Location: *17 at the Alden Hotel
Date: August 11, 2008
It’s been a while since I’ve done an honest-to-goodness restaurant review, and what better time to do so than Houston Restaurant Week? So let’s get back to form for a little bit while I dish about our evening at the much-ballyhooed *17.
I met up with some fellow Chowhounds and a random assortment of industry folks at *17 on Monday evening for the first of my three HRW dinners. Arriving early, thanks to the magic of the newly-widened eastbound lanes of the Katy Freeway, I relaxed in the lobby of the beautiful Alden Hotel while I waited. The lobby is dark, sleek, soothing, a perfect arrangement of clean lines and stark yet welcoming furniture — the epitome of a modern boutique hotel. The enormous light display on the rear wall cycled quietly through an array of ambient colors that cast a dim, exotic glow across the entire lobby and into the restaurant. Despite the mahogany tables and chocolate-brown sofas, I felt as if I were in a spa.
A little after 7:00, I ambled into the restaurant and took the first spot at our ten-top table. The service was highly attentive, perhaps because I was one of only three tables in the entire restaurant. I figured that it was simply because it was a fairly early dinner (by downtown standards), and expected the restaurant to be full by 8:30 or 9:00.
The rest of the party trickled in and, eventually, we were all at one table by 7:30. I’m Never Full sat beside me at the head of the table, Tasty-Bits flanked me to the right and Great Food Houston sat next to him. A sommelier and a bartender from area restaurants sat at the other end, while various other enthusiastic foodies filled in spaces between. It was a group made for dining.
I had already perused the heavy wine list at this point and chosen a Sauvignon Blanc, turning down *17’s sommelier’s tantalizing offer of a wine pairing with the three-course meal. I’m on a budget, I reminded myself. In retrospect, it may have been a cheaper option considering the course the evening took…
There were two options for each of the three courses. While we contemplated our choices, the kitchen sent out a delicate amuse bouche to our table: tuna carpaccio on a crisp, rosy slice of watermelon radish. The thick, briny taste of the tuna was perfectly supported by the tart sweetness of the radish. I tried to savor it for as long as possible, knowing that we wouldn’t get more of the tiny treat. If only the rest of the courses had been as captivating as this one little amuse bouche, I would have been a very happy diner.
Sadly, they weren’t. And I wasn’t.
For the appetizer, our choices were a salad of Animal Farms baby lettuce, organic olive oil, aged sherry vinegar and shaved radishes, or a cream of heirloom tomato soup with crispy pork belly. You could almost hear the bells going off in peoples’ heads at the mention of “crispy pork belly.” Nearly the entire table ordered the soup, greedily awaiting that nugget of pork.
However, we were heartily disappointed when our soups arrived to find that no one’s soup — not a single person’s — contained even a shred of pork belly. Not even some bacon. Not even some Bac-Os. Not even some Beggin Strips. Nothing. We stirred our small bowls of soup discontentedly, as one diner made the prescient observation that the soup tasted exactly like a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato with some sherry thrown in for flavor. It was disappointing, to say the least.
After our soup, we waited — somewhat deflated, but still eager — for our main courses to arrive. I’m Never Full and I couldn’t decide between the Alaskan halibut with homemade pancetta and corn pudding or the New York strip with bordelaise sauce, pureed potato and sauteed arrowhead spinach. So I ordered the halibut while she ordered the steak, with intentions of sharing the entrees.
After a rather long wait, our entrees finally arrived. Except that mine came out as steak instead of halibut. I sent it back (which I rarely do), only because two steaks would defeat the purpose of sharing, and waited another ten minutes for my halibut to come out. All around me, people were digging in to their entrees with abandon. That abandon quickly dissipated, however, as I started to hear quiet, disgruntled mumbles from around the table. Is your steak cold? Mine’s cold! Is this it? Five pieces of corn? Where’s the pancetta?
