“We like to cultivate a little bit of a party atmosphere,” said one of the dapper servers as he gestured toward the dining room at SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, which was packed—on a Wednesday night. Diners were slurping down unusual Belon oysters from Maine, savoring the uniquely meaty flavor and shocking zinc aftertaste, as kitchen staff brought around copper platters of whole branzini, swiftly fileting the fish right before patrons’ eyes. At a booth to our right, two couples who looked like they’d just flown in from Hyannis Port bantered between courses, while to our left a man wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and a giant gold chain sat with his date. In true Houston tradition, everyone was invited to this party.
The seafood restaurant in Upper Kirby, perpetually packed since it opened in July, is the latest from Clark Cooper Concepts (of Brasserie 19, Coppa Osteria, Ibiza Food & Wine Bar and Punk’s Simple Southern Food), which has found itself specializing in the sort of festive environments that make even the average Wednesday dinner engagement feel special.
The excellent service is only part of an equation that brings a certain elegant energy to the space. There’s also the large oyster bar, the focal point of the entire main dining room, which wraps around a giant piece of shapely driftwood and hosts roughly half of the city’s oil and gas C-suite execs at any given time. And then there’s the gracefully presented food itself, much of which you wouldn’t expect to find at a seafood-driven restaurant that boasts its market catches and daily oyster hauls on large blackboards above its open kitchen.
Sure, there’s a decadent lobster bisque topped with fluffy lobster fritters, but there’s also an entire menu of vegetables—just vegetables—such as musky harissa-roasted carrots topped with tart yogurt and sweet pistachios, as well as grilled wedges of zucchini crowned with a generous char and a few delicate squash blossoms. While both could have done with a couple extra shakes of seasoning, they were still an excellent accompaniment to the seafood.
After five years as the Clark Cooper culinary director, executive chef Brandi Key knows what her well-heeled customers want: choices. Here, the menu runs the gamut from affordable to extravagant. A $10 bowl of fried squid, coated in a batter both light and emphatically crispy and served with a wonderfully pungent nuoc cham sauce, was the best calamari I’ve had in years. I enjoyed it so much that I forgot to be jealous of the splendid fruits de mer towers laden with fresh lobster and yellowfin tuna poke that the raw bar sent out to table after table all night.
The dishes also run from easy to adventurous: a vegetable crudité plate gives the health-conscious something to snack on between skinny cocktails like The Perla, made with coconut LaCroix, coconut vodka and lime juice, while the stunning octopus carpaccio features Key’s house-made taramasalata, the creamy spread thick with juicy, snappy pearls of fish roe.
Even the more traditional seafood options come with, well, options: you can go simple with a pan-seared snapper with lemon butter or spice things up with a redfish baked in Moroccan spices and served alongside pungent, garlicky chermoula and fluffy tabbouleh. And for those allergic or averse to shellfish, SaltAir offers everything from beef tartare to lamb chops with a mint pesto. This variety can make the menu seem unwieldy at first glance, but never mind that—just relax and enjoy the party.
On a recent weeknight, I was back again, sipping from the deep-cupped shells of a few slippery, tender Salt Aire oysters, which are pulled from the chilly waters off of Prince Edward Island and differ from their Gulf cousins in their briny intensity. I found myself marveling at the fact that Houston once suffered such a lack of distinct, interesting seafood restaurants that Reef literally made national news when chef Bryan Caswell opened the Midtown spot in 2008, serving inventive snapper carpaccio with grapefruit slivers and reviving the careers of long-disparaged “trash fish” like amberjack.
Today, such menu items are almost expected in Houston, no matter the type of restaurant, and the city is teeming with great seafood spots, from newcomers like Peska, Holley’s and State of Grace to veterans like Liberty Kitchen and Tony Mandola’s. That veritable sea of competition makes it much more difficult to stand out, but SaltAir has figured out one formula: throw a big party every night, take care of your guests like they’re family, serve the best food you can find, and keep the cocktails coming.
If SaltAir is a big, brassy bash at a River Oaks party palace, Black & White is a cozy get-together with friends, all of whom managed to find a babysitter and none of whom is shy about refilling their own wine glasses.
The Heights, a bedroom community once again, has become a natural habitat for this sort of establishment, so it’s no surprise area residents have embraced the new restaurant wholeheartedly. They fill the patios even on weekday evenings and lounge at tables inside as though the night may never end—and indeed, it won’t until that final bite of coffee flan has been scooped from your plate. Even then, there are still a few sips left in that bottle of Bravante, right?
Though initially marketed as a seafood restaurant with two distinct dining rooms, each sporting its own décor and menu, Black & White has smartly chosen to consolidate these concepts since opening in August. Today, you can order from the Black menu of Mediterranean surf and turf or the White menu of Latin-influenced seafood regardless of where you sit: in the somewhat formal space, done in black, or the more casual area, featuring bursts of white, a busy bar and banquettes upholstered in Holstein.
Dinner in the Black dining room one recent Friday brought a beautiful ribeye with a rosy middle and wonderfully crunchy sear on the outside, complemented by a plate of spicy shrimp sautéed in garlic and chile flakes and a plump ball of fresh burrata to cool the burn. Even with wine and dessert, our check came out to less than $100—a date-night steal. A weeknight meal in the White dining room revealed more delights: well-executed and creative tapas such as roasted octopus tostadas with a schmear of hot guajillo chile mayo, and beer-battered soft-shell crab with a balsamic-teriyaki sauce. Both came in surprisingly large potions—and cost surprisingly little.
The restaurant’s predecessors, Bedford and Stella Sola, were both high-end, chef-driven establishments backed by a lot of money, but ultimately neither connected with the neighborhood. Black & White appears to have gotten it right, offering a little something for everyone—heck, there’s even a thoughtful kids’ menu, if the babysitter’s busy—and keeping it low-key, even when serving up killer surf and turf with a nice bottle of Spanish red.