Monday, July 13, 2015

And we've only just met: a first look at Bramble

One of my favorite parts of dining out is seeing the evolution of a chef, their restaurant, and the menu. To me, the best place to start to view that growth is, naturally, the beginning. I enjoy going to newly opened restaurants, sampling the first menus, and seeing what the chef and/or owner's original vision is for the place. I of course would never review a place based off of a single visit just a few days after it opens; that would be as pointless as it would be irresponsible. As it pertains to the restaurant that was the inspiration for this post, this is merely my first impression. I fully expect a differently composed dining experience on my second trip in, third visit, and so on.

Those who have followed the Houston dining scene over the years are familiar with Chef Randy Rucker. An accomplished chef and James Beard award semifinalist, Rucker has a resumé that included established Houston restaurants such as Quattro in the Four Seasons and Rainbow Lodge as well as opening the critically acclaimed but short lived restaurants Laidback Manor and Bootsie's Heritage Cafe. Chef Rucker has long been known for his commitment to quality and locally sourced ingredients and has brought that discipline to Bramble, his new restaurant that opened last week on South Voss.

Located in the former Mancuso's Italian spot, Bramble is a lively, small space with reclaimed wood ceilings and an open kitchen. I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious the dining room feels despite seating less than 50 diners. My wife and I were not rubbing elbows with the tables around us, and the noise level was moderate, easily allowing for normal table conversation. This is a restaurant that loves its wood, from the tabletops to the glassware station to the small bar just off to the right beyond the front door. It works to create the cohesive feel that Bramble is going for of a neighborhood joint that serves foraged food indigenous to Texas.

Teres major with brown butter, fingerling potatoes, and beets.

The menu is relatively small and is based on seasonality and availability. It will change frequently, which will help to make each trip different from the last. Our server came to the table shortly after we were seated, gave a brief explanation of the cocktail menu and was quick to point out that drinks may take a few minutes to come out as each one was thoughtfully hand-crafted. While diners experienced with ordering cocktails at similarly dedicated places such as Anvil are familiar with the time and care that goes into well balanced drinks, Rucker and company have opened up in an area of Houston that is not yet populated with a glut of restaurants of its ilk. In Montrose for example, staff might make an assumption that the majority of their patrons are familiar with the careful process of mixing a proper drink based on a number of established bars and eateries in the neighborhood that specialize in the format. The community in which Bramble resides may not yet be familiar with the longer process of carefully crafting a drink and could mistake the longer than usual wait time as poor service when in fact the opposite is the case.

The theme of introducing their style and educating the customer continued throughout the meal. The full menu was explained in great detail. Our server went so far as to inform us that the Mangrove snapper ceviche-style dish got its name from that particular fish populating the waters off the Gulf of Mexico near where Mangrove tree roots grow into the Gulf. To some this may seem like more information than needed, but for a self-professed food nerd like myself, I enjoy learning where my food comes from. What impressed me most was that only five days into its run, Bramble's front of house staff was able to speak not only intelligently but passionately about the menu. This shows a dedication to the dining experience that extends from the chef all the way through to each part of service; color me impressed.

left: stone ground grits | top right: dinner rolls, beer and cheese bread made with Miller Lite | bottom right: cured  Mangrove snapper

Our food selections for this visit consisted of the bread course, a generous portion of beer and cheese bread and dinner rolls. The bread basket could easily have served a table of four, and was at a very palatable five dollar price point. Next up were squash blossom beignets stuffed with squash and goat cheese and fried with a light, airy batter. The blossoms were crispy with a nice filling and were well portioned. We also ordered the aforementioned Mangrove snapper. Cured in citrus and served with celery, fennel, and a bit of pickled serrano chili, the fish was beautiful. The chili flavor was a nice addition so long as it was eaten in combination with the other elements of the dish.

The star of the night was the teres major, a delicious cut of beef from the shoulder area that is most similar in taste to the tenderloin. It was served medium rare to medium with fingerling potatoes and candy-striped beets. I was a bit surprised that we were not asked for a preferred doneness on the meat. I was quite content with the cookery myself and applaud when a chef serves beef to the level of cooking temperature they feel is best, but some diners may wish to have their own taste preferences taken into account. That being said, it would be a shame to see such a beautiful cut cooked to oblivion.

