When we spoke to Katie Adair Barnhart in August about the impending opening of her and brother Nicholas Adair's new restaurant Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors, she told us the cuisine would “marry southern roots to Gulf Coast to a cleaner way of eating.” What she didn't tell us was how prominently Middle Eastern influences would also figure into chef Joseph Stayshich's menu. The result is perhaps the world's only restaurant that fuses the Gulfs of Mexico and Persia. More surprising still, each bite makes perfect sense.
But to diners not weighing the culinary influences at work, Eloise Nichols is a pretty room that recalls a French bistro with its wide bar and banquettes, located just off Westheimer a couple of blocks from River Oaks District. Businessmen in suits and ladies in workout clothes filled the tables in equal measure last Friday during lunch. Though it's tucked away on Mid Lane, diners didn't appear to have any trouble finding the place just two weeks into its life.
My dining companion and I started our lunch with virgin versions of the Spirit Animal and Rita Evita cocktails. The former is presented in a gold pineapple that belongs in your grandmother's collection. This makes sense, of course, as the restaurant is named for the Adair siblings' 93-year-old grandmother, whose face wallpapers the restaurant as iconically as if she were Warhol's Campbell's soup can.
The Spirit Animal is a pleasant combination of pineapple and lime. The Rita Evita, typically made with blanco tequila, is uncommonly refreshing for a non-frozen margarita, light with lime and cucumber and sweetened only with agave.
It's a sensible foil for the field pea hummus pictured above. Crisp, salty pita chips are stiff enough to scoop up every interesting element: the thick hummus itself, but perhaps more importantly the peanut-centered dukkah, a blend of spices and seeds that's especially heavy on the fennel. Feta and parsley are piled on top, too, brightening the earthy overall impression.
Not everything strays as far from good ol' Southern cooking. Stayshich's popcorn chicken, lightly covered in a sweet hot sauce, is paired with house pickles and two halved slices of Sunbeam bread. Yes, the one with the little girl on the bag.
Despite the Sunbeam cameo, there is definitely no Bisquick in the chicken-and-dumplings. Instead, Stayshich dots the thick cream sauce with wheat-based (as opposed to typical, lighter potato-based) gnocchi and chunks of chicken confit. But sweet carrots (both on top and chopped into the sauce) and rosemary are the unlikely stars of the dish.
Sandwiches included a cheffed-up club sandwich and a more typical beef burger, but the lamb burger, which uses Texas meat, is the way to go. Think of it not so much as a burger as a complex, creative take on a Lebanese or Syrian kefta sandwich. The heavily seasoned, grill-marked lamb patty and chunks of feta receive some Southern hospitality in the form of pickled green tomatoes on a chewy pretzel bun. But the sauce comes from even further east. It's a sambal—hot sauce originally from Indonesia—though Stayshich's is as tangy as it is spicy.
There is no pastry chef, so the chef and his team keep desserts simple. Chocolate-hazelnut cake is a classic Texas sheet cake nicely presented with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and plenty of toasted hazelnuts. The greater triumph however, is the Key lime pie, a particularly placid version that might even win over citrus dessert haters with its towering bruléed crown of Italian meringue.
Though Nichols and her old-school recipes served as inspiration for the restaurant, there is nothing old-fashioned about the food being served there. Who knew a 93-year-old great-grandmother would be a force behind one of Houston's most modern new restaurants?