Dinner at The Durham House is a leisurely affair. Whether by design or by the natural course of a still newish staff working out the details of a still newish menu, a recent Saturday night meal stretched upwards of three hours, including an hour at the bar waiting on a table in a room filled with empty ones. James Caronna, the bar manager, explained that the kitchen liked to space out its orders so as not to be overwhelmed when the rush hits all at once, as has tended to be the case for the fledgling restaurant.
Of course, if you make the most of your seat at the bar, the wait will be a pleasant one. Caronna, who cut his teeth with stints at Downhouse and Bad News Bar, is both engaging and talented, and has put together a trim but interesting list of classic (often with a slight spin) and original cocktails that put Durham House in the running as one of the city’s most promising restaurant bars.
As he stirs up his take on a Vermouth Panache — a low-alcohol stunner of surprising depth and clarity — he launches into a brief aside on dry vermouth, describing a new find and his new favorite in the category. If you spy a bottle on the back bar, new to you and interesting, he may well pour you a sample, just to taste. Ask him how he settled on the striking combination of mildly bitter and fruity components that bring The Sansa Cocktail to life, and you’ll get a glimpse into his creative process as well as a brief treatise on popular culture and the art of cocktail naming. It’s an entertaining way to spend an hour or so, whether or not you wind up at a table. Once you do find your seat, things aren’t quite as smooth.
It’s worth noting here that, while The Durham House has been in operation since November, there has already been a change in the kitchen. Under the current leadership of chef Mike McElroy, the restaurant’s new menu has been in place for only a short while. Built around an array of enticing small plates and a few carefully curated mains, it’s a lean document with a lot of promise. While there are definitely some good things to eat, that promise falls short often enough to suggest that the kitchen still has some kinks to work out.
A plate of thinly shaved coppa di testa is all lush porcine sweetness and nutty, melting fat, punctuated by a scatter of pickled watermelon, lightly fruity and suave in its acidity. Pale squiggles of cartilaginous ear wend their way through the dish, shaved thin so their texture is a highlight, not a hindrance. Too bad its crunch of sea salt tips the already heavy scales, rendering the otherwise lovely plate nearly inedible, save for those few precious bites which escape the salty scorch. Fix the seasoning, and this would be a plate well worth its $10 price tag.
Other selections from the small plates — most of which repeat across lunch and dinner menus, albeit at the same price — fare better, though none is without its missteps. A moderately sized slab of seared foie gras could be a modest luxury, but the accompanying puree of purple carrot and potato is both gluey and confusing, with little connection to the remaining components. A trimmer plate, anchored by a truly galvanizing citrus gastrique with its lovely sweet-tart pop of bitter orange, would fare better. Even more so if the liver came to the table a few degrees warmer.
Tempura fried cauliflower isn’t tempura, sheathed as it is in a much thicker but still graceful coat of panko-style bread crumbs. Still, it’s light and elegant, kicked up by a rémoulade whose only sin is its meager portion. There’s little to none of the advertised smoke, but the vegetables stand up just fine without it, managing the perfect texture between custardy and resilient, playing nicely against their expertly crisped coating. The seasoning is perfect here, each piece carefully dusted with salt while still shimmering from its oil bath, a step I find Houston restaurants skip all too often. This is one of the finer offerings among the small plates. Give me more of that well-tuned rémoulade, whose acidity helps keep the dish from listing heavy, and I’m a happy man.
Along with the small plates and other à la carte items, the lunch menu features a three-course prix fixe option. At $25, it’s a bit steep for what amounts to a soup and sandwich special, though the options are not without their charm.
Charming, indeed, is the seafood gumbo. Built on a base of roux that careens along the highway to the danger zone, the gumbo is serious stuff. Intense, with a depth of flavor that’s almost overwhelming, it builds from that deeply nutty, pleasantly bitter-edged roux, amplifying the rounded savory sweetness of the requisite vegetable trio. The shrimp laced throughout are pleasantly dewy, though the crawfish are a bit on the meager side, and just leaning toward mealiness. You won’t mind the crawfish; the flavors that enrobe it are arresting enough. This is evocative, comforting, soulful food.
