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'How would you review Chili's? Or T.G.I. Fridays?"
My friend presented me with this hypothetical as we huddled in a booth over a bowl of steaming, creamy spinach and artichoke dip with a crispy bread-crumb crust. At the time, I was too enamored of the faintly spicy cheese and hunks of firm, pale-green artichoke to think much about the question.
He persisted. I explained that I like high-volume chain family-style restaurants just fine. They're dependable — for better or worse — and they're great places to meet up with friends for appetizers and drinks or to indulge in a reasonably priced dinner with children. I'd review a Chili's just like I'd review any other restaurant.
"But how?" he went on. "If it's not striving to be the best restaurant in town, how do you compare it?"
I then saw his point. Even before we dug into our main course, we understood that City Oven would not be the best restaurant in Houston, and we also knew that it wasn't trying to be. It's not importing fish from remote oceans for its ceviche, or grinding its beef for burgers and meatballs in-house. It's a bar that serves food and a restaurant with a solid beer list, and that's what it's aiming for. The goal of City Oven is to be a welcome new destination in the growing drinking and dining scene in the Heights.
Down the street there's Tacos a Go-Go, and next door is Christian's Tailgate. Head east on White Oak and you'll find Fitzgerald's, Public House, Little Woodrow's and BB's Café, all of which cater to the increasingly hip Heights crowd of young professionals and families, bar-quiz aficionados and beer nerds, food-truck fiends and burger lovers. And in that respect, City Oven, with its oversize meatballs, wood-burning pizza oven, 15 taps and more than 50 bottled beers, fits in perfectly.
After family-run Italian eatery D'Amico's closed, leaving the space now occupied by City Oven empty, many wondered how another restaurant or bar could survive in that spot. D'Amico's faced issues with parking and the slow transformation of the White Oak strip from neighborhood family-dining destination to more of a nightlife-centric area. HUSA Management Inc., a partner in D'Amico's and Houston bars including Local Pour and Sherlock's, moved City Oven into the open space in late August, and the Heights crowds seem to have welcomed it enthusiastically.
If you go to City Oven hoping to encounter the same kind of homey feel that was D'Amico's, with its walls of drying pasta and tables covered with red-checked linen, you'll be disappointed. The space has been completely transformed; it is still welcoming, but it's also less nostalgic and old-fashioned.
The warm dining room is anchored by the bar, which feels simultaneously inviting — thanks to the rustic wooden shelves and distressed counter — and wild, thanks to a bright, fire-engine-red wall that ties in the other accents of red scattered throughout the dining room. An oven constructed of stone, complete with decorative copper accents, cranks out pizzas made with fresh dough, and across the room a large bookshelf and a sofa upholstered in calico print feel folksy and out of place but comfortable nonetheless. It's an odd blend of rustic and modern, much like the neighborhood itself.
The menu also seems to be a blend of competing influences. It's made largely up of Italian-esque items — think penne primavera and a bastardized margherita pizza — but it also lists hamburgers and bar food, with Tex-Mex dishes peppered throughout. With such variety and scope, it would be remarkable if a neighborhood joint like City Oven could master them all. It doesn't, but it puts forth a valiant effort. After a few meals at the place, I realized just how valid my friend's initial question was. City Oven isn't doing anything wrong. You will probably like most of the dishes on its menu. But there are other places that get certain items right more often.
The most glaring example of this is the pizza. The dough is made and baked on-site, which means it has the potential to be so much more than your average neighborhood bar pizza. While the crust is great — thin and crispy like a cracker, with raised bubbles that have been toasted to golden brown — the toppings are an odd mixture of fresh vegetables with what tasted and looked like canned or frozen veggies. I was told that the meat on the pies comes from "a distributor." No one I asked at City Oven knew which distributor.
That said, some feat of both crust and topping engineering is at work. There are 14 items on the City Oven Supreme (pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, bacon, mushrooms, black olives, red onions, sun-dried tomatoes, green bell peppers, jalapeños, artichoke hearts, banana peppers, garlic and extra cheese), and somehow the crust manages to maintain structural integrity without flopping over like a sad, soggy slice might.
Having recently realized that I really enjoy meatballs, thanks to the light, juicy versions at Coppa Osteria, I cut open City Oven's gargantuan mushroom meatball with gusto, only to find that it was...gooey. It wasn't undercooked or slimy or stringy. But in my experience, meatballs should be tender but crumbly, eventually falling apart after a few good stabs of the fork. This meatball had more the consistency of a big ol' matzo ball. And it had a greenish tinge.
After determining that the meatball was tasty but ground too finely and mixed with too many bread crumbs, I decided to conduct an experiment. I wanted to see if the meatball was similar enough to modeling clay that I could pinch off a piece and make a mini meatball out of it. I could.
What I discovered in dining at City Oven is that some of the best dishes are the ones that blend the restaurant's bar aspect with its restaurant aspect. By that I mean that the chefs are fond of putting booze in the food. And just about any food with alcohol in it, done correctly, is fine by me. Of course, the alcohol in the red wine and mushroom sauce surrounding the gummy meatball had no doubt been cooked away, but the flavors left behind by the wine or beer in any of the dishes add another dimension and make them ideal for pairing with City Oven's extensive beverage menu.
A side dish of Brussels sprouts prepared with bacon and a hint of sweetness, similar to those at Goro & Gun or Uchi (though presented with less finesse), gains some extra zing from a touch of hard cider, while the beer mac and cheese could rival any pasta dish I've tasted at any proper Italian restaurant in town. In between bites of pizza and meatball, I kept going back to that simple mix of penne and melted sharp cheeses with its hint of hoppy beer.
If all the food I ate at City Oven that night sounds heavy, that's because it was. When I returned another day for lunch determined to find something lighter, I discovered that there are some gems mixed in among all that meat and cheese. The strawberry and spinach salad is crisp and fresh, and it, too, comes with a bit of alcohol, this time in the form of a slightly bitter hefeweizen vinaigrette; the grilled salmon spicy Caesar salad, though not particularly spicy, is topped with a generous portion of grilled-to-order fish prepared exactly as it should be: slight sear on the outside, still juicy and a little pink on the inside.
I have yet to meet anyone who's dined at City Oven and still had enough room to order dessert at the end of his or her meal, but after munching on a couple of salads, I decided I could do it. At the waitress's suggestion, I had the berry cobbler, and if I'd had the stomach for it I would have ordered several more. It's not quite like a traditional biscuit-topped cobbler, nor is it texturally interesting. It's actually rather mushy, but the flavors of the seasonal berries and the moist, crumbly topping with a hint of cinnamon won me over almost immediately.
In fact, City Oven itself won me over. Yes, one evening I asked what the happy hour specials were and the waitress had no clue. And yes, there is room for improvement with the food. And parking can still be an issue. But I love the way the restaurant doesn't take itself too seriously. You want a meatball? Here's one the size of a fist stuffed with cheese. You want a bacon cheeseburger? Might as well stuff that whole patty with cheese, too. Then they'll give you a side dish made with beer and a glass of decent wine for only $6. Add a piece of buttery cobbler with deep-red fruit juice oozing out of the dough and a scoop of ice cream and caramel sauce on top, and I dare say you'll be won over, too.
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Though City Oven is most definitely a bar that draws a large weekend crowd, on any given weeknight the spot will be buzzing with a mix of diners as eclectic as the menu. A family will be eating on the back patio, one child in a high chair and the other running in circles around the table while the mother calmly sips a glass of half-price wine. An elderly couple will perch at an elevated booth and munch on an oval pizza. An evening business meeting will go down at a table in the corner over big bowls of salad and a smattering of small appetizers. As the evening progresses, the bar will fill up with people making the rounds of neighborhood watering holes and drinkers looking for a quick bite before heading somewhere with a less inclusive menu.
As at Chili's or Fridays, City Oven is filling a niche, but it's doing so with much more charm than your average family-dining spot. Dine at City Oven a few times, and even in the midst of a crowd, someone who works there will remember you and ask about your day. Admit, as someone I overheard did, that you already ate a burger at Christian's Tailgate next door and came by for a drink only, and the staff will still welcome you at the bar as if you're a Vegas high roller.
It's that friendliness — and the generally good food — that sets City Oven apart from chain restaurants with similar menus, and even from other bars in the area that serve food. It's big enough to hold a large birthday party but small enough to give diners a relaxed, comfortable feeling. It has a legit pizza oven. And hey, if I can have my drink and eat it, too, well, that's just gravy. Or, in this case, a red-wine reduction.