Want a behind the scenes look at City Oven? Check out our slideshow.
'How would you review Chili's? Or T.G.I. Fridays?"
My friend presented me with this hypothetical as we huddled in a booth over a bowl of steaming, creamy spinach and artichoke dip with a crispy bread-crumb crust. At the time, I was too enamored of the faintly spicy cheese and hunks of firm, pale-green artichoke to think much about the question.
He persisted. I explained that I like high-volume chain family-style restaurants just fine. They're dependable — for better or worse — and they're great places to meet up with friends for appetizers and drinks or to indulge in a reasonably priced dinner with children. I'd review a Chili's just like I'd review any other restaurant.
"But how?" he went on. "If it's not striving to be the best restaurant in town, how do you compare it?"
I then saw his point. Even before we dug into our main course, we understood that City Oven would not be the best restaurant in Houston, and we also knew that it wasn't trying to be. It's not importing fish from remote oceans for its ceviche, or grinding its beef for burgers and meatballs in-house. It's a bar that serves food and a restaurant with a solid beer list, and that's what it's aiming for. The goal of City Oven is to be a welcome new destination in the growing drinking and dining scene in the Heights.
Down the street there's Tacos a Go-Go, and next door is Christian's Tailgate. Head east on White Oak and you'll find Fitzgerald's, Public House, Little Woodrow's and BB's Café, all of which cater to the increasingly hip Heights crowd of young professionals and families, bar-quiz aficionados and beer nerds, food-truck fiends and burger lovers. And in that respect, City Oven, with its oversize meatballs, wood-burning pizza oven, 15 taps and more than 50 bottled beers, fits in perfectly.
After family-run Italian eatery D'Amico's closed, leaving the space now occupied by City Oven empty, many wondered how another restaurant or bar could survive in that spot. D'Amico's faced issues with parking and the slow transformation of the White Oak strip from neighborhood family-dining destination to more of a nightlife-centric area. HUSA Management Inc., a partner in D'Amico's and Houston bars including Local Pour and Sherlock's, moved City Oven into the open space in late August, and the Heights crowds seem to have welcomed it enthusiastically.
If you go to City Oven hoping to encounter the same kind of homey feel that was D'Amico's, with its walls of drying pasta and tables covered with red-checked linen, you'll be disappointed. The space has been completely transformed; it is still welcoming, but it's also less nostalgic and old-fashioned.
The warm dining room is anchored by the bar, which feels simultaneously inviting — thanks to the rustic wooden shelves and distressed counter — and wild, thanks to a bright, fire-engine-red wall that ties in the other accents of red scattered throughout the dining room. An oven constructed of stone, complete with decorative copper accents, cranks out pizzas made with fresh dough, and across the room a large bookshelf and a sofa upholstered in calico print feel folksy and out of place but comfortable nonetheless. It's an odd blend of rustic and modern, much like the neighborhood itself.
The menu also seems to be a blend of competing influences. It's made largely up of Italian-esque items — think penne primavera and a bastardized margherita pizza — but it also lists hamburgers and bar food, with Tex-Mex dishes peppered throughout. With such variety and scope, it would be remarkable if a neighborhood joint like City Oven could master them all. It doesn't, but it puts forth a valiant effort. After a few meals at the place, I realized just how valid my friend's initial question was. City Oven isn't doing anything wrong. You will probably like most of the dishes on its menu. But there are other places that get certain items right more often.
The most glaring example of this is the pizza. The dough is made and baked on-site, which means it has the potential to be so much more than your average neighborhood bar pizza. While the crust is great — thin and crispy like a cracker, with raised bubbles that have been toasted to golden brown — the toppings are an odd mixture of fresh vegetables with what tasted and looked like canned or frozen veggies. I was told that the meat on the pies comes from "a distributor." No one I asked at City Oven knew which distributor.
That said, some feat of both crust and topping engineering is at work. There are 14 items on the City Oven Supreme (pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, bacon, mushrooms, black olives, red onions, sun-dried tomatoes, green bell peppers, jalapeños, artichoke hearts, banana peppers, garlic and extra cheese), and somehow the crust manages to maintain structural integrity without flopping over like a sad, soggy slice might.