Fig and blue cheese salad, left; Corner Table's cheerful dining room, top; a paleo chocolate donut ice cream sandwich, bottom.

Let's get a few things out of the way first. Corner Table hasn't had the easiest time since it opened in January of last year.

Corner Table
2736 Virginia St.
713-568-9196
cornertablehouston.com

From the very beginning, controversy existed over the choice of chef—Bruce Molzan, of Ruggles fame—which led to a protest outside the restaurant only a month after opening. Parking issues (the restaurant has a valet stand, but only a very small lot, leading many diners to park their cars in the streets) led neighbors to complain to city council members that Corner Table wasn't providing the legally required number of spaces for its patrons. Then, in June, news broke that Molzan was leaving Corner Table while the restaurant faced a possible partial closure over those parking issues.

After all of this, owners Darla Lexington and her daughter Michelle Coopwood needed a bit of good luck. And she seems to have found it in her newly hired chef, Ja'Nel Witt—the former Hell's Kitchen winner who's no stranger to controversy in her own life. But between the two of them, Corner Table appears to be—well—turning a corner, this time for the better.

Before Molzan announced his departure, the food wasn't discussed as frequently as the bouts of drama the restaurant suffered. But when it was, the discussion was often about the well-received paleo section of Molzan's menu. After he left, my paleo-loving friends were bereft. "Do you think Ja'Nel Witt will keep the paleo dishes on the menu?" they asked when they heard the news of her hiring. I had no idea.

Paleo curry cauliflower soup, left; gochujang-braised beef cheeks, right; Corner Table's new menus, bottom.

I caught up with Witt last week at a media lunch, though, and found that not only had she kept the paleo portion of Corner Table's menu intact, she'd given it even more weight than before—adding more dishes, streamlining the lunch and dinner menus so that the paleo items are easier to spot, and reworking old favorites into creations of her very own.

The lunch menu is purposefully compact, as Witt hopes to get diners in and out of the restaurant in time for a quick lunch hour during the week and features what are so far the most popular items: dishes like cauliflower curry soup, a fig and blue cheese salad, and Moroccan lamb meatballs. Those that are paleo are denoted with a simple P. On the dinner menu, you'll find dishes delineated into two columns, so all a devoted paleo diner has to do is scan the left side of each page.

But although this organization is handy, it's not what really stands out here. Witt's new menu at Corner Table is captivating because of how good her paleo dishes are—not just "good for paleo food," but delicious in their own right. Well-seasoned, creative, and visually impressive, they're among my new favorite menu items in town right now.

S'mores chocolate cake, top left; paleo rainbow trout, top right; paleo charred octopus, bottom left; paleo sea scallops and mushroom "risotto," bottom right.

Nothing about Witt's rainbow trout over cauliflower—big yellow and purple heads of it, roasted, as well as a cauliflower rice underneath—topped with a pistachio gremolata tastes "good for paleo food." It's just good. Same with her pulpo a la plancha: big, juicy bites of octopus that's been brined and then charred on the grill, served alongside crispy coins of potatoes and smoky baba ghanoush, all of it crowned with a peppy, garlicky chimichurri. And same with her smooth, slightly spicy cauliflower curry soup, blended together with coconut milk, leeks, garlic, and cilantro.

Her non-paleo dishes, too, are stunning: a decadent bowl of beef cheeks, braised in gochujang and slow-cooked for six hours until they barely hold together, served over a bountiful scoop of garlic mashed potatoes with a side of house-made kimchi to brighten it all up. The fig salad is a stunner, too, with generous portions of Mission figs and crumbled blue cheese jumbled up in a mound of peppery arugula, with just enough honey-balsamic vinaigrette to bring it all together.

The desserts, too, by pastry chef Alyssa Dole, are every bit the equal of Witt's entrees—whether it's a paleo chocolate donut sandwiching coconut ice cream or a decidedly non-paleo dense chocolate cake topped with shiny chocolate ganache, toasted marshmallow fluff, and graham cracker crumbs for an adult twist on the classic s'more. The point is that regardless of what you order here—paleo or not—it's going to be good. Witt's talent seems to have invigorated the staff as well, judging by Dole's excited chatter about her new chef, and considering the rough road Corner Table has been down in the past year, it looks like this little shake-up was exactly what the restaurant needed to pave a smoother way ahead.

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