After several “soft opening” dinners, The Durham House is officially ready for business. Don Schoenburg is still front-and-center as the chef (he was chef at the space’s previous existence as Woodrow’s as well as the proprietor of the Gastropunk food truck). Here, though, he’s putting his classical training to work on upscale yet familiar dishes.
Crafting the cocktail program is consultant Aaron Lara, who has been a familiar face behind Houston bars for several years. Those include Anvil Bar & Refuge, The Pass & Provisions, Moving Sidewalk and Pax Americana. Lara will be assisting at The Durham House for the next several weeks to help ensure the cocktail program is sailing along smoothly. Sommelier Chris Fleishman, probably best known for his work at Pax Americana, is also lending his knowledge for The Durham House’s wine program as well. Shane Huggins, who previously worked at Federal Grill and 3rd Floor, will be serving in a permanent capacity as beverage manager.
The former Woodrow Heights spot at 1200 Durham has been converted into a congenial restaurant with restrained Southern flair. Restaurateur Raj Natarajan Jr. says that the oldest part of the house that makes up the restaurant was built in the early 1900s. The first renovation, which involved the addition of a back room, happened in the 1950s. When Floyd Landry opened Floyd’s Cajun Kitchen there, he added a porch that remains to this day.
Natarajan changed Woodrows Heights to The Durham House to meet the needs of a changing demographic in the area as well as convert the concept to something more suitable. “We didn’t want to tear down the house and we didn’t to expand it. [We decided,] 'Let’s put something in here that matches the nature of the space,'” explained Natarajan.
He describes chef Schoenburg’s style as “direct with big flavors.” Some of those big flavors are found in dishes like Texas lamb tartare, which is ground in-house daily and embellished with finely chopped cucumber, lemon and pine nuts. It’s topped with a quail egg and lemon oil. On the side are toasty rye bread and Dijon mustard.
For truffle fries, Schoenburg rejects truffle oil in favor of finely shaved fresh truffles. The potatoes are fried in duck fat tossed in Parmesan shaved with a microplaner and are served with the house sauce: a spicy rémoulade made of more than 30 ingredients, including garlic, mustard powder, thyme, smoked paprika and stout beer.
Adventurous diners will love the crispy sweetbreads balanced with balsamic beet puree, shishito pepper pesto, pickled beech mushrooms and citrus. The Durham House also brings in some of the best boudin noir we’ve ever had from Louisiana.
Diners who want to stick with the familiar may gravitate to the U3-size shrimp, a gigantic specimen from the Pacific that's as big as a man’s palm, and the prime Angus steaks. It’s important to Schoenburg for guests to be really impressed by the quality and flavors of what they are eating. “I want [diners] to eat the food and go, ‘Oh, wow, I’m in heaven,’” he said.
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One of the most inventive dishes is grouper encrusted with spent malt from Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company. The grains, after being oven-dried on a sheet pan, add pleasing crunch and texture that's a bit reminiscent of chopped pecans. The grouper is served on top of spinach and grape tomatoes, with a neat round of farro alongside.
On the cocktail side, Lara has helped construct a program that’s good but not excessively complex. Just one example is Gil’s Big Break, a relative of the gin and tonic. “It’s an easy-drinking gin cocktail that happens to also contain a bit of tonic because I find it to be a little more complex and interesting than a standard gin and tonic,” explained Lara. It contains Koval gin, lemongrass syrup, dry vermouth, celery bitters and tonic and is chilled by one of the giant, slow-melting, perfectly clear ice cubes sourced from Ice Age, the company Lara co-founded with Alex Gregg of Moving Sidewalk.
Hours are not yet posted. The Durham House's website and Google have them wrong, so take note: The restaurant is open Mondays through Wednesdays from 5 to 10 p.m., Thursdays from 5 to 11 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to midnight.