In a sea of specials and featured dishes and staff favorites, the catch of the day stood out: a simple fillet of red snapper atop a bed of eggplant and tomato risotto in lemon butter sauce dotted with capers. Drizzled on top, an oily, spicy pesto, and thrown in for good measure but definitely not an afterthought, two crunchy fried oysters.
It seemed incongruous, this mixture of Southern-style oysters with Italian risotto and French beurre blanc. It seemed incongruous, and so I wanted it, if only to confirm my suspicion that it was too much of a good thing. When it came to the table, last of all the orders to arrive, I felt my skepticism justified. It was a nondescript pile of food, mushy-looking aside from the oysters. I dug into a steak burger, content to let a friend explore the fish for a moment before I gave it my time. After I'd taken only one bite of the burger, though, my friend pushed the plate toward me.
"You have to have this. Try this. No, get the sauce, too. Wait, put some oyster on top. Yes, now it's the perfect bite."
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Tejas chili: $9.50
Salmon trio: $19
Tex-Mex salad: $18.50
Three pork: $27.50
Steak burger: $32
Fish of the day: MKT
And it was. For all my cynicism, the fish — and the chef — had made a believer of me. The risotto was perfectly cooked, still a bit chewy but not underdone. The stewed eggplant and tomato slices married wonderfully with the vinegary beurre blanc sauce, all of it coating the snapper without detracting from its naturally briny flavor. And the oysters...I'll be damned if they weren't some of the best fried oysters I've had outside of Louisiana. I was very pleasantly surprised.
It's not that I thought the chef incapable of greatness. Nor did I think the ingredients would be subpar or a special dish not fully considered. I was startled to find the fish of the day so wonderfully alluring because I was smack-dab in the middle of a meat mecca.
At 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, meat is the main attraction. The "ranch-to-table" restaurant focuses on high-quality Akaushi beef, burgers, steaks, and the occasional chicken or pork dish. It's cowboy cookin', y'all, and cowboys eat meat.
But though it's ranch-style dining, this is still the type of place for which you change into slacks and heels and hire a babysitter for the evening. It's rustic in some ways and luxurious in others. It's cowboy cuisine with a kick. It's homey, family-style dining with a killer wine list and even better seafood. This is a place where it helps to be known.
Yes, on this ranch, there are far more than 60 degrees. In the course of a single meal, you can experience a 180-degree shift — from steak to raw seafood, from playful fare to serious eats, from zero service to exceptional service. Some of that depends on what you order. Some of it depends on who you are.
When 60 Degrees Mastercrafted opened in November, the first thing that got people talking wasn't the prime space on Westheimer just on the outskirts of Upper Kirby. Nor was it the chef, Fritz Gitschner, a Certified Master Chef (more on that later), originally from Austria. It wasn't even the unusual "ranch-to-table" concept featuring all the high-quality beef you can eat. No, it was the name. 60 Degrees Mastercrafted.
Press releases explained a link to geometry and the angles of an equilateral triangle. There's a small note at the bottom of each menu, too, explaining the somewhat nebulous reasoning behind the moniker: "The idea for '60 Degrees Mastercrafted' derives from the three angles of an equilateral triangle, 60 degrees each, representing the three angles of a complete dining experience: quality ingredients, creative and innovative food, and friendly service in a comfortable atmosphere. The triangle plays a prominent role in the company's branding serving as a reminder to both staff and patrons of the restaurant's promise."
Quality ingredients, innovative food and friendly service are the foundations upon which the very Texan restaurant was laid, and now, nearly eight months after introducing Houstonians to the concept, they seem to be catching on, even if the foundation is still a bit shaky. Quality ingredients can be relied upon. The other two "angles of a complete dining experience"? They're there, but perhaps to a lesser degree.
Take service. Generally friendly, yes, but friendlier still if you appear moneyed or important. During one lazy Sunday brunch, I sat alone at the bar for half an hour before the bartender finally decided to take my brunch order. The restaurant was far from full, and, growing increasingly hungry, I had asked a waiter if I could order from him. "The bartender will be happy to help you" was all I got, and even after hearing this, the bartender went about polishing glasses. It wasn't until I inadvertently made eye contact with someone who works there — someone I know in passing, someone who knows what I do for a living — that the service made a 180.
