Friday, May 02, 2008

Voice in the Hotel Icon - tasting menu

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.

Overall impression

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.


rr said...

outstanding review! i really dig your style of composing thoughts!!! it was an outstanding night. food, wine, conversation & having the chefs join us for the last two courses was right on.

i got some thoughts that i have yet to post but im waiting for those pictures form misha as well...(giddy up)

next time i would love to have a few more guests join us.

Misha said...

Pictures are coming soon. I took over 200 and had to cut it by more than half and process them.

Then I got completely distracted by this:

anonymouseater said...

Randy. Thanks. We need our own version of "After Hours with Daniel Boulud." Perhaps, "Mid-Week with Randy Rucker." Anyone have a video camera? Misha, can you post hour-long a/v segments? :)

Misha. Yeah. That sort of news will distract. Thanks for letting me know.

rr said...

giddy up...

Ed Kernan said...

Chef Kramer will be teaching a class at Sur La Table on June 26. The Mushroom soup is on the menu.

jb said...

Thanks for the post anonymouseater! It was a real pleasure to cook for you all. And I and Chef Kramer enjoyed the conversation after. Hope to see you in soon again.

Anonymous said...

cdsdrdsous vide has been around for 25 years at least. youbunch of know it alls.

anonymouseater said...

Last comment: Yes, sous vide has been around since the mid-70s in France. But it was not widely used in U.S. restaurants until the last 10 years. And it remains a rarity in Houston.

Why does it make me a "know it all" to suggest it is rare in Houston? Do you disagree? Why the hostility?

John said...

Great review. Thanks for the head's up.

Regarding your "(!)" about the sweet chenin blanc, I have recently branched out from sauternes to a couple sweet whites from the Loire I had never heard of before, both late harvest chenin blancs. Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume (may have messed up the spelling on the latter). The first always seems reasonably priced; there are some more expensive high-rating bottles of the second, which I think has a grand cru classification or something (not up much on that stuff). Honey, fig, some citrus makes them much crisper to me than sauternes. Baumard makes some of both. Hou Wine Merchant and Cova have carried them.

Misha said...

Pictures are up now. Enjoy.

anonymouseater said...

John: Thanks for the information. My "(!)" was shorthand for the fact that I don't know anything about dessert wines from the Loire. I am a fan of dry Loire whites, especially wines made from chenin blanc. I am beginning to explore Loire reds, particularly the cab francs. The Loire is a great undiscovered value region with arguably some of the world's best wines.

Misha: Thanks for the photos. Your slide show alone gives far more information about this food than my pure-text post can even attempt to deliver.

John said...

Loire dessert wines were new to me as well until 4 months ago. I have liked the region Saumur-Champigny for cab franc from the Loire. Very affordable, but hard to find any in Houston. Spec's doesn't carry any, for example. I learned about it back when Rabelais had a wine store.

ribbonstage said...

Curious name "anonymouseater" when you dine out are you that? seems as if you might have been anounced on this occasion, no?
By the way sous-vide happens everyday in this town, some choose not to use it as a badge or gimmck but rather for what it is, a technique.

justin said...

howcome all the hostility! I have seen it on a few other local blogs and now here. What gives? I don't know who is who because of the ability to be anonymous or use initials, but if the hostility comes from chefs in town then its a real shame. Instead of having elementary school yard fights on blogs we should be coming together to create a strong cast of houston chefs.

Anonymous said...

There is no hostility my friend, it is all very straight forward I believe.

Question: If an individual cares to bill themselves one way (anonymous)all the while passing out judgment as they see fit, under that guise of anonymity an impartial review, then roll up on another occasion announced and un-anonymous, receive the VIP and proceed to rate and judge that establishment using the same media vehicle and criteria as before, well that my friend could be precieved as misinformation, no?
Now seeing that you are on the positive receiving end of said review I can understand why it is hard for you see things objectively but instead all I ask is that you back up a moment and understand what it is like to be on the other side and whether or not you would have enjoyed the benefit of knowing that on last friday night pos 2 on table 74 might post an everlasting web review on your establishment. Usually within the first two months, seemingly infallible and rarely updated an/or re-reviewed. All I am saying is that if someone cares to accept the responsibility of critiquing and influencing an individual’s livelihood and the livelihood and employment of their staff all based on random anonymous testing, then it is my belief that some kind of ethics should be employed. It should be fair and impartial, no matter whether the outcome is positive or negitive.

Disclaimer: this question has nothing to do with Chef Kramer or the food at Voice, I have eaten there and found it to be fantastic.
In addition no animals or plant matter were harmed in the creating of this post.

anonymouseater said...

The last comments is interesting and I don't entirely disagree. These are topics I have been thinking about lately. But I do have some responses.

First, I am not a food journalist, and I have never pretended to be. I don't always eat at restaurants twice before talking about them. I don't have the food credentials or the journalistic credentials of Robb Walsh or Alison Cook. (I can't write as well as them either.) I'm just a lawyer who writes purely my own subjective thoughts about food, with a very personal spin. As I have said a few times before on this blog, I only call myself anonymouseater because I don't want anyone spitting in my food when I have said something they don't like. Perhaps I should change the name.

