Review: Gratifi Stands Out for the Wrong Reasons

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Brunch at Gratifi is a leisurely affair, whether or not you want it to be. A little less than two hours after we first sat down for brunch on Sunday, my wife's pain perdue arrived, soggy in the middle. Perhaps the kitchen had rushed it out, a too-late attempt at absolution for its egregious lateness. In my book, that's just adding insult to injury. It's also a shame, since it's among the better dishes at Gratifi, flavor-wise.

Crusted with toasty slivered almonds and boasting an eggy richness accented with notes of cinnamon and anise (almond extract or liqueur, I'd wager), the first quarter inch of the thick-cut brioche made the remainder stand out in stark contrast. The center wasn't underdone or, even better, "custardy"; it was essentially raw. My wife ate what she could quickly and grudgingly while the rest of us sat there, staring awkwardly at the empty places in front of us.

I'd been to Gratifi née Ziggy's Healthy Grill only a few times before the restaurant appeared on Restaurant: Impossible this past January. I don't remember much about the food I ate, which is telling in a way. Watching the episode, one of the before complaints is that the food was fine but boring. That's my memory, a general sense that everything was pretty good but nothing was great. Perfectly adequate, you might say. Certainly, nothing stood out.

Post-Impossible Gratifi, on the other hand, stands out. It stands out for things like a "seasonal menu" appetizer of grilled guacamole, which sounds like a nice update on a standard but suffers from its egregious lack of salt, acid and cilantro. There was half a lemon on the plate, but it seemed intended more for the odd hunk of frisée on the side of the plate. Sure, the guacamole was improved by a squeeze of lemon; that's the wrong citrus for the job, and the job itself is one better suited for the kitchen than for the table.

Post-Impossible Gratifi stands out for that week's Gratifi burger, a Juicy Lucy riff stuffed with bacon jam in slapdash fashion, some bites almost sugary from the porky filling, some with nary a trace of the stuff. The rest of the burger fared no better, with an uneven cook ranging from well past well done to virtually raw, the whole affair offering an odd mash-up of spongy and overly emulsified textures. The sandwich felt amateurish, right down to the barely toasted bread sogging through underneath.

That burger came on a slow Tuesday night, with no more than three tables occupied during our stay. That night the service was friendly and quick, though a bit soft on the details. It may seem like a small thing, but we might have been informed that the homemade marshmallow, catalyst for a September hot chocolate order, was not available that night. I don't know that its presence would have redeemed the drink, seemingly a mix of baking chocolate and hot -water, but the knowledge might have steered us to safer shores. Similar omissions and swaps seemed to be the unsettling norm rather than the exception.

A brunch order of eggs Benedict was supposed to come over house-made buttermilk biscuits. Instead, thin and broken cilantro hollandaise pooled between quickly disintegrating slices of brioche, overcooked poached eggs riding forlornly on top. The same swap appeared without comment on a breakfast sandwich. The bread wasn't as big a problem there, but the near total lack of seasoning, an unfortunately common theme, was.

Though they may be diamonds in the rough, there are things to like about Gratifi. The building itself is a charmer. It's an old home on a lovely if quickly gentrifying -corner of Montrose, made newly light and bright by the Restaurant: Impossible team, the only clear positive of the show's time there.

When he's there, owner Kevin Strickland is an active presence, refilling drinks and chatting with customers. When he realized that our brunch party had been sitting for the better part of half an hour with no drinks or menus, he apologized profusely and rushed out a couple of complimentary appetizers, even after we explained that our until-recently incomplete party had no doubt added to the confusion. We'd had both of the apps on a previous visit, and might have preferred to try something else, but the gesture was kind and genuine.

Along with the grilled guacamole, which still suffered from the aforementioned problems, and without the semi-solution of a lemon half tossed on the plate, Strickland also sent out a plate of edamame hummus. Whereas a previous visit had seen the texture marred by undercooked legumes, this time the spread came out light and fluffy. Gone, too, was the overly aggressive green-onion flavor, traded out for a brighter note of lemon to temper the vegetal tang of the beans. The hummus disappeared quickly, scooped up with fresh vegetables and thoughtfully toasted pita triangles.

If you're so interested as to pony up the two bucks The Food Network wants to charge you to watch Robert Irvine torment Kevin Strickland, you may notice a few inconsistencies with the show's usual MO. Namely, Irvine tasted zero food from the Gratifi kitchen, and provided only one new dish, at least on air. I will warrant that the dish in question, a pan-roasted chicken breast served over mashed sweet potatoes with braised kale and bacon, was a good one. The chicken was properly cooked, nailing the tough task of a well-browned exterior and still-moist interior. The bacon and kale offered anchoring flavors and textural interest. The mash could have been hotter. The advertised "red wine au jus" was absent, but I'm convinced the dish was the better for the lapse.

