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The richly hued dining room
New Classicby John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | January 29, 2014
Tony Vallone has revisited one of his greatest hits—with a fresh approach. After all, few people know better how much Houston’s taste buds have grown up than the guy who’s run Tony’s for going on 50 years.
Called Vallone’s and located in the new Gateway Memorial City development, the place bills itself as a “modern classic.” That description, along with its sleek but welcoming ambience and updated steakhouse-meets-grill menu, allows the place to wear two hats at once. It handles large steaks and shareable sides with the best of the steakhouse crop, but isn’t afraid to break the mold. Think Italian. Think Southern-chic. Think sushi.
“We have a lot of steakhouse items, but I like to think it’s a step above,” offers Exec Chef Grant Gordon, 27, who cooked at Cyrus in California and Café Bouloud in New York before coming home to run the Tony’s kitchen a few years back.
Gordon, who also continues to oversee the kitchen at the mothership, follows the boss’ dictates about quality with a vengeance. Along with restaurant partner Scott Sulma—another trusted hand from Tony’s and Ciao Bello—the chef turns out a fresh product with impeccable technique in an atmosphere that falls between classy and comfortable.
Old-school, five-star Tony’s and its latest, hip-tilting spin-off may have different audiences, but the architect is the same guy. With an assist from designers Lucinda Loya and Roberto Cervantes, Shafik Rifaat returned, after having done Tony’s when it moved from its longtime digs on Post Oak into its current space in Greenway Plaza.
You enter Vallone’s by way of two glass doors, the first swooshing open automatically, the second held for you by a trim, dark-haired hostess in a little black dress. You are barely a foot inside when you are enveloped in the warmth of color and material, cream tones contrasting deep reds and browns. You get the feeling you’ve stepped into a space in which even the air is golden.
Just inside, to the left, a 33-foot variation on a modern wine tower rises up, with about 2,000 bottles displayed behind glass along a staircase to a second story used for private dining. (Somehow an elevator runs through it, making me wish I could pick wines off the tower the way you pick oranges off a tree.) A small, casual dining area stretches off to your right, with a bustling bar anchoring the back wall of the foyer space. Comfort is key in the main dining room, to your far left, beyond the wine. There are floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street, and the room feels open, rich with textures, underneath a high ceiling. The light-colored rear wall showcases art installations evoking burnished copper cookware.
The menu at the new Vallone’s combines steakhouse traditions, plus the boss’ ever-welcome flavors of Italy, plus a nod here and there to Asian, Middle Eastern and other cuisines that Houston had not yet embraced when the now-defunct original Vallone’s Steakhouse packed ’em in from 1989 to 2003. Appetizers, for instance, include a clever “mini” spin on the trendy Maine lobster roll, doing to lobster rolls what sliders did to burgers. Beyond sushi and its next of kin—from spicy tuna tartare to raw hamachi with black pepper, peanuts, Kaffir lime, basil and mint—you run into something from the other side of the tracks: Broken Arrow Ranch quail that’s been chicken-fried and set atop soft scrambled eggs. There are several impressive salads too. The best is built around superfood rage kale, with bacon, chewy dried tomatoes, Gruyere cheese and a spicy Thousand Island dressing.
You might consider housemade pasta. This is a Tony Vallone restaurant, after all. My favorites include the spaghetti with San Marzano tomatoes, pancetta and basil—over at Tony’s, they might call this amatriciana—and the corn raviolini, tiny pasta pockets set into a sage broth with charred Texas corn kernels. Under the banner of “fish, fowl & chops,” the Italian theme keeps going with the Provimi veal chop stuffed with fontina cheese and San Daniele prosciutto. Vallone’s sea bass might be one of the best versions ever, with the pan-seared fish positioned over roasted tomatoes and cannellini beans.
Should you desire, your server will roll out a cart full of uncooked beef possibilities for your inspection. Or you can trust that the restaurant’s technique for marbled rib-eyes and New York strips involves 55 days of dry-aging for an intense beef flavor. There are several versions of filet mignon, which bypasses the aging process. There are no fewer than 13 side dishes—from onion rings to delightful caramelized cauliflower—and six “sauces and additions,” including spicy Bearnaise and “cabernet foie gras jus.”
Desserts tend more decadently American than light-touch Italian. Besides the dark chocolate “tower,” there’s a lemon meringue pie—perfection!—plus an over-the-top apple pie à la mode with golden raisins and pecans.
By giving his young chef and manager the spotlight, while no doubt directing from the shadows, Tony Vallone has returned to the steakhouse world with something rather unexpected—a convincingly modern hit.
Whether the idea of a steakhouse by Tony Vallone strikes you as novel or a blast from the past, you’ll appreciate how the master and his lieutenants have channeled flagship Tony’s high standards, in a warmly hip new space.
Free valet near the restaurant’s entrance, plus self-parking in the Gateway Memorial City garage
Vallone’s pushes its $18, two-course “express” lunch. But try the chili, ladled from a copper pot at your table and topped with your choice of cheese.
Pour It On
Vallone’s has likable local pro Evan Turner as wine director, touting big Napa reds, per steakhouse norms, and diverse Italian bottles, à la Tony’s.
Mon.-Thu. 11am-10pm, Fri. 11am-11pm, Sat. 5-11pm, Sun. 5-9pm
Starters and salads $9-$27, pastas $13-$16, entrees $24-$98, desserts $9
Gateway Memorial City,
947 Gessner Rd.