We're fans of Coal Burger, the Arizona-based burger chain from the Grimaldi's Pizza folks. Their Woodlands Waterway location is the first store outside of Arizona, and we think they serve an excellent burger.
But we've heard reports of some less-than-spectacular burgers being served. The culprit is overcooked beef. But the mastermind behind Coal Burger, Chef Bradford Thompson, has devised a simple solution to the problem.
The original Coal Burger was architected around a quarter-pound patty. The half-pound burger was simply two of these patties, stacked up. The good news is that there is plenty of exposed surface to hold an aggressive char. The downside is that the interior of the burger gets hot quickly, and unless the cooking is perfectly timed, all the juices evaporate in the intense heat of the coal-fired oven (over 1000 degrees.) A juicy Coal Burger is a superlative burger, a dry one loses a good deal of its appeal. So how do you keep the patty from drying out as it cooks and develops that wonderful char?
The solution is an elegantly simple one: Enlarge the patty. The petite quarter-pound patty is now a thicker third-pound patty, and the larger mass of beef holds up better to the intense heat, holding in the juices with aplomb. Patrons preferring a larger burger now get their half-pound of beef in a single patty.
|The new third-pound Coal Burger|
After learning about this clever solution, we wanted to grab a table and sample the result. This led to discovering the other big change at Coal Burger - table service in the evenings. A hostess, plenty of waiters and tables dressed with silverware and cloth napkins contribute to the decidedly upscale atmosphere; the view overlooking the sparkling lights of Waterway Square completes the setting.
|Table service at night, and a beautiful view|
We found the idea of table service to be pretty unique for a burger joint, albeit a high-end one occupying prime real estate in the Woodlands. Coal Burger's staff made it work well; waiters are friendly, service is good, and the result makes for a great date night experience.
So how was the burger? In short, it's the bacon cheeseburger of backyard dreams, but now with a thicker, beefier, jucier patty. High quality cheese (American for us.) Thick cut, smoky bacon. Fresh veggies. And that's a win in my book.
We like the changes at Coal Burger, and applaud the attention of Chef Bradford and his staff to refining a great burger experience and making it even better.
Updated Nov 30, 2011
The dining scene in the Woodlands is never still. Restaurants open and close on a regular basis as they try to find the perfect balance of food, service, and atmosphere that will keep notoriously fickle Woodlands patrons coming back.
|The Woodlands Market Street (photo credit: The Woodlands Development Co.)|
Most suburbs have the reputation of being filled with chain restaurants, and the Woodlands certainly has its share. But the Woodlands has also attracted more than its share of independent restaurants. We don't discriminate - we enjoy good food no matter who owns the kitchen.
Here are the best restaurants in The Woodlands right now (May 2011). In alphabetical order:
|Jerk chicken pizza at Crust Pizza|
Corkscrew BBQ - This new Woodlands food truck is backed by an experienced BBQ team, and the results speak for themselves. Delicious brisket, buzzworthy pulled pork, and perhaps the best cobbler we've tasted in years. Daily specials, too.
|Brisket at Corkscrew BBQ|
|Wagyu Burger at Hubbell & Hudson|
|Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen|
Jasper's - Upscale backyard cuisine is how this Dallas export describes its fare, and we think that fits it to a T. This is Texas cuisine as imagined by Kent Rathbun, an Iron Chef contestant who's known for his innovative takes on hearty food. Great bets include the prime steaks, excellent pork loin, and half-pound burgers. We're always impressed with the care that goes into the excellent side dishes, and their desserts are some of the best in the Woodlands. But you simply cannot miss the housemade potato chips with Maytag bleu cheese. Addictive.
|Maytag bleu cheese-topped potato chips at Jasper's|
Schilleci's - The Houston area has become the home to many New Orleans expatriates, and the Woodlands is lucky to be the new home of the Schilleci family's eponymous restaurant. This New Orleans-style restaurant serves up outstanding etoufee and gumbo, and the authentic po boys are as good as you'll find outside of the Crescent City. The secret? The Schillecis import bread from New Orleans for that authentic chewy crunch.
|Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen|
We're always skeptical when a successful restaurant group branches out into a new type of restaurant. Too often we've seen incredibly successful organizations stumble when they try to translate their successful formula to an entirely different cuisine.
