The "crispy skin snapper" at Reef, the hip new restaurant on Travis, was served in a bowl on top of a bed of sweet and sour chard. There was a sauce of "tomato brown butter" on the side. A dab of the tomato butter gave a slick, rich zing to each bite of fish. And the snapper stayed exceptionally moist thanks to the wet greens underneath it.
But it was the rectangle of crispy skin on top of the fish that put the dish over the top. By slow-cooking the fish skin side down on the griddle, chef Bryan Caswell managed to get the skin incredibly crunchy. The first time my tablemate cut off a bite of fish with a chunk of the fabulous snapper chicharrón attached and dipped it in the tomato butter, his eyes rolled back into his head and he groaned. I grabbed his plate and sampled some myself. The combination of crispy skin, moist fish and buttery sauce made it the best snapper I have ever tasted — a phenomenal, ecstasy-inducing piece of fish.
Maybe I was wild about the snapper because I was washing it down with the best Pinot Grigio on the planet. I had written about the Italian white wine-maker Jermann and their incredible Pinot Grigio earlier this year (see HouStoned blog, "Those Crazy European Whites," 5 Wines, April 9). But I can't afford to drink the stuff very often because it's too expensive. I have seen it offered for as much as $65 in other Houston restaurants. At Reef, I bought a bottle for the amazing price of $39.
Not only is Reef selling wine at near-retail prices, they are keeping it in an impressive glass-enclosed wine storage facility that forms one wall of the dining room. I can't think of another restaurant or wine bar in Houston that keeps their wines in temperature-controlled storage and sells them at these kinds of prices.
Reef's dining room is rectangular, with a giant plate glass window looking out on McGowen forming one of the long walls. The other long wall is the glass of the brightly lit wine storage room. It feels like you are sitting on the inside of an enormous fish tank — which is a pretty clever concept for a restaurant named Reef. The retro light fixtures, wavy blue wall treatments and concrete floors work well with the look.
The restaurant is owned by Caswell, who served as the chef de cuisine at Bank by Jean-Georges in the Hotel Icon, and Bill Floyd, who was Bank's manager. The two partnered up to open Reef when Bank changed ownership. Bank was one of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's lesser efforts in a city that the globe-trotting chef seldom bothered to visit. Reef is an intensely local restaurant that caters to our city's culinary eccentricities.
Recently, I ate at Vin, another new downtown restaurant with a highly touted chef who had just moved here. The waiter recommended the salmon and the halibut because Gulf red snapper is so "hit or miss." As I read over the generic fine dining menu, I wondered what this restaurant was doing in Houston, Texas.
But the waiter had a point. Sadly, commercial fishing has nearly wiped out the Gulf red snapper, and the season for it is extremely limited in Texas. But that doesn't mean we have to eat Alaskan fish when we want seafood.
Caswell, who grew up in Houston, used to do a lot of fishing. Fishermen understand the treasures of the Gulf of Mexico in a way that non-fishermen never quite get. There are a lot of fish in the Gulf, like cobia and tripletail, that are incredibly delicious but only occasionally available due to limited commercial fishing. Other species, like croaker and wahoo, are abundant and underutilized. And then there are a lot of excellent fish from other parts of the Gulf, like pompano, grouper and amberjack.
At Reef, chef Caswell is changing the menu every day to take advantage of what's available and putting on a Gulf seafood clinic. The last time I visited Reef, the menu included snapper carpaccio, jumbo shrimp wrapped with bacon and stuffed with avocado, spring rolls with shrimp, and jumbo lump crab cake on the appetizer menu. Gulf seafood entrées included wahoo with plantains, tripletail with artichokes and onions, amberjack with asparagus and orange mustard, as well as the crispy skin snapper.
But Caswell isn't just giving Gulf seafood its much-deserved props; he's also paying homage to the whole spectrum of influences that makes food taste like it came from Houston.
On one visit, I had grouper served with a sweet corn pudding, a fresh, spicy pico de gallo and a grilled peach — a sweet, hot summer tribute to Gulf Southern cooking. There was also a seafood hot pot on the menu that could have come straight from a Houston Vietnamese restaurant.
On another visit, I had the carnitas in raita for an appetizer. The Mexican-Indian fusion sounded weird, but tasted fabulous. The pork chunks were authentically boiled in lard until they were wonderfully crispy, then slathered in salsa. Eating carnitas at a fancy restaurant never made much sense to me since you can buy great ones at a carnicería for next to nothing. But the smart topping of Indian raita, with its mouth-cooling yogurt and cucumber, gave these carnitas an added dimension.
My tablemate had the jumbo crab cake, which was a big disk of lump crabmeat in a thick battered crust served with what the menu called "taquería-style pickled vinaigrette." It tasted like the lightly pickled cabbage slaw called cortadito that you get with your pupusas in a Salvadoran restaurant.
These might sound like odd combinations, except in Houston, where we eat Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Salvadoran and Gulf Southern cooking all the time.
Reef was hideously loud when I first visited. I couldn't hear the waiter, my tablemate or anything else above the din. This problem was expensively solved by coating the ceiling with some kind of noise-deadening gunk. It's much quieter now.
The food isn't all perfect. Coming from the Jean-Georges school of French fusion cooking, Bryan Caswell goes a little light on the seasonings sometimes. The flounder, which was served over truffled polenta with mushrooms, was dull. But the only total clunker I've had was the spice-crusted chicken. The bland crumb coating was as dry as a mouthful of dust.
My remaining beef with Reef is the wine service. On my second visit, I tried to find another white wine that was as good a deal as the Jermann Pinot Grigio. I asked the waiter if I could speak with the "wine guy." The waiter said there was no sommelier and that he was trained on the wine list.
So I told him I wanted a white wine with lots of acidity — something lemony to accent the fish flavors. And to make things easy, I told him I was trying to choose between the three Albariños on the list. He told me that Albariño was a light wine with little acidity and that I should look at the Chablis instead.
Obviously, the waiter didn't know his coccyx from a corkscrew. Albariños are Spain's favorite seafood wines; they are very tart. I asked him which Albariños he had tasted, and he admitted he hadn't tasted any of them. So I told him I wanted to talk to somebody who knew the list a little better.
He sent over co-owner Bill Floyd. Floyd insisted he wasn't a sommelier, but when I mentioned I wanted a good tart Albariño, he immediately waxed eloquent about the Morgadio, which proved to be one of the best Albariños I have ever tasted. It has a wonderful clover honey aroma and a dry crisp finish, and at $28, it was roughly half the price of the Chablis the waiter was pushing.
With their shockingly low prices, perfect temperature-controlled storage and a selection of wines that customers can't find anywhere else, Reef should be the best place in the city to drink wine. But it's not, because they don't have a "wine guy" to help you decipher the list. I hope they fix this annoying situation.
But these are just quibbles, since Reef has so much else going for it. The interior is cool but not lavish, the waitstaff wears blue jeans and the bar menu includes the trendy little hamburgers called sliders, all of which gives the establishment a relaxed vibe. And while it's not cheap, it's a better deal than most.
The restaurant has only been open a couple of months, but it's already hard to get a table on the weekend. Caswell is reeling them in with his imaginative new take on Gulf seafood. If you have never tasted tripletail, wahoo or snapper with a crispy skin, it's time to come and get it.
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