That same soul shines through on the dinner menu, in a shallow bowlful of rabbit and andouille jambalaya, which serves as the base for a disappointingly dry and stringy rabbit confit. As much of a letdown as the supposed star, the supporting cast steals the show and covers the cost of admission. Well, mostly. Thirty-two dollars is a steep price to pay for half of a good dish. Still, that half is more than good. The jambalaya is assertively spicy. Rich and nuanced, it is insistent in flavor but not overbearing. As with the gumbo, this is comforting, deeply satisfying food. It really is a shame about that confit; this dish wants to sing, and the rabbit topper is a decidedly blue note. Crisp of skin and supple of flesh, it would add substance and flare to an already stellar plate of food. Instead, it makes the dish feel like a letdown as you shove its star aside. You don’t feel let down for long, but still.
Gluey starch shows up again on the steak plate, a smoked, dry-aged New York strip (or rib eye, depending) that somehow fails to deliver much in the way of smoke or dry-aged intensity. My wife ate it with gusto, and it was a satisfying enough hunk of protein, delivering an almost angry char on the outside, a perfect medium rare within. Still, I wanted it to be more than it was. The menu language paints an exciting picture, but the plate is just good enough. Ho hum. And that’s not even considering those gummy mashed potatoes. The best bite on the plate? A gently pungent puree of shallots.
As surprising as the steak was in its under-delivery, the menu’s token vegetarian entrée proved to be a sleeper hit. Built around roasted portobello mushrooms stuffed with peas and celery root puree, it sounds token. It isn’t. If you eat it like a critic, taking individual tastes of the components, you’ll be left wanting. The celery root puree is overly sweet, the chew of the faro oddly counterposed, the peas seemingly an afterthought. It’s much more than the sum of its parts, though. Combined into a bite, the nutty chew from the faro plays well with the moister, meatier chew of the mushroom. The celery root sweetness is an accent now, playing with the savory depth of the portobello. On top, the smoky, shattering crunch of fried kale adds textural interest as well as additional depth, giving the dish more gravitas than you’d expect. Even the drizzle of vinaigrette works in harmony, balancing out all those competing flavors with a hit of acid. It is, however, a small dish. In order to justify the price point, and make a more satisfying plate, the kitchen could plate a pair of mushroom caps?
That’s a question that pops up repeatedly while you’re dining at The Durham House, especially during dinner. With most entrée items priced firmly in the 30s, The Durham House ticks in somewhat significantly over other restaurants shooting for the same “casual neighborhood joint serving upscale food” model. To dine well at The Durham house — let’s say a cocktail while you’re waiting, a couple of small plates, shared, an entrée apiece and a glass of wine to wash it down — can easily run you into the range of $75 per person. On balance, that’s not exorbitant, but it does exceed the price of a similarly paced meal at similarly intended restaurants. And that’s before you account for the fizzle factor. I want to like The Durham House. I do like The Durham House. I want to like it the same way I like its brethren, a (gladly) growing dining segment in Houston. Its menu reads as good as most of its competitors, but it doesn’t quite deliver.
In spite of that, I think there’s room for growth. Owner Raj Natarajan is frequently on site, greeting customers and guiding them through the thoughtful wine list, split broadly between an array of interesting styles and price points. James Caronna is doing truly excellent work behind the bar, and the restaurant seems happy to employ him as both bartender and MC, the better to smooth over the slow pace of service. Chef Mike McElroy has a deft touch with deeply comforting and satisfying flavors, and ideas that land in a sweet spot between immediately approachable and interestingly elegant. I wish the prices weren’t quite so steep, but I might feel better about them if the kitchen could make good on the promise of its menu. They’re not quite there yet, but I think they could be. I’ll be back to check.
The Durham House
1200 Durham, 713-864-5600, thedurhamhouse.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.
Coppa di testa $10
Foie gras $18
Prix fixe lunch $25
Smoked rib eye $37
“Portabello” and peas $18