Get the down low on Down House in our behind-the-scenes slideshow.
A white plate holding a prodigious piece of grouper arrived at the table at Down House last Saturday night, completely halting the conversation I was having with my dining companion as we both pondered its immense size.
"Do you see this?" said my dining companion, Brandon Fisch, as he examined it from several angles. I'd invited Fisch, most recently the executive chef at Yelapa Playa Mexicana, along for his seafood expertise. He looked momentarily dumbfounded by the sheer size of the thing.
"This is at least a $30 portion of fish by itself," Fisch finally continued. "And they're serving it for $22?" He just chuckled and shook his head, perhaps baffled by Down House's portions but beguiled by the fish nonetheless as he quickly dug in.
Across the table, I was admiring my little bento-esque box of tempura-battered eggplant and zucchini. It's always heartening to see thoughtful vegetable dishes on menus even if I'm not a vegetarian myself, and I was impressed with not only the arrangement of the vegetables but the small touches that accompanied them: a well-dressed watercress salad with julienned apples on top and a bowl of effervescent kombucha-ginger dipping sauce.
We traded dinner plates halfway through, polishing both off despite an ample appetizer of Down House's twiggy French fries, seasoned with fresh thyme and Banyuls vinegar. I loved the little ramekins of citrusy housemade mayo served with the fries, a touch I hadn't seen previously at lunch, and reminded myself to order the mayo on the side with every future order of fries.
"Was the grouper a little overcooked?" asked Fisch, as we regarded our empty plates. "Yes."
"But did it taste good?" he continued. "Absolutely."
I couldn't disagree, though I found myself wanting more of the smoky vegetable ragout underneath that had been out of proportion, serving-wise, with the giant piece of flaky fish on top. Wanting more of a restaurant's food is a good sign nevertheless.
And while there are still a few kinks to work out, Down House has already made a tremendous impact in the short two-and-a-half months that it's been open.
The Heights isn't exactly wanting for restaurants, bars or coffee shops right now. You can get an excellent cortado at Revival Market or upscale cafe-style food at Shade. You can get that stay-all-day vibe at Onion Creek or great craft beer at Petrol Station just north of the Heights. But combining all of these concepts into one is what makes Down House unique. It's a tricky thing to pull off, and I initially thought it couldn't be done.
On my first visit to Down House two weeks ago, I nearly got up and left. I wasn't dazzled by the twee dining room – my dining companion, a coworker, referred to it as "affected" with a tone of derision – and it smacked of over-exertion in all the wrong places.
I don't really care how old the medicine cabinets and botanical prints on the walls are if your waitstaff can't be bothered to come by the table even once in 20 minutes. And I also don't care how cute my waiter's old-timey tie pins are, or how darling my waitress's 50s-inspired dress may be (okay, maybe I care about that one a little bit) – it means absolutely nothing if they disappear for good after taking my drink order. Being left alone for 20 minutes during that initial lunch service was something that was repeated at another lunch the very next week, frustrating me to no end.
After barely receiving menus and then being left to our own devices, my coworker and I were ready to leave. Finally, we flagged down a waiter who seemed to have completely forgotten that he gave us our menus and took our drink order (drinks which never materialized) and decided to stay put.
Luckily, our lunch came out in record time, a tribute to Down House's thoughtfully small menu. My coworker's Longhorn burger was the stuff of sweaty-foreheaded, dilated-pupil, burger wet dreams. The patty tasted as if it had been cooked on a griddle made of butter, cooked to a splendid medium-rare and tasting of nothing but sweet, buttery beef with a hint of salt. It was slightly smaller than its fresh, yeasty bun. And instead of interfering with that driving, meaty flavor, the other ingredients simply complemented it like a chorus of backup singers whose sole purpose is to make the star shine even brighter: Longhorn cheddar, peppery arugula, ripe tomatoes and house-made mustard thick with whole grains of mustard seeds that popped and sizzled against the beef.
The burger made my atrocity of a salad that much sorrier. The same arugula on the burger was the base here, with accents of fennel and shaved radish. There were scant few of the touted "spiced pecans" from the menu and barely any peach vinaigrette at all. The salad tasted bitter and dissonant. I shoved it aside after four bites and idly scooped some boring tomato-basil soup into my mouth. I even tried the salad again on another visit, a week later, and came away disappointed once again.
My coworker must have felt sorry for me, because he gave me half of his burger. As good as it was, though, the service and the rest of the food already had me dreading my next visit.
