Unless we’re talking about a national chain that’s newly hit Houston, there’s no way to inspire hysteria in local diners like a chef with a big…resume. It’s no surprise, then, that the latest restaurants from two particularly experienced chefs have attracted a glut of attention.
Ronnie Killen is one of the region’s few bona fide celebrity chefs, known as much for his barbecue and burgers as for his upscale steakhouse fare, not to mention his chic education at the London outpost of Le Cordon Bleu. At the end of 2016, he opened Killen’s STQ, his first restaurant within Houston city limits, in the Briargrove space previously occupied by Bramble.
Martin Stayer, owner and executive chef at Nobie’s in Montrose, cut his teeth in Chicago, working his way through the Michelin-starred kitchens of L20 and the late Homaro Cantu’s groundbreaking Moto. In fact, Nobie’s has two Moto alums in the kitchen, with the addition of sous-chef Aaron Mooney. But don’t expect edible menus or other avant-garde surprises—as at STQ, Stayer’s focus is on creative preparations of basics, meant for sharing.
Neither wants for options. Both menus offer 20 or so snacks, soups and salads—in Nobie’s case, those account for roughly three quarters of the choices. At STQ, a selection of steaks mirroring the one at Killen’s Steakhouse, plus a heaping handful of mostly smoked entrées—an upscale take on barbecue—fills the oversized bill of fare.
Killen’s Steakhouse and Barbecue haven’t awed me in the same way they’ve wowed others. It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with either, just that my experiences haven’t matched the hype. STQ, however, is everything one might hope for from the fusion of the two concepts, nearly without flaw. Even the more forgettable dishes, such as a chicken-fried steak made with wagyu beef and swimming in pork fat gravy, or handmade pappardelle dotted by cubes of brisket bursting with smoke, would be exceptional elsewhere.
It’s also unusual in Houston to find service so spot-on it’s worth mentioning in the same breath as the food. But STQ has hired the right people, many of whom also work at the Steakhouse. Both gentlemen who served me were genuine, knowledgeable and downright witty. And when one guided me to a pork belly dish (crisp-edged, pecan-smoked cubes in cherry-habanero sauce) different from the one I thought he was recommending (smoked pork belly in black-eyed pea gumbo), he brought out both, the second on the house.
Cocktails are a weak point, mostly a list of less interesting staples from the Steakhouse, like the French 75. Once we sipped the “grilled” sangria, we weren’t surprised our server had subtly tried to steer us away from it: Grilling the citrus within didn’t make it taste any different from any other fruit-muddled wine.
But that’s almost beside the point. The real reason to visit STQ is the smoke. It greets you, courtesy of its own smokers (and tendrils of vapor that flit from the ones at Roegels Barbecue next door), the moment you arrive at the valet stand. Your hair will retain traces of it after you leave. But with dishes like the umami explosion that is the smoked beef filet, you will be able to muster only a sensually overwhelmed, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
This is a filet that requires no apologies. Chefs may consider the lean cut to be flavorless, but saturated with a kiss of smoke, resting in a pool of consommé dotted with mushrooms, it’s anything but. Greens sit on top along with briny bonito flakes, which dance even before you cut into the beef. The fifth flavor is rarely treated with such reverence.
If you’re smart, you’ll add on a cast-iron pan of smoked Gouda mac ‘n’ cheese, the same buttery, crunchy-topped mac you’ll find at other Killen’s establishments but with an additional wisp of smoke from both the cheese and bacon. Alternatively, the supremely creamy, subtly spicy Anson Mills jalapeño-cheddar grits aren’t a bad idea either.
Among desserts, the bacon tres leches bread pudding is every bit as hard not to finish as it sounds, despite its size that could feed four. But it can’t compare to the pure showmanship of the smoked chocolate cake. Really an upgraded Black Forest, the outsized slab arrives beneath a glass cloche filled with smoke. When the server raises it, the fog swirls and dissipates, but the flavor does not. There are traces in every bit of the deep dark cake, the chocolate cream, the ganache and the cherries.
The bar isn’t set nearly as high at Nobie’s, the modest restaurant chef Stayer named for his grandmother. The goal here is chef-driven fun, and in that, the place most often succeeds.
My experiences at the homey 57-seat eatery in the former Au Petit Paris space were always a good time—there’s a record player going in the dining room at all times, occasionally too loudly, and a friend’s tea was served in a Look Who’s 50 mug—but food and service varied notably in quality.
Though nothing was a disaster, only a few dishes stood out on the ever-changing menu. I could eat the Double Trouble Pork Loin again on the double, but as one of the restaurant’s rotating shareable large plates (there’s always one at the bottom of the menu), it will only happen again when another perfect, local bone-in pork loin graces Stayer’s kitchen. The slab of meat, ready to be divided into single rib portions for me and my dining companion, was perfectly seared, with a whiff of smoke clinging to it. Our excessively chatty server poured a white Dijon cream over the meat and accompanying salad of herbs, apples and celeriac matchsticks. Perhaps it was because of the long wait that the kitchen sent out a serving of apology fries covered in spicy Old Bay, but the unctuous meat mixed with cream mixed with crisp apples required no mea culpa.
Neither did the AA Artichokes that preceded it. I’d recently fallen in love with fried artichoke nuggets in Italy—these were a Texan version, marinated, then fried in cornmeal, which allowed the coating to remain crisp despite the moisture of the veggies within.
Beer-battered sweet tots were what they sounded like: sweet potato balls fried with a crunchy beer batter. But their base of goat cheese was unnecessarily heavy, and a dusting of harissa a flavor mismatch. Most dishes at Nobie’s have a light dose of something spicy on them, which gives them an odd uniformity; togarashi-topped oysters blended together with the sausage-dotted house cavatelli at one meal.
The cevapcici, a Balkan favorite, also had more spice than I’m used to in the dish. Nonetheless, it stood out not only for its juicy beef sausages, but also its yin and yang of smoked eggplant and garlic sauces.
There are only two desserts at Nobie’s at a time, a cake and a pie. It’s a homespun reminder that the restaurant is modeled on Stayer’s meals at his grandmother’s house. My server beamed as she recommended the carrot cake, which turned out to be moist but underspiced and drowned in buttercream. But my party couldn’t help but appreciate one touch: To go with my friend’s tea mug, a single candle burned to remind us that it was someone’s unbirthday. Now that’s attention to detail.