The twice fried hot chicken, a.k.a. Korean fried chicken, at State of Grace is a crispier, saucier and overall better version than some examples at other places that claim to specialize in the dish. One diner was so impressed with the moist chicken revealed under the brittle crust that he said to the server, “This chicken simply could not have been cooked better!” “I’m so glad you like it,” she said happily. “Some people don’t seem to know how to eat it.”
There’s nothing to fear. It’s just fried chicken, only stickier. State of Grace even provides warm towels and lemon for the aftermath. Some messy foods just have to be embraced — or at least, firmly grasped.
State of Grace is one of the hottest restaurants in Houston at the moment. It’s all hustle and bustle. Reservations are both highly recommended and annoying to obtain. No one answered repeated calls to the restaurant. We took a chance as walk-ins during lunchtime and waited for 15 minutes. That is a reasonable wait time — except for people who have only an hour for lunch. For dinner, we succumbed to the online reservation system.
State of Grace is named for the placid image of a deer in a meadow standing perfectly still. That’s a marked contrast to the actual atmosphere. At times it feels as if the place is getting crushed under the weight of its own popularity, and some of the guests plowing through the doors with a sense of entitlement aren’t the easiest to deal with.
The first man who was supposed to be seated at the table next to us complained that it was too small and asked for a different one. The couple who ended up there bitterly complained to the server about the noise level. “This is my first and last time here,” the woman declared, loud enough for surrounding patrons to hear. “We’re just ordering one dish and leaving.” The funny thing is, she didn’t, apparently too charmed by the food to follow through on the threat.
She wasn’t wrong about the noise level, though. By 7:30 p.m., it was hard to talk to dining companions across the table. That was despite the fabric-covered panels inset into the windows all around the main dining room. It’s not like the restaurant isn’t making an effort. There’s just a whole lot of people in there.
State of Grace’s popularity means that ingredients or special requests may be forgotten, as were both the fried egg and the bacon on the lunchtime burger we ordered. Sometimes servers are taking care of so many people that it’s 20 minutes before they make their way back around. It’s undeniably hard to find qualified restaurant personnel right now, but if a place is having a difficult time keeping up, maybe it shouldn’t fill every seat. It’s better to be able to give 100 people excellent service than 150 people adequate service.
State of Grace otherwise reflects the placid name, with high ceilings; a long bar that just seems to go on and on; a dark private dining room; and a brightly lit, semicircular oyster bar. The vast main dining room is adorned with big, modern chandeliers. The staff are talented and personable, and the menu is full of genuine affection for Houston.
Proprietor and chef Ford Fry grew up here, and State of Grace is located across the street from Lamar High School, his alma mater. The food perspective is a wise reflection on some of our most notable cuisines — Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Tex-Mex. The presiding viewpoint is reminiscent of Underbelly’s theme, “the story of Houston food.”
After attending the New England Culinary Institute, in Vermont, Fry worked in various fine-dining establishments, relocated to Atlanta, then built a vast restaurant empire in Georgia. Including State of Grace (his sole Houston outpost — so far), he now owns 11 restaurants — with more on the way. In 2012, John Mariani of Esquire named Fry’s Atlanta restaurant The Optimist “Best New Restaurant of the Year,” and the chef has been nominated for the James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur award every year since 2012. (No one will be surprised if he’s nominated again in 2016.)
That means he’s a busy guy, so someone has to be in charge of the kitchen. At State of Grace, that person is Bobby Matos, formerly of Tony Vallone’s restaurant, Ciao Bello. (Matos’s former boss brought suit after his departure, alleging the chef was in violation of his noncompete agreement. The matter was quickly dropped after some undesirable media attention.)
Matos is a well-respected chef, has been in Houston for years and is perfectly suited to carry out Fry’s vision of multicultural cuisine adapted to a sophisticated yet unfussy setting. By far, that vision plays out best in Fry’s tributes to down-home Tex-Mex. (He has an entire restaurant in Alpharetta, Georgia, that’s an homage to long-departed Felix Mexican Restaurant, unambiguously named El Felix.) The cheese enchilada “a la Felix” would give any other in Houston a run for its money. The best part (besides the hot, stringy cheddar) is the chili. This is not a chili “sauce.” It is chili — meaty and thick enough to bathe a hunk of warm enchilada.
The “queso” Oaxaca, adorned with hen of the woods mushrooms, is every bit as decadent. Wrapped in the warm bacon fat tortillas served alongside, and spiced with a bit of the accompanying Mexican-style pickled onion, carrots and jalapeño slices, it’s a luxurious piece of heaven.
The wood-roasted bobwhite quail is like sharing a nod and a wink with the chefs once the diner realizes that it’s served moo shu-style. The quail is bathed in a good amount of thick, sweet and savory hoisin sauce and garnished with fresh cilantro and pink and white-tipped radishes cut into perfect matchstick slices. When the realization strikes that all this dish needs is some Chinese-style pancakes, lo and behold, there’s one waiting underneath the quail’s bed of tangy, spicy cabbage kimchi.
State of Grace can be added, as well, to the growing list of restaurants that specialize in fine seafood — and not just that from the Gulf of Mexico. At happy hour, a select variety of oysters such as Hillard Blooms and bluepoints, both from Long Island Sound, are just a dollar each. Also very fine was the Southern-influenced shrimp-crusted flounder. The crust was rather unyielding to a fork, but the tender, moist fish was worth fighting for. A pleasant mix of field peas, bacon, mint and diced carrots in a buttery broth added a warming, homey note.
Less successful are the more tentative takes on Asian cuisine, like the Gulf Coast tom yum. It’s not a bad soup, but it’s definitely not tom yum, which is most notable for its breathtakingly spicy heat, fragrant kaffir leaves and sharp punch of lime. State of Grace’s is more like a consommé made of shrimp shell stock with some fresh seafood tossed in.
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The beer list has a few gems, like Freetail Brewing’s Bat Outta Helles and Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan ale, but not many. Craft beer drinkers will get bored quickly. There’s a wine list sufficiently varied for the eclectic menu, but the real gems are the cocktails. All are uniformly cold and balanced. Diners can choose either bourbon or brandy for the silky Rodeo Milk Punch, with cream, vanilla, sugar and nutmeg. La Parilla is like the best of Mexico in a single glass, with roasted serrano-infused reposado tequila and orange liqueur glistening under a smoked-salt rim. There’s a float of mezcal that complements the smoked salt but doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the drink.
State of Grace is sure to grow into the role of an essential Houston restaurant, but it may take a little more time. There are great ideas and palpable ambitions here. For now, the best bet is to visit during off-peak hours (with a reservation) until systems get a little more streamlined. Ultimately, this is the ideal way to experience Ford Fry’s temple of Houston food culture at its most graceful.
State of Grace
3258 Westheimer, 832-942-5080. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. (Happy hour menu available from 3 to 6 p.m.) 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Various raw oysters $1 (happy hour only)
Cheese enchilada “a la Felix” $8
Queso Oaxaca $12
Twice fried hot chicken $12
Gulf Coast tom yum $13
Butter burger “Carpet Bagger style” $14
Wood-roasted bobwhite quail $24
Shrimp-crusted flounder $26 lunch/$28 dinner