The State of Things
When The Confederate House changed its name in June, an era ended in Houston. The oil paintings of Confederate generals are gone now. So is the CSA memorabilia. The State Grille (2925 Weslayan, 713-622-1936), as the restaurant is now called, has a new interior design and a new menu put together by executive chef Scott Atlas. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Atlas continued his studies in Italy. It was there that he met the new manager of The Confederate House, which had been purchased by Damian's owners Frankie B. Mandola and Joe Butera. Atlas became the chef when the group took over in 1999.
Q. So what are your plans for the menu?
A. We've kept things very traditional. We're trying to make the transition as easy as possible on our regular customers. We try to phase in some new stuff while keeping the spirit of the place.
Q. That's funny. I thought you were trying to change the spirit of the place. Didn't you think that the name and the paintings of Confederate generals looked racist?
A. It wasn't intended to be racist. The generals were part of history, and you can't erase history.
Q. Really? Do you think that the Confederate flag flying over the state capitol of South Carolina was just there because it was a part of history, or do you think there was some symbolism?
A. I think it was antiquated. But I never thought of Confederate House that way. I'm Jewish, I didn't see the Confederate House stuff as a symbol of racism. But we certainly don't want to alienate ourselves from the city. That's why we took down the sign that said, "We reserve the right to refuse service" -- that was part of that old mentality.
Q. That said, there was something wacky about the atmosphere at the old Confederate House.
A. Yeah, the ashtray in the shape of a Confederate hat by the fireplace and some of that other stuff was way beyond Southern history. It was kooky.
Q. Did you eat at the old Confederate House?
A. Yeah, I went for lunch once. The food was great. It had a certain flair, but it didn't keep up with the times.
Q. What did you find outdated?
A. There was a tomato aspic on the menu; that was getting pretty tired. Some of these elements went back to the original menu in 1949. We kept the "trio salad" when we took over -- it's a plate with fruit salad, shrimp salad and chicken salad. We just took it off the menu when we changed the name.
Q. Did anybody complain?
A. Not that I know of.
Q. So what did you add?
A. We've gone to fresh seasonal ingredients with a little more regional Texas and Gulf Coast flair. We've added a T-bone and a filet topped with blue cheese. We've also added some nice fish, fresh Gulf red snapper.
Q. I had the red snapper served with lemon butter and tomato.
A. Yeah, it's very simple. At dinner we top it with some crabmeat.
Q. As a C.I.A. grad, aren't you a little frustrated with this kind of food?
A. There are other things I'd like to do, and we're changing slowly. As a chef, I feel it's part of my job to educate the public about food. But you can't throw all of your food ideas on people all at once. You have to bring them along a little at a time.
Q. So what's on your dream menu?
A. I'd like to get into wild game this fall. We have a lot of hunters and fishermen in the place, and I think they would respond well to it. And meanwhile we might get people to try new tastes.
Q. How would you serve venison at The State Grille?
A. Maybe grilled venison chops with mushroom risotto and a cherry reduction? I don't believe in getting complicated -- that's when food gets contrived. I don't want people to wonder what they're eating. That's something I've learned from Italian cooking.
Q. Do you think you'll ever serve Italian dishes?
A. We may mix some Italian elements in here and there as time goes by. We've got red pepper risotto with prosciutto-wrapped shrimp on the menu tonight. It's served with a balsamic vinegar and chipotle pepper reduction -- a little Southwestern, a little Italian. I hate to use the word fusion, but that's what it is.
Q. We've got a fusion culture in Houston.
A. That's what we are as a culture -- and that's what we're trying to bring to The State Grille.
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