First things first.
Morton's Grille is being billed as the "casual yet sophisticated" version of Morton's the Steakhouse, but when I attended the media preview event, journalist uniforms (jeans and a T-shirt) were not in abundance. Casual is not a word I'd use to describe anything about the place. This is still Morton's, and it's in The Woodlands. Chic party dresses and heels are definitely part of the vibe at the newly opened hot spot.
Attire aside, my first impression of Morton's Grille is that it's fairly swanky but comfortable enough for family dinners. And lovers of steak need not worry about the new iteration of Morton's abandoning the dish for which it has become famous. Steak still features prominently on the menu, but the chefs behind the new menu wanted to make it more accessible and shareable as well.
At the preview event, we were told that a number of Morton's the Steakhouse chefs got together to pitch and then vote on their favorite dishes, which eventually became a part of the Morton's Grille menu. It was supposedly a very democratic (and I'll bet delicious) process.
The new restaurant can seat about 160 people in the dining area and on the patio, and there's also a private banquet room with a big television that had me dreaming of stylish Super Bowl or Oscar parties.
High-backed leather booths anchor the main dining room, which is separated from the entryway by a wall of glass shelving full of wine bottles. Ornate modern chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows provide warm light during the day. In the evening, and once the weather cools off, the windows can be opened to create a more unified space between the restaurant and the patio.
Though I can't yet vouch for the entire menu, the samples that we had were meat-centric, as they should be. The original Morton's cooks up a mean steak, and the steak, ribs and meatballs we tasted at the preview were no different in terms of quality.
Bacon fat-braised ribs are sweet and tender, and the meat falls off the bone with little effort. A pastrami Reuben features marbled rye bread, house-made red cabbage slaw, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing, but the star of that show is definitely the pastrami, which is cut paper-thin but is still bursting with meaty goodness.
The dish I'd order on a return trip to the restaurant — and the dish I saw several others sneak back to for seconds — is a braised beef short rib slider. I tend to be rather indifferent to the slider trend, but these are top-notch. The short ribs are juicy and flavorful, and they're accentuated by creamy horseradish sauce and delectable crispy shallots. It's all served on perfect little egg and onion rolls that are sweet and doughy and so much more than merely a vessel for the meat.
The desserts, while pretty, are a bit rich when paired with heavy steak and rib dishes, but they do seem like typical fare for a steakhouse/casual dining hybrid. I sampled a jumbo chocolate peanut butter cup, a cheesecake ball and a key lime tart, and found the key lime tart to be the only standout. Its buttery crust; tart, creamy center; and dollop of thick whipped cream melded perfectly. That little bit of acidity was nice after several small but hearty meat samples.
Also worth mentioning is the cocktail program, which Morton's Grille is trying to beef up. Or pork up, rather, as one of the new signature cocktails made with mescal, orange juice and ginger ale features a thick slice of bacon as a garnish. The cocktail list is shorter than the one at the steakhouse, but the offerings are more diverse and playful. Think fewer martinis and more things with names like "Punch in the Face" and "Woodlands Passion."
Morton's Grille in The Woodlands is the first of its kind anywhere in the country, but if it's successful the company plans to open more "casual sisters" in other big cities. It's not so much of a departure that fans of the steakhouse will be put off, but it seems unique enough to stand on its own. It's open for business now, so check it out and see for yourself.
But don't wear jeans.
Top 5 Pork Belly Dishes
Each one is a culinary experience.
Juicy. Fatty. Sumptuous. That's pork belly. No wonder it has maintained its popularity long after other trendy ingredients have fallen by the wayside, and there's no doubt why chefs continue to find excuses to work it into entrées, appetizers and even desserts. There are many good pork belly culinary experiences to be had in Houston, and here are five dishes worth trying:
5. Pork Snuggies (Eatsie Boys) In this riff on the classic Taiwanese bao sandwich, the Eatsie Boys overstuff a white, sugary bun with pork belly that has a bit of a crunch. Pickles, green onions, and hoisin sauce provide some sweet and sour notes to balance the saltier pork.
4. Three Wise Fries (Coreanos) I'm sure that at some point, the trend of dumping any number of delicious ingredients onto a bed of steaming fries will get old. But now's not the time, thank goodness, so go enjoy the latest iteration of this fad at Coreanos, where spicy pork belly joins marinated chicken, beef short ribs, cheddar cheese and creamy "el Scorcho" sauce. A hot (both in terms of spice and temperature) mess in the most delicious way possible.
