"How do you describe a Versace plate?" I ask my girlfriend, with my pen in hand. (I'm tired of calling her "my girlfriend," so if you don't mind, we'll call her Red.)
"Yours is turquoise and periwinkle," she says as I write. "And mine is terra-cotta and cobalt blue -- the Japanese Imari porcelain colors." Red is an expert in these and other matters of taste. I'm lucky she came along. She is much more at home here than I am.
On our first visit to Tony's a couple of weeks ago, the other diners in the restaurant included some senior corporate types with their wives, several groups of little old ladies and a big table of stylish young men. To a red-blooded sports fan like me, it looked like the audience at a Liberace concert. It was a Monday night, and most of the tables sat empty.
For dinner that time, we ordered some of Tony's old standbys. I was trying to get a "before and after" impression of the menu so that I could compare the old continental cuisine to the "New European" dishes that chef Bruce McMillian was introducing.
For starters, Red had carpaccio, upscaled with shaved foie gras and 50-year-old balsamic. It was pleasant enough, although the balsamic was difficult to notice. I had a bowl of lobster bisque, which was very satisfying. Of course, it's hard to mess up lobster meat drenched in cream.
I followed the soup with grilled red snapper and roasted shrimp in a shrimp reduction. The fish was perfectly grilled, and the shrimp were fairly juicy, but the reduction sauce tasted thin. Red had Tony's scallopini of lobster Milanese, an interesting variation on the traditional veal scallopini in which lobster is pounded and sautéed. Milanese is a bread-crumb-and-Parmesan mixture used for the breading. It was served in a light lemon sauce with mushrooms.
After we finished our entrées, a towering fruit basket was placed on the table. I proposed that we have a cheese course instead of dessert. The waiter wheeled the cart over, and I picked out some Stilton, a little Gorgonzola and a couple of stinky French cheeses. Red loves cheese, but unfortunately she's mildly allergic to it. But when the cheese is this good, she eats it anyway.
Red has filled me in on Tony's. As everybody knows, the gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger held court here and made Tony's the see-and-be-seen spot for Houston society types. There is a hierarchy of sections, with "A" tables reserved for the right people. But many sons and daughters of the society set lost interest in all that, Red tells me. When chef Mark Cox left to start Mark's American Cuisine in Montrose, he took a lot of the younger crowd with him.
Which explains why Tony's seems so frozen in time. When I first arrived in Houston a year ago, I was astonished to find restaurants like Tony's still listed under the "continental" section in newspapers and restaurant guides. I hadn't seen that term in years. I conducted an e-mail poll of fellow restaurant reviewers around the country, and I couldn't find a single one that used the term "continental" without irony.
"We dropped it from our restaurant categories about ten years ago," Dotty Griffith, the dining editor at The Dallas Morning News, told me. "We switched it to European."
In A Restaurant Timeline, John Mariani credits the American introduction of "continental cuisine" to the Rainbow Room, which opened in New York in 1934. The term came to describe an American version of European cooking popular in the 1960s. Many continental cuisine favorites such as Caesar salad (invented at an Italian restaurant in Mexico) and lobster Newburg (invented at Delmonico's in New York) weren't European at all. When nouvelle cuisine arose in the 1980s, the heavy cream sauces and cloaked presentations that typified continental cooking fell out of favor.
Last month Tony's awoke from a long slumber. In a news release that bears the headline "This is not your father's Tony's," the restaurant announced a "New European" menu. The release hedges its bets by saying that the "traditions of Continental cuisine will serve as a time-honored foundation." But the handwriting is clearly on the wall. Continental cuisine can finally be declared dead in Houston.