So we greeted the news of Coal Burger with a good deal of skepticism. This small restaurant chain (the Woodlands location is their third store, and their first outside of Arizona) is owned by the same group as Grimaldi's Pizza, the iconic Brooklyn pizza joint that has branched out into locations all over the nation (and not coincidentally, right next door to Coal Burger.) Would success in the pizza field translate into the highly competitive burger arena?
|Half-pound Coal Burger, with cheese and bacon|
We aren't sure. But we love a good burger, and have a great deal of respect for the Grimaldi's organization, so we visited Coal Burger today, on its opening day, to see just what they are all about. It was a rainy Tuesday, so we headed down to Waterway Square in the Woodlands, and managed to snag a nearby parking spot. We zipped through a building to avoid the rain, and came out across the street from the Coal Burger location. There is no sign, but it is located on the back side of the same building that houses Grimaldi's.
|Coal Burger in the Woodlands. That's the entrance at the right|
We crossed the street and entered the bright, airy restaurant. We saw plenty of green-shirted staff members being trained on opening day. Everyone was bright and friendly, and we learned quite a bit about the philosophy behind Coal Burger before we even ordered.
Coal Burger isn't an ordinary burger joint. There is a great focus on sustainable, high quality, healthy ingredients. The organization is green, but it's not pushed in the customer's face as a self-conscious selling point. We noticed that the disposable drink containers were compostable, the ingredients are from responsible sources like Niman Ranch, and little touches like LED light fixtures point to a thoughtful focus on the environment. We applaud this approach.
Orders are placed at the counter, so we walked up and gave them ours.
The woman at the counter was very friendly, and in short order we were headed to the table to await our Coal Burgers. On the way we grabbed a soda - no Coca-Cola or Pepsi products here, but rather a selection of Boylan sodas, all sweetened with real cane sugar. So we had to skip our beloved Dr Pepper, and instead chose Boylan Ginger Ale. A sip confirmed that real ginger is a prominent ingredient in this beverage.
After a short wait, the burger appeared, wrapped neatly in paper. Ours was a half-pound of all-natural Niman Ranch Beef, hand-formed into two patties, topped with American cheese, beautiful thick-cut bacon, shredded lettuce, and crisp sliced pickles. Only the bun seemed pedestrian, but we later learned that a Brioche bun is available upon request.
|A half-pound burger at Coal Burger|
Biting into this tall, narrow burger was delightful. The first sensation was the crispness of the sliced pickles, which was quickly followed by a rich, charry, beefy burst of flavor. Following the Grimaldi's tradition, the burger patties are grilled in a coal-fired oven.
|Coal Burger's coal-fired oven|
This magical device imparts a delightful char to the high quality beef. And it does so quickly, leaving a nice juicy ooze and a pinkish center to contrast to the dark brown exterior char.
The American cheese we selected was thickly sliced and high quality. The bacon had a slightly sweet, smoky bite. The result was a superb rendition of a backyard burger, typically grilled over charcoal. But this one was grilled over real coal, and the result was how one would dream a backyard burger would taste - no home cooked burger we've sampled has sported such an aggressive char and rich, complex flavor.
We realize that it's unfair to judge a restaurant on its opening day, but we were very impressed by the burger at Coal Burger. We were also happy to talk with Darien, the manager, and to see that he and his staff are very interested in feedback and focused on making the Coal Burger experience a good one.
We'll be back. Soon.
Coal Burger | 20 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands, TX 77380 | 281-292-6385
|Water reclamation system at Whole Foods|
Peanut butter grinding. This is a station where you can grind and jar
your own peanut, almond, or cashew butter.
Bulk area includes barbecue rubs and seasonings,
including a tethering system that discourages "scooper-sharing" from
container-to-container, a big pet-peeve of mine.
Wine bar, conveniently located right by the
cheese counter, that opens at 8am, which, oh, BTW, offers 24 beer taps. I'm
thinkin', if you take advantage of this amenity, you may want to bring a designated
driver AND shopper.
Over the past few years, The Woodlands has developed a strong dining scene. While it still has more than it's share of generic chain restaurants, there have been several notable independents calling the area home. Hubbell & Hudson, Eden Cafe, Capri, and Crust Pizza Co. are examples of the kinds of places that would be notable wherever they opened, and are causing foodies to make the trek out past 1960.
What the area has been lacking is the kind of tiny ethnic restaurants that one finds all over the Houston area. We were excited to see someone bucking this trend - a tiny taqueria / taco truck on Gosling called Casa del Sol.
We'd passed Casa del Sol several times driving down Gosling, and finally stopped in to check it out. We were immediately taken by the quaint, relaxed atmosphere. Seating is in a covered outdoor pavilion, very inviting on a comfortable spring day.
The kitchen is housed in a food truck parked semi-permanently beside the pavilion. The feel of the spot reminded me of one of the tiny cantinas in Mexico's costal towns... a welcome change from the slick atmosphere that even the independents build in The Woodlands.
Having never visited before, we wanted to sample a variety of tacos. A brief chat with the proprietor gave us our game plan: One each of al pastor, barbacoa, and beef fajita.
I first dug into my benchmark - the taco al pastor. Served on a freshly-made corn tortilla, quarter-sized chunks of roast pork were liberally sautéed in a deceptively spicy chile pepper sauce, and topped with the traditional fresh chopped onion and cilantro. Biting into this taco was a revelation - the tender chunks of pork were considerably larger than what we typically find in an al pastor taco, and the seasoning was kicked up a notch, starting with a savory, rich note and building to a slow burn. The cup of horchata provided a welcome relief from the heat; I said a silent thank you to the friend who first suggested this beverage with Mexican food many years ago.
|Tacos al Pastor at Casa del Sol|
Next up was the barbacoa. Prepared in the traditional manner using the cheek meat, it was incredibly tender without venturing anywhere near mushiness. After the tang of the al pastor, the barbacoa's subtle smokiness was almost lost, but a quick shot of the housemade red salsa got my tastebuds' full attention.
Finally the beef fajita was up. Knowing The Woodlands, this is probably the most oft-ordered taco, and it does not disappoint. Beautifully charred beef, still moist inside, was accented with a hearty squirt of lime juice and the chopped onion and cilantro. This taco will please the Tex-Mex aficionado, and will remind him just how boring the tacos are from the big national chains. Yo quero, indeed.
|Beef Fajita Taco at Casa del Sol|
We really enjoyed Casa del Sol, and recommend that anyone who loves Mexican food stop by. For what you'd spend at Taco Bell, you can enjoy something far more authentic, and most importantly, far more delicious.
