Category Archives: New American Casual

Bramble

Houston foodies have closely monitored Randy Rucker’s various restaurant endeavors over the years, starting with his ahead-of-the-times laidback manor to Bootsie’s Cafe in Tomball.  Chef Rucker has returned to the Memorial Area (yes, outside the loop but at least within the city of Houston) in a former Italian restaurant on Voss near San Felipe.  Just opened a few weeks, Bramble, like Rucker’s prior restaurants, highlights local ingredients in a casual, contemporary setting.  We understand the menu changes regularly and, understandably, with a new place trying to get its footing, the menu offerings were somewhat limited.   The cocktail program needs a little work as we didn’t find our drinks as balanced as we’d like (one with rum and the other with bourbon).  The wine list was small but reasonably priced.  We had no issues with the prompt and courteous service.

On the evening we were there, for starters, we tried the roasted corn with cotilla cheese (delicious) and the roasted sunchokes (well executed, but a little bland).   For our main courses, we went with the marinated grilled quail and shrimp and grits.  Both dishes were quite tasty but under cooked.  We sent the quail back, and it improved with some more time on the grill.  We couldn’t fault the creamy grits and sauce, but one of the three jumbo, heads on shrimp was close to raw.  We fully appreciate a chef’s concern about not overcooking the ingredients, but a little more time turning out the main courses would have been a good thing.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the pickled greens au gratin side dish; the rich cheese was a delicious foil to the tartness of the greens.

We’d read a review of Bramble that suggested Chef Rucker is playing it safe compared with the dishes he turned out in his prior life.  We don’t really fault him for that, particularly with a new restaurant.  But the pickled greens dish hinted to us of the creativity for which this chef is known.   And we’d note that we really liked Rainbow Lodge during Chef Rucker’s brief stint there where he managed to beautifully execute (with a twist) a number of more traditional dishes.

No reservations (we got there early and the place filled up quickly) and parking wasn’t a problem.

2231 S. Voss

832/819-0332

www.restaurantbramble.com

Weights + Measures

Brought to Midtown by the 13 Celsius folks (also of Mongoose versus Cobra), very recently opened Weights and Measures includes a restaurant, bar (Love & Squalor), and a bake shop.  Both the restaurant and the bar are pretty good sized and, while the bar seems to fill up quickly, at least there’s somewhere to wait as reservations are not taken.  The ambiance is relaxed and casual, with an open kitchen.  Open throughout the day, starting with breakfast through dinner, followed by a late night bar menu served until 2:00 am, this is an ambitious undertaking, although, from all appearances, it seems to be working out of the gate.

In the vein of Coltivare  (and, to some degree Provisions and Pax Americana), Weights and Measures has artisanal cocktails, “breads”, small plates, salads, pizza and entrees, with interesting twists on seasonal ingredients.  Price points are also similar, in the middle range.  The cocktails are as good as any in town.  We both liked the ones we tried on our first visit so much – the smallish room (bourbon, lime, maple) and senor punche (tequila, lime and something pink) – that we ordered them again the next time.

We’ve tried a number of the starters — chopped chicken liver, pig trotter terrine, baccala brandade, ribeye meatballs, relish plate, and grilled romaine.  The chopped chicken liver included diced boiled egg and lacked the depth of other versions around town.  Similarly, the baccala brandade (salted cod spread) could have used more seasoning.  The pig trotter terrine (gelatinous bits of the pigs foot shaped in a patty, covered in bread crumbs and fried) had good taste although at least one of us was a little put off by the texture.  The meatballs are an excellent version of a  basic dish and, judging by looking around at nearby tables, are a popular starter.  The relish plate — olives, celery, carrots, bread and a savory bagna cauda dip (warm olive oil with strong notes of garlic and anchovy) — was a light start and very sharable.  The grilled romaine represented the restaurant’s twist on a caesar salad, served with a preserved lemon dressing and white anchovies.  (Enjoyable but not quite as good as the very similar salad at Provisions.)

