Our invitation to sit in on a special Scotch & Steak dinner at the Strip House in downtown Houston the other night was memorable for the food, our table companions and the dedication of the diners to march their way through several servings of Scotch in one meal.
We started out in the bar with a Glenlivet cocktail: Scotch, soda and some kind of apple-flavored mix. Designed as a lighter start to the evening, the drink had its fans, but we really didn't like it because who wants sweet Scotch?
Things picked up when we moved into a room packed with diners who'd paid $85 a person for the four-course-and-a-nightcap spread (excepting the food reviewers present). We were assigned to different tables at random.
As we progressed through the meal, the courses were paired with increasingly aged GlenLivet (15 year, 16, 21 and 25), all delivered neat and in snifters. We were encouraged to add a bit of water for some (but not all) of the years to allow the Scotch to breathe. Otherwise we drank it neat.
We thought the best were the 18 (a double medal winner) and the 25, which really tasted closer to a cognac with its smoothness. Nothing was harsh, and as the evening progressed the combination of increasing dosages of ever more higher quality Scotch meant warm happy glows abounded throughout the room.
Standouts food-wise started with the first course, smoked Scottish (of course) salmon paired with endive, dill vinaigrette and a large potato chip. The potato chip stayed crisp and its saltiness nicely balanced the vinegar and salmon.
Next up was the roast bacon - really thick, marbled with fat and certainly bad for you, but deliciously crunchy. However, the cheddar custard and corn salad that accompanied the bacon was bland and little more than a decorative placeholder on the plate.
This was followed by the shepherd's pie - lamb bordelaise with roasted carrots and peas. The sauce was spicy and distinctive and the pastry part was flaky and light.
The peppery filet mignon was serviceable, not overcooked, substantial in portion but not particularly distinctive -- although maybe it just paled in comparison to the shepherd's pie.
Also, we'd been looking forward to the Strip House's signature creamed spinach, but that was removed somewhere between the advance menu and the final.
The dessert, a warm apple buttermilk cake, was the right mixture of sweetness and texture and was melt-in-your-mouth good.
One of the best (and sometimes worst) parts of these special events can be your table companions. We were lucky; we got an eclectic and interesting bunch: two sets of three old friends.
The first were three men 40ish and 50ish living in the suburbs, out for a night on the town, self-identified regulars at the Strip House. One told us he was a salesman, only later adding the detail that what he sells are vans and other accommodations for the disabled "90 percent of whom never complain." He counts himself lucky when he goes home at night. In his spare time he volunteers for ALS research.
Another fellow in that group, an outgoing lead dog type, was having a good time, but stalled over the next to last course: the filet mignon. "I'm full," he said, declaring himself unable to eat anymore. Greeted with disbelief from the rest of the table, he told us he'd had weight loss surgery and "lost 111 pounds." He made a small gesture with his hands to show us the new size of his stomach. Wow. Okay, why does he go to things like this? "Well it's like looking at 23-year-olds. I still like to do it."
The second group was three 20-something guys, longtime friends who'd gone to the same small university in Florida and who are now employed as oceanic engineers. They design the structures that sit on the ocean bottom to support drilling efforts around the world. They go out on the seas, watching their robots and making last minute adjustments when something goes wrong, a design doesn't work out right in the real world or someone misinterprets or ignores their instructions. Masters of the universe in their 20s, they tell crews of mostly older Scottish and English drill workers what to do and get laughed at to their faces. Sometimes they're out for days, sometimes months. A couple had been out for months and involved in the BP clean-up.
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Periodically throughout the meal, "Mike" the standup guy in the kilt who waxed eloquent about the properties of Scotch in general and GlenLivet in particular, sprinkled jokes in a Scottish accent throughout his more serious discussions.
He talked about being very impressed to meet someone from Chivas Regal one time. He told the Chivas rep a story about a friend of his who drank Chivas and Dr Pepper, expecting the proper cry of outrage. He got the outrage, but not the way he expected.
"If your friend didn't put Dr Pepper in it, he would drink the scotch. Let the man drink his scotch!" the Chivas rep thundered in his faux (he admitted to being from Fort Worth) Scottish accent.
We kept that in mind when one of the young guys across the table took his meal-ending snifter of 25-year-old GlenLivet and plunked water and ice in before he drank it. We let the man drink his Scotch.