Fit for a Queen
See more photos from The Queen Vic's warm interior and Brit-Indian kitchen in our slideshow.
A recent Sunday afternoon brought a downpour of rain the likes of which Houston hasn't seen in many months. The temperature had dropped ever so slightly outside, the long, hot summer finally giving way to fall. It was the perfect day for tucking myself inside the warm, dry, entirely cozy confines of The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen.
My best friend and I caught up over half-pints of beer, glasses of wine and even a snifter of Lillet Blanc; guests around us did the same, leaning comfortably against the Queen Vic's brocade-patterned, carmine-colored walls or slouched over local lagers at the long bar. We ordered three leisurely courses of food, each as good as the next. We traded silly stories with our waiter and teased him about the reggae music piped through the speakers.
"It's Reggae Sunday," he laughed back, shrugging his shoulders. If it weren't for the umpteenth track of steel drums and the fact that we both had plans for the evening, we might never have left. The Queen Vic has that allure about it; it's the kind of place that sucks you in.
Part of that can be chalked up to the fact that it offers food that's elevated far above typical Houston pub fare, with a menu featuring endlessly clever renderings of British favorites and Indian standards, like samosas with a twist of sweet, soft short ribs inside. Part of it is the fact that no matter your poison — craft beer, cocktails, wine, even sweet vermouth — The Queen Vic has it. And part of it is that ineffable pub vibe that makes even a bland strip of Richmond resonate with a striking English gravitas. The only thing it's missing is a fireplace.
On the other hand, you don't really need the warming qualities of a fireplace when you're bent over a giant ramekin of Chef Shiva Patel's lamb vindaloo, like my friend was; it's the food equivalent of a roaring fire on a cold, rainy day, with rough-hewn chunks of lamb in a sauce swimming with cayenne, cumin, ginger and other brightly balmy spices. It's served with basmati rice and oil-licked pieces of fresh naan bread, both of which are crucial for sopping up every last teaspoon of Patel's wonderful vindaloo.
On my plate that day was a hanger steak and rocket salad, the more traditionally English of our two dishes (although it can be argued these days that Indian food is as authentically English as Tex-Mex food is authentically American). When we ordered it rare, our waiter smiled and told us that he preferred it blue.
"Make it blue then," I'd responded enthusiastically. It's rare — pardon the pun — to encounter a waiter or a restaurant that encourages its diners to test the quality of its meat by offering it cooked blue — that is, barely passed across a flame. The hanger steak benefited from the simple treatment, and made for an opulent yet straightforward meal along with peppery bites of rocket (or arugula, as it's called here) with a savory garlic and blue cheese dressing. It was every bit the opposite of the spicy vindaloo across the table, yet I couldn't decide which I enjoyed more.
I had the same noble problem on another visit to The Queen Vic, where I was faced with the decision of trying to decide which dish had been better: my shepherd's pie or my dining companion's Royale with Cheese, a burger topped with a soft cloak of Gruyère cheese and onions so well sautéed they seemed to melt into the meat.
Where I didn't run into any trouble was with our highly attentive and highly engaged bartender, who happily geeked out with me over the craft beer selection that makes up The Queen Vic's dozen taps. And like our other waiter, he gleefully recommended a different treatment for my shepherd's pie.
"Do you like spicy food?" he asked with a hint of trepidation. When I nodded yes, he responded with: "I always have Chef make the New Zealand lamb-filled shepherd's pie a little spicy." I was glad I'd gone with his recommendation, as the standardly bland shepherd's pie — this is not an indictment, mind you; just a comment on its natural British state — ended up being a mashed potato-and-cheese-topped version of the lamb vindaloo. I was in heaven.
Once again, I had to eventually tear myself away from the bar. It's unusual to find a place that takes its craft beer so seriously, offering an impressive array of brews from Houston that would usually be confined to a place like Anvil.
On tap that night were beers from No Label, Karbach and Saint Arnold, as well as other Texas favorites from the (512) Brewery. My dining companion was busy undergoing a religious experience with his half-pint of No Label's Black Wit-O, a tar-black wheat ale with the look and feel of a porter, and a sweet finish of licorice at the end. Meanwhile, I was sampling my way through Karbach's brews and finally lit upon my own platonic ideal in a Clown Shoes beer from Massachusetts, a malt-rounded, hop-centric black ale with beaming citrus notes of grapefruit bouncing off deep, rich tones of dark chocolate.
It's such a rare beer that The Queen Vic sells it by half-pints only. I made sure to get another half of it the next time I was in, the better to enjoy that fleeting gift while it's here. Ditto the creamed spinach and paneer-topped grilled oysters, one nightly special that I ordered eagerly without a second thought. The dishes like these that Patel dreams up back in the kitchen — part Indian, part English, part Gulf Coast — are truly her greatest gems.
Patel and her husband/partner Richard Di Virgilio are the same duo behind Greenway Plaza's ultimate date destination, Oporto, so it's no surprise that they've infused the same sleek, intimate atmosphere into a pub. And although Oporto turns out some exceptional Portuguese dishes, it's at The Queen Vic where Patel really shines.
I'm glad that the pair chose to take the Indian-British route here, much as Craig Mallinson did with The Red Lion, down on Shepherd. There are striking differences between the two — The Red Lion is arguably more "authentic" inside and out, but the food isn't as good, especially for the price — but for my money, The Queen Vic wins out every time. Yes, the cost of the food is the same (read: somewhat high), but here you always get what you pay for.
There are evenings, however, when you can stretch a buck a little bit further at The Queen Vic, as with $16 curry-and-a-pint nights on Mondays or the daily happy hours, when drink specials and bar bites invite customers to linger from 3 to 7 p.m. and slurp up $1 oysters in season. (If and how that oyster happy hour continues is yet to be seen, however, with the Texas drought busily destroying the Gulf oyster beds.)
Lunch, too, is an ideal time for a meal and — if your office is a bit more liberal — a beer. My ex-mother-in-law always said never to trust a woman who orders beer by the pint, and this idiom plays out well at lunch, too: Order a half-pint; you'll keep your bill low and keep your job.
Of course, the old problem of tearing yourself away from the place is still there. I wanted my naan-wrapped lamb sausage with pickle to last all day last week for lunch, and was sad to finally put it down and admit that it was time to return to the office. And just as the bartenders had written up the new beers for the day on the board, too...
But with The Queen Vic, there's always tonight.
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