The minute we were seated at The Burning Pear, the cowboy cuisine restaurant in the Sugar Land Marriott, the breadbasket arrived. The mini corn muffin filled with poblano peppers was impressive, and so was the onion roll, which had a slight thyme accent. The cumin crisp, however, stole the show. It was hard not to devour the breads, leaving no room for anything else.
Funny, since on my first visit to this restaurant at breakfast, the breads had been awful. Instead of homemade muffins or sweet rolls, the breakfast buffet featured a basket of institutional baked goods. The steak and roasted-tomato eggs Benedict were supposed to be topped with a medley of wild mushrooms, but they came with plain button mushrooms and a thick slice of tomato that showed no signs of roasting. The chilaquiles -- thin strips of corn tortillas mixed with peppers, onion and eggs and topped with white cheddar cheese -- were downright insipid. It was the salsa, however, that really shocked me; like ketchup with tomato and green pepper pieces but no discernible heat whatsoever.
The breakfast buffet was lackluster at best -- I could have been in any Marriott anywhere in the country. Then it dawned on me. Breakfast was probably courtesy of the Marriott staff, while the cowboy crew took care of lunch and dinner. So I came back for a second visit at dinnertime, and sure enough I was greeted by white linens, crisp service, and the breadbasket I couldn't resist.
The fried green tomato appetizer had an extra-crispy bread coating. Along with some field greens, the tomatoes were covered with a ranch dressing thickened by big chunks of blue cheese. We also sampled the wild boar ribs, which were ready to fall off the bone. Their slight gaminess was dampened by a clear, sweet, red-purple sauce made from prickly pear cactus. The name Burning Pear comes from the technique of burning the thorns off the cactus pads so that, during the winter, the cattle can eat the high-protein food.
For the main course, we chose the porterhouse pork chop and the rib eye steak. The chop had been smoked for quite some time before being grilled, resulting in a fabulous-tasting combination of smoke and grill flavors. It was flanked by a Creole mustard sauce and some uninspiring glazed carrots. The poblano cheese grits, however, were so good, they gave me the urge to saddle up and ride something.
After it had been cooked, the rib eye steak was coated with brown sugar and mustard and returned to the grill to caramelize the topping. The resulting sauce had a fascinating gooeyness that oozed down the side of the steak along with the meat juices, mixing with the creamy, garlicky mashed potatoes and lending them some added flavor.
At first, I didn't know whether beer or wine would go better with this campfire cuisine. The menu listed a remarkably good selection of draft beers and your usual bottles. But we perused the wine list and discovered a light-bodied $26 Argentinean Malbec called Tango. A few minutes after we ordered it, the waiter returned with a manager to inform us that a wedding party in another room had completely wiped them out of this wine. So I chose a $36 Wolf Blass Red Label Australian Cab/Shiraz blend. The manager assured us that the bottle was available and that we wouldn't be charged the difference in price, but he soon returned, hat in hand, to explain that it, too, was out of stock. Instead, he proffered a 1999 Marcelina, an exceedingly smooth, fruity $60 Cab-Merlot blend from the Napa Valley. Because of the mix-up, the wine was on the house. It was a thoughtful gesture, but a bad omen.
The Burning Pear was founded by the famous cowboy chef Grady Spears. His photo and a display of his cookbooks were prominently placed in the foyer on my first breakfast visit. A little over a month later, there was no sign of Spears. We noticed that his name had been removed from the menu, and his picture and the cookbook display had disappeared from the foyer. It turns out that though the dishes served are the ones created by Spears, The Burning Pear is now under the control of chef Clay Wilson. When I asked two servers and a manager about the situation, they maintained a typical corporate silence.
In spite of Grady Spears's lack of formal training -- last we checked, there wasn't much formal training available in cowboy cuisine -- he's no cowpoke in the kitchen department, so I wondered what was going on here. Spears, a native of Fort Worth, sort of fell into his line of trade. The legend goes something like this: In 1989, while Spears was managing A Moveable Feast in Houston, he was hired away to manage the restaurant in the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas. Two weeks into his stint, the cook up and left. Spears found himself thrust feet first into the fire, standing in front of the stove on a Saturday night with a restaurant full of people and another load waiting to eat. A career was born: Spears went on to make a name for himself with simple yet outlandish cowboy dishes such as goat enchiladas and fillet of beef marinated in Pepsi. The chef wowed the world with his boyish good looks and straightforward meat-and-potatoes cooking style.
He was put in charge of several restaurants in Texas, in addition to one in Beverly Hills and another in Las Vegas. The Burning Pear and a couple of other restaurants were the result of a partnership with Marriott. Recently, however, the wheels have come off Spears's wagon. Articles began to surface about a prickly divorce. Not from his wife, but from Marriott. Seems that Cowboy and Corporate had a falling-out. It's unclear just what happened, but we do know that Spears is no longer affiliated with The Burning Pear -- and that he's broken with several other restaurants, too.
On my last visit, I wanted to try The Burning Pear's chicken-fried steak, which has developed quite a reputation. It was large but not excessively big. Spears's signature sourdough breading was completely greaseless and very tasty. And while the cracked-pepper gravy, with its pasty mouthfeel, held no appeal, the smoky mashed potatoes more than made up for the gravy's lack of taste.
The chicken-fried steak was fabulous, but this last visit exposed other problems, from a missing hostess (we wandered around for several minutes in the lobby before a waiter seated us) to a lack of waitstaff (I ordered dessert from a busboy after not seeing my waiter for 30 minutes). Several other patrons noticed the poor service too, and some of them were comped part of their meals.
I wish we had been comped for our appetizer. We ordered the catfish cakes. The waiter told us they were now serving crab cakes instead of catfish cakes, and that he was sure we would love them. We didn't. Crab cakes are readily available at many Houston restaurants. Catfish cakes are not. But the real problem was the fact that the catfish cakes were on the menu for $7. We were charged $14 without having been advised ahead of time.
With the ouster of Spears, chef Clay Wilson has an opportunity to feature some outstanding regional Texas cuisine. However, no matter how good the "back of the house" may be, without the "front of the house" doing its part, they won't be able to round up customers much longer.
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