Sometimes the best meals are the left-field surprises. When I received an invitation to last month's relaunch of the Whitehall hotel—the former Crowne Plaza Downtown at 1700 Smith St.—I didn't give much thought to the $5 million renovation or the new restaurant that was replacing Brazos. How wrong I was.
I was stunned by the long circular staircase backed by a waterwall, the soaring ceilings and stark, modern look of new bar Part & Parcel and its patio, both of which will be newly filled when the bar soft opens this week. But I wasn't prepared for the hidden culinary world of the new hotel. Up those stairs lies Buffalo Bayou Coffee, a roastery that also serves baked goods and sandwiches. Across the hall is Edgar's Hermano, a southern-Mexican fusion (they call it Mexi-South) which plays on the heritages of Edgar Sims, Jr., the late, Georgia-born founder of the Whitehall's parent company, Sotherly Hotels, and Mexican native chef Silvia Couvarrubias.
Done up in dark woods and turquoise (even faux longhorn heads on the walls, crafted from wire, are a serene blue-green), the space has a fresh look, but Couvarrubias' cuisine is the standout.
I would happily return for the oxtail soup alone. A broth of pasilla and cascabel chiles is rich with the sticky collagen of oxtails. Often, such soups taste fatty due to a lack of acid. But as with every dish I tried,Couvarrubias proved herself a master of balance. The soup was zippy in the best possible way, and tasted simultaneously rich and bright. Eating the grill-charred corn out of the broth wasn't an easy feat, but it was worth it.
The oxtail soup is available only at dinnertime. At lunch, it's replaced by caldo tlalpeño, a chicken potage similar to tortilla soup. It shares the richness and cascabel peppers of the oxtail soup, with the added fun of adding tortilla strips, avocado, chihuahua cheese and grilled lime to my liking.
While many of Couvarrubias' plates are either Southern or Mexican, another lunch dish, the braised short rib tamale, combines the two. Masa as soft as corn pudding is topped with chunks of beef braised in bourbon barbecue sauce. On top, mango salsa adds sweetness and tang.
I expected deep-fried "pig wings" to resemble the tiny pieces of shank I'm used to seeing at county fairs. Edgar's are two mid-sized chunks of pig flesh that are smoked tender before frying, then tossed in subtly sweet mango-habanero glaze and served over cheese grits on a banana leaf.
Practically every restaurant serving brunch has a pork belly Benedict these days, but the version that Couvarrubias proffers at breakfast is something special. First, there's the thick sweet-corn grits cake. Then there's the thin layer of crisp pork belly in a sweet rub that reminded me of Chinese cha siu. Those bases are all dressed up with pomegranate jelly, fried green tomato aioli and an over-easy quail egg.
But Couvarrubias saves her most over-the-top creation for dinnertime. Meet the southern-fried, stuffed chicken. The chef starts with a flavorfully brined suprême de volaille and fills it with ultra-creamy mac-and-queso. That's right, it's fried chicken with mac-and-cheese inside. It's served on top of creamy grits and Dr. Pepper-bacon jam. And yeah, there are brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes, too, but let's just ignore that.
There's even ingenuity in Couvarrubias' desserts. Her tres leches cake is presented parfait-style, layered with fresh berries and whipped cream in a mason jar. Then there's the chocoflan, a slice of chocolate cake with a crown of gooey, caramel-covered flan.
Couvarrubias also previewed some dishes for us that she'll debut at Part & Parcel this week. As much as we enjoyed the deviled eggs topped with thick-cut, fried pork skin and pickles, we were especially taken with the plate of chicharrónes and salsas. The cloud-like pig skin, cut into wheel shapes, is cute enough, but both red and green salsas pack legitimate heat and Couvarrubias' trademark balance. We'll have to return for a taste of her street tacos and Cajun crawfish queso.
It's hard to believe that such a talented chef has been quietly plying her trade in Houston since 1978. That's when Couvarrubias left San Luis Potosi for Space City, working at a string of hotel restaurants before landing at Brazos 13 years ago. There, she cooked standard American fare such as penne with blackened chicken. In fact, she says she never cooked Mexican food until launching Edgar's Hermano. How did she learn to build those big, authentic flavors? "Believe it or not, the man above gave me the knowledge," she says, pointing skyward. Help directly from God? We believe it.