Sometimes it's the little things that sell you on a new place. In the case of Paul's Kitchen, which opened inside the old Haven space in late September, that little thing was literal: a dish off the "small plates" side of the menu. It's something I almost didn't order based on the name alone, pork belly, an ingredient which—these days—is overshowcased and typically underdelivers. But the addition of something called "Granny Stern's potato salad" compelled me, and what I ended up with was a clever reinterpretation of a meal right out of my East Texas childhood.
2502 Algerian Way
After tasting the smoked slices of fatty pork belly, which tasted for all the world like ribs fresh from the barbecue pit, you'd be forgiven for thinking chef Paul K. Lewis is Texan. The fact that an Englishman could make such a spot-on take on a barbecue plate—complete with mustard-y potato salad like a granny would turn out—just makes the dish that much more interesting.
What put the dish over the top, however, was the addition of some simple peach-jalapeño jelly on the side. It's similar to the sweet-hot jelly my own mother makes with green jalapeños fresh from her garden, which my father always uses on his pork ribs before popping them into the smoker. With that one dish, I was sold on Paul's Kitchen.
Luckily, most of the other plates I tried during a recent visit held their own against the pork belly's high standards. "Let's order the roasted chicken," I persuaded my dining companion, against her wishes of the dinner menu's Gulf red snapper with Tabasco mash crema and andouille sausage. "You can tell a lot about a kitchen by how well they roast a chicken." And after that successful plate of pork belly, I was eager to put Paul's to the test.
Much like its predecessor, Paul's deals in modern Southern food made with as many local ingredients as possible. On the reverse of its short-but-sweet menu, you'll find a list of purveyors that range from Felix Florez at Black Hill Meats to the Houston Dairymaids. On one hand, this makes sense; updated comfort food like roasted chicken and pimiento cheese is very on-trend right now. On the other hand, it's a little strange to be eating food that's so tonally similar to Haven's inside its old building, which has been redecorated just enough to be noticeably different—but not different enough to be completely removed from the shadow of the acclaimed restaurant that preceded it.
Chef Lewis seems to be filling the big shoes left behind by Haven more than adequately right now, however, sending out a perfectly roasted chicken with buttery flesh and crispy skin in a rich, silky port wine jus. The English mustard spaetzle that accompanied it was ever so slightly underseasoned, but the knotty, homemade texture of the egg dumplings more than made up for the minor lack of salt.
My friend and I also found much to enjoy on Lewis's country plate, which featured an interesting assortment of Southern and Mediterranean flavors: pimento cheese and pickles—both made on-site—buttressed by field pea hummus on which rested a pool of olive oil and rugged hunks of tangy, marinated feta. Between these two excellent spreads, the slices of Benton's country ham—notably considered the best ham in the country—were almost an afterthought.
The country plate exemplifies an area in which Paul's menu diverges from Haven's, offering the occasional globally-influenced dish among its otherwse Texan menu: a lamb tagine with saffron; a grouper in a Malaysian laksa sauce; tuna poke topped with furikake and onion rings topped with togarashi. And in case you don't know furikake from togarashi, the reverse side of the menu helpfully explains these potentially unfamiliar terms and others.
This is of particular use while Paul's Kitchen gets its sea legs, as you don't have to wait for a server to answer those questions for you. But while the service was a little shaky the night I visited, I imagine it will shake out in time—after all, owner Paul Miller's successful chain of Union Kitchen restaurants, based in Houston, is known as much for its service as its simple American fare. And if the service is still a little unstable on your own visit, I recommend doing what my friend and I did at dinner: ordering a bottle of Laetitia Brut Rose Champagne, which is a bargain at only $35. It's bright, it's bubbly, and—most importantly, as you'll want to sample a lot here—it goes with everything.