The guajillo short rib tacos at Main Kitchen in the JW Marriott hotel are lovely to gaze upon. Pale crumbs of cotija cheese barely hide under a generous sprinkle of delicate cilantro microgreens. Underneath, dark pink and purple hues of pickled onion slivers and cabbage shreds peek out. The prize is deep in the center of the corn tortillas that encase it all: warm, rich, chopped beef.
Unfortunately, the tacos also exemplify how little details really make the difference between a dish that crosses the finish line as a winner and one that stumbles just before the end. The tortillas were barely warm, and the accompanying lime wedges were so dried out that barely a drop of juice could be coaxed from them. Fresh ones were requested, and a squirt of citrus proved to be the crowning touch.
Problems like these plagued Main Kitchen on each visit. Service and dishes alike were a wild seesaw: near greatness brought low by an unappealing counterpoint.
Aesthetically, Main Kitchen is a lot of fun to visit. The first thing that greets Main Kitchen's visitors in the lobby of the new JW Marriott is a clever art installation -- sort of steampunk meets sleek. A group of circles in different sizes is mounted on the wall. Three projectors beam images onto the cloud-shaped installation in a slow-moving, hypnotic pattern that doesn't repeat for a long time. It's fascinating and relaxing to watch from the lounge area, where guests can sit and sip cocktails or wine.
The lobby melds into the restaurant area in a seamless open setup. Walk up to the hostess stand near the bar and you're on your way inside, where big steel riveted support pillars run from the floor up through the top of the hotel. Leather chairs with gold-nailed upholstery and piston-shaped salt and pepper grinders on the tables accentuate the effect. There never seems to be a problem getting a seat. On each of our visits, the restaurant was only half full. However, it's in a hotel that hosts a lot of big events, so reservations are always a good idea, just in case.
Servers seem genuinely concerned about guests, periodically checking in to see if anything is needed. Yet service can also be sleepy and disjointed in the same visit, and it takes awhile to get the dining experience rolling.
During one visit, the staff were thoroughly engrossed in making the transition between breakfast and lunch, busying themselves with putting away service items and supplies near the kitchen area. It took about 15 minutes to get drinks. A server or two should have been left free to take care of guests.
On another visit, cocktail orders were taken before water glasses were filled. The latter happened a mere moment before the cocktails arrived, leaving us with nothing to drink for ten minutes.
In the middle of lunch, our server disappeared for about 15 minutes and we sat with a table full of used plates. Other waiters wandered by, never even giving our table a glance. If a server is going to be off the floor, the rest of the staff needs to be ready to pick up the ball. In highly functioning restaurants, all team members, even managers, help whisk away empty plates on tables they notice as they walk past. There's a culture of observation, alertness and communication. It's simply an efficient way to operate.
Main Kitchen's executive chef, Erin Smith, is formerly of Plonk! Bistro as well as the Clumsy Butcher group, whose establishments include Anvil Bar & Refuge, The Hay Merchant and Blacksmith. She helped create the menus at each of those places. When she's present at Main Kitchen, the food is on point and the service is snappier. We know this from prior, informal visits that we made just after it opened.
Unfortunately, Smith was absent during each review visit and things just didn't go as smoothly as they had during those earlier ones. Chefs are people. People need breaks and shouldn't have to be at work every day. It's up to the staff to carry on in exactly the same way as if the chef is watching over their shoulders.
The massaman PEI (Prince Edward Island) mussels dish is a don't-miss item -- an inventive combination in which the shells hold the curry broth and the little gem of meat inside eagerly soaks up the flavors of ginger, galangal, chile and coriander. It's also an example of how important the right type of serving dish is.
When Main Kitchen first opened, the mussels were served in a wide, shallow bowl, making it easy to get at both the shellfish and the broth. Now they're served in smaller, deeper bowls, making it an annoying scavenger hunt to get at the broth underneath the pile of mussels. Speaking of getting at the broth: It would be helpful for that dish to come with a spoon.
Plonk! Bistro, where Smith formerly worked, sports a stone pizza oven that does a remarkable job of turning out beautifully blistered crusts. Her love for and pride in top-notch pizzas has been carried forward to Main Kitchen. The pulled pork pizza was hands-down the favorite entrée. Underneath the melted cheddar and mozzarella, there's a spoonful of barbecue-sauced pork on every single slice, and it's a delight to work your way up to that perfectly meaty bite. The pork is accented with red onion, cilantro microgreens and an enthusiastic drizzle of "comeback sauce," which is a combination of mayonnaise and chile sauce -- a kissing cousin of Thousand Island dressing. It all works together beautifully.
There's a clever twist on green beans amandine. As with the classic rendition, there's a scattering of toasted almond slices, but these green beans are roasted and tossed with Japanese togarashi seasoning and strips of roasted red bell peppers. Ours needed a dash of salt, but otherwise the chile heat of the togarashi and the smoky sweetness of the green beans make for a winning combination. It's so wonderful to see inventive vegetable dishes showing up more often on Houston menus.
Conversely, the roasted carrots demonstrate no skill at all. Whole roasted carrots are something anyone can do at home, and these were both overdone and a bit cool when they arrived at the table. There was no garnish other than some irrelevant microgreens and a shallow pool of bland white "saffron yogurt" that brought nothing to the party besides moisture. There wasn't even a golden tinge from the saffron. There was supposed to be a "mint carrot top dust," but it if was there, it was not noticeable, unless that was what was contributing to the slight occasional sensation of grit. These carrots were the same price as the spicy mussels and more expensive than the interesting green beans. Either is a much better choice.
A baby romaine salad on the lunch menu hit near perfection. The leaves were petite enough to be left whole, so they lost none of their precious juices. Bits of crisped prosciutto lent salt and crunch. The one flaw was that the leaves had been left wet, so the buttermilk dressing ran off and collected in a watery pool underneath.
The high hopes for the interestingly named porcelet (which in French means "piglet") were dashed when the plate of five gray rounds of meat appeared, their color indicating that they had sat in a sous vide bath too long. They were dry, dry, dry, and there was no sauce to save them. The dark brown sear along the outside edges that was applied after cooking couldn't save them, either. The buttery accompanying spätzle dotted with mustard seeds deserves a more worthy dance partner. The pork was salvaged by dipping the chunks in the remnants of the leftover curry sauce that had thankfully been saved from the mussels.
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The menu at Main Kitchen is ambitious. Smith is working with local purveyors such as Houston Dairymaids, Plant It Forward and Black Hill Ranch to produce dishes that authentically represent Houston. Main Kitchen isn't serving the bland, overpriced dreck that is far too often excused because a restaurant is located inside a hotel and so has a captive clientele of out-of-town visitors who don't know where else to eat.
The valet for restaurant visitors is complimentary -- gratuity only -- for visits of up to two hours, making it super-convenient for locals to dine there. Guests who don't want to use the valet can drive just a bit further down Main and park in the garage or find nearby lot or street parking.
Main Kitchen wants to be not only a destination for travelers but one Houstonians will want to visit on their own. It has a good chance to succeed at this -- once it regains the peppy service and outstanding execution it had immediately after it opened.
Charred green beans $9 Baby romaine $10 Massaman mussels $14 Heirloom carrots $14 BBQ pulled pork pizza $15 Guajillo short rib tacos $17 Celery root gratin $16 Porcelet $28 Rice pudding $9 Chocolate hazelnut timbale $9