Mixing It Up

Dylan Murray is bringing it all back home. Born 29 years ago in Houston's Hermann Hospital, Murray left town 11 years ago after graduating from Lamar High School. First he moved to Austin, where he acquired a degree in Spanish from the University of Texas. Rather than follow in his father's footsteps and devote his life to academia -- his dad is Dr. Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy -- he became interested in the very tangible world of cooking and restaurants. A while later, he moved to San Francisco, where he graduated from the two-year program at the California Culinary Academy. While there, he worked at some of San Francisco's nationally famous, trend-setting restaurants, notably chef Jeremiah Towers's Stars, the seafood restaurant AQUA and Aquarelle. Eleven years after he left his native city, Murray has returned to share what he's learned.

Starting next week, he will be presiding over the kitchen at Saba Bluewater Cafe [416 Main Street, (713)228-7222] as chef de cuisine. The original Saba is in Austin, where it is a more casual operation, in keeping with the city's style. This Saba is determinedly stylish, with a 500-gallon saltwater aquarium (which Murray admits fulfills a feng shui function as well as a decorative one), a wall of rippling blue light, and designer furnishings.

Murray hopes that his style of cooking and presentation will find a receptive audience. On a ramble around Saba's restaurant-rich neighborhood during a delightfully temperate October afternoon, Murray shared some thoughts on where he has been and where he thinks our city's dining scene is headed.

"I wanted to work in Houston," Murray explains. "I looked at Austin. At present, you have a lot of these dot-com people there who have come into a very large amount of money very early in life. They can go out all they want to, but their taste has not caught up with their money yet."

The most obvious difference in style between San Francisco and Berkeley, where national dining trends often start, and Houston, is that "Texans like big portions. Things like a 25-ounce steak. The best example of that, that I know, are the Pappas restaurants. A Pappadeaux oyster poor boy may cost $17" -- actually, $10.45 -- "but it's this long," Murray says, indicating with his hands something the length of a dachshund. "No one can eat it at one meal, so you take it home and make a second meal out of it. People tell me that if they are going to pay a lot of money for a meal, they want to have a second meal out of it.

"In San Francisco, people will order a little something to experience the flavor or mix of flavors. We're going to have a number of small plates that can be served at the bar as well as at one of the tables."

When the subject of Alice Waters's once-revolutionary, now nearly 30-year-old Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is brought up, Murray observes, "That is a style that has yet to arrive in Houston. Maybe Monica Pope" -- chef and co-owner of Boulevard Bistrot, 4319 Montrose Boulevard, (713)524-6922 -- "is trying to do that Alice Waters thing, with very fresh seasonal ingredients. Pope's restaurant is almost produce-driven, which I don't think anybody else is trying to do here." Apart from the Waters's aesthetic, Murray does not think Houston dining is out of touch with West Coast developments. "Overall, I'd say Houston is maybe ten years behind."

The Saba logo states that the establishment will mix Pacific Rim cuisines with Caribbean, but Murray is quick to point out that his Saba will not be a fusion restaurant. "There will be, say, a Thai-style dish or a Mexican-style dish, but each dish will be consistent in terms of ingredients and technique to a certain national style." While fusion is not his personal trademark or favorite -- speaking of, Murray admits that on a recent visit he "didn't get some of the dishes" at Scott Chen's celebrated namesake restaurant [6540 San Felipe, (713)789-4484], which serves a Franco-Chinese cuisine -- he does think that a type of fusion will be the next cuisine to catch fire in Houston.

"The trend for the future? I think something like P.F. Chang's [4094 Westheimer, (713)627-7220], where you have Asian food that has been restyled for American tastes, where the interior is designed to create a stylish atmosphere.I also see that going on at Liberty Noodles [909 Texas Avenue, (713)222-2695]. I like what Shelly [Drought, executive chef] does very much."

Walking past restaurant after club after deli in his new neighborhood, Murray is asked if the sheer density of competing establishments is a problem. "In San Francisco," he observes, "you'll have two extremely expensive operations going head-to-head across the street from each other, and both will be doing well.When I left Houston 11 years ago, downtown was desolate after the offices closed.It was the only city in America where downtown was not where the nightlife took place.There is no problem with the current density. You need to have a lot of bars and restaurants in one area in order to create a real city experience."

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George Alexander