3. Bacon Tataki (Uchi) The artful construction and the espresso fish caramel sauce (briny yet energizing) are what really makes bacon tataki unique, but don't overlook the simply prepared pork belly. The porcine chunks anchor this otherwise light and fleeting dish and provide the crucial texture contrast to the crisp scallion snowflake.
2. Braised Portuguese Octopus with Pork Belly (Kata Robata) Proving a pig and an octopus can be friends, Kata Robata successfully combines braised Portuguese octopus with the fatty underbelly of a pig (no word on its ethnicity), along with a sprinkle of basil and some fingerling potatoes. It's not a relationship you see every day, but trust me, it works.
1. Scrambled Eggs with Pork Belly (Haven) As part of its "breakfast for dinner series" on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, Haven is offering sophisticated takes on matutinal mainstays. Its ramped-up version of bacon and eggs involves a prickly, sweet sorghum-glazed smoked pork belly, pillow-soft scrambled eggs, and a thick slice of zucchini bread. Make your dining companion order the chicken and waffles and you'll have a most delicious and comprehensive brinner.
On the Menu
The Rosemont Social Club
A room with a view, plus great food and cocktails.
When a friend mentioned that the Rosemont Social Club was serving up delicious drinks and tasty bites (including my kryptonite, mac and cheese) right in my neighborhood, I was excited to check it out.
When the same friend mentioned that the Rosemont is located upstairs from Uchi and Southside Espresso, my excitement turned to confusion. "Upstairs? There's an upstairs there?"
As it turns out, there is an upstairs, a downstairs and an amazing deck with a great view of the city streets below; with several bars to choose from in one location, once you visit Rosemont you may not want to leave.
And then wait till you hear about the macaroni and cheese.
Located in the old Privé space, Rosemont Social Club has been open for only a couple of months, but even on a Wednesday evening there were folks mingling upstairs in both the inside and outside lounge areas. ("Rosemont" is a play on "Montrose.") To enter the social club, you must locate the dark blue door at the back of the building, which will bring you — speakeasy-style — into the downstairs bar area. Huge, cozy captain's chairs, upholstered in rich turquoise, line the bar; head upstairs to sit indoors or out. The indoor lounge has a Moroccan vibe achieved through red velvet banquet seating and cool tile, and then transitions seamlessly to the outdoor seating area, where you can sit under canopies or at the bar that faces the interior of the building.
We sat indoors, curled up on the red banquet seating that lines the walls. My friend and I split an order of the andouille macaroni and cheese and a plate of sliders. While we waited for our food to come, we started sampling cocktails (created by mixologist Curtis Childress), which were priced in the $10-$13 range. My first cocktail was garnished with a pretty rose petal, and my second was infused with violet flavors; in spite of the flowery theme, the drinks were balanced (read: not too sweet) and definitely primed the appetite. At my friend's urging, I also sampled her frozen mai tai (two rums, lime, orgeat, Cointreau and orange flower water), which was delicious and had me rethinking my "never order a frozen cocktail" rule.
To the food. The sliders were juicy, served on sweet Slow Dough buns and garnished with a tangy herb chipotle aioli and a giant olive. Sliders can sometimes be a little "meh," but these were cooked and built well, so they were as easy to eat on the last bite as they were on the first. Something about that olive on top: It's just a little thing, but it "made" the burger. The andouille mac and cheese was lush, with a creamy cheese sauce and big, spicy bites of sausage throughout.
While the food and drink were delicious, it was the atmosphere that really won me over in the end. Rosemont strikes a balance — with the decor, the menu and the service — that is both upscale and comfortable, and is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
Lowdown on Foreign Correspondents
The newest concept from the team behind D&T Drive Inn, Down House & Hunky Dory.
The empire behind some of the Heights's most exciting ventures is headed north. Northern Thailand, that is.
Chris Cusack, Benjy Mason and Richard Knight announced a few weeks ago that they'll be opening Hunky Dory, a neighborhood tavern and whiskey bar at 18th and Shepherd, in the coming year, and last week they announced plans to open Foreign Correspondents on the same property within the next year.
Hunky Dory will focus on simple gourmet food with a British edge, much like the menu at the now-closed Feast, where Knight was the chef. Though it will share some space, the 200-seat Foreign Correspondents will be completely different, with a focus on northern Thai cuisine and a farm-to-table mentality.