We can’t pass up pizza but weren’t quite up for the roasted carrot and cheddar version (although it’s gotten great reviews from others), so we went for the basics — pepperoni topped with arugula. We aren’t huge fans of salad on top of pizza, but the light sprinkling of leaves worked well, and the pizza was very good.  If we had to rate them, we’d probably score this version a little higher than the same pizza at Coltivare.

For entrees, a number of folks at our table tried the seared Ahi tuna special.  The large serving of beautifully fresh tuna was appropriately cooked (with everyone challenging the kitchen with a different degree of preferred doneness) but, lacking a sauce or much seasoning, it wasn’t quite as strong a dish as the quality of the tuna deserved.  On the other hand, the Wagyu flat iron steak was fabulous.

For dessert, we ordered the doughknots (fried dough rolls, not sufficiently sweet for our taste) and the bittersweet chocolate cremeaux (a pudding-mousse creation that was very good, with just the right level of sweetness).  To go from the bake shop, we left with brownies and cookies that capably satisfied our sweet tooth the next day.

There’s a large parking lot (no valet), although it fills up quickly with the restaurant’s current popularity.  Ample street parking is accessible in the surrounding area.

2808 Caroline (at Dennis)                                                                                                      713/654-1970                                                                                                                 http://weights-measures.com/

Pax Americana

Foodie buzz preceded this opening on Montrose in a former Thai restaurant which also housed an early Monica Pope place.  A number of well known folks in the Houston restaurant scene are behind this restaurant — the Zimmermans (La Colombe d’Or), Shepherd Ross (Glass Wall, BAC), and Ryan Pera (Revival Market).

An inviting bar, outdoor patio seating and glassed in kitchen in the dining area make for a welcome addition to the trend in creative contemporary cooking.  The serving sizes are small and designed for sharing.  The limited menu changes regularly.   Creative cocktails and an interesting beer and wine list.

On a recent visit, we enjoyed the goat cheese ricotta, mild and creamy, served with toasted Common Bond bread.  On our next visit, the ricotta had disappeared, but the roasted bone marrow remained (also served with Common Bond bread), and it was excellent on both occasions.   Gone from the menu, but not forgotten, was an intensely flavored mushroom risotto, which, given the intensity of the flavors, was probably the best dish we’ve tried.   We also enjoyed the sliced sirloin which, although, appropriately cooked, perhaps needed some additional seasoning or a more interesting sauce to support that lean but not super flavorful cut of meat.  Faring better was the octopus that appeared on our second visit. Cooked sous vide and then wood grilled, it was quite tasty (although not as good as the gold standard at Caracol).  Friends enjoyed the grouper and brisket.  And we tried the dark chocolate filled donut holes,  with an interesting addition of pigs blood in the chocolate, adding a noticeably tang that seemed more of a novelty than a beneficial addition.  Credit to the server for pointing out this ingredient as a heads up to any vegetarians who don’t speak Italian (and, thus, weren’t clued in by the description “sanguinaccio fritters”). 

Reservations are recommended; parking is a little tricky in the area, but there’s a complimentary valet behind the restaurant off the side street to the immediate south.

4319 Montrose Blvd
(713) 239-0228

www.paxamericanahtx.com

Coltivare

 This restaurant hit the Houston foodie scene with quite a lot of buzz,  with its ownership the same as the folks that own Revival market just down White Oak in the Heights.  Quite casual, no reservations, the focus is on the food.  Both Saturday evenings when we’ve eaten at Coltivare, we’ve arrived a few minutes before the 5:00 opening time as the restaurant was full within less than an hour.  There’s both indoors and outdoors dining.  The bar area is small and fills up quickly.  (We had friends who noted that, while they had to stand outside on the sidewalk waiting for their dinner, the local mosquitos were feasting quite well.)  At first, there was no valet parking, but apparently even the most laid back restaurants in Houston require valet parking as it’s now available here, which is likely welcome, particularly later in the evening, when the local street parking fills up.

