Bread and Relaxation at Kraftsmen Cafe
See more photos from Kraftsmen Cafe's cozy dining room and kitchen filled with baked goods in our slideshow.
As you're sipping a latte from a downy chair tucked into one sunlit corner of Kraftsmen Cafe in the Heights, it's difficult to recall the space's days as ultra-high-concept Textile. Although the cozy cafe is still manned by owner and chef Scott Tycer, that's about the only thing that's still the same in his old-new spot inside a refurbished textile factory in the Heights.
Where Textile was studied and cool — sometimes verging on downright cold — Kraftsmen Cafe is boisterous yet zen. An explosively colored chalkboard greets guests walking into the cafe, while glass cases of fresh bread and pastries remind them that the huge Kraftsmen Bakery still operates in the kitchen space behind the cafe. The bakery supplies bread and other baked goods to some of Houston's best restaurants and is Tycer's main operation these days.
Freshly baked bread is part of what makes Kraftsmen Cafe so good. You get toasted slices of it with your breakfast plates and are invited to load up on strawberry jam, honey, butter and a slew of other toppings at an antique sideboard on one wall of the L-shaped dining room. At lunch, sandwiches are served on flaky croissants or nutty biologique bread. And you can, of course, buy any of the loaves or bags to take home on your way out.
I'm never in a rush to leave Kraftsmen. Inviting in a way its former incarnation never was, it has become one of my favorite weekend relaxation spots that's as yet unspoiled by huge crowds or long lines for brunch. In fact, the dining room has been expanded since first reopening as Kraftsmen Cafe in late 2010 and now holds lots of comfortable furniture (much of it sourced from Installations, its chic antique-store neighbor) and even more windows to stream light into the bright space through gauzy curtains.
I found my favorite dish at Kraftsmen at brunch, when I was lured to the cafe by the advertisement of something called a "honey badger omelet." If you are one of the few remaining Americans who haven't seen the honey badger video on YouTube, I suggest looking it up (and covering your kids' ears if they're nearby). How could the cafe have come up with a dish based on the hilariously aggressive honey badger and the equally funny but foul-mouthed narration that accompanies the infamous video? I had to find out.
The answer was that the omelet was as interesting and aggressive itself, stuffed with dark orange chorizo and red onions and topped with spicy Havarti cheese. Houstonians shove Mexican chorizo into lots of unusual applications — take the chorizo-and-cheese kolaches at Pena's Donut Heaven in Pearland, for example — but chorizo in an omelet is a new twist on an old breakfast favorite...and one I'm honestly surprised I haven't seen before. It would have been a bit heavy-handed, however, were it not for the crunch of the red onions and the sharp little burn of the Havarti. With those ingredients, the omelet simply worked.
More importantly, it was fun.
Fun was something that Textile always lacked. As a restaurant, it was perhaps ahead of its time. Offering extravagantly priced tasting menus and a wild cocktail program that most Houstonians just weren't ready for in 2009, it closed the following summer, with Tycer at first saying that he intended to take a summer break. That break stretched into oblivion, and before long, Textile's various pieces had been scattered to the wind. Pastry chef Plinio Sandalio departed for Austin, and sous chef Ryan Hildebrand ended up opening his own restaurant, Triniti, a few years later. Tycer began to focus more on Gravitas, his restaurant on Taft that occupied the old Antone's space in Montrose (and would later become The Pass & Provisions).
In a lot of ways, Tycer has been very prescient with his restaurants, his ideas and his plans — whether they panned out or not. The concepts that he pioneered may not have worked out at the time, but you can see Textile's influence in places like Triniti. Hildebrand's restaurant offers inventive tasting menus and à la carte items with great emphasis on pastry and cocktail programs, just as Textile did, but has been more well-received. I think that without places such as Textile to plant the seed in Houston, this new crop of tasting menu-driven restaurants wouldn't be quite as successful.
