To hear critics tell it, quality Chinese food was nonexistent in London prior to the arrival of chef Alan Yau, who, after first transforming that city’s Japanese ramen scene with Wagamama in 1992 (now a chain with over 140 outlets worldwide), went on to create the luxe and swanky Hakkasan, Britain’s first Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant. By 2004, the mercurial chef found himself craving high-quality dim sum served in an atmosphere both friendly and informal, as if one were having tea with Yau himself, which is exactly what Yauatcha, his next restaurant’s name, meant. In time, it too garnered a Michelin star, whereupon Yau proceeded to open a second Yauatcha (yow-AH-cha) in London, and then India, Hawaii, and—last March—Houston, its first iteration on the North American continent.
Such a distinguished arrival would seem to signal a culinary moment for the city, but Houston’s Yauatcha has met with only limited success. The fault lies with neither its food nor service, both of which are outstanding, but location—smack dab in the middle of the original Galleria’s street-level parking lot. It’s easy to see why Yauatcha might want to take up residence in the free-standing “jewel box” structure, as it’s known, which provides the restaurant enviable glowing signage on Westheimer. But its entrance faces not the street but the mall, leaving passersby clueless as to what Yauatcha even is, much less what it offers. Couple that with a parking situation nightmarish enough to make $11 sound like a valet bargain, and it’s a wonder Yauatcha even survived its first year.
However you get there, the good news is that the journey does not go unrewarded. Dim sum in a teahouse, the original small-plates experience, is still mostly a daytime repast, but one of Yau’s innovations was to free it from its lunchtime confines, serving the same menu long into the evening. After a quick check of Yauatcha’s dining room—bright, cheerful and unfussy—and a bit of explanation from the waitstaff—equally bright, cheerful and unfussy—the fun soon begins. Out of an open kitchen so steamy you’re not quite sure what’s transpiring comes a jaw-dropping parade of dishes: tray after tray of baskets filled with exotic morsels steamed, baked, fried and so on, along with plates nearly as pleasing to the eye as the palate.
I say nearly, as it’s a good bet that every item arriving at your table will be delectable in the extreme. Good things have long come in small packages, of course, but rarely have they exhibited such a complexity of flavors, textures, and colors. So talented are Yauatcha’s cooks, and so well-run its kitchen, the teahouse delights with even the plainest of dim sum dishes—char siu pork—encasing its rich filling in a pillowy bun that’s the envy of every marshmallow. The one-two punch of uber-fresh ingredients and of-the-moment preparation results in wonders to behold and bite, including the not-to-be-missed prawn and crispy beancurd cheung fun, every mouthful of which teases the tongue with crunch and softness and meat and crustacean. Take care to savor these masterpieces wrapped in rice noodles. You won’t taste anything more interesting all year.
The pork and prawn shu mai, another dish that rolls around every dim sum cart in town, doesn’t so much melt in the mouth as evanesce, even as the crispy duck roll comes tightly stuffed, lightly fried, and crackles into bits at the slightest provocation. That said, in general, the more adventurous the dish, the greater Yauatcha’s reward. Fans of the safe and familiar—you kung pao chicken types, say—will find little to love in Yau’s version, in which blandly seasoned cashews and marble-sized pieces of poultry are buried under a mountain of Tianjin chile peppers. Similarly, the vegetarian hot-and-sour soup doesn’t noticeably improve on its plastic-container, Chinese takeout cousin. Non-meat-eaters will be happier with an entrée of vegetarian sweet-and-sour chicken, in which tofu and flour are pan-fried to surprisingly faux-fowl perfection.
Again, though, Yauatcha is best appreciated for its efforts beyond the familiar. That’s true of the libations enjoyed at its long, elegant bar, especially the Hakka—a fruity amalgam of vodka, sake, lychee, coconut, lime and passionfruit—and truer still of the endless creativity of its dishes. No foodie Instagram account may be considered complete absent a photo of Yauatcha’s crispy prawn dumpling with plum sauce. Long, stringy fried wontons protrude skyward from the sea creature, making it resemble nothing so much as shrimp on a bad hair day, at least from one angle. From another, it might be a comet darting across the dining room.
They are delicious whatever one’s approach, however, and the same is true of Yauatcha’s vaunted mini-pumpkin puffs, in which gourd-shaped pastry shells are perfect cover for a tasty roasted duck filling. For a moment, you wonder if the gorgeous orange globes aren’t too pretty to eat, but soon the intoxicating aroma of baked splendor overcomes, at which point the pumpkins vanish without trace.
In short, Alan Yau’s teahouse is a Cinderella story, one which deserves a beloved, special place in the hearts of Houston’s serious diners. Whether he’s found a venue special enough to tell it, however, remains to be seen.