Coltivare is no exception from many restaurants nowadays with its interesting cocktail menu.  We tried the bourbon-based Ava Crowder (a slightly citrus twist on a manhattan) on our first visit, and now we’re devotees.   Such fans that we haven’t sampled the wine list which we understand is quite interesting and reasonably priced.   We’ve had no issues with the service on either occasion.

The food has been outstanding.  The menu changes over time.  Feeling contrarian, we didn’t try the roasted cauliflower on our first visit even though pretty much every table around us ordered it.   We succumbed on our second visit and, yes, it’s very good, with pine nuts and golden raisins, but it didn’t strike us as overly creative.  On our first visit, we tried the bycatch baccala; as its name implies, who knows what type of fish it was but it was quite tasty  spread on grilled bread (although not on the menu for our second visit).  We also really enjoyed both the chicken liver mousse and grilled leek salad (with pancetta and a poached duck egg) on our first visit.  But one of the real standouts has been the calamari salad on our more recent visit, marinated and grilled, with olives and various greens, it was really good.   If sweetbreads are on the menu, we usually try them, and Coltivare’s crispy sweetbreads pair well with the salty anchovy and horseradish tapenade-style accompaniment.  We also enjoyed the pepperoni pizza.  (We know, kind of boring but, when pepperoni is homemade from Revival market, it’s really good.)  We could not, however, figure out why they threw a salad (greens and shaved parmesan) on top of the pizza.   When you’re going pizza old school, better to stick with the tried and true.

Like Provisions, Coltivare is serving some of the most creative, flavorful food in town in a comfortable, casual setting.   We like to see a kitchen take risks, even if we don’t love every dish, and we like that the menu keeps changing.  Now, if only they took reservations and had a larger bar area …   

 3320 White Oak Drive
713/637-4095
http://coltivarehouston.com

 

Bradley’s Fine Diner (Closed)

Bradley Ogden has been around the Bay Area dining community for many years and his son has  joined the family business, opening his first restaurant as executive chef in Houston.  BFD (initials used on the restaurant’s logo, not an editorial comment by us) anchors one end of a new strip shopping center, which is very close to I-10 , with Bradley’s Funky Chicken, a fast food fried chicken place (more about that later), at the other end.  Thankfully, there’s ample parking in the lot, so no need for a valet service.  Reservations are taken.

The restaurant is quite lovely, in a somewhat ubiquitous casual contemporary mode.  Lots of wood and brick, high ceilings, big windows.  Service was prompt and very friendly.  Cocktails were interesting and tasty.

We didn’t have an appetizer, going right for ample portions of fish and chips and a cheeseburger.  The former was well prepared, probably as good as anything we’d had recently in London.  The homemade tartar sauce was a nice addition and the french fries were piping hot.  The cheeseburger was also quite good, and we opted for the macaroni and cheese instead of more fries.

In the end, we really enjoyed our meal and, if we lived in the neighborhood, we’d probably go back more often.  BFD has a lot of competition in Houston, with similar establishments, so we wish it well.

P.S.   Having eaten a little more lightly than usual, we left room for a piece of fried chicken for dessert at Funky Chicken.  With a crisp, light coating, it was very good.  (Not as good as Barbecue Inn but better than our other more recent fried chicken experience at Punk’s Southern Kitchen.)   Although we didn’t try any of the sides, we’ve heard positive reports.

191 Heights Boulevard
832.831.5939
http://bradleysfinediner.com/

 

Crisp


Two sets of friends had recommended Crisp, a place we’d kind of heard about but not yet tried.  Seems like it’s particularly popular for those who live in Shady Acres (just north of the Heights), kind of a neighborhood joint that tries, but somewhat misses, to turn out more than bar food.  Definitely a dining establishment, reservations are required.  And, of course, there’s valet parking if you can’t find something on the street.

