When I was in third grade, I told people my life goal was to open a huge restaurant filled, section by section, with mini menus to represent countries from around the world. What I thought I had invented, of course, was a food hall, which is nothing new—Harrods debuted its version in London in 1834, and markets serving a range of prepared foods date back to antiquity. But I’ll give my 8-year-old self this: The internationalism I imagined is a newer innovation.
With the April opening of Conservatory, a stylish subterranean space beneath Prohibition Supperclub on Prairie Street downtown, Houston is behind the likes of Copenhagen Street Food (which debuted in 2014) and San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace (2003). But hey, at least we beat Anthony Bourdain, who’s now expected to open his much-anticipated take on the concept at New York’s Pier 57 in 2019.
Most of the food halls that have attracted attention are massive, but Conservatory, with four food vendors, locally roasted coffee from Fusion Beans, and a deeply stacked 64-tap beer bar that also pours wine, local root beer and kombucha, is far more manageable—and maybe a little bit less exciting.
The eateries—Greek purveyor Myth Kafe, Japanese-style Samurai Noodle, Texas barbecue spot El Burro & the Bull, and Euro-eclectic Melange Creperie—are almost as diverse as Houston itself. Having signed one- or two-year contracts, these will rotate in and out, with the exception of Melange, whose artful tile mosaic wall signals its own permanence, as a sort of den mother to the other young upstarts.
So far, the most reliable fare comes from El Burro & the Bull, where Franklin Barbecue alum John Avila turns out suitably salty iterations of brisket, chopped pork and juicy beef sausage. His spicy barbecue sauce is a winner, its heat and just-sweet-enough tang working in unison. The only clunker I had was a taco filled with smoked pork, powdery queso cotija, chopped cilantro and nothing else—an arid combination.
In the highly important barbecue sub-category of “mayo salads,” Avila’s coleslaw is standard, but his mustard-suffused, veggie-heavy potato salad shines. Creamed corn isn’t so much what it sounds like as firm, snappy kernels and chunks of green chile sitting in a pool of cream. The mac-and-cheese, made with a sauce of gouda and smoked cheddar, would be a spoonful better if the noodles were cooked a bit less.
Most of what I tried at Samurai Noodle, an outpost of the Seattle-based chain, stumbled in execution. The one element that never seems to fail is the noodles themselves, fresh and toothsome. A helping of dry noodles with spicy, sesame-speckled sauce would seem to be the perfect dish to showcase their homemade goodness, but with nothing but a few shreds of pickled ginger and a heaping pile of chopped scallions to add color, it lacks range.
Fried food is an area at which Samurai excels, though the gingery nuggets of chicken karaage have too much connective tissue to really fly. Go for one of the deeply garlic-flavored shoyu ramens, and you won’t be disappointed—unless what you really wanted is the lip-sticking tonkotsu broth that’s always on the menu but often unavailable.
Signage advertising dishes that aren’t actually on offer isn’t just a problem at Samurai. Myth Kafe’s “after five” specials of flaming cheese saganaki and marinated lamb don’t appear to exist even then. Fortunately, the arnaki, a chewy, warm homemade pita filled with butter-tender lamb, more than makes up for it. The ordinary mezze plate, not so much, despite the presence of more of that pita among the ho-hum hummus, olives and tzatziki.
As a crêpe, the marquis item at Melange is too brittle for my taste. Taking that out of the equation, the individual offerings’ success or failure rides on the fillings. Some are simple scores— Nutella, banana and graham cracker crumbles, for example, or berries-and-Brie—while others, such as a too-sweet take on Chinese jian bing, may be reaching just a little too hard.
But the unfortunate life lesson that Melange taught me is that not all colorful slices of cake taller than my head are worth eating. At one visit, I planned to gorge on two—what turned out to be a decidedly sour strawberry cake and bland German chocolate—before abandoning both after only a couple of bites. They simply weren’t as good as they looked.
What’s undoubtedly impressive about Conservatory is the design of the hall, formerly the lower floors of the Isis Theater, one of Houston’s first cinemas, dating back to 1912. The sleek space—renovated by Anh Mai and Lian Pham, who also own Prohibition—recalls the turn of last century, but also features modern touches like exposed pipes and two striking plant walls overflowing with ivy. Another snatch of greenery pours forth from a glass cube hanging from the ceiling near the entrance. Overall, there’s a sense of a once-avant-garde bank or train station now disused and slowly returning to nature. Ray Bradbury would have loved it.
Though friends tell me they’ve seen Conservatory packed, the attendance I’ve witnessed has been just north of sparse at both lunch and dinner. Are Houstonians still getting the hang of the concept? The perpetually crowded Shops at Houston Center dining area would seem to disprove that theory.
Perhaps downtown’s denizens simply aren’t in the mood to walk the hot Houston streets before heading underground once again—Conservatory doesn’t have tunnel access, after all. Finding parking near the building also can be a trial. Still, there are few more beautiful places in the city to eat a casual meal. If only the food, too, would rise to the level.