"I love the nuts on this chocolate cake,” my dinner companion remarked as we were enjoying the sweet ending to our very comfortable, laid-back dinner at Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors. “They’re hazelnuts,” I said as I cut into the moist, frosted, deep-brown rectangle of baked goodness, alternating between bites of chocolate cake and sips from a small milk bottle filled with our other dessert, a bourbon chocolate shake topped with salted caramel whipped cream.
In chic River Oaks, there aren’t that many places that open these days with the same aspirations as Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors. Hidden out of the way on Mid Lane just north of Westheimer, from the get-go the restaurant had a clear identity. Its aim was to become the neighborhood restaurant where people could become regulars and drop by whenever they needed a good, solid American meal.
An ode to Eloise Nichols, a no-nonsense Texan woman and the grandmother of owners and siblings Katie Adair Barnhart and Nick Adair, the restaurant is described on its website as “an easy, every-night-of-the-week destination that neighbors can embrace as their own.”
It wasn’t meant to be a see-and-be-seen place like Le Colonial or Steak 48, just two blocks away at the ritzy River Oaks District, where diners might go for a night on the town filled with people watching, ogling of designer handbags or hobnobbing with society folks. But such is the popularity of the place that there have been reports of one-hour-plus wait times just to get a table.
So as I made my way to my dinner reservation on a Monday evening, I was curious as to what I’d find: Was Eloise in fact the neighborhood restaurant it wanted to be, or was it more of a showplace for the River Oaks set?
As it happened, Monday was a slow night at Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors, which allowed us to really soak up the ambience in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. The hostess wasn’t available when we arrived, so Nick Adair himself, clad in a casual plaid button-down and khakis, came over and escorted us to our table. It was a far cry from the formality that greets you at most other River Oaks establishments, and cemented the sort of homey, come-as-you-are vibe of the place.
Which isn’t to say that the restaurant isn’t stylish. On the contrary, the charming interiors strike the perfect balance between farmhouse chic and French brasserie elegance, juxtaposing green floral wallpaper and unfinished wood accents with navy blue banquettes, polished brass ornaments and wicker bistro chairs.
There’s also a very welcoming wood-paneled bar that invites you to grab a seat, and makes it almost compulsory for you to start your evening with a cocktail. Which is what we did, starting with a runaway hit of a cocktail, known as the Spirit Animal, served in a brass-pineapple urn. There are other interesting-sounding drinks on the menu, such as the gin cocktail named the Pear-suit of Happiness (which we also ordered), but the Spirit Animal — made of pineapple juice, vodka and lime with crushed ice — is easily the star of the show.
In regards to the provisions, Eloise Nichols is one of those places that take pride in their sourcing. On the left of each menu, you’ll find a list of local purveyors, the unspoken message being, of course, that the restaurant’s food comes from trusted places.
Executive chef Joseph Stayshich does a fine job with the mostly American menu, throwing in touches of the Gulf Coast, with a little Asian here, a little Moroccan or Mexican or Mediterranean there.
The results can be delightful, as we found with the Thai crab and butternut salad, an Asian-style salad with a fish sauce-based dressing. Fish sauce can be painfully salty and pungent when used incorrectly, but the drizzle of salty-sweet acidity on the salad showed a deft touch, accentuating the crisp strands of julienned butternut squash, red onions and herbs while complementing the natural sweetness of the lump crab. With a smattering of cashews on top, this was the type of dish I could imagine enjoying as a light meal with a glass of white wine, perhaps as a solo diner at the bar.
A Mexican-style seafood campechana, topped with crushed avocado and served in a low-rimmed white bowl with tortilla chips, was also excellent. Chock-full of crab and shrimp, in a chunky tomato cocktail sauce thick enough that you could scoop up mounds of it at a time, it could easily hold its own against Goode Company Seafood’s version, widely considered the best in the city.
Though the ethnic touches were, for the most part, welcome, there were times when they overreached. Such was the case with the Gulf snapper sashimi, in which the beautifully fresh slices of fish got lost underneath an overzealous application of tahini, sumac and olive oil that ended up making the fish taste stale. Wedges of orange and grapefruit gave off small bursts of bright acidity, but another component, cornmeal-crusted fried olives, which seemed as if they had been too long out of the fryer, basically canceled the effect of the citrus.
The same could be said for the coffee-roasted beets, wherein the jumble of flavors just wasn’t cohesive. The sweetness of the beets, the bitterness of the coffee, the pungent blue cheese and the Christmassy-feeling cinnamon-toasted pecans seemed to compete on your palate, never quite finding harmony. Ringing in at an affordable $8, the portion was very generous, but there was just too much going on for it to be enjoyable.
In the grand scheme of things, these were but small blips in an otherwise solid menu filled with the kind of reliable, affordable dishes that would be easy to revisit weekly. For $26, my crispy-skinned, pan-seared American red snapper — supplied by respected local fishmonger Frixos Chrisinis — was the kind of dish that makes you feel good about what you’re putting in your body. Not only was the quality of the sustainably caught fish undeniable, but the totality of the ingredients — which included local greens, a Texas caviar (blackeyed pea) salad and Moroccan chermoula herb sauce — was wholesome and healthy, combining good proteins with fresh vegetables and legumes without any sacrifice to flavor.
Shrimp and grits, served in a bowl in a way that resembled how pasta might be presented, was also memorable. Housemade chorizo and a sun-dried chile sauce broth gave the dish added depth, while fried tubes of okra contrasted with the creamy grits in a pleasing interplay of textures.
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The grilled Texas beef — essentially a chargrilled 44 Farms New York strip served over a bed of smoked fingerling potatoes and broccoli tossed in sofrito — was the quintessential American meat and potatoes course anyone would love. In spite of being slightly overdone (we ordered medium rare; it came out medium well), the beef was tender and juicy, made all the more so by the slab of black garlic beef butter that melted as you cut through the meat, forming a rich, sinfully delicious glaze around each bite.
Throughout the restaurant, a photograph of Eloise Nichols in profile, captured in black and white and channeling a young Katharine Hepburn, replays itself in framed portraits on the walls, and on postcards propped up against each table’s centerpiece. In her hand, she’s holding a can of Falstaff beer, and her hair is blowing in the wind, a carefree moment in time that captures the essence of what Eloise Nichols, the restaurant, is all about.
Though it has inadvertently become one of the busiest restaurants in River Oaks, at its core, Eloise Nichols is a place for family and friends to gather over shared plates and approachable American food. When the buzz dies down and the trendy people move on to the next cool, hip spot, Eloise Nichols is a place you’ll still want to visit, be it for the chocolate cake that reminds you of Grandma’s house, or the Texas-raised beefsteak that won’t set you back more than 35 bucks.
Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors
2400 Mid Lane, Suite 100, 713-554-0136, eloisenichols.com. Hours: Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday Brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Thai crab and butternut salad $14
Gulf snapper sashimi $14
Coffee-roasted beets $8
Frixos’s catch of the day $26
Texas shrimp and grits $19
Grilled Texas beef New York strip $35
Chocolate cake $8