Joining the group is fishmonger PJ Stoops, who's stepping away from the mongering for now to serve as head chef at Foreign Correspondents. The group, led by Stoops, gave Houston a preview of what is to come at the new Thai restaurant back in August, when D&T Drive Inn hosted a farm-to-table Thai pop-up dinner they called "Midnight Sticky Rice." The dinner was a huge success, with sold-out crowds happily munching on everything from brains to bitter Thai vegetables that had probably never seen a Houston kitchen.
We caught up with Cusack to find out more about the new restaurant, farm-to-table cooking and what, exactly, is in a name.
Eating Our Words:So why northern Thai food? Why now?
Chris Cusack: Well, we found this property, and we had this idea when we'd committed to working together with Richard (Knight). So we talked about concepts. At a certain point, we thought this is really expensive and there's a cost to having property and building it out. So we started wondering if we could make this work with two concepts, and that would decrease the risk that the restaurant would have to take.
The southeast Asian cuisine was always one of the things that we like. There's so much to explore there, and there's so much that's not being done in Houston. The big thing for us was that all of it has to be right.
EOW: What else did you need to get right?
CC: We knew that PJ, being our fish guy, had lived in Thailand, but I did not know the extent of his kitchen experience. So Benjy and Richard were, like, 'We should talk to him and see if he'd be interested in consulting or something.' He's like the king of fish in Houston, so we didn't think that he'd be interested. When I asked, he said he'd be interested in what we were doing. And I said to him, 'While you're at it, if you see a sous chef who might be interested in running the show, let us know.' And he was like, 'I'll do it!' We found out later that this is the thing he's been looking for exactly for the last six years.
EOW: How fortuitous.
CC: I know! So right then and there, we started to come up with a dinner to see how we worked together. And PJ came back like a day later, and I think literally the next day I had stuff in the works for making the invites.
Before I commit to working with someone on a project, there are a couple of things I need to know. First, do they have skills? Do they know the mechanics? And second, are they a good person, a good communicator, a person I want to spend time with? It was such an awesome experience working with PJ and Benjy and Richard (at Midnight Sticky Rice), and I had a great time. The fact that so many people were interested was a great sign.
EOW: Okay, so at the Midnight Sticky Rice dinner people kept asking you if this was part of something new you were working on, and you totally said it wasn't. You're sneaky.
CC: Well, we didn't know for sure, and that's really what we were hoping to find out with the dinner. Any time someone asks me questions like that, I don't want to put the cart before the horse.
EOW: I understand. So clarify something for me: Foreign Correspondents has a different menu from Hunky Dory, but they'll share space, right?
CC: They're completely different restaurants next to each other that share the same property.
One thing that's really cool is that while PJ is the head chef of Foreign Correspondents, and Richard is the head chef of Hunky Dory, they work well together and have a history and really communicate well. I can't help but think there's going to be a lot of collaboration among them.
EOW: Explain the concept of "farm-to-table" Thai food.
CC: For Midnight Sticky Rice, we had no fewer than six different gardeners, and I imagine we'll have no more than ten. There's this great Thai community that grows traditional Thai herbs and vegetables, and we were trying to figure out if there's a way for us to be able to pick that production up and for them to get something out of it and become partners in that. There's little to no market for it right now. They bring the stuff they grow to their friends and family, but that's it. As we've said, 100 percent of the fresh items at Foreign Correspondents will be sourced locally. Once you have this scope of an organization, we can find people who will grow things just for us that they don't usually have a market for.
EOW: What's the difference between northern Thai food and Thai food from other regions?
CC: There aren't as many noodles. No coconuts, so no coconut milk in the food. There are some spices and curries in common, though. And sticky rice. PJ is the expert, and even he has to consult with his wife (Apple, who is from Thailand) for a lot of the nuances. And there aren't a lot of recipes like you see in European-style cooking where they say to use a cup of this and a tablespoon of that. They say, you can use yams in this dish. Or you could also not use yams. It's funny. There's a lot of that going on in second- and third-world regional cuisine.
EOW: Do you have a favorite Thai dish that you're hoping to put on the menu?
CC: I can't really go into the menu yet, but I love the pork shank and the sunny-side-up egg from Midnight Sticky Rice.
EOW: If you had to open another regional cuisine after this, what would it be?
