Morningstar is surprising. Sometimes it’s surprising in very good ways. Take, for example, the matcha sua da, David Buehrer’s tea-based spin on Houston’s favorite rocket fuel, the Vietnamese iced coffee. Evaporated soy milk sweetens vegetal, tannic matcha tea, turning it milky and cool, nutty and earthy and slightly oceanic. There’s a creamy, tempered sweetness that makes it eminently drinkable, revealing a subtle and nuanced bloom of flavors underneath. Matcha isn’t always an approachable drink for those unaccustomed, but this riff makes it downright crave-able.
That’s just one of many forms the ceremonial tea takes in Buehrer’s utterly original coffee and doughnuts spot, where you can spend a good deal of time enjoying the place without ever approaching either of those items. In Morningstar, these surprises serve to redefine the neighborhood cafe, and they do it surprisingly well.
Of course, matcha graces the doughnuts, too. An evocative gilding for a standard raised-and-glazed with just a bit more chew than you’re used to, the matcha frosted doughnut is just one of a revolving array of strikingly original doughnuts that set the options here apart from the herd, when they’re consistent. In the first weeks and months of Morningstar’s Kool-Aid Man entrance into Houston’s cafe culture, they weren’t. Custard fillings running out in thin rivulets after the first bite; dry and crumbly cake doughnuts that refused to allow interesting flavors to come through; glazes whose vibrant ROY G. BIV wasn’t enough to name them, which forced you to look back at the chalkboard to see exactly what it was you were eating.
Clearly, Morningstar has been working on it.
These days, the raised and glazed doughnuts are yeasty and light on their feet, the custard fillings deserving of that name, and the flavors clear and convincing with plenty of interesting twists. The cake doughnuts (a personal favorite style) still come dry more often than I’d like. On the whole, though, the doughnuts finally live up to their early hype.
Among the broadly rotating cast, the salted lime and chile pineapple fritter is a consistent standout. From its crunchy fried edges to its gently chewy interior, the fritter is a textural delight. Then, there’s the slightly funky fermented fruit flavor, tropical pineapple edging up to a sure but subtle chile bloom. It’s just a bit salty and stealthily savory. A masterwork, especially for those who don’t prefer their sweets to be so much that. When Morningstar’s doughnuts hit, they hit hard.
If you’re there for the doughnuts, you’re probably there for the coffee as well. If you’re at all interested in thoughtfully sourced, carefully roasted and artfully prepared coffee, it should come as no surprise that Morningstar’s is among the best in the city. Buehr-er has made his reputation changing the way Houstonians drink and think about coffee, and that fact is on full display at his newest venture.
The drip coffee is deep, mellow and expressive, with notes like peach, molasses and graham crackers, or flowers, citrus and melon, resonating through each cup. The espresso is intense, often boasting a vibrant clarity and notes of cherries and chocolate, sometimes veering off into digressions like blueberry or tobacco.
If you order an espresso at Morningstar, it may come with a little treat in the form of a couple of doughnut holes or a mini-doughnut culled from trimmings, following the rotation of the cafe’s offerings. The setup has also featured palate refreshers ranging from housemade aguas frescas to a shot glass of clean, cooling barley tea. If you want to enjoy your jolt more gently, Buehrer’s crew are masters of the cortado, equal parts espresso and steamed milk. The version here is dense and creamy, tasting of cocoa nibs and peanut butter taffy, rich and beguiling and just the right amount to serve both as instant jolt and lasting comfort.
If you’re not in it for doughnuts, and you certainly don’t have to be, Morningstar has you covered with an array of breakfast and brunch dishes that pull from the multicultural mélange of flavors that makes Houston such an engaging place to eat. Intensely flavored kibbeh crumbles nestle among unexpectedly crunchy rice, dehydrated and then fried for maximum texture. Feta cheese adds salt and funk, the whole thing tempered by the gentling rush of a soft egg, its golden flow softening some of the rice and adding a new layer of textural interest. Spicy, funky gochujang and zippy Japanese mayo inform the Moneycat potatoes, a trick cribbed from recently minted James Beard winner Justin Yu, chef/owner of Oxheart, who served them at his fondly remembered brunch pop-ups of the same name. The potatoes come frizzle-edged and downy inside, their earthy sweetness playing well against the spice and funk, an array of herbs lifting everything with a dill-infused grace note.
A lot of the items on the Morningstar menu either are, or can be made, vegetarian or fully vegan, a boon for a city inhabited by many who choose that path. Among those, the Valhrona chia pudding with granola, fruit and coconut milk is likely the best, and possibly one of the best things on the menu. I was just as surprised as you may be, and pleasantly so. The gently popping chia boasts a dusky, dark, resonant chocolate flavor that somehow manages to be haunting even while it’s emphatic. It’s not at all dessert-like, despite the moniker. Add crunchy, toasty granola and the bursting acidic sweetness from fresh, plump blackberries, and it’s a seriously interesting and evocative bowl of food, a pinwheel of flavors and textures, expected and unexpected. It’s decadent, but light and fresh-tasting at the same time. It feels like you’re treating yourself, but well.
There are biscuit sandwiches. The biscuits are fantastic, light and flaky with a wonderful contrast of textures inside and out, but the fillings aren’t terribly exciting. I want the bacon, egg and cheese option to live up to the Benton’s-bedazzled version at Buehrer’s Blacksmith, the intensely smoky bacon raising the whole thing beyond the sum of its parts. I want the honey and sambal mélange on the honey butter chicken biscuit to come across as less aggressively salty, even if I do like the way the blend morphs into a sort of Asian-inflected sorghum. Still, the biscuits are worth it.
I want a gentler touch on the aggressively seasoned Korean steak and eggs, whose flavors dim compared to the intense ginger involved. Tuck some tender beef (the gravy swaddling them needs a bit of textural tuning) into the smoky, funky kimchi tortillas, vibrant in shades of orange griddle-kissed with char. Add on your preferred array of banchan, from sweet-tart daikon to earthy and slippery bean sprouts or intriguingly fruity pickled carrots, and slide in a sliver of yellow-yolked sunny-side eggs, and the effect shifts, the ginger only one player in a multifaceted cast.
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More than any of the menu items, though, Morningstar is a place whose focus is on accommodation. It has what you want, and wants you to treat it as you will. Tuck into one of its secluded alcoves with a properly prepared cup of tea and a good book. Grab your goodies to go or linger as morning light filters in. Fill the long, communal table in the center of the room with some close friends and a slate of interesting dishes and doughnuts. Have a drink, have a bite, have a meal. Do it all in a delightful space that welcomes you immediately, and encourages examination and introspection.
Look for the gold-lined crack in the floor, a callout to architect John Zemanek’s love of kintsugi, a Japanese aesthetic tradition that values the character of imperfection. View the space from the vantages afforded by a series of brick-framed portholes, concentric glimpses into its life and thrum. Whether you do it with a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, a doughnut or a bowl of Chinese-vegetable-infused emerald rice, you’re sure to find something surprising at Morningstar, but don’t be surprised if what Buehrer is doing there becomes the least surprising thing in the world.
4721 North Main, 832 806-1115, instagram.com/morningstarhou Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Classic doughnuts $2
Original doughnuts $2.50
Filled doughnuts $18
Matcha sua da $4.50
Valrhona chia pudding $8
Biscuit with uncured bacon, Tillamook cheddar and egg $7
Honey butter chicken biscuit with sambal and pickles $7.50
Crispy rice with kibbeh, feta and soft egg $9
Korean steak and eggs $16
Moneycat potatoes $6.50