Just Dinner Is So Much More Than That
The dessert was supposed to be a masterpiece. I heard it before I saw it, at other tables in the small, intimate dining room. A loud whoosh, like the noise produced by a vacuum cleaner, followed by squeals of delight and the clapping of hands. Finally, I saw the dessert up close when the pastry chef and server set a bowl down on the table next to mine and proceeded to use a large yellow blowtorch — far larger than the type many people keep in their kitchens for crème brûlée — to set the contents of the bowl on fire, creating a slow-burning blue flame that was positively mesmerizing.
When it was time for my table to order dessert, I immediately asked for the bananas Foster, more because I wanted the fire show than out of actual need for more food. And just as had happened before, the ceramic bowl was brought to the table by the pastry chef, and the server was close behind him with the plate of accoutrements: a silver creamer filled with spiced rum, a small pot of cinnamon with a spoon and a tiny scoop of homemade gelato. The bowl contained a banana that had been halved lengthwise, swimming in a thick layer of brown sugar and butter.
We were skeptical about the wisdom of serving the dessert in a ceramic bowl — rather than a flambé pan — but as soon as the cool blue flames ignited from the rum, my cares dissipated. And then as soon as the flames dissipated, my doubts returned. My friend dipped his spoon into what was supposed to be caramel at the bottom of the bowl, only to find...sugar covered in rum. Hard, granulated sugar covered in rum that still possessed an alcoholic burn on the way down one's throat. The bananas were rather hard, and though the sugar directly on top of them had caramelized, the dish was fairly inedible.
Disappointed, we moved on to our second dessert, a cup of salted caramel crème brûlée. It tasted somewhat like pumpkin-pie filling and had the consistency of pudding, not smooth-as-silk crème brûlée. It, too, was pushed aside.
We were confused. The rest of the meal had been so good. Even after one mediocre appetizer, the dinner itself had been wonderful each time I'd visited. And then I remembered the name of the restaurant, and in my mind, it made sense.
"Just Dinner." Don't order dessert. Just get dinner.
Go behind the scenes of this week's Cafe review in our slideshow, "A Closer Look at Just Dinner."
It's quite possibly one of the most charming little restaurants in Houston. A small bungalow built in 1928 on Dunlavy in Montrose has been transformed into a restaurant with three dining rooms each about the size of a moderate apartment's living room and a regular home kitchen with a few more amenities than the average home cook possesses. Subdued track lighting and candles create a cozy vibe, perfect for a romantic dinner date or a quiet family meal.
The space first opened as a restaurant in 2007 with one waiter and one chef, serving neighbors who heard about it by word of mouth. Owner Andrew Rebori partnered with Lila Rivas in 2008, and he retired in 2011 and left the business in her hands. Today the restaurant seats about 35 diners. The staff consists of the chef, Daniel Toro, a few other people in the kitchen, several waiters, one hostess and Rivas, who often lends a hand where she can.
When my editor first recommended I check out Just Dinner, I was expecting something more modern and less fancy, based on the name alone. Just Dinner sounds to me like "oh, no big deal; it's just dinner," but the dinner options at this little hideaway could stand up to anything at large, better-known restaurants such as Underbelly and Haven.
The cuisine skirts the line between Italian and comfort food, with splashes of French here and there. Appetizers like lobster macaroni and cheese croquettes with a perfectly crisped bread-crumb shell evoke upscale home cooking, while spaghetti alla puttanesca rivals that of some of my favorite Italian restaurants in town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that Just Dinner doesn't make the pasta fresh in-house, because the texture was so spot-on. Clearly someone in the kitchen knows how to do al dente just right.
The highlight of all my meals at Just Dinner was the foie gras crème caramel, which was so decadent and lovely that after a few bites I pretty much just stopped sharing with my dinner companion. This is the texture I was looking for in the dessert crème brûlée, and this dish actually would have made a fine close to a meal. A round of custard with a hint of earthy, gamey foie gras and the smoothest texture imaginable literally melts in your mouth with each bite, tasting first of foie and then rounding out into bittersweet caramel. It would almost be too rich were it not for the diced pickled sweet potatoes, pickled rhubarb and fresh pomegranate seeds swimming in a sauce of chile oil and chive oil, which gives the dish an extra dose of spice and cool freshness.
The short rib on the menu is similarly balanced with a port wine and cherry demi-glace that adds a tartness to the buttery rib and makes it shine even more. I've never met a braised short rib I didn't like, but this one I positively love. Served on a bed of roasted-garlic mashed potatoes, it's got a bit of every element I crave in a solid meat dish: juicy beef that falls apart with a touch of my fork, a bit of sweet and sour fruit, and earthy garlic. It's also a huge portion — triple what I was expecting to get for $30, and worth every penny.
So, too, is a smoked duck entrée with variations on butternut squash and greens grown in the restaurant's backyard garden. The duck has a divine smoky flavor, and when paired with various iterations on squash — puréed, roasted, chutney-ed — it's the ideal cool-weather dinner. My dining companion ordered it with a maple-glazed pork belly appetizer, all of which could sound like too much meat, but together (and with several other dishes on the table), we finished everything handily. Something about the combination of sweet and savory in both those dishes and the short rib and foie gras makes them nearly irresistable.
Still, there were some dishes (aside from the desserts) that caused a bit of confusion. A jumbo lump crab cake had nothing jumbo or lumpy about it. The cake itself was of a decent size, but the crabmeat was so fine it was nearly imperceptible. It seems to be the old style of crab cake, the kind my grandparents remember from trips to the Maryland coast back in the day, all bread crumbs and briny flavor.
A Moroccan-spiced lamb shank special was similarly confusing, though not because it wasn't delicious. The lamb fell off the bone with nary a touch of my knife, but nothing about the spices tasted Moroccan to me. There seemed to be a bit of bland chermoula on top and a bed of saffron risotto beneath the shank, but neither hit me with the dose of flavor I was seeking.
I don't think either of these dishes was bad; they just weren't what I was expecting. And after that inimitable foie gras crème caramel and cherry-glazed short rib, I was expecting a lot.
Dining at Just Dinner is like stepping into someone's home for a dinner party. In each of the dining rooms, the music playing in the kitchen is audible, and the smell of entrées being fired wafts through the house. If you try, you can pick up bits and pieces of the conversations around you and hear the light clanking of pots and pans from the kitchen; the place is that small.
It's an incredibly intimate dining experience. Few other places in Houston are so cozy and compact and also offer a frequently changing menu with produce that was gathered earlier in the day from a backyard garden or picked up at the market that morning before being worked into a new dish. It's BYOB, so you can bring in your favorite wines, and the kitchen is happy to work with you on dietary restrictions or preferences. And that's the beauty of such a small place that keeps the overhead down and the customer count up. The menu is diverse enough to appeal to a wide audience, but the careful thought that goes into each dish is evident when it comes to the table.
Sure, they aren't all masterpieces. The desserts clearly require some help, and there are a few dishes that need some tweaking. By and large, though, the food demonstrates a vision and an understanding of flavor nuances too often missing in larger dining operations. So while the name might imply, as it did to me, that dessert can be skipped, Just Dinner also sells itself a little short. From the atmosphere to the impeccable foie gras crème caramel, this place is so much more than just dinner.
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