The first warning that a trippy time awaits diners who seek out Revolve Kitchen + Bar at Hotel Derek is the swirling magenta light pattern projected on the floor and the pink-and-purple cowhide lounger just outside in the lobby. Maybe this place started with a good idea but became something of a mishmash as it evolved to meet the needs of hotel guests who visit for everything from breakfast to late-night cocktails.
It’s unclear at first where the actual restaurant is, though. There is no sign and no doors, only a big, open bar area with high-top tables and tall bar stools. There’s a coffee table adorned with a metal tic-tac-toe set and surrounded by upholstered chairs. A large adjacent room features comfortable booths along the walls, which is where we chose to be seated, thinking it was the actual dining room.
It’s not exactly that, although it may have been that at one point. Running right down the middle aisle were not one but two pool tables. We wondered if some of the guys drinking at the bar would eventually wander over and spoil our quiet dinner by playing a few rounds right in front of our table. Should diners be warned about the potential hazard of flying cue balls?
In other big cities — especially those with highly walkable areas — some of the best restaurants in the world are found in hotels. It’s simply expected in Las Vegas, land of the celebrity chef restaurant. There’s Daniel Boulud’s db Brasserie in The Venetian, CarneVino in The Palazzo and Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand, just to name a few. In New York, there’s The NoMad, Covina at Park South and Locanda Verde in The Greenwich Hotel. Similar examples could be cited in other major metropolitans.
Houstonians, though, seem to have a cool, uninterested attitude toward most hotel restaurants, and, conversely, hotel restaurants don’t seem all that interested in attracting local diners.
Houston is a city of drivers, and the cost and inconvenience of having to valet or park in a garage is a big damper. On our visits, Revolve validated for valet service, which dropped the price from a hefty $19 to a still-hefty $7 plus gratuity. Revolve also validated garage parking, but the exit meter was malfunctioning, so it took ten minutes to get some help and escape.
Another reason for the lack of diner interest is that hotel food is often more expensive than what’s served at offsite restaurants but the value proposition isn’t clear. There seems to be an assumption that the diners at hotels are a captive audience, guests who are willing to pay for convenience. Often, hotels seem less interested in having a top-notch restaurant than in having an adequate cash cow. (Speaking of cows, there are painted bovines in Revolve’s lobby, too. It’s really a rather artsy, colorful place.) And so it goes at Revolve, which has a $45 tenderloin, a $32 pork chop and $18 pizzas.
There have been a few breakthrough hotel restaurants in Houston over the years. Deville at Four Seasons Houston enjoyed a heyday that included chef Tim Keating’s being named a James Beard semifinalist multiple times, then it was rebranded as Italian restaurant Quattro. At one time there was a good French restaurant in Hotel Sofitel. World-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Bank in Hotel Icon. When he decided to end his involvement in that project, it became Voice and retained a high level of esteem under chef Michael Kramer. That closed and the restaurant was rebranded yet again, as Line & Lariat.
It’s been a similar scenario at Hotel Derek. Revolve could refer to the revolving door of restaurants that have existed here. Initially there was French chef Philippe Schmit’s first Houston restaurant, Bistro Moderne. When it closed, the follow-up was Valentino, a fine Italian place helmed by chef Cunninghame West that featured exquisite house-made pasta.
Revolve has none of the culinary ambition of its predecessors. It’s a sad, weird, confused place that serves milky lattes to dine-in guests in paper Starbucks cups.
In one case, the weirdness extends to the food. The chicken-fried short rib bites arrive injected with plastic pipettes filled with gravy. The chunks of short rib, encased in a crunchy crust, are actually tender and tasty. The fatty layers of the meat absorb the gravy rather well when it’s injected. Still, it’s hard to get past the dish’s resemblance to Pinhead in the Hellraiser movies. Creativity should not involve sticking plastic vials into food.
Sometimes, there’s a dish filled with promise that’s thwarted by a single element. The spicy lamb and pepperoni pizza is complemented with toppings of roasted tomatoes, jalapeños, feta and mozzarella cheese. It’s a terrific combination that punches the palate with heat, saltiness and umami. Alas, the crust was so flat, boring, pale and lifeless that it could have come out of a box.
The dubious-sounding queso fresco-crusted tenderloin was the surprise hit. “Topped” might be a more apt term than “crusted,” but either way, a satisfying, stubby column of beef arrived at the table topped with a scarlet chile ancho-infused butter and a thick layer of snowy white queso fresco. The time under the broiler roasted the cheese and blackened it in spots. The surprisingly lush experience was enhanced with brothy rice decked out to an ardent green with cilantro and elegant spears of asparagus.
The chile güero poppers were interesting, and it was just a shame there were only two on the plate. Fat, pale green peppers were stuffed with a stretchy blend of manchego and Boursin cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and roasted until the tops of the peppers turned brown and the meat became crispy. These were served atop a dramatic, orange-red swath of romesco. The sauce incorporates roasted red peppers, and was a soulful companion for the pale green ones.
The menu has a selection of house cocktails, including a few classics like the old-fashioned. That particular drink is always a good test of a bar’s abilities. It’s a classic, it’s simple and every bartender should know how to make a good one. It arrived with a bright, pinkish hue thanks to the neon-red maraschino cherries that had been muddled into the glass. (Real maraschino cherries are naturally dark red.) As for the flavor, though, there was a much better balance between the bourbon and the sweet elements than was indicated by the cocktail’s appearance alone.
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There were a few craft beers on the list, but Revolve was out of the first one we ordered, 8th Wonder Brewery’s Rocket Fuel. Import bottles were listed as $6.50 each and included St. Bernardus Abt 12, an outstanding Belgian Quadrupel ale. That price of $6.50, of course, was incorrect for a bomber-size bottle. “This is $19.50. Is that okay?” asked the server when he returned. We pointed out the error on the menu, and he said, “That’s why I asked before I opened it.” We suggested it might be a good idea to update the drink list.
Revolve Kitchen + Bar’s setup might work for hotel guests who mainly seek a bar and a place to hang out with their friends. However, it doesn’t function well as a restaurant, and as it stands now, there’s not much incentive for Houstonians to go out of their way to visit. Should you find yourself there, though, try the tenderloin.
Revolve Kitchen + Bar at Hotel Derek
2525 West Loop South, 713-961-3000. Hours: 6 a.m. to midnight, daily.
Chicken-fried short rib bites $8
Chile güero poppers $9
Lamb and pepperoni pizza $18
Queso fresco-crusted tenderloin $45
St. Bernardus Beer (bomber) $19.50