For dinner, I got a succulent lamb shank in a crater of buttery mashed potatoes with a thick wine-flavored braising sauce and a dark beer. We all shared a bowl of the restaurant's intriguing-sounding smoked gouda mac and cheese, which we found bland and disappointing. One of my companions ordered the moist and flaky quick-smoked salmon with asparagus, which was tasty if unremarkable.
But it wasn't the quality of the cooking that spurred the conversation about the Open City dining experience at our table; it was the mismatch between the menu and the environs that we all found disturbing. The floors were polished concrete, and a bar dominated the rear of the room. There was the faint aroma of bleach in the air.
"I don't want to eat this kind of food in a nightclub," one of the women remarked. Mashed potatoes and mac and cheese are comfort foods, soft, bland stuff we associate with childhood. And baby food, no matter how masterfully prepared, is out of place in a bar.
Maybe that's why I liked the lamb slider best. We also ordered a crab cake burger on that first visit. We were expecting a crab cake on a bun with dressing. Instead, we got a ground beef patty with a crabcake on top of it. We all took a bite of the strange combo sandwich, but none of us were impressed.
We went upstairs on the roof deck to finish our second round of cocktails and admire the city's brightly lit skyscrapers. It was the view from the roof that inspired the restaurant's name. Comfy couches with big pillows are arranged around low tables up there so you can sit and admire the dramatic view of downtown. They are by far the best seats in the house.
Last week, a burger aficionado friend of mine called me to rave about the "surf and turf" burger he'd just had for lunch and to inform me that Open City had changed its hours and its menu. So I stopped by to take a look. And I was delighted to see that on the new menu, the comfort food had been cut back and the sandwich section had been expanded. I ordered a couple of sandwiches to go.
I am not a surf and turf guy, so I skipped that burger, but I did try the cheddar cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato and Dijon mustard. I asked for the meat to be cooked medium-rare. Unfortunately, the meat patty was overdone and dry. In fact, it was so scorched in spots that I got crunchy bits of carbon grit in my teeth as I ate it. At $12, it was no bargain either.
The "BMF Philly cheesesteak" came loaded with thin-sliced steak and topped with melted provolone. It was tasty, but it needed more caramelized onions to moisten the roll. Some Cheez Whiz wouldn't have hurt either. And it cost $16, more than double the price of the more authentic large Philly cheesesteak at Jake's on Chimney Rock. I would have written off Open City as a bad bet for lunch if I hadn't noticed the sliders.
The lamb sliders at Open City were so popular that the new menu offers an entire section of the cute little mini-burgers. There are ten different choices now. They come two to a plate for the reasonable price of six to eight dollars. So I called my friend John Bebout, who was so enthusiastic about his first sliders at Little Bitty Burger Barn ["Little Bitty Slider Pilots," February 21], and asked him to meet me at Open City for a slider lunch.
We sat outside on the first-floor patio area and ordered three pairs of sliders. While we waited, we sampled some pita bread crisps with yogurt dip, the restaurant's healthy alternative to tortilla chips and salsa. We also tried a glass of Open City's famous sangria, which won Best Sangria in this year's Houston Press Best of Houston® awards.
Sangria (the name means "bloody" in Spanish) is a red wine punch. It's typically made with red wine, chopped fruit, a sweetener and a little brandy, and mixed with carbonated water or soda before serving. The Open City sangria is made with bourbon instead of brandy, a unique twist. It's also a lot stronger than the weak and fruity wine punch you usually get when you order sangria. Our Best of Houston® listing suggested you buy one for half price during happy hour and enjoy it on the roof.
Open City has several popular drink promotions, the most remarkable being a half-price wine-by-the-bottle offer on Tuesdays. It's not a bargain bin deal either. Every bottle on the wine list is half price. I looked over the selections and decided that if this was Tuesday, I'd be drinking Zig Zag Zin from Mendocino, regularly $26. Half price, or $13 a bottle, is two to three dollars less than this wine sells for in many retail stores.
A half an hour after we ordered, our food still hadn't arrived. There were only four or five other customers, so it wasn't like the kitchen was slammed. While we sat there drumming our fingers, Bebout started getting grouchy. He pointed out the fact that the waitress had dirty fingernails, he complained about the profusion of flies buzzing around our table and he got really pissed when a panhandler on the sidewalk started bothering people seated on the patio.
His mood changed entirely when our lunch arrived and he finally bit into his first slider. The mini-patties were uneven, loosely-formed and perfectly cooked to a juicy medium. They were placed on dinner roll-size buns and secured with garnish-decorated skewers that stood straight up from the sandwiches like pickled plumes.
My favorites, the Tex-Mex sliders, were topped with a black bean pico de gallo and avocado slices. Bebout's favorites, the A-1 steakhouse sliders, were topped with a fried onion ring and some steak sauce. The steakhouse slider I ate was so juicy, it gushed all over the front on my shirt when I took a bite. (That's a virtue in my book.) The barbecue bacon sliders, which were topped with applewood-smoked bacon and barbecue sauce, were flawed only by the fact that the bacon was undercooked.
The rest of the slider section on the menu included the lamb version I liked so much on my first visit, a chili-rubbed steak slider and some unusual beefless versions. There were Asian-seasoned and honey mustard chicken sliders, and cheese-only sliders. There were also grilled salmon sliders with citrus raisin sauce and mini-crab cake sliders with chipotle tartar sauce.
I think it's fair to say that Open City has found its culinary niche. Sliders are just the sort of thing you want to eat in a bar. And the imaginative seasonings and presentations make them interesting complements to a glass of wine or sangria.
Check out Open City for lunch or happy hour. But forget about the out-of-place comfort foods and the overpriced Philly cheesesteaks. Instead, get a choice seat and order a glass of sangria or a half-price bottle of Zig Zag Zin and a couple plates of their juicy little sliders.