Suddenly the bartender was fawning over me. Several servers came by to check (though I still had to retrieve my own utensils from the server station). Even the chef came out to inquire about my eggs Benedict duo, which, I had to admit, was very good. As much as I hate being recognized because I feel it could unfairly color my experience, at that point, I was just happy to be fed, and fed well.
At 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, the portions are indeed ranch-size, whether you're there for a leisurely brunch or a boozy dinner. The menu options, though interesting in their diversity, aren't cutting-edge in the way a meal at The Pass might be thanks to unusual cooking techniques or ingredients you'd normally find only in the pages of Modernist Cuisine. Still, it's clear from items like the $200 foie gras- and gold-leaf-topped hamburger that Certified Master Chef Gitschner likes to play with his food.
At brunch, the eggs Benedict duo is the best example of this touch of whimsy. A good eggs Benedict really needs only four things: Some sort of bread, some sort of protein, hollandaise sauce and a perfectly poached egg. Gitschner executes this at brunch in two very different ways. First, a whole lump crab cake perfectly seared on the outside is topped with a poached egg and chive-laced hollandaise sauce — simple and straightforward were it not for the crab cake combining the bread and protein into one delicious patty. Next to that, a Cajun-inspired Benedict featuring a buttery biscuit topped with tasso ham and a poached egg and drizzled with a spicy "Creole hollandaise," just hot enough to make you reach for your bottomless mimosa.
At dinner, the creativity emerges in a number of ways, from that unusual chopped-steak burger to a trio of salmon — miso, smoked and pastrami-style — served as an appetizer but large enough to be dinner for one. The desire to innovate sometimes goes overboard, though, seemingly taking precedence over something as simple as seasoning.
A bowl of Tejas chili with the signature Akaushi beef features divinely tender meat in a rather bland chili base. The lack of spice — both heat and herbal — could be forgiven were it not for the dollops of "Mexican crema" topping the chili. At first bite, I was sure a mistake had been made and sweet whipped cream from a dessert had been piped atop the chili. A check of the menu showed amaretto listed as an ingredient, and I realized the sweetness was intentional, but it definitely was not welcome.
A trio of pork (yes, the chef loves his duos and trios) succeeds with spareribs marinated in Gosling's Black Seal Rum to the point that they fall off the bone with a gentle tug of the fork, no caveman-style gnawing necessary. The pork belly is less intriguing, purportedly braised in Asian spices (whatever those may be) but tasting mostly sweet and a little chewy. House-made pork sausage is the least appetizing. It's dry, crumbly and virtually flavorless, save for a hint of pork. An obvious tasting note, but I was glad to find at least that descriptor was accurate.
Seafood tends to fare better than beef, pork or chicken at the ranch-centric restaurant. Crab cakes are bursting with large lumps of crustacean, cured salmon would do a Jewish deli proud, and that red snapper with eggplant risotto and basil pesto shocked me into taking the sometimes kitschy restaurant seriously. It's a shame it's not on the regular menu.
Gitschner possesses a title shared by 65 other people in the United States, a title that some would claim is arbitrary but that others wear with pride. Regardless of how you feel about the Certified Master Chef designation — obtained through an eight-day test of culinary knowledge and skills and a $3,800 application fee — the know-how needed to obtain it is real, and Gitschner has proven he's got the chops, so to speak.
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SHOW ME HOW
He's spent years practicing culinary consulting in the hospitality industry and helping educate up-and-coming chefs. He has won numerous awards, and he owns a successful caramelized-pecan manufacturing business with his wife. He'll cook you a nine- to 12-course chef's tasting menu featuring everything from molecular gastronomy to cowboy food for $280 per person at 60 Degrees Mastercrafted. That sounds like a whole other angle to the restaurant, but enough quibbling with the name.
Gitschner comes from the Houston Country Club, and try as he might to escape the upscale atmosphere in favor of a more casual, ranch-themed, meat-centric gathering place, it's a tough sell. There's still an air of not belonging unless you're someone, even though my subsequent trips were met with fine service, and I don't believe I was recognized. There are still microgreens and lobster and foie gras. There's still the illusion of innovation, until you remember that eggs Benedict was invented long enough ago that every iteration has been done and every meat duo and trio has been witnessed before, too.
Call yourself "ranch-to-table," 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, because in theory you are. Demonstrate a rustic sensibility with chili, fork-smashed potatoes and all the meat a carnivore can eat. Show off the chef's unique blend of fine dining and down-home eats. And then show me where on a ranch I can find gold leaf and such delightful seafood.