Textile opened in Houston last fall to much fanfare. Scott Tycer has garnered an ardent following here, and Textile is intended to be his crowning achievement. This was to be the restaurant at the top of the city's fine dining scene; a legitimate destination at the high end, something Houston sorely lacks. Is it? The answer is full of qualifiers: Maybe yes, but, if yes, then only in one respect. It will take some doing to explicate that answer, and perhaps the lack of a simple answer should indicate the true answer itself. But there is one area in which Textile succeeds in throwing Tycer's hat into the highest echelon of chefs: price.
Textile is spendy, and it's worth taking some time to discuss that. By virtue of price -- $85 (plus $55 for wine) for a five-course tasting and $115 (plus $75 for wine) for seven courses -- Textile is playing in the big leagues. Prices for non-paired wines, though mostly well-selected, are exorbitant. (The list at Gravitas always seems to have a couple $10 bottles for $45+, implying wine-as-profit-center is a Tycer tradition.) That means big league expectations and razor-thin margins of error. You can go to Tru in Chicago, for example, and have their eleven-course Chef's Collection for $135. The $125 to $175 price range is fairly standard for degustation menus at the top restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. So $115 in Houston, with our lower cost of living, is a bold move. It's a price that allows no room for disappointment or average or lapses in execution when it comes to food or service.
The space at Textile is lovely. There is a calm, cool feel about the room, and the kitchen and service areas are removed, keeping even the usual bustle from reaching the dining room. It's a pleasant atmosphere and is a key contributor to the experience at Textile feeling more enjoyable than just the sum of its parts. It’s relaxed, not stuffy or aloof.
At a restaurant like this, however, ambiance and service must be a given. It cannot get by on anything but the strength of its food. And this is where Textile falls down, excepting the dessert discussion below. Purely in terms of food, this isn't one of the top five places in Houston. It might not even be in the top ten, but that may be a result of sticker shock. The creativity is interesting at times in Tycer's food. The execution is maddeningly inconsistent, reminiscent of the same struggles Robert Gadsby has at Bedford.
The meal started with a solid dish of pickled white asparagus with dilled kefir. It was a crisp, tart, and refreshing opening, paired beautifully with the citrus-tinged and creamy Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs NV. But here began the rollercoaster ride.
The second course was unforgivable: bay scallops and wheat pasta in a celery broth. The scallops were not fresh, with an intensely fishy flavor that screamed of being a couple days' old at least. This sin was amplified by the neutral celery. The pasta was al dente but had an odd, soft, almost slimy feel on the outside, as if it had been cooked short and left to sit and never properly reheated. Whatever happened with this dish was a mistake. Mistakes can happen. They can be corrected. But at a restaurant with Textile's aspirations? A plate like this never should have reached a customer. It indicates a failure of execution in the kitchen and quality control. There was, at least, a surprising and superb Meroi Pinot Grigio 2007 to sip until the waiters cleared the plate.
From that low, the meal reached its apex, an inspired smoked kielbasa with pork belly and goat’s eye bean. The sausage was excellent, meaty and flavorful, complemented by the succulent richness of the pork belly. It was easily the best dish of the night, and it had the best wine of the night, as well, Bergstrom “Dr. Bergstrom” Riesling 2006 from Oregon. It was a real surprise and made this inspired course a great domestic representation of food with such a German feel.
Then the inconsistency resurfaced for the next two dishes. First, quail stuffed with sage bread pudding with porcini and summer truffles. The stuffing was light and airy, but its quantity overwhelmed the subtle quail meat, and the sage neutralized any hint of truffle. The flavors didn’t coalesce. Not even the tasty Faiveley Bourgogne 2006 could bring out any hint of truffle in the dish. Second, a roast leg of duck with forbidden rice had a lovely, crisp skin, but it was overcooked and dry. The forbidden rice was mushy, with a texture like refried beans and with none of the nutty flavor it should have had.
A refreshing cherry and gianduja float preceded the dessert, honeydew and melon soup with goat cheese and brioche. It would have been a refreshing cap to a quite rich string of dishes, but the soup came out room temperature, not chilled. The flavors fell a bit flat.
