"That looks like a potsticker,” my sister said as she tapped one of the two pierogi flanking the beautifully caramelized steak resting on a bed of haricot vert, delicate ends still intact. The flat, bronzed face of the half-moon-shaped pastry did indeed resemble an Asian dumpling, but the crisp shatter of the fork through the dense dough and into the creamy, cheese-laced potato filling yielded a distinctly non-Asian flavor.
It’s no small coincidence that the fusion appearance of the pierogi mirrors the diverse influences threaded through the neat 65-seat restaurant on Fairview. Riel bills itself as a Modern American restaurant, but the currently 18-item, mostly small-plate menu reads like a mini tour through the Texas Gulf Coast with strong influences from executive chef Ryan Lachaine’s Ukrainian heritage and French Canadian background (see the vibrant borscht with fresh horseradish or the pork tourtière, a Québecois meat pie), among other international vibes. It’s an unexpectedly fresh take on familiar items that is both approachable and exciting.
Where else in Houston would you start with a borscht sour cocktail? The fuschia pink drink calls on a frothy egg white to lid a sweet, subtly sour concoction. It was our favorite of the two cocktails we ordered, though the Mountain Madness — spiked with rum, lime, coconut, ginger, pear and a Montenegro floater — was refreshing and caters well to margarita fans.
The cocktail bears only the slightest resemblance to its namesake dish on the menu. That borscht is certainly like no chunky, homemade borscht you might have tried to make at home. The cocktail and the soup share a subtle sweetness, but that’s where the similarities end. Each scarlet spoonful is velvety and vaguely herbaceous thanks to the bloom of horseradish but not overly earthy, and veal stock as the base makes for unctuous depth.
If you’re daring enough to attempt a walk-in instead of planning ahead with a reservation, the bar is a pleasant place to watch the myriad drinks being whipped up by the bartender. Or, as the night draws on, you might become one in a small crowd clustering near the long high top adjacent to the bar. The rectangular-shaped restaurant — with one long wall open to the kitchen — is a far cry from the cozy, homely, mismatched charm of former teahouse inhabitant Té House of Tea. Gone are the walls of tea and knickknacks, making way for sleek concrete floors and minimal wooden tables that bathe under the light of many tiny tea lights perched on the angular black ceiling rafters. It’s a hip setting suitable for both the trendsetters and the passionate foodies interested in exploring diverse dishes not familiar to most Houstonian palates.
Sitting at the bar affords a chance to watch the hatted, tatted line up of cooks moving in near-silent choreography. They slice local Texas citrus for crudo with ninja-like precision, parboil ready-made pierogi, and dip handfuls of cauliflower in a wet floury dredge before transforming them into poofy golden nuggets by way of the fryer. Judging from the volume of cauliflower that we saw pass through the fryer during our meal, the crowds were intrigued by the sound of tempura cauliflower topped with kimchi hot sauce. The finished nuggets come tangled with long ribbons of fennel and thinly shaved carrots tossed in a generous amount of the rust-colored sauce that delivers tangy heat. The fry itself is excellent, with a thick, golden, not-too-greasy batter.
However, before you whet your palate with such powerful flavors, you should order the oysters. They were Mon Louis oysters from Alabama the night we went, and slurping down the huge, juicy $4 bivalves felt like the height of decadence. Highlighted with a pickled red onion granita, the oysters are juicy, sweet and meaty — the stuff that pervades dreams. The red snapper crudo, with dots of soubis, a fennel-infused sauce, Texas citrus and a finishing of prosecco is another dish to enjoy with a pure palate. The beauty of crudo lies in the simplicity of preparation, which means ingredient quality is crucial. Precise, jewel-like slices of satsuma and blood orange were perfectly ripe accents to the delicate slivers of fish.
Our server considerately waited until we were done picking at the very last baby morsel of fish before removing the dish. Overall service was warm, attentive and knowledgeable, with just one noticeable blip of inconsistency that could be chalked up to the restaurant’s relative newness. On one visit, we were delivered new plates after each duo of dishes (almost unnecessarily often), while on a second occasion, we kept the same plate throughout our entire meal, to the point where the flavors of previous courses began to pervade later ones.
Similarly, we encountered some inconsistencies in the gulf fish karaage that, though noticeable, did not disrupt our meal. Karaage is a Japanese preparation of meat similar to tempura that often involves a marinade, a light coating of starch or flour, and then frying in a light oil. At Riel, a combination of potato starch and rice flour keeps the crispy fried coating light yet retains moist and flavorful fish. On our first visit, it was delivered to the table piping hot with a dry, perfectly crispy batter. On another occasion, the karaage arrived slightly moister, with the batter sagging as though it had been sitting out just a moment too long or the batter’s integrity had folded somewhat. The restrained sprinkle of smoky espelette pepper had also multiplied in intensity, though thankfully it was tempered by the runny buttermilk-based ranch sauce flecked with dill, and it didn’t stop us from polishing off the entire dish.
I appreciated the play between the sweet heat of the golden raisin puree spiked with Aleppo pepper under a shower of the powdered hazelnut, the dollop of tangy uncultured yogurt and the drizzle of honey. Even though the roast on the varying sizes of carrots led to a wrinkly exterior and an unpleasantly chewy interior in some of the larger varieties, the candy-like flavors of the dish as a whole were pleasing.
And about that hangar steak — had our server not kindly informed us that the pierogi could also be ordered as a standalone item, I might have ordered the dish just to try the dumplings. Still, we forged ahead with the full entrée (the top half of the menu is smaller plates meant for sharing, while the next handful of plates are larger, entrée-style options). The steak was pink-middled and juicy, and the very soft accompanying haricot vert nearly melted into the mild, addictive sweep of horseradish cream that very nearly converted me into a horseradish worshipper. The sour-cream-based dough of the pierogi was starchy and dense, with a texture almost reminiscent of a tamale (but lighter) and was well-balanced by the equally powerful presence of a five-year aged cheddar in the center. In total, it’s a beautiful rendition of steak and potatoes.
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Forgoing the sticky toffee pudding finale adorned with the foie gras torchon and blood toffee sauce (yes, it really has blood in it), we went with nanaimo cake with coconut ginger sorbet. Thin sheets of dense, forgettable brownie unfortunately overpower any hint of coconut in the coconut cream cheese layers. However, the pure, sharp flavors of the sorbet cut through the murky richness of the dessert with spectacular clarity.
With Riel, Lachaine once again helps put Houston on the map with a locale that shines across a spectrum of international flavor. Riel is named after Louis Riel, the founder of Lachaine’s hometown, Manitoba, and if Riel signals a return to Lachaine’s roots, then let’s hear it for homecomings.
1927 Fairview, 832-831-9109, rielhtx.com. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; closed Sundays.
Bama beauties oyster $16
Red snapper crudo $13
Tempura cauliflower $12
Gulf fish karaage $13
Hanger steak $28
Nanaimo cake $11
Borscht sour $12
Mountain Madness $12