72 hours in Til­man­land

Restau­rant critic Ali­son Cook im­merses her­self in Fer­titta’s new lux­ury cam­pus, the Post Oak

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Cook

Our restau­rant critic ex­plores the luxe, demo­cratic world of the Rock­ets owner’s new cam­pus.

The girls in their sum­mer dresses scrunch to­gether in a pas­tel row, smil­ing for a friend’s cam­er­a­phone.

Above them tow­ers — there is no other verb for it, re­ally — a mam­moth ex­plo­sion of im­pos­si­bly fat red roses, 700 of them in one of twin urns alone, crowned with pur­ple spikes of li­a­tris shoot­ing toward the lofty ceil­ing and ten­ta­cles of ap­ple­green ama­ran­thus snaking down­ward. All that’s miss­ing is the White Rab­bit and the Queen of Hearts.

This is Hous­ton’s In­sta­gram Cen­tral in the sum­mer of 2018: the mind-bend­ing mar­ble lobby of the brand-new Post Oak Ho­tel at Up­town Hous­ton. A gar­gan­tuan Frank Stella sculp­ture tilts ver­tig­i­nously from a wall, pop­ping with graphic lines and swirls in yel­low and or­ange, blue and green. A madcap set­tee twists up­ward toward a three-story chan­de­lier drip­ping pearles­cent blown glass and Swarovski crys­tals.

I am told this chan­de­lier, which re­sem­bles some gi­ant off-world jel­ly­fish, has a twin in the Dubai Opera House. I don’t doubt it.

We’re talk­ing a ho­tel scene that hasn’t had an equal in Hous­ton since wild­cat­ter Glenn McCarthy opened the Sham­rock in 1949. Not even the posh Rem­ing­ton (now the St. Regis) back in its 1980s hey­day or the cal­cu­lat­edly avant-garde ZaZa in 2007, have drawn such avid early crowds. Hous­to­ni­ans of all stripes are flock­ing to ogle this dis­ori­ent­ing Won­der­land crafted, de­tail by op­u­lent de­tail, ac­cord­ing to the slightly ma­ni­a­cal stan­dards of the city’s most in­escapable bil­lion­aire.

That would be Til­man Fer­titta of the Rock­ets fran­chise, which the 61-year-old en­trepreneur bought last Oc­to­ber for an NBA record $2.2 bil­lion. He of the Landry’s group that has

ex­panded un­der his lead­er­ship from a small re­gional Ca­jun restau­rant chain to a na­tional be­he­moth that en­com­passes din­ing, hos­pi­tal­ity, en­ter­tain­ment and gam­ing ven­tures in Las Ve­gas; Lake Charles, La.; Biloxi, Miss.; and At­lantic City, N.J. He of the CNBC “Bil­lion Dol­lar Buyer” re­al­ity show, in which he au­di­tions prod­ucts from hope­ful small busi­nesses an­gling for an or­der.

Maybe they’ll end up like De­signer Drains, whose Sea­son 2 slo­gan was “jew­elry for your shower.” Fer­titta chal­lenged the hope­fuls to de­sign a lin­ear drain and, af­ter some jock­ey­ing over the price, pur­chased hun­dreds for his new lux­ury ho­tel. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, I stood star­ing at one of them, a sil­ver bar in­scribed with “The Post Oak” and etched with the out­lines of two spread­ing post oak trees, the ho­tel’s logo.

I was in­spect­ing the lav­ishly tiled shower of my stan­dard Lux­ury Guest Room, where I spent two nights — unan­nounced and on the Chron­i­cle’s tab — and then, reluc­tant to leave this scale-shift­ing, larg­erthan-life uni­verse, ex­tended my stay a night on my own nickel. The Fri­day night I paid for my­self was the cheap­est: $332 plus tax (don’t ask). Mid­week Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day rates, geared more to busi­ness traf­fic, cost $413 and $386 pre­tax, re­spec­tively.

Fer­titta has been ex­plicit about his am­bi­tions for the ho­tel — he’s hop­ing to win a hard-to-get Forbes Travel Guide five-star rat­ing — and the money Landry’s has poured into it. There’s way more per­sonal pres­tige on the line here than can be gleaned from his var­i­ous casino hotels and Galve­ston inns.

