A funky aroma enveloped our table at the Bissonnet Grill, a new fast-casual eatery on Bissonnet near the corner of Kirby. It smelled like strong cheese, burning. Then it dawned on me.
“That's our cheese panini,” I told my lunchmate. It's a wonderful thing to find grilled cheese sandwiches made with Italian Fontina, even if they do stink the place up a bit. At the Bissonnet Grill, there are four different panini sandwiches, all made with cheese, three featuring the pungent Fontina.
The mildest of the panini sandwiches is called the “Buffalo.” It's made with tomatoes, basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella between two slices of bread in a sandwich press that melts the cheese and toasts the bread while giving it a waffled texture.
The simplest of the Fontina sandwiches is the “Bella.” It's two slices of Italian bread with roasted red peppers, fresh basil and Fontina in the middle. The sandwich is then drizzled with olive oil and heated in the sandwich press until the Fontina begins to emanate its come-hither aroma. The other two panini sandwiches on the menu are variations on the “Bella.” The “Francesca” adds prosciutto and sliced tomato to the “Bella” ingredients, and the “chicken parmesan” adds a flattened breast of chicken to the basic grilled Fontina sandwich.
On another visit, I tried the tasty Yucatan soup, a spicy chicken soup seasoned with lime juice and spiked with jalapeños and cilantro. I would have liked it even better with the addition of tortilla chips and avocado. I also had a roast beef “sub” sandwich made with braised beef, caramelized onions, mushrooms and melted cheese on a too-soft roll. It wasn't a New Orleans roast beef poor boy with gravy, but it wasn't bad.
Disappointments included the chicken salad, which was made of rubbery chicken pieces and little else besides mayonnaise; the potato salad, which tasted like it came from a plastic tub; the French fries, which were previously frozen; and a hamburger that was an affront to Houston burger lovers.
Before I ordered the double-patty affair called “the downtown burger” on the restaurantÕs menu, I asked if it was a fresh or a frozen patty. “Fresh,” the cashier assured me.
It took a walk of approximately four feet to see what was really going on. Peering over the counter, I saw the grill cook preparing to place two well-done patties on a bun.
“Can I have that burger medium-rare?” I asked her. She grumbled something, and returned the two well-done patties to a rectangular stainless steel container that sat on the grill. Then she got two frozen patties out of the freezer and threw them on.
Burgers taste best when they are freshly cooked. The practice of cooking meat in advance of a rush and holding it results in gray, overcooked, tasteless burgers. I would rather go to Whataburger and get a fast-food burger cooked fresh than go to a mom-and-pop restaurant that serves the nasty precooked crap.
The medium-rare burger I finally got at Bissonnet Grill was juicy, but dull. Because the patties were frozen when they hit the grill, the meat didn't get any char or crispy texture on the outside. Suffice to say, I won't bother ordering a burger here again.
According to the menu, Bissonnet Grill is “a contemporary American bistro.” The menu is mostly sandwiches. The most expensive dish, at $12, is fried tilapia and shrimp in a jalapeño butter sauce served over a bed of French fries.
The place is furnished with what looks like lawn furniture. On the walls hang the amusing artworks of owner Frank Piazza, who fancies himself an abstract painter. The eatery might be more accurately described as a deli with delusions of grandeur.
Bissonnet Grill is located within a few blocks of the Buffalo Grille and the Raven Grill. I wondered how three neighborhood grills ended up so close to each other. “When two supermarkets are located across the street from each other, they both do more business,” a colleague at work observed. So maybe it's the same with grills.
I thought it would be interesting to make some comparisons, so I visited all three within the course of a few days.
The Raven Grill takes its name from its proximity to Edgar Allen Poe Elementary, which is located nearby. It is the toniest of the three establishments. The restaurant is full-service, the tables are covered with white tablecloths and the clientele is well-dressed. The menu includes a lobster pot pie, Sterling Silver-brand steaks and a tuna carpaccio appetizer.
I sampled some excellent blue cornmeal-crusted fried oysters served on a bed of lettuce with rémoulade at the Raven. Except for the color of the cornmeal, the Bissonnet Grill seems to have re-created the RavenÕs appetizer, down to the salad mix and rémoulade. Six oysters are $6.95 at Raven and $7 at Bissonnet Grill.
I also tried the $13.95 chicken-fried steak dinner special at Raven Grill, which was horrendous. I sent the first one back because the crust was soggy with grease and tinged with charred spots. I was given a second chicken-fried steak with no black spots, but an equally wet and greasy crust. I couldn't eat it.
On a second visit at lunch, I tried the RavenÕs hamburger, which was spectacular. I ordered it medium-rare. The waiter swore the patty was fresh, not frozen, but I have been lied to before. It came to the table well-charred on the outside with deep black grill marks, and bright red and juicy in the center. The wood-fired grill imparted a wonderful smoky flavor. Lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mayo and brown deli mustard were all served on the side.
The Buffalo Grille is named for nearby Buffalo Speedway. It's a lot more casual than the Raven Grill. The interior features lots of raw wood, a mounted buffalo head and a buffalo painting near the front door. The famous breakfasts are served all day. An enormous pancake is the best bet, and the pecan-smoked bacon is great, but I find the Mexican breakfasts bland. (Besides, it's not that far to Gorditas Aguascalientes at Bissonnet and Rampart, where the Mexican breakfasts rock.)
For lunch at the Buffalo Grille, I tried a double hamburger for $4.95 that came with two boring, overdone burger patties, which may or may not have been pre-cooked. Floury-tasting battered fries were $1.69 extra.
The big surprise at the Buffalo Grille was the $5.95 chicken-fried steak lunch special. A tenderized steak was covered in a wavy crust that was cooked golden blond, with a perfectly crispy texture. It immediately made my top chicken-fried steak list. The cream gravy was average, but the mashed potatoes had that perfect balance of creaminess and lumpiness you get when you whip freshly cooked potatoes. The chicken-fried steak costs $9.95 at dinner with two sides and a roll, but if it tastes like the one I had at lunch, itÕs well worth it.
So here's my Bissonnet grill-district tip sheet. If you are looking for a burger, the Raven is the clear winner. The wood-fired grill burger was vastly superior in flavor and much cheaper. The sorry double-patty burger at the Bissonnet Grill was $6 and fries were $2 extra. The Raven burger comes with a side order for $6.95. I couldn't decide if I liked the handmade French fries or the red potato salad with dill better at Raven, but both were top-notch.
For pancakes or eggs and bacon any time of the day, or an awesome chicken-fried steak at lunch and dinner, you want the Buffalo Grille. But beware it's hopelessly crowded on Saturday and Sunday mornings unless you get there at 8 a.m. when they open.
Finally, for great funky Fontina-cheese panini sandwiches, spicy Mexican chicken soup and a decent roast beef sub, try the new Bissonnet Grill. And if you have some time to kill, ask Frank Piazza about his theories on abstract art.
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