Stuck in the Past at Tony Mandola's

Categories: On the Menu

mandolas_dining_room.jpg
Chuck Cook Photography
There's not much exciting going on at Tony Mandola's.
There are times when past-era cooking should be revered. Old recipes represent history, a moment in time. Some have held up well because they're delicious. I submit that my grandmother's old-fashioned fudge and divinity were works of art (and damn hard to make in Houston's humidity).

Not all that is old deserves to be held onto, though. Cuisine has evolved a great deal in the past several years and Houston's cuisine has specifically changed a lot in just the past year. The standards are higher now.

Such were the thoughts I had as I ate the old-fashioned chocolate cake at Tony Mandola's. It was a good cake but not a great one. It was nowhere near a recent chocolate cake with mint icing that I ordered from Jodycakes for my daughter's birthday, nor the Fluff Bake Bar chocolate and raspberry cake we had just a few days ago for my eldest son's birthday.

mandolas_gumbo_small.jpg
Chuck Cook Photography
The gumbo at Tony Mandola's is delicious and well worth ordering.
I felt a little guilt-stricken that I wasn't in love with the cake at Mandola's. After all, we're talking about a legendary Houston restaurant family name. It just seemed like a cake I could make from my old Betty Crocker cookbook, not like something I'd go out to a restaurant to eat.

Names aren't everything, unfortunately. Execution has to be there, and it was sadly lacking on the night we went to Tony Mandola's.

Let's rewind to the beginning, where dinner got off to a promising start. Tony Mandola's has one of the best gumbos I've had in Houston. I still prefer the one at Danton's -- with its rich, ultra-dark roux -- but the one at Tony Mandola's was quite respectable, with a great assortment of seafood.

We were pretty happy with the 2+2+2 appetizer as well, a platter with two each of three different kinds of topped oysters: the Rockefeller, which is baked with spinach and topped with Hollandaise; the Buccaneer, baked with Italian seasoned bread crumbs and crabmeat; and the Damian, a fried oyster topped with pico de gallo. Each of treatments had lots of flavor, with the Rockefeller being my favorite. The Damian has an inherent problem in that the cool pico de gallo rapidly brings down the temperature of the fried oyster to lukewarm, but the flavor combination worked together.

mandolas_oysters_sm.jpg
Chuck Cook Photography
There are oysters in those shells... somewhere.
The only source of consternation for me was the small size of the oysters. This is oyster season, after all. And at a time of year where most restaurants are bragging and cajoling customers to come enjoy big, succulent oysters, I didn't understand why these were so small.

These issues were fairly minor. But regrettably, the rest of the meal was downhill from here. I took our server's recommendation and ordered the Snapper Martha, which is topped with a basil wine sauce that includes shrimp, crawfish tails and crabmeat. Alas, not only was there not much basil or wine flavor to be had, but the fish was overcooked as well.

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Chuck Cook Photography
From now on, we shall simply refer to this as the Pasta That Must Not Be Named.
And yet this was nothing compared to the jaw-dropping, appalling disappointment that was the mezzaluna. The menu promised that the half-moon pasta would be filled with "smoked chicken in a cream sauce, topped with sun-dried tomatoes." Sounds delicious, doesn't it? I envisioned smoky shreds of chicken enrobed in tender pasta.

But no, the filling was dry, grainy, granular, overprocessed chicken. I would not expect to find this kind of texture in a dish intended for human consumption. As far as smokiness, forget it. It simply wasn't there. The only thing I can vouch for is that a scant few sundried tomato strips were present.

And all of that brings us back to that disappointing chocolate cake. Along with it, we ordered the "New Orleans Style Bread Puddin'," described as "loaded with cinnamon, apples and golden raisins" and topped with bourbon sauce.

mandolas_bread_pudding.jpg
Chuck Cook Photography
This bread pudding looked like it had potential, but the flavors were so restained that it was just dull.
Loaded? No, not really. There's a Stephen King novella called The Langoliers where people find themselves trapped in the past. To these people, everything seems dulled; colors, flavors, even the air seems stale. In my head, I silently named this dessert The Langoliers Bread Pudding. Every component stated is there, but it all just seemed dull and far too restrained. There was no punch of the cinnamon and no heady bourbon complexity. It was just stuck somewhere in the past, as so much of this restaurant seemed to be.

There's a catch here, though. Ultimately, the question that should be asked is: "Would you go back?" I would, in fact, give the place one more chance. Why? The service was absolutely impeccable and I'm hoping that I managed to drop by on an off night.

Also, I love how Tony Mandola's serves a salad as its own course. That is an old-fashioned tradition that should be preserved. It's a nice prelude to the main event and makes the meal seem more elegant and formal. I quite liked the house Sicilian salad, a combination of mixed greens, artichoke hearts, olives, shredded carrot and cabbage dressed with Italian vinaigrette.

