When Jamie Zelko left her post as executive chef at Bistro Lancaster in 2008, we worried that the young talent would pack her bags and leave our fair city. She was, after all, a climbing star, winning praise, love and accolades from patrons and critics alike. Turns out, leaving the Lancaster was probably the best move for her. In her newly minted restaurant, Zelko Bistro, no longer must she work in an artless hotel restaurant. Now, Jamie Zelko cooks on her own terms in a homey, 45-seat space made vibrant by natural light, simple accents, and a smiling staff.
Like it or not, Houston doesn't support restaurants that veer too far from the center. In that sense, Zelko and her partner, former Shade chef Jeb Stuart, have done it right. With Zelko Bistro, they've taken a concept we readily adore -- comfort food -- and added an upmarket spin. The menu is much like the one at Ousie's Table. Knowing what Zelko is capable of, I was a bit fearful that I'd walk in with unreachably high expectations. A celebrated chef opening a small, comfort food bistro in what is arguably Houston's hottest real estate? Sheesh. What I learned is that certain dishes fit Zelko's gentrified concept like a jigsaw, while others are more like an oval peg and a round hole - not quite right, yet not far off.
Among the appetizers, the fried pickles are most indicative of the restaurant's calming concept. Opting out of the standard dills, Zelko uses the more refined gherkins. The mini-pickles are lightly breaded, then flash fried till golden delicious and served with a viscous, housemade ranch dressing.
The bruscetta, too, is praiseworthy: seared triangles of pita spread with hummus and topped with roasted red peppers, shallots, feta, basil and garlic. Soups, like the lamb stew and a meaty vegetable beef are hearty -- too hearty -- and missing the finesse that many of the other dishes achieve. They are a work in progress.
Zelko seems to know that reputable meatloaf is essential if comfort food's your game. Cooked in a can and served over a mound of buttery mashed potatoes, her "Homeless Joe" dances on the tightrope separating down-home and up-market, laughing in the face of anyone who says comfort food and silver spoons don't go together. It is a meatloaf you want again and again.
Farm fried chicken, on the other hand, fizzles. The bird is juicy and plump, wrapped with fine crumbs and served with a mash of shallot jam. But the breading is overly spicy - as in, too many spices together - which makes the batter disjointed. Fried chicken is a minimalist dish, one that begs to be kept simple. Zelko's version is overly ambitious.
The massive burger arrives exactly as ordered, a juicy medium topped with caramelized onions, bacon and cheddar. Perhaps more exciting than the well-cooked burger, though, are the fries, gorgeously golden and beautifully thin -- lightly seasoned, lightly crispy. The exterior shatters like safety glass to reveal a warm, starchy center. The shrimp and grits, sprinkled with applewood-smoked bacon and green onions, are equally delicious: creamy, briny and smooth.
The fish tacos provide a lighter option, perhaps, but seem out of place on the down-home menu. And while the house-made tortillas are sturdy and delicious, the fish is drowning in a thin sauce, yet lacking in flavor. A sprinkle of salt or a stickier sauce might do the trick. The pile of sweet plantains on the side is tasty, though.
Exceptional dining, of course, is more than what's on the plate. Jamie Zelko and Jeb Stuart have taken a proven concept and supplemented it with local, farm-fresh ingredients in a neighborhood they both cherish. The thoughtful interior and pleasant service offer a flying buttress of support for the larger concept: It is a place void of pretension - in the food *and* in the service. Don't try to make reservations (it's strictly first come, first served), but do be sure to go. Everything seems to be running smoothly at Zelko Bistro, which should give the proprietors the time and freedom they need to work out the kinks. They will get it right, though... Zelko Bistro is pleasance incarnate.
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