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It's Hip to Be Square at Masraff's

It takes some chutzpah to serve steak tartare these days.
TROY FIELDS

As the trio struck up a Brazilian samba tune and warm sunshine streamed in through the high windows, we settled back into our chairs to take in the elegant surroundings at Masraff's. This posh "Euro-American" restaurant has been around since 1999, and up until a couple of weeks ago, I'd avoided it like poison ivy.

I've long held that if we ignore outdated Continental cuisine restaurants, eventually they will all go away. So I'm perplexed to admit that my first visit to Masraff's for Sunday jazz brunch was absolutely delightful. Our waiter was French, the service was perfect, and the saxophone player kicked ass.

My dining companion was delirious over the hot-out-of-the-oven croissants. She tore them open one after another and spread them with butter and some of Masraff's incredible orange marmalade, which is made in-house and contains big honking slices of orange peel.

She got baked eggs Florentine, which featured a bed of sautéed spinach and mushrooms in a béchamel sauce topped with two roasted-yet-runny eggs. After cutting myself a little sample, I was jealous. But then my entrée arrived, and I lost interest in hers.

I got the steak tartare, a luscious-looking mountain of hand-cut raw beef tenderloin. I pierced the raw egg yolk that perched in a crater on top of it all. "Look, the volcano is erupting," I said to my tablemate as the yolk slowly flowed down. She told me to stop playing with my food.

At the base of the steak mound, neat rows of chopped eggs, capers and minced red onions radiated outward. The meat was lightly seasoned with lemon juice and mustard. I added a little salt and pepper and mixed up some raw steak and egg yolk with a little of each of the condiments. I ate a huge bite with some toast and chased it with black coffee. Then I closed my eyes and smiled. Now that's a steak-and-egg breakfast.

Steak tartare is a fabulous old-­fashioned dish that has become more exotic because of modern taboos. In this era of ground beef recalls and raw egg paranoia, it's hard to get steak tartare in a restaurant. My friend Paul Galvani asks for it every time he visits a top-end steak house; some accommodate him, and some refuse. It takes some chutzpah to put steak tartare on your Sunday brunch menu in this day and age, but then again, no one would accuse Tony and Russell Masraff of lacking cojones.

Tony Masraff was a former IBM executive and high-tech entrepreneur who literally bet his retirement ranch on this restaurant venture. And Masraff's was no small investment. The Tuscan-inspired stone building is built on a large lot on high-rent Post Oak Lane. The interior is grand, if not overblown. The expensive furnishings include handmade American cherry wood tables and Venetian glass light fixtures.

When the restaurant first opened, some assumed it was named after the legendary George Masraff, who was the original chef. Chef Masraff, who once had a Michelin one-star restaurant in France, spent five years as executive chef of Tavern on the Green in New York before he moved to Houston to help out his cousin Tony and nephew Russell.

But Chef Masraff didn't last very long. He left something like six or seven years ago. He worked in Paris for a while and then headed back to New York where he was the executive chef of Brasserie Ruhlmann when it opened in Rockefeller Center.

The Web site for Masraff's on Post Oak Lane has lots of information about the father-and-son team, but it doesn't mention a chef. So I called the restaurant the other day and asked the lady who answered the phone the seemingly innocuous question: "What's the name of your chef?"

I ended up on the phone with Russell Masraff. The younger Masraff is a Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management graduate who worked at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and other restaurants before he joined his father in starting Masraff's.

Russell Masraff declined to tell me the name of the restaurant's current chef. Then he angrily decided that our entire conversation was off the record.

Whatever.

On a dinner visit, my dining companion ordered braised short ribs and crab. It sounded like an odd combination at first. But when the waiter delivered the plate, he described it as Masraff's version of surf and turf. That put a smile on everybody's face and brought the dish into a certain wacky perspective.

