It's hard to believe this downtown street-level dining room was once a seafood restaurant hailed by Esquire magazine as one of the nation's best. This ringing praise occurred at a time when most Dallasites thought "Downtown" was the song that made Mrs. Miller famous. (No, not that Mrs. Miller; we mean Mrs. Elva Miller, a '60s-era middle-aged homemaker also known as "the worst pop star of all time.")
But Mrs. Miller is gone, and so is the restaurant Fish, as are the Esquire-prodded crowds. Yet this spot where mostly nude flounder and sea bass were paraded around Spartan plates for king's ransom is a far more handsome space than it was when it was fire hosed with critics' stars and glossy four-color accolades. Now it has clean lines, rich wood panels and used brick, giving it the look of an urban pub perfect for those made bleary-eyed by overdoses of legal briefs. And while Fish thrived in spite of its role as mutant appendage to the seedy Paramount Hotel, Houston Street, like its defunct predecessor Empire Bar & Grill, is a full-fledged accessory to the refurbished boutique hotel, now known as Hotel Lawrence.
Houston Street is managed and operated by the restaurant management firm launched by Brian Colton, former president of the Lincoln Restaurant Group, parent of the temporarily flooded and shuttered Dakota's, itself the downtown Dallas dining icon. Colton, who has an equity stake in Houston Street along with an investment group out of Annapolis, Maryland, lured Lincoln's corporate chef Ted Grieb into the executive chef slot. Chef du Cuisine Bertine Tamayo is from Dakota's. Together this team of Lincoln refugees has formulated an eclectic mix of grub ranging from smoked salmon terrine, to filet de boeuf, to lobster teriyaki. "It's creative American, for lack of a better term," says Colton, quickly tossing off the New American descriptor.
And it is that: common New American menu squatters lounging under a cloak of little twists, twirls and tremolos. Take its "little" birds, for instance. Now it's common knowledge that steroids are rampant among NFL linemen (maybe cheerleaders, too). In fact, it's doubtful a line of scrimmage could even exist in the NFL without these enhancements.
But are these hormones from hell bubbling up in quail culture as well? Houston Street's quail are plump birds with thunder thighs and hefty midriffs. "That is one big ole quail," grunted one of my dining companions after the plate arrived. So big, we ordered another, just to make sure we weren't being served some kind of freaky outside linebacker wannabe by mistake. But no, our second Texas Hill Country quail was just as strapping as the previous, though curiously it tasted better and was better prepared. The first linebacker was big, but bland, dry, tough and chewy, the latter characteristic not necessarily detrimental to quail fashion. But the second was strapping and juicy, with lots of savory highlights brought about by cognac marinade. The birds were perched on puffy apple bread pudding, a good cold-weather resting spot. And they were accompanied by massive blackberries bulging with delicious sweet-tart juice. More steroid victims?
But while the quail were conspicuous, the rabbit was sly and furtive. Braised rabbit pappardelle, well-prepared pasta ribbons sheened in a distractingly tacky (sticky, not shabby) cognac bordelaise sauce, was rounded out with delicious shiitake mushrooms and roasted shallots. But it was hard to tell what they were rounding. Bunny presence was in the form of barely perceptible shreds needled here and there into the pappardelle. Plus, those shreds were dry and overcooked.
Not the case with the red-wine roasted Sonoma chicken, among the best chicken preparations we've encountered in recent memory (chicken on a rotisserie spit being the quintessential New American menu stud). This boneless bisected bird, stuffed with "truffle compound butter" and served with potato gnocchi, was richly flavored and juicy. Twists and twirls included a diffusion of crisp onion rings over the top and a planking of perfectly prepared asparagus stalks on the bottom. The odd little gnocchi bulbs deployed around the rim of the plate had a delicately crisp exterior embracing a moist core.
Also reaching stellar status was the Niman Ranch pork chop (named for a Northern California-based ranch that "produces the finest-tasting meat in the world by adhering to a strict code of husbandry principles"). Charbroiled and flambéed with Calvados (a dry apple brandy from Normandy), the meat was pink, lush and astoundingly tasty. Adding punch to the pork motif, the chop was saddled with bacon-studded braised cabbage and a dollop of smooth mashed potatoes.
But where it is Holy Writ that Dallas must shine, Houston Street floundered. The prime New York steak was a perplexing meat pillow, a tightly plump, slightly convex rubbery little patchwork-scorched cushion that behaved as if it were bound in sausage casing. (Could it have been frozen at one time?) The meat was dull, shying away from richness and juicy savor--all this despite the "prime" designation.
A side of blue-cheese peasant potatoes, which were more like potato chips--and oily ones at that--were planted in a creeping blue curd swamp, which rescued the ensemble with the tangy cut of cheese mold, creasing the grease blanket and allowing at least a little spud perception.
Jumbo shrimp pappardelle proved the prefect escape from the prime steak disaster. Sautéed in lobster sauce, the shrimp were firm and succulent and sown with blotches of spinach and roasted garlic framing rich pasta. A menu description made mention of cherry tomatoes, but we were unable to locate any.
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Though gracious and earnest, service functioned in slow, plodding bursts, leaving a 20-minute gap between our initial drink order and its execution, even though we were virtually the only patrons in the place. And drink delivery was the moment our server chose to inform us that one of our companions couldn't have her Virgin Mary because the Bloody Mary mix cache was exhausted. Likewise, menu outages were relayed after we tossed out our preferences instead of before. Appetizers and entrées appeared in agonizingly slow increments, too, but to be fair it must take a long time to inflate a quail.
Desserts were a topsy-turvy performance as well. Apple tart, a circular pie with tightly tiled apple slices fanning out along the perimeter, was anchored on fluffy pastry. Tart juicy apple sections added a homey fall fragrance punch to this pizza-like meal ender.
Beignets with an accompanying urn of chocolate sauce stumbled irretrievably. These fritters were tough, chewy and dense instead of light and fluffy. Cook these babies a little longer and the Titleist moniker would have felt right at home.
But don't get me wrong. Houston Street is a Dallas thoroughfare with a lot of potential. The dishes are always visually compelling and, to a lesser extent, cogent on the tongue. The bugs should be easy to squish or at least spritz with some chemical, and if the staff gets tired of downtown, Mrs. Miller bellowed several other toe-tapping hits, such as "These Boots are Made for Walkin'." So drop an anabolic booster and hit the street.