Casa del Sol | 22507 Gosling | Mo-Sa 7a-6p, closed Su
(4 mi south of Woodlands Parkway, just past the train tracks)
|Funnel Cake is the most popular food at the rodeo.|
Best Breakfast Food:
1st: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ Big Stone Breakfast Sandwich
2nd: Yoakum Packing Company’s Bacon Blast
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s grilled breakfast burrito
1st Freebirds World Burrito’s carnitas burrito
2nd Tad’s Bodacious Burrito’s garlic chicken burrito
3rd Texas Pride Grill’s fajita taco
1st Berryhill Baja Grill’s crispy shrimp taco
2nd Sudie’s Catfish House’s duo of fried shrimp and oysters
Best Baked Potato:
1st: Harlon’s Bar-B-Que’s super baked potato
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork super potato
3rd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Just-Do-It Baked Potato
1st: Holmes Smokehouse’s angus, bacon, cheese mushroom burger
2nd: Paradise Burger’s ½ lb bacon cheeseburger
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s cheesy burger bites
Best Food on a Stick:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate covered bananas and strawberries
2nd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s jalapeno & cheese sausage on a stick
3rd: Burton Sausage’s Rodeo K-bob
1st: Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ’s pork spare ribs (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork bbq sandwich
3rd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s bar-b-que pork ribs
Best Fried Food:
1st: Sweet Cheeks’ deep fried moon pie (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Bear Mountain Bison’s Buffalo chips with The Works
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Tornado Potato Fries smothered and covered
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate dipped cheesecake
2nd: Sill’s Funnel Cake Hause’s funnel cake
3rd: Saltgrass Steakhouse’s ribs and chicken platter
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s fried Snickers
2nd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Juicy Lucy Cheeseburger
3rd: Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill’s pulled pork sundae
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s banana split funnel cake
2nd: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ cinnamon roll with “The Works”
3rd: Cobbler Café’s pecan cobbler with soft serve vanilla ice cream
Best New Flavor:
1st: Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Grub chicken, sausage and shrimp jambalaya
2nd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Lava Flow Smoothie
3rd: Paradise Burger’s fried brownie bites
1st: DGZ Chocolates & Fudge’s Toffarazzi (toffee)
2nd: The Caramel Candy Co.’s pecan caramel
3rd: Kettle Korn of Texas’s ribeye sandwich
My bride's birthday was last week, and I wanted to arrange a birthday dinner for her and the immediate family. One restaurant immediately came to mind: Ciao Bello, the upscale but casual family-oriented restaurant in Tanglewood owned by the Vallone family.
Ciao Bello - 5161 San Felipe - Houston 77056
713-960-0333 - CiaoBelloHouston.com
When chef Philippe Schmit left the Hotel Derek's hot bistro moderne, we joined Houston's foodie community in wondering where he would be cooking next. Buzz about a new restaurant on Post Oak was heard, but the rumored opening date came and went. But restaurant openings are frequently delayed, so we didn't give up hope.
Last week we were excited to hear that Philippe Restaurant + Lounge had opened next door to Robert del Grande's swank newish RDG, and couldn't wait to give it a shot. When a client meeting got pushed back, the opportunity arose for lunch on their first day of lunch service. We were there in a flash, and here are our impressions.
First, the location. BLVD place on Post Oak. Literally a stone's throw from RDG. Valet parking, or self-parking behind the building. Inside is a very cool lounge area downstairs; the restaurant proper is up a long, dramatic staircase. The dining room is sleek but warm; the fabrics chosen keep the space from feeling sterile, and floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of Post Oak and the buildings across the street.
Upon being seated, we were faced with something a bit playful and a bit peculiar. Paper placemats with clever quotations... from Chef Philippe Schmit.
We perused the brand-new lunch menu, and our first reaction was that it wasn't terribly French. Salads, pizzas, sandwiches, seafood, pasta, and meats were all represented. We zeroed in on their bacon cheeseburger, served on a house-made brioche bun. Ordering it medium rare wasn't a problem. We also wanted to sample a salad, and the Texas caesar, with BBQ-brushed skirt steak was a tempting, if non-French, choice.
The burger was a thick hand-formed patty, served on the aforementioned brioche bun, which had been griddled perhaps a touch too enthusiastically. It was smothered in melted and re-congealed cheese, then crowned with some nicely peppered, thick-cut bacon. It was dressed with thinly-sliced housemade pickles and butter lettuce.
There is much to like here - good quality beef, a deft touch with the seasonings, and a nice, dense housemade bun. The patty was medium-rare, as requested.
