2008 is shaping up to be the best year for Houston restaurant openings in a long time. First Soma. Then Ristorante Cavour. Then Feast. Now Voice.
Voice replaces Bank in the Hotel Icon.
The executive chef is Michael Kramer. In chef circles he is a big deal. He has worked at Spago and the Mansion on Turtle Creek.
Another talent in the kitchen is local chef Justin Bayse, who formerly worked at laidback manor and Vin.
Voice is not just a worthy successor to Bank. It is better.
The food manages to straddle a line between progressive and accessible.
These dishes appear to be a product of a dialogue with the country's leading chefs. Although many dishes are unique, you will not be surprised at the food here if you have been hanging out at French Laundry, Per Se, and Spago. For instance, the menu includes foam and sous vide preparations, which are rarely found in Houston, but quite common in Chicago, New York, Aspen, Charleston, and the Bay Area. Voice also employs a number of trendy ingredients, such as truffles, micro greens, short ribs, fennel, and crispy fish skin.
But the food also will be accessible to Houstonians. The menu does not include too much sci-fi molecular gastronomy of the sort that seems to scare away so many Houstonians. And it does include some fairly traditional ingredients. Dull and unadventurous diners can order a steak with potato or a rosemary grilled chicken breast.
Voice makes an interesting comparison with Soma and Feast. If they survive, all three are sure to be among Houston's best restaurants. But the cuisines at Soma and Feast are the individualized product of unusual chefs. Although Voice has its own personality, its food is more reflective of the Zeitgeist of contemporary American cuisine. Houston needs both kind of restaurants.
The dining space -- a former bank lobby -- has been softened and modernized. It no longer feels like a cavernous antique gallery.
Amazingly, after three weeks, the service at Voice runs like clockwork. At Bank, the service at had been condescending and sometimes inept. Voice is altogether different.
I shared a tasting menu with wine pairings with a group of bloggers and my favorite local chef, Randy Rucker. Although Voice promotes its 5 and 7 course tasting menus, it also has a regular menu. The items on the tasting menu and regular menu overlap.
These were a few highlights:
Mushroom soup cappuccino. This was a small soup made from scraps of crimini, portabellas, and shitake, with some chicken stock, wine, and cream, topped with a shaving of black truffle. Apparently, this is one of Kramer's signature dishes. It has a viscous texture and perhaps the greatest concentration of earthy mushroom flavor that I have ever tried. It wins my dish of the night award.
Sashimi of yellow fin tuna. A mainstay of the contemporary restaurant menu follows this formula: raw fish + fruit + vegetable. Soma employs formula a lot. So does Uchi in Austin. This version included a wide thin strip of high quality tuna with mango, avocado, radish, and yuzu juice. The flavor of the mango pushed this dish over the top.
Patchwork of baby beets. Some dishes stand out because of original preparations. Others stand out because of ingredient quality. When you have a great ingredient, a chef doesn't need to do much to it. It is no great innovation to serve baby beets with local, goat cheese and micro greens. But when the baby beets are good enough -- as they were at Voice -- it can be a great dish.
Halibut. The fresh halibut in Houston restaurants has been fantastic for the past few weeks. Voice's version includes crispy fish skin, fennel, and a truffle foam.
Venison sous vide. All of America's top restaurants seem to be experimenting with sous vide preparation -- except in Houston. It is a remarkable technique involving vacuum seals and long, low heat cooking that seals in both flavors and moisture. This venison sous vide was mind blowing. It was completely moist, full of flavor, and bright red, without even tasting rare. Runner up for dish of the night.
The desserts were all outstanding. But I had too much food and wine by that point. The dessert course was an impressionistic blur.
Only a photo can capture the artistry of the plating at Voice. Misha has a great series of photos of the dishes.
I have not seen Voice's wine list. But the pairings chosen by the wine guys were very creative and non-traditional. For instance, you would expect halibut, a big white fish, to be paired with a big white or a pinot noir. Instead, they served a merlot, which was a delightful marriage with the flavors in the truffle emulsion. Foie gras is traditionally paired with a botrytis wine such as a sauternes. But Voice a late harvest Chenin Blanc (!) with a ton of residual sugar -- a wonderful variation on the tradition.
The wine pairings included a number of international wines and less common varietals. It looks like the wine geeks may gravitate to Voice.
Will it work?
Voice is going to appeal to a lot of people: the Tony's/Cafe Annie crowd, the serious foodie crowd, and the out-of-town traveler. The biggest hurdle is location. Downtown Houston continues to bleed high-end restaurants. Vin was outstanding, and it did not even last a year. Ditto laidback manor. Other restaurants, such as 17 and the Four Seasons, have repeatedly lost their star chefs. Great downtown restaurants often operate at half capacity on weekends.
Bank drew a large crowd for at least a year. I sincerely hope that Voice will last longer than that. But we are all going to have to make an effort to drive downtown for dinner.