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What the Deal, Lucille's?

Something has gone wrong with a restaurant that should have, could have, been great.

I'm not going to lie: I began to eagerly anticipate the opening of Lucille's a year and a half ago. Back in May 2011, chef and owner Chris Williams told me that he expected to be up and running within a few months. He planned to "redefine Southern cuisine using all the flavors picked up in Europe," and I planned to visit this new Museum District location as often as possible. After all, aside from the ultra-pricey Monarch at the Hotel Zaza, a Cafe Express in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a build-your-own-burrito place — Bodega's — tucked into the first floor of a hospital, Houston's beautiful Museum District is otherwise eerily bereft of restaurants. I couldn't wait for Lucille's to come in and shake things up.

A year went by and Lucille's showed no signs of opening. The old bungalow Williams and his family were converting into a restaurant proved tougher to renovate than they previously thought. But finally, at the end of this past August, they announced a soft opening. By early September, I was enjoying my first meal inside a spectacularly revamped and thoughtfully built-out dining room full of guests who seemed as eager as I was to be there. And what a first meal it was.

A plate of pork and beans was the first signal that Williams was truly "redefining" Southern cuisine, as it were, arriving not as a campfire-style dish of pinto beans and pork nuggets but instead as a shallow bowl filled with vibrantly green fava beans surrounding a pork shank large enough to bludgeon a man with. His European training blazed forth in a sweet-and-sour agrodolce reduction that cleverly mimicked the tangy taste of old-fashioned pork 'n' beans from a tin can, slicing neatly through the fattiness of the pork shank and further enlivening the garden-fresh fava beans around it.

The sour agrodolce reduction mimics the taste of pork 'n' beans.
Troy Fields
The sour agrodolce reduction mimics the taste of pork 'n' beans.

Location Info

Map

Lucille's

5512 La Branch St.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Third Ward

Monarch Restaurant & Lounge

5701 Main
Houston, TX 77005

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Kirby-West U

Cafe Express

5601 Main St.
Houston, TX 77005-1823

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Kirby-West U

Bodegas Taco Shop

1200 Binz Ave.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Third Ward

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Lucille's chili biscuits: $7
Fried green tomatoes: $8
Apple and brie panini: $11
Butcher burger: $16
Pan-roasted chicken: $19
Shrimp and grits: $20
Pork and beans: $23

READ MORE
BLOG POST: Who Was Lucille Bishop Smith?

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His crunchy fried green tomatoes — a staple of the genre — did not disappoint, either. And as someone who routinely makes them at home, I appreciate the fine line one walks to get the cornmeal breading to adhere appropriately to the tart tomato slices without becoming gummy or tough. Williams's neat row of tomatoes were fine examples of the classic dish, especially when taken with the peppery buttermilk Ranch dressing drizzled lightly across the top.

Even the shrimp and grits — commonly ruined in untrained hands — were perfectly constructed, with a deft balance of flavor and texture throughout. The grits were creamy instead of gloppy; the shrimp were plump and fresh; and a bright, almost citrusy butter reduction and a handful of watercress on top tied it all up in a terrific little package. Between the food and the wisely priced wine list (a bottle of Barnard Griffin Cabernet, for example, was barely marked up over retail), I couldn't wait to return.

And then something went terribly wrong.
_____________________

Lucille's is named after Chris Williams's great-grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith, a culinary pioneer who owned U.S. Smith's Famous BBQ in Fort Worth and helped establish one of the first college-level commercial foods departments in the nation at Prairie View A&M University. To name your first restaurant after your great-grandmother — especially one as well-respected as Lucille Bishop Smith — is to set very high expectations for yourself. And over the course of three visits, it doesn't appear that Williams is quite living up to those standards.

For my second visit, I wanted to take my own 88-year-old grandmother — as solidly Southern (well, East Texan, although the two are interchangeable) as they come and as well-seasoned a cook as you'll find in the Piney Woods. Lucille's was closed on the day of our visit, however, and I was chagrined. It turns out that I shouldn't have been; I wouldn't have wanted my grandmother to even so much as look at the food I ate the following night. I have never had to apologize to a friend — this one from up north, excited to taste some Southern cooking — as profusely as I did on that Saturday night.

My oxtails were tough and undercooked, missing the promised side of "bruleed sweet potato gratin" and served in a confusingly named sauce termed "aspirations" on the menu. I still don't know what "aspirations" are meant to be, but judging by this dish, they are a collection of ratatouille-esque vegetables coated in a thick, cloyingly sweet sauce.