And that next visit wasn't off to a good start, either, as the bland tomato-basil soup from the day before randomly showed up alongside my breakfast sandwich 18 hours later. None of us ate it. And the awfully dry blueberry muffin we ordered as an "appetizer" was as much a ripoff at $3 as the seasonal fruit salad at $6, which consisted of a few mealy watermelon slices, diced honeydew and perhaps eight blueberries.
"The muffin was a lot better last time," bemoaned my dining companion, Jason Bargas, who first wrote about Down House for our food blog and was chagrined to find a few items not up to par, as well as his favorite item already removed from the menu. But at such an early stage in a restaurant's life, menu shuffles are to be expected. More to the point, Down House seems to be structured along the same lines as places like Pondicheri, changing up the menus with the availability of certain ingredients and local products, shifting with the seasons.
And to its credit, Down House delivered three incredibly strong breakfasts in a row that restored both Bargas's faith and my own in the kitchen. An open-faced sandwich with Gouda and thick tomatoes – with a fried egg on top – is a breakfast version of a similar sandwich found at lunch with Guinness beer butter. Another breakfast sandwich, this one on a croissant, falls apart as you eat it, but the mess of bacon-drenched spinach and egg-yolk saturated tomatoes is well worth the napkins. And a breakfast torta with pulled pork, avocado and a fried egg on a football-size loaf of bolillo bread is worth every bit of its $7 price tag, if not more.
The overpriced muffin and fruit plate seem to be an anomaly, but I'm not so sure about the bad service. Two lunches with clueless, spotty service were met by a breakfast and dinner with well-timed and professional service. The latter – attentive, kind and thoughtful – is much more in line with Down House's overall mission as a friendly, low-key neighborhood hangout for Heights residents, and what will be necessary to maintain any sort of regular customer base. No one likes to be ignored.
And owners Chris Cusack and Joey Treadway do seem to be aiming for a friendly, casual vibe in this high-ceilinged space, decked out with tall windows that attest to its former life as an old bank. Outside, the red bricks of the colonial-style building are just beginning to be covered with creeping ivy, giving the entire building the kind of gravitas that you wouldn't expect from a new restaurant.
By day, Down House is good for a leisurely breakfast – it's served until 3 p.m., in fact – or lunch, polished off with a peach iced tea or perhaps a cortado. I was so impressed with the cortado I received at breakfast, in fact, that I quickly ordered another. Name another place in town where I can get an expertly pulled macchiato, cappuccino or cortado like this while I eat a delicious, affordable and locally sourced breakfast. This alone endears me to Down House.
But by night, the dining room at Down House takes on a downright sexy vibe, its dark cobalt walls reflecting none of what little light there is. You can make out a room full of patrons who've languidly draped themselves over studded leather banquettes and low-slung couches to enjoy their dinners and conversations. It's anything but twee when the sun goes down.
It's a beautiful scene, actually, and fiery cocktails like the curry bitters-laced La Flama with tequila and demeara only encourage Down House's seductive side, as did the honey-and-brandy-buoyed India Express that felt like crawling into bed after a long day. In fact, were it not for the small, composed plates, you could be forgiven for mistaking Down House for a large cocktail bar.
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Its craft beer list, too, is impeccable. Texas brews like a hair-raisingly hoppy Lost Gold IPA from Real Ale stand up next to older favorites such as Ommegang's Hennepin or a Belgian pale from Brouwerij De Koninck. Once again, I ask: Where else in Houston will you find cocktails and craft beer working in such expert harmony with the food that's coming out of the kitchen? Down House even has suggested pairings for each of its small plates at dinner and its lunch dishes, if you're feeling cheeky.
The upside of despairing over inattentive service is that not once during any of my meals at Down House did I feel rushed along or encouraged to leave. I felt welcome, at ease, and eager to make my way through its compact but captivating menu. I can't wait to go back and try the whiskey chicken and roasted fig-topped flatbread or the intriguing seafood fondue.
Like the breakfast menu that encourages you to eat eggs at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, the dinner menu is served until 2 a.m. every day – another touch that has almost ensured Down House's future dominance in an increasingly restaurant-saturated area of the Heights. Although it's been calm during my last four visits, I expect that it's just the quiet before the storm. Because once Down House gets its service kinks worked out, it's bound to be pleasantly packed for at least a few years to come.