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A funky aroma enveloped our table at the Bissonnet Grill, a new fast-casual eatery on Bissonnet near the corner of Kirby. It smelled like strong cheese, burning. Then it dawned on me.
Yucatan soup: $4
Tomato tower: $5
Cheese panini: $6
Roast beef sub: $5
Dozen fried oysters: $10
“That's our cheese panini,” I told my lunchmate. It's a wonderful thing to find grilled cheese sandwiches made with Italian Fontina, even if they do stink the place up a bit. At the Bissonnet Grill, there are four different panini sandwiches, all made with cheese, three featuring the pungent Fontina.
The mildest of the panini sandwiches is called the “Buffalo.” It's made with tomatoes, basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella between two slices of bread in a sandwich press that melts the cheese and toasts the bread while giving it a waffled texture.
The simplest of the Fontina sandwiches is the “Bella.” It's two slices of Italian bread with roasted red peppers, fresh basil and Fontina in the middle. The sandwich is then drizzled with olive oil and heated in the sandwich press until the Fontina begins to emanate its come-hither aroma. The other two panini sandwiches on the menu are variations on the “Bella.” The “Francesca” adds prosciutto and sliced tomato to the “Bella” ingredients, and the “chicken parmesan” adds a flattened breast of chicken to the basic grilled Fontina sandwich.
On another visit, I tried the tasty Yucatan soup, a spicy chicken soup seasoned with lime juice and spiked with jalapeños and cilantro. I would have liked it even better with the addition of tortilla chips and avocado. I also had a roast beef “sub” sandwich made with braised beef, caramelized onions, mushrooms and melted cheese on a too-soft roll. It wasn't a New Orleans roast beef poor boy with gravy, but it wasn't bad.
Disappointments included the chicken salad, which was made of rubbery chicken pieces and little else besides mayonnaise; the potato salad, which tasted like it came from a plastic tub; the French fries, which were previously frozen; and a hamburger that was an affront to Houston burger lovers.
Before I ordered the double-patty affair called “the downtown burger” on the restaurantÕs menu, I asked if it was a fresh or a frozen patty. “Fresh,” the cashier assured me.
It took a walk of approximately four feet to see what was really going on. Peering over the counter, I saw the grill cook preparing to place two well-done patties on a bun.
“Can I have that burger medium-rare?” I asked her. She grumbled something, and returned the two well-done patties to a rectangular stainless steel container that sat on the grill. Then she got two frozen patties out of the freezer and threw them on.
Burgers taste best when they are freshly cooked. The practice of cooking meat in advance of a rush and holding it results in gray, overcooked, tasteless burgers. I would rather go to Whataburger and get a fast-food burger cooked fresh than go to a mom-and-pop restaurant that serves the nasty precooked crap.
The medium-rare burger I finally got at Bissonnet Grill was juicy, but dull. Because the patties were frozen when they hit the grill, the meat didn't get any char or crispy texture on the outside. Suffice to say, I won't bother ordering a burger here again.
According to the menu, Bissonnet Grill is “a contemporary American bistro.” The menu is mostly sandwiches. The most expensive dish, at $12, is fried tilapia and shrimp in a jalapeño butter sauce served over a bed of French fries.
The place is furnished with what looks like lawn furniture. On the walls hang the amusing artworks of owner Frank Piazza, who fancies himself an abstract painter. The eatery might be more accurately described as a deli with delusions of grandeur.
Bissonnet Grill is located within a few blocks of the Buffalo Grille and the Raven Grill. I wondered how three neighborhood grills ended up so close to each other. “When two supermarkets are located across the street from each other, they both do more business,” a colleague at work observed. So maybe it's the same with grills.
I thought it would be interesting to make some comparisons, so I visited all three within the course of a few days.
The Raven Grill takes its name from its proximity to Edgar Allen Poe Elementary, which is located nearby. It is the toniest of the three establishments. The restaurant is full-service, the tables are covered with white tablecloths and the clientele is well-dressed. The menu includes a lobster pot pie, Sterling Silver-brand steaks and a tuna carpaccio appetizer.
I sampled some excellent blue cornmeal-crusted fried oysters served on a bed of lettuce with rémoulade at the Raven. Except for the color of the cornmeal, the Bissonnet Grill seems to have re-created the RavenÕs appetizer, down to the salad mix and rémoulade. Six oysters are $6.95 at Raven and $7 at Bissonnet Grill.
I also tried the $13.95 chicken-fried steak dinner special at Raven Grill, which was horrendous. I sent the first one back because the crust was soggy with grease and tinged with charred spots. I was given a second chicken-fried steak with no black spots, but an equally wet and greasy crust. I couldn't eat it.
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