CRISP's Culinary Chaos: Conflicting Combinations and Confusing Seasonings
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From the moment the first bite reached my tongue, I knew something was wrong. The pizza was sweet. And it wasn't supposed to be sweet. I looked at the list of ingredients on the menu. Taleggio, spinach, marinated artichokes, crispy onions and truffle oil. None of those things are inherently sweet.
I passed a piece to one of my dining companions and asked him if he tasted something cloying. He did, but even our combined forces couldn't figure out just what in the pizza was making it sweet.
Of course, that wasn't the unfortunate dish's only problem. It seems someone in the kitchen had been taught in some back-alley culinary school that every time you make any sort of cheesy cream sauce, you add nutmeg. Like, a lot of nutmeg. How it ended up on my pizza I have no idea, but it was there. And it was odd.
In fact, I'm generally confused by CRISP Wine Bar & Eatery. The menu is unbalanced, featuring a number of Italian-esque dishes as well as Southern staples like chicken and waffles, brisket sandwiches and beer can chicken. Some things that I ate there were practically inedible. Some things were absolutely stellar. The servers didn't know much about the wine (which is unfortunate at a wine bar), but they were friendly and welcoming. The interior seems made for young professionals to chill with a glass of wine after a day at the office, while the patio is a place to take the kids and chow down on pizza and a pint.
Maybe it's because I'm new to Houston, or maybe it's because CRISP is still figuring out what it wants to be, but after three meals there, I still can't decide whether I liked it or what sort of category to place it in, if any.
In sorting through my experiences at CRISP, though, I was able to come up with a rule for dining there: Don't order anything vaguely Italian, and your meal ought to be pretty tasty.
Conflicting combinations and confusing seasonings appear to be a theme at CRISP Wine Bar & Eatery. The restaurant opened in November 2012 in the Shady Acres neighborhood just south of 610 and east of T.C. Jester. It's a funny place for a restaurant because all of its neighbors are homes and condos, but there it is, nestled in a quiet neighborhood, the perfect spot for folks to meet on a Thursday evening to enjoy inexpensive craft beer and wine with a stone deck fired pizza.
The masterminds behind the place, Al Scavelli, Olsi Lito and Angelo Scavelli, also own and operate three local bars — Pub Fiction, Shot Bar and Celtic Gardens — but it's difficult to picture the guys who dreamed up those places opening CRISP. It's so...well...crisp. Yes, it's still a bar of sorts, but it's a classy space.
My first impression was that it's really lovely. A large mural depicting a pastoral scene in what appears to be Italy covers one full wall, and the rest are exposed brick. The restaurant is dominated by a large wooden bar in the middle of the room that has seats all the way around. It no doubt makes for challenging bartending, but it's great for people watching across the bar.
Another wall features CRISP's much-talked-about Enomatic wine system, which stores each featured bottle of wine at its correct service temperature. The system also allows the wine to be distributed in one-ounce, three-ounce or five-ounce servings, should a diner wish merely to taste many different wines instead of drinking full glasses. Drinkers and diners are encouraged to purchase Tasting Cards that work like credit cards for a wine-vending machine. It's an interesting idea and one that appeals to my indecisive nature.
CRISP has a number of different seating options, including tall bar tables, booths, four-tops and picnic tables outside. The interior is decorated in warm earth tones punctuated by abstract art, small framed black-and-white photographs, and, of course, wine and beer. There are growlers and wine bottles on display all over the place — a not-so-subtle reminder that you're eating at a bar rather than drinking at a restaurant. Further adding to the upscale bar atmosphere are chalkboards featuring nicely handwritten lists of specials and illustrations of wine glasses.
And the specials are numerous. I won't list them all here for the sake of space, but suffice it to say that every day features a special or three. Unfortunately, the one I tried didn't fare much better than the menu items I tried. Monday's Chicken D'Angelo special was breaded chicken atop fettucine alfredo, and like the rest of CRISP's offerings, it confused me. It was greasy and heavy and far too complicated. Why would you serve a heavily breaded chicken breast over another bread product? Why top the chicken with cheese when it's being served with a cheesy pasta sauce? What's with the random dabs of pesto? Aside from the overabundance of nutmeg in the alfredo sauce (which by then was a running joke among my group of diners), the individual components of the dish were good. I just don't understand how they go together.
The unbalanced chicken and pasta special was forgivable, but the gross bastardization of the traditional Tuscan salad panzanella was not. Panzanella — which I admit is one of my favorite Italian dishes, so I'm perhaps a tad more judgmental than most about this — translates literally to "small bread basket." When done right, it's a mixture of day-old stale bread soaked in water and squeezed dry with tomatoes, onions, basil, olive oil and vinegar. Sometimes lettuce, cucumbers, anchovies, capers or mozzarella are also added. But no iteration of panzanella resembles what CRISP serves.
Perhaps CRISP was going for a gluten-free take on panzanella, but I was shocked when it arrived at our table sans bread. I could have gotten over the semantics issue had the salad been a worthwhile dish. Sadly, it wasn't. The mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, asparagus, red onions and feta was drowning in what was purportedly a yogurt and mint dressing that tasted more like a jar of dill with a bit of plain yogurt mixed in for texture. I appreciate what was perhaps an intended Italian/Greek gluten-free fusion in theory. In actuality, the crazy amount of dill made it nearly inedible.
The lump crab orecchiette sounds wonderful in theory. How can you go wrong with crab and cream sauce, right? Unfortunately, like the pizza, this creamy pasta dish was suffering from some very obvious issues, most notably, yet again, the abundance of nutmeg. A ridiculous amount of nutmeg. I wanted to go back into the CRISP kitchen and take away the jar of that normally welcome pumpkin pie spice because without its overwhelming influence, I think several of the items I tried would have been substantially better.
After several meals at CRISP, I came to the conclusion that CRISP just doesn't get Italian, and that's fine because there are items on the menu where the chefs shine. Like the beer can chicken.
The half bird is beautifully roasted and glazed with the leftover beer and chicken juices. The skin was crispy and flavorful, and the meat underneath was juicy and tender — probably some of the best poultry I've eaten in a while. The Lone Star beer and chicken broth sauce was simple and unfussy, which left room for the addition of salty, crunchy rosemary Parmesan fries.
The "melting beef short ribs" were similarly juicy and tender. In fact, a knife was completely unnecessary because the beef fell apart under the weight of a fork. When my dining companions and I saw "melting beef" on the menu, we laughed because what the heck is melting beef? But if anything should be labeled as such, it's these short ribs, which, clichéd as it is to say it, really do melt in your mouth. They're served atop polenta that reminded us more of grits due to its consistency, but whatever the texture of the ground-corn medley, it was fabulous when paired with the juicy beef and butter-braised mushrooms.
Of course, if you have enough wine, CRISP's culinary idiosyncrasies might be an afterthought, which is perhaps why the wine prices are so reasonable while the food prices are a bit high. The highest-priced bottle on the menu is a 2009 Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon at $275. The least expensive bottle is $22, which means that there's something for every price point. There aren't any wines that cost more than $9 a glass, which is unfortunate because at a place that advertises itself as a wine bar, most would expect to be able to get interesting, high-quality wines by the glass. And I for one am willing to pay more for better wine.
Like the wine, beer prices are also reasonable, and both the beer and wine are $2 off during happy hour, which makes CRISP a popular after-work hangout for folks who live or work in the neighborhood. The beer menu features 24 craft brews on tap from all over the country as well as a few from England and Belgium. The emphasis is on Texas craft beer, but even the European ones aren't more than $8 a pint. These are some of the most reasonable pint prices I've seen in Houston, and the menu does a great job of explaining exactly what you're getting.
After enjoying the success of the melting beef and beer can chicken (and drinking a little too much wine), I find myself more forgiving of CRISP's mistakes and open to trying it again. I love the vibe of the place. I could probably sip rosé on that patio all evening.
For these reasons, I want to love CRISP. For some unfortunate seasoning and recipe issues, I'm just not sure. Perhaps CRISP is just too much for my taste. Too much variety. Too much food on a plate. Too many toppings on the pizza. Too much wannabe Italian fare. Too much freaking nutmeg.
Except, that is, for the seasonal fruit crisp. It's served hot and crumbly, and the fruit inside is fresh and juicy. I ordered it as an afterthought, but found it to be one of the most balanced plates on the menu. Thank goodness CRISP got its namesake right. And unlike the pizza, fettuccine or orecchiette, this simple dessert employs just the right amount of — you guessed it — nutmeg. Finally.
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