Mediterranean blues, yolky yellows and curvy Middle Eastern wall patterns cloak the dining room interior as a small crystal chandelier hangs in a room walled by glass. Inside that room, slabs of tagged meat perch upon shelves, some with a dusty hue, some more fresh-faced.
The bones of 2815 Shepherd have been rinsed, dried and laminated over by the new-to-town Israeli team behind steakhouse Doris Metropolitan. This Montrose location previously housed Triniti, which closed a year ago last February after running low on energy; after sustaining a notable five-year run.
Itai Ben Eli, one of four managing partners, realizes Houston is a steakhouse kind of town. But then again, Doris Metropolitan isn't a typical steakhouse. He and his team have built their concept around the careful selection and meticulous execution of aging meat.
"We are addicted to quality," Ben Eli says. "If you don't have passion in the restaurant business, I can promise you, you're not going to make it. You better have it, and you better find a way to transmit that to your guests… also [it's] not enough to just have passion. You have to…evolve."
All of that is true — and never quite enough in the highly competitive, slightly mysterious world of ambitious cuisine, where the difference between lines around the block and empty tables is easy to see but often impossible to fully define. Like any new restaurant in Houston, Doris is a gamble.
Ryan Hildebrand knows this all too well. In a moment, five years had come and gone and the same keys he had used to open Triniti were the same he used to lock the doors for the final time. He and his original "dream team" had carefully toiled creating their opus, and upon opening those doors, instantly became susceptible to the whispering opinions of tweeters, yelpers, critics, the you's and the me's.
Most guests will never realize how a striving restaurant will try to put on every appearance of success, while barely holding on.
For Ben Eli, 33, and his partner, Dori Rebi Chia, 41, friends from the same small town in northern Israel, it's always been about the meat. In 2005 in Rosh Pinna, Israel the duo opened Doris Butchers, a butcher shop that was attentive to every aspect of procuring meat (they sold in 2008.) They sourced and inspected the cattle for high marble content, aged appropriately, and then, sold or served it in the shop's restaurant, a venue that would grow from 15, to 20, to 40 seats in just three years.
Their core team grew from two to four with the addition of Ben Eli's relative, chef Sash Kurgan and Itamar Levy, their numbers guy. The group, who love to travel, settled on Costa Rica for their first location because of the "pura vida" lifestyle the country embodies. Doris Metropolitan opened in 2009 and did well even though it was difficult to find the quality of beef they felt comfortable serving. The itch to move and grow had them seeking out the United States, which Ben Eli says, "has the best beef."
While originally aiming for Miami, they shifted to New Orleans after falling in love with the city. In 2013, they opened their second location of Doris Metropolitan in the French Quarter. The people of New Orleans as well as tourists quickly gravitated, and reviews buzzed about the restaurant that Brett Anderson of Nola.com described as existing in the "odd duck steakhouse category."
It's nothing new that the sign of a good steakhouse is in-house aging, but Doris Metropolitan piques interest with its Middle Eastern touches found in the accompaniments and appetizers. "We are trying to break away from the [steakhouse] mold, more fresh greens, more olive oil, more lemon juice… less heavy things," Kurgan says. Artichoke Flower Salad, tzatziki, tahini, schug, halvah. In these flavors you see the aha difference of Doris Metropolitan.
The team's take on aging is interesting. While the cookie cutter steakhouse model prides itself on musty, 60-day dry-aged cuts, Ben Eli explains, "[we] age, not for the sake of aging, but as a tool to get smooth 'age' flavor and tender meat. Dry-aging beef is a lot about balance, not what can sit there the longest."
At Doris Metropolitan, the primals of prime plus beef come into the restaurant via vacuum-sealed bags, already three weeks wet aged. Kurgan inspects, tags and places the beef in the 34 to 38-degree, 80 percent humidity dry-aging room. There it will sit until he gives the approval. "At around 20 days aging you reach maximum tenderness with mild dry-aged flavors, at 30, you have the perfect balance," Ben Eli says. Back-and-forth into the aging room, and several times a day, Kurgan checks for correct tenderness and desired age. Less about formula, and more about feel, he is guided by his senses and the expertise of experience.
Eager for new growth and curious about Houston, the team ventured west. After a few trips, Ben Eli remembers, "[we] realized how into food Houstonians are, how developed the culinary scene is, and how much access to great ethnic cuisine there was." They settled on Montrose and opened last December, albeit to a much tougher crowd.
At Triniti, Hildebrand and team built their restaurant around a tasting menu that changed every season. It quickly became a destination for the curious diners of Houston who hop from tasting menu to tasting menu. People filed it as: Interesting, I need to dress up, this is a three-hour commitment, bring the Amex. The food, interior design and service all added up to the fine dining formula, though looking back, it wasn't quite what they were trying to do.
"Everything we did drove that [fine dining] message. To us, we wanted a beautiful space with a laid-back atmosphere and attitude. I think sometimes that may have confused people, it was never confusing to us," Hildebrand says.
That first year, the Triniti team continued to push itself with unique ideas like the Mercury dinners; eight-courses paired with the 15-piece Mercury Orchestra lead by maestro Antoine Plante. According to Hildebrand, initially it was difficult to operate in sync with the maestro, but after a few dinners they found their step. Synchronizing a tasting menu with the power of music made for an exciting sensory experience; both art forms already armed with the innate ability to transport. "We had big burly cooks crying because [the feeling] was so striking," Hildebrand remembers.
A few years later to order a tasting menu was special request only, and in a new jacket was a more "approachable" menu with larger portions. Hillebrand remembers, "To change the menu as frequently as we did, it required a lot of hands on deck, the model just didn't really work at that point." They continued to adapt to what they thought would attract customers; they built a patio, remodeled their bar Sanctuari and even shot off flares to the media.
"Hildebrand wanted to address the idea that Triniti was the sort of fine dining restaurant where one could wear jeans, befitting Houston's laid back attitude towards eating out, and dispel any notions that his modern American restaurant was a fussy, tasting menu-only affair," Katharine Shilcutt wrote in 2015 for houstoniamag.com.
The 140-seat restaurant struggled with road construction on Shepherd, and with their "lifeline" of clientele living north in River Oaks and the Heights, "when that artery got cut it set us back big time," Hildebrand explains. "People would tell me they just stopped driving down Shepherd. After we lost that volume we never got it back." While the Triniti team saw themselves being pigeonholed into the formal fine dining category, they never saw the Shepherd dilemma coming.
Ambitions aside and efforts exhausted, the restaurant closed and Hildebrand said farewell to this interpretation of his heart and soul. That's what a restaurant becomes to the core team behind it. Missed children's soccer games, anniversaries celebrated in the wee hours, birthdays spent in the weeds of service are all sacrifices made to this lifestyle. But, those sacrifices give way to wild creations coming to fruition, unexpected obstacles being overcome, uncontrollable laughter translating into joy, and sometimes, just sometimes critics being wowed.
Nowadays and just two miles north down Shepherd, Hildebrand is happily executing comfort food at the good-time, backyard-feel FM Kitchen and Bar, and Triniti regulars have eagerly followed. Though Frito pies are quite the opposite of orchestraic tasting menus, he's still creating and putting his stamp of approval on everything.
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"Being creative doesn't need to be fancy," he says while sitting in the clean, open dining room at FM Kitchen. "Fine dining, who knows, maybe we'll get back to it, but for now the casual restaurant pays the bills."
Meanwhile Ben Eli is aware of this industry's sinkholes and how instantaneously they appear. And though the Houston market, saturated to the point of spillover, is far from that of New Orleans or Costa Rica; their niche might have what it takes to survive.