Second, no one at Voice knew I was anonymouseater until after this post. Justin figured it out after reading it. But the part of your comment that may be correct is that it may be possible that I had different treatment because I went to dinner with Randy Rucker, who used to work with Justin. That is why I disclosed in my post that I went to dinner with Randy Rucker I suspect several chefs around town have figured out who I am after I posted about their restaurants. I am sure that happens to Walsh and Cook too. It doesn't bother me. As least as long as they don't spit in my food.

Third, I have never claimed to be impartial. All of my posts are written from my perspective. They are often as much about me, my tastes, and my experiences as they are about the restaurants where I eat. That is what blogs are all about. It is not food journalism. It is a new form of media. I don't think most people view it give me the same sort of journalistic credibility that they give Walsh or Cook. I'm just another anonymous crank on the internet. Most readers dismiss me, and you should feel free to do so as well.

Finally, if I ever said anything negative about your restaurant -- which is the implication of your comment -- I'm sorry. Take solace from the fact that very few people read this page or take my subjective opinions very seriously.

anonymouseater said...

Ribbonstage: As for sous vide, I usually know it when I see it -- even if it is not identified on the menu. I see it in cities like Austin and Dallas, but not Houston. Please, if you say "sous vide happens every day in this town," I really want to know, what other restaurants in Houston are using sous vide now? I want to try them. If it is your restaurant, I may be become a big fan.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your well thought out comments and answers to my question. There are no apologies needed in regards to myself. You have never spoken ill of any establishment that I have been associated with past or present. My inquiry was not meant to be hostile nor personal but objective in nature. To present a converse perspective on what I see sometimes as unfair representation. Not as bad as, but similar in theory to, other forums such as citysearch and b4ueat. I suppose it would be unfair to ask you or anyone outside of this field to relate or fathom this outlook. But as you mentioned maybe that is what blogs are all about, an anonymous forum in which an individual can say anything whether true or not with out fear of reprisal, regret or responsibility, and the subject in question has no avenue for defense or representation.

As far as sous-vide is concerned;
if I was to sous-vide some sort of fowl, let it rest, crisp up the skin on the pickup, plate it up and put it in front of you, would the first things out of your mouth be “that’s sous-vide!” or would it be “that’s a damn fine breast!”
So I say; is it only the mention of sous-vide in the menu text that makes the dish appealing and valid? Why does it matter as long as the second is always true? “that’s a damn fine breast” Technique should not be the draw, it can’t be. Besides it’s the mention (not the use) of things people don’t understand that drives them away, anyway it’s always better to save something for the prestige.

seems i have now reached the ribbonstage


anonymouseater said...

One last thought on sous vide. Several months ago, in a resort out of Austin, I was served a juicy, red piece of meat with no exterior caramelization. It was not advertised as sous vide, but I knew it was. I asked the chef, and he confirmed it. I might not recognize sous vide cooking for certain vegetables, or perhaps even chicken. But I know when meat has been cooked sous vide.

This is why I care. Meat cooked sous vide has a lot of moisture, a unique texture, and a lot of flavor. It is not something I can cook at home without paying $1,500 for the equipment. The main reason I eat out is to experience food that I don't know how to cook, or that I am incapable of cooking at home. So, yes, I will order something cooked sous vide -- not because I'm pretentious, or because it is an exotic French word, but because I love the technique and can't do it myself.

I have been told by chefs that at most two restaurants in Houston have sous vide equipment. Is this wrong? Can anyone name a single Houston restaurant other than Voice using the technique now?

Finally, yes, as a medium, the internet is more subject to abuse than the media. But it is also a means to speak more freely than the media. It creates more public dialogue -- precisely because there is less fear of reprisal for one's speach. On the whole, I believe the benefits to the public outweight the risks of bad information.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps like a young and somewhat immature athlete, Voice exhibits star qualities, but hasn't yet reached a consistent level of outstanding performance.

My mushroom "cappucino" was too salty and the cream "froth" was obviously cold, in stark contrast to the mushroom soup which was so hot it seemed to have just emerged from a microwave - the strong seasoning and temperature extremes just made the experience too raw for me. While my snapper had a wonderful crust on it, I thought it could have done with a little less cooking overall. The sorrel butter was again too salty and acidic, and I would have liked the peas cooked just a tiny little bit more to reach perfection.

The decor is fantastic. I found my server to be haughty, but the manager was wonderful: attentive, helpful and accommodating.

Finally, the peanut butter custard was a great disappointment. The bananas were expertly and delicately "bruleed" but the hazelnut crunch mid-layer was soggy rather than crunchy as intended, and I found the peanut butter custard ghastly. Unfortunately, the custard was too thick and dry.

With so many successful elements, I just want Voice to be great and am open to trying it a few more times.

Discount Hotels said...

We charge our own adaptation of "After Hours with Daniel Boulud." Perhaps, "Mid-Week with Randy Rucker." Anyone accept a video camera? Misha, can you column hour-long a/v segments? Misha. Yeah. That array of account will distract. Thanks for absolution me know.

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