Weights + Measures sports a flavor bomb of a pizza. It's an imaginative rendition that's topped with carrots, of all things. The crust is simply perfect — thin and blistered on the edges with just the right amount of char. Thin rounds of carrots lend sweetness, an oniony sauce adds intoxicating aroma, and the inspired, unlikely addition of Veldhuizen Redneck Cheddar brings a friendly richness. At $13, it's an absolute steal.
So struck were we by that carrot pizza that we asked a server about the amazing flavors when we returned for lunchtime on a subsequent day. What were the seasonings? "Egyptian spices." "What are those?" "I'm not sure."
That was the end of the conversation, and there was no offer to find out the answer. It was a rare wobble in service here, which is nearly always informative, congenial and considerate.
The seasoning is, in fact, dukka (also spelled "duqqa"), a dry blend of ground nuts, seeds and spices, and it's listed right on the menu. Typical components are hazelnuts, coriander, cumin and sesame. It's a delightful addition of toasty spice and nuttiness. Carrots and dukka always go well together.
Weights + Measures is a fun, adorable space full of '70s kitsch. The comfortable spot is furnished with laminate tables and chairs upholstered in avocado—green fabric. There's a fabulous orange shag rug mounted to the wall in the bar lounge area and wood laminate end tables that could have been treasured finds in a resale shop. Anchoring the center of the dining room is a big rust-orange refrigerator.
Owners Ian Rosenberg, Mike Sammons (both of Mongoose versus Cobra and 13 Celsius), Heath Wendell (Slow Dough Bread Co.) and Richard Kaplan (Brown Paper Chocolates and the defunct River Café) have taken on quite an ambitious task. Weights + Measures is open from 6 o'clock in the morning until 2 a.m. in the wee hours. There's a full bar that's referred to as its own entity, "Love and Squalor." The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, late-night cocktails and small bites. Frankly, it deserves some recognition just for being a stable refuge that offers so many services, day and night.
Across the hall is the first standalone Slow Dough bakery, guided by the skillful hands of Wendell. The baked goods produced there are among Weights + Measures' best selling points. There are airy iced and filled donuts and hearty loaves of bread. Toasty slices of those loaves accompany several of the menu items (there's a section called "Bread" that's basically bread with fancy accompaniments), and Slow Dough makes pizzas, too. There's a very real danger of filling up on carbs here — be prepared to exercise a little restraint.
Big operations like Weights + Measures have a lot of moving parts, and the more there is to manage, the bigger the chance that something's going to be missed. As a result, the dishes here range from spectacular successes to spectacular failures.
Most of the dishes are plated so beautifully that they look as if they're ready for a photo shoot. The mushroom soup, a featured soup of the day, was an exception, but it was so dusky, creamy and generously full of mushroom chunks that the unappealing gray color was forgiven. Let's face it — it's hard to make an attractive mushroom soup and have it still be truly "mushroomy." Sometimes it's the "ugly" foods that taste best.
Dinnertime and happy hour seem to be when Weights + Measures is really on top of its game. It's bustling, yet service is sufficiently attentive and always polite. We were a little dubious about there being only two shrimp in the $16 shrimp cocktail until we realized that they were so huge that each one equaled four or five medium-size shrimp. They could not be more fresh or firm, and were quite enjoyable.
"One lady sent them back because she said they were too much like lobster," said operations manager Isaac Johnson. Well, some people don't know what's good when they see it. The hot horseradish cocktail sauce that comes with it may not be a new invention, but some classics don't need to be messed with.
We also admired the chopped liver and toast. Instead of being blended into a homogeneous, inoffensive pâté, the liver was left to be what it is: a blissful, chunky spread that incorporated some hard-boiled egg. It was allowed to shine on its own merits. The dish honored the ingredients for what they were, and toasty Slow Dough bread slices were congenial, equitable companions. In this case, the judicious amount of pickled radishes and cabbage alongside were perfect, their acidic contributions cutting and complementing the liver flavor like a charm.
At breakfast, it's best to stick with the pastries from the Slow Dough counter and coffee and espresso drinks from the standalone bar nearby. Weights + Measures uses locally roasted Amaya Roasting Co. coffee beans. (More than once we've spotted Catalina Coffee proprietor Max Gonzalez on site making deliveries of freshly roasted beans in the mornings.) A vegetable omelette with spinach and tomato one morning was remarkable only for how utterly bland it was.
Our lunch visit was so bad that it will be a long time before we consider returning at that hour. A beauty queen of a burger exemplified a truism — looks aren't everything. It should be pretty easy for cooks to avoid serving food that's been burned. Burned food is black. It's pretty noticeable. That didn't stop an acrid, bitter patty that should have been tossed in the trash from being served anyway.
Three mountainous heaps of vegetables surrounded the burger but were not assets. Two piles were pickles — cucumber and cabbage — and the third was a medley of roasted carrots, zucchini and summer squash. It's great that Weights + Measures makes its own pickles, but here's another truism: It's possible to go too far with anything. As far as the roasted vegetables went, they were overdone and devoid of texture.
Here's a mystery: Why make tuna salad from smoked, sushi-grade fish? If the fish is that good, why not let it shine? Made into a salad, it became bland and undistinguished. There was no acidic pop, nor any smokey taste or smell. It seemed simply devoid of any notable characteristics, except for a slight fishiness that did not speak of really good, fresh tuna. (A few of those pickles on the burger plate might have been put to good use here.)
There's an incredible selection of bottled beers and a sharp wine list that runs the gamut and yet is never overwhelming. While the program is certainly no clone of 13 Celsius down the street, it displays the same intelligent, passionate and witty characteristics. On the beer list are selections ranging from Danish brewery To Ø1 to Austin's Jester King and even Malka beer from Israel. The wine selection is equally as varied: Petit Verdot from Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles and the spectacular Hungarian dessert wine Royal Tokaji.
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Wine and beer are the safest choices here. A cocktail called "A Smallish Room" was supposed to have a sprig of charred rosemary, but it was dried out and didn't lend aroma. The Long Island Iced Tea Redux of moonshine, lemon, Coke and simple syrup could have been any kind of Collins variant. There just wasn't any one thing that gave it much personality, and it certainly didn't have the eye-widening strength of its namesake. A Negroni Bianco was nice enough, with gin, Cocchi Americano and hopped grapefruit bitters, but we couldn't figure out the appeal of the fossilized grapefruit slice used as garnish.
After several cocktail misses over a few visits, we asked a bartender what kind of off-the-menu drinks she liked or enjoyed making. "Oh, I like making anything," was the reply. We discontinued our quest for a good cocktail after that noncommittal answer. If the bartenders don't have something they're passionate about, how are customers supposed to feel?
Weights + Measures has several good things going for it, including a fun environment, an ambitious range of offerings, a stellar wine and beer program, and some dishes that will keep customers coming back. The breakfast, lunch and cocktail offerings and the execution are lacking and need to be brought up to the same sophisticated level as dinner.
2808 Caroline, 713-654-1970, weights-measures.com. Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Soup of the day $5 Daily omelette $9 Chopped chicken liver $9 Wood-grilled ground beef burger $12 Wood-grilled fresh sushi grade tuna salad $13 Baccala brandade + bacon $13 Roasted carrot pizza $13 Big shrimp cocktail $16 Papparadelle + pan-seared scallops $29 A Smallish Room cocktail $9 Long Island Iced Tea Redux $10 Negroni bianco $10