Wood grilled peach pie in those amusing mugs.

We also ordered a side of the stone ground grits because, well, I'm a sucker for them. They did not disappoint. They were light and fluffy and dangerously good; I could eat a bowl for breakfast every morning. We finished off the meal with a well executed peach pie dessert, served in the same quirky mugs as the grits. Our server surmised  that the almost smirking face on the mugs was a nice reflection of Chef Rucker himself.

Was it a perfect meal on this night? Of course not. No restaurant I've been to in its infancy, be it Underbelly, Killen's Barbecue, Coltivare, Pass and Provisions or Bramble reaches its peak that fast. The beignets could have used a touch of salt, the snapper dish could have had a bit more on the plate, but these are minor hiccups in an otherwise fine meal that I suspect will be corrected as the kitchen staff hits their stride. Bramble left me with as good a first impression as I can recall having at a newly opened restaurant. I sincerely hope their commitment to teaching the consumer pays off and that their neighborhood embraces the type of dining experience they've created. The Houston dining scene is more interesting with Randy Rucker in the mix. Hopefully Bramble keeps him here for the long haul.

Friday, July 3, 2015

food for thought: June 2015

Though this was my first month in quite some time without a massive barbecue road trip, there was plenty of dining activity - barbecue included - during the month of June.

Left: Korean fried chicken from Karbach; Right: Karbach's Big 'Ol Pretzel

My favorite bite of the month: Having heard good things about the new restaurant and tasting room at Karbach Brewery, I stopped in for a quick lunch and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. A particular highlight was the Korean fried chicken. Juicy, crispy bites of sweet and spicy chicken with house-made kimchi, this was one of the better plates of food I've had in awhile. The "big 'ol pretzel" certainly lived up to its name, and the house mustard, made with Karbach's Hellfighter Ale, was fantastic. Karbach's tasting room is spacious and lively and the beirgarten is a great meet up spot with friends when the weather cooperates.

The worst meal of the month: I know there is a lot of history and great affinity for Goode Co. Seafood, but a recent lunch there was underwhelming in so many ways that I can't let it slide. Our group was treated to overcooked fish devoid of flavor, soggy shrimp empanadas and even soggier fries, and all for a hefty lunch price. I'm all for nostalgia dining, but not at the cost of missing every mark.

Pancakes with peaches, white chocolate crumble, raspberry sauce, creme fraiche and syrup from Foreign and Domestic

Crossing one off the to-do list: I have a running list of restaurants I want to try, but there are always a few outliers that I just never seem to make it to. The restaurant that had been on my Austin to-do list for the longest time was Foreign and Domestic. I had heard such glowing things about it from so many trusted sources, but just never made it in on any of my many Austin trips. I was finally able to remedy that this month. While I still have not enjoyed a dinner service there, the brunch I had was great. A perfectly executed French omelette and one of the most memorable pancake dishes I've had confirmed what I'd been hearing about F&D for so long. There have long been rumors of a Houston outpost of Foreign and Domestic. I would be all for that.

From left to right: trinity plate at Freedmen's | the spread at Franklin Barbecue | A sampling of La Barbecue 

Smoked meat heavy hitters: For various reasons I ended up with a stellar roster of barbecue joints visited this month. On separate Austin trips I was able to go to La Barbecue, Freedmen's, and Franklin Barbecue. In Houston I made it to Roegels, Jackson Street, and Killen's. There were too many highlights in this group to mention, but what a great barbecue renaissance our state is undergoing.

The chicharrone plate at Revival Market

Revival Market's Makeover: Heights gem Revival Market has transitioned from a meat, produce, and specialty goods market to more of a full service restaurant, though they still offer a great selection of goods for take home purchase. While they've always had a sandwich menu for lunch service, Revival now has a more composed sit-down menu. On a recent visit I was rewarded with a fantastic chicharrone. The fabulously fried pork skins came piping hot to the table, dusted with fragrant zataar spice. It was served with sour cream that was garnished with curtido and chives, though eating them sans dip was just as pleasing. I can't think of a better five dollar dish in Houston right now. and can't wait to get back for the newly launched Revival Market dinner service.

Full Disclosure: This month had 32 stops.