's no stranger to Spanish cooking. But at Ibiza, he has chosen to explore a wider world of flavors. Indonesian sambal, Thai curry, Italian risotto, Argentine beef, Cajun tasso and mussels cooked French-style in muscadet all appear on the menu, along with Texas pecan wild rice. Clark, who has worked briefly at other restaurants around town since leaving Tasca, had been trying to launch this concept -- inexpensive wines combined with a small innovative menu -- almost since the day he discovered a similar restaurant, Plumpjack Cafe, in San Francisco.

On our first visit to Ibiza, the handsome wine shelves yielded a bottle of Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough, 1999. This big juicy sauvignon blanc with mango and banana aromas was a stunning demonstration of why New Zealand has become the trendsetter in the production of this wine. The same grape that can taste so flinty and austere in Bordeaux and sharply acidic in Sancerre somehow gives forth a riot of tropical fruit flavors in New Zealand. French classicists may say that the varietal isn't supposed to taste like this, but they're not the ones drinking it. Americans tend to be the region's biggest fans.

Sauvignon blancs are most often paired with seafood. Unfortunately, the seafood dishes were the least successful ones on Ibiza's menu. The corn-and-shrimp chowder served with a white cheddar biscuit was seriously flawed. The chowder had a bland homogenous texture and a taste reminiscent of canned soup. The biscuit tasted bitter and salty because of large lumps of unincorporated baking soda in the batter.

The pasta with Gulf shrimp, oven-dried tomatoes, asparagus and Swiss chard was difficult to eat. Ibiza should be applauded for using unfrozen, heads-on shrimp -- the peeling and deheading a small price to pay for good seafood -- but the audience participation didn't stop there. The chard came in whole leaves, and the inch-wide noodles, while perfectly cooked, were extraordinarily long. Cutting everything in the bowl into suitably small pieces, you ended up feeling like a toddler. And the dish still didn't taste very good until you got about halfway into it, when the flavors started to combine.

A second visit proved more satisfying. Red meat dishes are what Ibiza does best. In fact, red is really the only word you need to remember before walking into the place for dinner, since the restaurant also boasts a long list of chic boutique red wines. The rack of Cervena venison -- an appellation-regulated game meat that, like the aforementioned sauvignon blanc, comes from New Zealand -- with cherry chutney, demiglace and bacon risotto is a standout, and a daring combination of massive flavors. Salt-sensitive types should steer clear of the risotto, but the heavy salt works well with the dense, bloody venison and the tart cherry relish.

The grilled beef tenderloin with garlic confit, veal stock and blue-cheese scalloped potatoes is a delight until you get to the stacked squares of potato under the round tower of tenderloin. The meat is tender and perfectly cooked, and the sauce and slow-cooked garlic give the relatively bland cut of beef a surprising intensity. But the blue-cheese potatoes are inedibly salty; in fact, the salt level is so high that one bite leaves a metallic aftertaste.

An exceptionally well informed waiter named Ford recommended a bottle of Zoom zinfandel, a personal favorite of the owner's, to complement the venison and beef. There were two on the wine list: Zoom 105-year-old vines and Zoom 35-year-old vines. Unfortunately, Ibiza was sold out of the former, so we tried the latter. It was a full-bodied, chewy zinfandel with blackberry flavors and an inky black color. An exceptional wine with wild game and red meat, and an excellent recommendation. Too bad the wine arrived at the table undrinkably warm.

"When wine is served hot, the nose is all alcohol, the elements separate, and the wine can't pull itself together," says an industry expert. "You can chill the wine back down, but that's a drastic step. You're still not getting the peak experience. Wine needs to be stored at cool temperatures to begin with -- not cooled down when it's ordered."

Wine guides recommend a serving temperature for reds of between 55 and 65 degrees. When asked the storage temperature, the waiter was frank. Bottles on Ibiza's shelves average between 76 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit, he told us. He was gracious about chilling the bottle. In fact, he insisted on leaving the wine in the bucket for quite some time, suggesting that it needed to be cooled more than ten degrees.

Not all the waitstaff at Ibiza seems quite so educated on wine and its handling. One young server climbed the ladder, pulled out a $60 bottle of California cabernet and spun it around his finger like a bartender in Coyote Ugly. He then delivered the wine to a nearby table along with an elegant glass decanter. Decanting is the process of carefully pouring wine from the bottle to another container to leave behind the sediment that has settled to the bottom during aging. With today's superfiltered wines, decanting is unnecessary. Some wine lovers decant anyway because the wide-bodied decanter allows the vino room to breathe and because it's an old tradition. But even if there isn't any sediment, spinning a wine bottle around and then providing a decanter looks a little ridiculous.

Regardless of these flaws, Ibiza's prices and the quality of its food have already made the restaurant a popular spot for wine lovers. But an important question remains unanswered: How long will the wine on these shelves remain drinkable? Which brings us to a difficult subject in Houston -- wine storage. Ibiza is hardly the only restaurant or wine shop in town selling bottles stored at improper temperatures. The problem is epidemic. No one in the industry wants to talk about this on the record, but some freely admit that an embarrassingly large percentage of wine served here during the summer has suffered some temperature-related damage, in either shipping or storage.

According to the Culinary Institute of America's textbook Exploring Wine, the ideal temperature for storage is 55 degrees. At temperatures above 75, the book tells us, wine begins to suffer. Wine that has been held at high temperatures ages poorly, developing a flat, oxidized aroma and flavor. Overheated wine that can no longer be revived by chilling is referred to in the textbook as cooked.

For the time being, an ice bucket will fix the problem of wines served too warm at Ibiza. But this is only the beginning of June. Summer's furnace has yet to blast. The issue is whether Ibiza's wines can be stored year-round in those attractive cabinets without getting cooked.

"We run the air conditioner around the clock, and we go through wine so fast, it's not going to be a problem," a waiter assured us with a smile when we asked about how the wine would fare in the summer heat.

Ibiza is a terrific restaurant; hopefully it'll come up with something better than hot air to keep the wine cool.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh