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John Mariani’s review of Tonys (Feb. 17, 2013)

From The Virtual Gourmet, Esquire food writer John Mariani’s newsletter (Feb. 17, 2013).

orecchiette 2

Five decades is an amazingly long time for any restaurant to stay in business, and it is even rarer when that restaurant gets better and better year by year. Some places just coast on old regulars’ expectations for consistency, others have owners who really don’t care to upgrade or change anything beyond the color of the walls. But Tony’s, which began as a modest eatery in Houston back in 1972, just at a time when Houston began to allow the service of alcohol, evolved into a swanky deluxe dining room all in red and serving excellent continental cuisine; after a move five years ago, it has developed into one of the finest restaurants in America, with in increasing slant towards Italian cuisine of a world-class order, something owner Tony Vallone has proudly accomplished by regular trips to Italy and NYC to discover not just what’s new but what’s worth learning from.

Vallone then translates that formidable knowledge into a style of Italian cuisinewhose ingredients speak for themselves and whose lightness is testament to their modernity. No one gets better imported seafood, the best white truffles, the greatest wines from the smallest Italian estates. Few restaurants outside of Europe show the attention to service details and hospitality that makers Tony’s a classroom for anyone who wants to learn the refinements of the business, from the greeting to the service of wine and food, to the way napkins are replaced and chairs held for guests. Everything here is smooth, without pretense, warm without chumminess. And, of course ,Tony is always there, lunch and dinner (unless he’s at his casual place Ciao) across town.

There is no question that Tony’s menu is Tony Vallone’s menu, which he hands over to young chef Grant Gordon (above), now here for about three years, to interpret with extraordinary panache. This means silky foie gras torchon with a Macadamia nut crumple, Texas honey scented with black pepper, and Kaffir lime. No restaurant in America has better or more innovative pastas, yet never do they stray into gimmickry; thus, a plate of housemade orrechiette with provolone, cabbage, mortadella, quail egg and rye (left) fits impeccably into northern Italian traditions, while fedellini alla chitarra with bottarga, lemon, and celery hearts (below) is straight out of Sicily, and raviolini with peas, sausage and mint is as Roman as you can get. Sumptuously Ligurian are the pansôti stuffed with charred corn and dashed with an essence of sage.

Seafood is exceptionally good here–rarely the case in U.S. Italian restaurants–like Arctic char with black garlic, grapefruit mousseline and a little lime to brighten it all, and Tony’s serves lobster with a 40-day dry-aged NY strip that is his idea of surf-and-turf. Rabbit gets a treatment of pistachio-turnip puree with tangy pickled chanterelle mushrooms.

On my last visit I was served a much-missed desseert classic–floating island, here with a pineapple crème anglaise and braised pineapple, and, just to remind you this is Texas, wonderfully ripe peaches from Fredericksburg with a prosecco zabaglione.

I should also menu that Tony’s has one of the finest wine cellars in the world. (He might want to delete those passé Robert Parker number scores from his list, which is the only tacky thing about a very classy operation.)

Tony’s used to be a place with a certain exclusivity about it when it was in the Galleria area, but since moving to these newer quarters, the bonhomie of people of every age who are here to have a celebratory good time is palpable from the packed tables every lunch and dinner. Tony Vallone is a master of his craft, and at a time when so many young restaurateurs and chefs believe that fine dining is gone, Tony’s is a reminder that it will be around long after those other trendy places have closed their doors.

—John Mariani

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