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It was a long time since I had a trout. Like most of the seafood on the menu at Glass Wall on Studewood, it's a fish that's not from around here. I forgot how much I loved it. The one I had for dinner at Glass Wall was served whole with the bones removed. The dark, moist meat was firm and pleasantly oily, but much subtler than salmon. On the side there was a nostalgia-inducing sauce made with sherry and chopped hard-boiled eggs. It reminded me of the trout served at rural inns in Northern Europe.
But it was the hash of crunchy fresh green beans, thick smoky bacon and tiny red potato quarters served on the side that convinced me Glass Wall was my kind of restaurant. I like a chef who's not afraid to put meat in the vegetables. Let the vegans go eat at the Hobbit Hole.
For an appetizer, we shared a stupendous Maryland crab cake that was nearly solid crab meat, with a little aioli and slaw on the side. I asked the waitress if it was just a Maryland-style crab cake, or if the crab meat really came from Maryland. She said it was really from Maryland, which is kind of bizarre, since we're having the best crab season in years here in Texas.
Houston, TX 77008
French fries and mayo: $6
Tuna tartare: $12
Crab cake: $13
Short ribs: $23
Rib eye steak: $27
Another appetizer, sautéed shrimp in New Orleans barbecue sauce, came in a little casserole that was overloaded with a dark gunk I assumed to be reduced Worcestershire sauce. But barbecue shrimp is a tricky dish; even Pascal's Manale, the restaurant in New Orleans that invented it, doesn't turn out a very good version anymore.
My dining companion got the fish of the day, a huge wedge of flaky, meaty Alaskan halibut served with asparagus risotto and a grapefruit tarragon salad. The grapefruit was wonderfully refreshing on a hot August night. The risotto wasn't very creamy, and the Syrah reduction sauce that came with the fish didn't do much for it. But we didn't pay much attention to the gunky shrimp or the Syrah sauce, because we were so swept away by the magnificent bottle of wine we were drinking.
Sometimes you order your dinner and then pick a wine that complements it. But when I saw Dr. Konstantin Frank's Dry Riesling on the wine list at Glass Wall, I immediately ordered a bottle. And then we picked the dishes we thought would go best with the wine.
Dr. Frank's Dry Riesling is that good. It comes from a storied winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and because they make so little of it, it rarely gets shipped beyond the East Coast. It's got all the raisin and ginger spice notes the varietal is famous for, but it's finished dry in the Alsatian style, with just a hint of residual sugar.
Dr. Frank is an American wine industry hero who has insisted on making fine wines in the Finger Lakes while most of the rest of the wine growers there turn out junk grapes. If the greedy growers had listened to Dr. Frank 50 years ago and planted quality grapes, the Finger Lakes would be the premier Riesling appellation in the world right now -- instead of the Cold Duck district.
The Glass Wall has an eccentric collection of exceptional wines that suits my tastes perfectly. Like the menu, the wine list is the sole creation of chef/owner Lance Fegen, formerly the chef at Zula and Trevisio. On the restaurant's Web site, Fegen declares that he created the restaurant as "an homage to his other life as a surfer."
The Glass Wall is the title of a 1965 Jim Freeman surfing movie; the phrase is also surfer slang for a big, well-formed wave. Beyond that, I have no idea what Fegen is talking about.
The Web site tries to tie the surfer homage to the food, saying it's "inspired by the natural lifestyle of coastal regions." But trout come from brooks, not oceans; there are no waves in Chesapeake Bay where the crabs are; and it's too cold to surf in Alaska. Besides, we live in a coastal region, albeit not one celebrated for its natural lifestyle.
I suppose the interior design is kind of California-esque. It's airy and full of light, with huge canvas sails above the booths to dampen the acoustics and soften the lines of the ceiling. Between the bar and the dining room, there's another kind of glass wall -- a big window set in a frame of black stones.
Okay, so the concept is a little fuzzy. Never mind that. The spirit is exuberant, the portions are hearty, much of the food is excellent and the wine list is brilliant. It's fine dining, yet it's a whole lot of fun.
On my second visit to Glass Wall, we couldn't get a table in the dining room. The place is packed most of the time, and you're pretty much out of luck without a reservation. So we took one of those tall barstool tables.
Succumbing to the power of suggestion, my dining companion saw hand-cut French fries with garlic mayonnaise on the menu while she watched the bartender go wild with a cocktail shaker. Suddenly, she had made up her mind: She wanted the fries and a Grey Goose martini. I wanted a steak. But it was way too hot an evening for red wine. So once again I relied on the organizing principle of alcohol and decided to start with martinis and appetizers, then switch to beef and dark beer.
I got a Beefeater martini, slightly dirty, with an order of tuna tartare served over salad greens with olives. The olive juice in the martini and the olives in the salad of raw, coarsely chopped, sushi-grade tuna gave the drink and appetizer duo a wonderfully unified theme -- savory, salty and ice cold. It made me want to drink slushy cold martinis with my sushi from now on.
I helped myself to quite a few of my companion's hand-cut French fries. The potatoes were fried a second time just before they came to the table, so they were piping hot and super-crispy with a bubbly texture on the outside. They were served in a bowl with a small vat of garlic mayo on the side for dipping. If you've ever had a cone of patats in Amsterdam, you're familiar with the addictive combination of French fries and mayo. If not, approach these with caution -- they can become an obsession.
I got the ribeye steak, which was grilled with a sweet and salty rub. It was cooked medium rare, but the steak wasn't very thick. The rub gave it some flavor, but the meat was chewy. My dining companion got the beef short ribs, which were long-cooked with a molasses glaze until they were meltingly tender and extremely dark in color.
After we sampled each other's entrees, she gave the verdict.
"My short ribs are way better than your steak." It was true. I'm a diehard steak lover, but I'd trade almost any steak in the city for an order of Glass Wall's beef short ribs.
"Funny, until just recently, I would have never eaten short ribs," she said. The fact that they have lots of fat in them before they're cooked scares away the "fat is icky" folks. One bite of these short ribs explains the connection between marbling and flavor and tenderness better than words ever will.
I asked the bartender for a stout, but the only dark beer that Glass Wall carries is Dogfish Head Brown Ale from Delaware. The hearty brown ale was a nice complement to my steak, but it was absolutely stunning with the smoky molasses-flavored short ribs. Still, it would be nice if they carried a few more beers in the summer.
But enough with the complaining. This is one of the best new restaurants that's opened in Houston in years. The menu is "off the wall" (if you will) and a joy to read. There's a hearty hit parade of things I'm dying to try, such as mustard mashed potatoes, mushroom confit and Kahlúa baked beans. There's also a nice balance of old and new, with revived classics such as green goddess dressing on Boston lettuce and innovations like fennel pesto on a tomato tart.
Call Glass Wall a "New American Surfer Bistro" if you're looking for a category. But don't get too fixated on anything in particular, because the menu changes monthly. You can only hope they still have some short ribs, French fries and dark beer when you show up.