The Thai spicy shrimp won the 2015 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Best Bites competition.
The Thai spicy shrimp won the 2015 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Best Bites competition.
Troy Fields

Davis Street Needs to Become Something More Than a One-Dish Wonder

It was an initial thrill to see a big soft-shell crab laid across a BLT, with thick slices of Texas toast, freshly sliced tomato, lettuce and bacon. That impressive battered, deep-fried specimen was about eight inches from the tip of one leg to the tip of the other at its widest part. However, it would have been good to omit the browning, pock-marked avocado half on top — and the barely warm truffle fries alongside dashed any final dreams of greatness.

Moments like these happen regularly at Davis Street At Hermann Park, where a dish that has a lot of potential doesn’t fulfill its destiny because of missteps and overlooked details.

When Davis Street won the 2015 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Best Bites competition with its Crispy Thai Shrimp, people sat up and took notice. At the time, the restaurant had been open just shy of three months. It was a big win for the fledgling establishment that seems to have paid off in customers. A recent Friday night was bustling at 6 p.m., and yes, that does mean you should make reservations if you visit.

However, there is a vast difference between winning a competition with a single dish and the much more complex endeavor of running a restaurant. Davis Street would benefit from some fine tuning and a clearer, more precise vision of what it’s all about. The space has a split personality that seems at odds with itself, while the menu shyly partakes of a myriad of international influences without actually embracing them.

The atmosphere teeters between upper-crust restaurant and funky lounge, all contained in the same big main dining room. The “patio” consists of white sofas, tall tables and chairs set out on the concrete common area in front of the restaurant. Since it’s shared by the whole strip center with no barrier around it, there aren’t really any niceties that would make it more attractive — no plants, awnings or decorative items, for example. It’s just a plain-Jane hangout for overflow. No one was eating out there, and, really, it’s not as if sitting by the traffic and noise on Almeda Road is all that enticing.

On the more formal side, there’s a huge floor-to-ceiling glass wine case just past the front door that speaks of elegance, as do the full-service dining rooms. There are full-service dining-room prices to match. Of the 14 dishes that could be considered full entrées, not appetizers, sandwiches or flatbreads, nine are $30 or more.

The bar area complete with tabletop game consoles belies the formal facade.
The bar area complete with tabletop game consoles belies the formal facade.

However, the boisterous bar area, tabletop game console, bright purple and green upholstered chairs, and green chandeliers belie the formal facade. If the color palette was inspired by The Joker, it’s working. Add some gold, and it could be a Mardi Gras theme. Either way, a consultation with a good restaurant designer might help blend the disparate personalities.

The execution of dishes at Davis Street is similarly all over the place and not particularly inspiring. Many items are made from scratch, which is laudable, but dishes with strong cultural influences tread too softly. The menu is a veritable United Nations. It draws from Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Jamaica and the southern United States, but the flavors aren’t dramatic enough to make a solid nod to any particular inspiration.

Sometimes the softer flavors still work. Take, for example, the promising red curry coconut wings, a dish that’s a kissing cousin to the award-winning crispy Thai shrimp dish in that it seeks to be both sweet and spicy. The sweet is there; the spicy less so.

The menu says the chicken drumettes are rubbed with jerk seasoning and marinated for 24 hours. Why, then, is there so little heat? Jerk seasoning is seriously spicy. The red curry sauce with its base of coconut milk fulfills the sweet, pleasant side of the equation. There’s just not enough heat to balance it out. Using finely diced carrot as a sprinkled-on garnish is fun and creative. It’s here where one can see a potential path to success — elevating the homey and humble with more sophisticated flair.

“Sweet” is, in fact, a predominant characteristic in several of the menu items. In addition to the dishes noted above, there’s a mini Monte Cristo that uses a crepe instead of a bun, with berry compote and powdered sugar; a pan-seared salmon with sweet soy glaze; banh mi with sweet chile sauce; and cayenne maple-glazed duck. Just reading the menu is enough to spike your blood sugar levels.

With the duck, made with confit duck legs, it’s easy to see that the intent is to create balance in that push-and-pull between the maple glaze and the cayenne. Again, though, there’s insufficient heat to balance the sweet, and the exterior of the duck legs ended up simply dry, not crispy as in the menu description.

More temperature problems marred the tall, panko-crusted crab cake speckled through with corn, red pepper, black beans and green onion. The resulting flavor was a good marriage of land and sea, with the sweetness of the corn kernels melding with the tender crab and the whole concoction anchored with staunch but not overwhelming jalapeño cream and Sriracha aioli. However, it was served barely warm, which undercut the potential.

The doughnut bread pudding sits in a pool of bourbon sauce.
The doughnut bread pudding sits in a pool of bourbon sauce.

Sometimes food isn’t too cool. Occasionally, it’s blazingly hot. Such was the case with the doughnut bread pudding. It was so lava-like that steam burst from the surface when it was cut into. It was like having a bad argument with someone. There was no choice but to just leave it alone and let it cool off for a while.

Once it was cool enough to eat, it was actually quite good. It’s made from doughnuts that have been processed into a cohesive cake. Doughnut bread pudding is not a first, but the Davis Street version is much more akin to the classic. It’s dense, and (ironically) the sweetness is quite balanced. It sits in a pool of one of the best bourbon sauces in town. It’s silky, rich and the color of café au lait. There’s also a wealth of butter in there. Dieters need not apply.

The six-layer chocolate cake made an impression, too, but it probably wasn’t the one intended. Like many items at Davis Street, it’s made in-house. It’s a big, attractive slice, but the flavor and texture of the cake itself were rather reminiscent of a Hostess Ding Dong. Depending on what someone is hoping for, that could be either a good or a bad thing.

There’s a tap system for wine that’s probably just fine for white wines but way too cold for red. A glass of serviceable Pinot Noir was so cold that a thick layer of condensation immediately formed on the glass. Wine by the bottle may be a better bet, but with a markup that is roughly three times retail, the prices are awfully dear. So that bottle of 2012 Caymus Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon had better be a need instead of a want, because it’s going to cost $180 plus tax and gratuity.

Service is a comforting anchor amid the uncertainty. The staff is pleasant and truly helpful. Requests like substituting a side dish on an entrée are accommodated with grace and, despite what the end result might be, the servers describe the menu items with apt enthusiasm.

Davis Street At Hermann Park is located in the Mosaic high-rise and retail complex. The building is valet-only, and that will cost visitors $5 plus gratuity. There is some limited street parking (mind the hours on the signs and don’t park there during rush hour). There are parking lots across the street, but technically those are for Hermann Park.

Davis Street has proven that it can take its act on the road and win. Winning on its own home turf needs to be the next goal.

Davis Street At Hermann Park
5925 Almeda, 844-328-4778. Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 4 to 11 p.m. Fridays; 4 p.m. to midnight Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Mac and cheese $9
Red curry coconut wings $14
Soft-shell crab “stack” $20
Cayenne maple glazed duck $28
Grilled double cut pork chop $30
Ocean stuffed salmon $32
Dark chocolate layer cake $8
Doughnut bread pudding $8

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