What Did benjy's Ever Do To You?
Photos by Troy Fields
I hear benjy's gets a lot of flack. You've seen it too. It crops up here in the comments sections, on Twitter, in everyday conversations. I've honestly never understood it. And after reviewing benjy's on Washington this week, I understand it even less.
While I've had one fair-to-middling meal at benjy's, every other meal I've ever eaten -- at both the Village and the Washington Avenue locations -- has been solid, well-executed and enjoyable. Enjoyable. I'm always impressed with the kitchen's flavor pairings, with the effortless way Chefs Mike Potowski (on Washington) and Joseph Stayshich (in the Village) weave local products into dishes alongside brazenly exotic ingredients and the way that a steady thread of Asian influence is woven into otherwise Texan dishes: Korean tacos with Broken Arrow Ranch venison sausage, for example, or a beautiful, wasabi-accented sashimi made with Gulf-caught cobia.
To paraphrase Emerson, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." And consistency is rarely an issue at benjy's. Service is always easygoing, friendly and swift, your meal comes out prepared exactly as anticipated and flavors never bounce manically or jar the palate -- there is a smoothness and a calm to both the atmosphere and the food that I find imminently enjoyable.
Once again, enjoyable. Is that something we, as diners, don't look for anymore? A simple, enjoyable meal? Does everything have to blow back your hair like that tacky Trojan commercial that's actually an ad for vibrators (you're not fooling anyone, Trojan). That's one of the only reasons I can think of as to why benjy's is consistently knocked.
Another other reason I've heard bandied about is that the food is expensive. I disagree with this assessment, for two reasons.
Number one, good quality food isn't cheap. Ask yourself why a hashbrown and sausage biscuit at McDonald's is $1, not why locally-produced food from reliable sources is $15 a plate. I'm not one of those who thinks benjy's is expensive purely because of its chic clientele; I'm one who understands -- at least tangentially -- food costs, and getting what you pay for. And I'm one who supports big restaurants like benjy's purchasing from and supporting these smaller, independent farms that need the money more than ever during the Texas drought and the national recession.
Number two, benjy's isn't an everyday dining sort of place. To me, it's a casually upscale place to have a nice dinner with friends, or enjoy a pleasant date night. You generally pay more in these situations, and would do at other restaurants -- so why does benjy's get short shrift?
A final reason I've heard is that people simply don't like benjy's owner, the eponymous Benjy Levit. I've never met the guy. I don't know him from Adam, except that in my short time here at the Press with my ear to the ground, I've heard far worse things about far more popular restaurant owners -- and virtually nothing about Levit. But how I feel or don't feel about the owner has very little impact on how I feel about his restaurants.
They're good. They're solidly good. They're accessible, even if they look fancy from the outside. And they stock local brews like Karbach, which will be spotlighed tomorrow night at a Houston Beer Week dinner starting at 6 p.m. Karbach's array of beers will be featured with Chef Potowski's courses like smoked local sashimi, akaushi ramen and pork kalbi. It's as good a time as any to check benjy's out for yourself.
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