Chef Chat

A Chat with John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar

Since opening in 2002, Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar (1985 Welch) has garnered props from The New York Times Magazine, Southwest Spirit Magazine, Bon Appetit and Esquire. Mockingbird's French-bistro-inspired menu changes with the seasons to guarantee fresh flavors and also to allow for innovation in the kitchen. Eating Our Words caught up with Mockingbird chef and Houston native John Sheely for a chat about his destination restaurant.

What are your culinary roots? I started off as a dishwasher at the Steak and Ale on Wilcrest and moved up. I never went to culinary school, but learned by doing. My mother's a great Italian cook; her family came from the port city of La Spezia in the Liguria region of Northern Italy. It was common for her to make homemade ravioli or braised shoulder of lamb.

What was your initial vision for Mockingbird? I wanted a place inside the Loop. I had opened Riviera Grill at Town and Country Mall; it was inspired by the rustic Italian cuisine I served at L'Ostello in Vail, Colorado. For Mockingbird, I had in mind a casual bistro serving sandwiches and pasta dishes.

That doesn't sound like Mockingbird. No, the restaurant morphed into something more like fine dining, with white tablecloths. It became more of what I call an elegant creative bistro than the neighborhood restaurant I had planned.

What happened? Houston was becoming more of a chef-driven town. Diners began asking for better food, prime meats rather than choice cuts, and we began to notice a preference for local fresh foods. We now make our breads and ice creams in house, for instance, and all our pastries.

What are your favorite things to eat? A New York strip steak. Pan-seared sea bass seasoned with paprika and cayenne over a tomato ragout. Apple bread pudding. Crème brûlée.

What do you prefer in a cocktail? A handmade margarita, with very little salt on the rim of the glass, made with Herradura Tequila Blanco.

Do you have plans for another restaurant? You know, right now, people are coming into Mockingbird, splitting salads. I've seen people ask for plates to split steaks three ways. It's ridiculous -- the sign of a bad economy. Even so, I would say it's a good time to open a new restaurant; it could be up to speed by the time the economy begins to recover, in a few months. I would like to open an Italian restaurant one day, a smaller, 100-seat place. Houston is a great place for restaurants that are chef-driven. This used to be a chain-restaurant city, but the people have become sophisticated eaters. They know food and expect quality.

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E. Ting