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Fine Dining By The Sea(Brook)

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"Don't get too caught up in it; it's just grape juice," laughed Mark McWilliams, seated to my right. Those are words you don't expect to hear from someone who runs a successful winery for a living, but it set the tone for a refreshing evening. Anyone expecting a stuffy wine dinner was in for a pleasant surprise at Bailey's American Grille on Thursday night, as two families came together for what ended up being a relaxing, fun and -- most importantly -- delicious night.

I'm going to be honest. I never would have driven all the way down to Seabrook to eat at Bailey's last week if I hadn't been invited to the restaurant's Arista Wine Dinner, a media dinner that paired four courses with limited-production wines from the little Sonoma vineyard run by expat Texans. But I was incredibly curious about the wines themselves, which are only sold in California and Texas, as well as hearing the story of the family from Texarkana who moved to Sonoma to start Arista. I ended up falling in love with not only the wines, but Bailey's itself.

Run by another Texas family -- the same one that's run the popular Sudie's Catfish House restaurants in Pasadena and League City for many years -- Bailey's American Grille (which celebrates its two-year anniversary next month) is the next step up the restaurant ladder for the Bailey family, all of whom were present on Thursday night. Brad Bailey is proud in particular of the talented chef he recruited from Brennan's in New Orleans, the garden they're working on to supply the restaurant with fresh herbs and produce and the new banquet room they had to build to accommodate the diners who pack Bailey's each night.

And in Seabrook, I can't say I'm really surprised.

The community down here is closely-knit, a jumble of Houstonians seeking a slower pace of life by the water and NASA employees who've brought their families to live in Seabrook, Clear Lake and Kemah. There is plenty of money to be spent down here, and the residents are clearly happy to spend it on the kind of upscale food you'd find inside the Loop from a local family they know and love.

That community aspect was on display throughout the evening, as a crowd of more than 70 regulars packed the banquet room for a prix-fixe wine dinner -- a number of people that even well-established Inner Loop restaurants have a hard time accumulating. The Barber family seemed to know them all by name, as did Bailey's cheerful sommelier, Christopher Colin, who was positively giddy about having Arista wines on hand for the night.

Roland Soza, executive chef, was a quiet but forceful presence all night, with spare but insightful comments on the dishes as they came out. "He's one of the few chefs I've worked with who actually tasted the wines before deciding on the menu," McWilliams told me, as I commented on how well Arista's dry yet floral Gewurztraminer complemented the first course of wild greens with goat cheese and passion fruit vinaigrette. "It makes a huge difference, as you can tell."

The second course that night, a Scottish salmon in a gazpacho vinaigrette with hedgehog mushrooms and baby carrots, similarly paired surprisingly well with the 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, despite the wine being more fruit-forward. The loamy, earthy undertones to the Pinot were only enhanced by the mushrooms in the dish. And, again, those same musky notes in the 2007 Mononi Vineyard Pinot were deftly encouraged by the smoked potato puree that made a bed for a soft, succulent chunk of braised short ribs in the third course.

But perhaps the best pairing of the night came at dessert, when a 2008 Smokey Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel was paired with a chocolate beet cake with strawberry and pepper jam and strawberry sorbet. The white pepper finish of the Zin was a playful contrast to the black pepper in the jelly, while the chocolate and berry notes were subtly enchanced by the cake and sorbet. This last dish was the work of Mushroom Throwdown winner, pastry chef Rebecca Masson, who has been consulting with Bailey's on its newly revamped dessert menu.

After the meal, people clamored to get on Arista's email list as Mark McWilliams explained the winery's method of selling its extremely limited-production wines: "We send out an email, and it's first come, first serve." Meanwhile, we sampled a few more of Masson's creations that will soon be featured on the menu: a bread pudding made with croissants in a rich, sticky caramel sauce and a chocolate-peanut butter icebox pie with homemade beer nuts. The homestyle desserts seem to serve as a reminder that -- at its heart -- Bailey's is just comfort food done right and done good, something the Bailey family perfected at Sudie's, with fancier tablecloths on the tables.

And for my part, I'll be making the drive back down there for another dinner as soon as I can.

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