I first met Steven Salazar two summers ago, when he was the beverage director/sommelier at Kata Robata, intent on introducing Houston to Japanese whisky. At the time, Texas had only cleared six Japanese whiskys for import, but Salazar stocked them all. A year later, Salazar invited me into his small, Galleria-area apartment for a story on home bars. Where most people would have a dining room, Anvil-trained Salazar had a miniature Spec's, bookcases from IKEA barely supporting the weight of every sort of spirit, bitter, mixer and bar tool Salazar could fit in the tiny space—including an expanded selection of Japanese whiskys.
It was no surprise, then, to walk into Wooster's Garden yesterday after work and see the selection of spirits that Salazar has assembled at the new Midtown bar that opened in March with business partner Rusty Delk. "We're the largest cocktail bar in town," Salazar estimated, scanning the large, open-air bar and its adjoining patio, the trellis around which will soon be swallowed up by recently planted honeysuckle vines. Not that Wooster's Garden originally intended to be a cocktail bar, Salazar said. After all, there are 49 beers on draft along with an extensive wine list and even a few bottles of sake, which he plans to expand on as the bar grows. Even so, it was the cocktails that took off, and which have been the main attraction so far. "If the beer had sold better, we'd be a beer bar," laughed Salazar. "But people love cocktails."
Even though the menu currently includes a huge selection of cocktails, Salazar is already planning to expand it further with specialty infusions like the Ron Zacapa XO rum that had been soaking up red beets, raspberries and Kalamata olives. He poured me a sip across the bar; it tasted earthy, sweet and salty all at once, and unlike anything else I've tried in town recently. The rum takes on the same ruby-red hue of the beets, and before long another patron from the bar had approached to ask about the gem-colored cocktail, at which point Salazar gamely poured her a snifter as well. Service is important to Salazar, who recruited many of his bartenders at high-volume Starbucks stores, where they knew how to bang out complicated orders and manage long lines with a smile. At Wooster's Garden, his new bartenders are now halfway through a six-month training regimen that includes everything from how (and when) to shake a cocktail to how to make sure a guest feels welcome and acknowledged from the moment they walk in.
Wooster's Garden is alluring even outside of its cocktail program and smiley service, however. The patio is a huge draw this time of year, as is the way it flows into the main bar, which is covered, one of its four walls open to the elements on nice days. Renovating the warehouse that stood here prior allowed Delk, Salazar and their team to retain an old element of Midtown while creating an inviting space that deliberately stands out from its Midtown surroundings (not to mention a 30-space parking lot that's a gift from God in this parking-sparse part of town). Nowhere is this separation more evident than in the chalk drawing to the left of the main bar inside that announces this patch of Midtown south of Elgin as "Midtrose." Laughed Salazar: "We're just a stone's throw from Montrose, really."
My friends at the bar last night debated the usefulness of the term "Midtrose," all of them coming down on the side of "that's silly." But I can see why the Wooster's Garden gang want to make a delineation—the bar is meant to welcome all comers, not just the Midtown club scene or after-work yuppie crowd. Indeed, the bar was filled with Houstonians of every stripe last night, and no one crowd seemed to dominate. Delk and his partners purchased the land and building and intend to be here long after the clubby Midtown crowds dissipate, so perhaps we'll see if the Midtrose moniker stands the test of time.
For now, however, Wooster's Garden is encouraging people to familiarize themselves with Midtrose via an incredibly generous happy hour that runs from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During that two-hour timeframe, you can enjoy half-off any cocktail—which would place them firmly within the $4 to $6 range—as well as select $3 draft beer (which includes heavy hitters such as Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barleywine) and half-off select glasses of wine. Those cheap booze prices may make it easier for you to order the $35 meat-and-cheese plate that's positively overflowing with black truffle Gouda, soft Brie, smoked prosciutto, dark chocolate and too many other goodies to name, and this weather more or less demands eating it picnic-style with friends while you, too, debate the meaning of Midtrose.
Wooster's Garden, 3315 Milam St., 713-520-0015, twitter.com/WoostersGarden