Restaurant Reviews

Trying Hard to Be Good

What a cheerful little roost is The Raven Grill, such a relaxed haven for lunch or simple supper. The large, high-ceilinged room sports an appealingly softened industrial look in a palette of cool greens ranging from celery to sage to cream (are those Martha Stewart colors?), punctuated here and there by the cafe's totem raven image. More like a magpie, perhaps, The Raven is a canny borrower, taking a mesquite-flavored page or two from Jim Goode's book: A rack of fragrant red logs fences the end of the open kitchen, and an occasional low-key western swing selection twangs on the stereo.

Amazing, really, that so close to the Village Lexus-nexus one can find so much elbow room, let alone a sizable parking lot or a peaceful nook for quiet conversations. As a place to hang out, The Raven makes me very happy. As a restaurant, well, there's room for improvement. Hits and misses are probably inevitable for a fledgling bistro; it will be interesting to see how The Raven matures.

Topping my personal hit list is the Tower O' Rings appetizer at only $2.95. The vertically stacked onion rings, advertised as "lightly battered" are in fact heavily battered in thick, chewy, golden-browned coats; to my surprise, I like them a lot anyway. Even better are the thin, much crisper rings of poblano pepper served alongside, their glossy green skins peeking through the thinner batter.

And who could resist the charming notion of "quesadilla of the day," seven different compositions served on a rotating basis? One Sunday we found the shrimp and sun-dried tomato edition ($6.95) quite to our liking, the fresh tortillas flaky and butter-crispy like fine phyllo pastry, perfect for dipping in the tart green tomatillo sauce. Soups also change daily, including a hearty chicken version, chock full of meat and fully capable of comforting children or common colds, and an admirable cup of corn chowder chunky with potatoes ($2.95).

Ah, but the spicy Yucatan oysters ($7.95) are a bummer, a bigger disappointment for sounding so promising. The little sautéed mollusks look strangely vulnerable shell-less, small, wrinkled and adrift in a black-peppered sea of what might generously be called a sauce, less kindly thin pan juice. At first bite I realized the corn tortilla chips were too thick and robustly flavored for the poor oysters; on second, it was clear that their delicate flavor could never compete with the overload of black pepper so powerful it masks even the garlic. This dish is doomed, I thought irritably, as I tried to imagine how to improve it. My advice: Start over.

The entrées from the mesquite-fired grill are well handled and certainly inoffensive, but so far I've not discovered one that makes me want to dance on the table or even wiggle a little in my chair. I liked but was not wowed by the poblano lime-grilled chicken ($9.95), a generous full chicken breast, lightly grilled and moist, crisscrossed with authentic black grill marks and dark green strips of poblanos. It's accompanied by a forgettable herbed rice, but much better grilled vegetables, an interesting and tasty mix of squashes and — bonus points here — very tender wedges of nopalito. Very few cooks can make prickly pear cactus pads so palatable.

The grilled portobello mushroom was also quite properly prepared, blackened outside, pale and moist inside, but strangely overpriced at $10.95. One cap, that's all you get. My dining companion's face fell at the sight of the solo mushroom. "But it's a lovely presentation," she noted bravely, gazing down at her plate filled out with a lot more of the green-flecked rice and green grilled veggies.

I had mixed feelings about The Raven's highly touted wood-fired burgers ($6.95). Tasty, yes; cooked to order, no. (Why bother to ask how I want it cooked if it's going to come out well-done anyway?) The soft, onion-speckled bun badly needed toasting to stiffen it up a bit, and the french fries, though painstakingly hand-cut, were sadly soft and greasy. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the faint trace of grease on the grilled cheese sandwich appropriately dubbed the "Margarita" ($6.50): Slices of sourdough stuffed with chewy melted mozzarella and marinated Roma tomatoes, and laced with pesto, it almost qualifies as a pizza. One that needs salt, I couldn't help noting.

After slogging through such uneven menu terrain, we were thrilled by all The Raven's desserts — not a clunker in the bunch, thanks to the in-house pastry chef who visits every morning. Choices range from the very, very rich — such as the high-intensity Chocolate Nevermore ($4.95), a flourless chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse and topped with chocolate ganache — to lighter, fluffier numbers such as the cheesecake o' the day ($3.95) or the righteously low-fat grilled angel food cake that lies atop a sweet, ruby-red strawberry puree ($3.95). On a recent trip, I loved the off-the-menu strawberry and rhubarb crisp, the sweet-tart fruit mixture topped with a chewy, cinnamon-sparked granola cover and a big scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream, while my friend waxed passionate about her light, fluffy wedge of cheesecake sparkling with citrus flavor. The carrot cake ($3.95) is a wonderment, a huge wedge of moist, spicy cake studded with raisins, nuts and wisps of carrot, and thickly iced with rich, sweet cream cheese. "Tall, moist and sincere," promises the menu, goofy as a food writer. Can a cake be "sincere"? I don't know, but I truthfully sawed off half that slice to smuggle home for a heartfelt midnight snack.

Overall, The Raven Grill tries so darned hard to please it seems mean to pick at its gaffes. The waitstaff is eager and friendly, helpfully refilling sodas for free and full of advice in all matters. (Except cocktails — they seem uninterested in those. The Raven's full bar is hampered by limited imagination: Ask for something fruity and frilly, and the best they can come up with is a Cape Codder, for example.) There are plenty of good green choices to accommodate vegetarians and heart-smart diners, ranging from a small spinach salad ($1.95) to a big ol' Caesar with shrimp ($8.95). Kids are thoughtfully included in the fun, with four well-chosen selections — plain grilled cheese with fries, pasta with butter, chicken strips or a PB&J with fruit — at a quite reasonable $2.95 each.

Even the minor glitches inherent in industrial decor are more amusing than annoying: Too bad that condensation drips from the fashionably exposed, black-painted air-conditioning ductwork overhead, but it's entertaining to watch anxious staffers stretch on tiptoe to swab it with a broom swathed in paper towels. The butcher paper over linen looks stylish for a tablecloth until you begin your meal; afterward, it's an ugly battlefield of soggy water rings, grease spots and food blotches. Well, that's how my messy place at the table looked, anyway.

I think a satisfied neighbor of The Raven's summed it up best. "Would I drive across town for it? Maybe not," she said, sincerely. "But am I glad it's right here? You bet."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret L.Briggs