Sunday, November 25, 2012

Too Much.

Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden
312 Pearl Parkway, Building 3
(way in the back, towards the River, behind the CIA)

No doubt the re-developers of the Pearl Brewery complex heartily welcome this trend-following down-home-chic new restaurant. Any addition to their tenant rolls is surely welcome; one that has cachet especially so, as it will draw both locals and tourists, and tourist visits will lend specious justification to the strong desire to snuffle around in the public trough for a ridiculous streetcar line on Broadway (as if tourists are stupid enough to walk three blocks in the summer heat). 

Well, the restaurants and bars at the Pearl are also sufficiently au courant to draw tne New-Age Masters of the local Universe, so this place fits right in, another gilt lily in the bouquet.

It got off to a bad start at the door. I can understand the hostess asking if I had a reservation, because sometimes people with reservations, who arrive to find a restaurant half-empty, don't mention the fact, and the house ends up needlessly keeping a table out of circulation. But when I said no, the young lady asked for a last name. Okay, I thought, a little odd that she'd specify a last name; maybe all those empty tables over there are reserved, and there's actually a waiting list consisting of those three couples at the bar. So I gave her my last name. 

Then she asked for my first name. Hmmm, I thought; my last name is not exactly uncommon; it's possible that someone with the same last name is already on the list. Okay, I gave her my first name. 

Then she said she needed a phone number.

Alright, the light bulb popped on: this is a marketing scheme. No, you can't have my f***ing phone number. You don't need to call me, I'm right here waiting to be seated.

Trying hard to not be in a bad mood (and, to my own surprise, generally succeeding), I and my wife followed the young lady to a table off to the side, where I was able to sit with my back to the television. A lot of good it did: in that half-lit space, the screen was blindingly bright as a searchlight scanning the sky, or one of those irritating new LED billboards along a freeway at night, and its flickering glare reflected off everything in the room.

The menus feature a lot of wines, as one would expect in a "wine garden." I'm not a big wine drinker, but I do like the occasional glass with a nice meal. I skipped to the food listings, to get some idea of what my choice might be before selecting something to complement the meal. I had come to this new restaurant because it showed up on the list of steak houses on Urbanspoon as a three-dollar-sign place, and because I had never heard of it, and don't like the idea of restaurants sneaking into my part of town without my knowledge.* The menu listed a couple of appetizers, seven small plates, five sides, and a half-dozen large plates, in addition to the "boiler cuts," which included a few steak options.

A grilled snapper topped that list, stuffed with crab for $50 ... on my menu. On my wife's, we discovered, the same dish was $32. The cheapest steak was antelope, for $44 ($41 on my wife's menu.) There was also an over-large steak for somewhere north of $90. So the viable choices for plain ol' beef steak were narrowed down to a ribeye, a New York Strip, and a filet mignon, each priced at more than $40: in other words, way beyond anything I'd have been willing to pay for a piece of meat unaccompanied by a glass of bourbon, a good cigar, and a massage with a happy ending. Plus, I was upset that, in the few weeks this joint had been open, the prices had already been bumped up, sometimes dramatically. So we decided to split a couple of small plates and a side, and made our choices accordingly. (And we had learned a lesson the last time we went to one of these modern-day tapas houses: there are very few drinks that go nicely with everything you order, so unless you plan to change wines (or beers) with each dish, it's better to stick to basics: water, or iced tea.)

The waitress (the only completely competent part of the service at the Boiler House) informed us that the dishes would be brought out as they came ready in the kitchen. This is an irksome trend in restaurants, at best a case of making lemonade out of lemons; it lets the business get by with a smaller kitchen staff, and obviates the need to hire those who learned that lesson in cookin' school on how to make things come out at the same time. It is another way of cutting operating costs at the employees' expense. It was charming when I encountered the practice at Feast; it was already tedious by the time I encountered it at the Monterey; now it's just downright slack, another silly trend that is ripe to find itself in the dustbin of fashion, but will probably continue.

The first small plate to drift out of the kitchen was pork pincitos, a pretty white plate with two skewers, each impaling a dozen or so small pieces of pig meat and lying in a green sauce applied with a minimalist's hand, and what looked and tasted like some home-grown artisan cilantro. The presentation was elegant, and the meat was nicely grilled, with a crusty seasoned coating along the edges, but too fatty. Way too fatty.

No city inspection yet.
The next thing that came out from the kitchen (after a longer interlude than I would have liked) was an order of clams casino. This was a compromise dish for us: it wasn't something either of us particularly wanted, but of the choices available it was sort of a least-bad option. (I wonder whether there's really much of a market for "bison Tartare.") There were six clams on a bed of seaweed, which our waitress admitted was edible, "but I wouldn't recommend it." The shellfish were prepared with a breadcrumb crust and a good blend of seasonings, and were almost worth the price charged ($11). But too salty. Way too salty.

Finally came the side dish we'd ordered, zucchini with quinoa and golden raisins. Here, at least, was a dish that was worth what they were asking for it ($8). It had an excellent taste, with the zucchini not overdone and the quinoa simmered to perfection. It was almost perfectly prepared, except that it was too oily. Way too oily.

I have no use for this place. Its appeal is all newness and snobby chic. Next time I want a steak, I'll drive out past the Loop and go to Outback or something like that. If I want a nice wine selection, there are a dozen good places out there (the closest being, I think, 20Nine, at the Quarry). Likewise if I just want elaborate artistry in the preparation of the food: you can't swing a dead armadillo in this town without hitting a place like that. And if I want tapas ... well, I've enjoyed the other such places I've been to in town, certainly more than I enjoyed this one, but frankly have found them all to share the flaw of a too-limited menu. Five or seven small plates isn't enough, especially if they're only on the menu to impress the clientèle with the chef's imagination in the fusion of exotic ingredients and his use of white space on the plate. There need to be twenty-five to forty choices to make the small-plates idea work well; and that, in turn, requires a chef who not only can create inspired dishes, or what passes these days for inspired dishes, but also can manage the menu with an eye toward the bottom line. It is possible, you know, to have a twenty-five-option small-plate menu and still not have to stock an entire HEB in the back room. 
* generally don't go to new places until
they've lost their new-car smell, but had
recently been to the only other steak houses
in the area.


  1. Are you always this negative? This place was only open like a week or something and you tore it apart. I have been several times and have always enjoyed everything I've had. WAY too much. Also, on a side note a lot of restaurants ask for names, numbers etc. to put in their system, not to hound you on the phone or farm out your number, but to enhance your dining experience in the future. This way, if you call some day in the future to make a reservation, they will be able to find your name and contact info lickity split. Your "file"is also where they will find notes as to whether you like to be seated near the tv or not. If you had a bad experience(cleary you did) so they know to try to make it a superior one this time around. What your favorite bottle of wine or cocktail is. Or if it's a birthday or anniversary- some restaurants like to send a free round of champagne or a dessert. Who your favorite server is, or even keep track of food allergies. It enables a restaurant to step their level of service up to enhance your overall experience as a guest. Not sure if that's possible in your case, however. Next time stay home and make your own dinner.

    1. Interesting, that in my decades of dining out, on average, six times a week all over the US, and occasionally abroad, I have never before encountered the practice you think of as engaged in by "a lot of restaurants."

      It may be that the restaurant only wants my number so that, in future, if I make a reservation they will already have my information on file, and not have to ask me again. But after years of practicing law, I also know that they are free, absent contractual agreement, to make any legal use they choose of that information; and I, for one, prefer not to have my contact information sold or given away.


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