Grace's, Which Serves Everything, Is Johnny Carrabba's Last Hurrah
Surprisingly, the gumbo at Grace's is some of the better gumbo in the city. Want to see more of Grace's? Check out our slideshow, "Grace's: A Closer Look."
When you enter, you instantly feel as if you're stepping into your grandmother's home — if your grandmother was a millionaire with exquisite taste. And when you read the menu, you feel like you're going through your grandmother's recipe book — if your grandmother was a tad schizophrenic in her culinary stylings. And when you finally get a taste of the food, well, let's just say this ain't your grandma's standard old-lady cuisine.
A grandmother was the inspiration behind Grace's, the new restaurant from Johnny Carrabba situated next to the original Carrabba's on Kirby. It was Carrabba's grandmother, Grace Mandola, to be exact, that the restaurateur sought to honor with his latest endeavor. A first-generation American born in Louisiana to Italian immigrants, Mandola grew up cooking Cajun food mixed with the Italian food of her heritage. When she eventually moved to Houston, she discovered Tex-Mex and Asian cuisines and good old-fashioned Southern food.
Grace's many descendants, a good portion of whom ended up in the restaurant industry, describe her as one of the best cooks they ever knew. She was an expert in everything from pasta to gumbo. "Grace Mandola was not just good with Italian, Cajun and Texan, but she was good with Mexican food, too," Carrabba said in a February interview prior to the opening of the restaurant.
Though the restaurant is named after Grace, you'll have to go to Carrabba's if you want to taste food made from her original recipes. The food at Grace's is more of a hodgepodge of Houston cuisines, a tribute to Grace that's inspired by her cooking but not a direct reference.
"When I look at Grace's, I think it's very comforting," Carrabba said. "I want it to feel like Houston. Look how diverse Houston is. It's very eclectic, wandering."
Wandering is one way to describe the menu, which features everything from gumbo and tuna carpaccio to "Johnny Chang's Kung Fu Chicken" and lobster tagliatelle. With so much variety in one restaurant, it can be difficult for diners to navigate. Generally, you choose a specific type of restaurant because you want a certain kind of food, but at Grace's there's everything. So much variety can make it difficult for a kitchen to put out consistently good products as well, and that's certainly the case at Grace's.
Southern and Cajun dishes shine, as does the single pasta entrée, but Asian-inspired offerings fall flat, as do some of the meatier options. Still, Carrabba has achieved his goal with Grace's. It's packed for every meal, and even though it's a grandiose spot on a multimillion-dollar lot in Upper Kirby, it maintains the homey atmosphere that Carrabba sought, a fitting tribute to the woman whose cooking changed the Houston food scene.
Want to see more of Grace's? Check out our slideshow, "Grace's: A Closer Look."
When Carrabba decided that Grace's would be an ode to his grandmother, he probably didn't anticipate that it would be so populated by other people's grandmothers. But during lunch in the middle of the week and even a late dinner on a weekend, the crowd is mostly senior citizens, the River Oaks moneyed folk sipping iced tea and slowly but deliberately cutting their steaks and stirring their macaroni and cheese.
Once I saw a family with a child there, but Grace's doesn't advertise as a family-friendly place quite like Carrabba's other nearby restaurant, Mia's, named after his daughter. One reason for the overwhelmingly older clientele could be the prices. A burger with cheese rings up at $17. A simple salad of arugula, beets and goat cheese is $16. Short ribs are $28 and lamb chops are $45. If you're going to bring a kid to dine at Grace's, that kid had better appreciate expensive food.
Of course, you're not paying just for the food here. You're paying for the prime property and the Carrabba name and the atmosphere. It is a lovely building, designed to resemble Grace's modest bungalow in the East End where Carrabba spent many a vacation. Only there's not much modest about this "bungalow," from the high ceilings to the sprawling outdoor patio (complete with fountain) to the fancy woodwork surrounding windows to the open kitchen. The decor is what I'd classify as grandma-chic: fine china and lace doilies adorning the walls, with rustic brick and wood accents giving the place a homey feel, even in spite of its size.