Fer­titta has said they’ve spent about $1.1 mil­lion on each of the Post Oak’s 250 guest rooms, and costs have re­port­edly run some­thing like $400 mil­lion so far, although the ho­tel and some of its con­trac­tors are still wran­gling over the con­struc­tion to­tals. Mean­while, con­struc­tion con­tin­ues on the spa, the wine cel­lar and an elab­o­rate, sky-high, pri­vate club, where by-in­vi­ta­tion mem­ber­ships will cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars.

Even the awk­ward ho­tel motto hints at the fierce com­pet­i­tive­ness Fer­titta has in­vested in the project: “An experience so uniquely re­fined there can only be one.” That’s right, it echoes the Im­mor­tals’ motto from the orig­i­nal “High­lander” film, which im­plies the gods must kill each other off un­til there’s only one left.

For three days, I wan­dered the vast pub­lic spa­ces and bedaz­zled hall­ways of Til­man­land agog, din­ing at the four restau­rants and bars in the ho­tel proper and at the two free­stand­ing restau­rants, Mas­tro’s and Wil­lie G’s, that hold pride of place on what em­ploy­ees un­self-con­sciously re­fer to as their 10-acre “cam­pus.”

I gawked at the three-story, tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled, glassed-in cham­pagne tow­ers that climb toward the ceil­ing on one end of the lobby. I gaped at the per­fectly pol­ished Rolls-Royces and Bent­leys parked in a twos­tory show­room smack dab in a ho­tel cor­ri­dor. Some­body told me that last week a Tex­ans foot­ball player had bought one of the Bent­leys. Fer­titta’s NBA con­nec­tion has made the ho­tel — and its Mas­tro’s steak­house — a mag­net for pro­fes­sional ath­letes.

In my 19th-floor room, I fid­dled with the dig­i­tal tablet con­trols that jacked up the air con­di­tion­ing or whirred open floor-to-ceil­ing drapes and sheers, re­veal­ing the down­town sky­line. Down­stairs, peer­ing up at the cham­pagne tower, I had felt very small. Here, sur­vey­ing half of metropoli­tan Hous­ton and a regal, shift­ing cloud­scape, I felt like the mis­tress of all I saw. Top of the world, Ma.

I pushed a re­mote-con­trol but­ton that caused two 4-footwide, back-to-back TV screens to rise slowly, ma­jes­ti­cally from a dark-wood pedestal in the mid­dle of my room. I pinched a tall spray of white or­chids on the desk to see if they were real.

They were. So was an iden­ti­cal spray parked on a cor­ner of the mar­ble bath­tub, which gleamed pale and gray-veined un­der a cir­cu­lar chan­de­lier. It sparkled plenty, along with a long, rec­tan­gu­lar chan­de­lier in the en­try­way. In fact, many sur­faces twin­kled in my room, or gleamed, or glit­tered, or shone, or oth­er­wise caught the light and bounced it back.

I made a game of count­ing all the glim­mer­ing sur­faces, from the studs on chair backs and bed bases, to the metal­lic beads on sofa pil­lows, to the shiny glass and sil­very bar­ware on the mir­rored in-room bar. At 42, I kind of lost count.

It can be hard to wrap your head around the crazy level of de­tail crammed into this 526square-foot space. I es­ti­mated 18 dif­fer­ent fab­rics, all told, and 20 wall, floor or fur­ni­ture cover­ings.

But then, Fer­titta has long been ob­sessed with de­tail. The first time I met him, in the spring of 1994, he had re­cently taken Landry’s pub­lic in two hugely suc­cess­ful stock of­fer­ings that had put $25 mil­lion in his cof­fers. Yet he was in a swivet about light bulbs.

It was 50 min­utes be­fore the grand open­ing of his 17th Landry’s restau­rant, on the Sea­wall in his home­town of Galve­ston. I was there to pro­file him for the Hous­ton Press. Amid furious ham­mer­ing, Fer­titta or­dered lad­ders to be hus­tled in and ev­ery sin­gle one of 200 flood­lights in the 500-seat din­ing room to be swapped out with 40-watt bulbs.

