I'm staring at a perfectly seared and large piece of red fish, with crisp skin and flaky white flesh, trying to figure out what went wrong with Texas Spice.
It's a decent plate, if a little ham-handed. The fish sits on a bed of black-bean and avocado purees, both heaped onto the plate in generous quantities. The whole thing is decorated with small cherry tomatoes, their skins peeled back and crisped but still attached, like the iridescent wings of lady bugs. It's an artful garnish that pleases the eye as much as it complements the plate, exploding with bright, summery flavors that manage to work even in the dead of winter.
But here's the thing: There are only two words in the name of this restaurant, and I'm having trouble tasting evidence of either.
Texas Spice lives inside the Omni Hotel, which opened in November as the city's Hail Mary attempt to lure the nation's conventioneers. Two complementary restaurants opened alongside it: Bob's Steak and Chop House, which sells a $59 Porterhouse to tourists who don't want to tour, and the Owner's Box, which pampers sports fans with burgers, nachos and hot dogs as a backdrop to giant TVs. Typical hotel stuff.
Texas Spice seems to want something more. It seems to want a crowd curious about a couple of things: Texas cuisine and farm-to-table cooking.
Everything's bigger, etc., etc.: That's one of the messages Jason Weaver, executive chef for the entire Omni, looks to be trying to convey through the hired hands of Texas Spice chef Cory Garrison. Margaritas are 15 ounces (and $10). Order the house version for a quick buzz, but avoid the pickle version, which pairs tequila with a salty house-made pickle brine. The two ingredients never marry and the results drink like a bad college shot.
Desserts are big, too. Milk and cookies arrive soft, warm and loaded with melting chocolate chips — three massive rounds suitable for Olympic discus. The banana split, made with local Blue Bell Ice Cream, stays true to tradition with three scoops, whipped cream, cherries and even banana fritters. The kitchen caramelizes a layer of sugar over the cut side of each banana; it cracks like delicate amber with the gentle urging of a spoon — a nice touch. But have fun trying to finish the thing. My waiter told me he'd never seen a table do it.
The chicken and dumplings arrive as half a roasted bird alongside golf balls of bready dough. Garrison covers the chicken in a subtly peppered gravy and proclaims it a tribute to his grandmother, who's surely proud. The dish, if not traditional, is mostly pleasing.
He also cuts brisket into massive batons flanked with a salad of fried potatoes dressed in a sour cream and mayo that reduces to a delicious, almost cheese-like consistency, and a large pint-sized jar filled with an inch or so of sweet and heavy barbecue sauce. But the large hunks of meat are dry and lifeless and flecked with fat and collagen not yet rendered.
Maybe grass-fed beef isn't the best cut for barbecue known for its soft and glistening fat, but the kitchen smoker the restaurant employs will never offer up the world's finest brisket. What Texas Spice needs, if it strives to offer a window into Texas barbecue, is a proper pit. And if this restaurant intends to offer a window into Texas cuisine as a whole, it needs cooking that's a lot more aggressive. Everything's bigger, sure, but everything here could be better. Instead of screaming Texas, these dishes whisper sheepishly, under-delivering on the big and bold flavors the region is known for.
And Texas isn't the only message Garrison and Weaver are trying, and failing, to convey.
That Blue Bell Ice Cream is churned and frozen in Brenham, Texas. That red fish is farmed sustainably in Gulf waters. The milk is from small local farms. The sausage comes from Kuby's, the small German grocery off of Daniel Avenue. There's Texas Ruby grapefruit in the Farmer's Market Salad, and Paula's goat cheese from Deep Ellum makes an appearance, too. The mantra is echoed in the insignias that grace the frosted glass partition that runs along a far wall: Farmer's Market, they promise. With as much as 90 percent of the ingredients used in the kitchen, Garrison says, that mantra is delivered.
It's a nice sentiment, and for the dishes that work — like that red fish and a generous shrimp-and-grits dish — it's a successful welcome into the locavore movement. And it's all served in a gorgeous dining room that, in all its LEED-certified glory, is decked out in reclaimed lumber, serves filtered water from reusable containers and makes use of energy-efficient cooking equipment. It's a model for what every restaurant should strive for — until you get to the food. And it's a friendly reminder that the farm will never last at the table if the food doesn't sing.
Pig's head fritters land like stones. It's not that they're fried improperly; it's the lack of acid and brightness that makes the dish so heavy. Parmesan jam eats like mud, and a bed of chow-chow is soft and sweet when it needs to be bright and crisp. This is a very brown plate.
Flatbreads disappoint, too. The toppings they showcase outshine the yeast-driven crust, which is heavy with raw flour. And deviled eggs have a chalky consistency, even when loaded with the yellow mustard many Texans love.
A hanger steak, served on a plastic cutting board with a sweet sauce, was an even bigger letdown. On my visit, the overcooked exterior was stringy and tasted of something my whole table had trouble pinning down. A shame considering they're paired with some notable sweet-potato fries, draped in a veil of crispy batter kept close to their orange flesh. Lettuce wraps made better use of the same protein on another visit, pairing a nice, rare steak with feta, coleslaw and sweet caramelized onions. Too bad lettuce wraps feel more Asian than Texan.
With mediocre food as its only consistent output, Texas Spice's multiple mantras get garbled. The farm-to-table concept is great, sure, but it's a methodology for procuring ingredients, building relationships with growers and farmers and reducing energy consumption associated with the storage and transportation of food. It's not a style of cuisine that inspires strong food emotions in casual diners. Tex-Mex, Indian, Italian, soul food: These are cuisines that strike a chord with the customers. These are the way we think about food when we have cravings or are otherwise starving.
Texas cooking, influenced significantly by Mexican and European immigration, is already difficult to define, and Texas Spice doesn't help shore up that already shaky understanding. And without the Texas, Texas Spice is just another hotel restaurant.