New Digs, Old Tricks
In 1924, the year the Sam Houston Hotel first opened, Damon Runyon was America's best-read journalist. With an incredible eye for detail, Runyon depicted boxers, gamblers and criminals in a lurid, slangy prose style that caught the spirit of the times. He described housewife/ murderer Ruth Snyder, for instance, as "a chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins "
Runyon would have loved this window table at the Riviera Grill in the newly renovated Sam Houston Hotel. The glass is tinted so that the people outside on the street can't see you. They pass within inches of your nose, completely unaware of your existence, and hence, totally unself-conscious. My dining companions and I look over the Sunday brunch menu while we watch a guy in camouflage pants and a backward cap walking a bright blue lunch bucket to work. A basket of pastries and muffins is served with the coffee, but we decide to start with a bowl of chef John Sheely's fried calamari.
The Houston Press first discovered Sheely and his squid back when his restaurant occupied a former Souper Salad location at Westheimer and Gessner ("Secret Success," October 5, 1995). "I am unexpectedly blown away by the most mundane appetizer on the menu, fried squid with a surprisingly sweet edge to the batter," wrote reviewer Janice Schindler. Our order arrives just as two corpulent female bus drivers in bright white Metro uniforms amble by outside, loudly exchanging gossip.
I, too, am surprised by the sweetness of the calamari. The squid are bathed in milk to tenderize them, reported Schindler, and then coated with graham cracker crumbs. The calamari are now also tossed with a sweet chile sauce as they come out of the fryer, the waiter tells us, so they're even sweeter than before.
In the April 1997 issue of Southern Living magazine, Dana Campbell called the Riviera's fried squid "honestly the best I've eaten."
"Sheely's calamari must be the best in town," agreed the Press's Michael Berryhill when the restaurant moved to its second location, a Radisson Suites Hotel at I-10 and the Beltway ("Hotel Haute," October 23, 1997).
And in the May 1998 issue of Southwest Airlines' in-flight magazine, John Mariani wrote, "Sheely's fried calamari have become quite famous "
There is no doubt that Sheely can fry squid. But like mozzarella cheese sticks and buffalo chicken wings, fried calamari have fallen into the abyss of formerly trendy appetizers that are now eaten primarily at Red Lobster. You'd think the chef would be famous for something else eight years after he was first reviewed in the Press. But he seems to be dragging his squid around with him like a security blanket.
My dining companion was already halfway through a Heineken when I sat down for my first meal at the new Riviera Grill. I spotted what I wanted on the menu right away, a frisée salad with a poached egg and chicken livers to start, followed by a brined and grilled pork chop with bacon cabbage slaw. I was thinking a hoppy English ale would taste good with that, or maybe a Sierra Nevada.
"What kind of beer do you have?" I asked the waiter.
"I don't know. That's the first one I've served in the month I've been here," he said nodding toward my friend's glass. The waiter didn't move, indicating that he had no intention of going to find out what kind they had, either.
"Well, they're probably on the list," I said reaching for the wine list.
"No, there aren't any beers there," he replied, still not moving. "Don't get me wrong, I like beer myself. But the clientele here drinks wine."
I was flummoxed. But I held my tongue. Obviously, if I was going to write about this restaurant, I was simply going to have to drink wine. A Riesling wouldn't be bad with cabbage and pork, but the wine list didn't offer it by the glass. I settled for a Côtes du Rhône, and my friend got a glass of Beckman Sauvignon Blanc. The wines came to the table in tiny carafes, only to be pointlessly repoured into wine glasses.
"What's up with the fussy service?" my friend asked when the waiter left. "Somebody put my napkin in my lap when I sat down, too. I don't need anybody's hands in my lap."
My salad arrived, but it was not at all what I had expected. A jumble of greens mixed with bacon and chicken livers and topped with a poached egg is a fairly common salad in France, and one I've come to love. With its zillions of tiny interwoven leaves and resilient, scrubby density, frisée is perfect for the job. Unfortunately, the Riviera Grill sautéed the greens into a sodden lump.
On my first bite I encountered something unpleasantly crunchy. On my second bite I deduced that the grit between my teeth wasn't coarsely ground pepper -- it was sand. I sent the salad back. The replacement wasn't sandy, but the combination of goopy poached egg, goopy lightly cooked chicken livers and goopy frisée was altogether too much goop.
My friend started with the excellent roasted beet and goat cheese salad, a Sheely signature item that also appears on the menu at the chef's less expensive Mockingbird Bistro. For his entrée, he selected an off-menu special that the waiter described as another Sheely signature dish: a piece of sea bass crusted with chile and served over a tomato ragout.
I would have liked this dish a lot more if it had actually been a firm-fleshed sea bass, but the vapid taste and texture indicate the waiter has left out the word "Chilean." I don't like it, but many writers have raved about Sheely's Chilean sea bass.
Gourmet magazine also loved Sheely's "superb pork chop with bacony apple slaw " While the slaw was pretty tasty, I found the pork to be nothing special compared to the juicy chop you can get at the Daily Review Cafe. Maybe I just had a bad attitude because I was drinking a glass of flat, oxidized red wine from the bottom of the bottle instead of the ale I really wanted.
