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Figuring out how to tackle the dish before me was tricky. It was stacked gingerly, at least half a foot tall, delicate layers of toasted challah hugging paper-thin slices of sopressata, speck and prosciutto, while slightly thicker chunks of smoked duck breast jutted out here and there. The creamy manchego-béchamel sauce seemed to hold the whole thing together, to an extent, but then there was the fried duck egg, perched tremulously on top. One false move, and the yolk would break. I wasn't ready for that yet.
I carefully cut off one corner of the construction, scooping up all seven layers of bread, meat, sauce and frothy egg white on my fork, then quickly funneled it into my mouth. The individual flavors remained intact, proving the whole to be much greater than the sum of the already-enticing cured meats, warm bread and melted cheese. It was funky in the way that aged sheep's-milk cheese tastes slightly of dank earth, but with the bright piquancy of prosciutto. The toasted challah was reminiscent of the simple, buttered grilled-cheese sandwiches of my youth, while the duck breast and fried egg added luxurious richness not often associated with melted ham and cheese.
After a few moments, the server came by to ask how my dining companion and I were doing. We were fine, we told him, but at the same time we weren't, for now that we'd tasted this inspired version of a croque-madame, the XI Madame, it was unlikely that any other croque-madame — any sandwich, for that matter — would ever satisfy quite like this one.
607 W. Gray St.
Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
And then we remembered there was a hamburger on the table, too. We'd been so enamored of the cream-sauce-soaked tower that we'd forgotten all about the burger. The cast-iron-seared patty was cradled between two Belgian waffles (in place of the bun), and where there might usually be tomatoes and wilted romaine, there were little nuggets of seared foie gras atop a bed of glistening yellow Cheddar. My friend took a bite. I took a bite. And the chorus of satisfied sighs started anew.
But what else would one expect at a restaurant named for an auspicious hour occurring twice daily? The time 11:11 is related to chance, coincidence, mystical powers and possibly the presence of spirits. People make wishes to some unseen force when the clock strikes 11:11, but at Eleven XI, the upscale Montrose restaurant with a slightly country-club vibe, there's no need to wish. The food will delight no matter the time of day.
Want a behind the scenes look at Eleven XI? Check out our slideshow._____________________
Eleven XI opened in May 2013 in a spacious 1940s-era home on West Gray that had previously housed Biba's Greek restaurant. It's the brainchild of Kevin Bryant, who worked as a private chef for George Strait before opening The Capitol at St. Germain as executive chef in 2012, and manager Joe Welborn, who refers to his job title as "house manager, beverage director, handyman, plumber..."
Six days a week, Bryant can be seen in the kitchen through a long window at the rear of the main dining room, cool as a cucumber, cooking up fanciful dishes like whole Cornish game hen brined in apricot tea and then fried so the fruity flavors of the stone fruit settle beneath a layer of brittle crumb crust. While Bryant is in the kitchen, Welborn is on the floor, gleefully chatting with the crowd — mostly retirement-age diners — answering questions about the food, checking on drinks and even, at times, entertaining with a witty anecdote or one-liner.
They're a dynamic duo, Bryant and Welborn, and their lively attitude has a lot to do with the restaurant's success. The style of the cuisine (reimagined comfort food with an emphasis on Southern seafood) and the crowd (older, preppy, accustomed to fine dining) are antithetical to Eleven XI's location: on the edge of Montrose inching toward Midtown, where hip, younger diners tend to congregate. With its warm earth tones and brick and leather accents, the restaurant could easily fit in at West Ave or River Oaks, were it not for the fun, almost mischievous vibe set by Bryant and Welborn and their friendly staff.
When Eleven XI opened, many people were perplexed by the contrast of the location, atmosphere and menu. Descriptions of the soon-to-open restaurant included mentions of the raw bar that would offer oysters from 33 different areas available seasonally. Then there was the tagline — "Southern Coastal Cuisine" — and the tasting menu and the seafood towers. The dinner menu features wild game such as elk and buffalo, coupled with an innovative cocktail program that includes absinthe service. And festival-style desserts like fried pies. And build-your-own burgers, ordered by middle-aged men wearing ties and served by waiters and waitresses in blue jeans. I understand why, in theory, Eleven XI shouldn't have worked.
