The 19th Oasis
The grouper is crusted with wasabi and decorated with cucumber slices arranged to look like fish scales. According to our waiter, this is the top-selling dish here at Shade, the popular restaurant on 19th Street in the Heights.
It's easy to see why. The moist, meaty fish is full- flavored, but it's the accompaniments that create the excitement. The fish sits in a nest of stir-fried napa cabbage, bean sprouts, carrot and chive shreds and julienned wonton wrappers -- all of which combine to form a noodlelike mass that absorbs the spicy and pleasantly tart Thai red-curry-coconut sauce that fills the bottom of the bowl.
The tuna appetizer features slices of fish served over a bed of mustardy microgreens tossed in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Combined with the crunchy little lettuce sprouts, the oily tuna, which is coated with cinnamon, cloves and anise, is bold and refreshing. But the tuna is partially cooked, and the slices are fairly thick, so the menu's "Chinese five spice-seared tuna carpaccio" might not be an accurate description of this incredibly tasty appetizer. (In other restaurants, tuna carpaccio means thin slices of raw sushi-grade tuna topped with olive oil and capers.)
But at Shade, the kitchen is mixing things up in some fascinating new ways, so let's cut them some slack on the nomenclature until the wasabi dust settles.
Names aside, both Asian-fusion fish dishes are knockouts. But just when you think you've got Shade's menu typecast, chef Claire Smith widens your eyes.
For an entrée, I debate between the grilled chicken breast served with a dark-meat chicken enchilada in chili gravy and charro beans, and the chicken-fried pork chops. I finally go with the pork chops.
The two bone-in chops are battered and deep-fried long enough to get the golden coating gloriously crunchy. But the pork is cut thick enough so that the meat's still juicy. They're served with triangles of fried cheese grits and strips of sautéed collard greens. And instead of the expected cream gravy, the dish is lightly napped with that all-purpose Texan sauce: ranch dressing.
Tex-Mex, Southern cooking and Americanized Asian fare may not sound like they belong on the same menu -- until you consider that these are everyday foods in Houston, Texas. It takes a chef like Claire Smith to put them together and make something startlingly new.
The direction Shade has taken reminds me of what Smith did at the Daily Review, her earlier local restaurant. There, she made us appreciate American comfort-food classics like chicken potpie and pork chops with apple sauce by making them taste fondly familiar and, at the same time, fabulously reinvented.
In fact, some of the dishes at Shade reprise the Daily Review treatment. Take the grilled beef tenderloin, which is the closest thing you'll find to a steak at Shade. It's a straight-ahead meat-and-potatoes meal that's clearly intended for the least adventurous of diners, and yet it still harbors a few clever surprises.
The medium-rare beef is served on what looks like a pile of green beans. But in fact, they turn out to be julienned snow peas. And the roasted red potatoes aren't as simple as they look -- they're actually hollowed out and stuffed with a mixture of onion and cheese. On the side sits barbecue sauce made with dried ancho chiles.
Shade, which opened last December, had a bumpy start. When I first stopped by this spring, it seemed that Smith hadn't found her focus yet. I tried her "trio of soups," a tasting portion of three, and found little to like about any of them. I had a hamburger that was shaped like meat loaf and served on an oversize roll. In a variation on the old round-hole/square-peg dilemma, I couldn't get the meat and the bread arranged into any semblance of a sandwich.
I looked over the dinner menu on that visit but saw little that tempted me. There was no discernible concept -- it was a cacophony of international ingredients, all competing for attention.
Today, Shade has hit its stride. There are lots of cultures represented, but the flavors are distinct. Sure, there's some fusion going on, like when Smith uses duck confit to stuff an Asian spring roll served with a Vietnamese dipping sauce. But you don't find three or four languages employed to describe a single dish. There are Southern dishes, Tex-Mex dishes and Asian dishes on the menu, each served with a Claire Smith twist.
At Daily Review, Smith reinvented classic American comfort-food dishes. Here at Shade, she's broadened her approach. Now she's upscaling comfort foods from all the cooking styles of the Gulf Coast. And she's doing it brilliantly.
It's a sweltering afternoon, and I have a hankering for an icy martini. My favorite gin, Beefeater, is sitting right there behind the bar. Shade didn't have a liquor license when it first opened. Now it's licensed as a private club, which means you have to become a member before you can get a drink. It doesn't cost anything, so it's no big deal. I admire the dining room while I wait for the bartender to reappear.
I heard a lot about the minimalist design of Shade before my first visit, but this isn't the sort of minimalism I was expecting. I think of Monica Pope's new restaurant, T'afia, with its bare-brick walls and frosted-acrylic tables, as minimalist.
T'afia, in turn, is reminiscent of the extreme minimalism of New York architect Richard Meier, who designed Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant 66. And if you ask me, 66's monochromatic white walls, blank surfaces and shadow-box bar (you see only the silhouettes of the bottles behind a frosted Plexiglas wall) have all the warmth of a hospital operating room.
Shade is nothing like that. Architect Ferenc Dreef's style is much more relaxed. The bold, clean lines of the wooden divider between the bar and the dining room remind me of Danish modernism. The look is echoed by a sleek, room-length banquette upholstered with a retro-looking green fabric. The hardwood floors are a warm reddish hue, and the walls are painted a cool, fresh pea-green.
The playful lighting fixtures look like suspended lamp shades, and some of the wooden ceiling braces are exposed. Large glass vases full of twisty bamboo sprigs sit in a series of window niches. The tables are linen-less and covered with a slate gray Formica. Be it minimalist, modernist or some other "ist," the space is as inviting as deep shade on a hot, sunny day.
Claire Smith's smart, engaging cooking style, the restaurant's fabulous interior design and the casual stylishness of the eccentric Heights natives who frequent the place have all combined to make Shade one of the hippest restaurants in the city. There were few decent restaurants in this neighborhood to begin with, and now that Shade has one of the only bars in the otherwise dry Heights, it shimmers like an oasis in the desert.
Finally the bartender reappears, and I lick my chops over the prospect of a cocktail. "We'll just need to swipe your ID," she says. Evidently the method of joining this private club is to give the bartender your driver's license and let her swipe it to put you on the computerized membership list.
To my immense aggravation, food critics can't hand over their IDs in restaurants if they hope to remain anonymous. So I don't get a cocktail after all. You, on the other hand, will probably have no trouble getting served at Shade's fashionable bar. Do me a favor: Please order a slushy Beefeater martini there on a hot afternoon, and let me know how it tastes.
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