It was a Saturday night and the place was swinging. The music playing over the sound system was incredibly well chosen, representing the relaxed edginess that Textile, Scott Tycer's newest restaurant, tries to present: Wilco, Coltrane, Lou Reed, Iron & Wine. It turns out that the maitre d', who chooses the music each night, moonlights as a DJ on KTRU on Monday nights.
My appetizer of steak tartare was expertly prepared, featuring a perfectly poached quail egg and a piquant mustard that brought it all together, humming sharply. My companion's piece of Hudson Valley foie gras was lasciviously huge, but was paired disappointingly with a maple-laced waffle with an overtly sweet flavor and soggy texture that didn't offer enough resistance to the rich foie gras. Our entrées, however, left nothing to be desired.
My mushroom tart was ideal in its simplicity; even vegetarians are guaranteed a wonderful meal at Textile. The decadent pile of mushrooms — chanterelle, Hen of the Woods, hedgehog — came together in a rich symphony of woodsy flavors, while the straightforward preparation let them shine through in all their earthy glory. My partner's braised lamb was tender and succulent. Stacked between slices of potatoes and crispy daikon radish alongside a tangy, full-bodied au jus, the little tower of lamb presented an inspired assemblage of textures and flavors.
If only our first meal had been this divine, the service this happy and high-spirited.
Textile confuses me. And because a good number of people will be confused as to why I — instead of Robb Walsh — am writing a review of Houston's highest-profile new restaurant, I figure that we're all in good company. Here's the story.
During the course of reviewing Gravitas in 2005, Walsh was recognized [see "Spy vs. Spy," October 20, 2005] by one of the staff. As a result, Walsh can no longer dine anonymously in Tycer's restaurants, which tends to defeat the entire purpose of being an undercover restaurant critic, after all.
To say that the Houston food scene was waiting with bated breath for Textile to open would be an understatement. Ever since Aries was closed by Tycer in a fit of pique two and a half years ago, those eager for exceptionally creative, cutting-edge, high-end cuisine have had to either travel to other cities or make do at similar but not quite as adept restaurants such as Tycer's own Gravitas, an "American bistro" that he opened a few years after Aries.
When Tycer announced that he'd not only be opening a new restaurant in a similar vein to the deeply mourned Aries but would be doing so inside the old Oriental Textile Mill in the Heights, you could almost feel the hum of excitement across the city. A renovated space in a quirky neighborhood, an immensely talented chef, a commitment to elevating the dining scene in Houston to international levels: What wasn't there to love about Textile?
As it turns out, there are at least a few things.
On my first visit to Textile on a quiet Tuesday evening, fabric panels hung like hospital curtains from the high, whitewashed ceilings. The small dining room — which only seats 32 people — was lit warmly by candles and ambient lighting and featured a few charming antiques throughout, but there seemed to be an odd undercurrent of apprehension in the restaurant. The palpable nervousness of the staff, coupled with almost clinical service, made for a very uneven meal: The food was very good, but I was almost afraid to enjoy it.
Staff spoke in hushed voices, and interactions were limited. My dining partner and I were eager to know about the laconic wine list, the cocktails prepared at the potent-looking bar and the provenance of certain ingredients. Our inquiries were met with polite yet quiet and restrained answers while the staff almost imperceptibly continued to glance over their shoulders towards the looming kitchen door. The maitre d' solemnly recited the ingredients of each dish as it was presented as though he were dictating a crime scene.
The meal itself, however, verged on wonderful. I ordered the $85 five-course degustation menu (a full seven-course menu is available for $115), while my companion stuck with the à la carte menu. This fact alone bears mentioning, as it represents a huge paradigm shift from restaurants — Aries included — that only allow the tasting menu to be ordered if the entire table is having it.
My dining companion's seared diver scallops in cauliflower puree were plump little pearls that melted in the mouth and were exquisite to behold, as is every dish at Textile. Presentation as an art form is clearly taken very seriously here. My salad of pert Bibb lettuce and tangy dehydrated fennel served with a toothsome onion strudel and a morsel of tart Fourme d'Ambert cheese was first-rate.
Our meal dipped slightly at this point, however, as the entrées were a bit uninspired. My dining companion's steak came with an indelicately large portion of thick foie gras on top, but the steak itself was very average. And of my trio of entrées, two of them were sous vide. Perhaps it's just a matter of personal preference, but I'm sick to death of seeing anything cooked sous vide on "modern American" menus.
The turbot was an excellent example of food that's better off cooked in a less aggressively modern way. As a result of the cooking process, the fish became a veritable brick, all but destroying the delicate cauliflower soufflé upon which it was placed. The Berkshire pork, too, was cooked this way, although with a lighter hand: It remained juicy, and the fresh flavor of the high-quality pork shone through, although the dish was still somewhat bland overall. The standout of the evening was the vibrant, rustic tart with sumptuous diced bacon over wilted bitter greens, a solitary poached quail egg perched on top.
Because of the fact that I'd had so much food by this point in the meal — Textile doesn't skimp on portion size — I wasn't able to finish the large piece of pork tenderloin, and left a scant bite on my plate. As the busboy cleared our plates away, the sommelier caught sight of the morsel I'd left behind. He whispered curtly to the busboy to clear that piece of food off the plate before he took it back into the kitchen so that Chef Tycer wouldn't see it. This eavesdropped conversation only served to underscore the nerves that everyone seemed to be feeling that evening.
The desserts elevated the meal once more, however. Mark my words that young pastry chef Plinio Sandalio is one to keep a close eye on. His desserts, on both visits, were something imagined from a Lewis Carroll book: mathematically precise and measured in their execution, but extraordinarily fanciful. The liquid pumpkin pie with decadently rich brown butter ice cream, the magnificent sweet potato beignets with their whimsical bacon ice cream (not your standard candied bacon, but rich, meaty bacon pureed into ice cream), the unexpected pound cake with sweet apple jam and pungent blue cheese ice cream: All were impetuous yet calculated, and uncommonly delicious. The trip to Textile is worth it simply for the desserts alone.
Another reason to make the trip could be solely for the libations. The small bar is well-stocked, and the bartender, Anthony, is eager to surprise guests with Prohibition Era cocktails he thinks will suit their fancy. On one night, I had a sweetly invigorating concoction of Meyer lemon juice, gin and honey, while on the next visit I had a spicy and deeply satisfying whiskey cocktail with ginger and honey syrup. Even their mocktails are good: A fizzy limeade with hibiscus flowers is perfect if you've been handed the keys for the night.
But if you haven't, the wine list is nothing to cough at, either. The prices are amazingly affordable, with very little markup. It's also evident that the sommelier has tried every bottle on the list and is including only his favorites; nothing is on the list because it's trendy or expensive. It's both impressive and refreshing.
I'm left feeling disjointed about Textile and its seeming inconsistency, wondering if they were having an off night on Tuesday or a really great night on Saturday. But one thing remains clear throughout the confusion: When they're on their game, there is absolutely no other restaurant like this in Houston.