From the moment I started eating there, however, I was enchanted. A simple Caesar salad composed of a charred romaine bunch over a smear of house-made dressing and shaved Parmesan had me reimagining the classic salad and making plans to re-create the dish at home (though, I might add, my attempts were nowhere near as good as Bryant's version). Grilled oysters demonstrate a respect for the bivalve, even when they're smothered in Texas pecan pesto, mild pico de gallo, thick bacon and lightly browned Parmesan. Far from masking the taste of a delicate, briny oyster, these additions enhance it, bringing out its nutty, meaty and ever-so-sweet dimensions. Raw oysters are available by the dozen or half-dozen, and you can mix and match from the menu to create your own tasting platter.
In spite of the deference paid to seafood at Eleven XI, I still can't decide whether it's a meat or a seafood restaurant, or if we should just stop thinking about it and call it both. Seared scallops are smoky and hearty over a bed of mascarpone risotto colored green with basil. A large redfish fillet resembles an envelope with a whisper of a pink hue and is cut in half lengthwise and stuffed with juicy shrimp and scallops.
But then there's the Texas quail, slightly flattened and seared in a miniature cast-iron skillet, served on a violet mound of Gouda-laced blue corn grits. The skin of the quail crisps in the hot skillet, which ensures that the bird's meat remains moist and juicy. Coupled with the soft, cheesy grits, the dish was both familiarly soothing and excitingly unexpected. Like the quail, the short rib is also a riff on a Texas classic. The whipped potatoes and grilled asparagus are nothing out of the ordinary, but the meat itself, a boneless mound of short rib that falls apart into tender shreds with the touch of a fork, is sweetened with mushrooms sautéed in a cherry-cola syrup.
This sneaky whimsy (You didn't think you'd like purple grits or Coke in your short rib, did you?) is most apparent on the brunch menu, where Bryant shows off his love of Southern food with an upscale twist. Instead of a corn dog, you get a meaty smoked sausage dipped in barely sweet pancake batter. Instead of chicken and waffles, you get Cornish game hen on herb-infused waffles, and instead of a typical ham, cheese and egg croque-madame, you get what the menu calls "7 Layers of Heaven," an utterly appropriate description.
Like the food, the drink menu is rich with classic cocktails prepared with a bit of a wink. A mimosa makes use of not only orange juice, but also passion fruit, peach and guava juices, while a Negroni becomes a "Pyrat Negroni," with rum in the place of gin and sweet vermouth. And then there's the absinthe service, featuring a tall fountain made of glass and silver that slowly drips the wormwood liquor over sugar cubes perched on special slotted spoons; it's a spectacle to enjoy before the sweetened drink falls into your glass.
Is Eleven XI now a speakeasy or an old New Orleans bar? The women in sport coats and flashy jewelry examine the absinthe fountain with bewilderment. Sure it is. And it's also a seafood haven and a bar and grill and purveyor of one of the best brunches in town. Why would Eleven XI seek to be forced into a single category when it's able to embrace them all?
There's little going on around Eleven XI after dark. Though it's technically in Montrose, it's more on the cusp of Midtown, and headed east on West Gray, there's a nice view of downtown, uninterrupted as yet by the inevitable new housing developments. With the exception of Barnaby's down the street and a few other small bars or cafes, Eleven XI is the main attraction on its block — everything else is residential.
As Midtown gentrifies, edging out some long-term residents in favor of new hip clubs and eateries, and Montrose continues to evolve into an overcrowded dining destination, perhaps Eleven XI is poised to anchor a new restaurant neighborhood. It seamlessly incorporates elements from each surrounding neighborhood — hipster brunch à la Montrose; new, upscale Midtown dinners; a relaxed, Heights-style patio — in one spot, indicative of the evolving attitudes and differing tastes of Houstonians.
On the restaurant's website, 11:11 is described as "the wishing hour." Numerologists have endless theories about the importance of seeing the number on a clock, the only two times during a day (if you use a 12-hour clock) when every digit is the same. Welborn says that the number has been lucky and oddly prevalent in the lives of many of the restaurant's staff.
"It's really significant to a lot of our people," he says. "It's always brought us nothing but great luck and magic."
There does indeed seem to be something magic about serving wealthy diners fried pies and corn dogs and Montrose hipsters foie gras and béchamel sauce and managing to please all of them at the same time. Call it magic or coincidence or just plain hard work; whatever the formula behind Eleven XI, it's definitely enchanting.