The giant sea scallops at Jonathan's The Rub were lightly dusted with an herb and pepper rub and seared so that they were opaque on the outside, but still a little translucent in the middle. Each bite of tender white shellfish melted in my mouth. The New England scallops were served on top of a pool of buttery grits, a terrific combination that seemed like a Yankee spin on shrimp grits. Expect such delicious witticisms from a restaurant with one foot in Houston and one foot in Brooklyn.
Jonathan's The Rub is a tiny, ten-table neighborhood joint presided over by its larger-than-life chef and owner Jonathan Levine, a loud and proud native of Brooklyn. Levine's exposed kitchen juts out into the middle of the restaurant, where you can watch him cook while he watches you eat.
When we walked into the restaurant, Levine reached his hand over the half wall that separates the cooking area from the dining room, shook my hand and introduced himself. He seemed to be on a first-name basis with everybody who walked in the door, and they all seemed to know each other. It was all very cozy.
We didn't realize the restaurant had a BYOB policy, but the convenience store in the shopping center stocks a good selection of wines, Jonathan told us. Corkage is a reasonable five dollars.
There is a photo of Houston and a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge on the menu. The food really is an East Coast/Gulf Coast dialogue. Jonathan wants everybody to try his Louisiana gumbo and his New York meatballs.
We also sampled the seafood medley on our first visit, a combination of the same scallops with some nicely cooked shrimp and a piece of sea bass. The macaroni and cheese side order was pleasant but unspectacular. A blue cheese broccoli casserole was stunning, if a little too rich for something posing as a vegetable.
The cioppino tasted oddly familiar, since it contained the same scallops and shrimp I had stolen off my dining companion's plate, this time accompanied by mussels and angel hair pasta in a light seafood broth. I learned to love cioppino at the Golden Spike in San Francisco, where the spicy tomato-based soup is brimming with Dungeness crabs. The quality of the fresh seafood diverted my attention from the failings of the soup, though in truth, the timid seafood broth at Jonathan's is too boring to be called cioppino.
Jonathan's reminded me of another San Francisco institution — Joe's. There were several Joe's restaurants in the Bay Area when I lived there in the 1980s, and all of them had similar menus and decors. The kitchen at Joe's was exposed, and the line cooks made a show of sautéing, flipping the food high in the air and flaming their pans. Little Joe's on Broadway in North Beach was the most famous. A long line of people waiting for a table snaked down the sidewalk out front. The restaurant's slogan, which was emblazoned on the back of every employee's T-shirt, read "Rain or Shine, There's Always a Line at Little Joe's."
There is a line of people waiting to get into Jonathan's almost every night. At rush hour, dads in suits and ties straight from downtown office buildings meet moms and kids in baseball and soccer uniforms, and they all stand in line together.
Jonathan Levine once worked as a commodities trader in New York. He got tired of it, dropped out of the business world and started cooking. He followed his sister and his mother to Houston ten years ago. He has worked as a caterer and personal chef in the Memorial area most of that time. Not long ago, he decided to put out a few tables and try his hand at running a restaurant. The seemingly obscure location on a quiet industrial strip just off I-10 proved to be ideal — it's right around the corner from the upscale neighborhoods of Hedwig Village and Piney Point.
Jonathan's The Rub got its name from the chef's famous steak rub. Levine says he soaks his steaks in olive oil before applying a secret spice blend. So on my second visit, I ordered a steak. Jonathan recommended the steak asada, a well-rubbed filet mignon served Latino-style with black beans, rice and a chipotle cream sauce. The steak was tender — too tender, really. And while the chipotle cream was delicious, I have no idea what the vaunted rub underneath the smoky chile peppers tasted like.
My dining companion requested a hamburger. Jonathan's burger isn't on the dinner menu — it's only served at lunch. But the waitress took the order anyway.
While we waited, I went to the convenience store and bought a 32-ounce bottle of Dos Equis for the two of us to split. At three dollars, the beer was less than the corkage fee. Oh well.
Jonathan's burger turned out to be nine ounces of hand-formed Black Angus ground beef cooked pink inside and served with lettuce, tomato, onions and pickle on a toasted roll with mayo and mustard on the side.
After a proper application of mustard and mayo, I took a bite. The meat was loose and juicy, and the meat-to-bun ratio excellent. It was a fancy restaurant burger masterpiece. I handed it back to my tablemate, but after she took a few more bites, it fell apart in her hands. She ate the debris with a knife and fork. The burger came with a choice of sides — she went with the delicious but limp hand-cut french fries.
After sampling the burger, I went back to my steak, but the thrill was gone. The filet mignon asada with chipotle sauce cost $32. The burger was $12. And I seriously wished I had ordered the burger. Maybe I need to come back at lunch time.
The little neighborhood restaurant with the charming host seems to be a theme lately. [See "Hollister Hospitality," June 18.] But the main attraction here is Jonathan Levine. He is a down-to-earth guy, a good cook and a gregarious host. He isn't on a mission. He doesn't want to teach anybody anything, he just wants his customers to have a good time. His menu was inspired by ten years of catering and working as a personal chef in the affluent Memorial neighborhood. He buys the very best seafood and high-quality beef and cooks it simply. His prices aren't cheap.
None of that sounds very remarkable, and yet eating at Jonathan's The Rub is a delightful experience. Jonathan roams the restaurant and visits every table. He tells jokes on himself and wants to meet your family. And he works his ass off. There just aren't many restaurant owners sweating on the line while cracking wise with the patrons anymore.
Which is probably why, rain or shine, there's always a line at Jonathan's.
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