To be blunt, chef and longtime Houstonian Greg Lowry has been brought in by Bradley's Fine Diner as a fix-it man -- to build on the good things already in place such as a successful Sunday brunch menu and a gorgeous interior. Lowry's job is to tune up the menu and turn Bradley's into a favorite neighborhood restaurant. He's also overseeing Funky Chicken, and while he's tweaking a few of the recipes there, there was already a solid foundation there that seems to work.
Lowry has been in Houston restaurants for most of his career, but relocated temporarily to Austin to open a Max's Wine Dive there. We pick up from Part 1 of his Chef Chat at the point when he returns to Houston. We'll also cover the ill-fated Rockwood Room (which survived only four months), his relationship with the staff at Triniti, where he worked under chef Ryan Hildebrand for three and a half years, and the new gastropub of which he'll soon also be in charge.
EOW: From Max's, what was your next move?
GL: I went from Max's to Rockwood Room with Michael Dei Maggi. I came back to work with him again and then we shuttered about four months after. It was a mess.
EOW: That just seemed like an unfair situation right there.
GL: It was a mess. From the ownership and the upper-management standpoint, it was a mess. It was party time all the time. Nobody took it seriously. It deserved to close.
EOW: I heard the food was good.
GL: The food and atmosphere was great. We were busy, but they were spending money in all the wrong areas. You can't do that.
EOW: Is that what happens when people who have never run a restaurant before run a restaurant?
GL: I guess. I don't know. It was a really weird situation because there was no direction from anybody, really. It was just a come-in-and-do-it kind of thing. It was a little frustrating.
EOW: That sounds really bizarre. So you went over to Voice over at Hotel Icon?
GL: Yes. I went to the Voice after Rockwood Room. I was there for about a year.
EOW: You worked with Michael [Kramer]?
GL: No, I came in after Kramer. I was the executive chef after Michael Kramer.
EOW: Okay. So you replaced Michael Kramer when he left. Gotcha. And they went on for about a year.
GL: Yeah. That's a difficult place because the building is so beautiful and the dining room was gorgeous. It's unfortunate what they have to go through there, because you can't put any signage up because it's a historical building. It's very difficult to find if you don't know where you're going. It's $25 to valet park.
The hotel dining in Houston is really weird. Every other major city in the country, hotels are where the best restaurants are. [Even] if you have the best restaurant in a hotel here, you're never going to succeed. Houston people just don't want to valet park, and then walk through the lobby and try to find the restaurant and all this kind of stuff. Houston is much more of a convenience city than anybody else. They want to be able to park and walk in and be done with it.
EOW: Did those guys validate [valet] parking if you dine there?
GL: They did if you dined there.
EOW: Okay. That helps.
GL: But even still, it was expensive just to park. If you came in just for a drink, I don't know if they would validate you or not. I would like to hope that they would.
EOW: It's very off-putting.
GL: It's difficult.
EOW: There were some amazing people who worked at Voice.
GL: Yes. Jason White was my sous chef. He was a sous chef at Oxheart [after that] and he's now at --
EOW: At Museum Park Cafe.
GL: Yeah. Jason's incredible. Audrey Sam was my pastry chef. I'm not sure where she is now. She left [Hotel] Icon to go to the Houstonian. So she was working there for quite some time. Rachel Carlson moved to DC, I think. I don't know if she's back now or not. We had some great talent. Adam Garcia was there with me, who's just a charcuterie genius. Hands-down, the best charcuterie person in the state.
EOW: There were crazy-talented people that came out of that kitchen.
GL: Yeah, it was awesome. You had [Bryan] Caswell and you had all these other guys that were before me. It was really a launching pad for a lot of people.
EOW: Absolutely. You were there at Voice for a year, where did you go after that?
GL: I got hired on at Triniti. I couldn't come on because we hadn't really started payroll and that kind of stuff yet. In between, I got in contact with a few friends and we opened El Gran Malo in the Heights. It was a blast. We had a great time doing that.
