When I reviewed Plonk a year ago, I mentioned that the wine bar didn't have any signage to speak of -- not even above their endcap space in a Garden Oaks strip center. I got lost heading there for the first time, and all of my dining companions did too.
Last night, and one year later, my friends and I laughed about how the little place still doesn't have a sign -- and is still difficult to find for newcomers. But I get the idea that Plonk likes it that way. After all, it's clear that the place isn't hurting for business. My friends -- both heavy hitters in the wine industry -- were rattling off the names of other wine reps, wine buyers, sommeliers and chefs who frequent Plonk in addition to the strong neighborhood presence that's felt throughout the restaurant.
Plonk doesn't need no stinking sign. It's doing just fine being a hidden treasure back here in Garden Oaks, and that's due in large part to its young chef, Erin Smith.
Full disclosure time: Smith and I grew up next door to each other, and I've known her for nearly as long as I've been alive. We both have embarrassing photos of each other's awful '80s haircuts stashed somewhere and fond memories of growing up out in West Houston, but lost touch after high school. Until last night, I hadn't seen her in more than 13 years.
She's not the freckle-faced, Dorothy Hamill-haired kid I remember; instead, Smith has become a wonderfully self-assured chef, applying the skills and creativity she learned working in kitchens like Per Se in New York City.
She calmly told me about a veal breast she'd made for a wine dinner with Vineyard 29 the night before, filled with lardo from Revival Market and dates, kale and hazelnuts, served alongside a butternut squash risotto. She happened to have a couple of breasts left over from the dinner -- how could I not want one of them? It was perfect weather for the fall dish, after all.
I was excited to see the veal arrive with a bacon-wrapped date on top. My friends and I took turns tearing through the chop, the soft kale and lardo mixture, the smoky meat around the date... The poor thing was soon demolished, all washed down with a deliciously funky Patricia Green Pinot Noir that smelled faintly and poignantly of the stink bait I used to use to catch catfish as a kid. I didn't even have to peruse Plonk's serious wine list to find it; the bartender suggested it and the bottle hit my Pinot Noir nail on its weird little head.
Meanwhile, my friends were enjoying their own dishes as we sat on the comfortable, tree-lined patio, wrapped in the nippy chill of our first real autumn weather. A Sex Panther burger to my left was not made with bits of real panther, but was a wonderfully juicy burger that is worthy of sharing menu space with Plonk's extraordinary Guanciale burger. The fried plantains served on the side were past their prime, however, but I still admired the idea in place of boring French fries. And the hanger steak to my right was pleasantly charred on the outside with a rosy pink interior that melted into the grits below, buffeted with a ring of roasted cauliflower.
The hanger steak was on the menu when I reviewed it last year, although Chef Smith hadn't started working at the wine bar yet. The food and service were bumpy pre-Smith, to say the least. With her calm, stabilizing presence in the kitchen, all of those creases seem well-ironed out.
Even owner Scott Miller seemed happy and relaxed as he chatted with guests last night, probably because he's more able now to focus on his specialties: that excellent wine list and the wine dinners like Vineyard 29's recent event that Miller has been lining up and knocking down. Other recent wine dinners and tastings include Bonny Doon, Willamette Valley Vineyards and Martinelli, with more announced every week in Plonk's newsletter.
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And if you keep up with Chef Smith on Twitter, you'll also be the first to know about the ever-rotating list of specials she comes up with based on shopping trips to local vendors like Revival Market or forays into her own garden -- specials that far elevate Plonk from just standard wine bar status. Recent items include burrata in watermelon consommé with pickled watermelon rind, scallion curls and Maldonado sea salt over the summer, and seared scallops with tiger stripe figs in a grapefruit coulis with avocado.
Smith's even been snipping her own microgreens from the garden to toss on top of dishes at Plonk. As she said with a do-it-yourself grin last night: "Microgreens from a store are a rip-off." Even now that she's built a prestigious resume for herself, Smith is still the same salt-of-the-earth girl I once knew, and as fine a fit as Plonk could have found.