CC: Oh man! I don't know. A really major factor that we consider all the time is where we are. I complain almost every single day about the eating options in the Heights. There's a lot of room to grow; I love and want to defend the Heights. I was born and raised there, and I live there now. So it'll be something different, whatever we come up with.
Openings and Closings
Coffee shops galore, goodbye Chili Shak & more.
More than halfway into the month of September and only a few restaurants have shut their doors, but lots of places have opened. Let's get the bad news over with first.
As reported on Swamplot and Food Chronicles from the Houston Chronicle (anyone else notice the name change?), Landry's Seafood House on Westheimer served its final meal on September 15. The reason? They lost their lease. The building's landlord said it was sold to an apartment builder. The restaurant has been in the same location for the past 20 years. According to franchise spokesmen, that location, as well as other buildings on the same 4.5-acre site, will be demolished. Landry's is looking for another space, and employees of the closed restaurant will be relocated to other Landry's concepts.
B4-U-Eat mentions that a few restaurants have closed over the week. CHA Champagne & Wine Bar on Waugh closed, and B4-U-Eat reported that a an Irish pub will soon occupy that space. Golden Sea Restaurant Seafood in Kemah also closed, but B4-U-Eat reports that the related retail/wholesale operation called Golden Seafood remains open.
The Chili Shak on Fondren also appears to be closed. While there's nothing on the Facebook page or the restaurant's Web page to indicate its operating status, the restaurant's phone number is no longer in service.
It seems that Nosh Bistro is temporarily closed for renovations and, possibly, menu alterations. As noted by the Chronicle, the restaurant's windows are covered with brown paper, and a note has been placed on the door stating that the restaurant will soon announce new hours. It also urges patrons to have patience, because the owners "are bringing about the exciting new session." More news to come on Nosh Bistro.
That's it for closings; let's get to the exciting news.
Fielding's Wood Grille, located in The Woodlands, officially opened September 12. The restaurant will serve wood-grilled and rotisserie foods along with "innovative" milkshakes and "progressive" salads. There's no menu online, but from the vague descriptions, one can't help but be intrigued about what a "progressive" salad actually is.
Morton's Grille, also in The Woodlands, officially opened last week. Check out what Kaitlin Steinberg had to say about her first experience at the Morton's spin-off restaurant. Hint: Steak is still on the menu, and it's quite good.
Coffee shops seem to be popping up all over the place lately. Rice Village will have two more by the middle of September. CultureMap's Eric Sandler visited the most recent opening, Mercantile, and explains that customers not only can get a cup of joe, but also can purchase groceries from local producers. Mercantile will sell beer and wine once it receives its license.
Fellini Cafe, a "true" Italian coffee shop, opened this week in Rice Village. Co-owners Paolo Fronza and Salvatore Albelice told Eater's Darla Guillen that they decided to open because they "missed the atmosphere of an Italian coffee shop." They said Rice Village was the perfect location "because it's the only area in Houston where people actually walk." The coffee bar will offer an aperitivo menu from 4 to 8 p.m. that will include a complimentary rosticceria (small bites) with every glass of wine or beer. Fellini Cafe will serve other items including pastries, paninis and salads.
Keep an eye out for another coffee and wine bar in Rice Village; according to one of our commenters in our September 6 Cheap Eats In Houston report, Rosinka should be opening in a few months.
Cork Cafe Wine & Beer opened a couple of weeks ago in Cypress, as noted by commenter Brandy Graesser, who happens to be the executive chef there. The restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner throughout the week and will serve dinner on Saturdays. The wine bar offers more than 40 wines by the glass and 150 by the bottle.
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Two weeks ago, Coppa Osteria opened for a media dinner, and on September 11 the laid-back yet fancy Italian restaurant welcomed the public.
Thanks to commenters on last week's Cheap Eats In Houston report, we have information about a few new restaurants. Lagniappe Seafood Sports Lounge opened on Highway 6 South on September 6. According to our commenter, the sports bar is open until 1 or 2 a.m. most nights of the week and offers a multitude of fried seafood dishes, as well as daily lunch specials.
In comfort-food news, Jus' Mac opened its third location, in Montrose, after a soft opening on September 5. The Westheimer location is now officially open, serving a variety of macaroni and cheese dishes.
Last week, we carried a report that Audley Street Cafe would be opening in upper Kirby. Owner Luigi Ferre now tells us he's instead going to name the restaurant Luigi's Cucina Italiana — the same name as his restaurant in Galveston.