Breakfast on the Beltway

See more of the breakfast and booze at Flora & Muse in our slideshow.

One quiet Saturday morning, I sat perched at a marble-topped pub-style table, cushioned into a plush, oversize banquet, sipping strong coffee from a similarly Alice in Wonderland-esque mug. My friend Michael and I were happily jabbering and catching up over breakfast at Flora & Muse, our pub table spilling over with plates, mugs and elegant glasses of Bloody Marys.

I hadn't seen a Bloody Mary on the breakfast menu that morning, but was in need of one nevertheless, and asked our waiter if the bar could make me one (yes, at 9:30 in the morning). She obliged my request with a smile, and returned shortly with two glasses — one for me, one for Michael — simply garnished and filled with a just-spicy-enough tomato mixture over ice.

Our breakfasts didn't last long that morning. Eggs on both plates were handily cooked overeasy and poached. Vegetables were roasted and well-seasoned. Hollandaise was bright and citrusy. Croissants were flaky and buttery. Jam was thick, sweet, tasting homemade. Orange juice was freshly squeezed and almost obnoxiously sunny in both look and taste. My "European Breakfast" may have been $15, but it came served on a carved wooden tray — room-service style — complete with French press coffee, that orange juice and enough food for two people.

Ten years ago — even five years ago — I couldn't have imagined this scene, any of it, taking place at the corner of Beltway 8 and I-10, a corner of the city haunted by the dead and hulking mass of the long-abandoned Town & Country Mall. When the interchange between the two highways was rebuilt in 1989, it signaled the death knell of Town & Country in favor of the more easily accessed Memorial City Mall just up the road.

I grew up, quite literally, right across the street from Town & Country Mall. It was a blow to lose the mall and all of its upscale accoutrements: the Neiman Marcus, the Marshall Fields, the specialty chocolate store that looked transported from Bavaria. CityCentre — the best of the many "town square" concepts popping up across the city — has brought all of those things back to the area, for better or worse.

It also brought with it Flora & Muse, one of its anchor tenants, a charming bistro after the heart of that little chocolate store in the mall. It feels vaguely European, and offers an assortment of charming delights: cocktails with cutesy names like the Calliope and the Terpischore (yes, they're named after muses), crystal chandeliers abutting casual, overstuffed chairs, requisite trendy dishes like salmon lollipops and ahi poke tuna that may not match the rest of the Mediterranean-esque menu, but demand to be ordered nevertheless. All of these things can easily turn saccharine, however, with too much exposure.

And although it's been open less than a year, Flora & Muse is already starting to show a little wear in that regard. Service has actually improved since opening — and, in fact, Flora & Muse has offered some of the best service I've enjoyed in Houston lately — but the menus have become ragged and threadbare and the food itself can feel the same way at times.

But for all of that, I like Flora & Muse very much.

It still offers one of the only compelling reasons to drive out to CityCentre — along with Bistro Alex and Straits — if you're not a local Memorial resident. After all, one can find Eddie V's, The Tasting Room, RA Sushi and many more of CityCentre's tenants in plenty of other places around the city, if not the country in some cases. But there's nothing quite like Flora & Muse in Houston.

Flora & Muse brought a dazzlingly glamorous feel to CityCentre when it opened in September of last year. It employed the talented David Luna as its chef, fresh off stints at Shade and Canopy. The space evoked a French patisserie on one side, a Viennese bar-cum-restaurant on the other. Its owners are jet setters, people like Turkish film star Basak Köklükaya and several silent European partners.

One public partner is Hayri Gurbuz, who told me last year that even though Flora & Muse had only been open a week, "I'm surprised at how many people have already been coming on a regular basis."

"They've come every day for the past six days," he said. Fast-forward to 11 months later, and it would seem those regulars are still there, even if Luna is not. He left three months ago, depositing the kitchen in the hands of his pastry chef, who is still running the place pretty ably. It's no surprise the pastry dough on the pides — traditional Turkish savory pies — is so pretty (although it was a surprise to taste it and find the dough terribly undersalted).

