There comes a point when a food writer becomes convinced that she’s tried every single version of shrimp and grits the Southern states have to offer. And then she’s confronted with an incarnation transformative enough to make her consider that maybe—just maybe—there’s territory left to explore in this Lowcountry dish after all.
The shrimp on top of the dish at Helen Greek Food & Wine are of the massive Gulf Coast variety, heads still on, plump tails waiting to be enjoyed with chef William Wright’s unusual, tangy sourdough “grits”—actually trahana, a Greek wheat-based pasta blended with kefalotiri cheese—and, for the perfect bite, a bit of caramelized onion and creamy poached egg. It’s a meal both wonderful and unexpected: Never mind shrimp and “grits” at a Greek restaurant—brunch at a Greek restaurant? Complete with fancy cocktails?
Yes, indeed. All over the city, chefs like Wright are redefining the old eggs-Sardou-and-bottomless-mimosas standard with their own take on the leisurely weekend meal, and Houston diners are eating it up. Four months after Helen’s brunch service rolled out, it’s so popular that reservations are all but required.
In a sure sign that he takes the meal seriously, owner Evan Turner says it was brunch service he was most eager to launch after opening Helen last summer. “Greek egg-based dishes are so numerous,” he said at the time, “we could feature a different brunch menu for months without repeating anything.” The must-try list includes a feta-and-kasseri saganaki platter topped with Gulf shrimp and a poached egg, served in a sizzling comal, as well as a twist on eggs Benedict featuring juicy lamb and beef sausage.
Not a fan of eggs? Get the semolina pancakes with Greek yogurt whipped cream or the fluffy Greek donuts called loukoumades coated with toasted fennel sugar. And whatever you order, wash it down with a Commandaria Cobbler, a blend of blackberry syrup with ruby-red Mavrodaphne wine and Commandaria dessert wine, a tart-sweet elixir that perfectly demonstrates how the brunch cocktail has evolved alongside the meal itself.
Although Brennan’s has been serving its Sunday eggs Sardou since opening in 1967, it wasn’t until 1986 that brunch had its first heyday in Houston, when the granddaddy of the party brunch, La Strada in Montrose, served its inaugural bellini. “If I remember right, until 1985 it had to be noon or later before alcohol could be served, so I think brunch really took off after that was lifted,” recalls Mark Hanna, a former Houston Post arts and entertainment editor and currently the owner of restaurant PR firm Customer First. “Admittedly, my memory is hazy—probably because of too many brunches,” laughs the former La Strada regular.
Within a few short years, the meal was being served everywhere from the stalwart Rio Ranch in Westchase to the now-closed Magnolia Bar & Grill on the Richmond Strip to the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, whose opulent spread still features an all-you-can-eat Gulf oyster station. And while La Strada eventually went into decline, closing in 2009 to the dismay of nostalgic Houstonians, the tradition has only continued to gain in force.
Not only is brunch a moneymaker for restaurants, but there’s something about the laid-back weekend repast that encourages experimentation. “I think it’s crazy if restaurants don’t do brunch,” says Seth Siegel-Gardner, co-owner/chef at The Pass & Provisions in Montrose. “It lets people work outside their comfort zone.”
At P&P, that translates to an appetizer of house-made kolaches in constantly rotating flavors—a meatball-stuffed pretzel-dough version, say, or a trio with sweet potato, cranberry and turkey—as well as an extraordinary French toast carved out of rich, dense bread pudding, with marinated ricotta and huckleberries strewn artfully across the top. The biscuits and gravy, too, receives P&P’s signature elegant touch, its flaky, buttery squares topped with a creamy, sausage-studded gravy and served alongside a pile of enticingly pungent mustard greens, each plate as pert and composed as if it had been individually styled for a Saveur spread.
The restaurant’s much-lauded cocktail program doesn’t disappoint, either, offering its own twists on standards like the mimosa and the Bloody Mary, as well as house creations such as the Lookout Farm, which pairs earthy-sweet beet juice with rum and fresh-squeezed grapefruit.
Siegel-Gardner gets that brunchers are a fun-loving crowd. “People just need to understand that Saturday brunch is the most important meal you could have in your entire weekend,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like orange slices when you’re a little kid playing soccer. Friday you go out and do it right; Saturday you slowly work in brunch. It’s there to help you push through halftime and get geared up for Saturday night.”
To brunch at Foreign Correspondents on North Main, the new restaurant from chef P.J. Stoops, is to be reminded that eggs feature prominently in Thai cooking. The Thai omelet called kai jiaew, typically served as street food, is stuffed with oysters, shrimp and pork, while kai khwam features flash-fried eggs stuffed with garlicky pork and herbs.
But the restaurant encourages you to look beyond the egg—for instance, to the Chiang Mai noodles and chicken cooked in a yellow curry with creamy coconut milk that would soothe the weariest soul. Another dish, which Stoops calls “possibly one of the greatest breakfasts ever,” is the fried chicken with sticky rice (or gai tawd khao niew nam prik noom), which appeals to the Houstonian desire to eat deep-fried fowl before noon. Here, it’s paired not with waffles but with a heaping bowl of green chile dip that looks painfully fiery but is, in fact, a verdant and vegetal, sweet and barely smoky, bright and tart complement to the juicy fried chicken.
The colorful cocktails here match not only the vibrant dishes but the wild 3-D mural by local artist Jon Read, whose scenes of space intermix with a cartoon fairy kingdom. An unlikely standout is the Thai Cream Soda, which throws together vodka, hibiscus syrup, soda, cream and basil seed. The first sip reveals the drink as a clever adult update of the sweetly spiced, gently creamy Thai iced tea beloved by fans of the cuisine.
At Oporto Fooding & Wine House in Midtown, meanwhile, the Portuguese-American Sunday brunch signals the kind of culinary growth that keeps restaurants relevant in a constantly competitive dining scene. Rick and Shiva Di Virgilio, who own two other local stalwarts—the Oporto sister location off of Richmond Ave. and British-Indian pub The Queen Vic—are offering the meal for the first time ever at their youngest, most adventurous eatery.
Here, at the brilliant blue-tiled tables that line its sidewalk patio, Sunday brunchers munch traditional Portuguese pastries like delicate, lemon custard–filled pastel de nata. They confer over warm bowls of shakshuka, the gently spiced egg-and-tomato stew that all countries along the Mediterranean jealously lay claim to having invented. They indulge in the jamón-topped egg-in-a-hole-style mãe galinha, a dish that fairly defines Portugal’s long-standing love affair with both eggs and salted cod. And they sip Orangina cocktails with sparkling cava, fresh OJ, orange Combier liqueur and small-batch 1876 vodka from Dripping Springs.
Go. And when you do, eavesdrop on a table or two. There’s a good chance you’ll hear them making plans for next week’s brunch before the last bite of pastry has even left the plate.