"I just picked up a knife for the first time today about an hour ago," an exasperated but happy-looking Greg Lowry gushed yesterday evening at Voice. The new chef at the downtown restaurant in the sumptuous lobby of the Hotel Icon has been spending his first month revamping every menu in the place from top to bottom.
"I'm just excited to be cooking again instead of sitting in front of a computer screen every day," he said, referring to the many hours spent writing up the new menus -- from bar to breakfast, from dinner to dessert -- instead of being on the line that he loves.
Lowry, who was previously the sous chef at the now-closed Rockwood Room, seemed exceptionally comfortable in the sleekly cavernous dining room despite having previously manned stoves wearing skinny jeans and sleeves of tattoos. But it's just that fresh, young approach that Voice is encouraging in its new menus and new attitude, with young chefs like Lowry, his sous Jason White and the talented Audrey Sam, their pastry chef.
The restaurant let go of its previous chef, Michael Kramer, a few months ago in an attempt to move in a different, far more casual direction. Kramer had won multiple awards for the upscale restaurant and for himself, and the move was shocking to those who had grown accustomed to his deft touch in dishes like his signature mushroom soup "cappucino" with truffle foam. Kramer landed on his feet as the executive chef overseeing The Tasting Room chain here in Houston.
At the same time, the Rockwood Room was experiencing what could be called a fantastic implosion that sent its talent scattering to the winds. Chef Michael Dei Maggi ended up working for Tony Vallone at his newest restaurant, Caffe Bello, while Lowry received a call from Voice and began transitioning the staid, decidedly expensive restaurant into something far more accessible for the average diner, but no less modern or inventive.
I worked my way through nearly every dish on the revamped dinner menu last night at a friend's birthday dinner, where plates were passed happily and excitedly between the nine of us. (Full disclosure: I didn't pay for any of my food, as it was all part of the birthday celebration.) Some dishes were so good, they didn't even hit the table before people began to grab the food off the plates with abandon.
When the feeding frenzy had died down, I remarked to one of my dining companions, "I feel like we all just lost consciousness for a while, then woke up to find all these empty plates and chicken carcasses." Rarely is a meal so good that it turns into an all-out food blackout; I felt simultaneously amused and slightly appalled at myself.
Particularly awe-inspiring last night was meat man Adam Garcia's clever and totally unique charcuterie platter for only $16, the likes of which I've never seen in this town. Rich duck prosciutto flavored with a breath of lavender, 'nduja spiced liberally with so much peppery cayenne that it was like a firecracker on your tongue, salami studded with cocoa nibs and another with maple and blueberries. But it was the dark red coppa that blew me away; Garcia is easily creating one of the best charcuterie programs in town.
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What I enjoyed most about the new menu was the ability to "box" your food if you -- like me -- have a hard time choosing off a menu where each dish sounds as good as all the others. This seems to have carried over from Voice's previously famous "Lunch Box," which was a smart way to enjoy the expensive food during the lunch hours. The "Voice Box" is $24 and allows you to choose four "bites" off the appetizer menu, with choices like clams steamed in Lone Star beer and San Leon crab cakes served with a pert tartar sauce. Don't let the term "bite" confuse you, however; the servings are anything but puny.
On the opposite side of the page, you can do the same for your dinner: A "Meal Box" is only $28, and includes your choice of soup, salad and entree. Considering some of the entrees -- such as the succulent rack of lamb -- start at $30, it's an amazingly good deal. My favorites were the roasted tomato soup served with individual grilled cheese sandwiches for dunking, buttermilk and jalapeno-fried Cornish game hen, and -- quite unexpectedly -- the fava bean and English pea salad with a grapefruit vinaigrette and crispy prosciutto that tasted like a sunlit summer garden in a bowl.
Although I didn't really have room for dessert, pastry chef Audrey Sam's steamed chocolate mousse with blood orange sorbet and avocado puree persuaded me to try a bite. How couldn't I, with a motley crew of ingredients like that? It was the oddest combination of flavors and textures -- granular, tart sorbet with creamy, slightly salty puree and a fluffy brick of aggressively sweet mousse -- but it worked like a Rube Goldberg machine of desserts, its many parts coming together to create a harmonious and unlikely triumph.
And if you're having trouble choosing a dessert from Sam's list, don't fret: Voice offers a "Dessert Box," too.