What the Deal, Lucille's?
I'm not going to lie: I began to eagerly anticipate the opening of Lucille's a year and a half ago. Back in May 2011, chef and owner Chris Williams told me that he expected to be up and running within a few months. He planned to "redefine Southern cuisine using all the flavors picked up in Europe," and I planned to visit this new Museum District location as often as possible. After all, aside from the ultra-pricey Monarch at the Hotel Zaza, a Cafe Express in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a build-your-own-burrito place — Bodega's — tucked into the first floor of a hospital, Houston's beautiful Museum District is otherwise eerily bereft of restaurants. I couldn't wait for Lucille's to come in and shake things up.
A year went by and Lucille's showed no signs of opening. The old bungalow Williams and his family were converting into a restaurant proved tougher to renovate than they previously thought. But finally, at the end of this past August, they announced a soft opening. By early September, I was enjoying my first meal inside a spectacularly revamped and thoughtfully built-out dining room full of guests who seemed as eager as I was to be there. And what a first meal it was.
A plate of pork and beans was the first signal that Williams was truly "redefining" Southern cuisine, as it were, arriving not as a campfire-style dish of pinto beans and pork nuggets but instead as a shallow bowl filled with vibrantly green fava beans surrounding a pork shank large enough to bludgeon a man with. His European training blazed forth in a sweet-and-sour agrodolce reduction that cleverly mimicked the tangy taste of old-fashioned pork 'n' beans from a tin can, slicing neatly through the fattiness of the pork shank and further enlivening the garden-fresh fava beans around it.
His crunchy fried green tomatoes — a staple of the genre — did not disappoint, either. And as someone who routinely makes them at home, I appreciate the fine line one walks to get the cornmeal breading to adhere appropriately to the tart tomato slices without becoming gummy or tough. Williams's neat row of tomatoes were fine examples of the classic dish, especially when taken with the peppery buttermilk Ranch dressing drizzled lightly across the top.
Even the shrimp and grits — commonly ruined in untrained hands — were perfectly constructed, with a deft balance of flavor and texture throughout. The grits were creamy instead of gloppy; the shrimp were plump and fresh; and a bright, almost citrusy butter reduction and a handful of watercress on top tied it all up in a terrific little package. Between the food and the wisely priced wine list (a bottle of Barnard Griffin Cabernet, for example, was barely marked up over retail), I couldn't wait to return.
And then something went terribly wrong.
Lucille's is named after Chris Williams's great-grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith, a culinary pioneer who owned U.S. Smith's Famous BBQ in Fort Worth and helped establish one of the first college-level commercial foods departments in the nation at Prairie View A&M University. To name your first restaurant after your great-grandmother — especially one as well-respected as Lucille Bishop Smith — is to set very high expectations for yourself. And over the course of three visits, it doesn't appear that Williams is quite living up to those standards.
For my second visit, I wanted to take my own 88-year-old grandmother — as solidly Southern (well, East Texan, although the two are interchangeable) as they come and as well-seasoned a cook as you'll find in the Piney Woods. Lucille's was closed on the day of our visit, however, and I was chagrined. It turns out that I shouldn't have been; I wouldn't have wanted my grandmother to even so much as look at the food I ate the following night. I have never had to apologize to a friend — this one from up north, excited to taste some Southern cooking — as profusely as I did on that Saturday night.
My oxtails were tough and undercooked, missing the promised side of "bruleed sweet potato gratin" and served in a confusingly named sauce termed "aspirations" on the menu. I still don't know what "aspirations" are meant to be, but judging by this dish, they are a collection of ratatouille-esque vegetables coated in a thick, cloyingly sweet sauce.
My boyfriend's "pan-roasted chicken" hadn't a single sear mark on it and looked as if it had been boiled in a pot of water, with a bit of pepper thrown on top. His "fingerling hash" consisted of a few cold, barely cooked potatoes, and his "garden terrine" was kale with ice chips still clinging to the leaves. Only the 45-minute egg was any good, but what a waste of a golden yolk. What would we have swiped through it? The uncooked potatoes? Or the bland, tough chicken?
