Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reef - Houston

Last night of my Houston trip and I was looking for somewhere interesting. I had dozens of places on my to go list, anything from pho to Thai to tacos to home style. Those all sounded great, but there was one restaurant that I been reading about for a while: Reef. Having made the rounds at Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Travel & Leisure, Reef is never short on praise. However, the mention from Garden & Gun really stood out to me. Apparently Reef’s sriracha remoulade is on the G & G list of Southern Foods to Try Before You Die. That was all the impetus I needed to give Reef a chance, and as a bonus, I convinced Jon to join me.

Inside Reef has that very modern feel to it, but what was really surprising was the crowd. It’s not that often that Houston has a rainy night in the 30’s, and on a Tuesday with that weather, I expected a ghost town. I could not have been more wrong.

Once we were seated, it was no time at all before our effervescent waitress arrived. Knowing I only had to try the sriracha remoulade, I was fishing for suggestions and she was more than happy to oblige. Seeing as it was prime oyster season, I asked about the oysters they had, looking for the smallest and briniest.

I don’t usually associate gulf coast oysters with small and briney, but these Apalachicola oysters were just what we were looking for. They had a very to the point flavor. It was a short, briney punch that was gone in an instant. In retrospect, we really should have ordered more than half a dozen.

Our waitress’ suggestion was the blackfin tuna bacon and red snapper tiradito appetizer served with green apple and avocado.

Jon and I both decided that the tuna bacon tasted like smoked salami. I had a hard time believing it, but there was a definite salami taste with a garlic background. What was really surprising is that I immediately wanted a bagel for the tuna. No idea why. Anyway, the snapper was a treat as well. It had the taste and texture of a piece of quality sashimi. Apparently tiradito is a sort of ceviche, but the method for tiradito is much more subtle. One thing I didn’t quite understand was the shaved apple and avocado. They were prime examples of both fruits, but I didn’t see what their role was in the dish.

Working with Frank’s description, it wasn’t long after the tuna bacon that I had the crispy skin snapper set in front of me.

According to Frank, Reef cooks the skin on snapper on one side. In the end, the fish is tender, moist, and cooked perfectly while the skin forms a crispy exterior. Well, it wasn’t just a theory; this was a piece of fish worth waiting for. The slightly salty crust was perfectly complimented by the rich, nutty brown butter. The sweet and sour chard was an integral part as well, cutting through some of the richness of the butter.

I thought I had struck gold with the crispy skin snapper, but Jon had found his own vein with the roasted grouper with braised collards, pecan-shallot crackling and potlickker jus.

Jon was nice enough to share, and that might have been a mistake. Once I got a taste of his fish, I had serious thoughts about stealing it. The fish, while great, was really a vehicle for the rest of the dish. The crispy crackling, the thankfully not boiled to death collard greens, the potlickker, they all combined to make something salty, savory, crispy, and frankly amazing.

I could wax on about how I thought about ordering a glass of the potlickker but I’ll refrain and move on to the crispy fries and Sriracha remoulade.

Starting with the fries, they’re pretty much perfect. Twice fried with a crispy, salted exterior and the creamy interior of a well cooked potato, I really couldn’t ask for much more in a French fry.

The remoulade….well, I’ve never been infatuated with remoulades, and at first this one tastes like practically any other well made version. However, a few seconds after the initial bite, there’s a distinct garlicky heat from the Sriracha in the background. It may sound bad, but I actually wanted some vinegar for the French fries. I suppose I’d had too much richness from the grouper to deal with a mayo based remoulade.

You would think the fries would be enough, but no, our waitress did a damn fine job and convinced us to try the fried mac & cheese as well.

I wasn’t expecting a cube of fried mac & cheese. It looks well fried at this point. I did later find out that there were chilies in the crust, thus making for some interesting times when parents ordered this for their children.

Inside there wasn’t macaroni, but what looks like rotini pasta. Looking to get the best of both worlds in one bite, I got a piece of crust and pasta. I couldn’t taste very many chilies, but the crust was fantastic and just a little salty. Made up of four cheeses, this was an excellent mac & cheese, but it was too dense to handle. Annoyingly I didn’t find out all the cheeses. Our waitress only knew it had gruyere and mascarpone in the mix. Regardless of what cheeses are here, this is a meal by itself.

When the dishes were cleared and our check was on the way, Jon and I had time to discuss what we thought about the dishes. If I had to nitpic, I’d say the snapper wasn’t as crispy as I imagined it would be, and it was a little dry in places. However that’s me “picking gnat poop out of pepper” as one cowardly commenter described. This was an excellent meal with extremely high quality products, but what really made the meal was the service. I wish I could remember our waitress’ name, but she was eager to please and eager to chat when she found out Jon had lived in New Orleans. Of course, I can’t leave out the sommelier. When we couldn’t decide on a wine for our entrees, she was more than happy to bring us samples to help us choose. We even saw chef Caswell emerge from the kitchen to check on a large table. It’s that sort of hands on approach that makes Reef a worthwhile meal, although the food doesn’t hurt.

Reef on Urbanspoon

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