When I told that story to Jim Carey, the af­fa­ble Bos­ton Ir­ish­man who is head concierge at the Post Oak, he laughed. “He’s still like that,” said Carey, who busted me com­ing out of the el­e­va­tor (part of his job, re­ally) on Day 2. “Til­man’s al­ways think­ing about light­ing. He can spot a burned-out bulb faster than any­one on staff.”

Fer­titta is in the ho­tel on a near-daily ba­sis when he’s in Hous­ton, said Carey, al­most al­ways wear­ing his uni­form. Black T-shirt. Black jeans. Black shoes. He still likes to change things up. The Post Oak’s spa has been de­layed un­til fall be­cause Fer­titta moved it to a dif­fer­ent floor.

“Did you see that free­stand­ing spi­ral stair­case in the Roll­sRoyce show­room?” Carey asked me. It’s hard to miss, a seashell of pale creamy stone and glass side­walls, with a flash of sil­ver trim. Guests were tak­ing wed­ding por­traits and glam­our self­ies on the swirl of steps, and Fer­titta sud­denly re­al­ized the back­drop of blank wall across the drive­way was just … meh.

Two days later, by royal de­cree, a liv­ing quilt of green­ery covered the wall, the var­ie­gated plants in­ter­spersed by col­umns of col­ored light that ro­tate through the spec­trum as night gath­ers. Poof! Sure enough, dur­ing the next few days I see two dif­fer­ent women pos­ing regally above the six­fig­ure cars, set off by this im­prob­a­ble riot of color.

Like so much here, it’s em­i­nently In­sta­grammable. Same goes for din­ner at Mas­tro’s, a dark, noisy man-cave where sud­denly a high-fly­ing seafood tower ap­pears, stream­ing ghostly clouds of dry ice as a team of wait­ers bears it through the din­ing room, some lift­ing, others point­ing flash­lights to high­light the spec­ta­cle.

Even a lowly cock­tail of three “Colos­sal Shrimp” gets the dry-ice treat­ment, which can make you jump if you’re not ex­pect­ing it. Like much of the food I tried dur­ing my one­and-a-half vis­its to the steak­house, part of a Phoenix-based chain ac­quired by Landry’s, it was fine. Not great but good enough. Although I must say a $683 din­ner bill (with tip) for three peo­ple nearly gave me heart fail­ure.

Price be damned; Mas­tro’s seethes with elec­tric­ity. From 5 p.m. on, the bar is so thronged you can hardly el­bow a path through. Lam­borgh­i­nis and Fer­raris swarm on the front drive while young women tuck away their to-go bags so they can take giddy self­ies.

Right across the drive, I was tempted to In­sta­gram the iced seafood dis­play that greets guests at Wil­lie G’s. It’s a baroque Dutch still life, dra­mat­i­cally lit and im­pos­si­bly lav­ish, a brag­gado­cio show of wealth. Some of the species so lov­ingly dis­played (Pink Porgy? Sculpin?) do not even ap­pear on the sur­pris­ingly am­bi­tious menu. Like the slick in­te­rior, it’s a far cry from the homely Gulf Coast spe­cial­ties of the orig­i­nal Wil­lie G’s, where oil-and-gas guys clinked beer mugs with realestate hus­tlers back in the gogo 1980s.

But I liked my din­ner here, from the well-made cock­tails to the care­ful oys­ter ser­vice. For old times’ sake, I or­dered a mod­ern re­vamp of Oil Field Trash, the fa­mous but­tered shell­fish sauté, and a fried seafood plat­ter. I re­joiced in an un­ex­pected bot­tle of af­ford­able Ital­ian white, Sartarelli Tralivio Verdich­hio, from a wine list ad­min­is­tered by Mon­ica Townsend, whom I re­mem­bered from the late Ber­na­dine’s.

In­deed, the wines at the Post Oak are a plus in terms of qual­ity and range, if not in terms of price. The markup is healthy,

and the 30,000-bot­tle col­lec­tion — some of it housed in an un­der­ground bunker, all of it pro­ducible on de­mand any­where in the ho­tel com­plex, in­clud­ing room ser­vice — has choices for cats and kings alike.

Or for whales, to use a casino term for big spenders. Sip­ping an im­pec­ca­ble Last Word cock­tail of gin and Chartreuse in H Bar, the dark wa­ter­ing hole just off the lobby, I was amused to see a bot­tle of $80,000 Chateau Gru­aud-Larose Saint Julien from the 1825 vin­tage on the list. I mean, how else would you toast the pur­chase of your new Rolls?

