To fully understand and appreciate Hunky Dory, it’s important to know a little about chef Richard Knight’s first Houston restaurant, Feast. Without Feast and Knight, there would be no Hunky Dory. (Really, the story of Feast, its proprietors, Treadsack and Hunky Dory could be made into a movie that would have more drama than Chef and more realism than Burnt.)
Knight and his business partners, Meghan and James Silk, opened Feast in the spring of 2008. Within months, it garnered rave reviews and national acclaim for its “nose-to-tail eating” concept. The idea, pioneered by English chef Fergus Henderson, was to turn as many parts of food animals as possible, including seldom-used cuts and offal, into delectable dishes. Feast did just that, serving unforgettable dishes like pig’s ear cake, beef tongue, calf’s liver with bacon, and kidney pies that tasted far better than they sounded.
However, critical acclaim doesn’t always translate into fiscal success. On-again, off-again levels of business, a restaurant market growing ever more competitive, exhausting work schedules and an ill-fated attempt to open a second location in New Orleans all conspired to wear down the principals.
On Friday, June 14, 2013, Feast served its final meal. It was a glorious, bittersweet dinner, like smiling through tears at a good friend who is about to move far away. The Silks did, in fact, move to New York. Knight, however, remained in Houston and joined forces with Treadsack to build a new place that ended up being Hunky Dory. (The name is the title of a David Bowie album. It’s not too far a stretch to imagine a young Knight having his own Ziggy Stardust days.)
Houston is better off for his decision to stay — and for the patience and perseverance of everyone involved. It was a long, tedious slog to get Hunky Dory open. When Feast closed, Knight thought the new place might be open as soon as the end of 2013. That proved far too optimistic. The build-out dragged on relentlessly, as major construction projects are apt to do.
In the meantime, Treadsack kept diners’ appetites whetted with a series of pop-up dinners called Kipper Club Test Kitchen. These were held in the unlikeliest of places — a former fast-food place next door to a gas station, for one — but provided valuable insights into the ambitious chefs’ plans.
Finally, on October 1, 2015, Hunky Dory had its first official “soft opening” dinner service.
Was it worth the long wait? Absolutely.
Hunky Dory is no clone of Feast, although that old restaurant’s friendly ghost is apt to stop by the table and say hello. The legendary sticky toffee pudding has been reincarnated on the dessert menu in all its warm, molasses-laden glory. The popular Exmoor toasts, with a fresh anchovy gently laid astride a swath of clotted cream, have reappeared at happy hour.
While we’ll always miss the restaurant that felt like an old family dining room, Hunky Dory is much better equipped to serve in the modern age. It has clean lines, lots of light, sturdy floors, a big front patio and an on-site parking lot that it shares with Bernadine’s next door. (Diners may be miffed at being required to use the valet.) The painted beadboard wall might make customers chuckle, since the bright, spring-green color seems as much an homage to the ’70s as is Bowie chanting “The Jean Genie” on the overhead sound system. (Speaking of sound, kudos to Treadsack for actually installing soundproofing in the ceiling. It’s too often an afterthought, and makes such a difference in the atmosphere.)
Visible through the kitchen pass is an artistic, functional hearth from which emerge Texas-raised strip steaks, fillets and pork chops. Eggs are cooked in the embers and appear on top of a hunk of toasted bread (or, as the British call it, a trencher) on the chicken and eggs dish. The herb-roasted chicken has a faint smokiness to it, as if it were kissed by fire. The combination is simple, hearty and comforting.
To start, though, a group of diners will want to indulge in the spectacular Silver Salver, a big, gleaming antique tray filled with fine charcuterie, cheese, relishes and crusty bread. The silky chicken liver mousse alone is apt to cause an addiction. The Girl Scouts might want to take a look at the barely sweet, round oat cakes, for if they were sold in sleeves, they would go like the dickens. The soft Spanish sheep’s milk cheese caña de oveja is a loving work of concentric layers that bloom from a pale, creamy interior into a winter-white, denser outer layer. There’s also a stunning rustic pâté de campagne studded through with gem-like pistachios and little scoops of “his and hers” anchovy mousse housed in a silver creamer. “His” uses pungent, cured anchovies, while the gentler, lighter one uses the milder white variety. These items constitute only about half the total number of delights to be found on the Silver Salver.
