My first experience at tony's was awful. It was New Year's Eve in 1999. The old location in the Post Oak area was dark and stuffy, coats were required, the prices were outrageous, and the food was no better than banquet food. It was the worst rip-off I have experienced. Sure, a big part of the problem was that I went on New Year's Eve. But I was still unimpressed. It felt like a restaurant on its last leg.
But tony's was reborn in Greenway Plaza, and I finally tried it. Tony's has not recaptured its long-lost status as Houston's best restaurant. But it is the place to go for elegance. And for a foodie, it's not bad.
The most impressive aspect is the interior design. The stand-alone building is modern, elegant, and bright. Initially, you walk in through a door between two walls of running water. Inside, the emphasis is on glass, Mediterranean colors, and an almost Asian modernist feel. It also incorporates pieces by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles. Along with Trevisio, 17, Quattro, Americas, and Uptown Sushi, it is one of the most creative restaurant designs in Houston. It also may be the most elegant. Yet the feel is now younger, a little more casual and less stuffy, which befits the new location near West U.
Tony's is known for its service, and it was good. The waiters were knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly. But not flawless. They dropped a drink next to our table, and never picked up some large ragged shards of glass next to my chair. They also seated our party of non-socialites in Siberia, even though the restaurant had plenty of interior tables. By the time we finished, we were completely alone, even though the interior of the restaurant was buzzing. At least dining in quiet allowed us to focus on the food.
Unfortunately, the food is not the main reason to dine at tony's. The menu choices are not tired or clichéd, but they are fairly safe. The focus is on top quality, expensive ingredients in simple preparations. Most dishes are well prepared, but few dishes amount to more than the sum of their parts. And there was almost nothing on the menu that I have not had previously at another restaurant. These are some examples that I tasted:
-Veal with a morel mushroom sauce was the best dish I tried. I did not know what to expect because I find veal dull, but morrels are one of my favorite ingredients. Fortunately, the morels dominated the dish and made it sing.
-Rabbit with garlic, olives, and porcini mushroom sauce. This was one giant rabbit -- legs much bigger than a large chicken. Unfortunately, the sauce was a little too acidic and vinegary and did little to integrate or enhance the tastes of the rabit, garlic, and olives.
-Ravioli with braised short ribs. Dull. Dull. Dull. And it did not have to be. I have had similar dishes that were far better, such as the ravioli with brawn at laidback manor. At tony's, the short rib meat was remarkably flavorless. The white cream sauce was advertised as "sage essence" but I barely tasted any sage. I only tasted a white and creamy blandness.
-Pasta with shaved truffles. The truffles were great. It is rare for a restaurant to freshly shave the truffle on a dish at the table, which was really neat. The rest of the dish was just a vehicle for the taste of truffle. There was no interesting combination. It was the sum of its parts, but one part was really good.
-Bosc pear salad with gorgonzola. Passable, but dull. I have made much better salad with pears and cheese at home. The dressing did little to bring the flavor of the pears and cheese to life. Again, the sum of its parts.
-Chocolate Souffle. Everyone orders tony's souffle. They have one chef whose sole job is to make it. It is huge and fluffy, but they use far too much sugar. The sugar not only makes the dish too sweet, but it makes the texture too grainy. I have had much better versions of the same dish at other restaurants in Houston, such as Le Mistral. Tony's version was fun, like cotton candy is fun. But it was not great.
Finally, the wine list is one of the best in town. If money is no object, they have four good vintages of Screaming Eagle at about $2,500, and 100+ year-old wines from Bordeaux for over $10,000. But they also have a good selection of wines from around the world in the $50 range, and a great selection of wines in the $100 range.
Tony's is expensive, elegant, and fun. Plus, the food is reasonably good. But of six dishes, only one was magic. That is why tony's is no longer the best. There are at least 10 other restaurants in town with a higher batting average.