The first time I tried to eat at Felix 55, the new Rice Village restaurant with Chef Michael Kramer at the helm, it was utterly packed. The patio was overflowing with guests and music pulsed from inside the restaurant, which is sandwiched between Baker St. Pub and D'Amico's in the hip 'n' happening section of Rice Village along Morningside Drive.
I had inadvertently come on the same night as Felix 55's grand opening, it turned out. Not being on the list, nor having sufficiently dressed for the occasion, I opted instead to walk upstairs and enjoy some delicious endangered species from Kubo's.
My second visit to Felix 55 was much more fruitful, but no less noisy. At 9 p.m., just as my dining companion and I were finishing dessert, a drum-and-guitar duo had just set up shop and were filling the restaurant with loud, vaguely Latin music. It was the second place that a surprising Latin flair had cropped up that night.
The Wall Street Journal proclaimed Peruvian food "the next big thing" some weeks ago, and it's a theory to which Felix 55 subscribes, if cooly. There was an updated Pisco sour on the cocktail menu -- it's Felix 55's signature cocktail, in fact -- and a Peruvian-style ceviche listed as an appetizer, although neither were specifically highlighted as Peruvian. Instead, this trendy cuisine was woven into the larger menu rather quietly, a curious choice among an otherwise predictable menu of upscale bistro favorites: short ribs, a flatbread with goat cheese, a red snapper dish, some risotto and some fancy macaroni and cheese.
Felix 55 isn't doing anything truly extraordinary aside from those small Peruvian twists, but at least it's doing them well.
In spite of describing the menu at Felix 55 as "predictable," I found myself liking the place quite a bit. Until the music got started at 9 p.m., it was a lovely and comfortable meal helped along by friendly, courteous service and well-executed standards. It's certainly glitzy at night, but not stuffy, and not the kind of place where an average diner would feel out of place amidst the short dresses and high heels.
Done up in muted earth tones with bright pops of gold, Felix 55's dining room is strikingly warm. The bar is more high-energy, perhaps owing to a clever cocktail menu that describes itself as "scratch" rather than "classic" or "Prohibition-era" or any of the other names you see floated around so wildly these days.
"I just want to let you know," said our friendly waiter when I ordered that Pisco sour, "that our cocktails are handmade and take a while to make."
I appreciated the "warning" and its usefulness to diners that aren't accustomed to the classic cocktail model, while pondering to myself how much longer a warning like this will be necessary. Considering the speed with which the national dining subconscious is adjusting to/embracing classic cocktails, will this just be a foregone conclusion a year from now? Two years?
Regardless, the cocktail that arrived was perfectly managed, its plush head gently topped off with aromatic bitters. It made up for the warm glass of wine I received later in the evening, a particularly terrible Torbreck Woodcutter's Shiraz that my dining companion perfectly summed up as tasting "purple."
The cocktail set the tone for the evening, in fact, leading off an array of appetizers, entrees and one dessert that were all skillfully executed if not particularly exciting. But sometimes you don't want exciting; you want a well-made dish and a nice night out. Felix 55 takes care of both.
Highlights of the meal included a nicely dressed beef carpaccio appetizer and a fluffy piece of grouper with a nicely crispy sear on the outside that made me despair of all the overcooked, overworked fish I've had at too many nice restaurants. It's refreshing to see a gentle hand on tender pieces of fish, which was elevated even further by a tomato confit, rich and bright with olives, capers and slices of fingerling potatoes.
My dining companion's braised short ribs was a sizeable hunk of meat that matched the $24 price tag, served on a celery root puree that was dotted with roasted butternut squash and salsify. The puree was better than the short ribs, which were already good, and I found myself stealing little bites of it with the tines of my fork.
Dessert was a subtle basil crème brûlée that could have used a bit more burn on the top, but was good regardless. Toward the end of the meal, Chef Kramer came by our table to visit with my dining companion (although he didn't seem to recognize me at all, to my great relief). Kramer seems happy in this new gig, looking pleased with the warm little restaurant and the simple menu. But I doubt he will be here for long.
In the car later on, my dining companion and I deliberated on how long Kramer will remain at a restaurant that isn't truly his. Felix 55 is owned by architect Pejman Jamea, who also designed the space. And as far as I understand it, Kramer isn't a partner in the restaurant.
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If my prediction pans out, Kramer will set up Jamea's beautiful Rice Village bistro with a solid menu and then move on -- hopefully to a restaurant of his very own -- at which point Felix 55 will swim merrily along as a high-energy, low-key, just-trendy-enough spot for as long as Jamea keeps up the quality that Kramer has established so far.
It may take some time for Kramer to find a home of his own, as it did with Philippe Schmit, but Kramer's talents will prove worth the wait. I just hope that he sticks around Houston to prove me right.