Texas on Washington
The night before Halloween was fairly quiet at benjy's, despite its location on Washington Avenue. Two Hamburglars — one male, one female — sat at the bar, sipping pints of beer, while a woman dressed as a Rubik's cube ambled around semi-awkwardly in search of her friends. They were upstairs, it turned out. And it turned out that all of the loud partying one would normally expect from a Washington hangout was upstairs, too. Downstairs at this new benjy's was serene, calm and home to some surprisingly amazing dishes.
That night, a friend and I were dawdling over a fifth of Jester King's Drink'in the Sunbelt Hoppy Wheat beer and the remnants of our meal. It had been so good that we were in no rush to leave, especially with some Halloween costumes beginning to trickle in the door. We'd already seen a sexy Hamburglar — what other treasures would the night hold?
We picked at the remains of our entrées, too full to continue but unwilling to part with them. The cobia sashimi with green apple slices and wasabi had gone quickly, the pearlescent, soft pink discs of fish gobbled down with just the barest hint of a soy vinaigrette on top. The shark-like fish is thick in Gulf waters and can be seen served as hamachi just as often as it's referred to as cobia. It's not in constant rotation, however; the sashimis served each day rotate out according to whichever fish the restaurant has in at the moment.
Much of the strikingly Asian-influenced menu is this way, thanks to Japan-born chef Mike Potowski. Aside from being steadfastly seasonal (the current menu is charmingly labeled "early fall," as if Houston has any other seasons than summer and February), benjy's is also keen to use local ingredients as often as possible. It doesn't flout this fact aside from a few T-shirts seen on staff members that read "Farm to Table," and it doesn't just talk the talk, like many other restaurants in town — benjy's actually uses roughage from Animal Farm, pork from Black Hill Ranch, cheese from Pola and Mia Bella, even beer from local breweries like Karbach.
It's refreshing to see a restaurant commit so quietly and unobtrusively to serving local food, and gives me hope that overused terms like "farm to table" and "locavorism" will one day fade away and that restaurants like benjy's will still be serving Texas pork and cheese when it's no longer fashionable to do so. It gives me hope that one day locally sourced food will be a given in our restaurants, and neither a curiosity nor an obsequious spectacle.
"As the farm-to-table movement ramped up, so, too, did the idea of restaurants printing their purveyors' names on menus as some sort of badge of locavore honor," wrote a frustrated Felix Salmon last week in Grub Street, New York magazine's food blog. "But even as the qualifying terms have become more vague, their ability to increase a restaurant's bottom line has gone up."
I don't get this sense from the local items at benjy's, in spite of the fact that the benjy's team — headed up by owner Benjy Levitt and partner Dylan Murray — has just opened its own Revival Market-esque store next to the original benjy's in Rice Village, a store called (appropriately enough) Local Foods. Because at the same time, benjy's doesn't hew so closely to locavorist dogma that it eschews quality ingredients sourced from far and wide.
Take, for example, the forbidden rice in my tofu entrée from that pre-Halloween night. It's pleasant enough to see a well-constructed, thoughtful vegetarian item on a menu, let alone to have it actually taste good. The onyx grains of rice were tossed together with curried cubes of tofu, green beans, cauliflower and candied pumpkin seeds in an autumnal dish that was kept light with bright leaves of cilantro but still hearty enough for a full meal.
My best friend and I traded our dishes back and forth, trying to decide which was better. I was ultimately more enamored of her beef udon with thick, juicy slices of rib eye in an oil-slicked broth that was thick with bok choy and slithery, slurpable noodles. Served with a fried egg on top, the udon was the epitome of Asian-inspired comfort food that night, washed down ably with glass after glass of the pleasantly hoppy Jester King on our table.
The beer director stopped by toward the end of our meal and checked out the 750-milliliter bottle, nodding approvingly at our selection. He told us that the restaurant had just gotten in (512) Brewing's latest anniversary beer, a Belgian-style triple. My friend and I looked at each other, paid our tab, then moved promptly to benjy's bar, where we ordered up another round — this time of the triple.
The downstairs bar area is small here, but that's because the action is all upstairs. Downstairs is where I'd prefer to be anyway, taking in the sweeping views of benjy's luxe dining room. Familiar touches from the now 16-year-old Rice Village location are found here — such as the studded, white leather chairs with seductively curved arms that line the bar and the semiprivate dining table at the front of the restaurant — but it's mostly a creature unto itself.
Whereas the Rice Village benjy's calls to mind mid-century Miami, this new incarnation is all grand ceilings, sleek wood and warm, natural tones. If I had to associate it with a city as well, this benjy's is Aspen to its older sister's Miami vibe.
It's welcoming and cozy but still achingly chic; I never feel like I'm dressed as elegantly as the other diners here, but I don't feel bad about it either. The modern wood chairs are gorgeous to look at — sculptures in and of themselves — but they're still comfortable. The restaurant mixes these two extremes easily, just as effortlessly as it mixes local produce with forbidden rice from Indonesia.
That's not to say that benjy's is without its stumbles.
A recent lunch revealed a few cracks in the facade, though not many. It started out well enough: Our appetizers were impeccable. Creamy, tangy, pistachio-crusted goat cheese cakes were served with crisped bagel pieces that were rendered wholly extraneous. "I don't want this goat cheese adulterated by any crackers," I joked to my coworker across the table. "These are the best things ever."
"No, these are the best things ever," he gushed over the plate of pillowy pork potstickers on his side of the table. They were draped with tiny, quenelle-shaped pieces of kimchi and sat upon a bed of cabbage soaked in a ponzu vinaigrette with hints of lemongrass and orange, totally removed from the greasy, leaden potstickers found in so many restaurants.
The wheels fell off with our entrées, however. His, a Cuban sandwich, arrived far too hot to eat. It still hadn't cooled off enough for us to eat without injuring ourselves by the end of the meal. We wondered how on earth you get a sandwich that hot.
A few bites — huffed and puffed upon until cool enough — were disappointingly bland. A Cuban sandwich should be a bold, swaggering thing, filled with pork and cheeky amounts of mustard and pickles. I could only taste the fat of the pulled pork inside, and none of benjy's wonderful house-made pickles. Luckily, those pickles are also served as a sort of amuse-bouche along with every meal, so I could snag a few and make it into a more substantially flavored bite.
My flatbread pizza fared the worst, however. When I read the ingredients to my coworker — short ribs, roasted tomatoes, crispy onions and a fried egg — his eyes lit up. It was a must-order.
The reality didn't live up to our expectations, though, as the pizza was heavily burnt around the edges and paradoxically soggy in the middle. It was too thin to even pick a slice of it up, as the short rib nubs and crispy onions would slide right off. The egg was fried perfectly, its yolk dribbling uselessly across the wooden pizza board almost as a final insult. I picked off the meat — soft and well-seasoned — and dipped it into the egg, trying to salvage the thing.
"At least it tastes good," offered my coworker. And I didn't disagree; the flavors were all there, just poorly constructed.
We turned back to our cocktails as we waited to pay the bill, Old School Spritzers heavy with bitter Aperol and orange liqueur. Aperol has a way of defusing and disarming me, and I was suddenly filled with more thoughts of those goat cheese cakes, the cobia sashimi, the beef udon with another perfect fried egg on top. And despite my burned pizza, I found myself filled with anticipation for my next visit. A good restaurant — and a good cocktail — will do that to you.
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