The Taste of Trying
Take a spin through Sorrel's bright and busy space in our slideshow.
Sorrel Urban Bistro is one of the most earnest restaurants I've ever encountered. It wants to be loved, and seems to almost bend over backwards in its willingness to earn your goodwill.
Its dining room is airy and open, inviting in its stark white-and-wood casualness, its simple blown-up photos of plaintive sorrel leaves dancing close to the ceilings, or giant turnips as sculpture on the long bar — decor that anxiously conveys its modern farmhouse cuisine with a Texan twist. The bar is friendly and accommodating, offering skillfully made cocktails and locally concocted wine with equal aplomb. Its almost all-male waitstaff is all smiles, crisp white aprons and guileless charm. A brand-new menu is printed twice a day — once for lunch, again for dinner — with brand-new dishes on each run and an interesting historical fact of the day across the top. The kitchen is open in so many literal and figurative ways that it has closed-circuit television monitors throughout for those patrons who wish to examine and approve of the cleanliness of the grout between the tile as much as the painstaking plating of a dish of diver scallops.
So why is it that I find myself straining to only like Sorrel instead of love it? It's not just the overeagerness — that's not a crime in and of itself. The dining room truly is one of the loveliest to come along in a while, equally beguiling by day or night. And the food under chef Soren Pedersen can be truly inspired. But in its exhaustive efforts to be so accommodating, Sorrel falls short in many crucial areas.
Sorrel prides itself on obtaining pristine food: the freshest produce from area farms like Warfel and Animal Farm, the freshest fish from the Gulf. "The red snapper just came in 25 minutes ago," my excited young waiter told me on a recent Tuesday night. I wasn't too clear about what else would be involved in the dish other than a lemon beurre blanc and some crab meat — the menu was rather vague on that point, as it tends to be too often — but his excitement over the fish was infectious. I ordered it.
The snapper arrived looking like a piece of eiderdown under a fat feather pillow of blue crab. It was cooked perfectly, a word which is often overused but not in this instance. A delicate pool of satiny beurre blanc sat underneath. I could not wait to eat this fish. But before it even hit my tongue, I knew something was wrong: My lips were already burning with the sting of saline.
The poor fish had been salted as if to be hung and dried. To add insult to injury, it had been peppered to within an inch of its life, too. I imagined a panting, discarded pair of salt and pepper shakers in the kitchen having been emptied of all their contents onto this now-wasted piece of fish. I tried a few more bites, but it was ruined. In an attempt to salvage the meal, I went for the crab on top. It was full of shells, too many to spit out to make eating it worthwhile. The beurre blanc underneath? It was a masterwork.
A New York strip steak that same night suffered as well: gristly and tough — even for that cut — and cooked to a disappointing medium despite a request for medium-rare. And the roasted vegetables we ordered on the side were mostly unidentifiable, as if they'd been put into a steam room instead of an oven, overly peppery like my fish and tough like the steak. Were they parsnips? Turnips? Radishes? The world's worst potatoes? Our waiter was no help in that department, either.
But our appetizers had been dazzling: a salad of freshly torn Animal Farm greens in a bright, citrusy vinaigrette, and plump fried oysters served with a surprising Mornay sauce on the side along with their own little salad of greens and sliced apples (neither of which was mentioned on the menu). And dessert — a lovely, pale slice of lime semifreddo served at just the right temperature with a piece of nut brittle as its sole flourish — nearly made up for the entire affair.
It's this odd inconsistency within not just visits, not just meals, but dishes — stunning saucework under a mauled piece of fish, as one example — that mars Sorrel. And it extends to those odd menus, too.
During a weekend lunch, I eavesdropped on a neighboring table as my friend and I awaited our meals. (My friend, like nearly every other person I've taken to Sorrel, was distracted by the TV monitors showing the kitchen activities and arguments — don't take your Hell's Kitchen-loving friends there if you're hoping for a conversation along with your meal.)
The woman at the next table was seated alone, trying to navigate her way through the tricky weekend lunch menu. There were a few standard items on there — a burger, a roasted quail that seemed to be the most popular dish of the afternoon — but nothing was grouped into identifiable areas such as appetizers or entrées. It can be a little tough to tell what you're ordering here sometimes, and the price doesn't always equate to an appetizer or a main course. She aired my own thoughts aloud to her waiter when she told him in a meek voice: "I just don't know what I'm doing here." Then, pointing to something on her menu: "Like, is this a full meal?" She questioned him further on a few ingredients, seemingly exasperated.