But there were some missteps. The beef, while tasty, was perhaps too high of grade; it was only minimally oozy, which is rare (no pun intended) in a medium-rare burger. And the cheese was obviously melted at one point, but had congealed into a firm blanket by the time the burger reached our table. Regardless of the missteps, this was a solid burger; tasty and featuring top quality ingredients. We can't expect perfection out of a brand-new kitchen, and we expect it to become even better over time.
Next up was the salad, and it really grabbed our attention. It was served on one of the longest plates we've ever seen; it literally spanned beyond my shoulders, and the salad was artfully arranged upon it.
The bits of romaine lettuce were drizzled with the mild caesar dressing, as were the croutons, tomatos, and bits of what we found out to be grilled cactus. Our take on this dish was that it was lovely, but not particularly flavorful. The extremely tender skirt steak tasted as if it had been grilled, not barbecued, and the expected smokiness was nowhere to be found. The caesar dressing was also mild, and we admit to being perplexed by the inclusion of tomatoes on a caesar salad. To be clear, it was a very tasty salad, just not what we were expecting from the description on the menu.
We saw hints of greatness on the plate at Philippe, and we hope the kitchen hits its stride in the coming months. Considering the ample talent of the executive chef, we don't expect a long wait.
Philippe Restaurant + Bar, 1800 Post Oak Blvd, 713-439-1000.
As 2010 draws to a close, it's time for us to look back at this remarkable year, and recognize the people, places, and things that we'll most fondly remember.
Trend of the Year
Burgers, burgers, burgers. The humble hamburger represents a full-fledged trend in the Houston dining scene. Always a popular choice, we've seen it elevated to new heights by both fine dining establishments and neighborhood joints. It seems that every other new restaurant features a signature burger, and the result is that diners can enjoy a superb meal for an amazingly modest tariff.
Opening of the Year
Caffe Bello. Tony Vallone has been the master of fine dining in Houston for decades, and many an eyebrow was raised when he announced plans to open a restaurant in Montrose. This was not the playground of his usual crowd, but Tony, son Jeff, and savvy young partner Scott Sulma quickly charmed the denizens of Montrose with their spin on modern Italian cuisine, including the tasty, thin-crust pizzas that left all the critics swooning.
Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, The Burger Guys, Cinq.
Burger of the Year
Hubcap Decker at Hubcap Grill. This category was a tough one in 2010 - we sampled dozens of fantastic burgers, and didn't even work our way to the end the list of places we wanted to try. But one burger stood out for us among all the rest - Ricky Craig's superlative Hubcap Decker, perhaps the finest incarnation of a traditional double cheeseburger we've ever encountered.
Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille Burger, Bleu Cheese Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen, Beaver Burger
Foodie of the Year
Dr. Ricky. Anyone following the Houston food scene knows that Houston has no shortage of people who are willing to share their experiences and opinions about food and dining. But we think that Dr. Ricky goes above and beyond, and educates his audience with every post. His knowledge of food is vast, and we had the pleasure of dining with him and learning that the man is just as insightful and interesting in person as he is online.
Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, J.C. Reid, Nishta Mehra
Critic of the Year
Katharine Shilcutt. When Robb Walsh stepped down as critic for the Houston Press, a vacuum was formed, and we were very curious to find out who would fill it. Enter Katharine Shilcutt, a popular local blogger and foodie who had recently started making great contributions to the Press's Eating Our Words blog. Shilcutt had big shoes to fill, but her engaging writing style, quick wit, and genuine love of exploring new places made her the right choice for the Press.
Honorable Mentions: Alison Cook, Sarah Rufca
Restaurateur of the Year
Bryan Caswell. We've watched Bryan Caswell expand his sphere of influnce from the kitchen of Hotel Icon to the living rooms of foodies across America. Along the way, he's opened what many consider to be the best seafood restaurant in the United States (REEF), an outstanding slider joint (Little Bigs), and a unique spin on Texas Italian cuisine (Stella Sola). Between all this he had a chance to represent Houston on The Next Iron Chef, and explain to up-and-coming cooks why they need to work in a Waffle House. Next up? Opening a classic Tex-Mex place in Montrose with Robb Walsh. After that, we expect a run for the Governor's Mansion.
Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Jeff Vallone, Cary Attar
Chef of the Year
Cesar Rodriguez. Houston is a town with a lot of churrascarias. But one, Samba Grille, stands above them, with an impressive slate of composed dishes alongside the savory grilled meats. Chef Rodriguez has brought his years of experience (with both the Vallone and Cordua organizations) to this new restaurant, and right out of the gate the new kitchen was firing on all cylinders. We attended the soft opening, and can't remember a new organization ever executing so well. The result was that after being open for only a month, Samba was on every critic's short list for 2010, and deservedly so. From unique soups to a top-notch burger, the kitchen at Samba Grill delivers, thanks to Chef Rodriguez's watchful eye at the helm.
Honorable Mentions: L.J. Wiley, Jeramie Robison, Austin Simmons, Bryan Caswell
Restaurant of the Year
Hubcap Grill. There are tens of thousands of restaurants in Houston, and the safe choice would be one of the city's superb fine dining establishments. But to us, Hubcap Grill sums up what a great restaurant is all about: A superlative product delivered with vision and passion, making its guests very happy. A tiny location in the shadow of the tall buildings downtown, Hubcap Grill has become Houston's go-to spot for great burgers, due to the hard work and brilliant insight of Ricky Craig, the chef and proprietor. Ricky's approach to designing a burger is as meticulous as the work of any Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and the results speak for themselves: Hoardes of satisfied guests, and a list of accolades including three coveted stars from Alison Cook. We concur with the esteemed Ms. Cook; Hubcap Grill has succeeded, and is among the very best restaurants to be found in the city.
Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, RDG+Bar Annie, Chez Roux
UPDATE: Caffe Bello closed in the Spring of 2011.
I make no bones about it - I'm a big fan of Tony Vallone, and I think his restaurants set the standard that few others in town can even approach. From the food to the service to the setting, Tony and his staff show an attention to detail that is rare in the restaurant business.
(The Vallones are also clients of mine. Ever since my friend Jack Tyler introduced me to Tony almost a decade ago, my company has created all of the web sites for Vallone restaurants, from the original pre-Landry's Grotto to Ciao Bello, and of course for his flagship, Tony's. And as a foodie, they are the best client I could ever have, because every meeting involves wonderful food, and the opportunity to learn from Tony, his son Jeff, Chef Bruce McMillian, their young front-of-the-house wizard Scott Sulma, and the rest of their team of extraordinary minds. It's like being a baseball fan, and being asked to create something for the Yankees.)
So I was very happy to hear from Tony and his son Jeff about the new concept for a restaurant they were creating in Montrose, to be called Caffe Bello. The excitement in Tony's voice was palpable. Caffe Bello really was to be something different, targeted at a young, hip, Montrose crowd, while still maintaining the signature Vallone touches that lift their restaurants above the ordinary. Most restaurateurs who had 45 years under their belts would be coasting, but Tony was visibly excited by the challenge of bringing his art to a whole new generation of patrons.
Caffe Bello is an Italian restaurant, of course. That's what the Vallones do best. But what would Tony bring to Montrose, the epicenter of hip and cool? Driving down lower Westheimer one encounters a veritable who's who of hot, trendy restaurants, with places like Feast, Indika, and Dolce Vita each doing a brisk business. In this setting that craves the new and different, how would Houston's iconic establishment restaurateur create a restaurant to surprise and delight this finicky neighborhood?
The answer: Tony would do this the way he does everything else: By adapting to his customers, and creating for them something unique. And exceeding expectations, which are already high, given the Vallone name attached to the project.
