Comfort Food on Steroids
The grilled cheese sandwich at Two Saints Restaurant on Memorial came on thick-sliced, toasted artisan bread. The complex yeasty texture and crunchy crust created lots of "nooks and crannies" that made for very interesting toast.
The cheese was full-flavored gruyère, one of my favorite melting cheeses. It oozed deep into the holes in the toast, along with the butter. Layered in the cheese were strips of roasted red peppers and a couple of spinach leaves. It was a grilled cheese sandwich taken to the max.
I sampled the bread along with a hearty tomato basil soup. If a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup was one of your favorite winter lunches when you were a kid, you might find the memories conjured up by this lunch combo as transporting as Proust's madeleine. The effect is not an accident. The lunch menu at Two Saints also includes such nostalgia-evoking dishes as meat loaf and macaroni and cheese.
The mac and cheese contained thick bacon chunks and chopped jalapeños baked in an oval casserole with a four-cheese blend. The cheese sauce overflowed while the dish was cooking, so that lava-like melted cheese flowed down the sides of the crockery. It was a stunning dish of macaroni and cheese — maybe too good. After six or seven big bites, the richness of the cheese sauce slowed me and my tablemate down. Between the two of us, we could barely finish half of it.
By my second visit, the menu had changed. The duck confit ravioli I had intended to try was gone from the menu. All the pastas were vegetarian now — you paid five dollars more to add meat. There were more sandwiches, including a roast pork one. There was also a beet salad.
I ordered a meat loaf sandwich that came ingeniously topped with mashed red potatoes and the restaurant's over-the-top onion rings. I am not sure I have ever had mashed potatoes on a sandwich before. Fried potatoes, yes; french fries, yes; but not mashed potatoes. It's an idea I intend to steal. I think there were some traces of ketchup on top of the meat loaf slices. The many-layered creation combined to form a wonderfully bland mess of soft textures and flavors in your mouth as you chewed.
On the opposite extreme, I also sampled a Texas Reuben, made with sliced brisket, melted gruyère and very piquant red cabbage slaw. The peppery brisket Reuben came on toast spread with Russian dressing. It was a masterpiece of a sandwich done in broad, spicy brushstrokes.
The decor at Two Saints is simple, but romantic. The curtains are burgundy, and the furniture is dark wood. The kitchen is open, and there are four stools lined up so you can sit at a counter and watch the chef at work.
On a dinner visit, I felt like I had walked into a different restaurant from the place where we ate lunch. The menu is classier at night, and the atmosphere is more inviting. It's a small restaurant with comfy leather couches along the dining room walls where you might expect banquettes to be. At dinnertime, you want to sink into one of the sofas and sit for a while.
The restaurant is BYOB, but they encourage you to walk over to the Vine Wine Room and get a bottle of wine. So we ordered our food and walked over there while it was cooked. The wine bar was dimly lit and unexpectedly cozy. A decent musician was singing and strumming an acoustic guitar in the corner with a tip bucket in front of him. There were a few couples hanging out drinking wine. We looked over the wine list, bought a bottle of Spanish white plonk to go with our food and talked about coming back later.
We started our meal with the onion rings. According to the menu, these are dusted with truffled baby pecorino and served with truffled aioli. Maybe I was spoiled by the plate of pasta topped with freshly shaved white truffles I ate at Da Marco last month, but I couldn't really taste any truffles in these onion rings — maybe a faint whiff, but that's about it.
A salad of three kinds of roasted beets with baby carrots and frisée in a simple vinaigrette was bravely brilliant, with no goat cheese, walnuts, croutons or any other affectations. It was just some fresh-from-the-garden red, yellow and candy-stripe beets, roasted with some of those sweet, stunted little carrots we get around here, and it was an amazing salad.
The fresh-market fish dish was jumbo shrimp served over risotto. The shrimp were deveined and cooked perfectly so they stayed moist. The risotto was made with arborio rice, but it wasn't worked into a creamy starch — it was just a pile of short-grain rice. It was pleasant but not all that inspiring.
The deceptively simple-sounding entrée called pan-seared chicken was the best thing I ate that night. The skin was slow-cooked to crunchy perfection, and the meat was all perfectly moist. The chicken came on a pile of mashed potatoes and greens, with a glaze of sauce on the flat, empty part of the plate that was perfect for dipping each bite into. It rivaled the spectacular roasted chicken I just had at Branch Water Tavern.
It's interesting that the same sort of pan-seared chicken seems to be showing up everywhere I eat these days. Branch Water Tavern and Two Saints also had two versions of the same dessert — sticky toffee pudding.
Having eaten a lot of big, gooey bowls of sticky toffee pudding in British pubs, I have to say that I am not impressed by the upscale American rendition at either place. The Two Saints version is really little more than bread pudding with some candied crust. Americans seem to like the name of the dessert but fear the sugar content of the real thing. The original tastes like a couple of Heath bars melted in butter and poured over a big hunk of cake.
A brownie with spicy nuts and house-made cinnamon ice cream was a more imaginative dessert.
Joe Rippey, Two Saints restaurant's founder, also owns the Vine wine bar. When Azzarelli's closed, leaving the restaurant space vacant, Rippey, who lives three blocks away, decided to get into the food business. Mainly, he was trying to avoid drinking and driving when he went out to dinner, he jokes.
Rippey asked his friend Justin Gasper to be his partner and chef. The two wanted the place to have a neighborhood feel, so they attempted to name it after Benignus Road. But they couldn't figure out exactly who the street was named after, since there are two saints with that name. So they named the place Two Saints. Saint Benignus of Ireland was a friend of Saint Patrick. More propitiously, the French Saint Benignus is the patron saint of Dijon.
Justin Gasper is a veteran of Daily Review Cafe, another destination for lovers of macaroni and cheese and meat loaf in Houston. Gasper describes the food at Two Saints as upscale comfort food with a creative twist. Clearly that was the original intention.
But the food has changed under the influence of Gasper's fellow chefs. I talked to daytime chef Kenya Berding one day while I was waiting for my lunch. Berding worked at Gravitas for three years before coming to Two Saints, and she said she hoped that Two Saints would continue to evolve away from the safety of comfort foods and toward a more ambitious fine-dining menu.
On the current dinner menu, entrées like crispy skin duck breast on saffron risotto with wild greens and parmesan broth, and appetizers like grilled lamb tenderloin with harissa lentils and asparagus, seem to signal such a change. Watch for the foie gras to make an appearance any time now.
Two Saints set out to become a neighborhood comfort food restaurant, and it has already exceeded those modest expectations. The question now is: How high will it fly?
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