In the old days, ladies who lunch didn't care about ingredients. My New York society doyenne great grandmother ate little but ice cream sundaes at Bloomingdale's for the last 20 years of her life. Her dessert obsession was an exception—usually that order is more likely to be a chicken Caesar with dressing on the side. But when it reopens 51fifteen Cuisine & Cocktails tomorrow in a new 208-seat dining room (the total space is 9,800 square feet, not including a first-floor satellite bar), the Galleria Saks Fifth Avenue is taking several calculated risks.
First, there's the ultra-modern design by Nina Magon of local firm Contour Interior Design. The whites, blacks and grays are stark and beautiful to be sure, with floral lights hanging above the bar like a Chihuly installation. In fact, it's more gallery than department store.
The food, too, from chef Stefon Rishel, is far more cerebral than that chicken Caesar of old. Though the press release sent out earlier this month promised Southern European fare, Rishel says he's gone in a different direction. Yes, he's proud of the bouillabaisse he's including on his menu, but that's because of its Gulf Coast spin, featuring crispy redfish, stone crab and pink shrimp, all in a spicy tomato broth. Similarly, saffron risotto arancini are filled with blue crab and charred citrus aioli over a piquillo pepper purée.
"The great thing about the climate here in Texas and especially Houston is that there's always something new coming into season," says Rishel, who most recently cooked at Max's Wine Dive in Fort Worth. "If the menu is here for six weeks, I’d be completely surprised." In fact, he plans to change it at least once a month to make the best use of local produce and excellent foods from further afield.
Rishel's "what grows together goes together" ethos includes wild-influenced dishes such as venison tartare with dried wild blueberries. Ramps are being pickled and bundled into tortellini along with fresh ricotta. A pickle board, which will change "almost daily" includes turmeric-pickled cauliflower, gold and chioggia beets, enoki mushrooms and pickled fruits including pears and tangerines and nectarines, but also fiddlehead ferns shipped from the northeast. Eventually, house charcuterie will join those pickles, likely made from whole red wattle hogs purchased from nearby Barry Farm.
For now, Rishel is also responsible for the dessert menu. His current favorites include espresso panna cotta with butterscotch and a pistachio biscotti crumble. "It tastes like a latte in a glass," he muses. A play on a banana split includes house-made banana bread with candied walnuts grilled over mesquite and topped with bananas Foster and homemade butter-pecan ice cream.
In a restaurant where even the butter is made from scratch, it's not a surprise that the drinks, from general manager Chad Wherry, a fellow Max's alum, are similarly handmade. Besides an extensive wine list that includes domestic and French bottles, cocktails are crafted from homemade bitters, tinctures and shrubs.
Will the ladies who lunch appreciate all that effort? We hope so. Foodies, on the other hand, certainly will.