Check out Line & Lariat's gorgeous, sunny dining room for yourself in this week's slideshow.
Sometimes you visit a restaurant so good and so criminally unappreciated that you want to plant your flag and set up camp, waving down people in the streets as they walk by and encouraging them inside with a wild gleam in your eye. Line & Lariat is that restaurant for me, and I'm bivouacking there as long as it takes for people to come and try chef David Luna's fun, progressive Texan fare in one of the most beautiful dining rooms Houston has to offer.
Luna does everything right at Line & Lariat, mixing German and Mexican influences with cowboy and Cajun to run the gamut of Texas's culinary history in one smartly composed menu, but the patrons have yet to show up. And they're missing out.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Beer-cheese soup: $5
They're missing out on his springy wild boar meatballs on a bed of skin-on mashed potatoes, a sour cream sauce providing a tangy punch against the buttery mash and the sweetly gamy meat. They're missing out on the tart zing of his homemade red cabbage — better, by far, than anything I've tried from King's Biergarten to Underbelly — that buffets the Königsberger Klopse (a reference to the Prussian meatballs that serve as Luna's inspiration for the dish) in a plush pile.
They're missing out on Gulf-caught red snapper whose white flesh parts with a tender touch, the barely crispy skin covered with a sweet tomato confit that's all the more striking against the snapper's bed of smoky field peas and bright, peppery snaps of pea shoots. They're missing shrimp and grits flecked with cheddar and bacon, the panko-breaded Gulf shrimp so fat and fresh that they remind me of uni in their ocean-bound sweetness.
They're even missing out on a bowl of gumbo so filled with okra, tender chicken, plump shrimp and smoky sausage in its mahogany roux that it rocketed to the top of my gumbo list in Houston (which is, admittedly, fairly short).
I'd be happy to keep these things to myself — these, and the impressive cocktails served at Line & Lariat's bar that's ringed with seats upholstered in cheeky cowhide — but it hardly seems fair, either to people seeking out the best food in the city or to Luna. A chef this talented deserves a larger audience, no matter how appreciative his small audience may be.
I can't quite put my finger on why Line & Lariat is so quiet, but I have a few guesses. One is the fairly slow service, which could be why I don't often see theater-goers or business folks huddled into the oversized chairs and booths. But chief among the reasons is the stink of failure: The space has already hosted two big-name restaurants that flamed out in quick succession.
Bank, which anchored the newly refurbished Hotel Icon when it opened in 2004, had the pedigree to match the stunning, gold-hued, two-story dining room that seemed even taller thanks to elegant Doric columns and yards of heavy silk draperies that flowed down from the ceilings. Its executive chef was superstar Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who left most of the day-to-day work to chef de cuisine Bryan Caswell. Vongerichten and Caswell departed Bank in 2007 — Caswell to open Reef, now his flagship restaurant — and the restaurant underwent a makeover, emerging as Voice.
As with Bank, Voice had a noteworthy chef — the talented Michael Kramer — and a menu that pushed boundaries in the best of ways. Bank had dishes such as chile tapioca pudding; Voice had a play on fish and chips that were actually "sushi nachos," as former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh memorably noted in his review of Voice in 2008. But both Bank and Voice failed to draw large enough crowds to last. Walsh indicated that the prices at both restaurants were a problem, while others have consistently balked at downtown parking issues. I always believed that more straightforward food would play better to both downtown office workers and visitors occupying the hotel — travelers seeking more Texan food during their visit to the Lone Star State, as it were.
With Line & Lariat — which made its debut last summer following a brief redecorating of the stately dining room (the draperies are gone, but the columns and warm, rich gold tones remain throughout) — neither the pricing nor the excellent, highly accessible food is an issue anymore. Entrées and appetizers are all very reasonable, from a $15 Akaushi burger at dinner that's topped with sautéed poblano peppers and Green's Creek Gruyère to that $11 plate of Königsberger Klopse meatballs that's meant as an appetizer but is large enough for an entrée.