On a recent Saturday night, Flora & Muse seemed filled with regulars. Most of them were seated at the long, voluptuously curved marble bar. Its broad pass-through was opened onto the shaded side patio, one of Flora & Muse's most attractive features on a cool evening. The lights dimmed around 9 p.m., casting the space in a more seductive light. By day, the dining room looks like the kind of place where fancy baby showers are thrown; by night, those same elements somehow function equally well as a date destination.

My friends and I were gathered around a four-top, raucously eating off each other's plates and passing cocktails around for sips and nods of approval. We almost fit right in — the atmosphere might be sexy at night, but it's not quiet — except that none of us were on dates with each other. That night, we were there for the food.

Zucchini fritters and the necessary ahi poke tuna had been ordered, and came out quickly. And although I may poke fun at the poke's ill-advised inclusion on the menu, all aggressively Asian elements against an otherwise pseudo-European backdrop, it was fine stuff. The tuna was well seasoned with just a bit of sesame and sea salt, perfect on an equally salty taro chip. Ditto the fritters, which seemed to be held together with nothing but diced zucchini and feta holding on to one another for dear life. Topped with dill-freshened tzatziki sauce, they were among our favorites of the night.

In fact, a dud piece of $24 grouper that was as dense and chewy as a boiled bagel was the only dim spot (along with their twist on a Sazerac that was all New, no Orleans). A plate of steak-frites was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. The Australian lamb chops had that keening edge of gaminess that makes them good and were also cooked to a beautiful pink, although I'd have a hard time justifying $26 for them on any other night. Polenta on the side was cut with mascarpone cheese that gave it a subtle sweetness. And my $12 lahmacun was the hit of dinner: spiced ground beef spiked with lemon and parsley on top of a soft, blistery piece of flatbread that was eaten in five flat minutes.

We stayed for hours, nibbling on the last few fries and comparing one cocktail after another: the Corpse Reviver got four thumbs up, as did the Check Mate with Riazul añejo tequila, Velvet Falernum, lime, pineapple and basil. The Dirty Texan, a martini with not enough of its advertised mescal, got only two thumbs out of four. Ditto the Imperfect Martini, too heavy on the Lillet Blanc. But despite its flaws, Flora & Muse is still a craft cocktail bar, drawing in as many people for spirits as for coffee or food.

I moved away from this part of town three years ago, after my divorce. If I still lived across the street from CityCentre, I would be one of those regulars haunting Flora & Muse. The service almost encourages it. Even when they're wrong about things — a waiter once told me that sorrel was a type of wild mushroom — and even when the wine is served a bit too warm, the service itself is warmer. You forgive more easily in these situations.

Perhaps that's why I'm willing to forgive my last, disastrous meal at Flora & Muse, the last of five meals I've had there since it opened. It was a Tuesday night, which I now know features an acoustic guitar player singing Coldplay and Indigo Girls songs to a crowd of wiggling, swooning, texting high school girls. I will not go back on a Tuesday night.

I will also probably never order the Akaushi burger again. After asking for it to be cooked medium-rare, I was disappointed to find a charbroiled mass of overhandled beef. Even if it had been Akaushi to begin with, it had been touched and mashed and touched and mashed too many times to retain its delicate fat-to-meat distribution. Coated with a tasteless glop of white Cheddar and barely caramelized onions, it was the worst meal I'd had at Flora & Muse, and an insult at $15.

My dining companion fared better, though, his "Dorian Gray" steak sandwich — let's not talk about the misguided reasons for calling it a Dorian Gray — cooked appropriately, although without much flavor otherwise. At $20, it was as much of a slap in the face as the burger was. Crunchy arugula gave it a nice bite, but it was missing any garlic or parsley or lemon from the chimichurri sauce. His tomato-orzo salad tasted of nothing but black pepper, but at least my fries were all right.

Despite all of these things, we happily chatted in our booth for hours. I was slow to finish even one glass of wine, but my waiter didn't seem to care. He refilled our water glasses, smiled, never rushed us along. At the end of the meal, we enjoyed some oversize mugs of coffee. Our waiter poured coffee into them from a silver French press. We drank it and lingered even longer.

Even if it's a little rough around the edges these days, and even if it's overpriced at dinner, I'm willing to make the drive west to Flora & Muse for these elegant, civil touches — and for some more of that lahmacun.


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