Even­tu­ally a com­plex called The Cel­lar will be com­pleted to house such trea­sures, and to host wine din­ners and special events. The, ahem, de­tails are still com­ing to­gether. Fer­titta and com­pany have gath­ered some for­mi­da­ble wine tal­ents to pre­side, in­clud­ing Mas­ter Som­me­lier Keith Gold­ston and di­rec­tor of bev­er­age Travis Hin­kle, who worked in that ca­pac­ity at The Pass and for the pre-col­lapse Tread­sack group.

There is beer, too. Craft beer, to be sure, drawn from the tap wall at the in­for­mal Craft F&B, which draws a younger, less spendy crowd than Mas­tro’s. It com­bines two Landry’s con­cepts — Bill’s Bar + Burger and Pizza Oven — un­der the same roof, which hap­pens to be fes­tooned with about a half-dozen dif­fer­ent types of hang­ing lamps. The burg­ers are good. The piz­zas are not. And the tater tots skew­ered with ba­con (“Wright’s, Mr. Fer­titta’s fa­vorite ba­con,” a sus­pendered server said rev­er­ently) and doused with an ob­streper­ous bar­be­cue sauce, may be the worst thing I’ve eaten this year.

Pre­sid­ing over this and all the in-ho­tel din­ing spots, plus room ser­vice and event cater­ing, is French­man Jean-Luc Royere, who comes from a re­sort-ho­tel back­ground. Dis­mal pizza aside, I thought I could de­tect his in­flu­ence in the lovely Vi­en­nois­erie and cun­ning pas­tries next door at Bouchée, a Bou­chon-type bak­ery cafe that plays Édith Piaf and vin­tage jazz in a band­box of cream and pas­tels. The baked goods are made in-house, and ev­ery night, be­fore the cafe’s mid­night close, I’d buy a beau­ti­fully lam­i­nated and glazed fresh-peach twist to eat for the next morn­ing’s break­fast.

First, though, I had to grap­ple with the in-room Ne­spresso ma­chine. At one point, I had wa­ter spit­ting through the con­trap­tion in a dish wa­ter look­ing stream; at an­other, I made a mess be­cause I hadn’t sta­tioned my cup close enough to the down­spout.

That was one of only a few kinks dur­ing my stay. One day the staff failed to re­plen­ish my espresso cap­sules and creamer. An­other, they failed — the hor­ror! — to pick up two orchid blos­soms that had dropped from the plant on my desk. The lever in my bath­tub didn’t work when I leaned over to drain my bath, and I didn’t feel like step­ping back in, so I left the wa­ter for staff to empty.

But that wasn’t the funny part. Above the soak­ing-depth tub hung a TV screen where I could watch what­ever I wanted, in­clud­ing movies. Cool, I thought. I’ll soak and re­lax and see “An­ni­hi­la­tion,” the creepy Alex Gar­land sci-fi thriller. As the movie rolled, I kept won­der­ing why the ac­tors’ faces were hid­den by a sort of flu­o­res­cent glaze. Maybe it was some artsy light­ing ef­fect?

Nope. Fi­nally it drove me so crazy I stood up and wrapped one of the ho­tel’s ab­surdly large, ab­surdly fluffy Egyp­tian cot­ton bath sheets around me.

The minute I did, I could see the im­age was fine. But my an­gle, re­clin­ing in the tub, had been all wrong.

Oth­er­wise, things went swimmingly. I loved hav­ing a late-night cock­tail from H Bar served at a ta­ble by the pool, which shone cobalt-blue and fuch­sia from un­der­wa­ter lights, just be­yond a glass lobby wall. I espe­cially loved the sur­real com­bi­na­tion of the wa­ter­fall spilling from the hot tub com­bined with flames leap­ing from a fire pit, which blazed away in the triple-digit late-June heat. It made no sense — that’s the deal in Won­der­land — which is pre­cisely why I loved it.

