If we had written about this recent addition to the Midtown restaurant scene after our first visit, we’d have categorized it as a Disappointment. But, in the company of a group of friends, we fared better on another visit. Reef is the ambitious effort of Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd, formerly the chef and general manager, respectively, of Bank.
A former Vietnamese noodle house and car dealership, Reef is a renovated old building, with a large dining area, including an open kitchen at one end, and a separate bar (dubbed the 3RD Bar) at the other end. The white wave pattern in the stuccoed walls lends a nautical theme, but don’t expect to see any anchors or ship wheels. Concrete floors and formica topped tables go for the contemporary casual look. Separating the restaurant from a private dining area, there’s a nifty glassed in wine storage wall that reaches to the ceiling. (Kind of like the wine tower at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in Las Vegas but without the scantily dressed girls fetching the bottles via ropes.) The restaurant is well lit (not the place for romance) and can get very noisy due to all the hard surfaces.
Service is friendly, but a little shaky at times as the restaurant works out the kinks, particularly on a busy night. Although we had a reservation and our table was available, it was not set up. And a number of dishes were served to the wrong individuals. There’s no charge for bread, but you have to request it, which is worth the effort as you get warm from the oven rolls, served on one visit with butter and the next time with jalapeno jelly. There’s a lengthy wine list with a variety of reasonably priced selections. We enjoyed a New Zealand sauvignon blanc that was favorably priced at less than twice retail.
The most popular starters were the tomato and mozzarella salad, the wedge salad (with cabrales blue cheese and pancetta), and the carnitas. We dinged the tempura vegetables (too heavy on the batter) and the snapper carpaccio (almost nonexistent on a white plate such that we initially thought they had forgotten the fish).
This place is not trying to compete with the depth of offerings at McCormick and Schmick’s or Oceannaire. The somewhat limited entrée selections are heavier on fish (swimmers) than seafood (crawlers and sitters). The only crab item on the menu is a soft shell appetizer, and the only shrimp dish is under the “Simply Grilled” category. Non-oceanic items are limited to one chicken and one steak selection. And there’s no fried seafood, although there are some acceptable french fries, served upright in the ubiquitous wax paper cone with a tasty remoulade style dipping sauce. If you want to salt those fries, you get a tiny bowl of salt crystals with a spoon. This is not Goode Company or Captain Benny’s.
On our first visit, the amberjack was overcooked. But the second time around, the entrees were all well received and appropriately cooked. The group particularly liked the crispy skinned snapper, grouper, slow cooked salmon, and grilled scallops. And the sides of polenta with mushroom ragout and stewed chard were deemed excellent. But, contrary to the waiter’s description of the surf and turf, the promised 8 ounce ribeye was actually a less weighty curled up hanger steak. The Simply Grilled category is a nice touch. You get a choice of various grilled fish, shrimp or scallops, sided only by mixed greens. Prices range from the high teens for the Simply Grilled items to the mid twenties for the fish entrees, with the surf and turf at the $29 high end. Portions are sufficient but run on the small size compared to most Houston restaurants (e.g., 3 grilled scallops with polenta for $23).
Opening a restaurant is a significant undertaking of time and money, both of which are clearly involved at Reef. The food is interesting and, for the most part, hits the mark. And we’re all for developing Midtown. The Metro station is only a block away. We’re not sure about the parking, other than valet, as there didn’t appear to be a parking lot or much nearby street parking.
2600 Travis (at McGowen)
You wouldn’t know this small house on Dunlavy was a restaurant if you hadn’t heard about it, likely through word of mouth. There’s no name on the door, only a neon sign with the house number. The former owner of Tutto Bene, which went the way of urban renewal, has opened this small dinner only venue. Make a reservation as there are only about a dozen tables. And bring wine, which is encouraged and uncorked for a small fee, since they don’t have a liquor license.
The charm of this restaurant is the intimate atmosphere, the genial owner, and the BYOB policy. You feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home, and lingering is fine. Larger groups should probably look elsewhere as the place doesn’t appear to accommodate a large table.
The food is very good, but not great. A complimentary hummus style spread with pesto started us off. We shared the country pate, which was very good and clearly homemade, appropriately served with mustard and cornichons. We then moved on to one of the night’s specials, Osso Bucco served with parmesan risotto, and pork tenderloin with mango salsa. Both were quite tasty. With all due respect to Osso Bucco, it’s basically a marginal cut of meat turned into Italian comfort food. It’s frequently a huge portion that looks impressive on the plate. That being said, Tuto Bene’s dish was as good as most others we’ve tried, including Tony’s version. The pork tenderloin was a very serviceable dish, nothing troublesome but no real wow factor. We didn’t try any desserts, but we appreciated the complimentary cashew brittle that finished the evening.
If you’re looking for a different experience in the big city (or have your grandparents in tow), give this place a try.