We aren’t typically too critical of limited wines by the glass but, for a place that touts its wine selection, the offerings are unimpressive.  We wished we’d understood the enomatic, vending machine style, higher quality wine offerings (1 oz, 3 oz, and 5 oz pours) when we’d started our meal as we weren’t inclined to purchase the required “tasting card” (available in varying monetary denominations; we’re told most people start with $20) when one of us just wanted one more glass of wine.  There’s a large beer menu.  No hard alcohol.

We started with the mussels, generously served in a wine-based broth (no cream) that needed some additional flavor, perhaps more of the billed parsley pesto or anchovy butter.  The cheeseburger was the best thing we tried, although the requested medium rare came out as close to medium well.  (After mentioning this to our waitress — we didn’t send it back — the manager came over and apologized, taking 1/2 off the price.)  The side of truffle fries, touted by the waitress, were neither hot or crispy.  The seared scallops were generously served and perfectly cooked (slightly underseasoned), but sat on a bed of short rib risotto that, like the mussels, needed an additional spark of flavor.  Maybe some salt, some herb.

If we lived in the neighborhood, we’d definitely be back as perhaps we didn’t order the right things.  We’d try the enomatic wine service, the pizza, and the huge meatballs and spaghetti ordered by everyone at the table sitting next to us.  Not living nearby, however, means it may be a while before we get back.


2220 Bevis
713/360-0222
http://www.crisphouston.com/

ElevenXI Restaurant and Bar


This quirkily named restaurant was recently opened in the former Bibas on West Gray in the Montrose area.  A contemporary, elegantly casual setting, there’s plenty of seating on an outdoor patio and in the indoor bar and dining area.  There’s valet parking and nearby street parking.    After an initial discussion about our table location (no, our two couples didn’t want to sit at a banquette style table in the bar), we were seated in the dining room.  Only open a couple weeks, reservations were a must on a recent Saturday evening.

Like many restaurants nowadays, there are a variety of interesting (and well done) cocktails and a limited but perfectly acceptable wine list.  Self-described as Southern Coastal Cuisine, the menu is extensive, varied and reasonably priced.  While the offerings may not impress as super innovative, it’s all in the execution.  And there’s definitely a place in the foodie world for well done, re-fashioned standards, with something that should appeal to most every diner.

We tried three of the starters — grilled oysters, steak tartare and the crab cake.  The former were tasty enough, although the topping on that day’s preparation — tomato, onion and parmesan cheese — was quite heavy, despite the waiter’s indication that it was “light” and meant not to overpower the taste of the oyster.  The steak tartare was beautifully presented, and we appreciated that we could mix in the traditional fixings to our desired taste.  The high quality of the meat was given a chance to shine through.  The runny yolked fried quail egg sitting on top of the meat was an interesting twist, catering to those who are queasy about raw eggs.  Our friends declared the crab cake to be very well done, lots of crab, light on the fillers.

Our entrees were all a success.  Two of us tried fish dishes — the whole fried flounder and the halibut cheeks.  Both dishes were excellent, fresh fish, correctly cooked, and not overly sauced.  The head and tail on flounder was flash fried (minimally battered) with an apricot glaze that worked well on the side.   The pan seared halibut cheeks was a light dish, served with a choice of two sides that include a number of choices, such as grilled vegetables, asparagus, or grits.  Those grits accompanied a cast iron skillet of seared quail that were declared by one of us as the best version of those little birds he’d ever had.  The cheeseburger, with fries, pleased the carnivore and was cooked as requested.

We finished our meal with two desserts — the peanut butter and chocolate tower (not enough of the dark chocolate exterior to our liking, more like a mound of just the interior of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup) and, the better choice, a baked to order cookie platter.  With 20 minutes notice, you get a variety of four cookies, served with a glass of milk.  The macadamia white chocolate were so good that two more were ordered.

