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The unbalanced chicken and pasta special was forgivable, but the gross bastardization of the traditional Tuscan salad panzanella was not. Panzanella — which I admit is one of my favorite Italian dishes, so I'm perhaps a tad more judgmental than most about this — translates literally to "small bread basket." When done right, it's a mixture of day-old stale bread soaked in water and squeezed dry with tomatoes, onions, basil, olive oil and vinegar. Sometimes lettuce, cucumbers, anchovies, capers or mozzarella are also added. But no iteration of panzanella resembles what CRISP serves.
Perhaps CRISP was going for a gluten-free take on panzanella, but I was shocked when it arrived at our table sans bread. I could have gotten over the semantics issue had the salad been a worthwhile dish. Sadly, it wasn't. The mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, asparagus, red onions and feta was drowning in what was purportedly a yogurt and mint dressing that tasted more like a jar of dill with a bit of plain yogurt mixed in for texture. I appreciate what was perhaps an intended Italian/Greek gluten-free fusion in theory. In actuality, the crazy amount of dill made it nearly inedible.
The lump crab orecchiette sounds wonderful in theory. How can you go wrong with crab and cream sauce, right? Unfortunately, like the pizza, this creamy pasta dish was suffering from some very obvious issues, most notably, yet again, the abundance of nutmeg. A ridiculous amount of nutmeg. I wanted to go back into the CRISP kitchen and take away the jar of that normally welcome pumpkin pie spice because without its overwhelming influence, I think several of the items I tried would have been substantially better.
2220 Bevis St.
Houston, TX 77008
After several meals at CRISP, I came to the conclusion that CRISP just doesn't get Italian, and that's fine because there are items on the menu where the chefs shine. Like the beer can chicken.
The half bird is beautifully roasted and glazed with the leftover beer and chicken juices. The skin was crispy and flavorful, and the meat underneath was juicy and tender — probably some of the best poultry I've eaten in a while. The Lone Star beer and chicken broth sauce was simple and unfussy, which left room for the addition of salty, crunchy rosemary Parmesan fries.
The "melting beef short ribs" were similarly juicy and tender. In fact, a knife was completely unnecessary because the beef fell apart under the weight of a fork. When my dining companions and I saw "melting beef" on the menu, we laughed because what the heck is melting beef? But if anything should be labeled as such, it's these short ribs, which, clichéd as it is to say it, really do melt in your mouth. They're served atop polenta that reminded us more of grits due to its consistency, but whatever the texture of the ground-corn medley, it was fabulous when paired with the juicy beef and butter-braised mushrooms.
Of course, if you have enough wine, CRISP's culinary idiosyncrasies might be an afterthought, which is perhaps why the wine prices are so reasonable while the food prices are a bit high. The highest-priced bottle on the menu is a 2009 Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon at $275. The least expensive bottle is $22, which means that there's something for every price point. There aren't any wines that cost more than $9 a glass, which is unfortunate because at a place that advertises itself as a wine bar, most would expect to be able to get interesting, high-quality wines by the glass. And I for one am willing to pay more for better wine.
Like the wine, beer prices are also reasonable, and both the beer and wine are $2 off during happy hour, which makes CRISP a popular after-work hangout for folks who live or work in the neighborhood. The beer menu features 24 craft brews on tap from all over the country as well as a few from England and Belgium. The emphasis is on Texas craft beer, but even the European ones aren't more than $8 a pint. These are some of the most reasonable pint prices I've seen in Houston, and the menu does a great job of explaining exactly what you're getting.
After enjoying the success of the melting beef and beer can chicken (and drinking a little too much wine), I find myself more forgiving of CRISP's mistakes and open to trying it again. I love the vibe of the place. I could probably sip rosé on that patio all evening.
For these reasons, I want to love CRISP. For some unfortunate seasoning and recipe issues, I'm just not sure. Perhaps CRISP is just too much for my taste. Too much variety. Too much food on a plate. Too many toppings on the pizza. Too much wannabe Italian fare. Too much freaking nutmeg.
Except, that is, for the seasonal fruit crisp. It's served hot and crumbly, and the fruit inside is fresh and juicy. I ordered it as an afterthought, but found it to be one of the most balanced plates on the menu. Thank goodness CRISP got its namesake right. And unlike the pizza, fettuccine or orecchiette, this simple dessert employs just the right amount of — you guessed it — nutmeg. Finally.
This review makes me feel a bit vindicated. My husband and I tried CRISP after our neighbors raved about it, and we found what we tried (all Italian dishes) to be heavy and just not that great. The theory seemed to be: everything is tasty slathered in salt, oil, and cheese! Case and point: Why would you serve a baked cheese appetizer with already-oily-and-cheesy garlic bread?
It has its faults, but is a welcome addition to the neighborhood for those of us that live there, and the patio is great when you want to meet friend that have kids, since they can basically run wild back there.
Wait wait wait...Hold up a sec. You trying to say Pub Fiction ain't classy???
Re: Crisp went there once, enjoyed it and will go back at some point.
This restaurant obviously needs to be refinement, and no doubt it was more than just drinking too much likely your were getting high off the copious amounts of nutmeg too..
@ForestWood I have no control over the deck, but I'll ask about it.
@LaurenK I wondered the same thing about the cheese-topped fried chicken on cheesy pasta. Too much oil and fat and bread products! But not too much cheese, cause I really don't think that's ever a possibility.
@carriebwc I can see how it would be a good place to bring kids, especially if you live in the neighborhood. Kitchen needs work though.
@ShitThrowingMonkey Haha Pub Fiction is the classiest! But CRISP has...you know...a different vibe.
@gossamersixteen Hold up, you can get high off nutmeg?! Cancel all my evening plans!