Some restaurants open strong, create a buzz for a year or two, and then slowly die. Real success is longevity. To succeed over time, a restaurant must improve.
John Sheely's Mockingbird Bistro is a study in longevity. I have been eating there once or twice a year since it opened. Although the food has always been high quality, in my last few visits, the food keeps getting better.
Despite its Montrose-area location, and its eclectic, gothic decor, the crowd at Mockingbird is not so young and hip. Perhaps because of the "country French" theme, it seems to appeal to the gray-haired, sports-coat-wearing set. The crowd has the feel of repeat customers - the kind that keep a restaurant in business.
The food makes Mockingbird one of Houston's best restaurants.
My recent visit confirms that the secret to Sheely's success is a fresh, flavorful, innovative approach to traditional ingredients and techniques.
Beef carpaccio is a standard dish, but Sheely's interpretation is delicious. Although carpaccio is often sliced too thinly, this beef was sliced just thickly enough to give it a substantial, oily mouth feel and to bring out the flavor of the beef. Sprinkled parmesan also was a nice touch. But the real brilliance of this dish was the little puddles of white, green, and red sauces on the side -- a vinaigrette, a "basil essence," and a white truffle oil. The creamy truffle oil had a wonderful, funky aroma. Crostinis added the perfect texture contrast to the creamy-textured beef and sauces.
King Salmon is not in season. But Sheely's winterized preparation of this summer fish is outstanding. The thick, oily piece of fish was perfectly seared to give it a crunchy exterior, but was cooked to my order medium rare on the interior. The part of this dish that really sings is the ingredients under the fish: a ragout of different-sized white beans with andouille sausage and black mussels. This cassoulet-like preparation married flavors of earth and sea that made the dish complex and interesting through the last bite.
Mockingbird's winter menu is full of ingredients that I enjoy at this time of year -- mushrooms, root vegetables, sweet breads, and beans. I had a hard time choosing.
My only slight disappointment is Mockingbird's wine service. In the past, Mockingbird has had one of the better value wine lists in town. And I have enjoyed conversations with their various wine stewards. Now the list seems to focus on higher-priced wines, but it lacks the selectivity of Houston's best expensive lists. We never spoke with a wine steward, but only a nice waiter who called our glass of sherry a "port."
In the past, Mockingbird carried a large number of small production red wines in the $30 to $60 range. Now about half of the reds on the list are over $100. For a "bistro," the list of Rhone wines was particularly unimaginative -- wines by Guigal, Balandran, Mourchon, and Delas that are widely available in Houston. There are so many smaller production Rhones that would go so well with this food.
Our waiter tried to steer us from a less expensive pinot noir toward the Joseph Swan Trenton Pinot Noir at $88. Swan's pinots are excellent, but they require at least a year of cellaring after release. When I tasted it a month ago, the 2005 Trenton was disjointed, showing few characteristics of pinot noir. Yet this wine becomes fantastic with age. Earlier this year, Cafe Annie served the 2002 Swan, which is at its peak. This summer, Brennan's served the 2003. Although Mockingbird listed 2004, the waiter arrived with the 2005. He did not seem to notice that the year was different than the list.
I rejected the too-young Swan and ordered a 2003 Kunstler Spatburgunder pinot noir from Germany, which was half the price of the Swan. The waiter again arrived with a 2005, without mentioning that the year on the list was wrong. When I accepted it anyway, the waiter seemed disappointed, and did not decant the wine, which he did for the more expensive wines at nearby tables.
Fortunately, this $44 wine was excellent -- better than many of the $100+ California pinots on the list. But there were so many ways the wine service could have been better:
-Restaurants with great wine service are vigilant about listing the year that the restaurant has in stock.
-Restaurants with great wine service hold newly released wines when they are not quite ready for drinking.
-Restaurants that care about wine give respect to customers who order value wines of high quality. Some of my favorite wine stewards in town actually get more excited when you order their special values than when you order an expensive clichee, like Silver Oak.
-Restaurants with good value wines seek out unusual, small production values, as Mockingbird once did.
-Restaurants with great wine service make sure you get the chance to talk with someone knowledgeable about wine.
With a little work, it is possible get a good wine for a decent price at Mockingbird. So why do I complain so much? Perhaps it is the fact that the Mockingbird Bistro's food is at the highest level in Houston. And it's getting better. The wine list -- once a reason to go here -- seems like it may be going in the opposite direction.