EOW: That was with Steve [Sharma] and Lea [McKinney].
GL: Yeah, all those guys. I basically went in, set up the menu and trained the staff. It was kind of a consulting deal -- just open and go away. They were killing it. That location was awesome. It was really a cool place.
EOW: Yeah, absolutely.
GL: And they're doing great downtown, too. (Author's note: El Gran Malo closed, but its sister restaurant, El Big Bad, opened shortly before that in downtown Houston, where it is still operating.)
EOW: I'm glad to hear that.
GL: Hopefully they can continue to be a mainstay down there.
EOW: How many years did you spend at Triniti?
GL: I was there for three and a half years.
EOW: Tell me what it was like working over there.
GL: It was phenomenal. It was the best kitchen I've ever worked in and the most talented people I've ever worked with. It was difficult. We carried so many menus all the time between the bar and the "regular" menu that changed four times a year. The eight-course menus, five-course menus, the vegetarian menus -- it was just all the time. There was always something to do and create. It's actually gotten kind of difficult now to come up with new stuff because we've done so many things.
It was an amazing experience working with Brian, Brandon, Matt and all these guys that I had the opportunity to work with. It was just awesome.
EOW: Yeah, and there's a great pastry program, too.
GL: Yeah, Samantha [Mendoza] is incredible. She's a great person. All of them are. We left on the right terms and we all remain friends. These are relationships that I'll have for the rest of my life.
EOW: Besides the staff, what were some of your favorite things over there?
GL: The opportunity to just do pretty much anything we wanted, really. The relationships that we built with guests that we become personal friends with. The staff there was really the bid deal. It was the first restaurant that I've ever worked in where the front and the back of the house are actually a family. They're not bickering at each other all the time. That was the culture that we grew. Some of the better experiences, like doing the Mercury dinners, were just amazing. (Author's note: Triniti and the Mercury orchestral group joined forces on a few multicourse dinners. Dishes and music were designed to go together in "pairings." It was quite a beautiful effect. http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2012/09/dinner_in_eight_movements_merc.php)
EOW: I was at that first one.
GL: It was amazing. I have never been a part of something like that before, and for us to be able to pull it off the way that it went, it was an honor being a part of that.
EOW: That dinner was beautiful. Everything about it -- the music, the opera singer and the food. I almost cried during dessert because that's when the opera singer [performed].
GL: When she stood up, everybody was like, "Oh my God, where did she come from?" She was right behind you guys, I think. Nobody knew.
She stood up and we're like, "Who is this lady standing up singing? This is awesome." We found out at the end, of course, that she was the wife of the violinist. That was really awesome -- probably the highlight, I would say.
EOW: How did this opportunity come about, to run Bradley's Fine Diner, and Funky Chicken down the way?
GL: I was just randomly contacted by the president of the company. I don't know how he even got my name, to be honest with you. We started talking, and they offered me to be the executive chef here. I'd heard a lot of bad things about it, and I was like, "I don't really want to do that."
Then he came back and he said, "We have other restaurants that we would like you to become the corporate chef of in Houston. If we can make this work, would you do that?" We made it work.
EOW: Why did you leave Triniti?
GL: I left Triniti not because I wanted to. It was a really good opportunity for me here because the company's growing, especially with Pour Society opening. There are other locations that are already in the plans. With growing Funky Chicken and that kind of stuff, there's an opportunity for me to have quite a few restaurants to look over. I felt that I was ready for that next step.
EOW: Is the menu totally up to you here? Are you in charge?
GL: The menu is totally up to me here. We have three items that we will keep that are Bradley's signature dishes, and then everything else is going to change over the next week or so. We're getting pretty close to being where we need to be to finish the menu. We'll probably be done in the next week or so. It's coming around really well.
EOW: When should people come here to check out your new menu?
GL: I would say the end of the first week of April. I think we'll be ready to roll. We'll let everybody know through press releases and when that's going to happen.
