Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hearing Voice Loud and Clear - Houston Restaurant Week 2008

The purpose of Houston Restaurant Week is twofold, raising money for End Hunger http://www.endhungernetwork.org/ a Houston based charity and giving some of Houston’s premier restaurants a chance to showcase themselves or parts of their menu to the Houston public. The cost was $35 (that is before any cocktails, wine, coffee, drinks, tax and gratuity.)

Before the week began, when I read through the menus http://www.houstonrestaurantweek.com/Menus-2008.htm I could see that some restaurants understood the marketing opportunities and others did not.

The Houston Chowhounds have been busy discussing our different experiences as the week wears on (and for me before next week’s serious dieting.) i’m neverfull http://imneverfull.blogspot.com/ is attempting to capture everyone’s reviews and post them on her blog. But it is a daunting task eating out and keeping up with the blogging.

This past week, I visited Voice, Pesce, and Gravitas. There is a slide show of all the pictures in a separate post, just click here.

Bottom Line - Voice was my Favorite

The service, food and ambiance at Voice was my favorite. Please keep in mind that they new who we were and put their best foot forward. I also enjoyed Pesce, where the food was fresh, well prepared, and the service was very good. Gravitas was my least favorite of the three, we were rushed through our meal, the presentation was mediocre and my first two courses ranged from to salty to served tepid (although my dining companions were more pleased than I was.)


Voice

On Wednesday about a dozen of us Houston Chowhounds went to Voice http://www.hotelicon.com/voice-restaurant/ , they knew who we were so we did get to see the best the kitchen has to offer. Other Chowhounds were there during other times and reported on their experiences, to Voice’s credit the quality and opinions on the food itself were consistent.

We had the pleasure of dining in the downstairs Wine Vault that had the cozy feeling of a wine cellar without the chill. As you entered through the metal doors, one felt they were in for a truly spectacular experience. The dining room was equally inviting on the main floor, just not as cozy as a private room. Our only windows were into the kitchen, of which the closest station was the dessert station. Sweet!

We had all heard wonderful things about the truffle fries and ordered those off the menu to drink with our aperitifs. They were cooked just right and very tasty.

We started off our meal with an amuse bouche (no it was not part of the menu) of crab meat in a foamy sauce (darn I wish I would right down the details as I go along.) It was tasty.

Of course they had bread, which turned out to be worth mentioning as it was wonderful little brioche and ciabatta rolls. The paired was paired with a trio of spreads, garlic, butter, and olive tapenade. They all were good but the garlic spread was very yummy.

For my first course, I ordered the Mushroom Soup “Cappuccino” with Truffle Foam and Porcini Powder. I liked it but the more I had of it the less I enjoyed it. It was too strong for me as it wore on. I found it strange that I was not wowed as the other reports from Chowhounds had indicated but later I found out that we had received a larger portion then they had. My conclusion is that it would have been perfect as an espresso size portion. Sometimes more is not better.

I also tasted the other two appetizers. I loved the Summer Corn Risotto with Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes, Parmesan, and Chives. It was creamy like risotto should be and the rice just the right al dente. The cheese taste was there but the fresh vegetable taste pleasantly assaulted my taste buds first and foremost. This dish was not the first time I wanted to lick the plate that evening. The Blue Cheese Salad had just the right amount of dressing and was a nice balance of flavors and textures, with crispy lettuce, funky (like it should be) and soft blue cheese, sweet and crunchy apples, nutty hazelnuts, and not-to-sweet honey-sage vinaigrette. It was well executed, refreshing and a nice prelude to the main course.

Next were the main courses. Since I was eating off of everyone’s plate anyway we ordered what we wanted with an eye to keeping the balance of dishes.

I ordered the Pork Loin Sous Vide, because I had never had a dish cooked sous vide before. Sous-vide (pronounced /su ˈvid/), which is French for "under vacuum” (information is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sous-vide). To cook sous-vide, the meat with the seasoning is put in a vacuum sealed pouch then cooked in a low temperature water bath for an extended period of time so that the meat maintains a better texture and flavor. If that is the case, Voice did not fully succeed with this dish. We found out later that they braised the meat afterwards, maybe that was part of the problem? I found the meat on the dry side and without much flavor.

Now let me tell you about the Slow Braised Beef Short Ribs with Yukon Potato Puree, Celery-Apple Salad, and Braising Jus. It was one heavenly bite after another; the beef was succulent, flavorful and fell of the bone. The dish was beautifully executed. If it is on the menu do not hesitate, order it. The third main course I tasted was the Gulf Red Snapper with Hearts of Palm, Melted Leeks, and Tarragon Butter was also delicious. It sat on a pool of wonderfully cooked peas. It just melted in my mouth and the peas where excellent.

