Restaurant Reviews

Conservatory Might Need to Rethink Its Mix

It’s entirely possible that the best thing I had at Conservatory was a glass of agua fresca, owing at least partially to the fact that the underground “food hall” is best reached by portage, trekking overland among the skyscrapers. Conservatory is only tunnel-adjacent; you can’t get there by navigating subterranean trenches filled with cool, recycled air. A few blocks in the swelter of a Houston summer and an ice cold agua fresca is a self-contained oasis.

I ordered it while waiting for a crepe from Melange Creperie, one of four food vendors serving lunch, dinner and late night fare at Conservatory. The agua fresca was made from a local yellow-fleshed watermelon, available for only a brief snippet. Melange owner Sean Carroll, who focuses heavily on local and seasonal produce, had snapped up all he could get and I’m glad he did. It was mild, nuanced and only lightly sweet, with a delicately floral perfume that left me wishing I’d ordered two. The crepe I had that day paled, somewhat, in comparison.

I watched the woman behind the griddles make three crepes ahead of my Jian Bing, all of which flopped a bit more than I’ve grown accustomed to. I missed the finely-tuned and crispy browning that has long been a hallmark of Melange. I also missed the showmanship that usually informs the MC experience. You’re bound to lose some of that with a more volume-oriented model, but it’s a trade-off I’m not entirely sure I like.

Though the crepe came out a bit softer than I’d like, the sheaf of wonton wafer inserted last minute helped return a bit of assertive crunch. Inside, it was rich with egg, a sedimentary layer of delicate scramble with nary a clump in sight. The bite of green onion came on before sweet chile, all of it cleared out by sriracha heat, just enough to notice. A bit more of the laser focus typical of Melange could turn this into a perfect, light-ish midday meal for an office worker returning to spreadsheets and miscellaneous drudgery.

For a bit more oomph that won’t find you slumped over your keyboard by 2 o’clock, you might try the Spicy Garlic Shouyu Ramen on offer at Samurai Noodle. My bowl came topped with a handful of bean sprouts, a halved boiled egg and a thin slice of rolled pork belly, still bearing a cladding of skin, blessedly tender and yielding with a good mix of meat and fat. Pungent garlic wafted up at me. The broth was nutty and rich, round and deep, yet with a clean edge and a good balance of salt. It was satisfying, but also refreshing in its simplicity.

Garlic and chile oil insinuated themselves via a surface slick. The garlic had abandoned its fresh bite, mellowing to just a bit of pungent edge. The chile oil brought fire and a slight fruitiness. The wavy noodles underneath were delightfully chewy, retaining their resilience to the bottom of the bowl. The broth seemed to get strangely blander over time, though, the ozone crunch of raw bean sprouts holding more and more sway.

The takoyaki that showed up after my ramen came topped with a drizzle of Kewpie mayo, a sweet and savory glaze, green onions and a scattering of heat-waving bonito flakes. The shaved fish added a smoky intrigue against the sweet-ish sauce, pricks of green onion and the creamy tang of mayo providing bass and top notes. The outsides were finely, uniformly crisped, while the interior remained creamy and pudding like. The quarter-inch nubs of octopus in each ball were a bit on the chewy side, but the texture was almost nice against the crispy and creamy elements.

Where I found Melange Creperie and Samurai Noodle to be turning out pretty good versions of the product they’ve offered in other locations, I can’t say the same about newcomer El Burro & the Bull. Chef and owner John Avila brings some pedigree with him, having put in time with famed pitmaster Aaron Franklin. I had high hopes for the three-meat plate I brought back to my desk after my lunch visit. Even weighing in the Styrofoam trek back to my office, El Burro & the Bull was disappointing.

For starters, they’d gotten my order wrong. Pulled pork was subbed for the pork ribs I requested, and coleslaw stood in for creamed corn. I’m sure had I dined in and pointed out the error, the staff would have corrected it with a smile. They could not have corrected the lackluster food, however. My order of brisket was incredibly fatty and, while the meat was cooked well and the fat properly rendered, it bore only a surface level smokiness that rang sharp and sour. The meat recalled roast beef more than barbecue, despite the Central Texas standard salt and pepper-rubbed bark. The cut was telling too, the meat hacked carelessly with the grain.

Smoked boudin tilted in the opposite direction, with a strong, acrid smoke character like a brush fire with jerky kindling.

The pulled pork proved the best meat of the day, even if that’s damning with faint praise. It came finely chopped, spreading the stinging smoky notes around a bit more. For that, though, the meat was still oddly bland. No post-chop soak of hot sauce and vinegar, it even needed salt. The chop also left it mushy, but dryly so.

