The coolest stuff I've eaten at Voice, the new restaurant at the chic Hotel Icon, came from the bar menu. The "four little crab cakes in red chili voodoo sauce," the size and shape of marshmallows, were made out of sweet, solid crab. They were deep-fried in a crunchy crust and served in a sweet and hot red pepper sauce. The "fish and chips" were actually sushi nachos — crispy taro chips topped with raw chopped tuna tossed with soy and sesame oil. It was a witty concept with a sensational payoff. The Angus sliders were top-notch mini-burgers served with a paper cone of ethereal truffle-parmesan fries. All of it was awesome.
Such terrific bar snacks don't come cheap, of course. The two itty-bitty burgers were $14. But I wouldn't have minded if they hadn't gouged me on the drinks. It's $2.50 every time they refill your iced tea at the bar. And a plain old club soda is three bucks. "Sorry," the bartender said with a smile when I asked if she knew of any other restaurant in Houston, Texas, that charges for iced tea refills.
Voice is located in the grand space that Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Bank restaurant previously occupied. It is a cavernous, two-story-high former bank lobby with enormous faux-marble pillars and vaulted ceilings, with gilded decorations and huge, round chandeliers. Fabric panels separate sections of the dining room, and an octagonal bar occupies the center. You feel very important just sitting in such a majestic space.
Hotel Icon, 220 Main, 832-667-4470.
Hours:7 a.m. to midnight Sundays;
7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays;7 to 11 a.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays.
Sushi nachos: $8
Steak sandwich: $14
Venison sous vide: $31
For lunch one day, a friend and I tried the Voice "Lunch Box." For $15, you get soup, salad, sandwich and dessert, according to the menu. He got the "mushroom cappuccino" which is served with a creamy froth on top so it looks like the coffee drink. It was one of the most intense mushroom soups I have ever tasted. I got the asparagus bisque, a brilliantly flavored, Astroturf-green soup. The salad portions were microscopic. The agreeably seasoned half sandwiches, one with turkey and one with salami, were served on panini bread. Dessert was a shot glass filled with peanut butter custard.
None of the spoons at the table would fit inside the shot glass. So we asked a passing busboy for a spoon better suited to the task. He returned with two long iced tea spoons. The iced tea spoon fit into the top of the shot glass, but it wouldn't go all the way to the curved bottom. The custard was delicious. So my friend turned the spoon over and inserted the handle into the shot glass. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. I followed suit. I wonder if anyone besides us has ever eaten all their custard at Voice. I doubt it.
Everything on our lunch box plate was magnificent. But when it was gone, we were still hungry. "Let's go get a burger somewhere," my buddy suggested.
I had never eaten venison sous vide before my first dinner at Voice. Sous vide is a high-tech French cooking method in which vacuum-sealed foods are simmered in a hot water bath for a long period of time at temperatures below the boiling point. The technique supposedly renders tough cuts of meat as tender as filet mignon. My venison was indeed tender. But since I have no idea what cut the meat came from, I can't really tell you if the cooking method made any difference. But I can tell you that the portion was tiny and the flavor was one-dimensional.
The advantage of sous vide cooking is that you can cook a steak to medium-rare without burning the exterior. The disadvantage is that meat cooked uniformly to medium rare is boring. There weren't any charred bits or crunchy edges to contrast with the bloody interior.
Sous vide is also handy for braising meats in sauces. But this venison didn't taste like it was braised. And there wasn't much in the way of seasoning either. The caramelized apples, spring onions and sour cherry sauce that were advertised as accompaniments were sprinkled and drizzled with a minimalist's touch. It was an interesting concept, but not much of a dinner.
One of my companions had the Angus sliders from the bar menu as an entrée — a very clever strategy. We ogled her burger and fries longingly. My other dining companion had red snapper with peas and sorrel butter. The snapper was simply sautéed, and the sour sorrel lent very little flavor to the sauce.
I had hoped that a great glass of wine would add a spark to our understated entrées. Unable to pick a single wine to complement both venison and red snapper, I summoned the sommelier to recommend two from the list of wines served by the glass.
He chose a Chateauneufdupape to go with my venison. The peppery Grenache-based wine was a great idea. I noticed him looking over my shoulder as he considered what might go best with the red snapper. Then he recommended a red Burgundy.
"A Pinot noir — with red snapper?" I questioned him. "Why?" He said it was the classic recommendation for a strong-tasting fish like red snapper.
I have nothing against red wine with fish. A light-bodied Oregon Pinot noir and alder-plank barbecued salmon is a West Coast tradition. But red wine with fish is the interesting exception, not the rule. "Isn't tart white wine the classic recommendation with fish?" I asked.
"You could get a Chardonnay," he said. I wondered why he skipped over more interesting whites on his "by the glass" list, including an Australian Riesling, an Oregon Pinot Gris and a South African Sauvignon blanc. I asked the wine steward where he got his wine education. He said he had learned while drinking a lot of wine in Houston and New Orleans. In the end, we went with his suggestion of a glass of red Burgundy to go with the snapper. Sure, it sounded ludicrous, but what if he was right and I missed out on a great wine experience because I was too arrogant to try something new?
When the waiter went to pour our wine, he walked behind me. I turned around to see that the red wines available by the glass were sitting on a shelf. The Burgundy bottle didn't have much more than a glass left in it. It was warm and oxidized. It had obviously been sitting there for days. It tasted awful — with or without the red snapper. I instantly realized that the sommelier had been so adamant about recommending the Burgundy because he was trying to get rid of it.
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I returned to Voice on two other occasions. One day at lunch, I sampled an adequate steak sandwich. The bread and dressing were much better than the steak, which was so thin I could barely taste it. I also tried an excellent bowl of hand-cut pappardelle pasta with tomato, basil and trumpet mushrooms. The pasta was perfectly cooked and loaded with meaty mushrooms. It was by far the best thing I sampled on Voice's lunch menu and the most satisfying as well.
The last time I visited Voice I planned to sample the bar snacks. But since I knew they weren't going to fill us up, I suggested to my friend that we stop by Stanton's convenience store on Houston Avenue first. Stanton's sells one of the best bacon cheeseburgers in the city for $4. We had the kitchen cut it in half and we split it. If you eat before you go, Voice is a lot easier to enjoy.
I was tempted to take Stanton's burger with us and eat it at the bar at Voice. When I stay in a hotel, I always buy my food and drinks elsewhere and take them up to my room. I can't bring myself to pay the inflated prices for room service. As I ate my burger, I realized that eating at Voice is like ordering room service in the lobby of the Hotel Icon.
Chef Michael Kramer, a highly decorated California culinary genius, is turning out some stellar food at Voice. It's too bad the management finds a way to make each meal feel like a ripoff. If you are staying at the hotel or meeting someone who is, there's the convenience factor to consider. But if you're not, it's hard to put up with the ungracious attitude — no matter how good the food is.