By the way for those of us who did the wine pairing, each dish was paired with a yummy wine. I didn’t taste a bad one in the bunch; check the photos in the separate post for the wines we drank.

Then there was the dessert….heaven.

Do you recall in the beginning I mentioned we could see the kitchen and what was closest to the window was the dessert station? So I knew how each one was put together.

Of course we did the same thing as always, sharing desserts. I ordered the Vanilla Crème Brûlée with Fresh Berries. It was delicious and a perfect example of how crème brûlée should taste. The other two desserts were chocolate and more interesting. We also ate a warm chocolate cake with
vanilla ice cream that had been rolled in somethi
ng crunchy. Then there was the dessert that I would hold all other desserts against this week. It was the Chocolate Cream Pie with 5-Spice Ice Cream, and Orange Tuile. It just was perfect, the chocolate dark and rich, the marshmallow like cream, thick and the 5-spice ice cream cold, creamy and tasty.

Voice bottom line: Perhaps this should have been my last restaurant of the week? The bar was set high – I had expected much from this kitchen and they delivered. The majority of things I tasted were outstanding, well seasoned and presented, and perfectly cooked with only the sous-vide disappointing me. I look forward to dining at Voice again. Kudos to Chef Kramer and his staff, for at Voice there is fresh, imaginative, and well prepared food being served in an elegant atmosphere with the graciousness one expects when they dine out. I hope Voice can continue to hit the ball out the park, because if they can, I and other people will be spending a lot more time downtown.

Pesce

I ventured out to Pesce alone. When I called to make reservations at the last minute, I was told they had no seats available, when I said I wanted to sit at the bar, they said I could come at either 5:30 (when they open) or 9, I choose 5:30.

It is interesting to come to a restaurant and watch it ramp up. There is an eerie sound when you come in as you hear the soft hum of the beginning preparations for the evening.

I sat at the semi-circular bar that hugged a prep area and had great views into the main kitchen. I was able to chit chat with the chef /waiter in that area and talk with the “salad girl” as she prepped for that evening’s meals. I was the first to arrive and got introduced to the chef Mark Holley who greeted me with a warm smile that I saw him flash all evening. In fact my entire visit I felt welcomed and was greeted warmly by majority of the staff and even called by my name by the lovely hostess, when she came over towards the end of my meal to make sure I was pleased. This is a place for a woman to dine alone graciously.

I started with an tasty amuse bouche of crabmeat on a small tortilla chip. The bread came from Kraftsman Bakery http://www.kraftsmenbaking.com/ and I had one of my favorite breads, the Olive Bread, it was accompanied by a tuna mouse spread.

For my first dish I had Pesce’s signature dish (which was smaller than the regular size) called a Seafood Martini with crab meat, lobster and shrimp on top of a salad made of napa cabbage, avocado, and hearts of palm in light Kim Chee dressing. Since I was at the bar where they prep, I got to see how it was made (which I enjoyed watching.) The seafood had a wonderful briny taste, the kim chee was not overpowering, it fact almost too understated for me, as I think the dish would have been improved by the addition of a little more lemon juice, or at least some lemon on the side.

For my main course I had Potato Crusted Red Fish. I told the bar chef that I did not care for bell peppers and they left the garnish of jicama, cilantro and micro green salad off and just had the Jack Daniels sweet corn salsa. The fish was perfectly cooked and a decent portion, the potato crust brown and crunchy, but the dish lacked something. I finally got the chef’s attention and he made me a garnish of jicama and watercress without the bell peppers and that is exactly what the dish was missing. It needed the acidity from the garnish. Again, I would have liked to add more lemon juice.

Unfortunately, dessert missed. I ordered the crème brûlée and it was too sweet. What was peculiar is that it looked just like the one at Voice and it took me a while to figure out why the one at Vice worked and theirs did not. The crème brûlée did not have enough custard for the size of the dish, which meant when I took a bite the ratio of the caramelized crust to the custard was greater and it overpowered the rest of dish. I found out they had used a different dish for Houston Restaurant Week.

Pesce bottom line: the service was great and they know how to make a gal dining alone feel wanted, I dined there for over two hours and was not ever rushed. As the evening wore on the rest of the restaurant filled up and the speed that the staff worked also ramped up. I sort of liked it when it was quiet. I found the food was fresh, well prepared and nicely presented. I almost blew the Red Fish by messing with their garnish, but they should have known that it would not work with out the additional flavors, again the fish was cooked perfectly. They blew the crème brûlée by using a different size dish. I would defiantly go back, most likely ordered the Seafood Martini and a glass of their over priced wine and that would be plenty for dinner for me.

