Stepping through the doors of State of Grace, the new River Oaks restaurant by hometown boy and Atlanta restaurateur Ford Fry, there’s a timeless quality about the ambience that is immediately captivating. It feels stately, recalling the gilded dining rooms of a bygone era. It's evocative of New Orleans’s iconic Antoine’s while simultaneously channeling the art nouveau classiness of a Parisian French brasserie, and only when you catch a glimpse of the two accent walls bearing animal trophies does State of Grace’s Southern heritage becomes apparent.
“We found an inspiration photo of a deer, caught in the instant when the deer realizes a hunter is around, and liked the concept of pausing and showing the deer some grace,” says Fry, explaining the choice of restaurant name and the underlying deer theme that weaves itself throughout the design.
State of Grace is the ninth restaurant in Fry’s growing portfolio of restaurants, and the first to open in Houston. The opening menu, created in collaboration with executive chef Bobby Matos, is nostalgic in that it draws from Fry’s memories as a youth dining in Houston. It reflects Gulf Coast, Houstonian and other local influences, such as Vietnamese and Mexican. Where possible, Matos says, everything is made in-house.
You get a taste of that house-made goodness when you place an order from the raw bar, a gilded room appropriately named “The Oyster Room.” It occupies its own separate space in the anterior of the restaurant, and seating there is reserved for walk-ins and guests without reservations. It was packed on the night we were there.
Though the Oyster Room menu includes seafood plates, lobster, shrimp cocktail, Alaskan king crab and more, it would behoove you to order the oysters. They're shipped in from the Northeast and Northwest and sourced from our own Gulf Coast, and the occasion feels celebratory whenever you start off with a platter of oysters, especially when they're ordered with champagne (which we did). Here, they come with a traditional mignonette, a Thai chile sauce, and a house-made cocktail sauce. On the side, you get a plate of water crackers served with a tart, addictive, house-made hot sauce, its taste a cross between sriracha, Tabasco and Cholula sauce. Sidenote: Happy hour is a good time to stop in, since the price of select oysters drops to $1.25 from the regular price of $2.95 each.
The dinner menu itself is a playful collection of plates that don’t necessarily have a single theme, other than the fact that they're made up of small plates (“opportunities,” “standards,” “pastas” and “shareables”) or larger, entrée-size plates (“supper”) that are meant to be shared.
A must-order is the exceedingly fresh, incredible scallop crudo, dressed with olive oil, Louisiana citrus and kaffir lime. The dressing had a Southeast Asian flair to it, owing to the kaffir lime leaves and the scallop, a huge, sashimi-quality U-10 that was absolutely delectable.
An order of lobster hush puppies is already emerging as one of the restaurant’s signature items. Not only did the servers rave about them, but when we received them with a side of honey butter, it was all we could do not to inhale each of the plush cornmeal, lobster-filled pillows.
Fresh burrata, topped with a pistachio butter and served with slices of crisp toast, is another solid starter, as is the kale “Caesar” salad, which arrived underneath copious shavings of manchego, with crispy bread, chorizo and boquerones. The combination of chorizo and boquerones imparted a spicy, salty umami that made the salad quite remarkable.
We skipped over the pasta dishes, opting instead to try the Korean fried chicken wings, a generous serving of batter-crisped wings swathed in a tangy red Korean-style sauce, an unexpected menu item that brought color to our meal.
My dining companion was in rapture over the queso oaxaca, a play on the queso flameado made with a mixture of cheeses so thick and gooey that you could twirl it with your fork. The cheese was topped with hen-of-the-woods and was served with house-made pickles and warmed bacon fat tortillas, an absolute guilty pleasure.
For a side dish, we ordered a cheese enchilada “a la felix" (an homage to the old Felix Mexican Restaurant in Montrose), which we could imagine getting on its own. It came one to an order, served in an old-school oval metal plate, and the center oozed decadently when you cut into it.
We’d had our heart set on the duck carnitas, one of the shared plates on the menu, for our main course, but it was not to be, because State of Grace was sold out. Instead, we ordered the "Crispy, Sticky, Smokey Beef Rib," a humongous short rib that arrived on a wooden platter underneath a bed of herbs and a tumble of pickles. Warm Malaysian roti flatbread came with the rib, so that you could make your own flatbread taco or just tear off pieces to eat with the beef rib. It was a meat lover’s fantasy, and insanely delicious.
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And this was just the tip of the iceberg. There were so many other menu items that we wanted to order but didn’t have room for: deviled crab on the half shell with béarnaise sauce; beef tartare with fried oysters, banana blossoms and green papaya; hearth grilled Spanish octopus with warm potato and mustard salad; shrimp a la plancha in a lime broth; Black Hill pork schnitzel; and Gulf cobia with young carrots, harissa and watercress.
State of Grace was conceived as a neighborhood restaurant, and the varied menu makes it easy to picture yourself dining there regularly. Solo diners will also appreciate the beautiful, welcoming bar area, where you can hang out for pre- and post-dinner drinks, or dine solo.
Finally, the wine list is extremely affordable, with whites in the mid-$30 range, and reds in the mid $40s. Our Frères Couillaud Château de la Ragotière, Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2014 was a total hit, and at $9 by the glass, or $36 a bottle, it was a bargain that made our meal all the more enjoyable.