Sunday, April 08, 2007


In fine dining restaurants, it is becoming a convention for the head chef to work the restaurant floor, talking to diners about the meal. This lets diners ask questions. And chefs usually love to talk shop.

Late last Friday, we were dining at the brand new Vin in Bayou Place. It is a restaurant opened by young chef Jared Estes, who recently returned from California to Texas. Mid way through our meal, a good-looking young man emerged from the kitchen. He was wearing a mustache, jeans, and a boldly patterned shirt. He strolled to a table where three stylish young women were dining. Two of them had huge heads of platinum blond-dyed hair. The young man introduced himself as "Jared." He asked them if they enjoyed their meal. He then asked if he could sit with them. He then spent the large part of our meal chatting up these young women. As far as I could tell, he never visited another table.

Based on the food I have tried, Chef Jared is one of Houston's top chefs. And for many top chefs, their personality is reflected in their cuisine.

Chef Jared's food is sexy. For instance, the Tartare Diablo is a cylinder of extremely silky raw tuna. I have never had tuna with such viscous texture. Next to the tuna are small dots of avocado aioli, finely processed to smooth out lumps and to approximate the silky texture of the tuna. The avocado is infused with herbs such as cilantro, which give it a kick. And on the side is a scoop of cucumber sorbet. The cucumber flavor was almost overpowered by its sweetness, which served as a foil to the saltier flavors of tuna and avocado.

Chef Jared's cuisine is bold and aggressive. The Sweet Potato Agnolotti consists of pasta filled with sweet potato tossed in a brown butter vinaigrette and fried sage. On the side is a pile of sauteed watercress. The combination of sweet potato with brown butter and fried sage is a very flavorful, but classic Italian match of flavors. Interestingly, though, the biggest flavor in this dish came from the watercress. Watercress has a delicate, slightly peppery flavor, and is often used in English tea sandwiches. Here, though, the watercress was doused in oil, heavily salted and covered in cracked black pepper. It exploded with flavor -- almost too much flavor. It contrasted with the sweet, earthiness of the sweet potatoes.

Chef Jared's approach is slightly unconventional. The Romaine Salad "Caesar Style" looks like a not-too-unusual take on a Caesar salad. The romaine greens are served whole, drizzled with Caesar dressing and mixed with grana padano and sourdough croutons. But this dish is completely changed by one nearly hidden ingredient -- slivers of preserved lemon. They give this salad pungent, sour, bitter, and citrus flavors. My wife thought she had hunted down and eaten all of the slivers of lemon. But when she discovered a bit of lemon clinging to the underside of a romaine green in her last bite, she became gleeful. It was that good.

Chef Jared's dishes are youthful and energetic. Day boat scallops surround a tower of butter lettuce with bits of risotto thrown in and around the folds of the lettuce. The tossed about bits of rice suggest a great deal of energy, as though the plate was a survivor of a summer camp food fight. Despite the deliberately messy presentation, the scallops were perfectly caramelized, which gave them a remarkable sweetness.

Finally, Chef Jared's deserts are playful. Each desert is tiny and costs $3, so you can try several. We had a small dish of Lemongrass and Vanilla Bean Creme Brulees. Sure, a lot of chefs have been playing around with flavors for creme brulee. But lemongrass is an extremely unusual addition, which gave the dish an interesting bite. We also tried Bittersweet Chocolate and Gran Marnier Cobler with Butter Brittle. Despite the title, it tasted more like chocolate cherry bread pudding. Finally, we had a Cardamom Cappuccino Pot De Creme with Tiny Biscotti. The thick coffee cream became exotic with the addition of the Indian spice, cardamom.

I had one disappointment. With a restaurant called Vin -- the French word for wine -- I would expect more from the wine list. Vin's list is large. But it reads as though it was put together by a distributor trying to push big sellers rather than someone who cares about serving unusual, small production wines that surprise and delight. It is dominated by wines from California made by well-known producers. And it is dominated by standard varietals -- chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet, and merlot. I laughed when the list referred to the classic Rhone grape, viognier, as an "esoteric white varietal" -- as though listing a viognier was pretty cutting edge. Also, the mark-up is high. A Ridge "3 Valleys" zinfandel was priced at $48. It retails for about $16. A mark-up of three-times retail may be common in New York and California, but not in Houston where restaurants such as Ibiza and Catalan sell wines for barely above retail.

At the end of our meal, Jared took his leave of the blond hotties, announcing "I have some work to do in the kitchen." Although I was disappointed not to meet the chef, I was amused to observe his unconventional method of working the restaurant floor. And I had been thoroughly entertained and engaged by his outstanding cuisine.

UPDATE (April 2008). Vin closed. It was certainly good enough to last. My guess is the problem was location.

Upscale restaurants focused on evening diners still don't seem to succeed in downtown Houston. Vin probably would have been a huge success had it opened on Washington Avenue, Lower Westheimer, or on Post Oak. But it was too pricey for downtown, like so many other good restaurants that failed downtown.