PaperCity Magazine

February 2014 - Houston

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H igh atop his culinary Matterhorn with his namesake Tony's, restaurateur Tony Vallone has now glamorously reimagined the long-ago shuttered Vallone's Steakhouse, and this time it's simply dubbed Vallone's. Situated at Gateway Memorial City on Gessner at I-10, Vallone has taken on partners: chef Grant Gordon and manager Scott Sulma, both of whom do double duty at Tony's and Vallone's. Chuck Criswell is the personable GM who roams the 11,000-square-foot space designed by architect Shafik Rifaat, which feels like a major hotel restaurant (the Westin is just next door, natch) with its long glass-fronted fireplace center stage, flanked by two clever copper-pot-and- cutlery art commissions, in a room where a two-story glass wine display reminds us of the famed one at Aureole Las Vegas — minus the leaping wine angels. The menu focuses on steaks, fish, grilled meats, chops and pastas. We started with mini Maine lobster rolls ($27) served with a single house-made potato chip. Leafy green options include steakhouse staples such as the wedge ($10) and an of-the-moment green–kale salad with sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, gruyère and retro spicy 1000 Island dressing ($9). If you've come craving steak, let them upsell you the 55-day dry-aged varieties — well worth the $7 difference. We split the beautifully seasoned 16-ounce New York strip ($54), with hubby proclaiming the perfectly cooked medium-rare steak was the best he's had in a long time. Sauces are $3 extra, and while I find the idea of gilding this 55-day dry-aged lily "Oscar style" with lump crabmeat, asparagus and béarnaise ($15) too rich and ruinous for a cut as special as this, a dab of spicy béarnaise ($3) is a great match. Desserts include retro standards at Tony's (baked Alaska and praline cheesecake), but your best bet is the comforting banana pudding ($9) with Nilla wafers sandwiched amid rich vanilla pudding and caramelized bananas. Crave worthy. Laurann Claridge FEBRUARY | PAGE 10 | 2014 Restaurateur Tracy Vaught and her husband, chef Hugo Ortego, have conjured another thoughtfully articulated Mexican eatery, Caracol, in the new uptown BBVA Compass Bank building. The duo — best known for their restaurants Backstreet Café and the upscale Mexican-inspired Hugo's — have worked alongside designer John Kidd and architect Rudy Colby this go-around to create their most ambitious concept yet. Caracol, which is Spanish for the humble snail (or conch), focuses on the coastal cuisine of Mexico, where the waters of the Gulf Coast, Pacific and Caribbean Sea lap the shoreline. More than 8,000 square feet, the soaring space has separate party rooms, outdoor dining, bar and wood-fired oven at its oyster bar. Gray-washed wooden tables with white woven-leather-backed chairs are poised beneath sailcloth waves, while playful sea-inspired paintings by illustrative artist Charley Harper set the scene. Order a drink fashioned by barkeep Sean Beck: the house Caracol Rita ($8.50) or a pitcher of sangría ($48) — shaken and stirred, respectively, then ponder the alluring small- plate options; it's easy to build a meal among them. Standouts include the coctel de pulpo almendrado ($13) a Spanish octopus ceviche with briny olives, capers and almonds; spicy fish empanadas de saragalla ($12) served with cilantro cream; and costillas a las brazas, the moist, fall-off-the- bone wood-roasted ribs ($12). Bigger plates include eight options ranging from bone-in-short rib to crispy duck. Brother Ruben Ortega oversees sweet endings on a clever dessert menu that includes the interactive chocolate orb broken tableside with a wooden mallet to reveal an oozing froth of bright coconut cream, as well as a sophisticated pumpkin and dulce de leche mousse with light, crisp meringue bites ($9). Laurann Claridge Big & Juicy Juice Bar, 3115 Allen Parkway (at Rosine Street), 832.675.0977 BRITTANY HAVICAN BRITTANY HAVICAN Caracol, 2200 Post Oak Blvd., 713.622.9996, Vallone's, 947 Gessner, 713.395.6100, ALL JUICED UP A SNAIL'S PLACE THE STEAK OUT AND WE ARE LOVING HANNA BANANAS, S P I C Y F I S H E M P A N A D A S , B I G B A D LOVE IS IN THE AIR INFUSED TEQUILA AND 55-DAY DRY BEEF. A fter running through your asanas, from the classic Adho Mukha Svanasana to the Vrscikasana (sorry; there is no asana that starts with a Z), in the mid-90-degree temperatures required for the yoga technique developed by the Bostonian Baron Baptiste, you're ready to hydrate. Trust us. You are. Hence, juice diva Becki O'Brien opened Big & Juicy Juice Bar adjacent to the hot rooms of BigYoga studio. The holistic-nutrition grad student custom designs the smoothies and juices on the menu, incorporating local and organic produce whenever possible. Most of her juices (12 ounce, $7) are blends — I Am Unbeetable mixes beet, pineapple, pear and grapefruit with ginger; Hanna Banana whirls strawberries, hemp seeds, almond milk and butter, apple, vanilla and, of course, a banana; 16 ounce, $8) — while in an adjacent room, trays of wheatgrass photosynthesize in the sunlight, awaiting transformation into shots of wheatgrass juice (2 ounce, $4). O'Brien also offers local Fair Trade coffee, teas from Houston Ayurveda and Kickin' Kombucha fermented teas on tap. George Alexander S ince it was built in 1896, the building at 419 Travis Street on Market Square has been home to a long list of enterprises. The newest tenant is a gastrocantina, a concept that wasn't around in 1896 — or in 1996, for that matter. Owner Steve Sharma came up with the term for his El Gran Malo bar and restaurant on Ella Boulevard in the Heights when it opened three years ago. El Big Bad is the downtown cousin of that operation and is, by most measurements, bigger and badder than the original: more square footage (about 8,000 inside, plus 2,000 outside on the second-floor wraparound balcony), more varieties of infused tequila and an expanded menu. The artist who painted the murals at the original location, Kevin Hernandez, has painted one over the 40-foot bar that covers the Aztec origin myth for alcoholic beverages, a giant wolf, Day of the Dead celebrations, Little Red Riding Hood, luchadores and The Three Little Pigs. (As Sharma explains, "We like to tell a story.") El Big Bad's real distinction is its infused tequilas. Sombrero brand 100 percent blue agave tequila is poured into jars with dozens of flavorings. Fruit infusions are made with guavas, pineapples, mangos and roasted plantains; vegetable ones, with roasted red or golden beets. Others are infused with almonds or peanuts, sometimes combined with vanilla beans, chili peppers or cinnamon. The jars, up to 120 at a time, are aged in a spectacular 16-foot-high glass-walled cabinet designed by Theme Designs Studio that is welded to the glass-walled elevator. The infusions can be sampled neat or in any number of signature cocktails. Hungry? Houston master chef Randy Rucker has designed a menu of updated Mexican classic dishes, from ceviches to tamales to a reworked roast chicken (first cooked sous vide), prepared under the direction of executive chef Ben Rabbani. Note: El Big Bad is open for dinner only as we go to press, but lunch service is planned for the near future. George Alexander El Big Bad, 419 Travis St., 713.229.8181, TOO GOOD TO BE Becky O'Brien BAD Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney Kevin Hernandez El Big Bad BRITTANY HAVICAN BRITTANY HAVICAN BRITTANY HAVICAN JULIE SOEFER Caracol

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