I like to think that parking wouldn't factor into things, either: There are at least 100 parking spaces within a one-block radius of Line & Lariat, all of which are free after 6 p.m. and all day on Sundays. Yet day after day, the dining room is quiet. The friendly waitstaff often seem so startled to see patrons that they're like wild hares, skittish and shy. They sidle up to your table with curious eyes and tentative smiles, and while the service can be shaky at times, it's much more refined and personable than the "What's up, guys, my name is Kevin; mind if I squat down here while I tell you about our jalapeño popper special?" model that's so frustratingly prevalent these days. I want to tame the waitstaff, to acclimate them to the presence of people. And so I keep coming.
Not that this is a hard task to accomplish. I feel lucky to live downtown and watch as the city struggles and thrashes in the throes of its ever-present growing pains to reform an urban nucleus that's been glued together and torn apart over centuries.
This most current incarnation, at least, features a light rail with a stop right outside Line & Lariat's front door and a plethora of options nearby to make a night of it: Walk off dinner with a stroll through the adjacent Market Square Park (or catch a movie on the lawn), and then grab a glass of wine at La Carafe or a beer at the newly opened Charity Saloon across Congress.
Truth be told, though, I'd rather stick around Line & Lariat for my cocktails. Although its wine program is a bit boring considering its well-equipped wine cellar (a private, subterranean room with a view into the kitchen that's perfect for entertaining clients or hosting special events), the bar has consistently made some of the most perfect Manhattans — no pun intended — in town since it opened last year. Its "Iconic Manhattan" series pairs whiskeys and ryes with unusual ingredients such as a vanilla-infused bourbon sporting dashes of peach bitters and Cocchi Americano.
The bar and restaurant also carry a nice selection of local craft beers which Luna incorporates quite successfully into his dishes, such as the Karbach beer-braised pulled pork that he heaps on a tostada along with queso fresco, crema and Cholula hot sauce. And a recent bowl of velvety, intensely Cheddary beer-cheese soup was the best example of the genre (which can too often be gritty, watery or bitter) I've had since the late, great Shanghai Red's.
It's no surprise, of course, to find the chef weaving so much of the Lone Star State into his food so effortlessly. Luna has my own pedigree beat — he's an eighth-generation Texan to my measly seven generations — and counts among his influences people like his fishing buddy, Caswell, and his grandmother, a farm girl from the Valley who sold tamales and made caldos in the winter before passing away in 2009. Luna is well known for his work as head chef at popular Inner Loop staples Shade and Canopy and for opening the successful Flora & Muse in CityCentre before taking over the top chef toque here at Line & Lariat.
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And it's here that Luna is at his most Texan, showcasing our state's bountiful surf and turf admirably — whether it be a Gulf-caught cobia with a clever radish salsa or four-footed beasts from South Texas: mighty, thick wild boar chops encrusted with a resonant flare of mustard studded with spicy seeds and Nilgai antelope with more of that lush red cabbage.
This is what strikes me as particularly interesting about the dearth of customers at Line & Lariat: Not only is Luna doing everything "right" as far as offering local products with housemade accoutrements — his pimento cheese made with Redneck Cheddar is better, even, than the Words & Food spread that's sustained me for years, and the housemade pickles, ruddy venison sausage and liver-laced boudin in a casing rendered crisp in a smoker that accompany the pimento cheese make for a truly Texan charcuterie plate — he's doing it out of a clear passion for the products themselves. This is not a restaurant that's hopped on the local farm-to-table bandwagon purely for profit. Line & Lariat showcases the best that Texas has to offer with Luna's smartly updated dishes, and it does so with sincerity.
If we lived in a perfect world, this would be enough for Line & Lariat to overshadow the two restaurants that have preceded it at the Hotel Icon and claim its rightful place as one of the best and most consistent restaurants operating in downtown or elsewhere in Houston. I really do believe that the third time's a charm for Line & Lariat. We'll see if Houston believes it, too.