While it’s no surprise to see Conservatory packed at lunch, filled with a somewhat captive audience of cubicle dwellers, the place was nearly as full late on a weekend evening. Downtown is a few years into a resurgence of sorts, and Conservatory is one more draw, offering a concentrated collection of dining options until at least midnight every day of the week.

As my family waited in one of the booths tucked into a corner across from the stairwell, I grabbed a few beers from the well-appointed tap wall. With a good range of options and reasonable prices, the beer garden certainly represents one of Conservatory’s finer points. I set the beers down, checked on the crepes I had coming up and placed an order at Samurai Noodle: Tonkotsu ramen, gyoza and an order of karaage, which appeared before the crepes.

The ramen was creamy, rich and sweetly porky. It was simple and comforting, with a nice resilient chew to the noodles. The pork belly chashu was slick and lip coating, while slivers of wood-ear mushrooms added a nice snappy texture. It wasn’t as deep or assured of flavor as other versions around town, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

The karaage and gyoza both suffered from technical problems. The fried chicken turned leathery in a few spots not shielded by crunchy coating. Inside the meat was moist and flavorful, if a bit over-salted. The gyoza were thin-skinned and delicate, their filling speaking both of rich pork and sweet vegetables, but were left to fry a bit too long on bottom, the shattering crunch turning spotted black and bitter.

I retrieved my crepes between bites of gyoza and slurps of noodles. A savory and spicy saag paneer crepe had a good base of spicy, nuanced flavor, but wanted a lifting hit of herbs or a spritz of acid at the end. Dragged through the zippy Kewpie mayo from the karaage, it popped a bit more assertively.

As for a crepe filled with fig, goat cheese and honey, it’s the only Melange crepe I’ve ever not finished, its domineering smear of goat cheese taking on unappetizing gastric notes. I’m not sure what happened here, as this combination of simple, seasonal flavors seems like it would have been classic MC stuff.

I’ve heard from a couple of people that Myth Kafe, directly across from Melange, frequently runs out of menu items. I attempted to order a side of Mystic Potatoes with my Orpheus and Arnaki pita sandwiches, only to be told that they only had enough potatoes to offer them alongside their marinated roast chicken plate. I made do with a side of hummus, though the creamy dip bore no trace of anything aside from the requisite chickpeas.

The Arnaki sounded swell on the menu, filled with roasted lamb and all the usuals. Unfortunately, the lamb came out both dry and still riddled with tough connective tissue, giving it a distracting texture. The tzatziki drizzled on top was okay, but not quite the fresh pop of herbs that I’d hoped for. It helped in lubricating the meat, though the sandwich needed more of it.

The chicken pita surprised me, its juicy breast meat given a run across the flat-top for some well-executed char. Packed into a soft, griddled pita and topped with juicy tomatoes, snappy red onion with a good bit of bite and drizzled with tzatziki, it made for a tasty package. It’s not going to win an award, but I could see this really hitting the spot after a night of downtown drinking.

I don’t think even a belly full of beer or bourbon could redeem the barbecue tacos we had at El Burro & the Bull that evening, though. The brisket taco came topped with watery pico, an ungainly blob of sour cream and a casual scattering of shredded cheese sitting listlessly on top, un-melted and unapologetic. The dry, mushy beef had no more character in taco form. The pork taco had better flavor, but was chokingly dry. A spritz of lime and scattering of cilantro added appropriate counterpoints, the acid in particular helping to lift the other flavors. The cotija tossed on top seemed like it came from a green canister, deposited in a tiny, desiccant rubble. Barbecue tacos are hard to nail down, and the hammer strikes far from true here.

Ultimately, Conservatory is a bit of a mixed bag. It feels hip and urban in a way Houston rarely does and there is certainly some good food on offer. Some of it, though, suffers from growing pains or slight execution wobbles that could work themselves out over time with some attention to detail. Some of it just suffers. Finding the right mix of vendors for a venture like Conservatory is key. I like that the space offers a broad range of options, but breadth is no substitution for quality. Perhaps Conservatory needs to rethink its mix. At the very least, its vendors need to re-focus on getting the details (and sometimes the basics) right.

Conservatory Underground Beer Garden and Food Hall 
1010 Prairie, 832-919-8382, Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Sundays

Agua fresca $3
Saag paneer crepe $7
Fig, goat cheese and honey crepe $7
Jian bing crepe $6
Gyoza $5.25
Karaage $5.25
Takoyaki $4.95
Tonkotsu ramen $9.25
Spicy Garlic Shouyu ramen $10.75
Three-meat barbecue plate $17.95
Mixed taco combo $10.50
Side hummus $3.25
Arnaki (marinated lamb) pita $11.25
Orpheus (marinated chicken) pita $9.50
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall