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At Morgan's on Montrose, the restaurant that has replaced the Redwood Grill, the Asian tuna salad comes on a pale green rectangular plate. The slices of ahi tuna are decoratively lined along the edge overlapping the mixed greens. Crispy fried Chinese noodles and pickled ginger are piled on the side to use as condiments. The tuna is rare in the middle.
At Bennigan's next to the Honda dealership on the South Loop, the ahi tuna steak salad comes on a pale green round plate. The slices of ahi tuna are decoratively lined along the edge overlapping the mixed greens. Crispy fried Chinese noodles and pickled ginger are piled on the side to use as condiments. The tuna is rare in the middle.
You don't get a wad of wasabi, a slice of mango and roasted peppers with your tuna salad at Bennigan's, and the greens are iceberg and green leaf with shredded carrots and radishes rather than Morgan's more expensive mesclun with frisée. But the Bennigan's salad is $3 cheaper and Bennigan's is open for lunch.
One of the most popular entrées on the new menu at Morgan's on Montrose is "Jack Daniel's bar-b-que ribs." Sounds awfully close to that T.G.I. Friday's signature dish "Jack Daniel's glazed ribs," doesn't it? Both are baby back ribs glazed with Jack Daniel's barbecue sauce and served with onion rings. I can't tell you what they taste like because I haven't had either one. This is Texas, and unlike the rest of the nation, we can get pork ribs that have actually been smoked. So I see no reason to bother with inferior substitutes. But the similarities between the new menu at Morgan's on Montrose and those at T.G.I. Friday's and Bennigan's sure made me wonder where executive chef Shelly Drought is getting her inspirations.
There are four dinner salads on Morgan's menu: Morgan's chicken salad with Parmesan-crusted chicken and egg and bacon, seared ruby trout salad, California chopped chicken salad, and Asian tuna salad with grilled ahi. There are five dinner salads on Bennigan's menu: chef salad, grilled chicken Caesar with Parmesan, grilled salmon Caesar, country chicken salad with eggs and bacon, and ahi tuna steak salad.
On my first visit I ordered Morgan's sampler platter and tried the duck spring rolls, calamari and quesadillas. The duck spring roll was crunchy, but I would have preferred a hoisin dipping sauce over the sambal provided. The shrimp on the quesadillas was tasty, and the calamari tasted generic.
Like Bennigan's, the menu at Morgan's also features bacon cheeseburgers, chicken scallopini and artichoke spinach dip. Jumbling American, Italian, Mexican and Asian snack foods together is exactly the kind of culinary cretinism we expect from the franchise outposts of soulless corporations. But it comes as something of a surprise on the menu of a formerly elegant restaurant in the Museum District.
In press releases, owner Manfred Jachmich describes the new Morgan's on Montrose as exactly the sort of casual restaurant the area needs. Drought says that while the new concept features less expensive food, it will still be "chef-driven."
When I think of chef-driven restaurants in Houston, I think of Boulevard Bistrot up Montrose a couple of blocks, where Monica Pope takes organic vegetables from local farms and makes them the stars of an imaginative blackboard menu that changes every night. Or Aries, a couple of doors further up the street, where Scott Tycer and company cook everything from scratch every single day.
If Morgan's is a chef-driven restaurant, then Drought is pulling it into the drive-thru lane. It's not all her fault, though.
Immutable forces are wreaking havoc on the elegant restaurants that once lined Montrose south of Alabama. Tony Ruppe's packed it in last spring, Charlie Watkins closed Sierra Grill a few weeks ago, Monica Pope is closing Boulevard Bistrot and moving to Main Street, and now the former Redwood Grill is borrowing ideas from T.G.I. Friday's.
Restaurant publications tell us consumers are looking for value in the current economic climate, so it might make sense to lowball the market for a while. But coincidentally, Sierra Grill and Redwood Grill were both famous for a style of Southwestern cuisine that was very exciting ten years ago, but has long since faded in popularity. So maybe the slow economy is teaming up with the forces of evolution to clean house in the restaurant business.
But Bennigan's doesn't have to be the model of what's to come. The prices at Laurier Café on Richmond are just as low, or lower than those at the new Morgan's on Montrose, and the steak frites are excellent. Likewise, Mockingbird Bistro turns out hamburgers, mussels and all kinds of stunning salads at bargain prices. The top chefs in Paris opened satellite "bistro" locations too, when fine dining was lagging ten years ago. And in the process, they proved that lower prices don't necessarily mean junk food.
The blue cheese peppered bacon burger at Morgan's comes pink in the middle as I requested. There's plenty of bacon and cheese, but the bun is too big and it's very dry. I can't get a bite of burger that's moist enough to eat, so I take the thing apart and eat the pieces. The shoestring-style french fries are hot and crisp. The Heineken is skunky.
The restaurant is beautifully decorated with red tile floors, lemon-colored walls and handsome furniture and appointments. The windows are shaded with green awnings and they look out on a pleasant green courtyard and Montrose. The bar looks inviting, too. But on each occasion that I've visited, the place has been nearly empty.
The best thing I tried here was the steak and enchilada plate on my first visit. I've been fond of this combination ever since I sampled it at Reata restaurant in Fort Worth. Reata's former chef, Grady Spears, and I included a T-bone and cheese enchilada in our cookbook, A Cowboy in the Kitchen. Spears started eating steaks with enchiladas in Chihuahua because the steaks there were always well done and dry and he put the greasy enchiladas over the top to help choke them down.
The steak and enchilada plate at Morgan's on Montrose is different. The enchiladas come on the side, not on top. They're stuffed with spinach, so they're meant as a side dish rather than a lubricant. The steak is an eight-ounce sirloin, and the one I had was excellent -- tender and perfectly cooked. The dish wasn't what I was expecting, but it turned out to be great anyway.
On our way out the door on our last visit, I asked for a to-go menu to take home. A waiter dressed in a black T-shirt gave us one, but warned us that the menu was probably going to change again. Evidently the casual concept isn't going over very well with the customers or the staff. He predicted the restaurant would go back to some sort of fine dining format within a few days.
"I can't wait," he said, pinching a bit of his black T-shirt. "Then I can wear a real shirt again."