Every time we've visited at lunchtime, there are only a few occupied tables at Prohibition Supperclub & Bar, and that's just criminal. At a time when the rest of the city is fried-chicken-crazy, Houstonians are missing out on one of the best renditions: a smoked fried chicken with a thin, crispy crust laden with "house seasoning" (essentially Creole).
The crust is determined to slide off the chicken, and while that may be a technical flaw, it's not really a bad thing. As it falls off, it releases even more of the smoky chicken aroma. No one is going to complain about the salty, spicy crumbs of goodness landing on sturdy but tender green beans the color of springtime or the perfect mashed potatoes.
Perhaps people are afraid that visiting during the workday constitutes some sort of impropriety since Prohibition hosts burlesque shows by The Moonlight Dolls on Friday and Saturday nights. These are held on the stage in the big, opulent dining room in the back with a curling baroque staircase that leads to a mezzanine.
Rest assured, the most risqué thing going on in the genteel front dining room is the sinful slab of seared foie gras, fried quail eggs and mixed wild mushrooms laid atop coarse, buttery yellow grits. The foie gras is a $10 add-on that is supposedly optional but should be mandatory. These grits are not humble -- they're highfalutin.
Whether you're there for a show or not, leave the kids at home. It's not that kind of place. It is, however, a very good place for a business or personal lunch among grown-ups.
At least it will be when the waitstaff -- who are often attentive, kind and conscientious -- shake off the languor that seems to plague them when the dining room is slow. It's an odd phenomenon in many restaurants that when business is slow, the waiters tend to drift off to other duties.
While making the best use of time is admirable, during one lunch visit, it took us from 12:10 to 2:15 p.m. to work our way from appetizers to dessert. Business people often can't luxuriate all afternoon in decadence and cocktails, even if they want to. Dinnertime is busier, and service is snappier, too.
The dining room strongly evokes a sense of Creole-style luxury. Lucky duos might get seated at one of the tables that sport porter's chairs, richly upholstered in deep purple and printed cream fabrics. These veritable thrones are so deep that sitting back all the way in one has a noise-dampening effect, which is great if you have to take a call. Porter's chairs were originally designed to keep doormen (or porters) warm as they sat by an entrance waiting to greet visitors.
The current ubiquitous trend toward mismatched silverware rescued from resale shops makes Prohibition's matched sets seem novel. Even the little oyster forks match. Overhead, ornate crystal chandeliers cast twinkling light across the black and white marble floor.
Chefs Ben McPherson and Matt Wommack really seem to have found their calling with Gulf Coast cuisine. McPherson initially came to Houston to be the chef at Batanga, but his prior years working in tapas restaurants left him longing for something different. Wommack has been a fixture in Houston's food scene for years, working at the likes of Uchi, Down House, Goro & Gun and Revival Market. There may be flirtation on the stage at Prohibition, but the chefs are committed to their love for Southern food.
Both understand the importance of seasoning and have obviously passed that knowledge on to their staff. Here, the power of bacon, onion, garlic, salt and butter is wielded wisely. The duck and andouille gumbo can vary here (as it is wont to do), but when the silken, dark brown roux is on point, it's in the same ballpark as Holley's and Brennan's. It might not win, but it could definitely come play.
Yet Prohibition is not limited to these signposts of traditional Southern cuisine. Occasionally, some surprising ingredients are invited to dance. A case in point: the preserved lemon and tomato conserva (oven-dried tomato paste) that give deep tang to a bumpy sea of dark brown lentils. Those lentils in turn support big, ruddy slabs of bigeye tuna. The meaty planks are perfectly seared, with a tan exterior that intrudes in the barest way on the deep red flesh. A fine hand is at work in the kitchen with the salt -- there's enough to bring the fish alive, but not so much as to complicate things.
There's an extensive chargrilled Gulf oyster program with potential for excellence. Whether the Rockefeller oysters, with herbs, butter, Parmesan and bread crumbs or the simpler New Orleans-style barbecue oysters, the flavors are always spot-on.
Regrettably, every order we've had has been plagued with grit or shell bits. Out of one batch of six, two oysters weren't detached. Whether they need to be scrubbed, purged or handled more gently or someone simply needs to slow down during shucking, something about the prep work needs to change. It's a real disappointment to gaze upon a plump oyster bathed in a gleaming ruby pool of smoky, garlicky New Orleans barbecue sauce and know that there's probably some crunchy sand coming along for the ride. The sauce is so good, it's almost worth just dealing with it.
Dessert is a shaky concept here and seems to be still in the conceptualization phase. There are dessert options, but there's no printed menu to show what they are. Diners are not encouraged to order them, either. One couple asked for a dessert menu and was brought their check instead. They took the hint, closed out and left.
We did have dessert, though, and it shows great promise. The ice cream and cookies are fun, even if the salted pecan ice cream didn't hold its form and melted immediately into the honey-lemon sorbet. The scoops are all served in one dish, so it doesn't take long for them to melt together. It's a bit of a mess, but not an unpleasant one. A compartmentalized dish would be better, allowing each flavor to shine longer on its own merits. Cookies can often be boring, but the three paired with the ice creams were up to the task, each with its own little personality. The oatmeal was soft, while the ginger snap had the expected level of crispness.
The lemon meringue pie is more of a thin-shelled tart, with the torched creamy topping making it look curiously like a tiny Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole. The perky, tart lemon filling quickly distinguishes it and will make fans out of diners who like a little sweet mixed with their sour.
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Prohibition is one of the most reasonable fine-dining restaurants downtown when you consider quantity, quality and pricing. Holley's gumbo with duck confit and shrimp is $13. Prohibition's duck and andouille version is $6. Foie gras torchon at Vic & Anthony's is $16 and is accompanied by Pop Rocks and orange gelée. Prohibition's seared slab of foie is $17 on top of an entire dish composed of fancy mushrooms, quail eggs and grits. It's practically an entrée. Fish dishes like the seared tuna and lentils would likely be $10 higher. That doesn't mean Prohibition is better than any of these other places, but the price and quality it offers merit consideration.
Prohibition's cocktail menu, crafted by head bartender Lainey Collum, is sure to turn heads. It carefully balances familiar classics like the Clover Club (with gin, egg white, raspberry and lemon juice) against inventive originals like the Fred Astaire, an unusual combination that features both bourbon and tequila as well as the calming influences of sherry and Cointreau. A dash of coffee bitters somehow brings it all together. (Ginger Rogers had a cocktail named after her long ago. It's only fair.) Drink prices here, ranging from $9 to $15, aren't necessarily a bargain, but they do fall in line with those at comparable cocktail bars.
Classy, sophisticated Prohibition Supperclub & Bar is a gracious house of gentility in the heart of downtown. Despite occasional moments of awkwardness, dining and drinking here is nonetheless a languorous seduction.
1008 Prairie, 281-940-4636. Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Duck and andouille gumbo $6 Oysters Rockefeller $14 for 6/$25 for 12 Barbecue oysters $14 for 6/$25 for 12 Breakfast with foie gras $17 Broccoli, rice and cheese $6 Mac 'n' cheese $10 Smoked fried chicken $14 Seared rare bigeye tuna $26 Ice cream and cookies $7 Clover Club cocktail $15 Fred Astaire cocktail $12