My boyfriend's "pan-roasted chicken" hadn't a single sear mark on it and looked as if it had been boiled in a pot of water, with a bit of pepper thrown on top. His "fingerling hash" consisted of a few cold, barely cooked potatoes, and his "garden terrine" was kale with ice chips still clinging to the leaves. Only the 45-minute egg was any good, but what a waste of a golden yolk. What would we have swiped through it? The uncooked potatoes? Or the bland, tough chicken?

My Yankee friend's burger was perhaps the worst offender, however. An order of "medium" resulted in a burger cooked to a charcoal briquette consistency, while her fries were cool and mealy and smacked of freezer burn. Even the famous Lucille's chili biscuits had arrived tiny, cold and tough, the quickly congealing shreds of cheese on top forming a unappetizing, gelatinous bond with the cool chili underneath. If I was embarrassed at the thought of my own grandmother eating these biscuits, Williams should be even more embarrassed at butchering his own great-grandmother's signature recipe in such a way.

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32 comments
Phil
Phil

pretty good yelp reviews so i'll cross my fingers and give them a try one day soon and will post to let you know my findings.  at any rate, I've enjoyed the internet tussling.

nextdestination
nextdestination

I don't know guys...the fact that a food writer doesn't know what aspiration is...that it's not a sauce but the proper name for broccolini...bad taste in my mouth.

I think the agenda is based on the bigger picture. A book...fiction of course ..full of more bullshit.

Looks like a resume builder using small business by a sensationalist hack!

Looking forward to the book though...sure to be an entertaining read!

Fluerie
Fluerie

Chris Williams should take a page from the playbook of Trey Melcher, who responded with grace and good sense when Katharine criticized his Vida Tex-Mex restaurant. 

As it stands now, William's comments make him appear terribly unsophisticated in media matters and uninterested in receiving any constructive criticism.

moosecack
moosecack

I went there twice, and was mightily not impressed, either time.  Also, the bartender was a complete, pretentious asshole. The Museum Park district really needs a few more restaurants....Lucille's is "meh", and the restaurant at the Hotel ZaZa is overpriced for the mediocre fare they've been serving..  

It's really too bad Randy Rucker's proposed venue fell through in that area.....

br4586
br4586

Chef Christopher needs to stop being such a baby. She didn't like the food, so instead of having a fit he should take that and try to make improvements. I will not be spending my money there!

paval
paval

It looks like the Press has censored the full comment of the chef to the article, which is deplorable from the side of the Houston Press, since the Chef should get a chance to maybe explain himself, excuse himself for his low quality offerings, or correct a few impressions, etc. If you want to read what seems to be the whole comment check out Houston Eater where the big stirring spoon Eric Sandler loves to antagonize people from within the industry:  http://houston.eater.com/archives/2012/12/06/lucilles-chef-takes-to-comments-to-respond-to-review.php#reader_comments

Of course as it looks likes the chef has opted to attack Katharine Shilcutt for her note instead of opting for the grander "mea culpa" and we will try to do everything better in the future. It will definitely not help that the chef leans widely out of his window accusing the journalist to only write positive for people advertising in the Press. That unneccesary accusation can cause long lasting damage between Lucille and the media. If it were true Lucille will never get a positive comment in the future, if its not true, it marrs the reputation of the Press in the same way as the comment of the Press affects the restaurant (kind of an old testamentary eye for an eye) 

Chef Williams could have taken the negative comment with a grain of salt, thanked for the positive comments and promised to evaluate and if needed, improve, on the negative side

jookyhc
jookyhc

To imply that someone's effort is a disappointment to their deceased family is absolutely a personal attack, though Chef Williams' allegation against Shilcutt is likely a less-than-gracious reaction.

avisfield
avisfield

Wow.  I just ate here for the first time with a group from work last week, and we all agreed that the shrimp and grits were the best we ever had.  Everyone seemed happy with the other dishes ordered.  I liked it so much that I have a lunch planned there for a birthday on Saturday. 

susanterrywilhelm
susanterrywilhelm

I read each and every review that Katherine Shilcutt writes.  She has always, in my opinion, been completely fair and honest.  My take after this review had I not read the comments section would be to give the restaurant another 3-6 months to even out and then give them a try.  However, Chef Christopher, your response to this review makes me think otherwise.  I have seen Katherine review many restaurants, glowingly I might ad, that DO NOT or HAVE NEVER advertised with The Press and to say that is the reason for your poor review reflects much more poorly on you and your restaurant than it does on Katherine and The Press.  Have I always agreed with Katherine , no, but I would never accuse her as being a shill for the paper she works for just for advertising dollars.  My advise to you, Chef Christopher, would be to put down your hammer for a bit and focus on your current kitchen.  Make sure that those that are representing you are producing exactly what you want.  Perhaps a bit more focus from you would prevent another mediocre review and in fact make each of us want to come in.

jennytulltx
jennytulltx

I haven't been to the restaurant, but this cat fight in the comments is fun!  Keep it up!