When my halibut arrived, I was highly disappointed to see that not only was there only a tiny smear of “corn pudding,” but there was no pancetta at all. It was a pathetic repeat of the soup and its promised pork belly. It occurred to me later that the pancetta might have been tucked away with the bits of corn, but I certainly didn’t see or taste it if it was. The halibut itself was fine, but nothing extraordinary. It had a crispy sear on one side, which I loved, but the accompanying corn pudding (too runny for my tastes) and bits of corn were underwhelming. It felt as if we’d stumbled into a small tasting menu by mistake.
The steak was an improvement over the halibut, but had issues of its own. I’m Never Full immediately pointed out that they weren’t, in fact, New York strips at all. They were filets. Taken out of context, I would prefer a filet over a strip any day of the week — no contest. But within the larger context of the night, it was yet another menu item lost in translation. *17 seems to have an inordinately difficult time coordinating what’s on their menu (and what comes out of their waiters’ mouths) and what actually comes out of the kitchen. It was their third strike of the night in this respect, and I almost shut down at this point.
Our steak wasn’t cold, thankfully, as most other diners’ were. It was actually cooked perfectly and the sauce bordelaise that formed a dark, seductive puddle on the plate was divine. The potato puree, however, had a unappetizingly mealy texture that reminded me of reconstituted potato flakes. And the sauteed arrowhead spinach didn’t taste as if it had been washed thoroughly. However, compared to the sad corn paste on the halibut dish, they at least formed cohesive and complete side dishes for the steak.
Woozy with wine and unfulfilled promises at this point in the night, I had stopped looking forward to dessert. That was probably for the best, as my chocolate fondant with vanilla bean ice cream was every bit as underwhelming as the courses before it. The chocolate fondant was a simple flour-less chocolate cake that was in desperate need of some salt. It tasted flat and bitter. The vanilla bean ice cream tasted exactly like Blue Bunny vanilla, which I once bought in a Kroger’s because they were out of Blue Bell ice cream and have regretted purchasing ever since. Gritty, overly sweet and altogether unappealing. The coffee ice cream that I’m Never Full ordered was slightly better, with a strong coffee taste, but with that same grittiness.
It was now close to 10:30 and all around me, people were debating whether to call Reef and try to get some better food to finish off the night, or just go and get some sliders somewhere. I wish I were kidding. Those of us who actually ate all our food were massively disappointed with both the quality and the tiny portions. Tasty-Bits made good on his threats and ended up eating Whataburger chicken strips off the hood of his car before trekking home.
As we continued taking stock of our night, we realized that the restaurant never had filled up, despite my earlier expectations. We were one of only five or six other tables throughout the night, making the kitchen’s thoughtlessness towards the food even more surprising. When mentioned the lack of other guests to I’m Never Full, she expressed the same surprise at the low turnout. When she’d called to make our reservations, in fact, she had been told that the restaurant was booked up for Monday night. Not at all true, it would seem.
Settling up was another mini-disaster, as none of us had remembered to bring cash. I suppose it’s only karmic, then, that we caused a minute amount of grief for the restaurant as they had to split the bill between eight credit cards and some hastily pooled wads of cash. The shock of the night came when we got our wine bill, an amount which I shall never disclose to anyone, suffice it to say that I’ll be drinking iced tea at my dinner at VOICE tonight.
I have much higher hopes for VOICE, hopes that have been bolstered by fellow Chowhounds’ enthusiastic and upbeat reports from their own dinners there. *17 was such a let down that I’ll be heartbroken if VOICE is, too.
And while other people — professionals, who are much more attuned to the fine dining scene and much more experienced than I am — have given *17 high marks in the past, I’m afraid I won’t be a repeat customer in the future. I hate to say that when they’ve graciously participated in such a wonderful event as Houston Restaurant Week and when the service truly was very friendly and hospitable, but — as I’ve said so many times in the past — I go to a restaurant first and foremost for the food, and *17 simply didn’t deliver.
Don’t want to take my word for it? Read a few other reviews from the night here: