It’s a foregone conclusion that this place would be packed from day one — it’s owned by the same folks that have brought Houston Ibiza, Brasserie 19 and Coppa. Thus, no surprise, even in July — when many of the crowd that flock to these restaurants are out of town — Salt Air has been hopping since it opened a couple weeks ago. We ventured in early one recent Sunday evening. The large square bar in the middle of the restaurant was sufficiently inviting that we passed on our reserved table. (Goes without saying that reservations are a must right now.) Like one of its predecessors at this location (Pesce), Salt Air has an open kitchen environment with the raw bar in the center of the restaurant.
The menu is expansive and somewhat eclectic — everything from multiple raw bar selections to hot fish, seafood and vegetable offerings. It’s clear the restaurant strives for freshness, with many of the fish and seafood choices changing based on availability. Don’t expect a lot of fried seafood, although there are a couple small plates of fried claims and calamari. If you’re looking for something cooked, grilled and steamed items seem to prevail with the fish and seafood items.
Certainly, we’ll return as we only tried a couple dishes — the fried claims (served with a gribiche sauce) and the octopus carpaccio (not really raw, but steamed and very thinly sliced). We enjoyed both dishes, although the octopus could have done with more of the taramosalata sauce, and the gribiche sauce could have had a little more tang given its traditional ingredients of mayo, pickles, capers and herbs. The fried claims were very well executed (not the least bit greasy and and the portion size a very good value for $10), but the crust was a little heavy (perhaps because it’s cornmeal based?) for our taste. The same crust perked up when used on the salt & pepper calamari, which we sampled from the plate of the guy sitting next to us. Our neighbor also wasn’t too thrilled with the crust or the asian-based sauce served with the calamari, but the latter was remedied with a quickly brought remoulade sauce. The woman sitting on our other side raved about the tuna tartare (on quinoa) and the seafood salad (same tuna with the addition of cold shrimp on greens). We’ve heard good things about the lobster bisque (lighter than most traditional versions), the steak tartare, and the roasted carrots. (The bok choy and avocado were not touted with as much enthusiasm.)
We’re back in crawfish season here on the Gulf Coast and, despite the delay in this posting, we want to go on record that we discovered this restaurant (courtesy of an Asian friend) during last year’s crawfish season. Well before Allison Cook named it her favorite place for crawfish or Chris Shepherd called out the whole blue crab in Texas Monthly. There’s nothing fancy about the place but, when you’re the only non-Asians in the restaurant, you know it’s good. Well, that was last year, and now the place has been discovered, and there may be new management. But the crawfish were almost as good as last year. We have had both the garlic butter and kitchen special style and recommend both, although the kitchen special has sauteed onions, oranges, and lemons which add a great taste addition to the basic garlic butter. We also tried Thai basil which we liked but not as much as the kitchen special. Medium spicey worked well for us. Unfortunately, the fried rice had lost something from a year ago. On the other hand, the grilled oysters (Vietnam style) were better, although perhaps a dollar or so pricier. The service was very good whereas we’d had a couple nonchalant attitude experiences last year (thankfully, not reflected in the food).
Next up on our agenda is Crawfish House (recommended by the same Asian friend who says it’s better than Cajun Kitchen). We’ll let you know if we agree.
Not that we were big fans of Katsuya, but we’re hoping this restaurant has longer legs than its predecessor in West Ave. Fortunately, Nara benefitted from the the Asian influence of Katsuya as the decor doesn’t appear markedly different. The sushi bar remains in the middle. The rest of the menu is decidedly different, reflecting a mix of Asian influenced dishes with an emphasis on the owner’s Korean heritage.
Don’t expect the same dynamic as Houston’s long-standing Korean restaurants. There are no grills in the middle of the tables (replaced by trendy hot rocks brought from the kitchen) or multiple (banchan) side dishes. Nor are the prices nearly as spender friendly as the long-standing Long Point locations. (My Korean friend was shocked with the price we paid for a couple standard dishes.) But this is in an upscale retail complex, and the restaurant describes itself as “Modern Korean.” (We understand there is a private dining area that includes the table grill.)
