Le Mistral

Jenny (I’m Never Full), Fulmer, my mother and I went to Le Mistral on Sunday evening, hoping to round off HRW at our favorite French restaurant.  Apparently, that wasn’t in the cards, since they’d already run out of the one menu item that we all came to try: the double pork chop with apricot chutney.  Le sigh.  The replacement menu item was the terrifically boring chicken.  Le double sigh.

We all decided just to make a meal of it and forget about HRW (sorry, End Hunger Network…).  I’m glad that we did, because the food we ended up ordering off the regular menu was wonderful.  The service (as Fulmer and Jenny have already pointed out) was severely lacking that night, but the food more than compensated for our appallingly clueless waiter.

In lieu of a full review here on she eats., I’ve posted the review and photos on Houstonist.  I figured that since it wasn’t a HRW dinner after all, I was free to review it on its own merits, which I did:

Houstonist Bites: Le Mistral

Towards the middle of our dinner, Cleverley Stone (Ms. HRW herself) came and joined us at our table.  She’d been there with another party earlier that evening, but I’m glad she chose to round out her evening with us.  Aside from being an all-around fun dinner guest, we gleaned all kinds of juicy restaurant news tidbits that we aren’t yet allowed to share.  But rest assured that as soon as Cleverley makes them officially public, I’ll let you know!

Go check out the review at Houstonist and I’ll see y’all back here tomorrow…

VOICE, A Prelude

This is not a review of VOICE.  Not yet, at least.

Aside from the little issue of trying to forcibly extract the evening’s photos from my camera as it groans and bleats and emits tiny, rasping death rattles, I simply can’t be unbiased about the restaurant.  Which is unusual.

I’m a pretty unbiased person by nature.  Even when I start feeling twinges of favoritism towards a person or object or food or beverage, I always remind myself that I will lose out, ultimately, in a game of favorites, since it tends to close one off to the rest of life’s possibilities.  I enjoy playing Devil’s advocate.  Some call it arguing; I call it “seeing all sides.”  I think you get it.

But we were so terribly spoiled and pampered at VOICE last night — in the absolute best, most non-pandering, non-grating, non-superficial way — that I have no idea how to write a “review” that isn’t tinted with an overly rosy glow.  I feel like it would read as if I were a 13-year-old, gushing about her first crush.  I’m going to take all of this into consideration for a while, and will hopefully emerge with a post that isn’t obscured by my feelings towards the place.

That said, however, our experience last night was unparalleled.  The warm service, the endlessly beautiful interiors, the voluptuous wines and expert pairings, the visits from Chef Kramer and his keen crew, the heavenly amuse bouche, the dusky mushroom soup, the tender and submissive short ribs, the exotic five-spice ice cream, the creative cocktails and clever platings — everything was wonderful.

You see how this could quickly devolve into a love letter to VOICE, right?  Let me put some restraints on, and I’ll hopefully be back tomorrow with an even-handed (albeit highly positive) review.  See you then…

Image courtesy of http://www.hotelicon.com.

*17

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.

Alden Lobby
Lobby at the Alden Hotel.

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.

Table for Ten
Our little group.

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…

Glasses
Wine glasses at the beginning of the night.

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.

Dinner Rolls and Tuna
Amuse bouche with lovely fluffy dinner rolls and salted butter.

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.

Cream of Tomato Soup
Cream of heirloom tomato soup WITHOUT crispy pork belly.

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.

Halibut
Alaskan halibut with corn pudding, NOT with pancetta.

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.

Steak
“New York Strip” with potato puree and sauteed arrowhead spinach.

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.

Chocolate Fondant
It looked good, right?

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
Oh, right… We still have to pay.

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:

A Side Order of Contempt

I can’t decide which is funnier: some of the ludicrous suggestions made for eating “smart when dining out” in this Reader’s Digest article:

Above all else, be assertive. Dining out is no time to be a meek consumer, notes Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and coauthor of the book Restaurant Confidential. “You need to be an assertive consumer by asking for changes on the menu,” he says. For instance, if an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If it comes with french fries, ask for a side of veggies instead. Ask for a smaller portion of the meat and a larger portion of the salad; for salad instead of coleslaw; baked potato instead of fried. “Just assume you can have the food prepared the way you want it,” says Dr. Jacobson. “Very often, the restaurant will cooperate.” Below, you’ll find more specific requests.

Try double appetizers. If there is a nice selection of seafood- and vegetable-based appetizers, consider skipping the entrée and having two appetizers for your meal. Often, that is more than enough food to fill you up.

Ask your waiter to “triple the vegetables, please.” Often a side of vegetables in a restaurant is really like garnish — a carrot and a forkful of squash. When ordering, ask for three or four times the normal serving of veggies, and offer to pay extra. “I’ve never been charged,” says dietitian Jeff Novick, R.D., director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida. “And I’ve never been disappointed. I get full, not fat.”

Or the comments section on the article at Consumerist:

Not a great idea–most midrange restaurants, and chains, are not equipped for such customization. All you’ll do is annoy the kitchen.  And I don’t want to eat food prepared by annoyed people…

yea i was thinking this person must love eating spit 🙂

What afrix and Skankingmike said. The number one rule for healthy restaurant dining is “Don’t piss off the staff.” This guy’s first order of business seems to be to violate that rule.

assertive vs. polite maybe, but he said assertive. After working in the service industry assertive usually means being a dick.

How arrogant to go in and to assume you can change everything that is offered. Unless you have a food allergy there is no reason to do this. (and even then, you should explain why you need something left out of your dish. ) Order whats offered or find a place that suits your diet.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT EVERYTHING that’s on your plate. Who knew???

I just order stuff on the menu that looks good to me and that I want to eat. If there is something on the plate I don’t like then I don’t eat it. But then I grew up in a house where I was told that I could make myself a sandwich if I didn’t like what the family was eating.

Those of you who know me know how I am at restaurants…I eat what’s offered, never ask for substitutions and have never sent anything back in my life.  But I’ve also worked in the service industry and have many friends who currently work in the industry.  It ain’t easy, so why make the meal difficult for both of you?  Just relax and enjoy your meal is my philosophy, at least.

However, when I see a server being either lazy or incompetent for no good reason, that’s when the claws come out; if you aren’t in the weeds and we’re your only table for days, fill my damned iced tea and take my order within at least the first fifteen minutes of us being seated or prepare yourself for a shoddy 10% tip.

What do you think, readers?  Are you “assertive” at restaurants?  Does it net you good service (that you’re aware of, at least?)?  Or do you follow the “eat what’s on your plate or find a healthy restaurant” approach?  Is my 10% tip for crappy service policy too draconian or too lax?