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When the dining room is full — as it almost always is, with reservations to be had only early or late in the evening — the gym-floor walls give off a cozy, warm glow that's echoed by the large, wood-burning oven in the open kitchen that births pizzas in stunningly fast succession. Those pizzas can be hit-or-miss, though, ranging from a spartan mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza that's my platonic ideal — bubbly, charred crust and all — to a salumi pizza so coated with astringent black olive oil it was difficult to taste anything else. For the rest of the night.
And therein lies the slight frustration I've experienced so far with Provisions: There is no such thing here as a "good" dish. Provisions is a place of dizzying, polar opposites.
Dishes are either so stunningly conceived and executed as to make you sit back and simply marvel at their wonderfully weird working parts — take, for example, a cast-iron dish of sturdy gnocchi both pillowy and crispy topped with an incongruously modern arrangement of pickled vegetables — or they're so bad, you wonder if anyone tasted them before they came out of the kitchen. This was the case with a texturally off-putting, oddly flavorless dish of roasted salsify and brandade (which has thankfully been removed from the menu) and an odd burrata pizza that's more like breadsticks and marinara sauce than anything else.
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
But here's the good news: The odds are ever in your favor here. For every bad dish I've encountered over six visits, I've received at least nine that are powerfully stunning. I wish space allowed me to recount them all, because I would slavishly tell you about every brilliant detail. I'd tell you about the shrimp salad that brought a stupid grin to my face with its molded baton of orange and pink shrimp that reminded me of Japanese surimi, perhaps a nod to Siegel-Gardner's time as sous chef at Kata Robata, on top of a creamy apple slaw and buttressed with elegant curlicues of shaved celery and a tangle of other green vegetables — the loosest definition of "shrimp salad" I could possibly have imagined.
I'd tell you about the finely turned ears of pasta called orecchiette in a surprisingly spicy white bolognese sauce given buttery depth with the addition of the ripe, bright green Castelvetrano olives that are all sweet herbal flavors and no brine. Or the kimchi pan au lait with a vague vinegar whisper under the soft cloud of bread, served with a single warmed egg yolk for dipping and a double-cream Cremont that makes cheese-lovers weak in the knees.
I'd rave about the playful Ham o' the Day, which changes with the kitchen's whims but is always plated on a schmear of peppery mustard and topped with rye-flavored crumbles that mimic a ham sandwich on rye. Or the even more fun Everything Chips — potato chips with bagel-like holes in the middle, crusted with garlic, sesame seeds and more — served with a delicate mousse of salmon, crème fraîche and chives, the chefs' interpretation of a thoroughly New York bagel and lox.
Unlike other recent entrants to the new restaurant scene, Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner aren't interested in limiting their creativity to riffs on Houston-centric cuisine. You'll find nods to their own roots and backgrounds as well — Italian mingling with Nordic, Japanese with Thai, childhood with a bold dose of maturity. You'll find Dippin' Dots-style ice cream at dessert, or pumpkin-seed soft-serve topped with a remarkably faithful re-creation of Magic Shell. This Magic Shell is balsamic vinegar-flavored, however, but still anchored affectionately in adolescence by chunks of crumbled graham crackers on top.
The food here is definitely "something new" by Houston standards, although novelty isn't attractive in and of itself — at least not for long. Where Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner really succeed is in keeping the food fun while keeping the flavors accessible, all the while displaying a Sinatra-like devotion to doing things their way. Even if you may not think that roasted shisito peppers topped with harissa aioli and mint leaves sounds good straight off the bat, give it a try. There may not be a traditional appetizer/entrée/dessert structure here, but the better to experiment with; it's freeing in that way. There's no reward without risk, and you'll often be rewarded richly at Provisions.
This is a tenet that Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner understand keenly — their own risky venture in Houston has paid off in spades — and one that they've adopted as a sort of unofficial motto. At the top of each new day's paper menu is a rotation of quotes from figures as varied in background as Provisions is in its culinary influences: Michael Jordan, Julia Child, Patrick Swayze's character from Dirty Dancing. But the one I've run across most frequently is the one that's most fitting, a quote from General Sam Houston himself: "Do right and risk the consequences."
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.