Vallone's, Houston's newest steakhouse, opened to the public with a flourish this week in the Gateway Memorial City development. It's the latest project from long-time Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone, who's partnered with Tony's GM Scott Sulma and executive chef Grant Gordon to revive the name and concept of a restaurant Vallone operated on Kirby back in the 1990s.
Vallone tells CultureMap that he closed the original Vallone's as one of the terms of his sale of Grotto and La Griglia to Landry's, because the company didn't want him competing with seafood restaurant Pesce. Fortunately, he kept the rights to use "Vallone's" as a name for a restaurant. Starting last year, he began looking for a space.
The result is a dramatic looking space that manages to convey luxuriousness without being overly fussy or devolving into steakhouse cliches.
Vallone originally considered opening in CityCentre but found the parking situation too problematic. When the developer of Gateway Memorial City, who had been a fan of the original Vallone's, offered the restaurateur his choice of spaces in the new building, he took it.
The result is a dramatic looking space that manages to convey luxuriousness without being overly fussy or devolving into steakhouse cliches like red leather banquettes. Vallone tapped longtime collaborator Shafik Rifaat to design the space and it looks great. Highlights include a two-story wine tower and fire elements in both the casual lounge area and main dining room. Vallone's offers an upscale take on the "modern" steakhouse without the over-the-top Vegas glitz of Midtown's Mr. Peeples.
Despite initial media reports that portrayed Vallone's as primarily Sulma and Gordon's project, Vallone made it clear that he's been heavily involved in every aspect of the menu's development. The new restaurant uses updated recipes from the original, and Vallone has brought his keen eye for high-quality ingredients to every dish. He says he's particularly proud of the lamb being used at the restaurant, which he sourced from a Colorado purveyor who feeds the animals a hormone-free, grass-based diet.
During a tasting at the restaurant, I sampled a number of dishes from the menu that demonstrate Vallone's attention to quality. The meal began with a classic steakhouse seafood tower ($85) that featured cold boiled lobster and shrimp, lump crab, raw oysters and tuna poke. The sweet, briny oysters were tasty, but I couldn't stop eating the flavorful tuna. It's the sort of Asian-inspired preparation that should help Vallone's differentiate itself from other upscale steakhouses.
Although we split the portion between two people, it could easily have served as a nice starter for four.
The tortellini may have been the single best bite of the evening.
The meal continued with buttery lump crab meat and lobster rolls on a housemade garlic toast roll ($27). I'm usually skeptical of fancy lobster rolls, as the whole point of the simple sandwich is to highlight the lobster's natural sweetness. Chefs tend to mess that up by "improving" the classic.
Fortunately, the mild aioli and light garlic flavor achieved the goal of enhancing the familiar flavor in a creative way in this case.
Next up was "four day" French onion soup ($10), so named due to the two days required to reduce the beef stock, the day-long process of adding in onions and the one-day rest period the soup gets to let the flavors meld. Even though I was trying to pace myself, I mostly devoured the soup. Along with a sardine-tinged Caesar salad ($9), the soup's, rich flavor demonstrates the extent to which Vallone's is committed to nailing steakhouse classics.
Finally, it was time for meat, and Vallone's didn't disappoint. The 55-day, dry-aged, bone-in Prime ribeye ($63) came out beautifully medium rare with a well-seasoned crust. Each bite was flavorful, and my knife fairly glided through the tender meat. As good as it was, the Fontina cheese and prosciutto-stuffed veal chop ($59) was even more decadent. I worried about gilding the lily, but the cheese, pork and mushrooms on top complimented the veal's flavor so well. If CultureMap editor-at-large Shelby Hodge hadn't been seated at a nearby table, I might have picked it up and gnawed on it.
On the side, there's "creamless" creamed spinach ($12), a stack of crispy onion rings ($9) and oxtail tortellini. Vallone's provides Gordon with another outlet to display his gift for fresh pasta, and the tortellini may have been the single best bite of the evening. At only $9 as a side to any steak, they are not to be missed.
As hard as it was to find room for dessert, I dug deep and made the sacrifice. Vallone says his personal favorite is the apple pie, and the version is must try for fans of that classic. However, my favorite was the caramelized banana pudding.
It's hard to say exactly what made it so good, but it's the first version I've sampled that exceeds Killen's Steakhouse for tops in Houston.
Service was friendly, knowledgeable and professional. Although I did receive some special treatment, the presence of industry veterans like former Gravitas/Branch Water Tavern beverage specialist Evan Turner, Tasting Room/Eddie V's veteran Chuck Criswell and former Eleven XI bar manager Joe Hausner all suggest that every customer will receive the high level of customer service that is Tony Vallone's greatest legacy.
While it's tempting to proclaim that Vallone's can already hold its own with Houston's best steakhouses, that seems both premature and a little disrespectful to restaurants that have operated at a high level for a decade or more. Let's compromise and call the restaurant a highly-intriguing newcomer that has the potential to be among the city's top destinations.
West Houston residents have a new place for special occasions, splurges and celebrations.