So many new restaurants these days project an opening date and then push it back, sometimes for a month, often longer. When James Haywood and Ross Coleman found the space for their restaurant on Canal and North Hagerman in Second Ward, they got things moving quickly. Coleman returned to Houston from Dallas, where he had been working as a banquet chef at the Hotel ZaZa Dallas, and within two weeks, he and Haywood -- friends for six years since they'd met while working together at Minute Maid Park -- made some cosmetic changes, ordered a sign, collaborated on a menu and opened their doors to the public.
As you drive down Canal Street on a drizzly Wednesday night, the neighborhood feels sleepy until you reach the corner where Kitchen 713 is housed. The restaurant is lit from the outside, and the parking lot is full. Though the area doesn't see a lot of walk-by traffic, the menu is posted prominently on the exterior of the restaurant, kind of like a poster, so that even before you walk in, you get a sense of the kind of food you'll get. The tagline is "Flavors of the South, Globally Inspired."
There is little in the way of a scene or pizzazz when you enter. The restaurant is modest and sparsely decorated. It espouses a fast-casual approach to service in which you order at the counter, grab your own cutlery and water and wait for your food to arrive from the kitchen. There are all of eight tables, but it's warm and friendly. The clientele is diverse in age and ethnicity. There are youngish twentysomething couples, families and small groups of friends gathered together for food. There is no music, so conversation flows freely. The ambience makes you feel like you've just joined a small family gathering in someone's home.
When the food arrives, however, it's clear that the menu is much more elevated than what someone might be served in a home kitchen. Shrimp croquettes -- three-inch patties the size of small sliders -- are a pleasure to savor. Coated with crispy panko, served with an elegant swoosh of sweet yam puree and topped with a cascading arrangement of Thai-style green papaya salad in a sweetly acidic fish-sauce-based dressing, the dish not only displayed good textural complexity, but was also well balanced in flavor. The slight umami saltiness of the papaya salad and the mild sweetness of the yam puree provided a good complement to the seafood essence. Reminiscent of Thai shrimp toast but shaped and served like southern salmon croquettes, the dish exhibited a good blend of Southern and Asian disciplines.
An eight-dollar starter order of fried Brussels sprouts is as enjoyable as the version you'd get at the trendy Uchi Houston on lower Westheimer and comes in close to three times the portion size. The sprouts are fried to a slight caramelization and tossed with orange sauce with fennel and red -onions, and their natural bitterness is offset by small, salty bits of tasso ham and creamy-salty slivers of freshly grated parmesan, with a smattering of fresh orange wedges giving an added brightness to the dish.
Kitchen 713's chicken and dumplings is something one might find in a fine-dining establishment. To make it, the chefs debone half a chicken, rolling both dark and white meat into a roulade, which is then cooked sous-vide so that the chicken stays moist and tender. The roulade is pan-seared so the skin gets nice and crispy and is then sliced into small rounds, which are served in a round fan pattern next to handmade sweet-potato gnocchi. A well-seasoned chicken-based jus is the final element that makes the dish so good, and though my dinner companion didn't care for the texture of the -gnocchi, which was somewhat denser than she would have liked, for a mere $16, it was a pretty fantastic entree.
Also fantastic? The shrimp and grits. Though some of the menu items are available only at lunch or dinner, the shrimp and grits are available throughout the day and are definitely worth ordering. Here's a dish that you can find all over Houston, but one that is executed with a level of creativity and technique that makes it stand out from the pack. Stone-ground grits are cooked in butter, cream and white cheddar with poblano chile until the grits are thick and creamy yet smooth. The shrimp are arranged in a circular pattern as is common with shrimp-and-grits dishes, but the thing that sets this one apart is the ovals of Texas shrimp chorizo -- essentially a spiced shrimp sausage -- that are pressed into the grits in between the shrimp. The shrimp chorizo are made in-house and are delicious and quite unforgettable.
Were there misses at Kitchen 713? Small ones, yes. In the grand scheme of things, however, they were minor and didn't leave an unfavorable impression. There was a curried smoked salmon salad beautifully laid out on a wooden board and topped with candied pecans, pickled red onions, blue cheese and citrus vinaigrette. Salmon can get that "fishy" odor when it's cooked too thoroughly, and that's what happened here. Haywood -- who, in addition to manning the front of the house by taking orders, also pops back into the kitchen to cook and then brings the dishes out to the tables as they're ready -- noticed that we hadn't touched it and asked us what was wrong, quickly taking action by offering us a complimentary peach cobbler dessert.
The jerk chicken dish, one of the house favorites, was also simply too spicy for us. We had ordered it after being told that the spice level was high, though, so this was not the fault of the restaurant. My companion thought she could handle it, but couldn't, opting to take the chicken home for her husband.
We had an extraordinarily good lunch one afternoon when almost everything was on point -- it was just a matter of deciding what dishes we liked most. A masterful rendition of seafood gumbo was so rich, thick, chock-full of seafood and perfectly seasoned that day, my companion and I agreed that it was one of the best versions we'd had. Boudin of the day came on a large wooden plate -- five, three-inch round croquette-like balls served hot and crispy with a smear of mustard and some toasted bread -- the portion ample, the execution indicative of experience and training.
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An appetizer portion of turkey neck lettuce wraps was on the salty side and came with a fish-sauce dressing that we felt it didn't need, but was still quite good. And the oxtail grilled-cheese sandwich -- two slices of buttered, fluffy brioche stuffed with braised oxtail marmalade (oxtail braised in red wine, shredded, then reduced to a marmalade) and melted sharp provolone and cheddar cheese -- was decadent and rich.
Kitchen 713 is one of those prized mom-and-pop gems that are not only great neighborhood restaurants but also worthy dining destinations. When you dine at Kitchen 713, you get food prepared by two chefs who have both gone to culinary school and have been classically trained.
In a phone call with the chefs after we completed our review, they described how the restaurant started out with just the two of them. Coleman would be in the kitchen, cooking and washing the dishes. Haywood would take orders, run back to the kitchen to cook and then serve the food directly to their patrons. They had no advertising to speak of when they opened approximately six months ago except word of mouth and social media. These days, even on off nights, their dining room is full, and on weekends, there's a wait, but it's definitely worth it.
Gumbo lunch $9 Boudin of the day $13 Shrimp croquettes $12 Fried Brussels $8 Oxtail grilled cheese $14 Turkey neck lettuce wraps $10 Jerk chicken $15 Shrimp and grits $20 Chicken and dumplings $16 Peach cobbler $8