Stuck in the Past at Tony Mandola's

There are times when past-era cooking should be revered. Old recipes represent history, a moment in time. Some have held up well because they're delicious. I submit that my grandmother's old-fashioned fudge and divinity were works of art (and damn hard to make in Houston's humidity).

Not all that is old deserves to be held onto, though. Cuisine has evolved a great deal in the past several years and Houston's cuisine has specifically changed a lot in just the past year. The standards are higher now.

Such were the thoughts I had as I ate the old-fashioned chocolate cake at Tony Mandola's. It was a good cake but not a great one. It was nowhere near a recent chocolate cake with mint icing that I ordered from Jodycakes for my daughter's birthday, nor the Fluff Bake Bar chocolate and raspberry cake we had just a few days ago for my eldest son's birthday.

I felt a little guilt-stricken that I wasn't in love with the cake at Mandola's. After all, we're talking about a legendary Houston restaurant family name. It just seemed like a cake I could make from my old Betty Crocker cookbook, not like something I'd go out to a restaurant to eat.

Names aren't everything, unfortunately. Execution has to be there, and it was sadly lacking on the night we went to Tony Mandola's.

Let's rewind to the beginning, where dinner got off to a promising start. Tony Mandola's has one of the best gumbos I've had in Houston. I still prefer the one at Danton's -- with its rich, ultra-dark roux -- but the one at Tony Mandola's was quite respectable, with a great assortment of seafood.

We were pretty happy with the 2+2+2 appetizer as well, a platter with two each of three different kinds of topped oysters: the Rockefeller, which is baked with spinach and topped with Hollandaise; the Buccaneer, baked with Italian seasoned bread crumbs and crabmeat; and the Damian, a fried oyster topped with pico de gallo. Each of treatments had lots of flavor, with the Rockefeller being my favorite. The Damian has an inherent problem in that the cool pico de gallo rapidly brings down the temperature of the fried oyster to lukewarm, but the flavor combination worked together.

The only source of consternation for me was the small size of the oysters. This is oyster season, after all. And at a time of year where most restaurants are bragging and cajoling customers to come enjoy big, succulent oysters, I didn't understand why these were so small.

These issues were fairly minor. But regrettably, the rest of the meal was downhill from here. I took our server's recommendation and ordered the Snapper Martha, which is topped with a basil wine sauce that includes shrimp, crawfish tails and crabmeat. Alas, not only was there not much basil or wine flavor to be had, but the fish was overcooked as well.

And yet this was nothing compared to the jaw-dropping, appalling disappointment that was the mezzaluna. The menu promised that the half-moon pasta would be filled with "smoked chicken in a cream sauce, topped with sun-dried tomatoes." Sounds delicious, doesn't it? I envisioned smoky shreds of chicken enrobed in tender pasta.

But no, the filling was dry, grainy, granular, overprocessed chicken. I would not expect to find this kind of texture in a dish intended for human consumption. As far as smokiness, forget it. It simply wasn't there. The only thing I can vouch for is that a scant few sundried tomato strips were present.

And all of that brings us back to that disappointing chocolate cake. Along with it, we ordered the "New Orleans Style Bread Puddin'," described as "loaded with cinnamon, apples and golden raisins" and topped with bourbon sauce.

Loaded? No, not really. There's a Stephen King novella called The Langoliers where people find themselves trapped in the past. To these people, everything seems dulled; colors, flavors, even the air seems stale. In my head, I silently named this dessert The Langoliers Bread Pudding. Every component stated is there, but it all just seemed dull and far too restrained. There was no punch of the cinnamon and no heady bourbon complexity. It was just stuck somewhere in the past, as so much of this restaurant seemed to be.

There's a catch here, though. Ultimately, the question that should be asked is: "Would you go back?" I would, in fact, give the place one more chance. Why? The service was absolutely impeccable and I'm hoping that I managed to drop by on an off night.

Also, I love how Tony Mandola's serves a salad as its own course. That is an old-fashioned tradition that should be preserved. It's a nice prelude to the main event and makes the meal seem more elegant and formal. I quite liked the house Sicilian salad, a combination of mixed greens, artichoke hearts, olives, shredded carrot and cabbage dressed with Italian vinaigrette.

If there's a second go-round, I'd try these dishes: oysters on the half shell (to see how they compare to the smallish ones from the 2+2+2) and the adventurous-sounding Mama's Gumbo Pizza. That successful gumbo we had also gives me high hopes for the cioppino here.

I hope to have better news to report in the future on this respected establishment. The Mandola name is so deeply intertwined with Houston history that I really want to find something here to rave about. If you've dined there, tell me: What did you love?

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