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Sidecars and Summer Fare at Lucille's

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Fall was the last time I visited Lucille's, where I enjoyed some terrific oyster sliders and a warm plate of shrimp and grits. In the months that followed, Houston grew much colder, then warmer, then, oddly, a bit cooler, then searingly hot. Lucille's likewise has experienced its own ups and downs, not so much in terms of temperature, but rather, with regards to public reception. After its much anticipated opening, the restaurant received early accolades for its upscale southern food but criticism regarding slow service and inconsistent preparation grew. "What's the deal?," Katharine Shilcutt asked Lucille's a few weeks before Christmas, noting among other sins, its lackluster chili biscuits and "wooden chairs that look rescued from a restaurant which closed in 1998."

I didn't much notice the chairs during my most recent visit one a weekend night in mid-July, but I did among other take note some other things, beginning with a Sidecar cocktail served in the unconventional "on the rocks" fashion. I wrinkled my nose; I usually prefer (or am used to) my Sidecars straight up. But Lucille's was onto something with the inclusion of a few large ice cubes, which did little to mar the perfect balance of liquors and instead ensured each sip was equally frosty.

My friends and I did start with a few orders of the biscuits, which were warm, flaky and imbued with sweet spicy chili. They were very good, though I'll admit I enjoyed even more the skillet of cornbread, whose sweet, almost cake-like texture received additional moisture from an errant pat of butter. I briefly considered ordering an additional pan to take home for dessert and replacing the butter with a scoop of maple walnut ice cream. But that thought was the type of overly ambitious musings that occur early in the meal when you've had one cocktail and you're just starting your journey to satiation.

When I ordered the Backyard Tomato Salad, I offered to share it with my companions. When it arrived, I wanted to rescind that proposal. The colorful collection of small to medium-sized cherry red, scarlet, rose, and green tomatoes were dressed in a light herbal vinaigrette made pleasantly richer by the interspersed bits of bacon and blue cheese. I did claim for myself one of the crostini, which proved surprisingly useful in scooping up the more slippery tomato halves.

The arrival of our entrees meant that unfortunately I had to stop picking at the salad, but I wasn't sad for too long once I started extracting every last bit of battered juicy meat from the monstrous chicken pieces placed in front of me. Lucille's doesn't serve the best fried chicken I've ever had (that honor goes to a Korean place in D.C.), but definitely deserves to be placed on the list of go-to spots for fried fowl in Houston for its wonderfully textured, crisp coating that just verges on greasy (and I don't mean that in the pejorative). A side of collard greens was soft and well-seasoned and the hoppin' john nothing but plump black-eyed peas and moist white rice. Earthy, simple and sure, I think, to bring you luck if consumed on the first of the year.

Despite being significantly distracted by very good food and conversation, we did notice our server's relative slowness in refilling drinks and taking our dinner orders. The restaurant was crowded and he was understandably harried; I think whatever gaps in service we experienced can easily be remedied by tweaking the staffing on busier nights. And while the cocktail list is creative and comprehensive, the beer selection, as my husband pointed out, is confined to a few bottled varieties. Just adding one or two options on tap would secure the affections of a wider range of drinkers.

If you've been deliberating whether you should to try Lucille's for the first time, the answer is an easy "yes" lest you miss out on some very solid and occasionally artful Southern food. If you're wondering, however, whether you should go back to Lucille's, the answer is not just "yes" but "yes, soon." Summer will not last forever and while I'm sure the cornbread, tomato salad, and fried chicken will be prepared equally well in the cooler season, I think they taste just about perfect right now.

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