When it comes to location lunacy in the restaurant biz, Yauatcha would seem to have nothing on the Italian villa-like Potente, where immaculately groomed waiters shave black truffles onto cacio e pepe in a softly lit dining room that overlooks … Minute Maid Park. In this case, however, the juxtaposition makes a scintilla of sense. Of late, the corner of Texas Avenue and Crawford Street has been nothing if not a lucky one for the potentate behind Potente, Jim Crane, who also happens to own the Houston Astros. One glance through its discreetly tinted windows at the streetscape beyond—soon to be dominated again by a sea of orange jerseys—is enough to make you question how much need might exist out there for perfectly braised veal cheeks. But Crane has needs too, and you can’t blame a wealthy sports team owner for craving a lair of his own, one quiet, convenient, and nachos-free. And Potente is all of these.
A few gin-and-tonics into an evening at the restaurant’s large, quietly majestic bar, it occurred to me that Crane, alone among restaurateurs, is critic-proof, at least where this reviewer is concerned. Even as November’s cheers and elation may still be heard echoing from the dark, dormant, February stadium across the street, the magnitude of his gift to this city—the championship that eluded so many wealthy men before him—seems every bit as impressive as it did last fall, if not more so. And so, whatever Crane’s actual involvement with Potente’s gin-and-tonics, or for that matter, its apricot sidecars, fire-roasted octopus or fried blue cheese–stuffed olives, I can say a discouraging word about nothing at the bar, especially during happy hour, when the sunset suavity of the room is at its most cost-effective.
The precise duties of a restaurant owner—or, for that matter, a baseball team owner—vary and can sometimes be difficult to divine, as each runs an exceedingly collaborative enterprise. Nonetheless, in both cases, success and failure depend on a great many individuals, and it is the owner who bears ultimate responsibility for assembling his or her teams. After dinner in Potente’s dining room the other night, it seemed to me that Crane’s restaurant squad could learn a few lessons from his other one, the ’Stros, whose track record at delivering star performances, harmonious team play and memorable evenings is second to none these days.
Lesson #1: Strike early and often. Our party of four arrived on time for our reservation and were seated right away. Still, a full 30 minutes elapsed before a waiter delivered menus, by which point our table had memorized Potente’s voluminous and distinguished wine list, amply scanned the room’s high-back chairs and wooden chandeliers, and began starving for bread. As only half of the 16 or so tables were occupied and the dining room appeared well-staffed, we could only assume that an overly patient attitude was part of the place’s ethos, one which served Potente about as well as it served the Dodgers in game 7. (In the time it took for the water glasses to arrive, Yu Darvish could have lost that game twice.)
Lesson #2: Know the team you’re up against. At the time, Brad Peacock seemed an odd choice for a relief pitcher in game 3, but intel previously gathered by A.J. Hinch and company indicated that the unique release point on his fastball might stymie L.A., and so it did. We were again reminded of this particular brand of intuition—taking the temperature of a situation and reacting accordingly—when at last Potente’s bread, cottony and fresh, arrived with a tangy lemon artichoke hummus that impressed most, but not all, of our party. When the lone holdout kindly requested a different spread—butter, perhaps, or even some olive oil—she was rewarded with... a second plate of hummus. Later, after informing a vegetarian at our table that meatless versions of most of the pastas could be prepared, our friend ended up with something that resembled none of those pastas, a dish labeled, somewhat cryptically, as “fettucine” on the bill. Later still, after asking dessert suggestions, we were practically commanded to order the apple galette and H-Town Dream Cake. To be fair, both were excellent, the first a superbly buttery free-form tart, the second a luscious devil’s food creation lovingly spiked with Chambord and topped with a mirror-like chocolate ganache. Still, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that we should have fought for the crème brûlée.
Lesson #3: Money can’t buy you love. During the 2017 playoffs, the Astros defeated the three biggest payrolls in baseball despite having begun the season with just the 18th-biggest. Which brings us to the aforementioned cacio e pepe, whose truffle shavings accent a decent-enough dish but do little to mitigate the sting of a $42 plate of pasta the size of a wheel of Brie. The lobster thermidor, a relative bargain at $39, is perfectly fine, but its inclusion on chef Danny Trace’s otherwise inventive menu feels merely obligatory.
Lesson #4: Never underestimate the power of braised veal cheeks. Okay, maybe the boys of summer didn’t come up with this one, but I’m inclined to believe that Trace’s winning combination of seared meat stewed in Amarone—an Italian dry red—that’s plated with a porcini mushroom risotto and winter squash is as Astros as it gets. For one thing, the dish allegedly took years to get right, and even now, its incomparable tenderness requires hours and hours of preparation. (Remind you of a certain Sports Illustrated cover?) For another, although cheeks are on every carnivorous foodie’s short list of tastiest animal parts, they’re conspicuously overlooked and underestimated by the broader public (although in their case, the Fox Sports network had nothing to do with it). And then there’s the issue of Trace’s version itself, which is compact but substantial, soulful yet fun (insert obligatory José Altuve joke here).
And like any great dish, it leaves you hungry for more, which reminds me: The Astros really need to high-tail it back to town and get to work. Besides, we hear that Crane has a private dining area ready and waiting for them at Potente, a five-diamond experience just steps from the one where all the magic happens.