Bayou Moderne

Chef Greg Webb has been a player in the Houston restaurant scene for many years, but until now, his influence has been more felt than seen. Webb has worked in some of the hottest kitchens in town: at the Sierra Grill with Robert McGrath, in Tony Vallone's La Griglia, and in two of Alex Patout's restaurants, in downtown Houston and on Royal Street in New Orleans. The most recent Webb sighting was at the short-lived Mick's Gulf Coast Grill at Richmond and Greenbriar, which closed in February of this year despite some favorable reviews of Webb's work (see, for instance, "Bridging the Gulf," Houston Press, January 1).

Through all these years of sous chefdom, Webb says he dreamed of opening his "own personal dining room." Fortunately, that last brief engagement at Mick' s led to Chef of the Year recognition in Houston, which garnered investors, which brings us to last month's opening of his eponymous Gregory's in Highland Village.

Now that he's made it to the front row, I'm almost as nervous as he must be.
For starters, I worry that the new restaurant is difficult to find. Although its address is 4074 Westheimer, strictly speaking, it doesn't have Westheimer frontage. It would be more accurately described as being on the cross street, Drexel, in the shadow of P. F. Chang's looming wall of signage. I know of at least one couple who set out in search of Gregory's, failed to find it, and were forced to dine somewhere else.

Secondly, I fret that Gregory's is so understated that it will come in under the radar on the local dining scene. Mid-range to high-end Americana is a nebulous yet competitive niche, and I fear that subtlety isn't Houston's strong suit.

Gregory's dining room, for example, is light and airy, with a spare elegance that reminds me of old-fashioned Vieux Carre spaces like Galatoire's or Tujague's. The saltwater aquarium that divides the main dining area from the bar adds a splash of color, true, and the water wall beside the canopied deck is dramatic. Otherwise, though, the decor is in low-key cream, taupe and caramel, with unobtrusive pastel abstracts on the walls. I find the ambiance soothing, restful; others may find it Spartan, particularly the straight-back wooden chairs with unforgiving hard seats. The view into the open kitchen afforded diners at the back of the room is utilitarian to the point of grim; I recommend choosing a chair facing away from it.

Once you've found the door and tasted the food, though, these minor considerations will melt away. Webb describes his cuisine as "born on the bayous," but I think that's a little disingenuous. While his menu reflects Alex Patout's influence, Webb expands and lightens the haute Cajun repertoire. And, again, restraint is the key: no sauce or seasoning is allowed to overwhelm the flavors of the Gulf Coast seafood, beef and game.

The appetizer list includes one of my old favorites from Mick's, the crawfish and crab clusters ($8.00): tender little crawfish tails and massive chunks of firm white crabmeat, loosely held together with breadcrumbs moistened with a little mustard and dotted with green onions for accent. "Clusters" is a better term than the usual "cakes," as there's barely enough breading to hold them together on the griddle. Thank goodness.

Also familiar from Mick's is the iron-seared tenderloin ($8.00), which Webb calls a "Texas version of carpaccio, because Texans don't really want to eat raw meat." Four medallions of beef and venison are perfectly seared: crusty and blackened on the outside, rare and butter-tender on the inside; then they're served cold with crumbles of Stilton and a creamy homemade boursin, and crisscrossed with crisp asparagus spears. The plate is drizzled with a horseradish creme frache and a green "pipian" sauce. "I use that sauce like a tasty green paint," Webb says enthusiastically. "I took out the oil from a traditional pesto and replaced it with vegetable broth, so it's lighter and kinder."

Another outstanding appetizer -- or even a satisfying light meal -- is tucked, inexplicably, in the soup category. The Gulf Coast pan roast ($7.00) offers shellfish (oysters, shrimps or scallops) atop a thick garlic toast surrounded by a cream bisque tinted a vivid, reddish-orange with chili sauce. It's tangy and rich and reminds me of a hot remoulade. As you eat, the crunchy garlic toast ever so gently melts into the sauce, but I've always managed to clean my plate before the disintegration is complete. Although I first tried a combination of oysters and shrimp, I think next time I'll choose shrimp and scallops, or perhaps just shrimp. The oysters are too delicate for this treatment, and get a little lost on the plate.