My dining companion's Beckman Sauvignon Blanc was much better: a crisp, lemony wine that's perfect with fish. Unfortunately, when I examined the check later, I discovered that although the wine is offered for $7 a glass on the Riviera's wine list, it was billed at $9.
We finished with Sheely's warm chocolate tart, a molten masterpiece. Unfortunately, it took more than 20 minutes to arrive. The waiter explained that the new chef was having trouble getting it right. We weren't charged for the dessert.
On my second visit, a companion and I split a clever foie gras club sandwich, a big slab of fresh foie gras seared and served between diagonally cut toast slices. For the main course, she ordered Sheely's much- mentioned seared scallops served over white bean puree with roasted fennel. The scallops were sweet and firm, and the soft fennel, with its aromatic hint of licorice, was a delightful complement. The bean puree, on the other hand, was way too slimy to eat.
I got an outstanding porterhouse steak with Stilton and port wine sauce over horseradish "mashies." The Riviera Grill is the first place I've tried dry-aged Black Angus beef, and although it's a notch below dry-aged USDA Prime, it's a big improvement over regular Black Angus.
We finished with a cheese selection that turned out to be a big disappointment. A miserly slice of Reblochon was forced into the dessert spirit with a lot of fruit and syrup. "Please, let the cheese be cheese," I railed to my dining companion, who was busy scoping out the interior. Talk about cheesy, she said, of the glitzy "linear chandelier" hanging from the ceiling in the boring beige-on-taupe dining room.
Just then I noticed the frisée salad with poached egg on somebody else's table. The greens weren't cooked this time. "Hey, that's my salad!" I wanted to jump up and shout. Instead, I just demanded an explanation from the waiter.
"Don't you usually cook the greens on that salad?" I asked.
"No, the poached egg just wilts them a little," he replied.
I wondered briefly if I was losing my mind. A more logical explanation is that the chef was having a hard time getting the frisée right, too. While there are lots of great dishes on the Riviera's menu, too many of them are getting screwed up. Perhaps the organization is stretched thin staffing two restaurants, and we're simply suffering through the new employee training period. Sheely is a trouper, and I suspect he eventually will rise to the challenge. But after eight weeks in business, the new location of the fabled Riviera Grill seems to be struggling.
After the calamari, one of our brunch threesome orders eggs Riviera -- a variation on eggs Benedict with prosciutto instead of Canadian bacon, topped with a tomato confit and Choron sauce (hollandaise tinted with tomato). The potato hash served on the side of the eggs is disgustingly watery, but otherwise the dish is excellent. My other companion gets the banana-walnut waffles with Nutella. The big Belgian-style waffles are too dry, but that's remedied with plenty of syrup.
I try an innovative brunch dish, one I've never seen before: two fried eggs served over cassoulet. Cassoulet is a slow-cooked stew of white beans with pork and sausage that is native to the southwest of France. There are many variations -- some recipes call for duck confit or goose, some call for mutton -- but every version requires that the beans be baked in a crock until a crust forms on top and that the crust then be broken several times and stirred into the stew to thicken it.
Unfortunately, what they call cassoulet at the Riviera Grill is more of a bean soup. And while a couple of eggs served over top of a thick bean-and-sausage stew sounds great, fried eggs on top of a bowl of brothy soup isn't a good idea at all. I struggle to sop up some yolk with toast but finally give up.
Score it one decent entrée out of three, and a golden oldie for an appetizer.
In the milieu of exit ramps and access roads out by the Beltway, the Riviera Grill was a hidden gem. "Sheely soars above his surroundings," observed Gourmet. "It's unusual to find a restaurant of this caliber in the faintly plastic-looking confines of a suburban Radisson hotel."
The owners of his new hotel home no doubt encouraged Sheely to do exactly the same food here. But the Sam Houston doesn't seem to know how to make an urban statement. It's attempting to appeal to the business market on the basis of its "contemporary design" and "ultimate luxury." This is the kind of marketing you'd expect from a chain hotel in the Galleria area, but it doesn't make any sense in this seedy, Runyonesque downtown neighborhood. The uptight Riviera Grill is half a block from one of the city's classic dives, the Union Station Tavern, and right across the street from the marvelously run-down Londale Hotel. Like Times Square in New York, or San Francisco's Tenderloin District, this is a wild urban atmosphere with its own peculiar cast of characters -- such as the duo that's looming large in the window right now. A grizzled Hispanic guy in an NYPD T-shirt is walking with a mountainous blond in a feather necklace and a shirt that can't seem to stay buttoned. She rears back and laughs so I can see all her teeth.
In some ways, the owners of the Sam Houston Hotel have bravely ventured out beyond the pale. The area they're trying to help revive still looks as rough as New York's Tribeca did 20 years ago, when only artists braved the Warehouse District and they kept their wits about them when they did. What a great place this could have been for a bar full of people in black leather jackets and an edgy restaurant with dishes that Houston had never seen before. But ultimately, neither the would-be boutique hotel nor its restaurant is exuding enough cool to pull off the urban pioneer thing.
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