Harwood Grill’s way to the hearts of Houston diners might be through its chicken-fried steak. The restaurant specializes in Akaushi sourced from HeartBrand Beef in Harwood, Texas — hence the name. Harwood has swapped skirt steak for the traditional cube steak, and it works just beautifully. The Akaushi skirt is fibrous enough that there’s a satisfying bit of pull and chew to the meat, but a bite is still easily coaxed away with just a little help from a steak knife. It’s enrobed in fried pleats of batter that range from pale gold to deep amber.
There are two issues that might disappoint chicken-fried steak aficionados, though. Harwood Grill is using brown gravy, not country-style cream gravy, and some Houstonians will say that’s just wrong. It’s a rather bland brown gravy, for that matter, but at least it’s served on the side. Also, the meat is listed as strip on the menu, not skirt. Regardless, skirt was the right choice and the steak alone is so good that the gravy isn’t even really missed much.
Little has changed in the space that used to house 60 Degrees Mastercrafted. Harwood Grill was able to open less than two months after its predecessor closed thanks to keeping most of the original interior intact. A significant addition is the butcher’s case near the front door, where customers can buy Akaushi beef and take it home to cook themselves (including the skirt that makes such a fine chicken-fried steak).
At night, it’s possible to indulge in a two-course steak dinner that features choices of soup or salad and either a 14-ounce Akaushi rib eye or a six-ounce filet for $45. The meal doesn’t feel indulgent, though. The starter salad was a very standard lettuce blend topped with piles of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and white-bread croutons. The rib eye was thin and didn’t seem like 14 ounces of meat. Dining out on steak should feel like a special event, and this didn’t. Comparatively, the 14-ounce USDA Prime sirloin at B&B Butchers & Restaurant, which also opened and was reviewed this year, was thicker and more satisfying. The only time a thin steak is okay is when it’s served with onions, peppers and tortillas or comes on a bun topped with Cheez Whiz.
On the other hand, the dense, eight-ounce Akaushi meatball was much more of a looker, all done up in the colors of the Italian flag with chunky, tangy red tomato sauce, scatterings of white Parmigiano Reggiano shavings and green parsley on top. Two people can easily share it as an appetizer.
The shadow that lingers over Harwood Grill’s better qualities is the kitchen, which can’t seem to get cooking times, textures and seasonings consistently nailed down. Time and again, a dish landed on the table that was overcooked, undercooked, bland or salty. The good points of the aforementioned steak were overshadowed by how heavily it had been salted after cooking, so much so that there was a visible layer of white crystals on top.
It wasn’t the only oversalted dish of the evening. The other, oddly enough, was the carrot cake. A little salt brings desserts, baked goods and pastry alive, and some desserts (like the ubiquitous salted-caramel-anything) exist because of the thrill in the contrast between salty and sweet. This carrot cake, though, was reminiscent of a sitcom episode in which a home baker trying to impress someone accidentally uses the salt instead of the sugar. It wasn’t even enjoyable as an oddity, which was a shame because the texture was spot-on. Another dessert, the pecan pie, wasn’t too salty — but it was served cold, so the expected toasty and caramel flavors just didn’t come through.
Then there are the general cooking issues. One night, mashed potatoes were perfectly textured with a fine balance of cream and butter, and then, two days later, they were a loose, watery mush. A $19 medium-size bowl of lobster bisque was weirdly foamy and the big, expensive chunks of lobster tail were just a loss, cooked to the point of toughness. The same went for the shrimp on top of bland, utterly forgettable macaroni and cheese made with spiral-shaped pasta. The blackening spice used for seasoning the shrimp was terrific, though.
Sometimes, Harwood Grill feels like a country cafe that landed in the wrong spot. The casual fare seems mismatched with the sparsely elegant space. The lunch menu even looks like a country cafe’s, with wings, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and that stellar chicken-fried steak. That aside, the red hot whisky wings are pretty lovable, even if the sauce tastes suspiciously like Frank’s RedHot. There’s a big bath of it for the citrus-brined chicken wings, and it’s just the right balance of spicy and tangy.
The brightest and most consistent point at Harwood Grill is the wait staff. The ladies and gentlemen on the floor are congenial, prompt and observant. They are a testament to the idea that outstanding service can surmount flawed food, to the extent that diners are willing to give the place another go-round.
Harwood seems to lack bar staff, though, and one server tasked with taking care of that area was clearly out of her element as she scrambled around looking for the Campari. Another server made an old-fashioned and a Manhattan that might as well have been just straight shots of bourbon and rye garnished with cherries and bitters. There was no sweetness to balance out the ingredients.
So, unless there seems to be an actual bartender in residence, stick with the wine list. Speaking of that, the selection from Loire, Burgundy, Champagne and Rheingau, as well as some astute domestic choices, is outstanding. Sometimes the pricing seems a bit off. There were only two sparkling by-the-glass selections — a $10 Prosecco, which seemed right, and a $16 Roederer Estate Brut Rosé, which seemed pricey. However, the vast majority of the reds and whites by the glass range from $9 to $13, which is perfectly within reason.
60 Degrees Mastercrafted’s ownership blamed construction on Westheimer for its lack of business, and the situation is worse now than it was. One day, the road leading to Harwood Grill’s parking lot was barricaded, which forced diners to find the back way. Maybe that’s why only two tables were occupied during lunch. During dinner on a different day, the road wasn’t blocked and diners filled every warmly lit table.
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Entrée prices are very reasonable. It’s the appetizers that will send the bill skyrocketing. In some cases, the starters are just a few bucks less than the main courses. For example, the chicken-fried steak is $23 and chicken wings are $18. A substantial order of fried chicken is $21, but the little crab cakes are $19. Add on $8 desserts and $12 glasses of wine and by the end, there will be a hefty tab. With all that said, Harwood Grill is still very affordable compared to most steakhouses.
Harwood Grill has its charms, and the staff are an incredibly friendly group of people who provide conscientious service. The kitchen, however, has desperately got to get its act together. The never-ending construction outside on Westheimer is enough of a bogeyman. This restaurant doesn’t need a bigger one inside the kitchen.
2300 Westheimer, 713-360-7757. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Shrimp mac and cheese $8
The Meatball $12
Red hot whiskey wings $18
Lobster bisque $19
Chicken-fried steak $23
14-ounce Akaushi rib eye $39
Carrot cake $8
Pecan pie $8
Rye old-fashioned $10
GL Felino Malbec $12