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Home to Roost

Neighborhood residents walk over for the fish of the day.
Troy Fields

Don't want to wait? See inside the cozy-chic Roost for yourself in our slideshow.

It's a good thing Kevin Naderi didn't open his new restaurant, Roost, in the summer.

On a recent Friday night, I waited outside on a wooden picnic table with a bottle of wine and two friends. Our table could be ready in a few minutes, it could be ready in an hour and a half — that's the risk you take when coming to Roost on a busy evening, I told my friends. We were content to wait, however — a waitress from inside came out to check on us from time to time, refilling our wine glasses, and the cool spring night was inviting. But when summer in Houston hits, Naderi could have a hard time convincing people that Roost is worth the wait.

So allow me.

Although it's only a little more than three months old, Roost is already one of the most impressive restaurants to come along in a few years. Bowls of buttery roasted cauliflower in a satiny miso broth with delicate flakes of bonito dancing across the top share the menu with country-fried quail in Steen's cane syrup and meaty gravy. Persian-inspired pickled vegetables and a bread service from Slow Dough with bacon-infused butter are simple but inspired appetizers. And the fact that none of these dishes — at a glance — have anything in common is what makes Roost so captivating.

Roost is a restaurant that perfectly captures the current Houston culinary zeitgeist. No longer do our most celebrated chefs labor for years learning and perfecting standards and classics. These days, it's about returning to and exploring your roots as well as your passions — no matter where in the world they came from. It's the era of the young turks, where wandering chefs come home not to play by the rules but to create their own.

In Kevin Naderi's case, that includes his own Persian heritage, the Southern farm-to-table aesthetic he embraced under Chef Randy Evans at Haven, Japanese flavors and ingredients picked up alongside Chef Robert Gadsby when he was still at Soma, and the Mediterranean and Thai influences so prevalent throughout Houston itself.

So many of our restaurants no longer neatly fit into "French" or "New American" or even "fusion" boxes, just like Roost's other new Montrose neighbors like Nabi and — more notably — Underbelly, where Chef Chris Shepherd wears his fondness of Houston's culinary pastiche on his sleeve. We are living in a post-fusion world.

"Fusion" itself, that nouvelle cuisine description, is a relic now and no longer relevant to describe a type of cuisine that's no more purposefully "fusion" than Malaysian food is: It's an organic kind of cuisine that is remarkable in how utterly unremarkable it is. It has just happened, a holistic outgrowth of the fact that our world gets smaller every single day, and we — as diners and as human beings — grow more comfortable with the dozens of influences and ingredients we encounter along the way.

This still leaves me with the problem of what to call Roost's cuisine. Naderi himself is referring to it as "American farm-to-table," but that doesn't seem a broad enough description to me. I'm selfishly inclined to call it "Houston cuisine" in the vein of "California cuisine," but I'm not vain or naïve enough to think that would ever catch on.

But is this a problem? Should there even be a one-size-fits-all description of restaurants like these? Maybe we should take each one as it comes, an individual as much as any human being is, and describe it based on all the facets of its personality, its foibles and idiosyncrasies and irresistible draws.
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When I describe Roost to people, it requires a complex description. But I'm okay with that — good restaurants are often complex things.

"It's a neighborhood bistro, kind of," I start off by explaining. "It's sort of farm-to-table — whatever that really means anymore — but it also has a lot of Japanese and Middle Eastern and Thai influences. And really good craft beer. And it's super-casual."

Usually, at least one of these things is enough to convince someone to give Roost a shot, although the restaurant certainly hasn't been without steady businesses since opening in mid-December. I like to think it's this combination effect that is such a draw.

Neighborhood residents enjoy having a restaurant to walk to, a place that's low-key and welcoming and as comfortable as home, but with better food. Inside, the warm dining room has the kind of low-slung ceilings and candlelit ambiance that encourage diners to linger, to take their meals slowly and with great relish. The space itself is blessed with the kind of quirky charm that only comes from moving into an old building. This one was home to a Cuban restaurant run by an equally quirky old abuelita before Naderi and his family bought it.

 

The dishes on the spare, smartly edited menu are designed for sharing in groups with friends, even the ones that are more "entree" than "small plate." Just try resisting your buddy's tomato salad with blissfully creamy burrata cheese and crisp, fresh arugula, or a fragrant yellow curry that comes topped with crunchy peanuts and filled with bright, seasonal vegetables that lands across the table from you. The only problem — and it's a stretch to call this a problem — is that the menu changes constantly, so don't expect to find a favorite dish and get it on every return visit.