We didn’t really come for the sushi. We were going for the Korean offerings. We tried an appetizer that we understand is inspired by a dish at Momofuku in NYC — flat buns (bao), like little tacos, available with various fillings. We tried the Spicy Pork Bulgogi (shredded pork collar, with cilantro and cucumber), which we enjoyed although it didn’t knock our socks off. We asked the waiter to bring us some sauces for the dish and, while we can’t recall what they were, they added some needed zing. More impressive was the pork belly bipimbap, a traditional Korean rice dish, served in a very hot stone bowl that cooks the raw egg that you stir into the dish, as well as the rice (creating a crispy lining). The dish was quite tasty, although it was also enhanced by the sauces we’d received. Probably our favorite dish was the Korean-style Shin Ramen, with squid and claims (could have been more seafood) in a lush red chili based broth. (Our waiter described the dish as bold and didn’t seem too excited about it, but we thought it was great.) We finished nicely with the Crunchy Yellow Tail Roll.
We haven’t had a chance to make it back, but we’ll return for the Shin Ramen as well as to try some of the other dishes. (Anyone for Bulgogi Pot Pie or whole Spicy Squid Quinoa?)
2800 Kirby Drive (in West Ave)
Much anticipated, Caracol is the new restaurant from Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega (Backstreet, Hugo’s, Prego). Located in the new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak, the cuisine is Mexican-focused seafood. (Aptly named, Caracol is Spanish for snail, although we didn’t see any snails on the menu.) This place has been jumping from the start, reservations are a must at least on weekends. We’ve dined there twice, both on Saturday evenings, and the surprisingly large space (particularly compared to its neighbor, Osteria Mazzantini) has been packed both times. There’s an ample bar area, with an outside patio that will be lovely when the weather warms up. We dined the second time at the bar (no reservations required), and it appeared all the seats were taken by diners.
It’s clear everything has been extremely well thought out, from the creative cocktail menu to the food offerrings. While there are plenty of wine choices (well-known sommelier Sean Beck guides this restaurant as he does the other Vaught/Ortega venues), we’ve thought the food worked well with the many tequila and agave cocktail offerrings; we’ve enjoyed the Gran Especial (classic margarita),Mountains to the Sea (a smoky, citrus mezcal and gin based cooler), and Past the Heather (a manhattan-style drink made with anejo tequila).
On both occasions, we sampled a number of small plates which seemed to be the approach taken by many of the diners around us. Dreams are made of the wood fired, cooked in the shell, parmesan crusted oysters; having had half a dozen on our first visit, we ordered a dozen the second time. The wood-roasted pork ribs were also two-timers for us as was the coal roasted eggplant puree. And on our next visit, we’ll go again for the crusty charred boneless pork foot with pickled vegetables. The conch ceviche was beautifully presented but we wanted a little more citrus and chile. The crispy tuna tacos were lovely bites of tuna, with guacamole and refried beans, in a soft flour tortilla. The chicharron crusted calamari was a creative twist on that ubiquitous dish that we feel obliged to try at pretty much every restaurant that offers it.
Service was excellent. It’s clear the waitstaff has been well trained. And management was walking the floor, keeping a careful eye on everyone. Feel free to valet park, but there’s validated parking in the very accessible covered garage attached to the building, with an elevator right near the restaurants.
2200 Post Oak Boulevard
We were somewhat inclined to write a two word review: Not Uchi. But that’s unfair. Katsuya isn’t striving to turn out the uber creative, intricately prepared dishes for which Uchi excels, and Katsuya isn’t marketing to the same demographic. Katsuya hails from Los Angeles, touting its “master sushi chef” (Katsuya Uechi) and “design impresario” (Philippe Starck). Located in the trendy West Ave complex, Katsuya has been featured regularly in the social columns for its celebrity sightings.
Frankly, we were expecting to be more impressed by the design. Perhaps it’s because Houston has not lacked for distinctive rooms in recent restaurant openings (Triniti, Uchi, Underbelly, Phillipe). There’s a large four-sided sushi bar in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by tables, with the walls lined by banquettes. We peeked into the lounge area, with its many white sofas, but we were at the restaurant far too early to check out the action there.
