Restaurant Reviews

Divine Vin

Usually, I'm not much for a side of gimmick when I dine. So I was delightfully surprised at how well "The World's Tiniest Desserts" work at Vin, the latest highbrow addition to the Theater District.

Once the dinner plates were cleared, the waiter brought out a menu no larger than a note card and playfully announced how, yes, they offer "The World's Tiniest Desserts." We ordered from the list of items, and the server returned with a wee little plate and miniature spoon that was, well, I can't believe I'm saying this, but just so damned cute. I know, it's only a spoon, but still, for some reason it actually did make scooping up the sugary treats more fun.

Because of their size, the waiter encouraged us to order several desserts. At three bucks a pop, it was the best deal in the joint. The sweet creations were served in small white ramekins on a rectangular serving plate impressionistically smeared with raspberry and chocolate. Lovely to look at, indeed.

Shaped like a muffin, the bread pudding was moist, yet light and fluffy. I tasted more than just a hint of bourbon, and the pecans sprinkled on top, with a tinge of chile spice rub, gave it a much-needed subtle crunch. There was a tongue-­pleasing, spicy cinnamon aftertaste.

The chocolate cobbler was more chocolate than cobbler, but the orange flavoring of the Grand Marnier in it added a nice second layer of taste underneath the bittersweet chocolate. Again, a little dot of brittle on top provided a good crunch. The menu also boasted an ever-changing array of gelatos. I tried the blueberry-lavender, and though I was at first skeptical of the combination, I ate my words. It was smooth, creamy and refreshing when eaten alongside the slightly richer desserts on the menu. Sure, I could detect the blueberry, but I could also both taste and feel the lavender tickle the roof of my mouth. It was delicious.

I was a bit disappointed that Chef Jared Estes, who trained as a pastry chef under the famed culinary superstar Bradley Ogden of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, doesn't have any pastries on his mini-menu. But his skill as a dessert maker certainly shines through.

When I got this assignment, I was excited that my fiancée and I, who had just moved to Houston from Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay, could enjoy an opulent meal without dreading the bill.

"Hey, honey," I said, bounding into the living room, "we get to go to Vin."

"Oh, I've heard about that place," she replied. "But don't be such a boor. It's pronounced 'Vine.'"

"Hmmm," I said. "That's a little ­annoying."

"Maybe," she said, "but it's part of a chain. There's one of them back home in Baltimore. Maybe they'll have the same kind of seafood-from-the-bay sort of menu."

For Houston, Estes has concocted his own personalized menu, which resembles its East Coast cousin only in that both restaurants feature elegant dishes with a local flair. Several of the items Estes serves here use tasso ham, a specialty of Cajun cooking, and ingredients such as bourbon butter and balsamic-onion marmalade conjure romantic images of the South and the Gulf Coast.

On our first visit — which clocked in at just over $200 — we started with the foie gras special and sweet potato agnolotti with brown butter vinaigrette, fried sage and watercress. The foie gras was decadent. Before ordering, our waiter spoke at length about how the goose liver is first poached in Riesling wine, then rolled up in cheesecloth and hung in the air for a day to extract all the impurities. Clearly, this works. Served on sweet, toasted bread, the foie gras was dusted with salt flakes and green onions, with black cherries placed around the perimeter of the plate. The combination of the creamy foie gras and crunchy bread, mixed with the sweet from the cherries and salt, worked brilliantly and was no doubt the star of the evening.

The agnolotti noodles were nicely al dente, a necessary contrast to the mushy sweet potato inside them. Brown butter and sage always complement each other well, but I found the bitterness of the watercress overpowering. But overall, it was a rich, comforting combo of flavors cooked well.

Meat-eaters that we are, my fiancée ordered the grilled New York strip with béarnaise sauce and paprika fries, and I chose the filet of beef accompanied by Estes's take on mac and cheese, to which, according to the menu, he adds pieces of Maine lobster.

The strip steak was what you'd expect from a good restaurant, but the sauce is the reason you'd shell out the $32 for it. Heavier and creamier than the typical béarnaise, the little bits of crispy roasted shallots mixed in put it over the top. The fries, served in a steel colander with paprika dashed over them, were crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, just the way they should be.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel