To say that most hotel restaurants are a disappointment is to speak charitably. The dining rooms depress us, the waitstaffs leave us wanting, and the cuisine tends to fall somewhere between execrable and abominable on the awful scale. This is inevitable, at least in part. Chefs are inspired by the prospect of a loyal following, impossible when one’s patrons are conventioneers from Phoenix. Plus, good restaurants depend on cooking talent, as any good restaurateur will tell you, while hotel restaurants do not, as any victim of the Fargo Holiday Inn’s beer-battered cheese curds will tell you. And while the overpriced, underwhelming menus in most hotels may not faze the expense-account circuit, they’re a cold slap in the face to the rest of us.
It seemed to us that the new J.W. Marriott lobby—cold, asymmetric, somewhat homely—did not make the downtown property look much like your typical luxury hotel, and that wasn’t the only thing that stopped us. Not far away sat the cozy 806 Main Lounge bar, complete with a 13-foot bronze griffin standing guard—the literal embodiment of the hotel chain’s mascot—over the Marriott’s restaurant, Main Kitchen. That too did not appear like your typical hotel establishment. It carried heavy reminders of a former life, of the 1910 Samuel F. Carter building—the city’s first skyscraper—and the Second National Bank, out of which the restaurant was carved. The Carter’s signature features, especially its riveted iron columns, were now exposed and lovingly lit. There was an open kitchen and a large farmhouse table, because there must be these days, along with a hip and moody vibe, but also window nooks furnished with plush, high-back armchairs around café tables, perfect spots for casually romantic evenings, not to mention prime viewing areas for near-collisions between pedestrians and the Main St. METRORail line.
The dinner menu was a happy blend of old and new, as fine and interesting as any in the city, so much so that one can fully imagine Main Kitchen being patronized not just by travelers but all who love journeying to new palatal destinations, Houstonians included—many of whom are already flocking to try its updated takes on standard American fare. One of these is—or was—the duck and fig pizza, which besides its eponymous elements is composed of butternut squash, smoked mozzarella, and something called pumpkin seed pesto. Sadly, that divine mélange of sweet and savory is only available seasonally. But watch for it next fall, as it’s one of the great new creations in town.
Main Kitchen terms its appetizers Sharables, which is ironic, since in a number of cases you may find yourself reverting to an earlier, pre-sharing state. That’s true of the pizzas, but also the celeriac gratin, which if nothing else, will have you wondering again why celery root is so often neglected in American cooking. The non-local oysters on the half-shell needed all the help the accompanying pink peppercorn sorbet could give them, but both the crudo and purslane salad were bright and tangy, thanks to kaffir lime oil and a yogurt vinaigrette respectively.
The one bona fide sharable Sharable is Main Kitchen’s charcuterie and cheese board, a well-chosen and artfully displayed collection of Challerhocker, a soft and salty Swiss cheese; Lomo Americano, a delicious Iowa salumi; and many more wedged and sliced surprises. We could have used a few more lavash crackers, but then we might have gotten too full for Main’s main courses, whose healthy portions earn their immodest prices. For our dinner companion, the deliciously juicy roasted pork meant leaving the adjacent spaetzle untouched, although we more than made up for it by devouring an entire plate of strip loin in seconds. Each sliver of beef was beyond tender, after all, and paired with a perfect red pepper sauce.
In telling you that Main’s carnivorous, carnivalesque kitchen is run by two women, Erin Smith and Sharon Gofreed, some have accused us of promoting a feminist agenda. (Really—someone actually did that.) This spurious claim shows not only the depressing state of gender studies these days, but also an ignorance of our true agenda. Smith, you see, is a native Houstonian, and what captivated us most about the Main Kitchen experience is not that women prepared our food (women have been doing that for most of our lives, you see) but how successfully the restaurant captured Houston—its tastes, its aesthetic, its unity of opposites—at this moment in time. The hazards and pleasures of this town we call home are particularly well-represented on the dessert menu. Gofreed’s chocolate hazelnut timbale was a hazard, it must be said, an oddly unsweet concoction that counts black garlic among its ingredients and resembles nothing so much as plated road kill. Her tres leches cake, however, was a pleasure, although that is perhaps too weak a word for the inspired infusion of mango and coconut that she has somehow incorporated into that local favorite. It was wet and wild and wonderful, the perfect end to an evening that was, in the main, delightful.