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)