“I’m going to make us borscht,” is what my sister said the day she’d returned from a summer abroad in Moscow, freshman year of college, a large paper bag of beets in her hands. Borscht, I learned, was a messy, taxing soup to make, one that required a sharp knife, numerous cigarette breaks and the sole desire to destroy your mother’s kitchen. Even the cat’s bowl seemed to have pink water for days after, and I recall, after taking my first slurps of that gritty fuchsia broth, the unacceptably dirt-laden flavors of that hours-long toil. Borscht stained my teeth and clogged my braces with great white shark-level beet carnage. I offered a fake smile and obligatory thanks, overwhelmed with the desire to put down the bowl and heat up my usual evening nachos in the microwave.
Twenty years later and my sister and I decide on another dining experiment for the sake of overcoming our borscht bias. This time we’re in the Montrose area at the recently opened and critically hyped Riel, a new modern American eatery at 1927 Fairview, where Manitoba native and chef Ryan Lachaine, a former sous at Houston vanguards Underbelly and Reef, brings the multicultural flavors of French-Canadian, Ukrainian and Houstonian — including Japanese and Southern — cuisines to the table via a brief and pretty stellar list of (mostly) small plates.
This time the borscht does not suck. It arrives in large and vibrant fashion for just $8, forever the most punk rock of soups, the appearance teleporting me back to the late teens, when I took to lathering my pixie cut in Manic Panic hair dye, my favorite being the hot hot pink, the very color and near-consistency of Riel’s borscht.
Lachaine uses a veal stock in his recipe, and it pays off. An underlying fatty element is buttery and rich with an added dollop of crème fraîche, horseradish and dill coming in for the kill in this pureed helping. It’s a difficult dish to get people to go nuts over, but somehow this is one of the best bites I’ve had so far in 2017, and the rest of the meal at Riel boded just as well. It might just be the best meal I’ve had so far this year, and, I hope, a sign of good things to come from this dynamic eatery.
The kitchen, an open one at that, is already working with such efficiency and grace at just one month in that it’s a tad astonishing. On a Saturday night, the restaurant was packed, and my sister and I sat face to face with a line of six young, tatted cooks who worked their way out of the weeds without an air of calamity or noticeable distress emanating toward our perch at the chef’s counter, surrounded by vases of cotton stalks and fellow diners. While the restaurant has the modern sleek lines that seem to assure that all-too-common cold and loud affront to ambience, there was warmth here in droves, in both the service and the food and drink.
Riel is named after the founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel, and the region’s warming flavors carry a bit of weight here, all thanks to Lachaine, who has Ukrainian heritage as well.
Comforting clove stands out in the tourtiere (a succulent pork pie, $18), and it will be interesting to see how it endures through the scorching summer. That tourtiere comes with a strawberry mustard that struck an odd chord with me, though, summoning the horrors of mass-produced, bottled strawberry-flavored salad dressing. The accompanying pickled cauliflower and chow chow proved a far superior match.
The servers also seemed very much attracted to a summery Trudy’s cocktail, a tincture of grapefruit radler (a sweet shandy), Grüner Veltliner and bitter Campari, named after a former consignment shop that inhabited the space along with Te House of Tea, pre-Riel. I can drink like five of them, the server assured us, but one sip and all the severe hangovers I’d experienced throughout my twenties warned me away. Perhaps the drink only tastes like hangover once you’ve reached your mid to late thirties, the “invisible” years, as my sister calls them (unless, say, you go to a restaurant with a Canon in tow).
The frothy and earthen Borscht Sour (double down on the borscht theme here) and the Mai Tai-meets-Margarita-esque quaff, Black Sea Side, with Cynar and rum, were frontrunners. The sleek gin-based Trudeau was almost as attractive as its namesake, and the bartenders do seem to have a predilection for utilizing its trendiest ingredient, Cocchi Americano, a vermouth-like aperitivo that’s had it-girl status in the cocktail industry of late, to good effect. Cocktails are in the $9 to $13 range and a wine list offers numerous choices in the $40 to $200 range.
But back to the feast at hand: The Gulf fish karaage (delicately breaded and deep-fried redfish) is a steal at $13. The fish is plated in handy bite-size portions, but is still a showstopper, thanks to its accompanying tail, which retains that glorious underlying coral hue despite its trip to the fryer. The housemade ranch sauce, with its hint of dill, doesn’t hurt things.
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Sticky toffee pudding ($11) was topped with shavings of foie gras and a blood caramel sauce that was thinner than expected. We downed it fast, though the savory side of the 15-item menu is where this restaurant excels.
Especially awe inducing was the Montreal smoked meat plate ($17), with house-smoked beef brisket that gives to a fork’s tine, served with tender barley-like rye and a pop of French’s mustard. “The mustard reminds me of those sandwiches back at Kmart when we were kids,” my sister said. We’d fallen into another taste memory, one of cheap Italian subs and Icees long ago, which is what good dining experiences are all about, invoking those dusty edges of the imagination, sending you places, leaving you wanting more. All of which is why I'll be heading back to Riel very soon.
1927 Fairview, 832-831-9109, online at www.rielhtx.com
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday to Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sundays