Joey's wobbles

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.

Dessert also revealed those two sides of the coin. The banana-and-peanut butter cream pie (a Joey's signature dish) was mushy and syrupy--a huge sweetness collision without much delineation among flavors. Faring far better, the Key lime pie topped with meringue (instead of whipped cream) and ringed with dribbles of lime, raspberry, and strawberry sauce was fairly close to authentic, with a skillful mingling of the requisite flavors (sweet and tart) and textures (creamy and crunchy).

Despite this schizophrenia, Joey's is eminently worth visiting. When the food works and the place is humming in sync, the experience is spectacular. But all too often, Joey's humming sounds like Lou Reed yodeling the "Star Spangled Banner" before a pro wrestling match.

Sipango is a place for the sveltely sexy; the conspicuously primped; the elegantly hip. It's also a good place to watch foreign cars get parked.

I spotted a brand-new red Ferrari Maranello, a Porsche Carrera, and a Mercedes CL600 put through Sipango's rigorous valet paces in the short time between the placement of our appetizer order and its arrival. And when I first walked up to the restaurant, I met a young woman in a short skirt and strappy Italian pumps as sultry as the Maranello's body creases who pointed to a brand-new Audi Cabriolet parked on the sidewalk to her left, just under Sipango's windows. "You can win this tonight," she said excitedly. "Buy a raffle ticket. If the Cowboys return a kick for a touchdown, there'll be a drawing. You can win this."

It was Monday. The Cowboys were splattering their particular shades of blue and silver all over the wide screens in Sipango's bar. And Deion Sanders and a little luck were the only things standing between me and a new ragtop. I quickly realized that Sipango isn't so much a place to explore menu composition as it is a venue for showing everyone how smartly you can accessorize a pair of Ferragamo loafers with the leather interior of a Lotus Esprit.

But menu composition was what I came for--especially since I drove up in a Ford. And this is a particularly opportune time to explore Sipango, considering all of its recent changes. Former executive chef Matthew Antonovich, who owned the restaurant with Ron Corcoran and Keith Jones, sold out to his partners. Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon (owner of Del Frisco's) quickly filled the void by acquiring a 50 percent stake in the venture, and the partnership has tentative plans to expand in other cities such as Houston, Phoenix, and Chicago. Britton McIntyre, formerly of the Hyatt Regency Dallas, the Anatole, and the Monte Carlo in the Grand Kempinski Hotel before becoming Sipango's chef de cuisine, is now executive chef.

McIntyre, who says he has no plans to dramatically alter Sipango's Cal-Ital style, admits that his technique differs significantly from Antonovich's and that he would like to shuffle the menu a bit more often. "I'm not going to try and go down the road to some Asian influence, or all of a sudden become a French place," he says.

Then how does he explain the tuna steak with wok-charred vegetables and red curry sauce? Whatever his answer, the steak was tender, silky--if a little mushy--and ripe, with a potent smoky flavor garnered from oak-fired grilling. The nutty, savory sauce, borne of sauteed onions, curry powder, chicken stock, and coconut milk, seemed to absorb the smoke from the tuna and then assault the vegetables--including red and Napa cabbages plus grilled baby bok choy--with its flavor and salt.

Slipping more easily into Sipango's stated theme, the salmon carpaccio was arrayed like a flower with disks of paper-thin salmon as petals. Coarsely chopped romaine and a relish of finely chopped tomatoes, onion, cucumber, and red pepper were dolloped into the center of this floral assembly. Dribbles of bright green cilantro-and-lemon-infused grapeseed oil accented the striking construction. But the taste lacked distinction. The salmon, slightly mushy, was void of clean, fresh flavors, and it seemed texturally disjointed, with the coarseness of the chopped romaine stepping on the delicate salmon like a clumsy dance partner.

A chef friend of mine in Northern California laments that far too many restaurants there take a pass on invention and instead embrace a formulaic approach to their menus. The recipe includes a wood-fired oven and offerings such as pizzas, a roasted half-chicken, a slab of grilled fish (tuna, sword, mahi mahi), a piece of game, and some variation on the grilled pork chop, along with sides of daring French-fried potato constructions.

Sipango doesn't have game or fried potatoes, but it does employ the rest of the formula, albeit with a barely perceptible Southwestern touch here and there. The wood-fired pizzas fare pretty well. Our gorgonzola pizza with grilled artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, and shreds of basil had a moist, chewy crust with a thin layer of crispness holding up a light, well-balanced assembly of ingredients.

The double-crown pork chop, however, was a disappointment. Moistened in a rich demi-glace and accompanied by a menage of sweet potatoes, potatoes, haricots verts, baby carrots, baby beets, and pearl onions, the pork was dry, a little tough, and very tight on flavor.

The requisite pasta dishes were also a mixed bag. The Italian sausage with cavatappi pasta (short, ridged spiral macaroni) and arugula was potently satisfying, with juicy sausage slices well-seasoned with fennel in a hearty, if slightly gummy, pasta. But the angel hair with grilled chicken, artichokes, garlic, and Roma tomatoes was plagued with over-oiled pasta and bits of dry, overdone chicken.

Desserts also either hit pay dirt or veer off into obscurity. The pecan-bourbon pie with warm caramel and chocolate was satisfyingly rich, sweet, and sticky. The seasonal fruit tart, however, with sliced plums and vanilla bean gelato, was tough and dry--almost inedible.

With its dim, sensual ambiance shaped with high, black ceilings, tiny lights with beaded amber shades above the tables, lots of used brick, an open kitchen, and a bar area dripping with handsome sophistication (and live jazz), Sipango exudes charisma. It's a great place to see, be seen, seduce, and watch valet parking.

It's also a fairly decent place to eat, with or without a ragtop raffle.

Joey's. 4217 Oak Lawn, (214) 526-0074. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-midnight.

Sipango. 4513 Travis, (214) 522-2411. Open for dinner Monday-Wednesday, 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Closed Sunday.

Duck pillows $8.95
Rigatoni Vallone $15.95
Oven-roasted snapper $18.95
Farm-raised boar chop $22.95

Salmon carpaccio $9.95
Italian sausage with cavatappi pasta $15.95
Grilled tuna with wok vegetables $21.50


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