We had the multi-course Omikase dinner on our first visit to Uchi, so we wanted to give Katsuya the same opportunity. We appreciated our waiter’s candor when he advised against Katsuya’s Omikase dinner, which the menu said included all the chef’s specialties. Indeed, very few of the items featured as specialties on the menu were served with the dinner. So, we embarked on a la carte ordering.
Like at so many places nowadays, cocktails are prominently featured. We found one of the specialty drinks — the Burning Mandarin — to be pleasant enough. We tried one of the signature dishes — Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna — which turned out to be fried sushi rice cakes topped with tuna tartare that wasn’t really all that spicy. (Our waiter had tried to steer us instead to the seared tuna with Japanese salsa.) We also tried the soft shell crab, which was not overly battered (a good thing) although a little soggy.
The highlight of the meal was another of the signature dishes — miso marinated black cod — beautifully cooked with a lovely flavor. The square of potato gratin on the plate tasted good but was also a little soggy. Our other entree dish — Cajun halibut cheeks — was dry and overcooked, the pieces too small to be cooked correctly when also trying to blacken the spiced exterior.
If it’s fair to compare Katsuya and Uchi — both of which arrived on the Houston scene at about the same time — Uchi wins by a mile (about the distance between the two on Westheimer).
2800 Kirby Drive (West Ave Complex at Westheimer)
We hadn’t been inspired to try this longtime Houston restaurant. Perhaps because it is a chain or it was outside our geographic comfort zone, too far out on Westheimer. In recent years, Truluck’s has moved closer in, now housing opposite Capital Grille on Westheimer near Yorktown. We love stone crabs and had heard about the all you can eat Monday special. A new year’s resolution to limit carbs made this a good candidate for a recent birthday that happened to fall on a Monday.
The place was packed, with most diners appearing to have the evening special. For $49.95, you get all the stone crab (medium size) you want, together with as many soups, salads and sides as you desire. Although not overtly pushing the starters and sides, it makes sense to encourage one to fill up on these less costly items. We sampled the wedge salad (classic version with blue cheese dressing, blue cheese chunks, bacon, and tomatos) and the crab bisque (nothing special). We avoided the bread basket. The stone crabs, served cold on cracked ice, with a remoulade sauce, were quite good and nicely cracked by the kitchen. (No special utensils were required to access any of the meat, thus, sparing one’s manicure.) The waiter kept the plates coming, and we had no trouble going through quite a few of the tasty appendages. We tried two sides — cheese grits (delicious and rich) and creamed leaks (o’kay). We broke the no-carb rule big time with dessert (it was a birthday, after all) — a huge piece of chocolate layer cake, topped with chocolate sauce. Quite tasty and, for the most part, ending up in a doggy bag. Alas, for obvious reasons, no stone crabs were allowed to sneak into the bag.
For stone crab lovers, the Monday special is a great deal. The regular menu price for 8 medium crab claws with mashed potatos and asparagus (no soup or salad) is $45.95.
It’s tough to keep a restaurant open in Houston, even if we do eat out more than any other city. But it seems this location on Montrose has seen more restaurants come and go than many places. The latest resident is Danton’s Gulf Coast Seafood, hailed by Alison Cook as one of Houston’s best new restaurants in 2007. Not sure why it took us six months to get there, but, emboldened by a “free cup of gumbo with an entree” coupon that we found in the Chronicle, we headed over there.
Like Jimmy Wilson’s, Danton’s is owned by local guys with experience in the restaurant industry, Danton and Kyle Teas. The layout of the restaurant is the same as its predecessors, including the welcoming booths. There’s a clubbier, more casual feel here than at Jimmy Wilson’s. The restaurant is well lit and not as noisy as many places. The clientele included those of all ages, and, while we wouldn’t call the atmopshere staid, this is more of an upscale Goode Company than the happening experience of Reef or Pesce.
We got great service from our friendly and accomodating waiter. The wine list is limited but reasonably priced. The menu is broad and varied, with many of the usual suspects.