If there's a second go-round, I'd try these dishes: oysters on the half shell (to see how they compare to the smallish ones from the 2+2+2) and the adventurous-sounding Mama's Gumbo Pizza. That successful gumbo we had also gives me high hopes for the cioppino here.

I hope to have better news to report in the future on this respected establishment. The Mandola name is so deeply intertwined with Houston history that I really want to find something here to rave about. If you've dined there, tell me: What did you love?



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Location Info

Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen

1212 Waugh Dr., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen

4611 Montrose Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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11 comments
vigoM
vigoM

Some see Tony Mandola's strictly as an outpost for the old and infirm; I prefer to view it as a place I can take my parents when they're in town, especially when they have one of their parents in tow.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

I consider Tony Mandola's one of my favorite restaurants in town, mainly because I know what to order.  The fish almost always come out perfectly, but if it hadn't I wouldn't hesitate to send it back; mainly because of the service.  The gumbo pizza does sound awesome, but it ends up being lackluster and ho hum.  

Here is my suggestion on what to order next time to give you a better overall meal.  First, get the super calamari (off menu-served with pepperoncini olive oil) along with the cajun coleslaw.  Then get the lump crab meat salad and crab au gratin and split with your dining mate.  The decadence of the crab au gratin combined with the lightness of the lump crab salad makes for an umami experience. I can't help with dessert because I'm not a sweet kind of guy.

carriebwc
carriebwc

Aren't reviewers supposed to visit a place more than once, to avoid the off-night problem?  

That said, this place can be hit or miss, but I still love it.  I love that Tony patrols the dining room, shaking hands with longtime customers and new ones alike.  The atmosphere is warm and inviting, and if I want to feel like I am having a meal with old friends, this is the place I go.  

I would also recommend trying their specials--the seafood pastas can be excellent.  Please give it another chance.

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

@Jalapeno 

This is simply about a reasonable expectation that a restaurant will serve delicious food, and that is my approach every time I dine out. It is also about the need for places to keep up with competition, which has really heated up in Houston over the past year.  There are many places in Houston I believe are serving tastier dishes than the ones we received that night. 

I do not withhold praise when I think the food is good. That just wasn't the case on this visit.

I'm happy to pay to try your mom's chocolate cake, but it better blow my socks off and be better than MY mom's chocolate cake. When I go out, I want to be served something that I would probably not choose to make at home,because it requires more time and skill than I personally possess.  

I was initially very enthusiastic about being able to go here and had high expectations. I wanted to like this place. With the exception of the gumbo, my dining partner and I were both vastly disappointed with the actual experience. (Truth be told, my dining partner did not think as much of the gumbo as I did.)

I appreciate the other dish recommendations and hope to be able to write something more uniformly positive about this establishment in the future.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

My first comment did not appear, which happens so often on this site now and is why so few seem to bother anymore.  There must be a fix for that.  Anyway....

I could not disagree more with this review, and I REALLY don't get your supercilious, "peering down a pointy nose," crooked finger proclamation on what deserves preservation and what does not.  How off-putting.  If you must go again - and do not think for one minute I am encouraging that - try the key lime/banana pie, seafood stuffed poblano, shrimp or crab salads, perfect fried seafoods and especially the shrimp pizza.  But get over yourself first. 

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

@FattyFatBastard I was actually eying that calamari! Now I'm sorry I didn't order it. I haven't had good crab au gratin in a LONG time and I'd be happy if Tony Mandola's has a tasty rendition.

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

@carriebwc Thanks for the next-visit recommendations. Kylejack is correct. Unlike an official "reviewer" whose meals are often sponsored by the publication, I'm freelance and I tend to do one-visit recaps. 

I find that most consumers don't visit a place more than once if they don't like it. Can restaurants really afford to have an "off night" in Houston's competitive market? I'm not sure they can. I hope that my write-ups are a service to the establishments. I'm really not just here to gripe. I hope to provide a "birds eye view" of a person's experience. 

Thank you for your comment and advice on some dishes to try!

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@carriebwc Posts on the Eating Our Words blog are not reviews. Proper reviews in HP are usually based on several visits, yes.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@Jalapeno We upgraded our commenting system yesterday, which may be why things are slipping through the cracks this morning. Bear with us.  :)

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

@phaedra.cook Be sure and try the combo of lump crab meat  and crab au gratin at Gaido's when you're down in Galveston, as well.  Best remoulade you will ever try.

carriebwc
carriebwc

@phaedra.cook @carriebwc I second the recommendation for the calamari ala mama (not the one that is on the menu with the crab on top).  

Fair point about off nights, but the fact is, even the best restaurant is going to have one once in a while.  

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