As this crisis continues, we're wading into unchartered territory. This once-in-a-generation pandemic is shutting entire industries down for longer than we've ever seen. Hospitality, in particular fine dining, is suffering perhaps the worst depression in the industry's history as restaurants in some cities go into their fourth or fifth weeks of closure.
As diners, we are also experiencing life without restaurants. The experience of dining out, of communing with others around a professionally prepared meal, is beginning to feel like a distant memory. Yet, while some are closed entirely, even for good, many of our city's typically dine-in exclusive restaurants have turned to take-out, even retail services to stay afloat. One such establishment still kicking, is Riel.
The brainchild of executive chef and partner Ryan Lachaine, the small Montrose kitchen is known as much for the experience of dining there as for Lachaine's inspired menus of small plates and shareables with global, particularly Asian, influence. From its open kitchen and signature playlist of classic hip hop to a cast of notable regulars like Houston's own Willie D, Riel is a place to be as much as to eat. While we miss this and all our favorite restaurants during this stay home order, we should remember that they remain open for business in a different capacity.
My take-out meal from Riel consisted of two of my all-time favorites plus one more recent menu addition. Ordering was done over the phone and pick up was completed curbside, using the restaurant's valet drop-off zone as a converted drive-through area. I ordered two of Lachaine's famous mushroom empanadas, two of the now-beloved butter burgers and an order of the more recently debuted K.F.C. (Korean fried chicken) wings.
The meal managed to survive a long drive home without losing much character. The butter burger sliders, a Riel instant classic that have made their mark on the city's food scene and endeared Lachaine to the likes of the Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook, were so incredibly savory and delicious, they prompted an annoyed scorning by my wife for the unfathomable stupidity of having ordered just two.
Another Riel favorite, the mushroom empanadas, were likewise devoured, though they could have used a few minutes in the oven as the drive and to-go container robbed them of their characteristic flakiness. A quick bake at high heat would probably revive these savory treats and add some crispiness back.
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Finally, the K.F.C wings — which didn't even make it home in their entirety — are an excellent choice for take-out ordering. Simple, delicious, and sturdy enough to survive transport, the wings are dry seasoned with kimchi and hot honey and are as addicting as they sound. In retrospect, the worst part of this meal was my own stinginess as, when it was over, I very seriously considered getting back in the car and doubling the order.
New: It's worth nothing that Riel recently launched what they've called the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, in partnership with The LEE Initiative and Maker's Mark. The eatery is serving as a relief center for restaurant workers, producing 250-300 free meals a day for Houston restaurant workers who've recently lost their jobs or experienced reduction of pay. Thanks to the efforts of Lachaine and his staff, plus a generous donation by Deshaun Watson and the continued support of Riel's customers, furloughed workers can receive not only meals but essentials like soap and toilet paper from the relief table set up just outside the building.
This isn't a budget-friendly take-out meal. My three small plates, just enough to feed my wife and I, came out to over $40 with tip. Without the ability to patronize our favorite high-end and chef-driven restaurants, however, take-out has, for the moment, replaced those fine dining experiences. This was, after all, a meal prepared in one of the most raved about restaurants in the city. One that would otherwise have been enjoyed in an appropriate setting, with several cocktails and dessert, with the final bill justifiably crossing into three-figures. The point being that we should all indulge in a little fine-dining right now. For our own sanity and pleasure but, moreover, to lend some much-needed support to establishments that were never created to survive a moment like this.
Correction: An earlier report misstated what the table filled with toilet paper and other essentials was for. The Houston Press regrets the error.