Check out the downtown setting of Hearsay in our slideshow.
Downtown's revitalized Market Square on a Friday night has never been better than it is lately. Niko Niko's in Market Square Park draws a crowd in the evenings with its open-air patio that keeps patrons cool with gentle misting fans, while families with kids sprawl out on the grass and downtown residents let their dogs run free in the adjacent dog park. On the Travis side of the square, Warren's and Char Bar promise cheap but strong drinks and entirely unique atmospheres — Char Bar is still a tailor by day, after all, and Warren's still has an inexplicable indoor gazebo.
On the north side of the square, La Carafe still holds court as Houston's oldest wine bar (and, possibly, the oldest bar in the city, period), its occupants spilling out onto the crooked sidewalk in plastic lawn chairs. And right next door, Hearsay — which calls itself a gastro-lounge, clinging to that description years after it's gone out of style — boasts one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the city.
218 Travis, 713-225-8079. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays, noon to 2 a.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Macaroni and cheese $5
Beer-battered asparagus $6
Hearsay hamburger $12
Fish tacos $14
The Byrd $15
Potato-crusted salmon $20
SLIDESHOW: Hearsay: At Home on Market Square
BLOG POST: The High Price of Hearsay
Inside the historic W.L. Foley building, which was designed and constructed in 1899 by Eugene T. Heiner, the man who built courthouses in more than a dozen Texas counties, Hearsay serves a slightly upscale pub menu and cocktails both classic and creative. And although some businesses have opened and closed quickly on this side of the square — ERA and Convey Sushi, to name a couple — Hearsay has been going strong since opening in late 2009.
The Byrd is Hearsay's signature dish, whether the gastro-lounge realizes it or not. It's what people come here for, and it's what I wish I could order every time I visit — my doctor's increasingly stern threats against my cholesterol and blood pressure be damned.
An eggy, just-sweet-enough bun surrounds an Angus beef patty and nearly every burger topping you can imagine: bacon, two kinds of cheese (cheddar and mozzarella), onions, jalapeños, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard and mayo — along with plush slices of avocado and a runny, messy fried egg. It's a feat to even fit the burger past your lips, and my compliments to you if you manage to finish the beast without resorting to a fork and knife. It's such a glorious wreck of a burger that the mess only makes it more fun.
The fact that it's served with a deep, wide-mouthed ramekin of Hearsay's smoky, creamy macaroni and cheese in lieu of french fries only makes The Byrd that much better. Because trust me, you don't want to eat the fries here. They're frozen, lifeless things that Hearsay misguidedly attempts to jazz up with outdated parmesan and rosemary — it's like putting lipstick on a corpse. No, best stick with the macaroni and cheese, which is not only one of Hearsay's best dishes but also one of its most consistent. (And avoid the risotto entirely, which has a too-hard texture and is so sweet — at least the butternut squash version — that I immediately disposed of my bite into a napkin).
Likewise, although the Saint Arnold beer-battered asparagus is consistently good, the other appetizers should be given a wide berth: Tiny smoked salmon crostini are a rip-off at $8, spring rolls taste of a walk-in, and crawfish-stuffed mushrooms carry no hint of crawfish at all.
Oddly, although it's only $3 less than The Byrd, the standard bacon-and-cheddar-topped Hearsay Hamburger with its barely-there smear of chipotle mayonnaise tastes as if it came out of a different kitchen entirely. The tomatoes are mealy, the greens are odd and skimpy (I found frisee on top of mine recently), and the patty itself is unseasoned and as lifeless as the fries that accompany it. Strangely, this is the same patty that tops The Byrd. I'm not sure if the great toppings on The Byrd hide the bland meat, or if the meat in The Byrd is seasoned more aggressively. All I know is that the $12 Hearsay Hamburger is the overpriced bargain-basement version of an otherwise excellent burger.
On the other hand, a dish that I was sure would be limp and bland — Hearsay's mahi-mahi fish tacos — was quite good. I ordered them on a recent evening in an attempt to be healthy and then watched with annoyance and jealousy as my friend across the table ordered The Byrd.
I was surprised to find myself enjoying the fish tacos nearly as much as he enjoyed his burger, though. Served on serviceable corn tortillas and filled with plump, nicely seasoned chunks of fish in a mild habanero marinade (not a "spicy habeñero" sauce, as the menu reads), the tacos exceeded my expectations. A creamy mango coleslaw on the side was too sweet on its own, but added a nice crunch and counterbalance to the tacos when added in.
In fact, the only bad thing about that evening was the fact that Hearsay was playing the most overrated songs of the 1980s so loudly and with such passion — "Livin' on a Prayer" segueing right into "Jessie's Girl" and so on and so forth — that I could have sworn for a moment I was back in 1986.
A friend of mine mentioned the same sense of unwanted nostalgia when looking at Hearsay's food offerings, and I have to agree with him for the most part. There are items on the menu — a chicken caesar wrap at lunch, Tuscan pasta or a chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes at dinner — that seem to be deliberate throwbacks to at least the 1990s.
These are the dishes I don't understand. Are they on Hearsay's menu because they're safe? Because they play well to the downtown lunch crowd? The dishes seem at odds with Hearsay's excellent, aggressively modern cocktail program and chic, elegant interior that's all sky-high ceilings, sexy banquets and dazzling chandeliers.
One recent lunch found me puzzling over a dish of overcooked salmon that was served with broccolini ruined by an excess of sautéed garlic and a cold quinoa salad with a tart but sweet vinegar bite that was like nails on a chalkboard against the soft grains and the other muddy mash-up of flavors on the plate. Underneath the puny salmon filet was supposed to be a "Chai pomegranate drizzle," but was instead a virtually unidentifiable puree of either raspberry or strawberry — and a puree that was mostly seeds, at that.
How can such a disaster coexist on a menu with such dazzling cocktails as the Modern Man or the Bill's Derby? Along with The Byrd, Hearsay's cocktail menu is the other main attraction here, featuring drinks concocted by bartenders long since departed (try the jalapeño- and sugar-infused Hal-apeno from former barman Hal Brock, now at Anvil) and fresh faces alike. The drinks are unique and wholly Hearsay, especially that Modern Man.
Scotch, dark rum, Swedish punch, Pernod, lemon and bitters come together in the Modern Man — a risky, strong, bracing and complex concoction that's irresistible to anyone bored by cocktails filled with St. Germain and Cocchi Americano. The Bill's Derby stands alone as the only bacon-based cocktail I've ever liked, the pork tempered by Kentucky whiskey. And the sultry Whiskey & Cigarettes is an almost literal interpretation of its name, with a smoky rim that comes courtesy of an open flame and a peaty Laphroaig giving it another layer of charcoal underneath.
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And although an establishment like Hearsay is exactly what Market Square needed to help further its revitalization efforts, Hearsay itself — like the square — still has room for improvement.
The square has been busy doing its part by hosting well-attended open house nights and bringing in new tenants to fill the vacant spaces along its north side: Although the massive ERA space remains empty, Barnaby's has opened on one corner to the great satisfaction of downtowners who love the Houston chain's simple fare, while Latin tapas joint Batanga is set to open soon in the vacant building underneath Market Square's historic clock tower.
I give Hearsay a wide berth on nights when "Come On Eileen" is blaring out of its open doors, or I hear the sad strains of an acoustic guitarist warbling Radiohead's more depressing hits into the night — even if those are the nights which inexplicably draw the largest crowds. No, I'm happiest at Hearsay when I can sit at the bar uninterrupted and sip slowly on an Angostura-and-bourbon-laced Twelve Spot, enjoying the sense of history that oozes from the exposed brick walls and the sight of a reborn Market Square just outside.