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Take a tour through the warm dining room and bustling kitchen at Provisions in our slideshow.
As I sit in the sunshine on the simple shaded rear patio at Provisions, surrounded by aluminum pots of rosemary and a few barely blossoming lime trees, it's easy to see what chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner mean by the printed message at the bottom of each broadsheet paper menu that doubles as a tablecloth at each two-top: "We're cooks, so our lives revolve around food and drink. We made Provisions to be the place that, if we weren't standing in the kitchen, we'd be standing in the bar."
In front of me on the table are two six-inch sub sandwiches each weighing at least a pound. One is filled with softly spiced meatballs. A generous handful of arugula is on top, lightly accented with wispy shreds of Parmesan cheese.
Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
and 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Kimchi pan au lait with Cremont: $9
Shisito peppers: $10
Ham o' the Day: $10
Shrimp salad: $13
Potato gnocchi: $13
Sweetbread sandwich: $14
Mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza: $15
On the other plate, too many panko-coated sweetbreads to count are similarly stuffed into another sandwich. Burst tomatoes pop with a bright sugar-sweetness against the fatty meat, tangy capers providing an additional acidic bulwark against what could easily be an overwhelming filling. Both plates are heaped high with shoestring potatoes that remind me fondly of the potato sticks I munched on at swim meets as a kid.
These are the kinds of sandwiches a modern young chef would make for lunch, filled with the sorts of trendy ingredients he enjoys playing with in his own kitchen — suckling pig porchetta goes into one of the five other sandwiches on the lunch menu, for example — with an upscale bent to traditional comfort food.
Siegel-Gardner has come out to visit. He's staring at my sandwich. "Did you get the sweetbreads? Those are my favorite." It's a sort of wistful question and statement, which is surprising considering how easily familiarity breeds contempt. Siegel-Gardner still clearly harbors an immense affection for the food that he and Gallivan have been turning out since Provisions — the more casual half of dual-restaurant concept The Pass & Provisions — opened last September. This kind of passion is often infectious, but it can also be blinding.
Luckily for the two young-Turk chefs, their passion — and its associated risk-taking — usually pay off.
When I first met Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan, the two men were crammed into a tiny bungalow in the bad part of the Heights with their wives and three dogs: Catfish, Barbecue and Janie.
It was cramped quarters when I went to interview them that hot June day, interested in finding out why two successful chefs would leave acclaimed New York City kitchens such as Aquavit, Aureole and August — all very highly regarded restaurants where the pair had worked at one time or another — for the comparatively unhip Bayou City. Siegel-Gardner documented the move and their thought processes in a blog for Food Republic that he called "The Worst Idea Ever?"
Gallivan, who'd left a job as executive chef at popular Italian restaurant Alto in Midtown, put it very simply that muggy afternoon: "Why should you have to go to New York to eat amazing food?" Gallivan asked, not rhetorically. "Houston is a great food community. It's just a matter of convincing people to try something new."
To that end, the two chefs set out laying the groundwork for that "something new" with a succession of one sold-out pop-up dinner series after another. Just August meals at Montrose restaurant Just Dinner, Pilot Light dinners at Heights grocery store Revival Market, long lines of fans queuing up for tickets that were gone within 15 minutes, e-mail waiting lists, excited Tweets and Instagrams and Facebook updates the night of — Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan had simultaneously created an audience for their unique brand of New American cuisine while garnering the sort of attention that investors clamor to put money behind. It was a wildly successful model and a fascinating study in appealing to modern dining trends — pop-up dinners, social-media involvement, one-on-one contact with the chefs making and serving your food — to fabricate organic growth.
Siegel-Gardner's "Worst Idea Ever?" blog launched on August 1, 2011. Two years and one month later, the two chefs had moved into the beautifully renovated space that once housed Gravitas and Antone's. The awkwardly shaped 1930s-era structure that was home to Antone's po-boy shop and imported-goods grocer for more than 50 years was stripped down, cleaned up and given the sort of quirky masculine touches that reflect the chefs themselves.
Walls are covered with repurposed floorboards from a gymnasium, streaks of blue and red paint still intact, while the old lightbulb-ringed Antone's sign has been given a place of honor as the only art hung in the entire restaurant. The unisex bathrooms feature a constant chattering soundtrack of Julia Child's Muppet-like voice. The communal table that runs the length of the restaurant is anchored in place by metal pipes, while silver conduit lines the white walls in the bar in oddly artistic patterns.
Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner also stocked the restaurant with a host of talent along the way, ranging from charcutier champ Adam Garcia to front-of-house whiz kid Isaac Johnson — the debonair general manager who keeps the dining room running smoothly — to sommelier Fred Jones, whose encyclopedic wine knowledge and ability to gently encourage even the fussiest drinker to try a new Riesling are revered by other somms across the city. Between this team and the affable service, dinner at Provisions is always an enjoyable, adventurous affair — just as Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner no doubt envisioned it.
I can muster more enthusiasm about P&P than the expressions conveyed by these two fellows. C'mon guys, smile a little, you're doing what you love and doing it well!
I continue to find it disturbing (okay, maybe disturbing is too strong a word for something as frivolous as food writing) that the two leading food critics in Houston are known to all the chefs in town. I guess it explains why my experience is so often different than the ones they have.
@Bitspitter No kidding. I love that burrata pizza.
@carriebwc I agree, it's weird. Even *I* feel weird being noticed/known. But when part of your job description requires you to be a reporter - the auspices under which I met Seth and Terrence, in this case - sometimes you can't help it. There are times when you simply can't do an interview over the phone, or cover events incognito. I wish I knew a better way to rectify this situation other than wishing for simpler times when all a food critic did was write food reviews, but we're all multitaskers these days. It's the way of the world. The best I can do is be cognizant of this reality and to be as transparent as possible for my readers; that's the only way to remove or overcome any bias.
@kshilcutt @carriebwc The variance in food you experience is much more a function of random chance than the fact that a reviewer is known to a chef. There are days when the kitchen cooks better than others. There are good cooks and bad cooks. There are days when the product just isn't good enough. Shit happens. Very few of these variables can be corrected when a critic is spotted.
I am not saying it has no effect, just not nearly as much as you might think. Otherwise the critics would always eat really well, and that's just not the case.
@mgovshteyn @kshilcutt @carriebwc Quick bring out the quality ingredients we stockpile each and every day just for use in the unlikely case of critic visit! We can't serve this garbage we usually feed the peons!
You, line cook, start cooking like you care now! I don't want to see any of the usual ass scratching and lazy Home-Ec cooking I normally tolerate from you, it's critic visit time!
- Said no kitchen ever.