The CFQ, chicken-fried quail, arrived with a thin and crispy golden-crusted batter, pregnant with the promised treasure of mashed potatoes stuffed inside the tiny bird. There was true delight in sticking my knife through the center to discover that the simple description “mashed potato” did a disservice to what we found; the finely whipped potatoes almost outshined the vessel that carried them.
Perched atop a shallow pool of slightly thickened gravy made of leeks and a small bunch of semi-softened sautéed green beans, the CFQ was tasty and was terribly missed when we realized we had finished it. There’s never much protein in quail — the petite drums and breast are usually the gist of it — but the potatoes with the creamy leek gravy made for a harmonious pairing.
The quaint little house with a fabulous front porch at 2048 Colquitt is quite possibly the flagship of traditional-meets-modern neighborhood chic, offering a menu of “New American” cuisine. Nobie’s, owned by renowned chef Martin Stayer, formerly of Coltivare and a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago, opened in late November of 2016 in the space that had housed Au Petit Paris for more than nine years.
Stayer has assembled a magnificent team from the back to the front of the house. Manager and resident sommelier Dom Ruiz can usually be found circling the dining space, checking on guests and offering his musings on the best vinos or brews to accompany a plate.
Ruiz and his crew demonstrated the whimsical tradition of drinking wine the way true Spaniards do, or at least did up until the mid-20th century. It seems the tradition has all but disappeared, but by golly, it is very much amusingly alive in Houston. Our wine arrived in a porrón, a glass wine pitcher with a narrow neck and a spout that tapers off into a rather tiny opening, thus enabling the wine to have minimal contact with the air.
The drinker is encouraged to raise the porrón in the air, tilt his head back and open wide to capture his share of wine, in our case Xarmant Txacoli, a crisp white that is available on draft and was recommended by Ruiz. I failed with each turn (coordination is highly recommended) and got more wine down the inside of my dress than in my mouth, but hilarity ensued, so all was not lost.
Cocktail and shrub-queen Sarah Troxell’s list of daily libations is nothing less than inspired. Troxell is the Sarah of Sarah’s Shrubs, which offers small batches of homemade, often home-grown fruit shrubs. On each of our visits, we were treated to playful, cheeky names and an intriguing mix of ingredients.
As these change frequently — what’s here today is literally gone tomorrow — there seems to be no end to Troxell’s boozy innovation. The “It would be a lot cooler if you did” cocktail, named for Matthew McConaughey’s meme-worthy quote of the decades in 1993’s Dazed and Confused, was a combination of Del Maguey Vida, a smoked grape shrub, lemon and Topo Chico. It was refreshing and light yet smoky, and still packed the punch expected with anything Mezcal.
My companion enjoyed his “I wanna talk to Sampson,” a nod to the great Dave Chappelle, which blended Monkey Shoulder Scotch, Earl Grey-infused Cocchi Americano (an Italian aperitif) and Regan’s orange bitters. Luckily, I got more than my usual sampling sip of the Sampson; it made me feel I could be a Scotch girl. The drink was served chilled and still, no ice, the orange bitters and Americano marrying well with the sweet earthiness of the Monkey Shoulder. I imagined sitting back in a leather armchair in casual sophistication, sipping on this blissful blend.
The restaurant’s namesake is Stayer’s grandmother, whom he calls Nobie; her beautiful portrait graces the front entrance, which leads into a two-sided bar dividing two main dining rooms. The restaurant space is a house, built in 1930 and remodeled into a bungalow-style home with a five-star, restaurant-worthy kitchen. The outdoor patio has been updated since the days of Au Petit Paris with a wooden awning added overhead to shield diners from the sun, strings of white light that drape the back wall, and a humble yet sprawling garden of herbs, mints and a few fruit saplings placed along the sidewalk.
Meandering through Stayer’s menu while tapping your toes and fingers involuntarily to whatever is spinning on the hi-fi system is easy. Most of the offerings are small, shareable plates served tapas-style. The old-fashioned chicken liver mousse is outstanding, both visually and in taste. The dish is presented in a low-ball glass with a syrupy cherry jelly and served with buttery, house-made toast.
The yummy pieces of toast also accompany the steak tartare, which is made with smoked jalapeño, parsley and capers and is topped with a layer of deviled-egg cream. The tartare was well-composed but lacked the spice I expected from the jalapeño. The deviled-egg topping demonstrated the touch of Stayer’s culinary creativeness. As with most of the other selections on the menu, I was delightfully surprised to read the list of main components for each dish.
The Avec Dates were sweet and succulent, wrapped in bacon, charred and stuffed with spicy merguez sausage, and presented on a creamy romesco sauce made of roasted red peppers.
The roasted Crescenza, an Italian version of queso fundido, is also known as Stracchino, an Italian cow’s milk cheese. It was fire-roasted and served with piquillo tapenade and a tomato vinaigrette and baby arugula. Spread atop a piece of the toast, the tapenade and cheese made a scrumptious bite.
Nonno’s pasta was a made-from-scratch tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce sprinkled with parmesan. The wide noodles were clearly homemade and were a bit on the al dente side, and the sauce was subtle and fell on the flat side of my taste spectrum. I wanted to love it; it was, after all, “grandfather’s pasta,” but I found myself longing for some cracked pepper and salt in this bowl.
The flat-iron steak was ordered and delivered at a perfect medium-rare temperature. The meat was slathered with a fresh and herb-y chimichurri and presented with a battered and fried oyster mushroom cluster and a roasted tomato half. Again, I wanted a once-over with the salt, but overall the components mingled well on the plate.
Dessert choices are simple, cake or pie, sometimes both. The day’s pie on our visits was the s’mores chocolate, a rich, dark-chocolate pie filling baked inside a salty-sweet graham cracker crust and finished with a scorched merengue topper. A spoonful from top to bottom made for a sweet, creamy bite along with the crunch of the crust.
The menu at Nobie’s is described as “curated and constantly evolving,” and is regularly updated and posted on its website. There is always one large (and pricey) featured item, be it a whole branzino ($49), a tomahawk pork chop ($60) or a Fred Flintstone rib eye ($90), and fresh-shucked oysters are offered in three styles for $18 per half-dozen. Dinner for two can easily range from affordable to decadent, especially if you indulge in the interestingly wonderful wine list, with glasses ranging from $8 to $13 and bottles from $32 to $250.
Stayer keeps 20 to 25 items on the daily menu and allows the availability of seasonal produce and proteins to guide his creations.
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Many restaurants like to say they do “new American,” simply because that’s the easiest way to describe an eclectic menu having food ties to Southern comfort recipes while incorporating different cultural foods and flavors into the mix. Stayer doesn’t do that. He clearly has a flair for Italian, a gift for creating familiar dishes using seasonal ingredients, a love and respect for local meat and seafood, and a dedication to local sourcing.
Whatever the label, Stayer’s cuisine is uniquely his. Dining at Nobie’s is like going over to one of your coolest friends’ house, sharing drinks, staying for dinner and listening to his records while y’all talk all night.
2048 Colquitt, 346-319-5919, Nobies.com. Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 5 to midnight.
Xarmant Txacoli $7
It would be a lot cooler if you did (cocktail) $10
I wanna talk to Sampson (cocktail) $10
Texas tartare $14
Old-fashioned chicken liver mousse $9
Avec Dates $14
Roasted Crescenza $11
Nonno’s pasta $18
CFQ (chicken-fried quail) $25
Flat-iron steak $23
Pie o’ the day (s’mores chocolate pie) $8