Take one evening’s shrimp and grits, long the darling of America’s love affair with Southern food. A mix of lovely harmony and jarring blue notes, it felt like a project still in the development phase, with the diner left to work out the kinks. Five huge, dewy shrimp came bathed in a sauce buzzing with the essence of shellfish, deep and evocative. It was round and rich and earthy, yet subtle and elegant, and it made the watery, bland grits stand out all the more. If the kitchen replaced that distractingly rubbly mess with a creamy and comforting version, this dish could be a knockout. Even better if it served the shrimp head-on, messy fingers be damned. For $28 (clearly, a Shrimp and Grits Inflation Index is needed), I want decent grits and the option to suck the heads, at the very least.
The kitchen clearly doesn’t mind if you eat with your hands, and in fact seems to expect it when sending out the Sabine Pass gumbo, with its spindly-legged crabs jutting from the darkly glistening bowl. You get a set of claw crackers to aid in meat extraction, but the crabs themselves are small enough that you might not want to bother.
Cosmetic crabs aside, the gumbo has good bones. There’s a gently blooming heat and a sure but subtle vegetal sweetness underneath the dusky spicing, rooted in a rich and savory broth with a lovely oceanic tinge. It’s not super-dark, and is a bit thin, but it could be compelling if better adjusted. Unfortunately, the kitchen went heavy on the salt, to the point that it was actually hard to eat more than a few bites. The thimbleful of long grain rice served on the side (thanks for that) suffered similarly, adding a blend of mushy and crunchy textures as insult to the salty injury. As with the disappointing grits, a simple tweak would turn this one around, allowing the compelling flavors and generous portion of succulent shrimp and quarter-rounds of tender, assertive andouille to shine more brightly, even if the size of the bowl feels a bit skimpy for $15.
While the gumbo felt pint-size, the bone-in rib eye proved meaty enough for two and then some. Given that it’s double the price of most of the other entrées, that seems appropriate. It’s a good piece of meat, though. Ours came with a gorgeously crunchy crust, aggressive in its char and providing lovely contrast to the perfectly rendered medium-rare cook inside. The kitchen normally cooks it to medium “to account for the thickness of the cut,” but handled the request deftly. This time, the seasoning was just right, delivering salt, fat, char and beefy bloom through every ounce of the massive steak. The sides didn’t live up to the star of the show, the mashed potatoes wanting butter and salt, and the “butter sizzled” mushrooms proving weak-willed and rubbery in their slightly insipid glaze.
The root beer glaze on a smoked double-cut pork chop worked far better, even though it still carried a fair amount of sweetness. Pork makes a better foil for sugar, and the soda base also brought an intriguing herbal note that helped keep it from becoming saccharine. The pork underneath was juicy and tender, with a surprising but welcome rosy blush inside. Something about the combination of smoke and sugar, though, made it eat more like a giant slab of Canadian bacon than a pork chop. As my daughter quoted, “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.”
While some of the menu items might leave you with a bit of sticker shock, the staff and service feel like a bargain. Gracious and accommodating, the servers here manage a neat trick, acting polished and professional while coming across as relaxed and neighborly. Families with kids in tow don’t get the cold shoulder despite the place’s casual upscale leanings, which allows for a night out that feels civilized and refined but without the stresses that sometimes means for parents. That was evident in the scores of children dotting the four-tops and booths across multiple visits, well-behaved but boisterous, date nights and business dinners unfolding around them, the staff paying each table just the right kind of attention.
As is becoming the norm rather than the exception in Houston restaurants, the beverage program at State Fare also gets a lot of attention, courtesy of Laurie Sheddan Harvey. Harvey, who made a name for herself guiding the program at Triniti and its Sanctuari Bar, focuses on approachable, crowd-pleasing drinks (and an impressive beer list) instead of indulging in cocktail geekery.
For the most part, the drinks do what they’re supposed to do, with a focus on clean, refreshing models leading the charge. Take the house Pimm’s Cup interpretation, zipped up with ginger beer and freshened with a pitch-perfect note of strawberry. Or the Texas Peach Tea, a well-balanced homage with a whisper of peach and just a hint of sugar buoyed by a nice edge of acid and a lingering earthy tea note. Both the Spicy Southside and the Apricot Old Fashioned stumbled, and in opposite directions. The Old Fashioned simply tilted far too sweet. The Southside came with a flotsam of mint bits on top, smelling grassy instead of minty. None of the mint shone through in the taste, which was mostly sparkling water and lime with a throat-tingling edge of heat, the jalapeño reinforcing the grassy chlorophyll edge of that roughed-up mint. It didn’t really say Southside. It wasn’t a bad drink, being light and refreshing, but wanted a bit of sweetness, fresh, cooling mint, and a surer bloom of gin.
While a lot of the issues at State Fare could be cleared up with a few tweaks, there are some concepts that just misfire. The Hicksburger comes highly touted by the restaurant, being featured in a series of social media cooking videos starring executive chef Jim Mills, but left me scratching my head. For starters, chicken-fried french fries are a bad idea. Especially when the exterior breading is sadly pale and devoid of crunch. Especially when the fries within are borderline raw, with an unpleasantly starchy, resilient texture and chalky flavor. This is actually an endemic problem with State Fare’s fries, but I remain unconvinced that better fries would change the equation much. Griddle-crisped pastrami is always a nice idea, but it’s applied too sparingly to make much of an impression, as are the grilled onions and gruyère cheese. The Lee’s burger sauce — a relish-heavy and overly sweet Thousand Island lookalike — comes on far too strong, shifting the burger and leaving it in need of acid to rebalance. It’s a shame, too, because of the burgers we tried, this was the only one whose patty came with a rosy interior and any flavor impact of its own.
Similarly misguided was an opening salvo of roasted Gulf oysters, tasting only of smoke and cheese, the bivalves hidden under a smothering blanket of melted provolone and slightly gritty to boot. Sweet peppers and “spicy bourbon butter” sound like a fine accompaniment for roasted oysters, which almost always do more with less.
For a better starter, turn to the dill pickle dip, which eats a bit like dilled cottage cheese. It sounds weird, but it’s wonderful. Mild, creamy and lactic with just a punch of tang, the dip is oddly addictive alongside aggressively spiced, wonderfully crunchy barbecue chips. The Frito Pie is also a solid bet, thanks to Mills’s impeccable Texas Red. This is a gussied-up Frito pie with lovely textures.
If you’re looking to go lighter, the shrimp cocktail “Fulton St. Style” earns its keep, even with the price climbing over $20 with a crab adder. The cocktail is genteel, with a mild tomato and horseradish base that supports and enhances the sweetness of the shrimp and crab, the latter of which is placed on top, naked, in a generous scoop of pearly lump. If you want a bit more zip, which you may, there’s a lime wedge on the side of the glass and a little bowl of minced jalapeño alongside. A spritz and a sprinkle, and the whole thing really comes alive.
That, I think, is where State Fare is right now. As with that cocktail, there’s a smart base at play. It could use a few modifications to really do what it’s trying to do. A more careful hand with seasoning. A bit of editing. The idea behind State Fare is good, but the idea isn’t enough. They’ve got the drywall up already; they just need a bit of paint.
947 Gessner, Suite B190, 832-831-0950, statefarehouston.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Pickle dip $8?
Roasted oysters $15
Frito Pie $9
Shrimp cocktail $17 (add $5 for lump crab)
Smoked pork chop $27
Shrimp and grits $28
Bone-in rib eye $54
Sabine Pass gumbo $15