Joey's wobbles

But it doesn't fall down

There's something about Joey's that's just slightly out of kilter, even a little manic. And in the two years since 24-year-old Joey Vallone--son of Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone--opened the place after raising an estimated $1.5 million in start-up capital on his own, the balance remains skewed.

It's not the round mahogany bar at the entrance--which leaves you wondering where they hid the hostess stand--that upsets the equilibrium. Nor the live lobster tank bubbling nearby when you finally locate the hostess. Or that this Italian villa replica is constructed with a peculiar mix of flourishes that includes high ceilings, pillars encrusted with broken ceramic tiles, gas-lit sconces, and semi-transparent walls serving as a backdrop to rows of wine racks.

It's not even the cartoonish, surreal murals on the upper walls of the dining room, which project an assortment of frighteningly garish characters such as the three little pigs in three-piece suits; a gorilla stirring into a pot of boiling water a man wearing a diver's mask, flippers, and a big smile (evidently, a twisted jab at culinary lobster torture); a cow sitting on a couch in fishnet stockings and skimpy panties, her udder spilling out of the crotch; and a pair of octopuses who are--how shall I say this--"making the beast with two backs" under a dining-room chair.

No, it's Joey's food and service that seem to display a mild form of psychosis: They can be either exuberant, polished, and deftly executed, or embarrassingly amateurish. And each visit seems to feature a little of both--things never come together just right.

This same schizophrenia was painfully evident in the early development of Joey's. Virtually the only thing that's changed since then--besides the menu and the wine list (a mix of Californian and Italian bottlings), which shifts subtly every three months--is personnel.

Recently, sous chef Pepe Grijalva took over as executive chef, replacing Michael Wahl, who has moved on to Doolittle's--where it's hoped he will save it from itself. Grijalva, who was also a sous chef at Mi Piaci, says the only thing he's interested in changing on Joey's menu is the presentation, which he advises is slowly becoming more elaborate and intricate. After roughly two months on the job, however, Grijalva has presented little evidence of shifts in architecture. Which is not to say the food doesn't measure up. It does. And then again, it doesn't.

The duck pillows, an appetizer with an Asian flirtation, is a perfect example of Joey's kitchen bipolarity. These heavily textured, pastry-like blobs filled with ground duck meat were moistened in a ponzu sauce concocted from sake, honey, garlic, red wine, seasonings, and a touch of pear essence. The whole effect was rather unremarkable--the flavors didn't cut through, and the entire construction was overwhelmed with sweetness--a real palate-crippler.

Joey's soups came off just slightly better. The best offering, the grilled portobello mushroom soup, possessed a light, creamy texture and a clean portobello flavor. The "heart healthy" tomato-basil soup seasoned with wine and herbs had a simple, pleasing approach to the palate, but its depths revealed a preponderance of pepper and a lack of refreshing tang. Veering further off the mark was the green pea soup, which, served lukewarm, was smooth and creamy but unexciting in flavor.

Service still reflects the same inconsistencies Joey's exhibited in its infancy. One attempt to make a reservation was cut short when the person on the other end abruptly hung up. In all fairness, this could have been caused by phone-button stumbles, but somehow, it wasn't surprising.

Dinner service one evening approached flawlessness. But a lunch visit was plagued with awkward missteps. So many servers stopped by our table that it was hard to determine who was doing what. And the servers' team seemed just as confused, because several requests were either duplicated or unfulfilled. It got so bad that at one point, a server pulled my bowl of soup away from me as I was spooning the stuff into my mouth. Apparently, another server was waiting for a space to be cleared so he could set my entree down. What kind of coordination is this?

In terms of food, Joey's is similar to the Vallone family's Houston restaurants--Tony's, Anthony's, and La Griglia. A few entrees provide a glimpse of the stellar potential this place has if they'd just nail down the details with some consistency. Rigatoni Vallone--with fresh, sweet, tender Louisiana prawns; artichoke hearts; mushrooms; and asparagus splashed with a subtle lemon sauce--was everything a kitchen creation should be: clean and forward with distinct, well-balanced flavors and a richness that whispers rather than overwhelms. Likewise, the oven-roasted snapper with roasted shallots and tomatoes (from the lighter "spa" menu) in a delicate lobster-cognac sauce came across with sensual intensity. Everything worked well among appropriate contrasts: the flaky, sweet fish and the crisp, racy Napa cabbage, for instance.

But the farm-raised boar chop seemed more an exercise in hip entree selection than a genuine foray into culinary expression. Coated with a bitter grill crust, the meat was dry and relatively flavorless, with the only worthy flavor provided by a rich demi-glace-based Barolo wine reduction that seemed more applied to the meat than integrated with it. An over-baked potato--tweaked with an olive tapenade--further developed the entree theme, layering the ensemble with arid, mealy textures. A perfectly prepared side of steamed spinach broke ranks from this, however, introducing a much-needed dose of vibrancy and freshness.

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