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New Digs, Old Tricks

The Riviera Grill has moved downtown, but it doesn't know how to make an urban statement

In 1924, the year the Sam Houston Hotel first opened, Damon Runyon was America's best-read journalist. With an incredible eye for detail, Runyon depicted boxers, gamblers and criminals in a lurid, slangy prose style that caught the spirit of the times. He described housewife/ murderer Ruth Snyder, for instance, as "a chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins…"

Runyon would have loved this window table at the Riviera Grill in the newly renovated Sam Houston Hotel. The glass is tinted so that the people outside on the street can't see you. They pass within inches of your nose, completely unaware of your existence, and hence, totally unself-conscious. My dining companions and I look over the Sunday brunch menu while we watch a guy in camouflage pants and a backward cap walking a bright blue lunch bucket to work. A basket of pastries and muffins is served with the coffee, but we decide to start with a bowl of chef John Sheely's fried calamari.

The Houston Press first discovered Sheely and his squid back when his restaurant occupied a former Souper Salad location at Westheimer and Gessner ("Secret Success," October 5, 1995). "I am unexpectedly blown away by the most mundane appetizer on the menu, fried squid…with a surprisingly sweet edge to the batter," wrote reviewer Janice Schindler. Our order arrives just as two corpulent female bus drivers in bright white Metro uniforms amble by outside, loudly exchanging gossip.

Street scene with squid: John Sheely just won't give up on an appetizer that's long past trendy.
Troy Fields
Street scene with squid: John Sheely just won't give up on an appetizer that's long past trendy.

Details

832-200-8800. Hours: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Calamari: $10
Eggs Riviera: $16
Scallops: $26
Pork chop and slaw: $27
Dry-aged Angus porterhouse: $36

1117 Prairie (in the Sam Houston Hotel)

I, too, am surprised by the sweetness of the calamari. The squid are bathed in milk to tenderize them, reported Schindler, and then coated with graham cracker crumbs. The calamari are now also tossed with a sweet chile sauce as they come out of the fryer, the waiter tells us, so they're even sweeter than before.

In the April 1997 issue of Southern Living magazine, Dana Campbell called the Riviera's fried squid "honestly the best I've eaten."

"Sheely's calamari must be the best in town," agreed the Press's Michael Berryhill when the restaurant moved to its second location, a Radisson Suites Hotel at I-10 and the Beltway ("Hotel Haute," October 23, 1997).

And in the May 1998 issue of Southwest Airlines' in-flight magazine, John Mariani wrote, "Sheely's fried calamari have become quite famous…"

There is no doubt that Sheely can fry squid. But like mozzarella cheese sticks and buffalo chicken wings, fried calamari have fallen into the abyss of formerly trendy appetizers that are now eaten primarily at Red Lobster. You'd think the chef would be famous for something else eight years after he was first reviewed in the Press. But he seems to be dragging his squid around with him like a security blanket.


My dining companion was already halfway through a Heineken when I sat down for my first meal at the new Riviera Grill. I spotted what I wanted on the menu right away, a frisée salad with a poached egg and chicken livers to start, followed by a brined and grilled pork chop with bacon cabbage slaw. I was thinking a hoppy English ale would taste good with that, or maybe a Sierra Nevada.

"What kind of beer do you have?" I asked the waiter.

"I don't know. That's the first one I've served in the month I've been here," he said nodding toward my friend's glass. The waiter didn't move, indicating that he had no intention of going to find out what kind they had, either.

"Well, they're probably on the list," I said reaching for the wine list.

"No, there aren't any beers there," he replied, still not moving. "Don't get me wrong, I like beer myself. But the clientele here drinks wine."

I was flummoxed. But I held my tongue. Obviously, if I was going to write about this restaurant, I was simply going to have to drink wine. A Riesling wouldn't be bad with cabbage and pork, but the wine list didn't offer it by the glass. I settled for a Côtes du Rhône, and my friend got a glass of Beckman Sauvignon Blanc. The wines came to the table in tiny carafes, only to be pointlessly repoured into wine glasses.

"What's up with the fussy service?" my friend asked when the waiter left. "Somebody put my napkin in my lap when I sat down, too. I don't need anybody's hands in my lap."

My salad arrived, but it was not at all what I had expected. A jumble of greens mixed with bacon and chicken livers and topped with a poached egg is a fairly common salad in France, and one I've come to love. With its zillions of tiny interwoven leaves and resilient, scrubby density, frisée is perfect for the job. Unfortunately, the Riviera Grill sautéed the greens into a sodden lump.

On my first bite I encountered something unpleasantly crunchy. On my second bite I deduced that the grit between my teeth wasn't coarsely ground pepper -- it was sand. I sent the salad back. The replacement wasn't sandy, but the combination of goopy poached egg, goopy lightly cooked chicken livers and goopy frisée was altogether too much goop.

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