As I sit in the sunshine on the simple shaded rear patio at Provisions, surrounded by aluminum pots of rosemary and a few barely blossoming lime trees, it's easy to see what chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner mean by the printed message at the bottom of each broadsheet paper menu that doubles as a tablecloth at each two-top: "We're cooks, so our lives revolve around food and drink. We made Provisions to be the place that, if we weren't standing in the kitchen, we'd be standing in the bar."
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
and 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Kimchi pan au lait with Cremont: $9
Shisito peppers: $10
Ham o' the Day: $10
Shrimp salad: $13
Potato gnocchi: $13
Sweetbread sandwich: $14
Mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza: $15
In front of me on the table are two six-inch sub sandwiches each weighing at least a pound. One is filled with softly spiced meatballs. A generous handful of arugula is on top, lightly accented with wispy shreds of Parmesan cheese.
On the other plate, too many panko-coated sweetbreads to count are similarly stuffed into another sandwich. Burst tomatoes pop with a bright sugar-sweetness against the fatty meat, tangy capers providing an additional acidic bulwark against what could easily be an overwhelming filling. Both plates are heaped high with shoestring potatoes that remind me fondly of the potato sticks I munched on at swim meets as a kid.
These are the kinds of sandwiches a modern young chef would make for lunch, filled with the sorts of trendy ingredients he enjoys playing with in his own kitchen — suckling pig porchetta goes into one of the five other sandwiches on the lunch menu, for example — with an upscale bent to traditional comfort food.
Siegel-Gardner has come out to visit. He's staring at my sandwich. "Did you get the sweetbreads? Those are my favorite." It's a sort of wistful question and statement, which is surprising considering how easily familiarity breeds contempt. Siegel-Gardner still clearly harbors an immense affection for the food that he and Gallivan have been turning out since Provisions — the more casual half of dual-restaurant concept The Pass & Provisions — opened last September. This kind of passion is often infectious, but it can also be blinding.
Luckily for the two young-Turk chefs, their passion — and its associated risk-taking — usually pay off.
When I first met Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan, the two men were crammed into a tiny bungalow in the bad part of the Heights with their wives and three dogs: Catfish, Barbecue and Janie.
It was cramped quarters when I went to interview them that hot June day, interested in finding out why two successful chefs would leave acclaimed New York City kitchens such as Aquavit, Aureole and August — all very highly regarded restaurants where the pair had worked at one time or another — for the comparatively unhip Bayou City. Siegel-Gardner documented the move and their thought processes in a blog for Food Republic that he called "The Worst Idea Ever?"
Gallivan, who'd left a job as executive chef at popular Italian restaurant Alto in Midtown, put it very simply that muggy afternoon: "Why should you have to go to New York to eat amazing food?" Gallivan asked, not rhetorically. "Houston is a great food community. It's just a matter of convincing people to try something new."
To that end, the two chefs set out laying the groundwork for that "something new" with a succession of one sold-out pop-up dinner series after another. Just August meals at Montrose restaurant Just Dinner, Pilot Light dinners at Heights grocery store Revival Market, long lines of fans queuing up for tickets that were gone within 15 minutes, e-mail waiting lists, excited Tweets and Instagrams and Facebook updates the night of — Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan had simultaneously created an audience for their unique brand of New American cuisine while garnering the sort of attention that investors clamor to put money behind. It was a wildly successful model and a fascinating study in appealing to modern dining trends — pop-up dinners, social-media involvement, one-on-one contact with the chefs making and serving your food — to fabricate organic growth.
Siegel-Gardner's "Worst Idea Ever?" blog launched on August 1, 2011. Two years and one month later, the two chefs had moved into the beautifully renovated space that once housed Gravitas and Antone's. The awkwardly shaped 1930s-era structure that was home to Antone's po-boy shop and imported-goods grocer for more than 50 years was stripped down, cleaned up and given the sort of quirky masculine touches that reflect the chefs themselves.
Walls are covered with repurposed floorboards from a gymnasium, streaks of blue and red paint still intact, while the old lightbulb-ringed Antone's sign has been given a place of honor as the only art hung in the entire restaurant. The unisex bathrooms feature a constant chattering soundtrack of Julia Child's Muppet-like voice. The communal table that runs the length of the restaurant is anchored in place by metal pipes, while silver conduit lines the white walls in the bar in oddly artistic patterns.
Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner also stocked the restaurant with a host of talent along the way, ranging from charcutier champ Adam Garcia to front-of-house whiz kid Isaac Johnson — the debonair general manager who keeps the dining room running smoothly — to sommelier Fred Jones, whose encyclopedic wine knowledge and ability to gently encourage even the fussiest drinker to try a new Riesling are revered by other somms across the city. Between this team and the affable service, dinner at Provisions is always an enjoyable, adventurous affair — just as Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner no doubt envisioned it.
When the dining room is full — as it almost always is, with reservations to be had only early or late in the evening — the gym-floor walls give off a cozy, warm glow that's echoed by the large, wood-burning oven in the open kitchen that births pizzas in stunningly fast succession. Those pizzas can be hit-or-miss, though, ranging from a spartan mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza that's my platonic ideal — bubbly, charred crust and all — to a salumi pizza so coated with astringent black olive oil it was difficult to taste anything else. For the rest of the night.
And therein lies the slight frustration I've experienced so far with Provisions: There is no such thing here as a "good" dish. Provisions is a place of dizzying, polar opposites.
Dishes are either so stunningly conceived and executed as to make you sit back and simply marvel at their wonderfully weird working parts — take, for example, a cast-iron dish of sturdy gnocchi both pillowy and crispy topped with an incongruously modern arrangement of pickled vegetables — or they're so bad, you wonder if anyone tasted them before they came out of the kitchen. This was the case with a texturally off-putting, oddly flavorless dish of roasted salsify and brandade (which has thankfully been removed from the menu) and an odd burrata pizza that's more like breadsticks and marinara sauce than anything else.
But here's the good news: The odds are ever in your favor here. For every bad dish I've encountered over six visits, I've received at least nine that are powerfully stunning. I wish space allowed me to recount them all, because I would slavishly tell you about every brilliant detail. I'd tell you about the shrimp salad that brought a stupid grin to my face with its molded baton of orange and pink shrimp that reminded me of Japanese surimi, perhaps a nod to Siegel-Gardner's time as sous chef at Kata Robata, on top of a creamy apple slaw and buttressed with elegant curlicues of shaved celery and a tangle of other green vegetables — the loosest definition of "shrimp salad" I could possibly have imagined.
I'd tell you about the finely turned ears of pasta called orecchiette in a surprisingly spicy white bolognese sauce given buttery depth with the addition of the ripe, bright green Castelvetrano olives that are all sweet herbal flavors and no brine. Or the kimchi pan au lait with a vague vinegar whisper under the soft cloud of bread, served with a single warmed egg yolk for dipping and a double-cream Cremont that makes cheese-lovers weak in the knees.
I'd rave about the playful Ham o' the Day, which changes with the kitchen's whims but is always plated on a schmear of peppery mustard and topped with rye-flavored crumbles that mimic a ham sandwich on rye. Or the even more fun Everything Chips — potato chips with bagel-like holes in the middle, crusted with garlic, sesame seeds and more — served with a delicate mousse of salmon, crème fraîche and chives, the chefs' interpretation of a thoroughly New York bagel and lox.
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Unlike other recent entrants to the new restaurant scene, Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner aren't interested in limiting their creativity to riffs on Houston-centric cuisine. You'll find nods to their own roots and backgrounds as well — Italian mingling with Nordic, Japanese with Thai, childhood with a bold dose of maturity. You'll find Dippin' Dots-style ice cream at dessert, or pumpkin-seed soft-serve topped with a remarkably faithful re-creation of Magic Shell. This Magic Shell is balsamic vinegar-flavored, however, but still anchored affectionately in adolescence by chunks of crumbled graham crackers on top.
The food here is definitely "something new" by Houston standards, although novelty isn't attractive in and of itself — at least not for long. Where Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner really succeed is in keeping the food fun while keeping the flavors accessible, all the while displaying a Sinatra-like devotion to doing things their way. Even if you may not think that roasted shisito peppers topped with harissa aioli and mint leaves sounds good straight off the bat, give it a try. There may not be a traditional appetizer/entrée/dessert structure here, but the better to experiment with; it's freeing in that way. There's no reward without risk, and you'll often be rewarded richly at Provisions.
This is a tenet that Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner understand keenly — their own risky venture in Houston has paid off in spades — and one that they've adopted as a sort of unofficial motto. At the top of each new day's paper menu is a rotation of quotes from figures as varied in background as Provisions is in its culinary influences: Michael Jordan, Julia Child, Patrick Swayze's character from Dirty Dancing. But the one I've run across most frequently is the one that's most fitting, a quote from General Sam Houston himself: "Do right and risk the consequences."