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First Look: Ritual in The Heights

The former El Cantina Superior at 602 Studewood is practically unrecognizable except for the familiar oblong patio and the big, windowed garage doors. Inside, the space is a mix of rustic and industrial elements, a balance of wood against iron. There’s a huge beer board, cleverly designed to mimic a train schedule, mounted high on a wall. A big pane of plate glass shields primals, or whole animal quarters, hanging in the drying room.

Those primals come from humanely raised local animals from Black Hill Meats. Felix Florez runs that company, and it’s no coincidence that Ritual carries his product: He’s also a partner in the restaurant. He’s just one member of a “dream team” working with Ken Bridge of Delicious Concepts restaurant group (which ran El Cantina Superior as well). The team includes chef Jordan Asher (formerly of Dosi, which unfortunately didn’t survive despite critical acclaim) and bar manager Peter Clifton, formerly of Noble Experiment speakeasy at Grazia Italian Kitchen in Pearland.

Menu items are almost certainly going to be tweaked as the menu evolves, but flavors are most certainly on the right track. There’s no detectable compromise on ingredient quality. A tomato and lamb bacon salad sported dark nubs of the cured meat, lots of Deep Ellum blue cheese and just some of the prettiest petite red romaine leaves imaginable. The plating, which features a seeded beefsteak tomato cut in half and stacked one on top of the other, perhaps needs to be not so exuberant. It’s a beautiful presentation, but difficult to eat since one half of the tomato slides off the minute it’s cut into.

That new-restaurant exuberance comes into play again with an otherwise impressive take on chicken and waffles called The Angry Bird. It is indeed angry, with enough cayenne to make even hardcore chile heads admit, "It’s a little spicy.” That could probably be hauled back a notch to allow the meatiness of the chicken to come through. Otherwise, the dish is a lot of fun and some may admire the fact that it doesn’t compromise on heat.

The one item that we tried that seemed like it could use a substantial rework was the Gulf Seafood Gravy, a seafood-dip-meets-tomato-bisque invention. The bits of rice in the dish gave the textural illusion that the roux was broken, which wasn’t true. More spice would have been welcome here, although no one is going to complain about the top-notch Gulf seafood combination of crab, shrimp and fish. Ultimately, it led to fantasies of what Ritual’s seafood gumbo would be like: almost certainly spectacular. Perhaps gumbo was regarded as too common or overdone at other restaurants, but it’s hard not to be curious.

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The bar scene was unexpectedly vibrant, considering that it was late on a Tuesday night at a brand-new restaurant. Casually dressed, convivial folks clustered around the bar, ordering beer and cocktails from bartenders dressed nicely in caps, suspenders and vests.

Florez, who was a sommelier at Brennan's of Houston early in his career, says he tasted dozens of Texas wines before landing on some that he felt were truly outstanding. As a result, there are some unexpected gems on Ritual's wine list, such as Windblown from McPherson Cellars, a sophisticated, Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Petite Sirah and Syrah.

The real test of any new restaurant is not whether or not every dish is perfect in the first week. It is whether it instills a sense of excitement and makes diners want to come back and work further through the menu. In the case of Ritual, many might find the answer to be an absolute “yes.”  

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