UPDATE: Chef Stone has left Vallone's to pursue other opportunities.

Vallone's, the hot new steakhouse project from the team behind Tony's, has named Jay Stone as its Chef de Cuisine.  Vallone's is a collaboration helmed by Tony's executive chef Grant Gordon and Tony's GM Scott Sulma. Tony Vallone, Houston's legendary restaurateur, is rumored to be consulting on the project as well.

(Tony Vallone has a storied history of discovering and nurturing great culinary talent, including top Houston chefs Mark Cox [owner and executive chef of Mark's], Marco Wiles [owner and executive chef of Da Marco] and Olivier Ciesielski [owner and executive chef of L'Olivier], who all perfected their craft under Tony's watchful eye.)

Chef Jay Stone

Chef Stone was formerly executive chef at Spectrum Catering, and was the driving force behind the Wicked Whisk food truck, cited by Houston Mayor Annise Parker as her favorite food truck.

(He also collaborated with Corkscrew BBQ's pitmaster Will Buckman on the groundbreaking Wicked Corkscrew pop-up experimental dinner, the first to combine the techniques and recipes of a classically trained chef with the award-winning meats of one of Texas's top BBQ joints.)

We've been big fans of Jay's innovative cooking since we first got to sample it, and are looking forward to seeing what he'll produce in collaboration with the consummate culinary professionals of the Vallone organization.

Having Jay Stone and Grant Gordon collaborate in the kitchen reminds me of the friendship (and rivalry) between the two great 20th century artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The collaboration and creative tension that can result from having this much culinary talent under one roof promises to make Vallone's one of the city's most exciting kitchens.

We're fans of Black Walnut Cafe, the fast casual restaurant that started in the Woodands and has spread across the Houston area (and is soon coming to Austin and Dallas). One thing we love is the large, eclectic menu - it's a place we're not hesitant to visit with people whose food preferences we don't know.

And the menu is ever-changing. For the next few weeks, Black Walnut will be testing a few new items each week, and soliciting feedback from patrons who try them via a secret website, revealed only to those who try the dishes. We love the idea of getting direct feedback from customers, and what makes it even cooler is that one lucky customer will get the chance to name one of the dishes on the menu! (There's also a $100 gift card involved, which is certainly a good thing.)

We were excited about the opportunity to provide feedback about which items would make the next menu, so we accepted the generous offer to come sample this week's selections.

First up were the pork tacos. They're served street taco style on a sheet of aluminum foil. Of course, being a nice place like the Black Walnut, the foil was on a plate.

A generous portion of pork carnitas was served on warm corn tortillas, topped with shredded lettuce, fresh avocado slices, a bit of red bell pepper, and a mild peppery sauce. Biting into the first one, we enjoyed the smooth, mild flavors. The slight smokiness of the pork carnitas was accented by the creamy avocado and the mild heat from the sauce and peppers. Adding a zing of citrus from the provided lime slice brightened things up.
Next up was the turkey burger. I hear the assembled readers asking "Turkey burger?!?! Have you gone mad?" But I'm willing to sample even slightly disturbing things for science. And for our readers. The turkey burger is served open-faced with a side of Black Walnut's tasty sweet potato fries.

The patty is hand formed from high quality ground turkey, pressed fairly thin, griddled with a nice caramel-colored sear, then topped with swiss cheese and veggies. Biting into this burger was a big surprise... I LIKED IT. The expertly seared turkey patty had a nice savory flavor - the seasonings used were spot on. It didn't taste like a beef hamburger, but it was a very good sandwich that I would gladly order again. And I've never said that about a turkey burger before in my life. Kudos to the chefs at Black Walnut Cafe for doing the impossible.

Last up was an item that I saw, but didn't sample. It's an Eggs Benedict burger.

An English muffin is stacked with a hand-formed griddled beef burger patty, then layered with a poached egg, bacon, and hollandaise sauce. Not being a fan of poached eggs I decided to pass on this one, but it looked well constructed and the hollandaise sauce smelled very good.
We applaud Black Walnut Cafe for this decidedly social approach to vetting new menu items, and we look forward to seeing which of these dishes makes it onto the new menu. (Our vote is for the amazingly good turkey burger, and if it ends up being named the "You Won't Believe It's Turkey Burger" you'll know we won the contest.)
These dishes are available for tasting for a limited time, but will be replaced with other new tasting options each week. We plan to work our way through each week's offerings, and would love to hear from our readers as they sample these brand new creations.
Black Walnut Cafe | Several Locations

As the Woodlands grows, many new burger concepts are moving into the area. But savvy locals know that burger joints aren't the only place to get great burgers. Many of the higher-end restaurants offer burgers on their lunch and dinner menus, but they're rarely the focus of the establishment.