Sorrel isn't for everyone, in that regard. Not everyone is going to be charmed by seared duck breast on blue corn blini or flounder with vodka-spiked basmati rice and a cantaloupe salad. To each their own. But for those of us who are intrigued by such menu items, Sorrel should make it a little easier to tell what we're ordering. The dinner menus and the weekday lunch menus are more helpfully constructed, with standard "starters" and "main courses" sections, so this shouldn't be tough to do on the weekends, too.
That day, for instance, our waiter told us that a flatbread with sorrel pesto — the same lovely pesto that's delivered along with Texas olive oil and a sun-dried tomato pesto with your bread service — was "more of an appetizer." We ordered it only to find that it was enormous, and better suited for a main. The flatbread was good for a few bites, then the pesto became overpowering, its oil soaking the bread through and through. We turned to our main courses.
My roasted quail was beautiful, stuffed with purple potatoes and wilted, red-edged Swiss chard that made for a striking rainbow on the plate. The potatoes, however, turned out to be mealy and overcooked. My friend's burger with white Cheddar was equally lovely on the plate, but also overcooked — a shame, as the salty-sharp white cheddar and simple dressing of farm-fresh lettuce and tomato were otherwise fetching. His burger came with an enormous side of pommes frites — which would have been nice to know before we ordered a side of the fries, which turned out to be completely extraneous.
"Why didn't the waiter tell me my burger came with fries?" my friend despaired of the twiggy frites that now covered our table. The waiter had been exceptionally helpful in our cocktail selections — an excellent "skinny" guava-rum concoction for me, a summery hibiscus margarita with black salt rimming the edge for my friend — but fell short when it came to the food, just as the kitchen often does.
It recalled my first visit to Sorrel many months ago for brunch, when the waiter had neglected to inform my friend that her "breakfast sandwich" would actually be deconstructed and — when finally assembled by her bleary, angry hands — the size of an English tea sandwich. Nor had the waiter told my other friend his "biscuits and gravy" were actually of appetizer size, measly half-dollar-size biscuits topped with drizzles of gravy. You don't do that to a hungry Texan boy expecting a full breakfast.
Thankfully, Sorrel seems to have remedied its portion sizes since then, and the frustratingly misleading menus do actually show signs of improvement as well.
On a recent weekday afternoon, I went for the $24 three-course "Innovation Menu," a lunch tasting menu that I'd recommend for both its value (Sorrel can otherwise be quite pricey, in spite of reasonable beer and wine prices) and its inventiveness.
Like the rest of the menu, it changes every day due to Chef Pedersen's whims and the food's own seasonality, but this most recent incarnation saw tender duck confit shredded and draped atop fat chunks of fried green tomatoes for a first course that was large enough to function as a main. The entrée itself — marsala-spiced diver scallops on top of cilantro-saffron rice in a creamy pan sauce — was my favorite dish at Sorrel to date. The scallops were seared off but still pillowy inside, the saucework again outstanding. Simple lime sorbet carved into abstract roses finished the meal on a third high note, the entire lunch a triumph.
It's meals like this in which I can really see the appeal of Sorrel, and which make me eager for return visits — with caveats firmly in place. Perhaps the reason I'm harder on Sorrel for its consistency issues is that I feel it should know better: This is a slick operation, with a chef and an owner who both know their way around the business. Owner Ray Salti is responsible for the extraordinary Ray's, a modern hunting lodge-style restaurant in Fulshear, and the Danish Pedersen has a strong pedigree to back up his classical European style blended with a smartly updated take on farm-to-table dining. They both have the chops to make this work; I just don't know what the disconnect is.
Take away those silly TV monitors in the dining room, trim down the opaque menu a bit and make the dishes that remain more transparent. Keep it as fresh and simple as the sunny dining room — the right ingredients are already there, after all — and I think Sorrel could become a knockout. Just stop trying so hard, kid, and be yourself. You're already halfway there.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.
More Food & Drink News
- Houston's 5 Best Weekend Food Bets: Labor Day Weekend BBQs & Brews
- Upcoming Houston Food Events: A Saint Arnold and Original Ninfa's Meeting of the Minds
- Openings and Closings in Houston: Pour Society And A Newly Announced Speakeasy
- 100 Favorite Houston Dishes 2015, No. 62: Oxtail at Le’ Pam’s House of Creole