Upon entering Caffe Bello on its first Friday night, we were surprised by how different the space feels. This isn't Tony's with its soaring ceilings and world-class art grabbing your eye. Nor was it Amici, feeling upscale and casual and filled with families and couples on dates. This was edgy -- a long narrow room along Westhimer, exposed brick, no tablecloths. It's fairly dark. A bar hugs one end of the room. It felt more like the Village or SoHo in Manhattan than near downtown Houston.
One new Vallone trademark grabbed us immediately - stunning abstract works by John Palmer. Palmer's canvasses captured the edgy energy of the room, and reflected it back.
The edge extends into the back of the house, with chef Michael Dei Maggi, formerly of Max's Wine Dive and the Rockwood Room helming the kitchen. Chef Dei Maggi is the kind of chef you'd never picture working with Tony Vallone - sporting numerous tatoos that speak volumes about his cutting edge sensibilities. But a look through Dei Maggi's previous gigs shows the sort of creative flair that Montrose craves - he's the type of chef who's looking forward, never backward. We've been a fan of Chef Dei Maggi's work, and were looking forward to seeing how he and Tony would work together.
The youth isn't just in the kitchen. Scott Sulma is a partner in this project. For those who don't know him, Scott is the twentysomething general manager of Tony's, the Vallone's flagship restaurant and considered by many to be the finest restaurant in Texas. Scott brings an intuitive grasp of hospitality and organization to Caffe Bello; he is simply unflappable in very demanding situations, and the fact that a man in his 20's can rise so high in the Vallone organization is testament to his ability.
We drove into Montrose from the Woodlands, and handed off our car to the valet. After a very brief wait, we were seated. The restaurant was going through its soft opening, and hadn't advertised its presence, but the buzz had already started in Montrose, and the dining room was full. It turned out that we were at a table next to Tony, his wife Donna, and their daughter Lauri, there to enjoy dinner and make sure the new store was up to speed.
We perused menu, and were immediately taken by the tightly edited menu of unique offerings. A variety of pizzetta (small, individual pizzas), none of which looked familiar to us. A meatball burger. A chicken-fried sirloin. And a variety of other dishes you'd never seen on the menu at Tony's, Ciao Bello or Amici.
We couldn't wait to order.
First came the bread service - instead of the expected basket, it was placed on a sheet of brown paper, and casually arranged. Of course, being a Vallone joint, the casual arrangement somehow looked effortlessly artistic.
The breads were warm, housemade, and had surprisingly complex flavors - we fought over the dense, chewy, sweet roll, and fortunately more were quickly delivered when ours was devoured.
We jumped around the menu, ordering items that looked most fascinating. First up was a pizzetta - one with bresaola (thinly sliced cured beef) pear, taleggio and Italian truffle honey.
Rarely am I a fan of what I call "designer" pizza - I am a devoted pepperoni guy. But this pizza was outstanding - bubbly, crispy, slightly sweet crust, dense, chewy, smoky beef, creamy and herby white cheese, and the tangy bite of the pears made this a dish we'll be reordering as soon as possible. Even my lovely bride, who is not a terribly adventurous diner, found herself drawn to this creation. A pity, because that meant I had to share it with her. But love conquered... at least this time.
While I dolefully watched my wife enjoy her last slice of pizza, Tony caught my eye from the next table. He handed me a plate, and on that plate was a sandwich. As was the theme for the evening, it was no ordinary sandwich.
First, half of it was missing, and Tony's wry smile let me know who had tested it. Second, it was a veal cutlet grinder, containing a gently breaded slice of veal, some fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and greens, and it was served on a housemade ciabatta bun. The bite of the peppers, the smooth, lush cream of the mozzarella, and the mild beefy flavor of the veal played together like a well-practiced band, with each ingredient playing well on its own, but the combination being so much more than the sum of the parts.
This demostrated something I learned years ago - if Tony or Jeff suggests something, do not pass it up. And if Tony orders something for himself, prepare to be wowed.
