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Plinio Sandalio now at Gravitas

Looks like the talent drain from the Cordua restaurants is finally complete. You can now find Plinio and his brilliant desserts at Gravitas, which should be a much better fit for his abilities than America’s. There is only so much you can do in a restaurant where nostalgia for the “original” tres leches cake recipe dictates what happens in the kitchen.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the Cordua family at one of Randy’s dinners. Both Michael and David are clearly highly intelligent restaurateurs who care about their business and their customers. Still, I can’t stop thinking about opportunity lost here. Under JJ and Plinio, America’s was shaping up to be one of the best restaurants in Houston. What will happen to it now that they are both gone?

As I have said before, food at Gravitas has recently taken a turn for the better and I hope Plinio get’s to pull double duty and fill the pastry chef role at the Textile, when it opens. Having just completed a tour through some of the top restaurants in Europe I am even more convinced that Plinio is a rising star. Maybe Textile is just ambitious enough of a project to let him show what he can really do.

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For now, drool over these smoked brownies served at a recent Tenacity dinner, which really taste more like luscious nuggets of smoke inflected chocolate ganache.

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Ironically, these would fit right in at Beaver’s, where desserts have been very disappointing thus far.

August 29, 2008   4 Comments

Musical chairs

Seems like every six months or so chefs in Houston play musical chairs.

First, Cleverley announced that Olivier Ciesielski has left Tony’s with seemingly nowhere in particular to go. All the accolades aside, my one visit to Tony’s at lunch about a year ago wasn’t interesting enough to prompt a return for dinner. The food was well prepared, but definitely tailored for the moneyed River Oaks set who love to play it safe. Watching Olivier do his thing with Charles Clark on Iron Chef clearly showed he has more up his sleeve than feeding the rich and boring, so I hope he gets a chance to work on his own terms and do something more inspired.

Not a day passes and Alison Cook breaks the news that Jonathan Jones has left America’s in The Woodlands, where he and Plinio were doing their best to bring the aging institution into the 21st century with promising results. I am not terribly surprised. I don’t know the dirty laundry behind the scenes, but Randy Rucker’s departure some time ago hinted at poor talent management at the Cordua restaurants. I suspect dealing with creative chefs requires more A&R skills than MBA smarts, and managing talent doesn’t seem to in the Cordua dynasty DNA. I heard Randy once say more than once that David Cordua is the next Danny Meyer. This may or may not be true, but Danny Meyer has Daniel Humm. Who is going to fill that role at the Cordua restaurants now?

All of this means that America’s will be yet again relegated to mediocrity because it has always been and always will be more of a business than a restaurant. Meanwhile, the real winner here may be Beaver’s. While the bar at the ice house seems to have virtually no detractors (I am not a drinker, so I cannot judge), the food has never been a strong point. After numerous disappointing meals there I stopped going, so things can only get better.

My first dinner at Beaver’s was actually quite good. The smoked meats were serviceable, but the sausage sourced from somewhere deep in Texas was excellent. Better still, corn puppies and peppenchinis stuffed with smoked pork studded cream cheese, first beta tested at t’afia, were some of the finest examples of bar food around. The quail stuffed with the same smoked pork cream cheese was fork tender and served just pink, as it should be. The desserts were lame, but I everything else was good enough that I got over that without much trouble. Who wants to eat desserts at a Texas ice house? I sent people to Beaver’s just to see what perfect quail should really be.

Things quickly deteriorated from there. On the second visit the quail came out unseasoned and tasted a bit rubbery (it’s gone from the menu entirely now). The brisket wasn’t far behind. Worse still, almost everything I had at lunch was inedible. The tiny portion of plain pasta with a few chunks of bland ground beef, served with a similarly unseasoned vegetable ratatouille, I ordered before a flight out of town put me an awkward position of having to actually eat those nasty little Continental dogburgers soaked in processed American cheese.

On another lunch visit the North Carolina BBQ pork sandwich was so soaked in vinegar we might as well have been eating the rump of Siamese cat, instead of the advertised pork shoulder. We ordered the sausage plate just to get the taste of our mouths, but the smoked links I had on my first visit were replaced with the house made sausage that was undercooked and tasted terrible. I haven’t been back since.

I doubt we’ll see any liquid nitrogen pyrotechnics at Beaver’s any time soon, but I do hope JJ makes the menu more interesting and consistent. Beaver’s seems to be doing well despite the uneven kitchen, but an upscale BBQ joint in Houston is such a great idea that it deserves better than that. Maybe, with a steady hand in the kitchen and a bit of creativity Beaver’s may some day rival the insanely great Cochon in New Orleans. As it stands today, it’s not even a contender.

August 29, 2008   11 Comments