Foodies enjoy Roost for this reason as much as they enjoy witnessing Naderi's ethnic twists on Texan dishes, like a homemade kimchi and egg yolk sauce that adorned a piece of seared Gulf amberjack one night. Another week, it was Texas-raised lamb made into kebab sliders with charred tomatoes and a saffron aioli that Naderi created while breaking down a whole lamb from Black Hill Ranch and using its ribs in a Japanese-inspired dish the night before. And for dessert, it's fried doughnut holes topped with coffee and dulce de leche ice cream, the fried bread drenched in a Persian honey sauce that makes it teeter gleefully over the edge of being almost too sweet.

Even beer fans are satisfied with an array of local craft beers like Karbach on draft and more serious brews like Brouwerij Huyghe's infamously strong Delerium Tremens, sold by the half-pint only. Wine fans, however, will find little to love at Roost — for now. The red-heavy list is still lingering from the colder months, and Houston's warmer weather these days isn't doing Roost's bottles any favors: The last three bottles of red I ordered over the course of three visits were woefully hot.

I mentioned this to Naderi, who admitted that there isn't enough ventilation — see: quirky old building problems — and that he was working on getting better wine storage in place. Better to stick with the whites for now, he told me. And with the summer coming on fast, that won't be a problem.
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Naderi seems painfully aware of the issues like these that his little restaurant is experiencing as it moves through the awkward adolescence that all restaurants experience. He hadn't even planned on opening a place of his own so early in his career, but couldn't pass up the opportunity when the building here at 1972 Fairview became available. He and his family own it together, although the restaurant's path is all his.

"It looks shabby," he recalls his mother saying of the dozens of old window shutters he used to decorate two walls in the restaurant.

"Shabby chic," he laughingly corrected her. But Naderi is a chef by trade — not an interior decorator, and not a maître d'. While the décor at Roost certainly fits its overall aesthetic of a cozy place to tuck into, Naderi clearly struggles with the front of the house. He's a chef by trade, albeit one of those rare chefs who's equally at ease in the hot glare of a dining room as he is on the hot line. This talent and his effusive personality notwithstanding, Naderi can't be in two places at once — but often tries to be anyway.

This can lead to some frustration on the front end, as many guests are left alone upon entering for far too long and I've witnessed tables receiving very spotty service unless Naderi is overseeing everything in the dining room. Likewise, when he's not checking up on the line cooks, the fish can come out overcooked, the soups underseasoned and his signature roasted cauliflower soggy and sad. Naderi wants to be the host as much as he wants to be the chef, but a servant can only have one master.

When he's in the kitchen, however, Roost turns out some staggeringly excellent dishes: a piece of perfectly grilled Almaco jack on top of dill-and-cucumber-spiked tzatziki that tastes homemade because it is, the delicate white flesh of the Gulf fish pairing wonderfully with the tangy, creamy sauce. Or those lamb ribs, done in a pseudo-Japanese hibachi style with a soy-ginger glaze topped with sesame seeds and perched over a mound of coleslaw made with a creamy ginger dressing.

It's these artful dishes that make me more prone to overlook the bad ones — not only because I know what Naderi is capable of at his young restaurant, but because I can see all the potential that Roost has within it.

On a recent Monday night, I arrived at 6:30 p.m. to find Roost already packed and was thrilled to see Naderi through the kitchen window, working the line in a ballcap and apron. I knew our meal would be excellent. And it was. In an ideal world, I'd see Naderi back there every night monitoring his kitchen and making sure the high standards he's set are being executed — he already does all of the charcuterie, pickling and a host of other prep work before each service, but the kitchen seems to need his guidance in order to pull it all together each night. And in that ideal world, Naderi would have hired a front-of-house manager who matches his own fierce work ethic so that he can be free to be the consummate host/chef that he has the potential to be.

 

Realistically, however, it will take more time for the restaurant to fully gel. When it does, I wouldn't be surprised to look back in a decade to find that Roost has taken a place in Houston's culinary firmament as one of the new classics of the young turk era.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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Roost

1972 Fairview St.
Houston, TX 77019

713-523-7667

www.iloveroost.com


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