Joey's 15 minutes

The son of a famous Houston restaurateur gets ground up in the hype machine

Well, we didn't know that till the bill came, so we were pleased with the appetizers. They were almost tasty enough to distract us from the decor. "Fazzoletto," described as a pasta "handkerchief," was like a lovely, large delicate ravioli folded around a light mixture of sharp, shredded greens and gentle ricotta. "Zuppa toscano," a minimalist, vegetal soup floating with white beans, pasta, and a chiffonade of greens, was so barely seasoned that all of us agreed it would have been a perfect restorative if we were sick. (Unfortunately, none of us was, and even after a downpour of salt and pepper, the broth remained bland.)

We liked the big "shrimp pino," coated with black and white sesame seeds and fried, served with a sweet-tart red pepper sauce--a pairing as pleasing as deep-fried with ketchup. "Avocado pancake," two flat patties of creamy green avocado, were lightly browned on one side (I don't understand how) and sandwiched a layer of true lumps of crab; the accompanying tomato salsa, all punches pulled, wasn't quite the contrast needed--I kept wishing for a squeeze of lemon, lime, jalapeĖo juice...

I remember making something like the shrimp and crab "cheesecake" when I was in the catering business: Philly cheese mixed with seafood; in those days, frozen crab. In this pie, only tiny flavorless shrimp were discernible among the gooey curds of sticky cheese. If you're one of those who are prejudiced against richness, forget this dish, but it has that fat, mouth-filling quality that used to be the epitome of luxurious food.

Entrees were disappointing. You have to make allowances for a new chef stepping into an emergency situation, but after all, most of these recipes are from Vallone family restaurants. You'd hardly expect something like tomato sauce, for instance, to present a challenge to the kitchen, but this tomato sauce was incredibly off-base. (Surely someone had mistaken sugar for salt--or maybe sugar shock is the reason behind the hyperactive decor.) I have never tasted anything so sweet on top of lasagna in my life.

The "lacquer" chicken was unfortunately accurately named; basically a roast chicken, a dish in every cook's repertoire, it was inedibly dry and tough. All the extras on the plate--goat cheese and garlic mashed potatoes, sherry sauce, mushrooms--couldn't help.

And then, even after all the discussion, we were served the wrong salmon after all. We asked for the "golden" (not a fish type, just its color when cooked) salmon, but received instead the salmon topped with crawfish and crab. Its brandy sauce, decoratively squiggled around the fish, had been hardened by the hot plate. After dinner, we were brought the correct fish dish--overcooked salmon crusted with angel hair pasta and plopped in a soft bed of polenta. Too little texture, too late. I have heard from several sources that the osso buco is great.

My one overriding taste-memory of Joey's food is sweetness--the cannelloni's sauce was too sweet, though nothing could be as sugary as the lasagna. Even salads were sweet--the "autumn salad" dressing was syrupy. And one we tried at lunch, "Joey's Nutty Salad," should have been served as dessert: wads of caramelized onion topped the plate of greens, and gobs of candied nuts lurked among the leaves, which were dressed in an astonishingly sweet honey vinaigrette.

The chicken and sun-dried tomato pizza from the menu of lunch specials had a sweet undertone too, behind the light bread crust and white chicken chunks. My friend ordered from the regular menu--same food, same prices, dinner or lunch--a dish called "Red Snapper La Griglia," after another Vallone restaurant in Houston. After an incredible wait, it arrived: a small grilled fillet, overcooked, resting against a kind of rice ball hushpuppy, with spears of asparagus sticking out in rays from the top and a semicircle of sliced grapes in dark "grape essence" below. It's the kind of arty presentation that only works when it's pristinely done--stray splats of grape essence on the plate's rim destroy the effect, and interesting though the contrast was between fish and (sweet) sauce, it wasn't enough to compensate for inaccurate cooking.

After dinner, we endured the obligatory dessert presentation, laid out on a tray, the congealed slices looking like they'd been held between someone's knees too long, the whole thing garnished with leaves and a scattering of bruised strawberries bleeding into rumpled linen napkins. (At lunch this look had been cleaned up a little.) The sweets are made elsewhere and all the portions are huge--that's the trend.

One of us ordered the enormous slice of peanut butter banana pie, and while it's your fault if you order anything like that, still, this was nothing more than peanut butter mashed up with bananas; taking a bite was like snitching a spoonful straight from the jar. Cheesecake was gelatinous, and the chocolate extravaganza, a hollow column of chocolate candy containing a fudge cake and a commendable mousse, suffered only from the grossness of its proportions: too much, too rich, too sweet.

Joey's isn't really a restaurant right now, although it might become one. It's a media event, and it's a very successful one--you'll definitely feel like you've been where it's happening after a visit to Joey's, and no one else I've talked to has cared that it was too noisy, too crowded, or that the food wasn't terrific and the service was slow. They've agreed it was "fun" and "wild," and if that's enough to satisfy its customers, then Joey's has everything it needs in its painted corner.

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