EOW: You're leading the food program at Funky Chicken now, too, right?
EOW: Are there any changes that you have had to make over there?
GL: Not really. We've adjusted a few recipes, but what they've got going there is pretty good. It's pretty consistent. It's just really about doing a press push behind Funky Chicken to let people know what the concept is. The fried chicken is gluten-free. I don't know of anybody else that's doing it. The fried chicken's really good. There's a few tweaks we'll be making, mostly just in seasoning and things like that, but it's a really solid business.
EOW: What are your favorite side dishes over there?
GL: The Brussels sprouts are by far my favorite. We do shaved Brussels sprouts and then flash-fry them for about 15 seconds and then add a little apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper and that's it. They're really good.
EOW: They're quite tasty. What are your goals for Bradley's Fine Diner?
GL: Goals for here, first and foremost: We need to get rid of the stigma that we had a chef from out of town that doesn't --
EOW: Doesn't understand Houston food or Houstonians.
GL: Right. We've got a local guy now [me], and we are moving forward with it. I think I've got a lot of good relationships with the writers, the public and the neighborhood. So, we're really going to capitalize on becoming the neighborhood restaurant, if you will. That's really where our base clientele is going to be.
Between here and Funky Chicken, we'll do catering all the time. There are all kinds of apartment complexes and businesses all around us. We need to start to capitalize on that. It's really just going to take some time for us to put some feet on the pavement, go and meet people and start making friends, which is what we want to do.
Everybody that comes here has a great experience. It's been rare that I've ever heard of anybody complaining about anything here. I have full faith that it's going to take a turn for the better.
EOW: When your new menu rolls out, are you able to mention a couple of dishes that you think people should try?
GL: Sure. We're working on a dish right now. It's kind of the most difficult one, I think, but it's going to be really fun. We're going to do a take on wings and clams. So, it'll be beer-braised wings and clams with all kinds of vegetables and cool stuff in it. It's kind of a chicken and seafood stew almost.
The chicken and waffles -- which we'll shoot today -- we're doing an herb and cheddar waffle. We're melting cheddar cheese and bacon on top of it. We're doing Cornish hens instead of chicken. We're brining them in sweet tea and [coating them in] a spicy breading. Then we have a spicy syrup that we're pouring over the top and just coleslaw [on the side]. It's very simple, but it's really, really good.
The wedge salad is kind of a fun one. We're doing baby iceberg lettuce and a buttermilk dressing. The twist on it is that we're using our house-made hot sauce as well as chicken-skin croutons -- basically deep-fried chicken skin. They're really good and crispy and that adds a cool component, plus there is a soft egg on the plate, too.
EOW: This company is opening a third place, called Pour Society. Are you able to talk about that?
EOW: When is that opening?
GL: We're hoping it's going to open in May. It's about 90 percent completed. Now it's basically having the inspections done. It's a 7,000-square-foot restaurant, so it's huge. We're lucky to have great neighbors over there -- a lot of my good friends, to be honest with you, Addison [Lee of KUU] and David [Cordúa of Churrasco's and The Cordúa Group].
It's going to be a beer-centric, upscale American pub. We will have a sports pub section to the restaurant. We'll have 52 taps, 42 of which will be beer, then a couple will be draft cocktails. We've also got a system where we'll be doing wine on tap. That will be pretty interesting.
We're going to do comfort food but with kind of a lighter hand, but also things that pair well with the beers that we'll be carrying seasonally. We'll have wine and Champagne as any other restaurant would, but it's really going to be a really interesting concept. We've started to fool around with the menu a little bit and it's going to be fun.
EOW: Is there anything else that you would like for our readers to know?
GL: We want to welcome everybody to Bradley's, Funky and Pour with open arms. We really do. We love Houston. I love Houston. I've lived here my whole life. I want to just get people out here and support what we're doing. It's great food in a casual atmosphere. The service is always fun and lighthearted, but it's still service. We just really want to make friends. That's what we want to do.