Was this inspired, innovative cooking? No, but it tasted good and was properly prepared. It was also pretty much exactly the caliber of food I remember coming out of Strickland's kitchen a year ago.

Similarly solid was another burger offering, ordered with some trepidation after that first go at the burger menu. The issues with that first sandwich had been vexing me, given the generally good reputation of Gratifi's burger program. Former Houston Press critic Kaitlin Steinberg even included one of Gratifi's burgers, the black bean pattied Heights Burger, in her list of 100 favorite dishes last year. The Guido was an odd path to reconciliation, but a delicious one.

I typically eschew poultry burgers, but this one had enough deft touches to work, and to insert a bit of faith in the kitchen. The patty itself was shot through with garlic and chile heat, retaining an admirable amount of moisture and none of the odd, bouncy texture I find so often mars turkey burgers. A jumpy pesto reinforced the garlic bite, adding it in layers, also bringing a nice herbal lift and a bit of much-needed fatty slickness. Jack cheese and grilled tomatoes rounded out the sandwich.

Those tomatoes in particular gave me pause. All too often, the addition of pale, mealy hothouse fruit makes tomatoes feel more like an accidental insult than a boon. Roasting or grilling enhances everything that makes a tomato good, bringing out meatiness, acid and sweetness while improving the watery texture of subpar produce. I think all restaurants should adopt this habit, outside of the precious tomato months during which we actually have a shot at quality.

I'm not entirely sure what the kitchen did to the creamed corn that anchored a dish of desert-dry short ribs, their ancho braise lending no heat and little dusky flavor. Shredded and dredged through the corn for lubrication, it was edible. That corn, though. My notes from that dinner read simply "pumpkin spice polenta." I love creamed corn when the natural sweetness of the corn blooms, fragrant and rich. That's not what this was. On the plus side, I found all that cilantro missing from the guacamole, presented whole and on-stem, apparently what the menu calls herb "salad."

There were other misses. A grainy-sauced penne pasta masquerading as mac and cheese, overly crusty and dry meatballs doing whatever counts as the exact opposite of gilding the lily. A hash plate that felt like whatever the kitchen had lying around, chopped up and tossed together thoughtlessly. Had the quartered discs of pan sausage and leathery chunks of sweet potato tasted good, I'd have been fine with that approach, one I use at home and which it could be argued is the mission statement of hash in the first place. They did not.

There were cocktails from the newly appointed bar, many of which sound good on paper. Unfortunately, a "Sloe Gin Fuzz" lacked its namesake spirit and was overly sweet, even if texturally perfect. I like the idea of a sloe gin fizz gussied up with a bit of hibiscus, adding a regional note that could work. Here, it didn't. Preserved lime could have taken center stage in the Grantham, its bracing and salty/sour funk rounded out by gin and cava. It didn't. The right words were there, queuing up behind other forward-thinking cocktail programs, but they felt translated through an Applebee's lens.

The bright spots make me want to like Gratifi. I love the idea of eating eggs Benedict in that sunny dining room. I love the idea of a casual, all-purpose restaurant having a handful of carefully considered and well-crafted cocktails to drink alongside my dinner. I love seeing an engaged owner trying to get things right. I just don't love Gratifi. It's hard for me to even say that I like it.

If all the burgers showed the care and attention hinted at by those roasted tomatoes, I might. If there were more simple and simply well-made dishes like that roasted chicken, I might. If the service took its most attentive moments and made them a baseline, I might. Not every restaurant has to be great, but every restaurant should be good. Gratifi does a few things well and, if it could extend that to a few more, could be a good restaurant. A restaurant I'd go back to, even if it doesn't stand out. As it is, it's a restaurant I won't go back to, because it stands out.

Gratifi Kitchen + Bar 302 Fairview, 832-203-5950. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; breakfast every day to 3 p.m.

Edamame hummus $7.50 Grilled guacamole $6 Breakfast plate $8.50 Breakfast sandwich $6 Eggs Benedict $11 Pain perdu $9 Omelette $9 (add 60¢ for additional ingredients) Breakfast hash $8 Gratifi burger $12 Guido burger $10 Mac and cheese du jour $8 Ancho braised short rib $14 Roasted chicken breast $13 Grantham cocktail $7 "Sloe Gin Fuzz" cocktail $6

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