When Sam Governale and his wife began dating "long ago," they had a regular haunt. Their early courtship blossomed on the patio at Teala's Mexican Restaurant at 3210 West Dallas Street. (Don't confuse it with the still-open Tila's Restaurante & Bar, which isn't far at 1111 South Shepherd Drive.)
Now, that building is taking on even greater significance for the operating partner at the bustling River Oaks location of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. As soon as March or April, Governale will open a restaurant of his own in the space. The business will likely be called Emmaline, after a Governale family member, though the name is not yet finalized.
But there is plenty that Governale and creative director Ashley Putnam do know. The freestanding building (a rare find in Houston), is currently undergoing renovations to add a mezzanine patio. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows are being installed to allow in a view of the large oak tree out front and a wall of ivy, as well as vines and planters that will surround the lower patio. "A substantial goal for us is to make it its own enclave," says Governale.
He's continuing to work at Fleming's through the end of February. "I want to close out with them the right way," he explains. "I don’t want to leave with any ill will or any damage or whatever." And he'll bring the spirit of his longtime stomping grounds with him. He calls the River Oaks steakhouse an anomaly, a neighborhood restaurant in a chain with 69 locations in the United States. Likewise, he hopes to create the hospitality that will make locals consider it a spot to return habitually, whether it's for business lunches, snacks at the bar or celebration dinners.
Of course, the food will be a significant part of that, too. Governale has yet to hire a chef, but says that he's considering "a couple of great chef candidates that come from a very good pedigree, mostly from outside the city." However, this will not be a chef-driven restaurant. Governale has already conceived much of the menu himself with the help of chef friends acquired during his stints in New York and Atlanta. He says that main courses will be interpretations of classics, "things people love to eat," but that smaller plates will be a focus.
An area that he calls a "pantry market" attached to the bar will serve as an open kitchen for simple small plates. As he puts it, "I want the food to be right up front." Those dishes may include salads, an Italian-inflected goat cheese tart, tramezzini (Italian tea sandwiches) and a daily crudo. Dishes emerging from the main kitchen will include burgers and sandwiches, a daily omelet or frittata, steaks and a seasonal braised meat.
"It’s a very dynamic and interesting menu," he promises. And though he describes dishes as American with European influences and vice versa, we'll have to wait to hear more specifics. Fortunately, spring isn't so far away.