Waiting for a Train

The opening of Enron Field and the accompanying boom in bars and restaurants have given everybody a little taste of what it would be like to have a thriving entertainment district downtown. Dylan Murray, chef de cuisine at Saba Blue Water Cafe (416 Main Street, 713-228-7222), worked in trendsetting downtown San Francisco restaurants such as chef Jeremiah Towers's Stars before coming home to Houston. We asked Murray what restaurants in the downtown historic district are doing to lure more diners out during the dog days of summer.

Q. What's your take on the downtown restaurant scene?

A. It's very promising, but it hasn't reached its potential yet. This area is very bar-friendly, but the restaurant business is tough. There's enormous competition in the lunch business. In the summer, there's the whole tunnel thing going. And in the evening, it's hard to get serious diners to come downtown for dinner. The River Oaks, Woodlands and West U people aren't used to going downtown at night -- they're used to hanging out in their own neighborhoods, and they're stuck there.

Q. What's the solution?

A. Light rail. Downtown restaurant owners feel like if they can just hang on until the rail line is finished, they'll get a big bump in business. But I think the owners down here also feel there's too many restaurants already; we're all sucking it up, waiting for things to improve. If we can wait it out, the potential is unbelievable. The community feeling that you get downtown is contagious, so I think it will win out eventually.

Q. So what's everybody doing in the meantime?

A. Promoting downtown as a whole through the Houston historic district association. It's such a rich part of town, culturally. There is so much going on down here. I have learned an enormous amount just walking around.

Q. What's the difference between your lunch customers and your dinner customers?

A. Well, we're close to the courthouse and lots of office buildings, so we get a lot of businesspeople and lawyers at lunchtime, but they aren't very adventurous eaters. At dinner, we get foodies from all over town, people who have heard about us and the fusion cooking. We get a lot of great feedback, but only at dinnertime.

Q. What's the difference between Houston diners and diners in other cities?

A. I used to work in San Francisco, and honestly, San Francisco diners are about ten years ahead of Houston diners when it comes to food knowledge. Waiters in San Francisco don't get away with any bullshit; you can't pass off an oyster or a fish as something it isn't, because customers there will call you on it.

Q. Do you miss San Francisco?

A. Not really. I was born and raised in Houston, and I love it here. San Francisco is nice, but there is an unreality about it. You never quite feel like you're part of the place. And it's unbelievably expensive. I can afford a much better lifestyle here.

Q. Besides, the Mexican food in San Francisco sucks, don't you think?

A. Absolutely.

Q. How do the San Francisco and Houston restaurant scenes compare overall?

A. Well, there is a complete absence of chain restaurants in San Francisco, so that's a big difference. But the small independent restaurants in Houston are right up there with the ones in the Bay Area.

Q. You mean mom-and-pop ethnic places?

A. Well, those too, but I was thinking of small restaurants like Aries. I think what Scott Tycer is doing over there is tremendous. He is really putting a lot of thought into his food. I think Aries could hang with anything that's going on in San Francisco.

Q. So do you feel like Chef Jekyll and Chef Hyde going back and forth between a boring lunch and an exciting dinner menu at Saba?

A. Yeah, a little. But when we opened, we put a really great lunch menu up on the wall outside, and we watched people walk up and read it and then walk away -- it happened every day. Chef-owner Larry Perdido and I fought the good fight. But finally we went around and checked the other restaurants to see which ones were full and what people were ordering, and we came to the conclusion that we had to sell burgers and sandwiches. Businesspeople in downtown Houston want lunch in under ten minutes for under $10. So now we give them what they want.

Q. What's your top-selling item at lunch?

A. The toasted Cuban sandwich.

Q. If you could get your lunch customers to try just one thing on your menu, what would it be?

A. The sake-cured salmon rolls in cucumber broth. Pieces of salmon cured with brown sugar, sake and citrus, and then twisted up with a cucumber strap and served standing up in a bowl of cucumber soup made with crème fraîche. Salmon and cucumber is a classic combination of flavors, and it's really light and cool in the hot weather. Everybody who tries it loves it.

Q. What else are you cooking this summer?

A. We're lightening up the menu for the hot weather right now. We have a new hot-and-cold salmon salad coming out: Warm salmon is served with a cold cucumber-orange salad and picked onions. We're also going to introduce a Mediterranean fennel fish soup with oysters and halibut. And a tamarind-marinated chicken with some African-style plantain rice and a peanut-tomato sauce.

Q. What's everybody drinking this summer?

A. Cuban mojitos. Every bar in town is doing one. We make them to order here. The bartender muddles a lot of fresh mint leaves in with some good rum and adds lime juice and soda -- it's incredibly refreshing.

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.
Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh