Restaurant Reviews

Up for a Spin

Close your eyes in Spindletop's circular dining room and you can barely feel the motion. It's like a slow, "clutch in" drift backward during rush-hour traffic. Or, perhaps, the crawling pace of an AstroWorld kiddie boat. The gentle, deliberate pull registers with your body's motion sensors only if you actively think about it.

But open your eyes, and a set of dramatic visual cues gives the motion a distinct purpose. The unhurried movement spins you through a skyline view of Houston as you sit atop downtown's Hyatt Regency Hotel, 30 stories in the air. In just over an hour, the view from your table slowly shifts from twinkling northwest suburbs to flowing arterial interstates to close-ups of high-rise office life. As they say about the weather, "Don't like the view? Just wait five minutes, and it'll change."

The sensation of eating in a revolving restaurant is eerily compelling. Spindletop may be aimed at tourists, but the fact is, even the most jaded native rarely gets to see a living panorama of the Bayou City from deep inside its cityscape. Especially on a clear summer night, the experience can inspire an unexpected sense of urban wonder.

As an architectural concept, the "revolving rooftop" restaurant is roughly 40 years old, with its heyday falling between the late '60s and early '70s. As American cities looked toward the future, skylines in San Antonio and Seattle sprouted dramatic towers and needles that would become visual trademarks. Not coincidentally, each housed a lounge or restaurant built on an immense turntable. And thanks to the tireless efforts of local tourist bureaus, the "eat and spin" experience became a '70s-era tourist imperative -- more for the view than for the food.

Houston jumped into the game in 1972, when the Hyatt Regency constructed its downtown outpost. The dramatically modern structure featured a 30-story open atrium, soaring glass elevators and Spindletop, the city's very own revolving restaurant. The Houston skyline was considerably less crowded then. Many contemporary skyscrapers (JP Morgan Chase Tower, Wells Fargo Plaza) hadn't yet sprung up, and the idea of a spinning restaurant 300 feet high boggled the imagination. Even at just 30 stories, Spindletop would provide spectacular views of a soon-to-boom Houston and its rapidly growing skyline. (The Beaumont contingency may have bristled at the aesthetically apt but historically co-opted name -- it's our oil field! -- but it wouldn't be the first time that commerce would win over factual accuracy.)

Thirty-two years later, the restaurant in the sky spins its diners around town just as it did during the peak of the oil boom. Two concentric rings of tables form a narrow galley-style dining room navigated by nimble staff. Renovated in 2000, the restaurant is decorated in a Mediterranean style, but the real ornaments, of course, are the big windows with the lights of the city on the other side.

A lot has happened in the restaurant world since the '70s, but the truth is, revolving restaurants don't really have to keep up with the times. After all, if a locale's primary appeal is its structure, then its kitchen becomes a secondary consideration. Most revolving restaurants feature run-of-the-mill banquet fare that plays second fiddle to the spinning scenery.

Spindletop's current chef, Jean Moysan, is trying to buck this trend with his somewhat contemporary take ("New American cuisine with a Pacific Rim flavor") on the usual hotel menu offerings. But Moysan is still operating within the hotel restaurant world, where innovation is fine, as long as the food's universally accessible. If you've gotta choose one, play to the side of the reassuring.

A quick scan of Spindletop's menu shows that Moysan's choices are designed for maximum appeal. Seafood-heavy appetizer offerings include a gulf shrimp martini that's a dolled-up version of the standard shrimp cocktail, curried mussels, and a duck broth with scallions. Entrées include several slightly tweaked but thoroughly familiar grilled dishes (ahi tuna, sirloin strip, seared scallops) alongside from-the-book standards (rack of lamb, wine-sauced steaks, lobster) that require little if any translation. It's a clever way to play the middle.

On the table, however, the limitations of the kitchen become apparent. On a recent visit, a summer salad described as sweet red and yellow tomatoes featured hard, tasteless slices of the savory fruit -- an avoidable gaffe during peak season. The one appetizer on the list that wasn't seafood-based, a chicken and mushroom beggar's purse, was flavorful, but the rice paper was steamed past the point of tenderness and well into the gummy stage.

The straightforward green salad and grilled shrimp starters fared considerably better. The "bouquet of baby greens" came in a lovingly tied packet of various sweet and bitter leaves, accompanied by a tasty cream dressing with a subtle sesame flavor. The shrimp, a bit on the overcooked side, was accompanied by two sauce options: a drizzle of brightly flavored cilantro pesto and a molasses-flavored pool of "sweet soy sauce." The flavors of the pesto complemented the shrimp (unfortunately, though, at the expense of the rosemary), while the soy brought a hint of sulfur and bitterness to the tongue.

The coriander pesto drizzle reappeared in the entrée course as a side sauce for crusted fillet of tender sea bass. Under a well-portioned layer of crushed peanuts and chopped green onion, the fish's flaky flesh was moist and succulent, without being mushy. The fish's soft texture and lack of sear marks made us wonder whether it had been steamed, but the waiter assured us that it had been grilled. Either way, it was a flavorful standout among the main courses.

Two grilled entrées -- the barbecued tuna and sesame sirloin -- had distinct similarities in terms of preparation and execution. Both were quick-grilled and accented with a sweetish sauce for moisture and flavor. The steak, with its bias cut showcasing the rare beef inside, fared well under a sweet mixture of hoisin and soy. But unfortunately, the thin slab of tuna, ordered medium rare, arrived gray and dry, the victim of too much fire for the steak's thickness. Both were also served with lumpy mashed potatoes and a steamed/sautéed julienne of carrots and squash (the New American influence?) -- neither of which held much flavor or appeal.

A similar dryness typified the house specialty, a tea-roasted duckling with a dark, almost lacquered skin. The flavors were dense and powerful, but the texture played against the dish's overall presentation and appeal.

The dessert selection, though limited to a trio during our visits, held a couple of tasty finishers. A cappuccino mousse had a nice, light body and excellent flavor, while the dense chocolate cheesecake didn't skimp on either flavor or richness.

Service, on the whole, was notably good, considering that waiters and runners work whole shifts on a moving field with a four-foot circular aisle. Peculiarities in the presentation -- irregularly shaped ceramic plates clanking on top of round base chargers, for example -- were also forgivable, if a bit annoying.

The real star at Spindletop has been and always will be its commanding, constantly shifting view of the city. Every 62 minutes, you'll be able to see the graceful roadway ballet, the city's low-slung neon attractions (the clocks on City Hall, the Aquarium's blue-green Ferris wheel) and 20-story swaths of adjacent office towers, illuminated and looking like modern-day ant farms. It's a wonderful balance of panoramic and human-scale vistas that draws diners up 30 stories for a chance to run slow circles around downtown Houston.

And if you're lucky enough to get one of the 200 window-side seats during an evening electrical storm, you'll witness constant natural drama from a man-made perch as lightning illuminates the skyline and you move in sweet, barely perceptible slow motion.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pableaux Johnson