In the Middle of Strata

Strata is lovely and beckons attractively, but the lonely corner it sits in does them no favors.
Strata is lovely and beckons attractively, but the lonely corner it sits in does them no favors.
Chuck Cook Photography

Strata is an attractive restaurant in Vintage Park near Chasewood Park Drive and 249. While the middle section of this upper-scale shopping center resembles an outdoor restaurant row and is hopping on Friday and Saturday nights, Strata is in a lonely place. It sits apart between empty stores in this half-leased "master development." That's a shame, because with a sizable bar area, private dining room, large patio and modern interior, Strata was built for fun.

In order for Strata to compete with the more visible eateries, such as Peli Peli, 1252 Tapas Bar and Mia Bella, it would have to have amazing food to draw customers to that out-of-the-way place. Sadly, it does not. The recent closing of Trio in the same center should be a warning bell; Strata needs to pick up its game if it does not wish to suffer the same fate.

Our family had dinner there last week, and we all agreed; the best thing about the meal was the service. The young staff took excellent care of us, and when my son dumped his cup of coffee on accident, they treated us very kindly. When a surprise extra guest joined us, two tables were put together without hesitation. Iced tea glasses stayed full, and we wanted for nothing... except for the kitchen to take it up a notch and be as great as the front-of-the-house staff.

Out of the five entrees ordered, there was not one that did not have an issue. The best item was the tender, roasted lamb shank, but it sat on top of polenta triangles that were tough on the outside and squishy in the middle. The flavor revived my worst memories of canned hominy in elementary school. It's been a long time since I had something from a restaurant that actually made me say "yuck."

I ordered the promising-sounding pork schnitzel with spinach and bacon "macaroni" and cheese. The "macaroni" was bow-tie pasta. I didn't mind that at all, but there was nothing special in the tiny bits of bacon or very standard "did you make this with Velveeta" cheese sauce. The flavor of the pork schnitzel was fine, except it was a big, thick boneless chop rather than the tender, crispy cutlet I was expecting. The bed of sautéed spinach it sat on was much more pleasing.

The garlic cream sauce of the chicken and mushroom fettuccine had so much of the garlic that it killed more subtle flavors. Miso-crusted striped bass sounded promising, and the potatoes and broccolini with this dish were really good. The fish itself was fine, but nothing to write home about.

Most mystifying was the cherry duck dish. Of everything we had, this dish had potential to be the "must try" of the batch. I love spicy dishes, but the Sriracha risotto on this dish was a complete mismatch with the seared duck. I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea. The duck could have been seared hotter and longer as well. One of the delights of skin-on poultry is when it has been crisped, but there was nothing fun going on here. It was, like so many things at Strata, "just okay."

In a word, Strata was "middling." There was no dish here that was not hampered by some factor. While they have some lower-priced entrees on the menu ($10.95 for a portabella mushroom burger, for example), the duck was $22.95. A 10-ounce filet migon is a whopping $33.95. When a restaurant hits the over $20 level in their better entrée pricing, it has to compete with other places that might do the same dish better, so something really needs to shine.

To complicate things further, a look at the appetizer menu indicates an identity crisis. What kind of restaurant is Strata? It's hard to say when you have hummus, empanadas and habanero sausage to choose from.

I'm all for another great independent restaurant in a part of Houston that is overrun with chains. If Strata wants to become a great place to dine, it's time to take a second look on how to get there, before its too late.

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