Rumors have been swirling for weeks of The Rockwood Room's imminent demise. Yet a dinner at the swanky, Rat Pack-y joint on Wednesday night left me not only curious about the basis of these rumors, but also pleased by a meal fit for Frank Sinatra.
The first time I tried The Rockwood Room over a family brunch, I was unimpressed. At that time, the restaurant had only been open a few weeks and Ryan Hildebrand -- executive Chef Michael Dei Maggi's talented right-hand man -- was still there. Hildebrand has since left for the high-profile executive sous chef position at Textile under Scott Tycer, which is what appears to have led to the rumors of things turning sour at The Rockwood Room.
But if The Rockwood Room is supposed to be dying a quick death, no one told the diners. The restaurant was packed, even on a Wednesday night, and with a lineup of regulars who all seem to have made Dei Maggi's place their second home. I caught up with the newest sous chef, Greg Lowry, at the bar as I waited for my dinner to come out.
Lowry just moved back to Houston from Austin, where he had been shepherding the Hill Country installation of Max's Wine Dive, and then a wine bar called Mulberry. When he got the call from Dei Maggi to join the team at The Rockwood Room -- with whom Lowry had worked for a few years at the original Max's Wine Dive -- he hit the road back to Houston as quickly as he could.
The team in the rest of the kitchen -- a retinue of porkpie-hat wearing, hard-working, friendly guys like Brandon Allen and Matt Bohring and one eye-rolling female pastry chef, Elizabeth Stuart -- have all worked with Dei Maggi at one point or another in their careers, and have rallied behind their chef.
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The camaraderie in the kitchen appears to be paying off, as I came away quite happy with my dinner that night: Coca-Cola-braised pork belly with Shiner Bock sauerkraut along with a large serving of hand-cut French fries. The fat chunk of pork belly glistened with promise as it was set in front of me; it didn't disappoint. The sweet acidity of the Coca-Cola glaze cut the fattiness of the meat, while the crispy skin provided a welcome crunch of texture against the layers of soft, white belly. The rich malt of the Shiner Bock just barely shone through in the sauerkraut, which I felt could have benefitted from more of the Texan beer, but it was nevertheless a nice complement to the pork belly.
The fries, too, were a welcome accompaniment -- crisp and hot, with just enough coarse salt coating them. The tomato chutney with bright coriander seeds served in place of ketchup was so good that I wished they'd pureed the stuff -- it's quite chunky -- so I could get more of it on the fries at once. The second your dinner starts making you greedy, you know it's good. But it was some stolen bites of a salmon belly tartare -- petal-soft bites of sweet, fatty salmon in a gentle yet kicky sauce of rice wine vinegar, jalapeno puree and sesame seeds -- that finally won me over, part and parcel.
The service, too, has improved. My first meal there was marred by a disinterested waitstaff, but that didn't seem to be a problem on Wednesday night as nearly every table had a waiter at their beck and call. "See that guy? I stole him from Mark's!" Dei Maggi called out happily as he gestured to a waiter gleefully balancing four salad plates on one arm, acrobat-style.
Whether or not The Rockwood Room will ultimately survive and become a fixture on the Houston restaurant scene is a silly question to ponder. No one can predict a restaurant's staying power, the economy, the fickle nature of diners and trends. But for now, they seem intent on working through the rumors and restlessness and simply creating good food, which is really all you can ask for.