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro is different. Executive Chef Austin Simmons is no stranger to high-end cuisine, creating composed entrees that have garnered recognition from savvy diners and critics alike. We think he's the most talented chef working in the Woodlands today, and that his dishes can hold their own against anything you can find in the Houston Area.

But Chef Austin's culinary attention isn't restricted to his superb entrees - the chef has a love of excellent burgers.

What happens when a classically trained chef devotes his refined palate and considerable talent to creating great burgers? Over the past few years we've been extremely impressed by the creations of Chef Austin, first in his tenure at the late, lamented Tesar's Modern, and more recently in his position as executive chef at Hubbell & Hudson.
For this chef, burgers are more than an item on his menu. They're a passion. Talking with him about burgers, his eyes light up just as they do talking about the exotic tasting menus he devises to satisfy his most demanding guests. The same attention to detail, and the same quest to source the highest quality ingredients is present here, and that's a rare thing in the world of burgers.
And unlike some chefs who develop one impressive burger and rest on their laurels, Chef Austin is constantly experimenting with new creations. The best ones appear on his seasonally-changing menus at the Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. Knowing of our love for burgers, the chef invited us to sample his latest creations.
First up was Chef Austin's latest take on a classic cheeseburger. Dubbed the New Bistro Burger, it's a half-pound patty of ground sirloin topped with aged Vermont cheddar. (As we've heard from both Chef Austin and Chef John Tesar, if you're not going to use a high quality cheese on a burger,  don't use any cheese at all.) The burger is dressed with thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, bibb lettuce, oven dried tomatoes, and served on a challah bun.
Biting into this burger we were hit first by the rich beef swagger. Cooked a perfect medium rare, and oozing succulent juices , the flavor of the sirloin was accented by the creamy beautifully melted, slightly sharp cheddar. The smoky bacon was a superb counterpoint, and the slightly chewy texture contrasted well with the soft, tender beef. We're not usually a fan of tomatoes on burgers, but the chef's oven-dried examples brought a bit of acidity and tang to the burger without adding too much moisture. All the flavors were in harmonious balance - each spoke with a distinct voice. In summary, the New Bistro Burger is a perfect example of a classic burger that's been crafted by a focused, talented chef. If you enjoy a classic bacon cheeseburger, this may very well be the best one you'll have ever tasted.
The second creation was as exotic as the first was traditional. The Sirloin & Braised Short Rib Burger is built around (not surprisingly) a patty that is a blend of ground sirloin and braised, shredded short rib. Cheese isn't a part of this creation - instead, the desired creaminess is derived from a petite slab of seared whole foie gras, skillfully cooked and sporting a gorgeous sear. Bacon is replaced by 600-day aged Numero Uno proscuitto, and the greenery is unique lemon-accented arugula. The burger is dressed with a subtle mushroom puree. On the side is an ounce of a port demi glace that can be added at the diner's discretion. Add it.
If you don't like to sample burgers that are beyond the range of the traditional, stick with the New Bistro Burger. But if you venture out to enjoy a bit of culinary adventure, you will be amply rewarded by this burger. The complex, earthy flavors from the sirloin/short rib patty combine with the smooth, buttery richness of the the foie to create a lush base, and the aged proscuitto brings a slight hint of saltiness and sweetness, and the more elastic texture creates a substantial mouthfeel. The meat is moist and tender, but not oozing in great quantities, no doubt attributed to the less fatty short rib.

The smooth mushroom puree provides a contrasting sort of earthiness, and the sharp, bright flavors of the lemon-infused arugula combine with the acidity and tang of the port demi to create powerful high notes that balance the deep, earthy character. This decidedly untraditional creation is a lush, powerful burger, with a symphony of distinct flavors, and the sum is considerably greater than each of the excellent ingredients that Chef Austin has combined.

Many chefs add high-end burgers to their menus, with varying degrees of success. We'd place Chef Austin Simmons' burgers alongside the best elevated burgers we've ever enjoyed, those of chefs like Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller and John Tesar. Each of these talented men puts his encyclopedic culinary knowledge behind each burger he designs, and burger lovers owe it to themselves to sample their creations to experience just how superlative a master chef's burger can be. Houstonians are lucky that Hubbell & Hudson Bistro doesn't require a plane ticket as a prerequisite for this culinary experience.
Hubbell & Hudson Bistro | 24 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands, TX 77380 | 281-203-5641

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