The corner restaurant on the end of a River Oaks strip mall at 2810 Westheimer has been a lot of things. It's been Rickshaw, it's been Fins, it was even temporarily home to Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen while the Mandolas built their new restaurant at 1212 Waugh. But the corner restaurant space has never held anything like The Bird & The Bear, a new "American bistro" from Elouise Adams Jones.
Jones is best known as the tour de force behind Ouisie's Table, another River Oaks restaurant and one that's been serving Jones's brand of upscale Southern food since 1995. The Bird & The Bear is an offshoot of her popular restaurant, not a second location, and both the menu and the decor attest to a very different interpretation of Jones's Southern standards.
A mostly monochromatic color palette inside is punctuated with bright pops of silver, crystal and crimson red. Chairs are hung haphazardly from the ceiling, interspersed with playful chandeliers. It's a strikingly modern vibe, accentuated by the tall windows that flood the space with light during the day.
It was almost enough to make me worry that the food wouldn't stand up to the beautiful dining room. But I was wrong.
The Bird & The Bear's Gulf Coast seafood gumbo is a commendable thing, with a dark roux that's rich and complex. Purist Cajuns may take issue with both meat and seafood mixed into the same bowl along with okra and rice. But when it's this good, who cares?
That Third Coast flare is found throughout the menu, which blends Southern favorites with Cajun classics. An appetizer of cornmeal-battered Gulf oysters served with a tangy jalapeño tartar sauce was blissfully crunchy, albeit despairingly small due to the dual impacts of the Texas drought and the red tide. Today, in fact, the red tide forced the closure of all oyster harvesting in Texas.
And although I chuckled at the misspelling of "sandwitches" on the menu -- I still don't know if this was intentional or not -- my BLT with fried green tomatoes was no laughing matter. It was abundantly clear that the airy, buttery brioche had been made in-house, as had the wispy (but undersalted) potato chips that were served on the side. Tucked between the slices of brioche were fat, zesty slices of cornmeal-crusted green tomatoes and hearty strips of bacon. I couldn't believe the sandwich held together as I ate it, so numerous and thick were the components.
On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, my dining companion was inhaling a bowl of lemon-laced "chicken pot pie soup." The soup neither looked nor tasted like chicken pot pie -- even deconstructed, even without the pastry crust -- but was delicious nevertheless, with abundant vegetables and shredded chicken filling the bowl.
"This is the soup I'd want when I'm sick," my friend said approvingly, although we both agreed that "pot pie" was perhaps a poor description of the light, citrus-y soup.
Later that day, I tried describing The Bird & The Bear to a friend; it turns out that I'm bad at descriptions too.
"It's a casual bistro-type place, where you'd go for a nice lunch," I tried.
"Is it our kind of casual?" he asked. "Would I be able to afford a sandwich there?"
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I thought about it for a second. "No," I answered honestly. "It's not our kind of casual." As much as I enjoyed the food, $14 for a BLT -- even one this tasty -- is outside of my regular lunching budget. "It's the kind of casual place that you'd go for a nice business dinner or if you're a lady who lunches," I finally offered.
And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think The Bird & The Bear is a welcome addition to the area. The world still needs Ladies Who Lunch places -- especially ones with chic dining rooms, kind service and impeccable food.