For having only been open a couple weeks and faced with a full dining room, the service was very good, and the kitchen was keeping up well.   We didn’t see much that needed improvement, so this new offering should be a hit right out of the box.

607 West Gray
713/529-5881
http://www.elevenxihouston.com/

Brooklyn Athletic Club


We’ve been fortunate to have had great weather for outside dining on the two evenings we’ve spent at this new spot on Richmond in the Montrose area.  From Shepard Ross, the same restauranteur that owns Glass Wall, the focus of this place is on outside dining and drinking, going for the vibe that the owner remembers from his time growing up in Brooklyn.  Hence, alot of open space, opposite the dining area, filled with bocce ball, croquet, badminton, picnic tables, and the like.  Due to the venues immediate popularity, the outdoor bar service is being expanded and a food truck is soon to open in the games area.  There are a couple fire pits we’d heard were for s’mores, although we haven’t seen that use as drinkers and diners lacking reservations have sought a place to sit.

There’s a small bar area and about 10 indoor tables in close quarters.  Dining reservations are definitely required, specifying indoor or outdoor.  We dined on the earlier side, and, on both evenings, despite a busy scene, our reservations were honored on time.  (By the time we were leaving, the valet parkers were asking if you had a reservation.)  Commendations to the on-the-ball hostess who clearly has things under control, understanding that the tables, particularly outdoors, are not going to turn as often as other restaurants as diners come to hang out and enjoy the patio scene.  We’ve had very good wait service on both visits.  

While we wouldn’t call Brooklyn Athletic Club fine dining, the menu is more ambitious and varied than typical bar fare.  We haven’t had a bad dish.  We’ve yet to see a table in our vicinity not order the short rib mac ‘n cheese, whether as a starter (as it’s billed) or as a small entree.  And we’ve had it twice and, yes, it’s very tasty and comes out piping hot.  And we’ll have it again.   We’ve also tried the pork rillettes, which were enjoyable, nice for sharing, and benefitting from a little added salt.  The cheese burger is a justifiably popular dish, sided with crispy thin frites, with optional bacon or a fried egg.  We’ve also tried the pappardelle and meat balls, generously portioned, with good flavors, and a sufficient ratio of meat sauce to pasta (i.e., not skimpy on the sauce).  The porkobucco, which, as its name inplies, is a slow cooked pork shank, was also nicely flavored (perhaps a little underseasoned), sided with a tasty mixture of braised brussel sprouts, mushrooms, fingerling potatos, and crispy bacon pieces.  Unfortunately, the fat and gristle that are typical to the shank resulted in less edible  portions than the initial hunk-o-meat presentation on the plate might have suggested.

Brooklyn Athletic Club is a great venue when the weather accommodates.  We’re not sure how things will go as we approach the summer months.  The outside bar area should still attract the very casual, drinking crowd willing to sweat a little.  We’re not so sure about the dining crowd which, on both our visits, was quite diverse in age.  While we’ve enjoyed the food and will return, we may wait until Fall as the indoor seating area is cramped (one friend called it claustrophobic).  And the single person bathrooms (only one for each gender) need expansion, which we understand is underway with additional outside facilities being built. 

601 Richmond Avenue
713/527-4440
http://thebrooklynathleticclub.com/

Del Frisco’s Grille


From the same folks that have Del Frisco’s Steakhouse in the Galleria comes their new direction in dining in the West Ave complex.  Located where Ava was formerly housed, significant renovations have resulted in one of the current “places to be” in Houston.  This is a large space, with many tables for dining (including patios on the Kirby side and the interior of the complex) and an expansive bar area.  Reservations are a must, at least on weekends.

Del Frisco’s is not our favorite Houston steakhouse.  We understand this is a more casual, less expensive concept being rolled out by the Del Frisco’s folks (initially in Dallas), and we weren’t sure what to expect.  Our reservations were honored right on time which is a good thing as there was no room anywhere for waiting.  The waitstaff was very busy, but service was good.

