Bayou Moderne

With Gregory's, chef Greg Webb has the restaurant he deserves.

Chef Greg Webb has been a player in the Houston restaurant scene for many years, but until now, his influence has been more felt than seen. Webb has worked in some of the hottest kitchens in town: at the Sierra Grill with Robert McGrath, in Tony Vallone's La Griglia, and in two of Alex Patout's restaurants, in downtown Houston and on Royal Street in New Orleans. The most recent Webb sighting was at the short-lived Mick's Gulf Coast Grill at Richmond and Greenbriar, which closed in February of this year despite some favorable reviews of Webb's work (see, for instance, "Bridging the Gulf," Houston Press, January 1).

Through all these years of sous chefdom, Webb says he dreamed of opening his "own personal dining room." Fortunately, that last brief engagement at Mick' s led to Chef of the Year recognition in Houston, which garnered investors, which brings us to last month's opening of his eponymous Gregory's in Highland Village.

Now that he's made it to the front row, I'm almost as nervous as he must be.
For starters, I worry that the new restaurant is difficult to find. Although its address is 4074 Westheimer, strictly speaking, it doesn't have Westheimer frontage. It would be more accurately described as being on the cross street, Drexel, in the shadow of P. F. Chang's looming wall of signage. I know of at least one couple who set out in search of Gregory's, failed to find it, and were forced to dine somewhere else.

Secondly, I fret that Gregory's is so understated that it will come in under the radar on the local dining scene. Mid-range to high-end Americana is a nebulous yet competitive niche, and I fear that subtlety isn't Houston's strong suit.

Gregory's dining room, for example, is light and airy, with a spare elegance that reminds me of old-fashioned Vieux Carre spaces like Galatoire's or Tujague's. The saltwater aquarium that divides the main dining area from the bar adds a splash of color, true, and the water wall beside the canopied deck is dramatic. Otherwise, though, the decor is in low-key cream, taupe and caramel, with unobtrusive pastel abstracts on the walls. I find the ambiance soothing, restful; others may find it Spartan, particularly the straight-back wooden chairs with unforgiving hard seats. The view into the open kitchen afforded diners at the back of the room is utilitarian to the point of grim; I recommend choosing a chair facing away from it.

Once you've found the door and tasted the food, though, these minor considerations will melt away. Webb describes his cuisine as "born on the bayous," but I think that's a little disingenuous. While his menu reflects Alex Patout's influence, Webb expands and lightens the haute Cajun repertoire. And, again, restraint is the key: no sauce or seasoning is allowed to overwhelm the flavors of the Gulf Coast seafood, beef and game.

The appetizer list includes one of my old favorites from Mick's, the crawfish and crab clusters ($8.00): tender little crawfish tails and massive chunks of firm white crabmeat, loosely held together with breadcrumbs moistened with a little mustard and dotted with green onions for accent. "Clusters" is a better term than the usual "cakes," as there's barely enough breading to hold them together on the griddle. Thank goodness.

Also familiar from Mick's is the iron-seared tenderloin ($8.00), which Webb calls a "Texas version of carpaccio, because Texans don't really want to eat raw meat." Four medallions of beef and venison are perfectly seared: crusty and blackened on the outside, rare and butter-tender on the inside; then they're served cold with crumbles of Stilton and a creamy homemade boursin, and crisscrossed with crisp asparagus spears. The plate is drizzled with a horseradish creme fraĒche and a green "pipian" sauce. "I use that sauce like a tasty green paint," Webb says enthusiastically. "I took out the oil from a traditional pesto and replaced it with vegetable broth, so it's lighter and kinder."

Another outstanding appetizer -- or even a satisfying light meal -- is tucked, inexplicably, in the soup category. The Gulf Coast pan roast ($7.00) offers shellfish (oysters, shrimps or scallops) atop a thick garlic toast surrounded by a cream bisque tinted a vivid, reddish-orange with chili sauce. It's tangy and rich and reminds me of a hot remoulade. As you eat, the crunchy garlic toast ever so gently melts into the sauce, but I've always managed to clean my plate before the disintegration is complete. Although I first tried a combination of oysters and shrimp, I think next time I'll choose shrimp and scallops, or perhaps just shrimp. The oysters are too delicate for this treatment, and get a little lost on the plate.

As was evident at Mick's, Webb has a masterful way with wild game. He credits his success to the secret blend of spices -- which he's code-named the "G Spice," for "Gulf Coast" -- that he uses to cure the meats; and to his grandmother's iron skillet, which he heats white-hot for a fast sear.

A recent chef's special, venison backstrap ($26.00), was blackened and crispy outside, and still tender rare in the middle -- the treatment reminded me of flash-seared tuna steaks -- and served with pan-fried potatoes. The backstrap was finished with sweet-tart cabernet demi-glace with dried cherries, which can also be found on the venison medallions, a regular menu choice.

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