ChefChristopher
ChefChristopher

I have never read a review that was this personal and mean spirited. Every take youhave had about my restaurant has been inaccurate, from the "three pieceportion" of fried green tomatoes for eight dollars, vs. the picture of theactual dish with five pieces, which you took with your phone and included inyour First Look blog post. This is not journalism, this is an attack done inpoor taste. We are a small restaurant with no investors. We are not trying toget rich or famous, we are just being honest and doing what we love to do. I amsorry you had a bad experience dining with us. We want to provide the bestexperience possible to all our guests, even you. Since we are unable to satisfyyour discerning palate with our "leathery ice tea," we invite you todine else where in the future. PS: to any restaurant who wants a good reviewfrom the Press, and avoid this type of attack, you had better fucking advertisenow!  Christopher Williams, chef and owner of Lucille's

ChefChristopher
ChefChristopher

Ok Katharine. We get it. Now we will advertize with you.

jodie.eisenhardt
jodie.eisenhardt

I've eaten there twice, Katharine and like you, my first meal wowed me and everyone in my party and our second visit left us confused. I was especially disappointed over whatever had happened to the biscuits after they had been such a revelation the first time. Gosh, I really do hope they get it together.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

Oof, I hate to read this.

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

Don't forget the laughably bad "cocktails" which look and taste like something a college freshman whipped together with Ocean Spray juices and plastic bottle vodka.  They are served super strong in giant pint glasses though so if you happen to know an alcoholic, they might be cool with it.

kevbevking
kevbevking

@nextdestination Unfortunately, on Lucille's menu the broccolini is spelled "Aspirations" instead of the correct "asparations". Doesn't really matter anyway;  it's a trademarked veggie that has many names, and many uses. Sorta pretentious/funny to aim for the seldom heard "asparations", and then misspell it. I'm rooting for Lucille's despite the chef coming off as a wanker.

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

@paval I believe the chef deleted one of his earlier comments, he had 3 here at one point I believe.  The comment on Eater is IDENTICAL to the one still posted here.

BrittanieShey
BrittanieShey moderator

@paval The comment posted on Eater is identical to the comment above, so I'm not sure why you think it's been censored or "edited" here. Oddly enough, Eater says their version of the comment is unedited  but they certainly cleaned up a lot of the messy words running together.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@ChefChristopher You're completely correct that I made a typo in the First Look post about Lucille's (http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2012/09/first_look_at_lucilles.php), for which I apologize. Somehow that's been overlooked until now. However, I had a terrific experience there during that first visit -- although I took the pictures with just a regular old camera. To insinuate that I have anything to do with the ad section of our paper is simply wrongheaded and couldn't be more off-base. I think if you asked any of our ad reps, they'd say the very same thing. I simply had two return visits that ranged from mediocre to disappointing, neither of which were in my control -- but in yours. I'm sorry that you feel the review was personal and mean-spirited, but it was certainly not meant that way. Thank you for reading and for your response

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

I doubt you'll be in business long enough. You take market research that other restaurants PAY for and pitch a PUBLIC fit. Smooth. 

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Okay, I'm stealing that. Just so you know.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@BrittanieShey @paval His only comment that displays for me is "Ok Katharine. We get it. Now we will advertize with you."

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

@ChefChristopher I read this and didn't get a mean spirited vibe or see it as a personal attack. I saw it as someone who was impressed at first and then disappointed afterward. I think we've all experienced that with some of our favorite places.

KS even said she hated to write it in the comments section right after it was published, and she even wrote a separate article about Lucille to sort of offset it and again mentioned that she desperately wanted it to be a positive review. But just couldn't.Maybe instead of being all butt hurt and going with the tired and typical "you have to advertise to get a good review" argument, you should instead check your kitchen and see what prompted this review in the first place. Maybe something has gone wrong. A commenter even agreed with her and said something had happened between the first and second visit.

 
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