At Any Given Minute, Pour Society Is Apt to Fly Off the Rails

The TV Dinner, a daily dinner special at Pour Society, looked as if it might be a lot of fun. The meal was $17, and a beer could be added for $3. “What’s on the TV Dinner tonight?” we asked our server. “I don’t know,” he said. “Oh. Well, what kind of beer comes with it?” we asked. “I don’t know that, either,” he replied apologetically, “but I’ll find out when I put in your cocktail order.” That night, it featured corn dogs and a can of Nebraska Cardinal Pale Ale. That sounded good, so we ordered it.

He soon brought the beer, and seemed confused. “I asked them for the beer that goes with the TV Dinner, and this is what the bar gave me,” he said. “That’s the correct one. You’re fine,” we assured him. He realized then that the cocktails we’d first ordered had never showed up. He visibly deflated a bit, frustrated not just by the oversight but by his own lack of knowledge. “I’m really sorry about all of this. Let me get a manager for you,” he said. We assured him that wasn’t necessary.

The cocktails arrived and so did the TV Dinner, on a compartmentalized metal tray. The corn dogs were the best we’d ever had, with big, juicy sausages enrobed in a beautiful, rustic brown crust. There was a cute round brownie covered in sprinkles in the upper right corner.

Those were the highlights. A sautéed assortment of small, whole yellow, red, green and orange peppers was pretty but seemed an odd “vegetable” choice. Nestled in separate compartments were unexciting but decent black beans with pico de gallo and mashed potatoes that were entirely too loose in consistency.

This was actually our best experience at Pour Society, both in terms of food and of service. It was all downhill after that, but if this listing ship can be set to rights, there’s a whole lot of potential.

Pour Society, located in the Gateway Memorial City center, is the third of chef Bradley Ogden’s restaurant concepts in Houston. Ogden himself is only peripherally involved at this point, and that’s not a bad thing. (His son, Bryan Ogden, was originally supposed to be in charge of the Houston restaurants, but he’s no longer in the picture, either.)

The senior Ogden got off on the wrong foot with Houston diners when he was quoted by Eater Las Vegas as saying, “They’re starving for great places to eat there.” The comment seemed to demonstrate either ignorance or a blatant disrespect for what was already a strong food scene.

Ogden’s first two Houston concepts, Funky Chicken and Bradley’s Fine Diner (which unwisely translates to B.F.D. for short), unsurprisingly had trouble engaging Houston diners. To fix the issue, the company decided to make a course correction and bring in a chef with a deep understanding of Houston dining sensibilities. That turned out to be Greg Lowry. His family moved to Houston when he was just a toddler, and he’s been here ever since. His résumé includes Tony’s, Voice, Max’s Wine Dive and Triniti.

In another smart move, Lowry asked his old friend and co-worker, Matt Lovelace, to be chef de cuisine at Pour Society. His background is also very much rooted in Houston and includes work at Osteria Mazzantini (now closed), Triniti and Paul’s Kitchen. Both Lowry and Lovelace are enormously well-liked, talented and respected chefs. The smart, engaging menu at Pour Society reflects their affection for hearty, down-to-earth fare with competing touches of elegance and kitschiness. It’s a fun read.

However, there’s an incredible disconnect between the potential and the reality. At any given minute, Pour Society is apt to fly off the rails. At times, it seems more like a test concept than a restaurant that’s actually ready to do business. Even the menu, with a list of dishes printed in red and marked “Coming Soon,” seems to reflect the not-ready-for-prime-time status. What is the point of teasing customers with dishes that can’t be ordered?
The problems over the course of our visits could be compiled into a case study of “all things that can possibly go wrong during a meal.” Cold food, burned food, poor service, ingredient substitutions without notice — you name it, it probably happened. Here are just a few examples.

On one lunchtime visit, there was a private party going on in an open area. The first diner in our group to arrive requested a booth and was seated right next to the party. The lunchtime view ended up being a line of businessmen’s backsides. Our service and food were just the worst during this visit, which was probably caused in part by the extra workload placed on the staff. (Because of the extenuating circumstances, we arranged for an extra visit in addition to the ones we normally make. The results were better but still not great.)

One of the appetizers we ordered was the lowbrow-meets-highbrow Hudson Valley foie gras. It’s a fun idea. The seared foie is dabbed with a touch of pork gravy and balanced atop a cheddar biscuit. Alongside are two rolled slices of dense pastrami. Our entrées showed up, but our appetizer hadn’t appeared yet. We asked the man who brought the main courses what had happened to our appetizer. “It’s coming,” he said curtly and walked off.

When the appetizer did show up, it seemed as if maybe it had been waiting on the kitchen counter for a while. The foie gras was lukewarm. There was supposed to be a quail egg with it, but instead there was a yolk trimmed out of a chicken egg. Either that, or Pour Society has discovered a prehistoric quail breed that lays really big eggs. The yolk was as big as the foie, which left the plating comically imbalanced. The $23 price tag, though, meant the issues weren’t really funny.

The $29 braised beef belly was too cool when it arrived and the fat hadn’t been rendered enough. Worse, the “buttermilk dumplings” (which were more like little biscuits) were burned beyond the point of forgiveness.
The queso flameado, made with Chihuahua cheese, immediately devolved into a goopy mess of grease and curds. Fried chicken — tender, moist and cooked all the way through — showed some promise but was hampered by an odd, fishy smell and a flavor characteristic of old frying oil.

When Pour Society’s kitchen cranks out a successful dish, it’s a thrill and a relief to see the promise of the place come to life. “Meatloaf Meatballs” were firm and flavorful, helped along even more by their bath of Parmesan-spiked broth. The “Texas Chicken Pot Pie” was another success, even with the unconventional presentation. It’s not a pie and doesn’t have a crust, but it’s still a pleasing bowl full of diced chicken, carrots, potatoes and peas all covered in sauce and topped with six little round biscuits. The beurre blanc sauce was pleasantly redolent with sage, the little biscuits were respectably tender and celery root was a smart inclusion in the vegetable mix that soaked up the flavor and added an interesting texture.

For drinks, the safest port at Pour Society is within the confines of its good selection of bottled and draft beer. As with the food, the cocktail list is well intended but the execution doesn’t always work out. One dining companion was so unimpressed with her Fool’s Gold cocktail — a promising-sounding mix of Jack Daniel’s, calvados, lemon juice, cinnamon syrup and honey — that she didn’t have more than two sips before abandoning it. No one noticed or cared. Conversely, the Winter Old Fashioned of Four Roses bourbon, chocolate bitters and a syrup infused with coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and black walnut was the perfect mix of flavors for the cool season.

Pour Society’s chefs have a lot of great ideas, but the kitchen seems unable to execute them — at least so far. Service is at best well-meaning but undertrained — and at worst curt and unobservant. The restaurant has been open since the beginning of September so it’s had a few months, but perhaps it just needs a few more to get its staff trained and ready to execute the worthy vision of reimagined Southern favorites in a casual setting.

Pour Society
947 Gessner, 832-831-0950. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

“Meatloaf Meatballs” $7
Queso flameado $12
Chicken pot pie $15
Fried chicken $18
Hudson Valley foie gras $23
Braised beef belly $29
Fool’s Gold cocktail $10
North Coast Brother Thelonious beer $12

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