As was evident at Mick's, Webb has a masterful way with wild game. He credits his success to the secret blend of spices -- which he's code-named the "G Spice," for "Gulf Coast" -- that he uses to cure the meats; and to his grandmother's iron skillet, which he heats white-hot for a fast sear.

A recent chef's special, venison backstrap ($26.00), was blackened and crispy outside, and still tender rare in the middle -- the treatment reminded me of flash-seared tuna steaks -- and served with pan-fried potatoes. The backstrap was finished with sweet-tart cabernet demi-glace with dried cherries, which can also be found on the venison medallions, a regular menu choice.

I was disappointed to find that Webb's signature black opal duck was not available on recent visits. It reportedly involves a voodoo mix of G Spice rub and an intensely hot oven, and results in a black-lacquered exterior. "That dish is a blessing and a curse," says Webb with a sigh. "It takes me four days to make, and then sells out immediately. When I first started serving it at Mick's, we doubled the duck sales for the whole city of Houston!"

The house snapper ($21.00) is another good entree choice, particularly if you prefer fresh fish only lightly adorned. Webb's snapper is a much lighter version of Patout's classic snapper Pontchartrain, relying on a combination of the G Spice and a white wine marinade in place of heavy cream. After a quick searing in Granny's fry pan, the filet is finished in the oven, then topped with what Webb calls "lemon-butter Chardonnay" -- sort of a beurre blanc lite -- and heaps of crawfish, shrimp and crabmeat.

Gregory's also offers a pleasant brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. On a recent visit, strains of live jazz floated unobtrusively from the back of the second dining room. The music and the bottomless mimosas helped smooth over minor service glitches. "We've had a bit of turnover trouble recently," admitted the bartender, who was pressed into table duty. "We're a little short-handed right now."

The brunch offers a number of a la carte egg dishes, ranging from Tex-Mex-influenced huevos to classic omelets. We thought the bayou breakfast ($10.00) would be a good choice -- it's described as crawfish, crabmeat and shrimp over a poached egg on a buttermilk biscuit with hollandaise sauce -- but somehow the dish escaped the kitchen without its dose of hollandaise, leaving the biscuit a bit dry. A similar arrangement of eggs and iron-seared tenderloin sounded good, too, but a miscommunication between diner and server resulted in the (welcome) reappearance of the iron-seared tenderloin appetizer.

Of the short dessert list, my favorite is the "Wise Guy" flaming berries with balsamico ($8.00). "I developed that when I was working at John Gotti's restaurant in New York, as a takeoff on strawberries Romanoff," Webb explains. "Those fedora-hat guys like a lot of show, flames at the table and all that." Too often, fruit cups are served only as a sop to the calorie conscious; here, the balsamic-based sauce with just a touch of black pepper lends unbelievable drama and intensity to the collection of strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. This dish is served in two separate cups: one of flaming berries, the other of rich vanilla ice cream. I dunked the hot berries a spoonful at a time into the ice cream for a snow-plunge-after-sauna effect.

The pecan pie ($5.00) is dark and rich, almost chewy, drizzled with chocolate and sprinkled with toasted pecan halves and a scattering of blueberries and strawberries. And though Gregory's cappuccino with biscotti ($5.00) makes a nice light finish for a meal, the biscotti were disappointing, especially when compared to the otherwise admirable breads and pastries.

I'm also impressed by the little lagniappes at Gregory's, spontaneous extra touches from the kitchen and staff. On one occasion, we were treated to a snack of salmon tenderly poached in champagne. On another, a plate of the house-made páte, a firm, campagne-type mixture, made a surprise appearance. When a friend and I decided to split an order of the Gulf Coast pan roast one evening, our server thoughtfully subdivided the dish onto two plates, saving us from a hefty dry-cleaning bill. Fresh silverware is offered immediately as needed (I hate being told to keep my dirty fork for the next course), and dinner remainders are discreetly boxed and wrapped in the kitchen.

Open just over a month, Gregory's already shows great promise. Possibly Webb's extensive experience helped smooth the often rocky first weeks. Lighter than Patout's and more polished than Mick's, Gregory's may be the showcase Greg Webb has dreamed of.

Gregory's, 4074 Westheimer, 355-9400.

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