Business Casual at Mockingbird Bistro

The Kobe beef burger is hard to resist.
The Kobe beef burger is hard to resist.

Mockingbird is a rare find these days, even if it can't really be considered a "find" anymore after being open -- quite successfully -- since January 2002. What makes it so rare is a combination of old school charm and hip sensibility: white tablecloths in a funky, Montrose building, a pleasantly quiet atmosphere amongst some highly modern dishes, a hugely affordable bar menu and creative cocktail program alongside business suits and expense-account worthy and classically crafted dinners.

One the the restaurant's latest additions is a prix-fixe lunch menu for $25, with your choice of two courses. It's a smart move to attract business-minded diners to the restaurant, which is just close enough to downtown to make the drive out of the city and into the quiet, residential neighborhood off West Gray completely worth it.

It's also a smart choice for diners like me, who enjoy Mockingbird's food but can't always afford to drop the bills on a full-blown dinner under the wooden chandeliers and floating gargoyles that hang from the ceiling.

But, as with all good deals, there's a slight catch.

Veal sweetbreads: Come back for these in the winter.
Veal sweetbreads: Come back for these in the winter.

The amount of food that you get for $25 is truly stunning. I have leftovers that I'll happily be consuming tonight, so there's no complaint there. But after we received the bill, my dining companion and I noticed that the total -- a little over $61 -- seemed a bit high. Did they auto-grat our table of two?

And then I spotted it: $7 for two glasses of iced tea. Now, the iced tea at Mockingbird is lovely. It isn't brewed for too long, no bitter taste from tannins, etc. But that's to be expected from any place that isn't Golden Corral. What isn't expected is that the iced tea would run $3.50 a glass, especially in a city like Houston which sucks down the amber liquid as if it was pure water.

I was a little insulted by the $3.50-a-glass charge for something that costs next to nothing to make, and found myself wishing I'd indulged in a glass of wine instead: a La Fuente cab or sauvignon blanc was only $1.50 more.

Despite this, the lunch was predictably divine. The Kobe beef burger here never disappoints, consistently rich and fatty and positively dripping with juices while the generous cone of crispy fries and garlic aioli served alongside it almost make a starter redundant and unnecessary. (And it's an even better deal during happy hour, when you can enjoy the burger and fries for only $9.)

A pert, perky cantaloupe soup.
A pert, perky cantaloupe soup.

I ordered the "cold summer soup" as a starter and was pleasantly surprised to get a dish of astonishingly orange cantaloupe soup, dotted with basil oil and pepper, poured atop a mound of fresh, meaty prosciutto. The clever twist on a very tired appetizer made me chuckle, and the sweet cantaloupe puree captured summer in a bowl -- especially as the bright notes of basil shone through.

My entree of veal sweetbreads ended up being entirely too heavy for a summer lunch, but this was my own fault in ordering. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked, with a crispy exterior that wasn't at all greasy and gave way to that divinely pillowy texture that everyone who isn't eating glands and pancreas is missing in their lives. But the mound of potatoes, the sharp whole-grain mustard and the woodsy mushrooms gave the entire dish a very earthy, heavy feel that would have been more suited to a winter dinner. Again, my fault for ordering it in summer (although I enjoyed every single bite).

Other items to choose from for the first course include salmon tartare (a bit too bland, but nice and light), Wood Duck Farm summer greens and a roasted beet salad that's approaching the limits of being overdone at almost every restaurant, but is simply so good and so down-to-earth that you can't help but love it. Second courses include choices like veal bolognese, moules frites, steak frites and a raspberry chicken salad for those trying to stay on the lighter side.

And since you're going to pay $3.50 for that glass of tea, go ahead and treat yourself to a Fireman's #4 or a hibiscus mojito instead. They're far more worth the price.

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