Chef Chris Williams may come from Southern food royalty -- his great-grandmother was Lucille Bishop Smith, a culinary pioneer who owned U.S. Smith's Famous BBQ in Fort Worth and helped establish one of the first college-level commercial foods departments in the nation at Prairie View A&M University -- but that's not keeping Williams from putting his own signature spin on the updated Southern cuisine he's serving at new restaurant Lucille's.
A plate of "pork and beans," for example, comes out as a shallow dish of fresh, vibrantly green fava beans and a huge braised pork shank, all of it in a sweet-and-sour agrodolce reduction that mimics the tangy taste of old-fashioned pork 'n' beans.
And "meat and potatoes" is no plate of pot roast. Instead, it's a $25 hangar steak with sweet potato gratin and a delicate demiglace. And that $25 should be your first signal that Lucille's is taking itself pretty seriously.
Although it's mere steps from the Children's Museum, Lucille's isn't the first place I'd think of to bring kids. You'll note its adult aesthetic from the moment you set foot inside the old, converted bungalow and are faced with a long, low-slung bar under exposed timber ceilings and a wall of wine buffeting the main dining room (no surprise when you learn that Williams got his chops working at Max's Wine Dive, among other Houston spots).
The restaurant is split into two very distinct dining areas, both with their own feel. But it's the main dining room I prefer, with those rough-hewn ceilings and lodge-like feel. It's dark and cozy and inviting and absolutely the kind of place I'd linger over a few glasses of wine from its well-priced list -- a bottle of Barnard Griffin Cabernet, for example, is marked up 83 percent and isn't bad considering the industry average of anywhere from 300 to 500 percent. (The one cocktail I had during dinner was abominable, but I'll reserve overall judgment on the bar program for when the place gets its footing.)
I wasn't as fond of the rear dining area, however, despite the wide-open pass-through that provides a view into Williams's warm kitchen and front-row seats to watch his dynamo sous chef, Khang Hoang, race around like a blur as Williams calmly expedites the dishes. Although the second dining area has charming dual fireplaces -- one with "Lucille's" spelled out above it in bright, shining tiles -- it felt less put together than the main dining room, with out-of-place dime store prints hanging from one wall and an altogether half-finished vibe.
Perhaps with time, however, this aspect of Lucille's will sort itself out. And if its menus alone -- simple, artfully designed slips of paper with graphic stamps and a clean, modern font -- are any indication of the restaurant's overall aesthetic, I think it will. (I'm not alone in admiring Lucille's menus; Art of the Menu are big fans too.)
In the meantime, I'll be quite pleased to head back and get more of Lucille's shrimp and grits, with that same excellent consistency as the grits at The Breakfast Klub, or another plate of perfectly battered and fried green tomatoes in peppery buttermilk dressing.
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The prices are quite steep on that last dish, however, so I'm eager to see if either the portions increase (three tomatoes for $8 isn't what I'd call generous, although $19 for shrimp and grits isn't unheard of in Houston -- in fact, one of my favorite shrimp and grits is found for $24 at Brennan's -- and the hanger steak is appropriately priced) or if the food prices fall more in line with the affordable wine list.
Either way, I need to head back to Lucille's for the famous chili biscuits alone: The chili-topped buttermilk biscuits were Lucille Bishop Smith's claim to fame, and were once served on American Airlines flights so popular were they. And maybe they'll be her claim to fame once more, here at her great-grandson's temple to all things Southern.