Originally, this review was going to praise Brick & Mortar Kitchen’s market-fresh ingredients, fine-quality meats, crispy pizzas and thoughtful entrées. When we made an appointment to photograph the dishes just a few days later, though, there had been major changes — and not for the better. Brick & Mortar Kitchen now seems to be a restaurant in retrograde.
Executive chef Eric Johnson is gone, as is his wife, sommelier Lexey Davis Johnson. Along with them went the dishes we loved: rave-worthy duck breast, a thick lamb chop, salmon tartar and any other dish that might indicate an ambitious menu.
A revisit confirmed that the flavor and quality of the food had disappeared, too. All the dishes we tried after the changeover were bland. Everything needed salt. In some cases, prices were lower, but that was because the ingredients used were less expensive, too. The chili, previously a thick, hearty version with venison, was $2 cheaper and used short rib. The duck we had loved had been replaced with chicken to bring the price down from $26 to $18.
Two positive factors remain, though: Brick & Mortar Kitchen is still a lovely, quiet environment with excellent service. It opened in July 2015 and is adjacent to the newest Gallery Furniture, off the Grand Parkway near Cinco Ranch. The elegant restaurant is nothing like the casual cafe inside Gallery Furniture’s original Houston location. (Most Houstonians know exactly where the original Gallery Furniture is because we will forever have Jim McIngvale’s voice embedded in our heads yelling, “I-45 North between Tidwell and Parker! Gallery Furniture really will save — you — money!”)
Once they’re through the front door of Brick & Mortar, the vision of the huge Gallery Furniture store banner fades (Made In America! Solid Wood Furniture!) and guests enter a well-appointed, vaguely colonial setting. On the weekdays during both lunch and dinner, it’s peaceful and quiet — too quiet, in fact. The lack of business during the weekdays has a great deal to do with why there’s been a sea change in the offerings.
McIngvale’s daughter and son-in-law are responsible for running Brick & Mortar Kitchen. Don’t mistake that as “Daddy gave the kids a restaurant.” Laura McIngvale-Brown went to the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and worked at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas before diving into the restaurant world. She and her husband, Phillip, a chef and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, were running Vince Young Steakhouse in Austin long before Brick & Mortar was even in the planning stage. (Yes, their business partner in Austin is the legendary football player.)
During our first visits, the Everything salad was stunning. Bright young greens that could have been recently plucked from a farmers’ market glistened under a light sheen of Texas olive oil. Translucent, red-ringed radish slices were arranged like a tiny halo for a fluffy cloud of Pure Luck cheese, and there was an enthusiastic application of freshly ground black pepper.
After the menu revamp, the salad of the same name was entirely different and as uninspiring as a prepackaged to-go salad at a grocery store. Boring romaine lettuce was topped with thin bacon, unevenly halved cherry tomatoes and flavorless cheddar cheese shreds that probably came from a bag. When we questioned our server about the radical change, she admitted she had also liked the previous incarnation more but that the salad was now “what the owners had always wanted it to be.”
The pizzas look different now, too. Initially, the potato pizza was as well-executed as they come. Thin slices of potato are laid out across the round of baked dough and broiled. The result is like a two-tiered crust. On top of that go mozzarella, goat cheese and a substantial helping of crispy prosciutto. Finally, the entire bubbly, browned pizza is accented with bursts of fresh thyme.
The photo taken after the changes indicates the pizza is a shadow of what it used to be. Instead of having a bubbly, crispy crust with the beautiful spots of char that gave it so much texture, it is pale and the amount of crispy prosciutto is less generous.
Even the French fries have changed. Originally, they were long, elegant and covered in a cloud of Parmesan shreds. On our final visit, they were disappointing, stubby nubs. Even before, a request for a burger cooked to medium meant that it would be rare or medium-rare when it landed on the table. The difference, though, was that before, the rare beef tasted good. On the final visit, there was a disturbing metallic taste.
A new fried oysters dish appeared, but it turned out to be an uninspired take on hot wings, with the oysters standing in for the chicken. A combination of roasted Brussels sprouts and shishito peppers was promising, but the dressing they’d been tossed in turned out to be tart and unbalanced. Gulf fish tacos was another new menu addition that fell on its face thanks to the overcooked, dry fish. (And, once again, everything needed seasoning.)
Should we blame the restaurant for “dumbing down” the food? No. The change was driven by practicality. Restaurants have to turn a profit, and that means giving their regular diners what they want. You can lead people to plates of good food, but you can’t make them enjoy it. Our server said that customers just weren’t into the original dishes. “We were getting a lot of complaints,” she said. “A lot of things were being sent back. People complained about the prices, too.”
It’s a problem that many visionary suburban restaurants have. Piqueo, the Peruvian restaurant in Cypress, is a prime example. It struggled for four years before the owner caved and decided to change it into a steak and burgers place — because that’s what his customers seem to want. If Hugo’s or Underbelly and their Beard-nominated chefs were dropped into the outskirts, chances are they’d have a much harder time of it, too.
To be fair, our final review visit was made just a few days after the menu change, and while the direction Brick & Mortar has gone in is distressing, perhaps there’s a course correction ahead. Even simple Southern food can be well-executed. Barbecue Inn, for example, isn’t fancy but is acclaimed for outstanding fried chicken. Southern Goods has roots in the lowbrow cuisine of the Gulf Coast, but proper preparation — and seasoning — of quality ingredients make its fare noteworthy.
The best dish we ate after the change was Mack’s Picnic, a fried chicken dinner with potato salad and collard greens. Like everything else, the fried chicken needed salt. The chicken had not been brined, and the batter was underseasoned. However, it was well-cooked and had a pleasing, crispy crust. The potatoes were slightly overcooked, but a perky, whole-grain mustard seed dressing overcame the minor flaw. There were a few thin pieces of bacon strewn among the dark collard greens, but not enough to bring them to life. A dash of hot sauce and vinegar would have been welcome.
Brick & Mortar’s cocktail menu looks as if it was created by a pro, and had not been changed as of our final visit. It’s a smart list of classics, wise variants on classics and well-considered originals. However, there are important differences between good cocktails and great cocktails, and they have to do more with execution than ingredients. Good cocktails are the result of mixing and chilling the right proportion of quality spirits, syrups and bitters. Great cocktails are the result when attention has been paid to fine details, like texture and proper straining. At the moment, Brick & Mortar is serving good cocktails. Probably just a day’s worth of training could elevate them to great ones.
A Brooklyn, as might be guessed from the name, is a classic riff on a Manhattan. It’s a combination of rye whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and an aperitif. It represents both a quandary and an opportunity for bartenders. The traditional aperitif, Amer Picon, is no longer available in the United States, so the bartender is required to select a substitute, which usually ends up being an Italian amaro. Brick & Mortar is using Averna, which works nicely. However, our Brooklyn was ever so slightly watered. Worse, the surface of our Bee’s Knees was covered in ice chips, which destroys the texture. When it comes to cocktails, even the little things matter. (The bar, by the way, is just as secluded as the restaurant. It’s in a separate room toward the front of the building.)
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Brick & Mortar has a Richmond address, but it’s mere minutes away from Cinco Ranch. In fact, it’s smartly located in the center of a rapidly developing suburban nexus where Katy, Richmond, Mission Bend and Fulshear are the four corners.
For now, there isn’t really anything at Brick & Mortar worth driving for unless you also need a sofa. The menu now presents no challenges and no opportunities. What was once a surprising haven for garden-fresh salads, hearty entrées and bubbly pizzas is now just a pleasant memory.
Brick & Mortar Kitchen
7227 West Grand Parkway South, Richmond, 832-759-5912. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Everything salad $12
Short rib chili $12
Potato pizza $13
Fried oysters $14
Fried egg burger $15
Gulf fish tacos $18
Mack’s Picnic $20
Brooklyn cocktail $11
Bee’s Knees cocktail $10