It used to be that the words “Gulf Coast Cuisine” meant a restaurant where your grandparents or George and Barbara Bush (who probably look quite a bit like your grandparents) ventured out on their anniversary. Several preparations of oysters? Check. Some gumbo to get Grandma feeling spicy? Double-check. An eye toward culinary innovation? Heavens, no.
But that’s starting to change. Last year, restaurants like Bernadine’s in the Heights and the Manor House at the Houstonian Hotel & Spa began filling their menus with sorghum and satsuma, popcorn rice and Pontchartrain sauce. These were foods eaten more out of necessity than trendiness, suddenly elevated as chefs work more assiduously to create a taste of place. Our place.
Last June in the Heights, Ritual began serving a unique, meat-heavy take on Houston-area locavorism focused on animals farmed by Felix Florez of farm Black Hill Meats, who owns the restaurant with Ken Bridge (Lola, Pink’s Pizza).
In October, siblings Katie Adair Barnhardt and Nicholas Adair, best known for Uptown's popular Adair Kitchen, took a different tack to updating local food. With Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors in Highland Village, the siblings showcase the aesthetic they inherited from their grandmother, for whom the restaurant is named—exactly the kind of no-nonsense, oyster-and-gumbo-ordering lady mentioned above—but with an eye toward marrying “Southern roots to Gulf Coast to a cleaner way of eating.” Perhaps not surprisingly, their local focus means they too use Black Hill Meats.
Early staffing discord gave Ritual a mixed reputation. But after three chefs in its first four months of life, the restaurant has settled in just fine under the leadership of Crash Hethcox. Better than fine, in fact. With its seasonal menu, local ingredients and on-point game of cured meats and veggies and dry-aged beef, Ritual is the type of Slow Food–style restaurant Houston deserves but rarely receives. Just a look around proves it. In a soaring two-story space, the centerpiece is the butchering room where pig carcasses hang, awaiting their big moment.
The best example of the above is the $24 Texas picnic board, sold as an appetizer, but big enough to be an entrée for at least two diners. The night I tried it, Hethcox had stacked the board with 12 items, including intensely flavorsome local cheeses, pickles, mushrooms, deviled eggs and charcuterie. The last of those represented the largest number of offerings—two types of ham; juicy, smoky kielbasa; and a gooey fritter of head cheese, all made with one of Florez’s pigs, broken down on site. The only loser was a dry ball of pimento cheese with a too-thick covering of pecans.
It’s not a bad idea to construct a meal here entirely from starters. The unassuming sourdough hushpuppies are deceptively light and tangy, brought to earth only by the sticky sweetness of a pool of jalapeño jelly. Strings of cheddar stretch from the Pig Mac, a mini skillet of orecchiette lush with pulled pork and poblanos, spilling onto the fried strips of buffalo sauce–flavored pig ears on top.
Smoked pork is the star of Ritual’s most serotonin-stoking entrée, too. Few things, edible or otherwise, can make me feel as good as a pot pie. Now picture one sized for two, with a buttery puff pastry top punctured by a pig tibia peeking out from within the rich, vinegared stew. There are tender root vegetables in there, too, but the bone hints none too subtly at the dish’s centerpiece, meaty but tender pork. For pulled pork and pot pie fans alike, this is as close as we’ll ever get to hog heaven.
That two-person feast is available only at dinner, but at lunch, the star is the 60-day-dry-aged chicken-fried steak. Truth be told, burrowed within its crisp, well-seasoned jacket, the beef doesn’t reveal much of that dry-aged flavor. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is the crunch that remains even beneath a thick puddle of tasso cream gravy. The light mashed potatoes, whipped with beef tallow, are important too, and even the buttery, al dente haricots verts make the dish that little bit more exciting.
Yet for all the focus on meat, seafood isn’t ignored here. The rich, comforting seafood gravy is a rice-enhanced crab-and-shrimp equivalent of the pork pie. The catch of the day varies, but the redfish I tried was surprisingly plentiful and cooked to a moist, flaky ideal with a green slick of arugula pesto. A pool of silken butternut squash anchored farro dotted with cubes of (slightly too stiff) beets and oyster mushrooms.
With such abundance among the savory dishes, dessert could easily be overlooked. It’s not, though the presence of more than one chess pie on the bill of fare hints at how deeply Southern the sweets are. The chewy, buttery apple chess pie with cinnamon whipped cream is no match for the habit-forming assets of the pear-cranberry bread pudding, which melts M&M-like the moment it makes its way into your mouth, practically liquefying in creamy, fruity ecstasy.
SUCH EXCESS is roughly the antithesis of the Adairs’ stated goal for Eloise Nichols. Their grandmother might be a pimento-cheese kind of woman, but the restaurant’s greatest successes are dishes that fuse Gulf Coast ingredients with the lightness of Mediterranean flavors. With its dark-blue banquettes and dark-wood raw bar, the airy dining room reflects this, feeling like nothing so much as a bistro where girlfriends might meet for a light lunch in the South of France.
It’s exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to consume chef Joseph Stayshich's stunning tuna tartare—an uncommon combination of ingredients that will leave you wanting a second plate. Cubes of tuna flavored with preserved lemon are presented in a ring with local grapefruit and white soy beneath a frosting of zippy avocado showered with poppy seeds. The ample portion, served with crispy taro chips, left me desiring nothing else at dinner.
That was lucky, because it was followed by a parade of misses: Venison sausage was presented prettily in slices sunk into a long line of mustard seeds, but nonetheless tasted like tarted up hot dogs. Pastrami-seasoned pork ribs were served with a delightful chamomile-flavored butternut mash, but were almost too tough to eat. A harissa rub on the redfish on the half shell was a nice touch, but didn’t do much to help the arid fish, or the tasteless haystack of Brussels sprout slaw on the side.
At lunch, the food was better, as was the exceptionally cheerful, helpful service. Since we were sitting at a small table, our smiling waitress even maneuvered our phones into the best configuration to allow for optimal food placement. This was beneficial when simultaneously downing the extra-crispy, syrupy-spicy nuggets of Stayshich’s hot chicken and the taco salad. