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Defining Triniti

Foie gras on pancakes: breakfast for dinner has never tasted so good.
Troy Fields

See more of Triniti's gorgeous dining room and expansive kitchen in our slideshow.

Triniti absolutely glitters at night. Although you can't see the way the sun hits the perforated metal that wraps in a crimped pattern around the exterior of the restaurant — gleaming gold or rust or green, depending on where you look — the rest of the space simply sparkles. It's in the copper globes hanging above the polished bar that greet you upon entry. It's in the licks of flame sent up from pans in the open kitchen that anchors the opposite end of the big, open restaurant. It's in the pretty girls in spangled dresses who fold their long legs into the light Nordic wood of the sculptural chairs and in the Riedel glasses and Laguiole knives that gleam from their places in charmingly unfussy table settings.

Because while Triniti is nothing if not glamorous, it's also surprisingly accessible. The food that chef Ryan Hildebrand dishes up every night — with the help of his team of cooks, pastry chefs, managers, bartenders and servers assembled from the best, most pedigreed restaurants across the city — could easily be found in New York or Chicago's finest restaurants. You know the kind; the ones that require reservations weeks ahead of time and perhaps a check of your finances, L.A. Story-style.

Cheeky, inventive dishes like a "foie gras breakfast" that sees an outsize lobe of foie gras melting like butter across a blueberry-buckwheat pancake accompanied by a few strips of bacon and a single fried quail egg to complete the tableau. Or a rugged, well-salted pork collar with just the right amount of tongue-pleasing fat rippling through it, balanced upon a fluffy pile of pearl-like oats seasoned with the earthy flavors of porcini mushrooms and butternut squash.

"But we want this to be the kind of place where you can feel comfortable coming in blue jeans," Hildebrand said when I caught him after lunch one Monday afternoon, perched at the end of his bar while he worked on spreadsheets, the restaurant itself seeming completely different by day. In place of the glitz and glam of the previous Friday night was a restaurant that seemed calm, cool and almost zen. "It's almost like a New York loft space," joked Hildebrand.

Indeed, on that Friday night, I had felt a little overdressed in my gray wrap dress and black pumps despite the glamour all around me. It was nice to hear that my internal wish to have worn my dark jeans and a blousy top affirmed by the chef — who was himself wearing blue jeans and a Houston Rockets T-shirt that Monday afternoon.

Throughout the entire multicourse meal on Friday night, my dining companion and I kept remarking on how casual the whole affair seemed in spite of the dazzling plates that were set before us. "Is that Passion Pit on the stereo?" he asked at one point. My reply: "Yeah, and they were playing M83 and Cold War Kids before that." We all but inhaled a few glasses of wine from the expansive by-the-glass list, where nothing is more than $15 and most glasses are closer to $9.

"Do you notice how you can't even make eye contact with the waiters without them coming over to check on you?" I asked him at another point. "That's amazing." And yet the service never comes across as obsequious, stuffy or patronizing — another triumph in and of itself. You always feel welcome here, regardless of whether you're wearing shorts — as the table on one side of us was — or the entire contents of the Versace store at the Galleria — as the table on the other side of us was.

And that's the real magic of Triniti: delivering a supremely high-end meal and giving you a fun, comfortable yet memorable experience all at the same time.
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This is why I suspect that Triniti has done so well for itself in the first year it's been open. It's not that Houston diners aren't interested in the ultramodern platings or esoteric ingredients that were found in now-closed yet equally ambitious restaurants such as Textile (where ­Hildebrand was the sous chef to Scott Tycer) or Voice (which was helmed by current sous chef Greg Lowry). It's that Houstonians as a people are generally more easygoing — and want their restaurants to be as well. We don't necessarily seek out the levels of glitz seen in places like Los Angeles or Dallas. Triniti succeeds by pairing modern, progressive New American cuisine with a laid-back Houston attitude.

That's not to say there weren't some hiccups at first, though. It took me awhile to understand what Triniti was doing, despite liking my initial meal there in January. I found the food terrific: an updated yet simple egg-in-a-hole dish with a fat, golden yard egg atop a bed of tart kale, the balance of salt and acidity and brilliant yolk pulling together in harmony. A perfectly medium-rare piece of salmon on an equally perfect line of white asparagus. A prismatic field of beet cubes, goat cheese spheres and pear wedges that looked, on its white plate, like edible modern art. And yet there was something missing for me.

 

I couldn't quite decide, for one, what Triniti was going for. The service was a bit stuffy and short that first visit, and between the small portions and the somewhat confusing mission of its cuisine, I was lost. I'd heard the food described in various places as "modern American," "progressive American" and even "sweet, savory and spirits," but what was it really? You could see the bone structure of New American cuisine in its elegant, expressive sauce work and transformed comfort food, like that foie gras breakfast or Southern staples like fried green tomatoes reworked into something completely different.

Yet Triniti is not strictly New American. In that "contemporary" vein, it incorporates newer techniques and — more importantly — local ingredients that give the restaurant a sense of place: a Railean rum-based cocktail or greens from Wood Duck Farms are here not as garnish but as an overall attitude toward the cuisine. The food here is defiantly Texan, but with a modern twist. Regardless of what you call it, one year later I've found that putting a label on Triniti doesn't quite matter.

In response to complaints like my own, Hilde­brand says that Triniti has addressed the portion sizes — although he's quick to admit that it's more visual artistry than anything else. "We pile everything in the center of the plate," he said with a smile. "It's the same amount of food, but it looks like more." And the trick works. Even I was happily fooled on my second visit.

Happily fooled seems an odd way to put it, but I was glad to see that Hildebrand isn't so much of an ideologue or so wedded to his modern plating to admit that sometimes spreading out food across a broad, white plate can detract from the overall dish. As beautiful as it may be to behold, there's something less satisfying about picking those little beet cubes up from their prismatic field than there is in receiving a tumble of multicolored beets jostling with green, white and purple cauliflower over a thick spread of curried goat cheese — all in the center of a much smaller plate. This is the new beet salad these days at Triniti, and the updated, relaxed plating works in its favor.

"The portions here are kind of small," I'd warned my dining companion on that Friday night, a man whose appetite usually far exceeds my own. "So let's order a bunch of food."

It was folly, as we were too full to even finish our lovely desserts of warm, ricotta-stuffed beignets and a pistachio genoise with its gentle sponge cake topped by a glistening layer of dark chocolate that seemed too perfectly buffed and sculpted to have been made by human hands.

We'd dined that night on briny, shallow-cupped oysters with a mignonette of baby okra; pickled green tomatoes battered in panko, fried and served with juicy lobster claw meat; kale softened by the yolk of a tremendously large poached egg and given a salty backbone by thin rounds of pancetta; and a wonderfully pink, impressively large filet mignon over a masa cake held together not by cornmeal and lard but by sweet potato puree and foie gras.

Even lunch here is a special occasion that doesn't require enduring a stuffy meal with clients or awkward conversation with the boss. In other words, you can enjoy Triniti all on your own. You don't need an expense account to enjoy the $24 three-course prix fixe menu that includes items like a lush white bean soup filled with soft shreds of pork shank and a bright parsley salad and a pork schnitzel — true to Texas's Germanic heritage — that includes a potato cake and gizzard gravy. And although I wished there'd been more of that gizzard gravy on my schnitzel (as well as a bit more salt in the breading itself), it's been my only real complaint.

It's a complaint that vanishes rather quickly, too, when you're tucking into a mortadella BLT, Triniti's housemade "bologna" rugged and thick with salty-sour cornichons, bumping playfully up against the tomato jam and avocado aioli spread in thick, generous layers across smoked romaine leaves and freshly baked bread — for only $11. I'd almost pay that for the crispy, thick, hand-cut fries that come in a big glass jar on the side.

I've greatly enjoyed the changes that Triniti has made over the last 12 months — each one a smart move. The patio has been opened up to Shepherd, for example, and you can now see the bright orange and green chairs that invite you to linger over $5 happy hour cocktails and bar snacks. And although Hildebrand says that they'll soon be doing a few renovations to the restaurant — expanding and softening the bar area, adding acoustic ceiling tiles to cut down the raucous noise that rings across its wooden floors and concrete walls on busy weekend nights, things which I do trust will continue to let Triniti improve and evolve — to me, right now, Triniti is perfect. I wouldn't change a thing.

 

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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Triniti

2815 S. Shepherd Drive
Houston, TX 77098

713-527-9090

www.trinitirestaurant.com


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