I might­ily en­joyed the peo­ple-watch­ing, too. An en­tire ex­tended fam­ily trouped in be­hind a Sikh pa­ter­fa­mil­ias, he tur­baned and sports­wear-clad. They took up po­si­tions at a ta­ble and on one of the big round pool­side “daybeds.” I won­dered whether the male half of a cou­ple that emerged from a pri­vate cabana might be an NFL line­backer. I eaves­dropped on a bevy of young women cel­e­brat­ing a friend’s en­gage­ment as a big wrapped bou­quet lay on their ta­ble.

In­side the lobby, as mid­night came and went, pla­toons of pretty young things streamed into H Bar on stilet­tos and high, tilty wedges, clad in cold shoul­ders and ban­dage dresses, voile and linen. The wait­resses in their short lit­tle black dresses seemed to be ev­ery­where, de­liv­er­ing drinks in the lobby and pool­side, as if they had stepped from a 1980s Robert Palmer mu­sic video.

Like much of the ho­tel staff, they were young and alert and warm in de­meanor. I no­ticed a level of hos­pi­tal­ity that’s un­usual in a lux­ury-ho­tel venue, even when I crossed paths with a uni­formed re­pair­man. Hik­ing across one of the un­set­tling lichen-pat­terned car­pets that line the halls, he’d looked me in the eye and said “good af­ter­noon” as if he meant it. If Fer­titta is aim­ing for that elu­sive five-star ho­tel rat­ing, this is how you get there.

That ser­vice warmth hap­pened ev­ery­where: in the cloth­ing and accessories bou­tique, 29° North, where I could af­ford al­most noth­ing; at the desk of the Bloom & Bee restau­rant, a flow­ery, soft-hued re­treat for Ladies who Lunch (and a few of the men who love them).

Here I con­tem­plated the tight, short, dozen-rose bou­quets that adorned ev­ery ta­ble, all set be­neath a ceil­ing of float­ing art-glass blooms. I ran into James Peat work­ing the room, as he has in sim­i­lar roles at Un­der­belly, Le Colo­nial and La Ta­ble. “Part of my job,” he told me, “is to rec­og­nize the faces in the arena.”

He kissed old friends, dis­pensed com­pli­men­tary glasses of sparkling rosé to his reg­u­lars and con­fided that though some men (in­vari­ably clus­tered at Bloom & Bee’s counter dur­ing my vis­its) en­joyed all this fem­i­nine pulchri­tude, others seemed spooked by what one called “cack­ling hens.”

This cack­ling hen ended up lik­ing Bloom & Bee best of all the Post Oak’s din­ing op­tions. The food was fresh and light. The fla­vors sparkled. Even the house-mud­dled rosé san­gria — “We sold 1,000 glasses last month,” a bar­tender told me as she batched the af­ter­noon’s sup­ply — was bet­ter than I had hoped. At the end, when I was pre­sented with two tiny cor­nets of cham­pagne sor­bet, topped with baby stream­ers of gold leaf, I ac­tu­ally laughed with plea­sure. It was the waf­fle-cone equiv­a­lent of a shih-tzu.

Speak­ing of which: You can bring your dog of up to 100 pounds along to the Post Oak, as long as you sign a waiver and pop for the $125 clean­ing fee. There are doggo ameni­ties to go along, in­clud­ing “a pet­friendly in-room din­ing menu fea­tur­ing chef-crafted Roasted Chopped Filet Mignon.” In other words, very fancy ham­burger.

It’s that mix of luxe and democ­racy that makes the Post Oak such an un­usual scene, a palace wrought by a scrappy every­man’s bil­lion­aire who fas­ci­nates Hous­to­ni­ans high, low and in-be­tween.

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Bar­tender Tif­fany Salo pre­pares a drink at H Bar, the lounge just off the lobby at the Post Oak Ho­tel at Up­town Hous­ton.

Marie D. De Jesús photos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

The gar­den wall is vis­i­ble from the car deal­er­ship at the the Post Oak Ho­tel.

Gue­strooms come with great views of Hous­ton.

Bloom & Bee’s Lightly Smoked Beef Tartare

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

The pa­tio at Mas­tro’s steak­house is, like so much else at the Post Oak de­vel­op­ment, quite a scene.

Marie D. De Jesús / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

A spec­tac­u­lar chan­de­lier lights the lobby of the Post Oak Ho­tel.

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