One is a highbrow full-fledged restaurant -- a "brick-and-mortar" place, to use the parlance of the day -- owned and operated by heavyweight restaurateurs. The other is a cobbled-together food truck, ephemeral and fleeting by nature here in Houston, where the City actively targets mobile food vendors and where many trucks go under for reasons purely of their own creation.
Both, in this case, happen to serve some of the finer foods in life: steak tartare, filet mignon, lobster risotto, bone marrow service. Yes, two of those things come from a truck. If you're a regular reader of ours, you'll recognize the latter two as coming from The Modular, a tin can truck which is often camped out at a hipster dive bar on the edge of Montrose.
The first two come from Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar. And I inadvertently pitted the two establishments against each other on Friday night. Although not terribly surprised by the outcome -- in fact, I sometimes fear that we start to sound like broken records around here, constantly expressing dismay that the city's great cooks aren't cooking on a regular enough basis -- it stood out to me as representative of all the things both wrong and right with our city's culinary scene right now.
The long and short of it is this: I got a better meal for far less money and fussiness at The Modular than I received dining under beautiful but terribly expensive lampshades at Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar in West Ave on Friday night.
Our waiter at Ava was mostly absent, but aggressively pushy when he made his infrequent stops at our table: "Whaddya want to drink. You want a Pinot Noir? You want a Cabernet? You want a Syrah? Here, this one's good. Get this one," he rapid-fired as he pointed at the most expensive glasses in each category. The steak tartare and my four-ounce filet mignon were good, sturdy dishes, but my friend's asparagus salad and duck pappardelle were both woefully underseasoned and -- in the case of her entree -- dessicated and tough (yes, both the duck and the pasta). For the trouble of our time at the Schiller-Del Grande group's latest restaurant, we paid $132 (including tax and tip).
And we both left hungry, chuckling about the old Annie Hall adage of "terrible food," and "in such small portions."
Although we didn't intend to wind down at Grand Prize that night, the hipster dive bar ended up being our last destination, and we got there just as The Modular was about to shut down. We got their last meal of the night: a bowl of lobster risotto, garnished with fat ovals of claw meat and served alongside a whole lobster, as well as the now-infamous "marrow trough," a cow femur split in half, roasted and served with parsley salad and toasted slices of baguette.
There was no pomp and circumstance to this punk rock-plush meal. Instead of aggressively-sold glasses of wine, we sipped on some contraband sake aged in virgin Hungarian oak barrels, the unmarked bottle of sweetly buttery rice wine passed around like mother's milk. (I know exactly what this sounds like, but bear with me.) We told off-color jokes, loudly, and handed our plates directly back to the men who'd filled them after we were done. The cost per person of this feast? $26. $30 if you throw a few bucks in their jar for a tip.
But nightly feasts like these in the back of Grand Prize won't last forever (remember the Ghetto Dinners?). While restaurants can have a good run of maybe four or five years if they're lucky, a decade or longer if they're really great, food trucks have a markedly shorter expiration date. The menus at "gourmet" food trucks like The Modular usually don't stay the same either, due to the capricious nature of their owners and the fact that buying in bulk isn't always a possibility for guys with no walk-ins let alone any group purchasing power.
In addition to these elements and the continuing determination of the City to keep food trucks tightly regulated through exhaustive permitting processes and ever-increasing fees, the City also seems determined to make it difficult for small businesses like independently-operated restaurants to thrive inside the Loop -- the core of the city -- with revamped parking regulations that favor big-box retailers and restaurants.
It's not the big guys like the Lonnie Schillers and the Robert Del Grandes of the world that need help: They have the buying power within their core of high-end restaurants to purchase food inexpensively; they have the funds to construct extra parking or pay for rent in expensive developments; they have the customer base after years of riding the crests of Cafe Annie and Del Grande's acclaim as one of the founders of modern Southwestern cuisine.
It's the little guys that need the City's help -- it's the fast-disappearing food trucks and the small, jewel box-like restaurants and, yes, even the neighborhood bars.
To name only a few: It's the folks at Uchi trying to bring modern Japanese cuisine to Houston while salvaging a piece of our local history or the trio behind Oxheart attempting to showcase our own Third Coast cuisine on a national stage.
It's the guys at Hay Merchant trying to ignite an already-smoldering passion for craft beer in the city or the burger geniuses at The Burger Guys attempting to work their way into the Loop with a second location on a shoestring budget.
It's chefs like Lyle Bento at The Modular or Justin Basye of the Les Sauvages dinners or Michael Kramer of Felix 55 and Voice or dynamic duos like Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan or Randy Rucker and Chris Leung struggling to find a secure, lasting place in our city's culinary firmament, fighting for finances against restaurants run by large national chains or restaurateurs who are no longer interested in pushing things forward and are simply content to rest on their laurels.
And it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the impact that these small, inexpensive food trucks and chef-driven dinners are having on the city. Witness Alison Cook's recent three-star review of Melange Creperie, a food cart that the Chronicle's star system ranks as "excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city." One of the best restaurants. Or the fact that chef dinners -- even months-long series such as Les Sauvages or Pilot Light -- are selling out every single seating (whether the cost is $35 or $135), despite the recession taking its toll on half-empty brick-and-mortar dining rooms across the city.
It may be a slow process, but the way that Houstonians are eating is gradually changing. No longer willing to pay just for a name or a scene, savvy diners are looking to pay instead for an experience, for thoughtfulness, for passion, for creativity and for a more communal eating experience in which few if any boundaries exist between patron and chef.
These people -- these diners and chefs -- are the future of Houston's culinary scene. And places like Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar represent the past.
There's room for both, of course. Ignoring Houston's past would also mean ignoring James Coney Island or Ninfa's or Brennan's or any number of noteworthy, landmark restaurants that have made the city what it is today. We are lucky to have the shoulders of giants like Robert Del Grande upon which to perch and see further into our future. The challenge isn't in de-emphasizing the impact these places have had on Houston.
Instead, where the challenge lies for us as Houstonians is in playing dual roles: To be stewards of our own history every bit as vigorously as we embrace our city's future. For some, that means starting organizations like OKRA (the Organized Kooperative on Restaurant Affairs), an independent collaborative that aims to combat political and regulatory issues affecting small bars and restaurants, or encouraging letter-writing campaigns to city officials.
For others, like me, that means spreading roasted bone marrow onto a piece of toast in a dark bar past midnight, my own small part to support the little guys. It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.