UPDATED: AUGUST 2012
A special celebration on a recent weekday evening gave us an opportunity to get back to Tony’s. From start to finish, we had a wonderful experience. The place was packed, possibly due to Restaurant Week, but you wouldn’t know that by the service we received. We’re not sure when we last had better service than we experienced at Tony’s, and that includes the high-end restaurants where we’ve recently dined in London and San Francisco. And we aren’t boldface types with recognizable names on the Houston social scene. We make it to Tony’s once every couple years or so.
In his new book, Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich talks about how Mario Batali and he have created a very successful restaurant empire. One global point stands out: make every customer’s dining experience the very best that it can be, exceeding expectations. While this may seem obvious, its created through an attention to detail at every step of the way, with a sensitivity and focus to each customer’s needs. Tony Vallone has learned that lesson, making him one of the most financially successful restauranteurs in Houston.
While the obvious things are important — honoring a reservation on time, filling water glasses, replacing an empty bread basket, bringing the food when it’s hot — it’s the subtleties that make the real difference in a high-end restaurant, again, focusing on the customer’s experience. Every wait person was gracious and attentive. Unlike many restaurants, we weren’t made to feel like our table was put in a queue for drinks, ordering, food, etc. Menus weren’t brought until we’d finished our cocktails. And the captain didn’t appear on multiple occasions pushing to take our order. (Likely they weren’t trying to turn the table that night, unlike many of the London restaurants which tell you in advance that you have the table for a certain amount of time.)
The food was delicious. We started with the burrata with heirloom tomatoes and tomato quiche and the ricotta stuffed ravioli with chanterelles and walnuts. Our entrees were both pan sauteed fish dishes — branzino and dover sole. The branzino was wonderfully fresh and beautifully cooked, standing well on its own since we thought the sweet/tart blood orange sauce overwhelmed the fish. The dover sole was tasty enough, with a lovely citrus beurre blanc sauce (although not served tableside as the captain had indicated and, as a special, priced at $54). We also couldn’t resist the decadent truffled penne and cheese. We passed on dessert. We’ve experienced the souffles in the past and, while wonderful, were more than we could handle this evening.
UPDATED: AUGUST 2008
On our last visit, the service was terrible. Not the case on this visit when we again dined in the bar after the theater. We didn’t have a reservation and were fortunate to get the last two seats at the bar. Nothing much was happening in the formal dining area, but all the tables were taken in the bar. The piano player was in full swing, couples were dancing, and the atmosphere was quite festive, including the hooping and hollering that accompanied one woman diner’s efforts to strategically position herself on her date’s lap. Yes, this was Tony’s.
Once again, we were greeted by the longtime bar manager. If the Vallone Group gave out stock options for longevity, this guy would own the place. He was as gracious as ever, pouring an extra glass of a new single malt scotch for us to try. The bartenders were just as helpful.
Now, dare we suggest that at least one aspect of the experience was half-ass. That would be the late night menu, served after 10 o’clock in the bar. Not that the offerings were bad. In fact, we were quite interested in the crab cakes benedict. Despite the menu’s use of plural versions of the words eggs and crab cakes, we only got one crab cake, albeit quite delicious, sitting alone in the middle of a large white plate, no fruit, potatoes, or even parsley garnish. We did feel inclined to comment to the bartender about the menu’s use of the letter “s,” and the manager authorized another serving be brought to us. Tony’s is not the type of place where you want to complain about prices and portions, but our belief in truth in advertising prevailed.
We also tried the steak tartare, identified on the late night menu as being prepared tableside. Not true, according to the bartender. The dish is, in fact, prepared in the kitchen, which is unfortunate as we could have avoided the heavy handed use of whole grain mustard if we had viewed the preparation. And, while it was sided with an acceptable arugula salad with cherry tomatos, we had to ask for toast points. What arrived were french fry size pieces of garlic toast. Fresh and quite tasty but not appropriate for steak tartare. (At $19 for a small portion, we’ll stick with Max & Julie’s $25 version that’s about four times the size, served with thin slices of toasted baguette and frites.)
Of course, we’ll return to Tony’s. We drank. We dined. We danced. We were quite entertained by the clientele. But we may not order from the late night menu again.
FIRST REVIEWED: SEPTEMBER 2006
We stopped by Tony’s one evening after the ballet. We’ve eaten at the “new Tony’s” twice since it opened, but not since we started the blog … duty called. We love the warm, contemporary, more casual feel of the place, particularly the beautiful stone sculpture of three curving ladies. We chose to sit at one of the tables in the bar area; the piano player is great, and the fireplace adds a nice cozy feeling. The presence of the longtime, always accommodating bartender is an added plus.
Now for the big, big, big, big (thanks, Marvin) bitch … the service was terrible. It was not entirely the fault of our disinterested, harried head waiter. He was responsible for the entire bar, which had 7 or 8 full tables. Where to begin, well, at the beginning — we waited way too long to order a drink . We had to ask for menus (as did the table next to ours) and butter (cold and hard). The wait staff gave us very hot plates for the salmon carpaccio, which, upon request, they tried to replace but were interceded by the head waiter who tried to put the hot plates back on the table. The aforementioned bartender had to come from behind the bar when he noticed an empty drink glass sitting for some time. He graciously got us a glass of wine. The waiter perked up a little when he was forced to have a discussion with us concerning the cheese cart, which he wheeled to the table with the markers facing away from the table.
Everything wasn’t lost as the food was very good. The salmon carpaccio was fresh and glistening with a light coat of olive oil. The sea bass (yes, we know it’s not politically correct) was both crispy and moist, served on a bed of black Chinese rice that was almost risotto-like. The roasted snapper was nicely sauced with lump crab, shrimp, and some exotic mushrooms. Unfortunately, the snapper was slightly overcooked and drier than it should have been. We enjoyed three selections from the cheese cart, although we weren’t particularly impressed with the range of choices.
We’d had great service on prior visits so, hopefully, this was an aberration. But our most rec
ent experience suggests that Mr. Vallone could be doing a better job. We’ll return to Tony’s because, after all, it’s Tony’s. But only after we go to Mark’s again first.