My Yankee friend's burger was perhaps the worst offender, however. An order of "medium" resulted in a burger cooked to a charcoal briquette consistency, while her fries were cool and mealy and smacked of freezer burn. Even the famous Lucille's chili biscuits had arrived tiny, cold and tough, the quickly congealing shreds of cheese on top forming a unappetizing, gelatinous bond with the cool chili underneath. If I was embarrassed at the thought of my own grandmother eating these biscuits, Williams should be even more embarrassed at butchering his own great-grandmother's signature recipe in such a way.
Could the kitchen get nothing right on this Saturday night? It could not — not even a glass of iced tea, that most basic of Southern staples. It tasted as though someone had confused tea bags with beef bouillon cubes (although my dining companions disagreed; they both said it tasted like a leather belt). I tried unsuccessfully to send it back a first time, only to be told by our waiter that it tasted funny because the chef had infused it with mint from his garden. "Try putting some sugar in it," he offered before retreating.
Sugar only made it worse. And my replacement glass of iced tea wasn't any better.
Unbowed by that disastrous dinner, however, I was determined to have a good time during my third visit to Lucille's. I still had visions of those shrimp and grits dancing in my head, that succulent pork shank and those sweet fava beans. And during that third and final visit, I saw glimmers of the first Lucille's that I'd met as I spent a lunch lazing over watermelon salad and the same excellent fried green tomatoes that wowed me in September.
Yet I lingered over that meal only because the kitchen was so slow to get everything out. What should have been a quick visit stretched to nearly two hours. My friend's burger arrived looking much better (and bigger) than before, although it was cooked well-done instead of his requested medium-rare. The fries were warmer but still mealy. And the watermelon salad contained an excellent array of produce, but the dressing held no acidic punch at all and instead tasted simply oily.
My apple and Brie panini fared better — and I was heartened to see a fun vegetarian option on the menu — but it needed the same bright punch that the salad dressing was lacking. Tarter apples would have done the trick, or even a chutney of some kind (Williams has proven himself capable of making a great tomato chutney, which is served — unfortunately — with those mealy fries at dinner). And while the apricot bread pudding that was the one and only daily dessert on the menu was good, it had clearly been carved out of some refrigerated pan and given a too-long turn under a too-hot broiler; the edges were crispy, while the interior was still cold.
The lackluster lunch (and the long breaks between courses) gave me pause to stop and worry over a few other areas in which Lucille's is cutting corners. The open rafters, dark wood and cute retro fabric on the banquettes along the wall are all inspired interior-design choices. Ditto the fireplace in the rear room and the tile inlay bearing the Lucille's logo in cheerful cornflower blue that greets customers from a far wall as they enter. But the kitschy centerpieces on each table — a squatty candleholder filled with glass rocks and the type of chile pepper-infused oil dispensers so often found on sale at Ross or gathering dust on kitchen counters — did nothing more than take up space and bring the whole room down with their implied cheapness. The same effect is achieved by the tacky, Kirkland's-style prints in the fireplace room and the fake ivy on its mantel that detracts from an otherwise lovely feature. And while I may be the only person in Houston who cares, I can't stand the wooden chairs that look rescued from a restaurant which closed in 1998. They stand in such stark contrast to the clean, modern Southern revival appeal of Lucille's dining room as to be completely bizarre.
Such brutal honesty, however, is borne out of a desire to see Lucille's succeed. Williams seems a perfectly affable guy, and his kitchen — helped along by sous chef Khang Hoang — has plenty of potential. But with a place that sets expectations as sky high as Lucille's, the only thing that's going to keep them grounded is to slow down. Take a deep breath, step back and take one thing at a time — surely and deliberately — until it's perfect. (And I suggest starting with that burger. Line cooks should be able to grill a burger. Period.)
As it stands right now, Lucille's is already busy constructing a second addition to the restaurant a mere three months after opening — U.S. Smith's BBQ, Beer and Garden, which will occupy the backyard and serve an entirely separate menu — so that whole taking-one-thing-at-a-time thing seems unlikely. Meanwhile, Williams has been crashing through the restaurant each time I've been, a whirlwind of a man whose tornado-like presence will do one of two things with Lucille's: Whip it into shape or leave it in tatters. Which of those scenarios is more likely remains to be seen.
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