Vin

Houston
Photograph by Artie Limmer

Has it come to this?

Is it no longer enough for a restaurant to have a talented chef, an enticing menu, and a mod space in the theater district? Must there also be some gimmick with the name? Please, no. Surely the in crowd hasn’t taken to sniffing, “Well, we can’t go there. Everybody and his dog knows how to pronounce the name!”

My point: Ignore the teeny long-vowel mark over the i in VÄ«n at your peril. Otherwise you might be caught saying “vin” (as in French for “wine”) instead of “vine” (as in English for, well, “vine”). But I digress.

What I started to say was that I quite like VÄ«n, long-vowel mark and all. Chef Jared Estes, who came to Texas from San Jose, California, has devised a menu that is perfectly targeted to downtown theater-and eventgoers. It’s not predictably chophousey, nor is it preciously “chef driven.” Instead, it strikes a just-right balance between simple and complex.

Take, for instance, starters like the asparagus salad. Lyonnaise-style salads with a soft-cooked egg on top are all the rage these days, and this version is one of the best: The asparagus was al dente, and little florets of thin, quick-fried tasso ham added a salty punch. As for the so-called béarnaise sauce, it surprised us by being so light and creamy-tart. And consider VÄ«n’s soup. We definitely wanted seconds of the tomato, a rustic brew with lots of texture and an almost-subliminal infusion of anise. Another happy idea from chef Estes is the appealing list of half a dozen stone-oven-baked flatbreads (in the same family as bruschetta or puffy pizza). One with crab and sweet roasted tomato, thyme, and a glaze of bourbon butter was delish, and a friend raved about another with fennel-seed sausage and herbed ricotta. While the menu suggests these as light main courses, they struck us as ideal for sharing.

The one area of VÄ«n’s bill of fare that seems to need some work is the lineup of entrées. So far, lunch is beating out dinner, especially with the excellent cornmeal-battered soft-shelled crab on top of sweet-pea risotto sided by a pea sprout salad in truffled citrus vinaigrette. Good but not quite in the same league, thanks to an overcooked chicken breast, was an original take on the Italian classic saltimbocca, with shavings of tasso for spark. But problems cropped up at dinner with “duck two ways”—semi-tender, sliced pink breast meat and overbraised leg with a touch of allspice. And then there was the cioppino. Fisherman’s stews are hard to pull off, and unfortunately only the crisp shrimp were properly cooked; on top of that problem, a strange tomato-Chardonnay broth gave everything an undercurrent of bitterness.

Even so, for VÄ«n’s noble purpose—ministering to the crowds bound for downtown entertainment venues—it seems like the right place at the right time. With its supper-clubby atmosphere—red leather banquettes, acres of sexy dark paneling—it may well step into the role of old-timer Charley’s 517. For years, it was the spot for a pre-show nosh. Every big city needs a place like that. Could be that VÄ«n is it. Bar.

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