The bar area on the main floor isn't quite finished yet, nor has all the art been hung from the eggshell-white walls at ERA (809 Congress, 713-225-1066), but the four pizzas that arrived at our table last night looked as if they'd come from a long-open kitchen staffed with old pros.
In a way, that's the case at ERA, the new pizza and sandwich restaurant on Market Square in downtown. One of the two new restaurants that are sandwiching Les Givral's Kahve -- the other being Convey, a conveyor belt sushi joint -- it's the kind of casual yet sleek restaurant that should be an instant hit once it has its grand opening. Because if anyone knows how to throw a pizza, it's ERA's kitchen manned by a Pink's Pizza ex-pat.
The pizzas (18 total, all of them "personal" size and costing $8.32) have funny names, from the Salvador Dali Lama to the Purple Rain, names which hint at the unusual ingredients that make up a tapestry of various ethnic cuisines: a Cuban-inspired pizza called the Castro, a Greek-inspired pizza called the Apollonia. The sandwich selection, while smaller, is similarly themed.
And while it may seem like these pizza names are gimmicky, the solidly constructed pizzas themselves show that the food isn't hiding behind any cutesy cleverness. This is good stuff.
To be clear, however, it's fans of Pink's Pizza (and the softer, doughier crust that's found at some other Pink's competitors) who will love ERA -- it's basically the same stuff. And those same fans will likely already be used to some of the more "creative" ingredients that Pink's is famous for, toppings like apples, cranberries and ricotta cheese.
Over at the Chronicle, Greg Morago just wrote a fabulous piece about the rise of high-quality pizza restaurants in Houston. "Some of Houston's most popular chefs are turning into hip pizzaiolis as the city experiences something of a pizza renaissance. It's time to chow down in pizzatown," wrote Morago. And although ERA wasn't mentioned in the piece, I'd add it to Morago's list of great up-and-coming pizza places featuring less-than-mainstream toppings.
The Castro I ordered was my favorite of the evening, showcasing those unusual pizza ingredients with flair: thin slices of roasted pork, fried plantains and queso blanco on top of a slightly spicy marinara sauce. My dining companion's Chupacabra, with fresh spinach, cream sauce, mozzarella, herbed goat cheese and one fat garlic-marinated shrimp per slice, was also stunningly good. Stunning because there was no leftover moisture, no ugly sog, from the spinach leaves that covered the pizza like a layer of kudzu. I'm guessing they pre-cook the spinach ahead of time to get the excess water out, a smart move.
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It's these little touches from old pros that will help ERA succeed. The chic interior with its low ceilings and inviting staff won't hurt, either. And if the full name of the restaurant is to be believed -- Entertainment Restaurant Air -- the eventual live music venue and balcony upstairs could be an additional boon...or fizzle, depending on fickle downtown patrons.
Entertainment venue aside, I'm excited to see restaurants like ERA, Convey and Niko Niko's opening along Market Square. Along with more established places like Treebeard's, Warren's, La Carafe and Les Givral's, this is the shot in the arm that the area needs -- enjoyable, casual restaurants with solid food that's just different enough to draw people up from the tunnels for lunch and into the city for dinner.
Pro-Tips: Parking is free downtown after 6 p.m. and ERA is counter service-only for now. Six beer taps will soon be installed, and the full bar should be up and running within the month.