Restaurant Reviews

Kitchen LTO's Device

When Kitchen LTO opened earlier this summer, the "permanent pop-up" promised to be at least the most interesting restaurant at Trinity Groves. Before it, the development that sprang up at the end of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge had only produced mediocre barbecue and hot dogs. Now a flashy marquee hung over a restaurant that could stave off boredom forever with wine, custom-made cocktails and an endlessly changing concept, for better or worse.

Here's the plan: Every four months, a new designer will transform LTO's dining room, breaking it down and building anew like the stage of your favorite playhouse. Then a new chef will arrive, and recast the kitchen with a completely new menu. Customers who aren't smitten with the current show need only wait until the chef gets the boot; those who fall in love must devour their favorites quickly, and hope that incarnation pops up in a Strip Mall Near You. Either way, the sounds, sights and smells of LTO experience will eventually fade, as all memories do.

The disappearing act is a fundamental component of pop-up dining — what pops up must eventually burst. Casie Caldwell, who created Kitchen LTO, is tapping a trend that's swelled in New York; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Houston; and other cities. These privately hosted, invite-only dining events go off in elegant homes, tiny apartments, large warehouses and even city alleys. They're run by cash-strapped chefs and aspirational cooks in a sort of down-with-the-man, fuck-your-permits culinary interpretation of the punk-rock movement. And then they disappear until another private email chain or covert handshake starts up the next queue.

The exclusivity and secrecy is in stark contrast to Trinity Groves, the restaurant incubator that serves as a proving ground for budding entrepreneurs. Restaurateurs get cheap rent and free consulting; developers get a slice of the pie should their idea go the way of Chipotle. Kitchen LTO, a sort of test kitchen within a test kitchen, falls right in line with the development's plan to form a creative hotbed, but the backdrop feels a little over-produced. A pop-up going permanent in a setting like this is like watching Green Day send their once-gritty lyrics off to Broadway's money-hungry producers.

At least for the first act, chef Norman Grimm's name is in lights on the marquee hanging over LTO. Grimm earned the job through a process that reads like a script for reality TV. If such things interest you, indulge your waiter's offer to learn about "our concept." For the rest of us, decline the offer. The CliffsNotes read: Chefs enter through an application process before a popular social media vote is conducted before the top choices are vetted through a single dish cook-off in front of a panel of judges. And then we eat.

Turn your attention to the drink list instead. The first half is a refreshingly short and simple list devoted to the classics like the daiquiri you forgot you liked, while the second half offers more elaborate cocktails. The high-profile bartender Jason Kosmas is credited with designing the drink menu and it's another good one. (He's since moved to Austin.)

While you sip, peruse the "nibbles," but know if you ask for advice you'll get a monologue about the tuna tartare that earned chef Grimm his time at LTO. It makes sense that tuna tartare would be a favorite in a city that leans toward well-done filet mignon — both are essentially flavorless. But Grimm does a decent job with the timid tuna, adding chunks of avocado and lending flavor with tamari, texture and sweetness with Asian pear, and tartness from yuzo tuned into tiny, irregular pearls — all of this accented by the unexpected crunch of a Kellogg's favorite: snap, crackle, pop.

The pork belly is infinitely more exciting, and offers thick slices of perfectly roasted pig, pan-seared to a beautiful crisp exterior. The golden brown slabs sit on a bed of pink lady apple puree that evokes the fruit in spirit but with the consistency of fluffy velvet. The results are a play on pork chops and applesauce that belong on your table if you come here.

The sweetbreads (served with a sauce gribiche that is more oily than creamy, but still bright and loaded with herbs) and a crab salad (presented in a pile on small romaine leaves like cups) are both good. The arancini oozes with cheese and somehow still seems dry and dull. And the caprese salad made with what the menu claims are heirloom tomatoes that taste like under-ripened grocery store fruit should be tossed in the Trinity until next year.

Of course, by then Kitchen LTO will be something else entirely, all the way down to what Caldwell intimately describes as the "transformable dining room components." Say goodbye to the orange walls and the panels of color that pull shades from Fiestaware. The Coeval Studio design is attractive and simple but does nothing to celebrate chef Grimm's modern American menu. Instead, it has a vague Southwestern feel, right down to the wooden sculpture that recalls an abandoned basket-weaving project, looming over the dining room.

Entrees are as mixed as the appetizers, with some delivering an interesting twist on a classic and others presenting problems that are difficult to forgive. A crisp-skinned branzino is easy to love, especially since the flesh of each fillet is still moist. They're sitting on a salad of tomatoes as crisp as apples, that somehow still sing. Too bad they didn't offer a note to that caprese.

A snapper fillet is cooked just as well, as is a juicy breast of chicken. They both wear crunchy skin that's powerfully salty but balanced by the rest of the dish. The potatoes served with the snapper were underdone, though. They were diced the size of sugar cubes, with almost as much crunch.

A filet mignon requested medium rare was delivered just past medium, and braised lamb served with fava beans and asparagus tasted like it hadn't been salted at all. These types of errors are often associated with newly opened restaurants and less in restaurants with entrees that approach $30, as they sometimes do here. But by the time chef Grimm works out all the kinks he may no longer be in the kitchen, and the next chef will be in charge, presumably ironing out his or her own wrinkles.

Until then you can soothe yourself with the LTOMG, but only if you're craving something tooth-achingly sweet. The dessert arrives like a chocolate softball that's unlocked when a waiter drizzles melted chocolate over the top. The heat melts the dome, revealing apples and nuts inside. You might picture a birthday party magician yelling out "tada!" and waving jazz hands after it unfolds. It tastes just as saccharine.

It's the sweet and showy nature that can leave you with a bad taste. Something is lost when underground dining goes mainstream, just like punk rock lyrics lose their punch when sung by a classically trained vocalist. Instead of recreating the grit and mystery of a true pop-up, the Twitter-covered chef competitions, dueling designers and flashing marquee of LTO taste like a bad spin on reality TV. My dining companion put it much more succinctly one evening with a whisper across the back of her hand: "This is such a gimmick." She's right — one with a never-ending curtain call.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz