Filling the Gaps: Backstreet Café

I've lived in Houston for 22 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. And, I encourage you to follow suit.

I've driven past Backstreet Café more times than I can count. Each time, I would comment to myself or others, "We really need to go there sometime." We never did. It's hard to pin down exactly why. On a recent, semi-surprise Monday off I decided to change that.

I recently started a new job, with a new schedule, giving me midweek days off on a regular basis. My wife and I have decided that we'll use these as date days, taking the child-free opportunity for a more civilized lunch than is normally within our grasp. As we drove around somewhat aimlessly, I started throwing out names of places we'd never been to, places that would be suitable locations for impromptu fancy lunches. Backstreet stuck. I checked their website for hours, checked with Twitter to make sure our blue -jean attire would be acceptable, checked my wallet for a few bucks for the valet, and we were off.

As we made our way through the doors and to the host stand, we also made up our minds: We would prefer to sit on the patio, thank you. I can't count how many times I'd heard the Backstreet patio lauded as one of the best in the city, and we were certainly not going to pass it up on one of those gorgeous winter days that make Houston feel like it just might be the best place in the world.

The charmingly tucked-in dining rooms seemed to fan out around that patio, giving the whole place a warm, sunlit feeling on such a lovely day. A fountain gurgled in the center; a lively table of lunching ladies competed with the gentle chirping of what would turn out to be not so genteel birds; dappled light filtered through an old oak. We had chosen ... wisely. When it came to perusing the menu, we found it a bit harder to choose.

While everything on the menu sounded good, very few things really stood out. In a way, it probably speaks to the restaurant's longevity. This is a menu that seems to focus on solid execution -- find things that work, and do them well. This is a very good thing to find in a restaurant.

For me, the eye-catchers were split between the small plates, offered as "Beginnings," and the seafood plates on the main stage. Lately, I find myself more and more drawn to the appetizer section of many menus, where chefs seem less beholden to the status quo mind-set on display in the meat/starch/veg format that still dominates main courses.

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Texas Style Flatiron Steak
Texas Style Flatiron Steak
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

We ordered two dishes to start, the Gulf Coast Beignets ($11) and Duck Spring Rolls ($9.50). This resulted in leftovers. You see, my wife is pregnant, and pregnancy does odd things to one's appetite. This go-round, my wife seems to flip between ravenous and regretful after a matter of bites.

After one beignet, she started getting worried. She agreed that they were delightful, the shreddy texture of their crab filling buoyed by pearly pops of chopped shrimp. She slathered on the roasted red pepper rémoulade, and scooped up more than her fair share of the jicama-studded slaw, whose brightness helped keep the beignets on their toes. She forced me to eat the other two.

The duck spring rolls took her by surprise, crisp wrappers giving way to tender, meaty duck, unexpected rice noodles adding a slippery foil to the mouth-coating meat. Dunking her roll in the gingery sauce, coating each bite in toasty sesame seeds, gave her a second wind. She went back for half of the remaining beignet. That left three-fourths of the spring rolls as my responsibility, as she began to doubt her decision to order the Texas Style Flatiron steak ($23). She was flagging, and we knew we'd need a doggy bag.

That steak, cooked a hair past her requested medium, boasted an admirable char, nicely balanced against a bright and insistent chimichurri. Tarted up by a stuffed red jalapeño, its spice leaching into and further perfuming the heady sauce, it made for a riot of flavors -- herbal, spicy, charry, tangy, meaty. In light of that, the macaroni went virtually untouched.

My order, the daily fish special of pan-seared gulf grouper over mushroom risotto ($27), was a bit of a mixed bag. I knew it would be, and I don't really regret it. The problem was the risotto. As we waited for our entrées, shooing away the increasingly fearless birds hoping for a bit of bread, I bored my wife with talk of risotto and how difficult it can be to serve in a restaurant setting. Risotto, at least made the traditional way, doesn't hold well. Far too often, it winds up gluey and stiff, standing up resolutely rather than spreading languidly across the plate.

When I saw the risotto, firm and unshifting mooring for a beautifully cooked piece of fish, I knew what it was going to be. It tasted fine, lightly creamy and boasting an earthy depth, but it had the slightly pasty texture that far too often afflicts the dish. The grouper more than made up for it, its deep and slightly crunchy crust giving way to dewy, slightly delicate flesh with a sweet and mild flavor. Sun-dried tomato butter ringing the plate and a pseudo-pico device on top added brightness and additional texture.

Perfect fish, flawed risotto.
Perfect fish, flawed risotto.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

My wife later told me that she'd preferred the fish to her steak, a fact I wish I had known sooner. We took home at least 75 percent of that steak. Don't worry; it was put to good use. If you're following along, I'm sure you've predicted we passed on dessert this time, sated and happy as we were.

As we strolled back through the house, my wife asked why we hadn't been to Backstreet before, and I still don't have a good answer to that question. I do, though, have an even firmer resolve to let fewer places slip through. We'll count this as one down, lots more to go.

Feel free to drop a comment, telling me what you think qualify as places any self-respecting Houston eater should be ashamed to have missed. I'll add it to the list.

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