It was a sad day for many when the demolition machines hit Ruggles Grill on Westheimer this past October. The restaurant, a popular destination in the '80s and '90s, had been closed since February 2012, unable to recover after workers staged a walkout on the chef and owner, Bruce Molzan, alleging non-payment of tips. "R.I.P. Ruggles Grill," the headlines read.
As the saying goes, however, "Where one door closes, another opens." Molzan, who had capitalized on the popularity of Ruggles Grill to open other businesses (Ruggles Green, Ruggles 5115, Ruggles Bakery and Cafe, Ruggles 11th Street Cafe) has finally left the name behind.
With Corner Table by Bruce Molzan, the subject of this week's cafe review, Molzan is back. The restaurant, owned by Darla Lexington and Michelle Coopwood, with Molzan as chef and creator, may have opened last December to little fanfare, but is busy all the time. The wait can extend well past 30 minutes, even on Monday nights.
It's definitely one of those places where knowing someone can get you far. During my first visit, we'd been waiting patiently at the bar for 45 minutes until my companion was spotted by someone who knew the owners. Within minutes of him speaking to the manager, we were seated.
Though the decor has the feel of a neighborhood restaurant, the restaurant's society element cannot be denied. Lexington, a fixture on the social circuit for years with her longtime partner (the late) John O'Quinn, can be seen walking the room, greeting guests as though they were friends of many years. Molzan is also constantly out of the kitchen, wearing his white chef's jacket and smiles, shaking hands with people in obvious familiarity.
Now to the food. Coopwood likened Molzan to an artist, and in this, I would agree. In the same way that you look at a Picasso, and know that Picasso was the artist, the food at Corner Table has Molzan's stamp all over it. It's in the way that he builds his food. He has a specific signature that is instantly recognizable, from the way in which he uses a small clumps of microgreen garnish, to the crispy tortilla strips he uses on top of his crab and avocado tower.
Most artists' works can be traced back to certain periods in their lives, and Corner Table's menu represents Molzan's newer, fresher, organic period. He's changed up the plating, introduced new dishes, offering a selection of healthier Paleo dishes that has come to define the restaurant. Indeed, when I asked a girlfriend of mine whether she'd heard of Corner Table, her response was "That Paleo place? Yes, I've heard of it. I've been meaning to try it."
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In addition to the new dishes, Molzan was smart to bring back the things from Ruggles Grill that people loved. Things like his humongous dessert tray that people always ooh and aahh over, the Ruggles famous white chocolate bread pudding, or the cappuccino service with a chocolate covered spoon and macaroon.
The mix of Ruggles mainstays with new menu items seems to be working. People who come to Corner Table out of nostalgia for Ruggles will find the things they used to love, and people who come through word of mouth referral are charmed by the scene that awaits them. Molzan's star may have fallen with Ruggles, but it's on the rise again with Corner Table.