Any lingering doubts about the odd couple disappeared with one taste of the short ribs. The meat was falling-apart tender, and the gravy was sweet and thick. It reminded me of those sauerbraten sauces that are thickened with ginger snaps, but without the ginger flavor.

There were two Jonah crab claws on the plate, along with a basket made of fried shredded potatoes that held some Gulf lump crabmeat. I can't say the short ribs and crab went together very well, but then again, neither do the lobster and steak on the typical surf and turf plate.

A shiitake mushroom ragout went well with the short ribs, and a tart chutney tasted great with the crabs, so I'm not complaining. The portion was enormous — we asked them to wrap up the leftovers for our little doggy.

I also sampled the wild, line-caught salmon, which was cooked perfectly to medium rare without even asking. It was served with creamy spinach.

The salmon went beautifully with the 2006 Santenay Burgundy I ordered. I had heard so much about the 2005 vintage in Burgundy, I was shocked that the 2006 had such bright fruit and tight structure. Santenay, at the Southern end of the Côte de Beaune, is a lot cheaper than the more famous communes further north.

For my entrée, I ordered Muscovy duck breast slices served over potstickers stuffed with duck confit and mushrooms, with a parsnip puree on the side and a sauce that tasted a little like Chinese five-spice powder. The dish of medium-rare duck and pillow-soft dumplings was sensational to begin with, but the sublime Burgundy made it even better.

Among the disappointments at dinner was an appetizer of seared scallops covered with gobs of goat cheese. What a waste of scallops. The entrée called "roasted chicken roulade stuffed with asparagus, bell pepper, and goat cheese with Yukon Gold gratin and grain mustard sauce" was underwhelming. One of my dining companions ordered it expecting a delicate poultry dish.

What was set before her looked like a domed Russian Orthodox church made out of chicken. There was a round tower of thinly sliced potatoes topped with a tapering dome of rolled white meat. Sticking straight up into the air through the top of the chicken was a pinnacle of pointy asparagus spears.

And then there was the lobster bird — or was it a hat?

On my final visit to Masraff's, a companion and I split a lobster salad and a filet in bordelaise sauce. The lobster salad was a plate of greens and papaya slices with another one of those fried shredded potato baskets on top.

This time a romaine lettuce leaf was stuck into the air out of one end of the potato basket like a plume. The basket with lettuce looked like a bird with a big tail — or maybe a little pillbox hat with a long feather. What it didn't look like was something that a lobster ought to be inside of. The combination of lobster meat, asparagus and papaya slices was actually quite good once we disposed of the basket, although the salad dressing was too sweet.

The filet mignon was expertly cooked to medium rare, and the bordelaise was just the sort of over-the-top red wine and demi-glace gravy that we're too sophisticated to admit we crave these days.

The steak was sitting on top of a stuffed cabbage filled with soft-cooked leeks, diced potatoes and brie and covered with bacon and sun-dried tomatoes. The presentation of the steak balanced on top of the stuffed cabbage sitting in a puddle of mushroom chutney was ludicrous.

But I forgot all about the chef's silly inclination to stack and pack things once I tasted the leek, potato, bacon, cheese and cabbage combination with the steak and the bordelaise. Rare steak, French gravy and potato-stuffed cabbage — for a meat lover of Eastern European extraction like me, it was a bloody dream come true.

If I were to say that Masraff's feels like an oversized monument to nouveau riche insecurity and that the menu appeals primarily to River Oaks retirees in search of outdated Continental classics — then how could I rave about Masraff's killer brunch and awesome steak tartare? Or admit that I would walk ten miles on my hands and knees for another filet mignon and stuffed cabbage with bordelaise?

It's an enigma. But here's the awful truth: If Masraff's chef, whatever his name is, were to stop putting seafood in potato baskets and start making some killer frites, this restaurant would be scary-great.

Masraff's is so unhip, it's cool. And I will keep going back until Russell Masraff figures out who I am and throws my ungracious ass out the front door.


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