Verts Mediterranean Grill, the Austin-based döner chain formerly known as VertsKebap, is growing silly fast. Since 2011, the group has expanded to include more than 30 restaurants in Texas. Before the end of the year, locations in New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia will follow. But that's just the beginning. The company's public relations manager, Sarah Pendley, told me last night that the company plans to have 200 stores by the end of 2017.
Is all that growth too much too soon? That remains to be seen. But it will definitely mean more work and more travel for assistant culinary director Kate Schirm. Part of that work will include promotional events like the dinner she prepared at the Yale Street Verts last night. An upscale pop-up right next to the pickup line while the restaurant was open for business? We had to check it out.
In a dining room populated mostly by local bloggers, Schirm turned out four courses of modern Middle Eastern food with an emphasis on Israeli flavors. This is in great opposition to her next dinner, in Dallas, a meal of pork and beer that will help introduce a braised pork menu option. But eating babaghanoush, chile-flecked whipped feta and pickled cauliflower next to a line of gyro spits felt somehow right.
An elegant take on the Levantine bread salad, fattoush, centered on a thick smudge of labneh (similar to Greek yogurt) flavored with black garlic, got a slap of spice from tangy homemade harissa.
A crudo of Gulf redfish highlighted Verts' stated goal of focusing on local ingredients at all of its locations. On the four-course menu, Schirm listed no fewer than seven Texas farms from which she sourced ingredients. As much as we love preserved lemon, we'd never had lime prepared the same way before. It was a smart way to enliven the dish of fish and puffed rice.
Schmaltz hummus both looks and sounds gross, like the chicken fat your grandmother peels away from the top of her chicken soup as it cooks. Which of course, is exactly what it is, with the addition of chickpeas. And it's frigging delicious. Paired with turmeric-braised chicken, a few salty squares of crisp chicken skin, pickled quail egg and a refreshingly spicy Yemeni hot sauce known as schug, it was indeed grandma food. The dish was mouth-coatingly fatty and satisfying, but with an exciting presentation and just enough acid and spice to keep us interested.
Which of course begs the question: After those 200 fast-casual restaurants open, can Verts do an upscale restaurant for us in Houston? Pretty please?