Similarly, Tycer had the idea to pair a more casual "gastropub"-type restaurant with a high-end tasting-menu restaurant in the same building, sharing the same kitchen. This was his original plan for Textile after its summer vacation, he told me back in June 2010.
"There have been other things that I've been thinking about in terms of doing a multipurpose concept with Textile," Tycer said. Ironically, he ended up closing Gravitas in January of this year, only to see his ideas re-envisioned by the new occupants. By autumn, Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan had moved into the completely renovated restaurant with The Pass & Provisions, an eerily familiar concept. Provisions features a casual menu of pizzas, sandwiches and pastas, while The Pass is a high-end, chef-driven restaurant that offers one tasting menu per night. They share a kitchen.
But I think that Tycer really has it right with Kraftsmen Cafe after years of running some of the city's most ambitious restaurants, starting with Aries in 2003 (which he closed in 2006 and turned into Pic, which closed even more quickly). He's not a man to count out: Although it's been nearly a decade since he was featured in Food & Wine as one of the country's ten best new chefs, Tycer continues to have a deep understanding of what food trends are headed our way — even if he gets to them before the rest of us do.
In that way, I think Kraftsmen Cafe is Tycer's version of a palate-cleanser after years of torturously high-concept menus that can often test the limits of a food lover's knowledge, understanding and patience. There are only a few breakfast items on the menu here, a few lunch items. The food itself is very straightforward while still being cheeky and just ambitious enough. And, most important, it's good.
The Cold Fish may not sound very appetizing by name alone, but it's quickly become one of my favorite sandwiches in town. It's basically lox and a schmear without the bagel. Instead, that wonderfully soft and nutty biologique bread takes the place of a tough bagel and lets the slick, smoky salmon and deftly flavored caper-dill mascarpone cheese spread shine through. A few cucumbers and red onions for crunch, some arugula for added zip, and you have a sandwich that I'd take over a bagel and lox any day of the week.
More intriguing in its name alone is the Effin' Good Sandwich, which is — indeed — very effing good. Into one of Kraftsmen's buttery croissants goes a simple combination of salami, turkey, red onion, Provolone, mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Slightly warmed until messily melty, it's terrific on a cool day and even better when Kraftsmen is serving its creamy potato-leek soup or equally silky chicken tortilla.
Now that this is the only location of Kraftsmen Cafe (the one in Montrose recently closed to make way for new tenants The Eatsie Boys), I get the sense that Tycer and his crew are concentrating more closely on making sure their sandwiches are up to snuff every time. I can recall having a few duds in Montrose, but never at the Heights location. And while I miss the ivy-covered patio and looming bell tower from the old converted library/church next door in Montrose, the Heights location now has charm of its own to spare thanks to the gracefully appointed dining room and warm, friendly staff. There's even a patio here, too, although it's much smaller.
Breakfast is still my favorite time to visit, however. On the weekends, Kraftsmen will set you up with a huge carafe of orange juice if you bring your own bubbly — build-your-own-mimosas, if you will — and you can spread out with mimosas, endless cups of coffee, omelets and friends for hours. If you bring the kids, you'll find there's even a space for them to sit complete with toys and books to keep them busy.
And while breakfast is where I've found a few misses — underseasoned potatoes once, two very uninspired breakfast tacos on cold, flabby tortillas — these are all made up for by fresh croissants spread with lemon marmalade, French toast made with sweet brioche bread and Kraftsmen's fantastic pancakes, which it calls griddle cakes. Surprisingly light and fluffy considering how thick each pancake is, they're laced with air bubbles and a tangy, yeasty flavor that leads me to believe the griddle cakes are made with the kind of batter my mother refers to as "good morning" batter: pancake or waffle batter that's rich with yeast and left out overnight to rise.
This is all I want most days: good, simple breakfasts, sturdy sandwiches, comforting soups. It's what I imagine many people would rather have over an $85 degustation menu if they're being honest with themselves. I like that Scott Tycer has finally found a place where he can be straightforward and simple, too. And I like that it comes with comfy, fluffy chairs.
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