Tony’s receives 4 STARS from Houston Chronicle
“Tony Vallone, the restaurateur who virtually defined fine dining in Houston.”
“Tony Vallone back on top of the Houston restaurant world.”
“Tony’s is one of the last outposts of studied luxury in a city, and an era, where that dining style has largely gone out of fashion.”
“After all these years, I should have learned never to underestimate Tony Vallone.”
After all these years, I should have learned never to underestimate Tony Vallone. The restaurateur who virtually defined fine dining in Houston during the late 20th century has had heady ups and perplexing downs, once going so far as to close the flagship Post Oak Tony’s that had made him famous. But he always bounces back, although never in quite the way I’m expecting.
The summer before last, I sat in the underpopulated, dimly lit dining room of the current incarnation of Tony’s near Greenway Plaza, fretting over a mediocre dinner. The kitchen’s magic seemed to have fled after the departure of chef Olivier Ciesielski, whose collaboration with the exacting Vallone had rated a rare four-star review from me in 2005. “Tony’s is over,” I lamented to myself.
Well, no. Tony’s has reclaimed its four-star glories again under the kitchen stewardship of young chef Grant Gordon, a brilliant hire who, at the tender age of 25, works with a discipline and assurance beyond his years.
Right out of Memorial High School, Gordon went on to the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation, he worked in such major kitchens as Cafe Boulud in New York and Cyrus in Healdsburg, California. He’s brought a spirit of modernity to Tony’s classic Gulf Coastal Italian cuisine, especially on the right-hand-side of the menu, where the revolving three- and five- course tastings live.
The pastas Gordon turns out in collaboration with Vallone are particularly impressive - indeed, they compete with the best America has to offer right now. Just looking at the carefully crimped ends of the oblong caramelle, house-made noodles twisted to resemble the Italian candies, is enough to make me smile. Then the salty-milky expansiveness of the sheep-cheese filling hits my tongue, chased by a foresty mushroom emulsion as graceful as fine satin.
At that point I can practically feel my eyes rolling back in their sockets. It’s a sensation I’ve felt on several occasions over the past year, as I grew familiar with Gordon’s work. One night I looked askance at a tasting-menu portion of hand-rolled garganelli, pointy tubes tossed with something dubbed “Tony’s pate sauce.” Aged balsamic vinegar was one of the ingredients. I braced myself for what might be an overload of richness and sweetness.
Surprise: the dish danced with shimmering agro-dolce tones, tart and sweet playing against livery earthiness. The pasta tubes were meticulously cooked, thin and smooth and resilient. Right down to the judicious textural touch of crisped bread crumbs, they were magnificent.
So were house-made tagliatelle in green-and-yellow “straw and hay” style, curled into a delicate twisty nest and shingled with freshly shaved white truffle. That luxury adds $125 to the tab, and as a once-in-a-blue-moon splurge, it’s actually worth it.
The only fault I have been able to find with any of the pastas I’ve sampled recently was a guinea-hen jus reduction that was too aggressively salty as a sauce to graceful little guinea-hen stuffed tortellini. So good were the compact knots and their lush, meaty filling, though, that I ate every last bite.
And I must admit I enjoyed the theater of a few squiggles of parmesan cheese showering down on the tortellini from a gleaming conical grater as tall as a witch’s hat. It’s touches like that – and the sight of high-flying souffles or a mighty salt-crusted snapper, as big as a baby buggy, being paraded through the dining room – that remind you that Tony’s is one of the last outposts of studied luxury in a city, and an era, where that dining style has largely gone out of fashion.
I have mixed feelings about that. Sometimes I wish a dish such as Gordon’s subtle, palate-expanding parsley-root soup (a staple on the winter tasting menus) would be left to speak with its own authority, not gussied up with snippets of dewy poached lobster and a cap of spoonbill caviar.
Then I snare the last little bit and grin at myself, knowing that prestigious ingredients, costly and hard to find, are part and parcel of who Tony Vallone is.
At a time when the rage among Houston’s young-Turk chefs is for local and humble ingredients, it’s rather fun to enjoy a salad of just-flown-in puntarelle greens foraged from the Italian country side, barely wilted, wild and minty and tossed with the softest strings of white cheese, punctuated by a few croutons, smoky from the grill. That’s a luxury with soul.
I do find that there’s a disconnect between the two sides of the menu at Tony’s these days. On the left are tried-and-true dishes, and even a handful of steaks. They’re geared more to longtime regulars, and some – like the Snapper Sheridan, with its old-fashioned embellishments of lump crab meat, roasted peppers and bianco sauce – are even named for them.
On the right hand are the dishes that most interest me, Gordon’s changing seasonal offerings, plated in a more contemporary style and available either in regular-size portions or scaled down as part of either the $65 three-course tasting, or the $95 five-course tasting. Either provides a good sense of what this kitchen is capable of at a fair price. The wine pairings are thoughtful, and surprisingly well-priced.
With the tasting menus, you can sample not only Gordon’s impeccable pastas but his well-handled meats and fish. His plates are gorgeous, the proteins arrayed in blocky cubes or circles, with a bar of vegetable puree here and a sculptural sauce sploosh there.
The elements often deliver some interesting, low-keyed surprise: a deep glossy antelope jus that finds itself pointing up the sweet, oceanic qualities of pan-seared baby sole; or a rose-red filet of perfectly cooked Kobe beef (the high-grade stuff) softened with a melting gobbet of bone marrow on top, a puree of cipollini onion and bone marrow streaking across the plate. A clutch of Gordon’s precisely grooved and turned baby gnocchi added to the fun.
A chef who can turn a beef filet into fun is my kind of guy. So is a chef who can add interest to a deeply flavored, rosy cylinder of Elysian Fields lamb by means of vegetable wizardry: a lustrous tangle of braised mustard greens and a puree of turnip brightened with Dijon mustard. This is masterful stuff with scarcely a shortcoming, save the occasional intrusion of one too many vegetable purees.
That’s not much to complain about from a 25-year-old chef, who seems bound to edit himself even more confidently as he matures.
I find myself wishing that Tony’s dessert program lived up to Gordon’s exciting talent, and that the room did, too. While the glimmery big Rauschenberg painting and towering Jesús Moroles sculpture always entrance, the restaurant’s relentlessly mauvey-taupe tones, exacerbated by the dim lighting, strike me as curiously joyless. I vastly prefer the room in daylight, when the somber color scheme lightens up.
I find, too, that the very different degrees of service offered to friends of the house and those deemed to be VIPs is unfortunate. When you are recognized at Tony’s - and I am – no cosseting is spared. When you are anonymous, as I managed to be for 15 minutes on a recent Saturday evening when there was a full holiday house, things may seem quite different. No one took our drink orders or offered a menu until 20 minutes past our reservation time.
Once I was busted, my guest and I experienced the full-court press that can make favored patrons feel transported back to another age.
Granted that the circumstances were less than ideal and that the dining room staff was exceptionally hard-pressed. But the contrast in our treatment conjured up a time when one’s social status in Houston could be gauged by where you were seated in Tony’s original dining room back on Post Oak Boulevard.
That time is over. I’m as glad about that as I am to see Tony Vallone back on top of the Houston restaurant world.