Who would’ve thought that the star of a butcher’s-haven restaurant would be the bird? Brown-sugar-glazed and basted in red pepper oils, four larger-than-life pieces of fried chicken perched atop a mildly sweet waffle pillow of cornbread came out of the kitchen, led by a waft of fiery fried-ness. The Angry Bird at Ritual is a shareable plate diners will not want to share. The spices inside and on the crust of the moist, tender chicken were just hot enough, the corn in the waffle batter brought a fluffy freshness to the mix, and the thinly sliced, lightly pickled cucumbers were a delightful addition of texture and tang. A forkful of all the components dipped into the spiced maple syrup made for one heavenly, sweet and spicy bite.
Ritual opened in June of this year in the space where El Cantina Superior’s classic car could be seen high above the former restaurant’s rooftop. Primary owner and Delicious Concepts CEO Ken Bridge closed the troubled Tex-Mex spot in August of 2015 to rebrand and reopen a brewpub in the same space. Since opening, the restaurant has seen a few iterations of its menu and kitchen management. Currently on its third executive chef — Crash Hethcox — Ritual seems to have finally found its groove.
Not only does the fried chicken exceed expectations, but the butchery at Ritual is entertainment art, especially since the entire process can be viewed from the dining area through enormous windows. The meat is carved straight off hanging slabs of beef and pork, while other large pieces of dark, marbleized loins and steaks rest in the dry-aged room, waiting in a controlled environment to meet their 30- or 40-day ready mark. There’s even a 90-day cross-cut flat iron that won’t be ready until early next year.
Ordering the dry-aged meat is the challenge because it’s not always available. Only the 30-day bone-in rib eye and the 30-day porterhouse were available on our last visit. There’s a minimum required order of 24 ounces on all dry-aged steaks. We chose the 30-day bone-in rib eye at $2.95 per ounce. There are four sauces to choose from and plenty of shareable sides to add on. The pit onion/marrow glaze sounded too good to pass up.
Diners are invited to come to the window to watch as their piece is cut to order. The finished rib eye looked impressive and the meat was cooked flawlessly to a medium-rare center. Dry-aging meat causes natural enzymes to tenderize it; our steak was superbly tender. Salt, pepper, the marrow glaze glistening atop the steak, and the sweet onion in a thin au jus served separately in a small gravy bowl all made for a scrumptious steak dinner.
There was one item we were already sold on even before we stepped inside the doors of Ritual. They obviously knew what they were doing when photos of the Texas Picnic Board were chosen to represent the menu visually on its website. Even though it sounded like it would be too much food to handle, we could not resist a charcuterie that included pecan-bourbon pimento cheese, oyster mushrooms, lonzino (salted pork loin), pork rinds and avocado deviled eggs. The oyster mushrooms were a substitute for the drool-worthy country terrine displayed on the site, but we were completely satisfied with the change. A handful of these wild and meaty morsels, sautéed in truffle oil, made for a delicious addition to this Texas-twisted meat board. One of my favorite bites of the evening came by way of a simple deviled egg filled with a creamy avocado and chive-spiced filling.
The turf and surf is a pretty standard method of giving diners the experience of having their cake and eating it too, but there’s nothing standard about the field notes (what Ritual calls its menu) on this dish. It’s described as a “poor man’s porchetta,” accompanied by greens, grits, Gulf oysters and shrimp, and “N.O. BBQ,” and we half-expected to see it arrive in a kitchen sink. The pork steak, cooked through to a medium pink, was juicy and flavorful. The one jumbo shrimp, prepared with a sauce similar to that used in New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, was soulful, sweet and succulent. The grits were cooked al dente, were finished like polenta and tasted incredibly creamy. Along for the ride was the layer of stewed collard greens — still-composed, leafy pieces of comfort nestled between the meat and the grits. The demi-glace gravy mingled with the moisture from the greens, creating a pool of savory sauce. The three fried oysters and one random slice of pork sausage, though good, seemed out of place and unnecessary, especially with all that Southern goodness harmoniously melding on the plate. This wasn’t just Louisiana cooking; this was something different, a Deeper-South kind of Southern cooking.
Given that brunch has become a real mealtime on Saturdays and Sundays, when families choose to start their days a tad bit later, Ritual’s regular lunch menu is suspended to allow special items to rise and shine. The chicken and waffle is a miniature yet still shareable version of the Angry Bird on the dinner menu. In fact, we enjoyed the halved chicken breasts, bathed in pepper oil and spices and fried deliciously burnt-golden, even more than the bone-in fried chicken. The Gulf seafood gravy read like a gumbo, looked like an étouffée and tasted like a fisherman’s paradise. Lightly spiced and loaded with fish, blue crabmeat, bits of stewed tomatoes and rice, the gravy was a table favorite during brunch. Best part? Ritual bakes its own bread. The Texas-toasted sourdough made for a great dipping tool.
The only misstep of the meal, and not by any means a true miss because we still enjoyed it, was the Pig Mac (clever name, by the way). Presented in a mini cast-iron pan, the dish looked fabulous and full. Flanked by pork on both ends, the orecchiette pasta and cheese mixture never had a chance. A stack of crispy fried slivers of pig ears topped the pan, and a layer of tender pulled pork at least an inch high covered the bottom. Although each component worked separately, the composition just did not satisfy the craving for a cheesy mac. The fatty meat juices broke the cheese and created a saucy mess inside.
We finished the meal with the apple chess pie, a warm, made-from-scratch apple pie topped with oatmeal flakes and crunchy, cookie-like crumbles, served with cream cheese ice cream and drizzled with salted caramel syrup. Not sure anything else needs to be said about this dessert. It was fantastic. The menu suggests pairings for each dessert. The Marchesi Antinori 2011 Sovana Superiore Aleatico took more away from the pie than it added. The fruity, overly floral notes did not enhance the comforting sweetness of this dessert; an espresso might have been a better choice.
The restaurant looks nothing like what it was before the rebranding. As El Cantina Superior, the joint sported a funky retro Tex-Mex theme with bright colors and strings of white lights that invited the outdoors inside. Now the place has more of a chill kind of Texas charm. Even though bar staff and servers don suspenders and newsboy caps, the era is not so much the emphasis when it comes to the decor or menu. Ritual’s culture comes through in each booth’s tabletop, made of natural wooden planks; the massive scoreboard display of the 40 rotating craft beers on tap; the metal piping and exposed rivets that run throughout the dining area and upstairs into the semiprivate loft space backed by an impressive selection of wines stored floor-to-ceiling; and the glass chandelier that hangs garishly in the center of the bar space surrounded by exposed brick walls.
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The beef is locally sourced from Cameron and Fredericksburg ranches, and the pork comes from Black Hill Meats. The restaurant clearly does Southern cooking and steaks well, all the while celebrating the tradition and hard work of farmers and ranchers through its dishes.
Remember to call ahead if you’re looking forward to the dry-aged meats, but try the Angry Bird once and you’ll forget that this place is known for its steaks.
602 Studewood, 832-203-5180, ritualhouston.com. Hours: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Brunch on Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Texas Picnic Board $24
Gulf seafood gravy $10
Angry Bird $24
Turf and surf $28
The Pig Mac $12
30-day bone-in rib eye, $2.95/ounce (24-ounce minimum)
Apple chess pie $9
Marchesi Antinori 2011 Sovana Superiore Aleatico $10