We started with Oysters Kyle, shelled oysters broiled in a ramekin with garlic lemon butter sauce. They were tasty enough, although the sauce was a little thin. But, on the plus side, it was not so full of butter that we felt too guilty to sop it up with the bread. We moved on to the heralded seafood gumbo. It was full of fresh seafood and was a beautiful dark chocolate color, but there was something about the taste that didn’t work for us. Perhaps it was a little sweet, we’re not quite sure. Entrees come with two sides, so we selected the caesar salad as one of ours. It was much better than Jimmy Wilson’s version, but sufferred from the same fate as many restaurant caesars — not enough garlic and anchovy. Our entrees were the fried stuffed shrimp and the grilled amberjack. The shrimp were nicely cooked, with plenty of stuffing, but not quite as tasty as Goode Company’s version. To the restaurant’s credit, they offer half orders of many items, including the fried seafood dishes. The waiter brought us some garlic remoulade that was a very nice addition. The amberjack didn’t thrill us; it was overcooked and not well seasoned. On the other hand, the dirty rice was some of the best we’ve tasted, and the onion rings were great. The side of red beans and rice, which included nice chunks of sausage, was also well done.
For the style of food offered, we’d likely lean toward Jimmy Wilson’s or Goode Company. But, we wish these two guys good luck at this location.
4611 Montrose Boulevard
Located in the former La Strada digs at San Felipe and Sage, this new seafood place is a welcome addition to the Houston restaurant scene. Jimmy Wilson’s owners have a long history serving seafood in Houston — Willie G’s, Landry’s (the originals, pre-Fertitta), Denis’ Seafood, and Babin’s. Their new endeavor has a sophisticated, contemporary feel you wouldn’t expect in a seafood joint — high ceilings, a wine wall, and warm woods create a warm, inviting atmosphere. But have no fear, there’s no need to dress up. And there’s plenty of traditional items to draw those folks who only eat seafood if it’s fried. With comparable prices, this place should attract a crowd similar to Tony Mandola’s on West Gray.
There’s a full bar (with a bit of a scene for the older crowd on weeknights), and a nice wine list. We’d heard the service was shaky, but we enjoyed good service both times we were there. There are many fish and seafood options, as well as steaks, on the extensive menu. The fresh fish available each day is listed on a flat screen television over the open kitchen. And this seems like a restaurant that would prepare your seafood pretty much anyway you want.
The first visit was an all-girls outing within a couple months of the restaurant’s opening. Everyone enjoyed the food, including a discriminating New Orleans food afficianado who approved the Redfish Courtbouillon, a house specialty. The crab cake, more aptly described as a crab tower, was little more than warmed very fresh lump crab meat, topped with more lump crab in a lemon butter sauce. Also a house specialty, it is easily one of the best crab cakes in town. All entrées come with two sides, including a variety of salads, vegetables, and starches, so you won’t go hungry.
On a recent visit, we hit the oyster bar, starting with Denis’ Baked Oysters. These were are our only real disappointment as variously sized (mostly ranging on the small side) oysters were topped with a few pieces of crab and massive amounts of cheese that left for a gloppy mess. Undeterred, we tried the Steamed Garlic Oysters, which were much better. A dozen (significantly larger) fresh oysters were lightly gilded with garlic butter and steamed. Since we can’t pass up calamari on a menu, the waiter accommodated our request for a half order. Very nicely fried and pleasant enough, though it probably wouldn’t make our Top Ten list. But the fresh tasting spicy marinara and homemade tartar sauce were nice additions. We then shared the soft shell crabs, agreeing with our waiter’s suggestion that deep fat fried was the way to go. Although not as good as Pico’s pan sautéed and garlic butter topped version, we still enjoyed these seasonal favorites. Jimmy Wilson’s has the frying thing down pretty well. We enjoyed the creole style fresh green beans, but couldn’t say the same for the mundane caesar salad. The greek salad tried on the first visit was a better choice.
And, as a final comment, we were pleased to see that, unlike many local establishments, Jimmy Wilson’s figures you can manage to park your own car in the large parking lot, so there’s no need for valet parkers who cone off most of the nearby spaces.
5161 San Felipe
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)