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Houston Restaurant Week @ Whataburger

My last dinner at *17 was good, but stopped quite short of being great. Despite several execution mistakes, I was looking forward to seeing the menu evolve. Alison Cook’s positive review in June made me think it was time for another visit and the Houston Restaurant Week seemed like a good opportunity. End the Hunger, right?

Not quite.

By the end of the night I was wolfing down Whataburger chicken strips on the hood of my car at a local Shell station. Judging by the comments around the table last night, I wasn’t the only one who left *17 hungry that night.

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Amount of food isn’t always important. Despite the number of dishes, Tenacity dinners trend on the lighter side, but given the quality of the cooking and ingredients no one seems to mind and people keep coming back. Trouble is the food at *17 just isn’t all that spectacular to begin with, so leaving hungry just adds insult to injury.

The amuse might have been the best thing I ate at *17 that night. Not that it was particularly special, but it was better than the rest of the meal. First course was the roasted tomato soup, which nearly everyone at the table ordered because was (supposedly) served with pork belly. The soup wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. A marginal improvement at best on the Campbell’s original, which might have been much better had the advertised pork belly actually made an appearance.

Main courses were rather institutional. The halibut was not of particularly high quality, not was it cooked well enough to get the best out of the fish. The portion served to Ruthie had broken in half, but somehow made it out of the kitchen anyway, which is indicative of the level of attention the kitchen pays to detail. The smear of “corn pudding” seemed like a feeble attempt at creativity, but tasted flat and added an unpleasant sweet overtone to the dish. I did not try the NY Strip, but most people at the table agreed it didn’t taste much like a strip.

There are plenty of high end hotels in Houston, but the restaurants attached to them deliver a largely a sub par experience (Voice is a notable exception). If a restaurant like McCrady’s located in a small market can overcome the departure of Michael Kramer by bringing in a rising star chef like Sean Brock, surely well funded hotel restaurants in Houston can do the same by bringing in top culinary talent that can raise the game. So far that hasn’t happened.

*17 will continue to do decent business, but it’s going to remain a slightly above average hotel restaurant at best. If you plan to go there for the Houston Restaurant Week, save yourself the trouble. Head straight for Whataburger and donate what you save directly to the End the Hunger network. The chicken strips are actually quite good and you won’t find yourself cursing the chef for screwing you out of pork bellies. (<– my homage to Robb Walsh)

August 12, 2008   12 Comments