The dessert, which must have sat too long waiting to come out of the kitchen, underscored the deep problems with service at Textile, an all-too-common problem in Houston. The waiters were awkward and seemed uncomfortable and hot. Each course delivered to the table -- a five-course and a seven-course -- was flip-flopped. Even after being brought to the attention of the maitre d', it continued through the meal's conclusion, reaching the point of being laughable. Wine service from sommelier Frank Moore, though, was superb. He is a knowledgeable, passionate wine steward whose pairings generally are smart and appropriate. His trips to explain each pour were a highlight of the evening.
So far, it is hard to reconcile all this with the "maybe yes" answer above. Isn’t Textile just overrated and overpriced? Well, yes. But it also has Plinio Sandalio, the pastry chef. What is clear about Textile is that it is the best restaurant in Houston -- for dessert. And it does have the best chef in town -- Sandalio.
The dessert tasting at Textile, offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays, is the thing to get to find value and inspired creativity. It is a glimpse at special and rare talent over eight courses.
To start one recent evening, out came two crisp matchstick French fries, with a dollop of potato chip-crusted mayonnaise that was deep fried. It showed that, in this frying-crazed era, there are still interesting things to be discovered.
The tasting itself was split into savory and sweet halves. The savory began with the much-ballyhooed “corndog”: a slightly sweet corn fritter, mustard ice cream, and ketchup with ground hot dog into it. Each element was tasty, but the flavors melded together in impressive harmony that worked in conveying the best of sweet-salty-savory interplay. Less successful was the okra ice cream and andouille caramel that followed. The ice cream was delicious, something like creamed okra, but the andouille caramel didn’t quite gel.
The savory segment closed on another high, a lemon tart with candied olives. The olives, the harshness of their flavor eviscerated, made an interesting pairing with a superlative lemon tart. This showed Sandalio at his greatest skill and gave a glimpse at a possible weakness. The tart shell was exquisite, light and crisp. The lemon filling was perfectly executed and avoided the pitfall of so many lemon desserts, which become too sweet and mask the lemon flavor. Not here. It was piquant and captured a juicy lemon’s refreshment. Sandalio’s fundamental skills are without doubt; he ensures that you can see all the classical techniques he has mastered, giving him more leeway to be creative. With this dish, however, the olives seemed superfluous and unnecessary. They were interesting, but you can’t help but wonder if one fewer element would have given the overall dish a greater stature. With his skill, however, you are likely to write it off as minor.
Between the savory and sweet halves came a watermelon and feta “intermezzo.” The compressed watermelon was crisp and ripe. A small feta cheesecake opened your mind to new dimensions of the line between savory and sweet.
The sweet segment showcased Sandalio’s creativity within more a more traditional realm. The coconut cake was delicious and perfectly executed, although the accompanying avocado ice cream, while nice texturally appealing, brought out an odd side to avocado’s earthy flavor. The peach sorbet was the essence of a favorite Texas summer ingredient, and the white chocolate mousse maintained elegance. This dish actually seemed somewhat out of place it was so traditional, though perfectly executed.
The last course was a substantial bittersweet chocolate torchon, filled with cherry and complemented by “pop rocks.” As a cherry cordial, it didn’t quite work, and it was rather heavy, but the chocolate was beautiful. There’s no denying the skill that went into the dish.
The final touch, a series of mignardises, left a lingering impression of Sandalio’s impeccable skill in the kitchen: a perfect hazelnut tart, sumptuously rich brownie, and shortbread that will make you spontaneously renounce all others. And that, in essence, is the contrast between Textile at dinner and at dessert. The main courses suffer from lapses in execution and occasionally questionable choices, such as the superfluous black truffles on the quail. At dessert, it’s a bit like watching Jimmy Page play the guitar. All the fundamentals are there, and you’re constantly aware of that basic skill, but you’re always teetering on the edge of disaster in a flurry of creativity and experimentation. It makes the food fun, but it only works because Sandalio hits more than he misses.
As a result, the lingering impression of Textile is mixed. You want to like the place more than you intuitively should. The atmosphere is pleasant. The wine pairings are thoughtful and appropriate. For every miss of a course, you’re reassured by the atmosphere. And you get the wonderful memory of the desserts. So the bottom line requires sober reflection. At easily more than $200 a person for the seven-course tasting with wine, $140 for the five-course with wine, and limited a la carte selections, liking the place doesn’t make up for relatively uneven food. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the Houston dining scene because it’s serious. But the prices need to reflect the reality of the food (and, perhaps, the economy) or sloppy execution and service must be stamped out permanently. In the meantime, take less risk and go on a weeknight for the a la carte selection or go ahead and have dessert for dinner.