"A lot of families have been coming in here," Kevin Naderi told me as he came by to check on our dinner this past Tuesday night at Lillo & Ella. "A lot," he repeated for emphasis. It's not something the chef/owner has been used to at Roost, his Montrose bistro that's popular with the bohemians, bobos, and other generally childless people who populate the immediate area, and who typically walk to their "neighborhood restaurant" without kiddos in tow.
Lillo & Ella
2307 Ella Blvd.
Lillo & Ella doesn't have a children's menu, just so you know. Patrons at the week-old restaurant—which opened in the previous El Gran Malo space after brief but heavy renovations—have suggested that Naderi install one, immediately. He's not so sure. "I'd rather just modify the dishes so that your kids can eat them," he said, offering to make chicken fried rice, for example, in lieu of the "pan-Asian street food" menu's blue crab fried rice with toasted garlic and Chinese sausage.
At a table to my left, I heard a man complaining because the bar didn't stock his requested whiskey for a Crown on the rocks. The waiter explained that the bar was still new, still being stocked, and would absolutely look into getting some Crown Royal. The waiter also attempted to patiently explain the cocktail menu to the gentleman, but his suggestions of bar manager Aaron Lara's delightfully eccentric creations like the "Flavor Country: Population You," which pairs Rangpur lime gin with coconut milk, pureed avocado, and Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, fell on deaf ears. A shame, too, because that cocktail—creamy and vegetal and challenging in all the right ways—was my favorite of the three I sampled on Tuesday night.
I get the sense that there will be a few growing pains as Shady Acres, Garden Oaks, and Oak Forest denizens adjust to their own new Naderi-style neighborhood restaurant, and vice versa—though I have no doubts that Naderi and his nimble, thoughtful staff can pull through this courtship period.
One thing that patrons certainly can't find fault with is the amount of effort Naderi has spent transforming the space, which now even sports a cozy waiting area for crowded evenings, where waiters will come and take drink orders while tables are prepped. Naderi purchased the home next door to Lillo & Ella—a tear-down if ever there was one—and scrapped it to provide ample extra parking (always a complaint for previous tenants). The front door has been relocated and the flow inside vastly improved. And though the kitchen remains small, the dishes come out quickly even on busy nights.
And while I personally felt like the menu prices were on point, Naderi admits that some patrons have so far found them a little high—especially when compared to area stalwarts like Tony's Mexican Restaurant and Cavatore down the street. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that Lillo & Ella—like Roost—pays more for its meat and produce up front by purchasing them from local farmers and ranchers. These things are the basis for Lillo & Ella's local tofu served agedashi-style with mushrooms and a tangy ponzu sauce, the pan-seared local fish with marinated heirloom tomatoes, the local greens tossed in a salad with cucumber, apple, and tomatoes in a cool lime dressing. It's worth it, to me, to pay a little more as a diner to support local producers as well as the restaurants that keep them in business.
Moreover, I could have been satisfied eating Lillo & Ella's dish of thai muu noodles tossed with sweet-and-savory ground pork and green beans for my entire meal—and it was only $11. Of course, I acted like a glutton and added some lamb ribs with a pistachio and melon salad—again, a bargain at $9 for a bowl full of meaty ribs—and a couple of skewers that screamed summer to me. The yogurt-and-curry marinated shrimp were juicy and flavorful under a lovely grilled char, and came with two skewers to a plate for $8. You get what you pay for here, and you can generally leave feeling pretty good about yourself. Plates are well-portioned, never heavy, and—as with Roost—offer plenty of healthy and/or vegetarian-friendly items.
Unlike Roost, however, the entire menu at Lillo & Ella follows the "pan Asian street food" bent that incorporates influences from all over East Asia—and from Houston itself.
I finished dinner with a dessert cocktail that Lara was particularly proud of: "Crawling Through Bellaire," a beautiful blend of cold-brew coffee and creamy sweetened condensed milk, stiffened up with cognac and given a final push with Angostura bitters that brought out the bright, bold notes of the Vietnamese coffee. It's something you'd never find at Roost (mostly because they don't have a liquor license) or anywhere else in Houston, for that matter—but which couldn't have come from any other city than our own.
Roost does double duty as both a chill, inviting neighborhood restaurant and earnest vanguard of modern Houston cuisine; before long, I believe Lillo & Ella will be filling that same role, kid's menu or not.