Tony was very interested to know what I thought of the dish, and he was very happy when I raved about it. His interest caught me off guard when he asked for my feedback the first time, many years ago. The man is a true master of the culinary arts, yet his humility is a guiding force... he really wants to know what makes each and every guest happy, and he will figure out how to give it to them. He's built a very successful business doing so, and his patrons display the sort of loyalty that is unheard of in the restaurant industry. There's a reason for this.
Back to the food. Next out of the kitchen were the diver scallops saltimbocca.
We've always enjoyed Tony's seafood offerings, but this was something totally different. Rich, silky, just-past-al dente scallops were blanketed in thick-sliced, earthy prosciutto, and a sharp, sour caper agresto added a bold note. Served with tomato and grilled asparagus, this small plate demonstrated convincingly that combining the deft Vallone approach with daring Dei Maggi strokes was going to lead us in some deliciously unexpected directions.
After a brief break, it was time for the entree. I love chicken-fried steaks, and I honestly never expected to see one served at a Vallone place. But here it is:
Unsurprisingly, this is not a typical chicken-fried steak. Tender sirloin was hand-breaded, and topped with truffle cream gravy - the mild, soulful truffles were a nice bonus. The accompaniment for this dish was the side of whipped potatoes, highlighted with reggiano cheese. We've never before encountered a chicken-fried steak that spoke to us with an Italian accent, but we're glad we tried this one. The quality of the meat alone made a huge difference, and adding the Italian accent elevated this dish to new heights.
Around this time Jeff Vallone wandered over, and said we had to try something. In this case, "something" proved to be their orecchiette pasta, a simple but unique dish composed of pasta, rapini, grape tomatoes, and breadcrumbs.
Breadcrumbs? The breadcrumbs were crunchy, and added a delightfully new texture to the slightly tart pasta dish, and the rapini added an assertive bitterness that was deftly offset by the acid from the tomatoes. Again, the rule of thumb: If Tony or Jeff suggests something, do not pass it up.
At this point, I was so full as to nearly be in pain, but I've learned that I cannot bring my bride or our daughter to a Vallone restaurant without ordering dessert. Thankfully, they were doing the selecting at this point, so in my food-induced haze I sat back and watched what came out: First were petite, housemade ice cream sandwiches.
Both the cookies and the ice cream were housemade; we were particularly taken with the strawberry, which was lusciously creamy and studded with pea-sized chunks of fresh strawberry.
The end of the meal was a staple of any Vallone dessert menu - Elizabeth's cheesecake. Finally we'd get something that was familiar. Or so I thought.
This was a remarkable juxtaposition of the familiar with the new - the silky, lutescent filling and the delightfully crispy crust were present and accounted for, but the serving was a bold rectangle, the topping was thick, rich caramel sprinkled with nuts, lightly caramelized bananas were sliced on the side, and a smear of delicate, ambrisial butterscotch sauce punctuated the service. Apparently even family icons are not safe from the twists that come forth from Chef Dei Maggi's mind.
This remarkable meal speaks volumes about how well things can turn out when you assemble a team with culinary talent and let them do what they do best. And we were again amazed (although by now we should expect it) that a restaurateur who's been successful for over four decades can create a new, cutting edge restaurant, and delight an audience that probably wasn't born when he opened his first location.
I've been accused more than once of being a fan of Tony Vallone's, and I cannot dispute this. Tony is the textbook definition of a master restaurateur: His restaurants are considered to be among the very best anywhere, and he's been keeping them there for over four decades.
Caffe Bello shows that the master hasn't lost his touch, and that he's assembled a team that can translate the legendary Vallone experience into one that will be embraced by a cutting-edge audience. I think that sums up Tony's philosophy:
The food will always be changing, but excellence never goes out of style.
Caffe Bello - 322 Westheimer - 713-520-5599 - CaffeBello.com