CLOSED SPRING 2008 —
We were excited to hear that a new restaurant had opened in the Bayou Place in the Theater District. For many of us that enjoy Houston’s cultural offerings in the area, Vin (pronounced “vine”) could be the answer to our hunger pangs. Unfortunately, judging by the empty room following a recent Saturday night ballet performance, apparently, ballet goers (and the rest of Houston) either eat early or haven’t discovered this place. And they should. Vin has a lot going for it.
We understand that Vin is owned by the same people that own Bayou Place. They certainly spent some money on the design and decor. The sleek, contemporary setting is bathed in warm tones. Definitely an upscale atmosphere, although dressing up isn’t required. Techno dance music played quietly (yes, you could hear yourself talk) in the background, although one senses that, if there was more of a bar crowd (and the bar area features prominently in the dining room), the music would likely be louder. Our waiter was somewhat quirky, but the service was fine.
What really impressed was the food. Every dish we tried was unique and beautifully presented. We had three appetizers, a salad, and dessert. We started with the wild mushroom gratin, a gooey mix of mushrooms and spinach served with grilled flatbread. Very tasty, likely to please most everyone, but probably the least impressive of the four dishes we tried. We moved on to the Tartare Diablo — spicy tuna tartare that was delicious. What was really unique and made the dish a standout was the brilliant side of cucumber sorbet, a perfect foil for the spicy tuna. We order tuna tartare frequently, and this was definitely one of the best presentations we’ve seen. We then tried the Grilled Calamari, which was served with a wonderful panzanella (bread salad). We finished with the Asparagus Salad–asparagus with tiny pieces of tasso ham, served over dressed field greens, topped with a poached egg and bearnaise sauce. This may sound odd, but it was very good. We didn’t lick the plate as our waiter suggested others had, but we enjoyed the dish nonetheless. We applaud the dessert menu. Billed as “the world’s tiniest dessert menu,” it is a small card listing a number of two to three bite desserts, each for $3. We enjoyed a raspberry and peach crumble with goat cheese ice cream. What a great way to end the meal when you want just a taste of something sweet.
We really hope that Vin gets the diners it deserves. Perhaps we were just there on an off night. It’s been receiving great reviews from every publication, so, hopefully, the crowds will follow. The pampered Houston dining crowd may be deterred by the location or the parking situation (valet at the front of Bayou Place or the underground lot). We’ll certainly consider Vin next time we’re in the Theater District. Maybe sooner.
530 Texas Avenue (in Bayou Place)
We ventured westward on a recent Sunday morning to check out the Bellville-Round Top-Brenham triangle, one of the closer areas to Houston that offers some escape from urban living. We’d heard for years about this popular, pie touting restaurant, located in a town best known for this eating destination and its antique markets.
Even on a rainy Sunday afternoon, we had a wait of about 15 minutes. The tables seem to turn quickly, so don’t be deterred. The restaurant is a small, cozy venue, housed in a ramshackle old building on the square in Round Top. On nicer days, the front porch has old metal drink coolers filled with beer and soft drinks you purchase on the honor system. Decorated with kitschy memorabilia, including framed reviews and pictures of famous diners, it’s ruled over by owner Bud Royer, a genial version of Seinfeld’s soup Nazi. One of us tends to be picky about table location, but this would not be the place to be particular.
Although the locale suggests country cooking, the menu is much more upscale. There’s no chicken fried steak to be had. There are many offerings, all of which sounded great. To quickly address our hunger from the ride (about 1 1/2 hours from Houston), we shared a boneless bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with shrimp and spinach. Quail is somewhat of a hit or miss item. It’s easy to screw up the little buggers. But this was one of the best versions we’ve ever had. Served sizzling hot, the meat was moist and flavorful. We then sampled the Sunday-only pan fried chicken. (The menu advises that no fries are available on Sunday due to the extensive frying required for the chicken, and to come early as they run out of chicken quickly.) For only $10.95, we got four large pieces. Don’t ask for particular pieces–you get a chest (the menu’s description, not ours), leg, thigh, and wing. The chicken was delicious and worth the calories. It was sided by the best creamed corn we’d ever eaten and some delicious skins on mashed potatoes. (No side substitutions, and a $4.95 charge to share.) We also tried the grilled shrimp BLT; a highlighted item on the menu that features large grilled shrimp served on french bread with creole mustard. It was good, but there are other items we’d order if we returned.
Although feeling quite full, we shouldered on to the café’s claim to fame — pies. There are numerous offerings, all served, without any extra charge, with a scoop of “BBHV.” (That’s Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla for the uneducated.) Needless to say, we had to try at least one piece, so we went for the signature chocolate chip pie. Served warm, it tasted as the menu described, like a chocolate chip cookie, only better.
The restaurant attracts an eclectic crowd — locals, country cruising Harley riding urbanites, and families with children in tow. There’s no dress code (per the website “no shirts, no shoes, no problem — just spend money”). Only cash and checks are taken.
On the Square in Round Top