The Southern-style dishes that match the decor are the most successful ones at Grace's, easily eclipsing the more middling attempts at Americanized ethnic cuisine, like the seafood cocktail with kimchi coleslaw I tried on one visit and found to be oddly devoid of kimchi. Instead, it tasted like coleslaw with a squirt of Sriracha, and though the lump crab meat and lobster were fresh and sweet, the small portion hardly seemed worthy of its $19 price tag.
I'd go back in a heartbeat for the gumbo, though. Yes, the gumbo. Houston is surprisingly bereft of great gumbo save for a few spots, so I was surprised to find that Grace's of all places makes a spicy, hearty, thin gumbo with a velvety dark roux. It's a seafood gumbo with just a few shrimp placed gingerly on top after cooking (a smart move to keep the delicate crustaceans from getting chewy) and an ample helping of lump crab meat and okra marinating in the spices. At only $11 for a big bowl, the gumbo is perhaps the best value on the menu.
Slightly more expensive but also worth it is the lobster tagliatelle, the only pasta dish available from the man who created an Italian-food empire. Rather than tasting like classic Italian food, though, it has a Southwestern sensibility thanks to the poblano and corn cream sauce coating every noodle and sweet hunk of lobster tail meat. The dish is served with the pasta stuffed into and overflowing out of the emptied lobster shell for dramatic effect.
Grace's also does salads well, something I'm always pleased to find at restaurants that seem to specialize in heavier fare. The roasted baby beet salad with micro-arugula, pumpkin seeds and crumbled goat cheese tossed in a pancetta vinaigrette is served with jewel-colored slices of beets dotting the plate. It's not a big or fancy salad for the price, but it is fresh and well-balanced. Even better is the Gulf fried oyster salad, which features nearly a dozen large oysters fried until crisp on the outside and still soft and briny on the inside.
For every tasty salad, though, there's a mediocre plate of meat. The short ribs are good enough, but they lacked any pizzazz to make them stand out in my mind. Same for the smoked rib eye sandwich — not bad at all, but nothing particularly special, either. Even the burger made with house-ground wagyu beef was somewhat ho-hum, and I was momentarily shocked to find that it costs $2 extra to add sharp cheddar to an already $15 burger.
The clientele don't seem to bat an eyelash at the high prices, though, nor do they seem concerned with the occasional uninspired dish and questionable presentation. After all, when you're eating at Grandma's house, she doesn't artfully arrange your food and top it off with microgreens. She just plops it on your plate and tells you to eat up.
In the nearly 30 years that Carrabba's has been in business, it's developed quite a following. I have no doubt that even without the massive chain of restaurants to carry on the name, Grace's will achieve the same success. It's pricey, yes, and it's not gourmet, but there's clearly a market for that sort of food in Houston. Johnny Carrabba, keen businessman that he is, has opened the right kind of restaurant in the right location for the crowd he hopes to attract.
Even though he's been hugely successful with past endeavors, Carrabba was still nervous about opening Grace's. It meant a lot to him that the restaurant succeed.
"This business is tough," Carrabba said. "It's kind of like an entertainer coming out with a new album. You like it, but you don't know how the public is going to accept it. You're kind of putting yourself on the line, and you feel very vulnerable. There's a lot of anxiety, but that's kind of why we do this."
And now that Grace's is successful? Carrabba said he's done. No more new restaurants. This is it.
"I think this is going to be my last hurrah," Carrabba said. "When I started off at the original Carrabba's, we had to go to 11 banks to get the money because ten banks turned us down. If I look at that and where we are today, it's been a very interesting run. But again, I'm not the kind of person who wants to sit back and celebrate."
In that sense, Carrabba differs from his grandmother, famous for her three-hour lunches and festive family gatherings. Though Grace passed away several years ago, Carrabba is intent on keeping that part of her legacy alive through the restaurant. He imagines she'd "get a kick out of the food," the odd fusion of Cajun with Italian and Mexican and Asian cuisines. An assemblage of different cultures, just like Houston, just like Grace.
Want to see more of Grace's? Check out our slideshow, "Grace's: A Closer Look."
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