"Oh my God," oohed my friend over my cocktail last night at Triniti. "They have the right ice." I laughed good-naturedly at her self-admitted "cocktail nerdery" and regarded the solid cubes with a bit more interest than I had before. They were the type designed to melt as slowly as possible, in order not to dilute the strength or flavor of the drink.
"I have a feeling," I told her, "that everything is right here."
The dining room at Triniti is as perfectly appointed as the food. I had an inkling from photos I'd seen of the space, but didn't fully realize the incredible attention to detail until going for myself the first time last night. Water poured out of elegant Riedel pitchers into thin-rimmed Riedel glasses; swift and perfect mise en place before every course; softened butter dusted with fat kernels of salt alongside a thoughtful bread service; chairs that function as modern sculpture and warm wood tones that keep the large room (and its decibel level) grounded.
Part of the reason for this attention to detail is the fact that the newly-opened Triniti is sort of the Avengers of Houston restaurants, with players assembled from some of the city's best dining rooms and kitchens. Familiar waiters from Voice, a manager from Reef, a sommelier from Vic & Anthony's, chefs with pedigrees from restaurants such as The Barbed Rose, bistro moderne, Aries, Voice and Textile, all of them under executive chef Ryan Hildebrand's steady leadership.
It's a dream team of talent in both the kitchen and the front of the house, which has the potential to be an ego-driven mess. Instead, they function as a thoughtful, confident team -- something which is conveyed in even the smallest touches here.
I didn't attend any of Hildebrand's "Snapshot Dinners," preview dinners for fans of his that showed off what he and his crew had planned for the restaurant. As such, I went in blind, not quite knowing what Hildebrand and his crew would have in store on a menu I've heard described in various places as "modern American," "progressive American" and even "sweet, savory and spirits."
Between courses, my cocktail nerd friend and I debated what the nomenclature for this new breed of restaurants like Triniti ought to be -- after all, human nature is to label things for sake of convenience. While I'm sort of partial to the idea of "progressive American" to describe courses like Triniti's prismatic field of beet cubes, goat cheese spheres and pear wedges, she insisted that "contemporary New American" was more appropriate.
I hadn't considered the phrase before, but I liked it. At Triniti, you can see the bone structure of New American cuisine in its elegant, expressive sauce work and transformed comfort food, like a foie gras "breakfast" with crispy bacon, a delicate quail egg and fig syrup served alongside a torchon. The lobe's finely seared exterior yielded into its creamy interior as though we'd cracked the sugar crust on a crème brûlée, and it was suddenly easy to see pastry chef/chef de cuisine's Jose Hernandez's touches in the food. My favorite dish of the night was a simple egg-in-a-hole dish with a fat, golden yard egg atop a bed of tart kale, the balance of salt and acidity and brilliant yolk pulling together in harmony.
Yet Triniti is not New American. In that "contemporary" vein, it incorporates newer techniques and -- more importantly -- local ingredients that give the restaurant a sense of place: a Railean rum-based cocktail or greens from Wood Duck Farms are here not as garnish but as an overall attitude toward the cuisine.
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They speak to Triniti's entire identity as a restaurant, one which emphasizes thoughtfulness and quality in every aspect. And that includes sourcing the best local ingredients so that you as a diner are always aware of the fact that you're dining in Houston. This is not a faceless menu of intricately plated but soulless food; it's an expression of our city from men (and women) who clearly care deeply about it.
And if "contemporary New American" is what's easiest to call it, I'm fine with that. Although I have a feeling that if you were to ask Ryan Hildebrand to describe the restaurant he and his staff have painstakingly crafted over the last year, I'm sure he'd call it a labor of love. It's that too, and Houston is luckier for it.