Gravitas
I have eaten at Gravitas www.GravitasRestaurant.com before, but never on a Saturday night. I got to the restaurant at exactly 7:30, the time of my reservation and the four other Chowhounds I was dining with where already seated and the waiter was taking their drink orders. I was a bit put off on how everything was being rushed already. I was not late.

Gravitas, unlike the other restaurants did not have any printed menus for HRW but the waiter reviewed the mnu and took our order for the three courses at once. Again I felt very rushed. We asked for the Sommelier, who was quite knowledgeable and she spent time with us describing a few wines before we settled on our choice, a lovely Pinot Noir.

The appetizers came out and of course Kraftsman Bread (ownered by the same people) which was accompanied by an oil dip.

I ordered the shaved calamari and cucumber salad with lime aioli. The calamari was batter fried which I did not expect from the name and I was slightly disappointed until I tasted it, it was perfectly cooked, crispy and not oily. But then I took my second bite and discovered someone had salted the dish unevenly, leaving me with a mouthful of very salty calamari. It sat on a bed of cucumber salad with lime aioli, which tasted much like a Greek yogurt dip, rather than aioli.

But here comes one of my pet peeves - even thought I was still eating they removed everyone else’s plate and tried to remove my plate before I was done. Our waiter appeared overextended as I saw he running all over the dining room and the noise level made it impossible to hold a conversation. The other appetizer was spicy tomato gazpacho with a bloody mary sorbet sitting on top of avocado slices. It was delicious. Both appetizers had a nice presentation.

And then my other pet peeve is being rushed. Because no sooner had they whisked away my appetizer plate then dinner arrived. I complained to our waiter about feeling rushed and he said he had not even put our order in to the kitchen, which made no sense, since it had arrived already. Then I tasted my slow roasted pork shoulder with an Asian and watercress salad, citrus dressing and the top was cold and the middle lukewarm. I tried to get the waiter’s attention to tell him but he couldn’t hear me.

At least ten minutes had gone by before I got someone’s attention then the waiter came over, he then took the dish back to the kitchen. While I was waiting, I tasted at the oven baked trout sitting on a bed of corn risotto and black kale with brown butter herb sauce. It was a large portion but the presentation was certainly boring. The trout was cooked well, the risotto was very traditional tasting which I would have enjoyed better as a separate course and the kale was cooked perfectly.

Then my dish came back and it was dried out. They had reheated it. I was applauded and who could I complain to, as there was no one in sight or earshot?

By the time I got the Sommelier’s attention everyone was done eating, she brought me a glass of the other Pinot that we had been where thinking of having, as a consolation for the overcooked meal. Which was nice, but they still brought out the dessert while I was drinking it, without even asking about coffee.

My complaints about how rushed everything had been apparently fell on deaf ears.

The two desserts were a marshmallow and chocolate tart with bourbon ice cream and a caramelized pineapple 'pain perdu' with maple syrup ice cream. I had the chocolate dessert, which was yummy, but I could only finish half. The pain perdu or bread pudding, tasted like brioche French toast, which is the way it should taste, just not my preference for dessert.

Gravitas bottom line: I would not recommend Gravitas for dinner on the weekend, not at all. It is too noisy, the service is rushed and they do not care whether a customer is happy or not, perhaps because they are understaffed and do not have the time? Who knows? The delicious glass of wine was a nice gesture, when things went wrong, but I had to complain about it first, and it did not make up for what was the least gracious of the meals I had eaten all week or the fact that we were rushed all evening and my main course was lukewarm and then dried out.

In a city where we have many choices, Houston Restaurant Week gave our restaurants a chance to shine, some did and some did not. That is to bad.

I also apologize for any typos or grammatical mistakes – I am lacking a proofreader and anyone who wants the job just let me know.

5 comments:

Peggy said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy Gravitas. I find it intriguing how folks can sit at the same table for the same meal and have very different experiences. I didn't find the evening nearly so problematic but hey, we all have our own perspectives as well as taste buds!

I agree the starter/entree timing was just plain wrong, and they should have taken a coffee order for dessert (though they did wait quite a while between clearing the entrees and bringing dessert). I always find Gravitas too loud - it's no wonder the waiter couldn't hear you after turning to walk away when I couldn't hear you across the table!

However, I wouldn't have said the restaurant didn't care that you were unhappy, more that they failed in their attempts to address the issues. Also, I would like to exonerate the restaurant on one matter.

I arrived ~10 minutes early, and *asked* to be seated then as I didn't want to wait in the bar. Stephanie, Scott, and Marge arrived shortly thereafter. So, we were seated and provided water & wine lists and left alone for a few before you even arrived. Hence when you arrived the waiter came to take drink orders. And in this I feel a bit responsible for your experience because it set the tone for you feeling rushed that evening, which made the rest of it seem that much worse.

Food Princess said...

Peggy- I am glad you took the time to comment. Especially since this is the first time someone ever told me they couldn't hear me across the table! Not to belabor the point - I do not mind that you were seated a couple minutes early as much as you all had water and I did not and then immediately the waiter was there asking for drink orders. I am still glad I went.

anankae said...

We all had water because when the waiter asked us what we wanted to drink, we all said water! Cause we were deferring to you as you had yet to arrive.

rebekah said...

It saddens me to read that you felt no one cared about the issues you faced at Gravitas. We work very hard at addressing guest concerns and are continually educating our staff on how to first, provide excellent service so as to try and prevent any problems and second, rectify any guest unhappiness in a quick, professional and courteous manner. I apparently failed at this with your dining experience. I would have thought my numerous pleasant interactions with you and your guests, my sincere apologies and efforts to help improve your evening, my conversation with the chef regarding your displeasure, his concern then parlayed to his kitchen with reprimands and adjustments to ensure no other diner faced such unpleasantries and a complimentary glass of wine would have been received as evidence of Gravitas caring.

We take our jobs very seriously. Our joys are derived from giving every single person who walks in our door the very best we have to offer. We do hold ourselves to very high standards and are continually trying to improve in areas of weakness. When any one guest informs us of a glitch in their experience it is our number one priority to make ammends. I take these situations very personally and it weighs heavily on me if a solution is not found and a guest leaves dissatisfied. You and I spoke extensively, you have used my photo in your blog (although you said you were not a blogger and did not ask my permission) and you even make mention of some of our interactions. This, again, seems evidence of Gravitas caring.

I would like to address a couple of your points of contention. Our policy is to offer guests’ drinks quickly upon arrival. This is a basic fundamental of waiting tables. You will find even in corporate restaurant (which we are not) training manuals that their servers are required to take a drink order and have it on the table within 3 minutes of the guest being seated. I believe you walked in at the middle of this standard protocol and it was not a slight towards you, merely an effort to make your other guests comfortable while they waited. I do agree that the timing of your dishes was not properly executed. This was certainly in no way an attempt to rush you out the door. This was merely a misinterpretation of table timing. A common problem when diners at the same table are eating at different paces. We assume most tables will be seated for approximately 1.5 – 2 hours. This estimate increases relative to the party size. As your group was a party of 5, you can be sure we assigned that table to you for a minimum of 2 – 2.5 hours. Also important to note is the time of your reservation, 7:30 pm. While we like to dream that everyone will always show up on time this is a rarity. Your group was actually an exception to the norm. So, given that we calculate for guests running late and large groups = a longer dining experience that places us at approximately 10 – 10:15 pm before we would even think that your dining experience would be complete. Our kitchen concludes service at 11:30 on Saturday evenings, so I would hazard to say that we did not anticipate seating your table again. I point this out merely to illustrate the fact that we do not rush our guests through their time with us ( which I believe I was most adamant about in our conversations as well ).

I did not feel your 3-hour dining experience was rushed. I am truly sorry that you did. It also surprises me that you would expect the 4 other guests at your table to wait while you finished your complimentary glass of wine before desserts were brought to the table. It would be news to me that all wine glasses are to be empty before the dessert process can begin. It was not that, as you say, your “complaints about how rushed everything had been apparently fell on deaf ears.” The server was interpreting the pace of the entire table, not solely your pace.

I again apologize that you did not feel Gravitas looked after you appropriately. I do hope, however, that you will reconsider and also find this response as one more piece of evidence that we care.

Food Princess said...

Rebekah,

First of all I want to say that I never said I was not a Blogger, as if I am asked I always identify myself. I think that this may be a misunderstanding because of how noisy the restaurant was that Saturday night and the difficulty hearing each other.

Please be assured that I will be happy to remove your picture if you would like. I chose to put you in because I felt you did take the time to listen to my concerns about the evening.

As for my server being aware of the pacing, he told me that he was surprised we had our main courses already as he had not yet put in the order. I do have a problem with dinner being rushed and expect that wait staff and busboys wait until a dinner is done before removing dishes or bringing the next course. This is what I look for, maybe not what other customers expect.

I appreciate not only your efforts that evening but your taking the time to respond. It does seem that there is an effort on your part to make things right.

I look forward to my next visit to Gravitas and getting the service I have had in the past, which has always been excellent. I will then be happy to report more positively on my next visit.