One of the selling points of this restaurant is its varied and extensive menu choices.  If you want traditional steakhouse fare (at the same prices), there are a few steak offerrings.  And plenty of appetizers, salads (appetizer and meal sized), and sandwiches and entrees (not at steakhouse prices).  We dined with friends and tried two of the most popular appetizers — the cheesesteak egg rolls and tuna tartare tacos.  Del Frisco’s Grille managed to elevate these ubiquitous items to a pretty high level.

One of the highlights of the meal was the kale & brussel sprout “Big Greens” salad.  Chocked full of the aforementioned vegetables with toasted almonds, manchego cheese, dried cranberries, and a yummy creole mustard dressing, this salad alone is worth a trip to the restaurant.  The entrees also impressed.  There wasn’t a speck left on one diner’s plate of a very generously portioned serving of blackened texas gulf red fish (topped with fried oysters).  The lamb burger was nicely seasoned and appropriately cooked, sided with crispy frites. 

For what they’re trying to accomplish, the Del Frisco folks are doing a very good job, and we look forward to returning.  Get there when you can.  Just be sure to make a reservation or expect to fight with the throngs for a seat at the bar.

2800 Kirby Drive
832/266-0464
http://info.delfriscosgrille.com/houston/

Provisions


UPDATED REVIEW — OCTOBER 2012

We’ve now dined at Provisions on a number of occasions and have enjoyed everything we’ve tried.  Highlights included the roast suckling pig for two, served in a Staub cast iron pot, sous vide’d and then finished in the oven, on top of flavorful noodles and sausage.  We also enjoyed the brandade (salted cod) and roasted salsify, hamachi crudo, and a number of the ham o’day’s (Provisions’ take on a charcuterie plate).  This place has been packed every time, and reservations are a must, although the full menu is available in the bar, which has ample seating for drinking and dining.  Consider ordering each course separately as the food comes when it’s ready in the kitchen, which can result in everything being served at the same. 

FIRST REVIEWED — SEPTEMBER 2012

Opened only a week or so, Provisions is half of the much-anticipated new venture from the dynamic chef duo of Terrance Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner.  Known around Houston for their Just Eight project and pop-up dinners, the chefs have quite a pedigree (Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Samuelsson).  They’ve cleverly renovated the former Gravitas location (be sure to check out the restroom) — half of the restaurant is the more casual Provisions and the other side will house Pass which, not yet opened, will be a fixed price, multi-course, chef’s table style offering.

There is an active bar scene, fueled by a creative cocktail menu, very interesting wines, and a number of craft beers.  Food is also available in the bar.  Kudos to the sommelier (and our well informed waiter) as we tried four different wine varietals from Germany, Italy, and Greece we’d never heard of no less tried.  A Greek red — Xinomavro, Kir-Yianni –particularly impressed us.   Three ounce pours are available at half the price of the full glass, making for a great opportunity to try a number of wines. 

There are many menu offerings, and we’re already planning a return visit with friends.  (The suckling pig for two (really four) served to the pair next to us is calling our names.)  Dining early and not too hungry, we couldn’t come close to doing the menu justice.  We tried the burrata pizza — an interesting twist which featured an olive oil and garlic roasted pizza bread, sided by a bowl of oozing burrata and roasted tomato designed to spread on the bread.  One of us was close to licking the bowl.  Our next item was the entree of pan seared branzino in a bowl of mussell-parsley-ginger puree with potato batons.  The fish was fresh and deftly cooked, with the vibrantly green broth a delicious touch.  We shared a dessert — the intense lemon pound cake sided by laurel bay ice cream (yes, bay leaf ice cream, and it worked).  Not too sweet, this was a nice touch to the end of the meal.

Get thee to this restaurant, but make a reservation.  Provisions is one of the hottest tables in town right now.

807 Taft Street
713/628-9020
http://passandprovisions.com/