Food criticism is inherently subjective. For instance, no one agreed with me about Laidback Manor. I loved it. No one went. It closed. I am underwhelmed with Tony's. It remains crowded. Similarly, two like-minded people can eat the exact same plates of food, at the same time, and have opposite reactions. That is what happened when I took my wife to the new Lodge at Bayou Bend.
My wife is a small woman, but she is an ex-lawyer who can be fierce and fiesty. She usually leaves judgments about restaurants to me because I care so much about food. Lately, though, her book club has been reading "Garlic and Sapphires," a book by Ruth Reichl, the former food critic for the New York Times. The book describes her experiences as a food critic and includes many of her reviews of New York restaurants. Overnight, my wife has become a food critic. It isn't pretty.
The Lodge at Bayou Bend is a beautiful restaurant, the former house of Rainbow Lodge. It has two levels, and the second is a balcony overlooking the first. On the walls, modern art has now replaced animal heads. We are seated at an isolated balcony table. I am delighted with the quiet table and the view over the restaurant. My wife growls quietly, "they sat us in Siberia."
We order a highly-regarded Australian Shiraz. Initially, the steward brings a lesser wine made by the same winery. It is about half the price. I assume it is an honest mistake, especially since the first wine they brought was cheaper. My wife makes the opposite assumption, "they must not have wanted us to get the good one."
I order petit greens, which come with a thinly-slied Fuji apple, a huge lump of Stilton cheese, candied pecans, and a lemon sherry vinaigrette. She orders hearts of romaine – a caesar-like salad served with roasted garlic, focaccia croutons, parmigiano, and smoked tomato. She quickly rejects her salad because "the dressing is not as good as what I get at Central Market." So we switch. I like the dressing. I think the croutons are flavorful. And I especially like the parmigiano cheese, which pairs nicely with the dressing. "It is not as coarse and flavorful as good-quality, aged parmigiano" she says. She also complains about the Stilton on my salad. "Too stinky." Of course, that is just how I like it. She continues, "plus it is too big a serving." I tell her that we don’t have to eat it all. But I do.
My wife orders elk tenderloin au poivre. The waiter warns us that it is seared with a lot of cracked pepper. "Just how I like it," she says. But when the elk comes, it is served with more pepper than she ever imagined. "You cannot taste the elk," she says. "The pepper kills it." I try it, and I am very impressed. The focus really is on the cracked peppercorns, but these are good quality peppercorns. The gamey meat compliments the strong pepper flavor. Sure, many people might prefer the pepper to compliment the game, rather than vice versa, but I find the dish unique and flavorful.
I order roasted Kurobuta pork tenderloin medallions. This dish, we finally agree, is special. Small bites of tenderloin are laid in a row, mixed alternatingly with squares of fried pork belly. The meat is surrounded with aromatic vegetables, such as fennel, leek, apple, and sweet potato, and drizzled with a port reduction sauce. Pork tenderloin can be too lean, but not when you can alternate bites with fatty pork belly. The vegetables are even more impressive. I can smell them before the waiter lays the dish down in front of me. They work perfectly with the pork.
Disagreement returns with the dessert, an orange chocolate bombe. First, my wife makes me try a stick of chocolate that rests atop the desert. "What does that taste like?" "Chocolate?" I guess incorrectly." "No, it tastes like Easter-bunny chocolate." I know what she means, and I know it is not good. For her tastes, the chocolate in this dish is not sufficiently dark and intense. She also gets irritated that the shell of the bombe is so tough that she cannot break it with a spoon. So I break it with a fork. Then she complains that the inside of the bombe – orange chocolate mousse, orange creme, and chocolate sponge cake – is not sufficiently "toothsome." I find it light and airy, a nice contrast to our heavy meal. But, finally, I concede that the dessert is not quite as good as a similar dish at Bistro Moderne.
To sum up my wife’s experience, the quality of the ingredients and preparation did not quite live up to the promise, and the price, of the menu. As for me, I did not have high expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised, espcially by the pork.
At least we both agree that the service is some of the best in Houston – better than Tony’s, better than Mark’s, better than Café Annie. For instance, we asked for a doggie back to take home the extra elk. At the end of our meal, the waiter explained that it had been delivered to the valet who had placed it in the back of our car. I was blown away. My wife laughed out loud. "You’re kidding?" she asked incredulously, as though no restaurant would actually do such a thing.
The setting of the Lodge at Bayou Bend is one of Houston's most romantic. It is a perfect, if expensive, restaurant for a special occasion or a romantic date -- unless you go with a food critic.