There are whispers of Feast again in the whole hog cavatelli, which incorporates a pig’s head, trotter and sausage. The thick, fatty sauce is a little overwhelming in its richness — even when tempered by a smattering of crispy panko crumbs — and the whole dish could use a touch more salt. That aside, it’s good wintertime fare, and it’s worth noting that Hunky Dory even makes its own cavatelli.
We sailed into uncharted waters and ordered the salmagundi, named for the English salad that’s a grand hodgepodge of meats, pickles, fruits and other good things, and it was a wonderful voyage. It was unexpectedly bright, beautiful and refreshing. Hunky Dory’s version is more of a delicate artwork than an overwhelming affair, with thin rare slices of lamb roast laid atop pickled cabbage, matchstick carrots and onion slivers. It’s all garnished with nasturtium leaves and flowers, and the sticky pool of house-made Worcestershire underneath is a deeply seasoned, raisin-y molasses that’s tempting to swipe up with a finger.
Lunch at Hunky Dory is every bit as much fun as dinner. The fish and chips is likely the best in Houston. The fish used that day was grouper and was a wonderful, moist filet, contrasted and amplified by the perfect fried batter coating. It rests on top of a stack of respectable, well-salted french fries. Pretty much everything should be dipped into the lush, creamy tartar sauce. Yes, everything. Don’t forget to dash a few drops of the malt vinegar served alongside onto the fish.
Hunky Dory has a large, congenial bar area framed in dark wood and sports a good selection of whiskeys from around the world. The reasonably priced, well-executed cocktail program is overseen by Treadsack’s bar director, Leslie Ross. Behind the counter, patrons will often find bar manager Chris Morris, who was part of the team responsible for developing a sophisticated cocktail program for Radio Milano.
Bowie has a presence here, too. The ingredient list for the Suffragette City — Earl Grey tea-infused vodka, orange marmalade cordial and lemon — made it look as if the drink might be a little too delicate. However, it turned out to be perfectly balanced and not wimpy at all. It was also beautiful to look upon, with a garnish made of edible purple nasturtium and a long orange peel threaded onto a twirly-topped wooden pick in an “S” shape.
There have been some complaints that Hunky Dory’s wine program is too pricey. That is more a perceptual problem than a reality. Yes, there are some very expensive bottles and glasses on the list, and many of us have the experience of being burned by going for the lower-priced option, only to find that it’s garbage.
The key at Hunky Dory is not to underestimate the more reasonably priced choices. Treadsack’s wine director is Travis Hinkle, formerly of The Pass & Provisions. He knows his stuff, and he’s not going to have garbage on his wine list. So, order those under-$15 glasses and under-$55 bottles with abandon. Neither the $10 by-the-glass Wein-gut Malat “Crazy Creatures” Grüner Veltliner nor the sole rosé on the list, the $12 Domaine de la Fouquette Grenache and Cinsault blend, left us wanting. Just know that when you’re feeling frisky and flush, that $25 glass of 2011 Château la Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape will be waiting.
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Houston is ready for Hunky Dory and Hunky Dory is ready for it, too. While Houston diners have grown in sophistication, the founders have had time to study their clientele’s wants and needs. Knight is guiding the menu with gentle wisdom, leading diners to the brink of concepts like “nose-to-tail eating” and “bycatch” without necessarily shoving them into the pool. The thoughtful, stellar fare and drinks are showcased in a beautiful space to boot.
Rest in peace, Feast. Long live Hunky Dory!
1801 North Shepherd, 713-864-2450. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
Salmagundi of roast lamb $12
Fish and chips $18
Whole hog pasta $25
The Silver Salver $30
Sticky toffee pudding $11
Suffragette City cocktail $10
Weingut Malat Grüner Veltliner $10
Domaine de la Fouquette Rosé $12