Monday, June 29, 2009

Tony's revisited

New chef, new menu

Tony's hired a new chef last year. His name is Francesco Casetta. He's from Florence. And he's good. Really good.

So good that Tony's may be back in competition with Da Marco as Houston's best Italian restaurant. And one of our best restaurants.

There's just one problem. Service. Despite its reputation, I tend to have service problems at Tony's. And my last visit may have been the worst yet.

Accoustics, upcharges, and an outdated wine list

Perhaps I can blame accoustics. Every time I go to Tony's, I am placed in a far corner. The accoustics in this particular corner were so bad that the waiter kept misunderstanding me. And when he misunderstood, I lost money.

First, we were charged $6 for bottled water when we didn't order it and didn't want it. (I would have protested, but I didn't scrutinize the bill until I left.)

Second, we specifically asked to split a single order of souffle. The waiter said, "yes, of course, sir." But we were charged for two orders -- a total of $25! Perhaps, Tony's doesn't let you split an order. But no one told us that.

Finally, we asked the waiter if he could get the wine guy to help us pick a bottle. I guess he couldn't hear me because he did not get the wine guy. I asked a second time. He misunderstood again and brought a wine the waiter himself selected -- a Pinot Grigio. (To paraphrase Miles Raymond, "I am NOT drinking any f--ing Pinot Grigio!") It wasn't until after our first course arrived that the waiter finally retrieved a sommelier.

On the plus side, I really like the new wine guy who only has been on the job a few months. He says he is working on bringing in some more interesting Italian wines. He selected a stellar, and unusual, Umbrian white that matched our food very well -- and was extremely interesting.

Most of the giant, but stodgy, list could use his help. So many wines do not match Italian food. Although it has improved in recent years, it still lists more California reds than Italian, more French reds than Italian, and more American Chardonnays than all Italian whites combined. Even the Italian part of the list focuses on a few well-known regions, excluding many parts of the country where some interesting wine making is happening. Why, for instance, does this list have so few of the great wines from Friuli and Alto Adige?

Jonathan (a Da Marco alum) gave me hope that he is working to change that. Let's hope the restaurant and its regulars let him.

Food: better and brighter

As Tony's waitstaff and wine list struggle to come out of the Dark Ages of "fine dining", its kitchen has emerged. With Casetta, Tony's has transformed from old-school dishes to simply prepared Italian dishes that highlight high-quality ingredients.

Crab cakes have been replaced by a "crabmeat tower" -- lump crabmeat held together by mashed avocado and surrounded by fresh heirloom tomatoes.

Carpaccio is a model of simplicity. Thin slices of beef tenderloin are paired with arugula with lemon vinaigrette, hard Italian cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It's the fantastic thick balsamic that makes the dish special.

Even better was Insalata Genovese - a delicately fried artichoke, surrounded by wheels of tomato and cucumber and a pesto sauce that exploded with flavor. The artichoke had been doused in lemon juice, which made it vibrant and light.

The best dish of the night was a special -- seared branzino with a Gavi / Meyer lemon reduction and plum tomatoes. The bright flavor of Meyer lemons gave life to the fish flavors, and the wine reduction added complexity.

To enhance flavors, this kitchen uses less salt and more of the acids from vinegar and lemon juice -- lots of lemon juice. It brings out the garden flavors from the high quality produce.

Before Casetta came aboard, I found that the dishes at Tony's were little more than the sum of their expensive parts.

That has changed. Casetta has found combinations that make dishes tastier than you expect. And it is even more remarkable that he does it with such simple preparations. In some hands, simpler can mean duller. But the dishes from this kitchen sing.

If only I could order them in a different dining room.


John said...

Where did Joe Pat Clayton go? He suggested a very good and affordable Sicilian red last time I was in.

I could be wrong, but the problem with Tony's appears to me to be that 75% of the crowd are regulars (like 3-4 times a month), so of course they get better tables and service. That's not right, but it seems hard to change unless you have a space with no lesser tables and a staff that is 100% great (which maybe Tony's should have, but I usually get bad staff at Da Marco as well -- isn't 25% always going to be new or lesser?).

Great review. Thanks.

anonymouseater said...


I think you hit the nail on the head.

They give visible preference to regulars. That makes them feel better. But it turns off everyone else.

Maybe it works. But last Friday night, they had half the dining room closed off for lack of customers.

I am not sure whether Clayton is gone. They may have two wine guys. But this new guy was talking about adding wines to the list.

John said...

If half that big room at Tony's was closed off on Friday, that's just bad business. (With his "core" group having fled the heat for June and July, he should reach out to people who aren't VIPs in the reservation computer).

Way back in the early 90s... Cafe Annie always did well for unknowns like my wife and I. Maybe we were just lucky. Or maybe the top restaurants didn't rely as much on a "core" group for x% of their business?

These days I personally dislike Da Marco because I always get a lousy table and a waiter who is impatient to get to his more important tables. Only once was the sommelier nice to my bad table, and then he (Everette) promptly left to manage Cova. So instead I go to Brasserie Max & Julie and Textile and Gravitas, where they know me.

Some people say you just have to demand a better table when they walk you to a bad one, or call the manager over when service is lame. But that just ruins the evening for me.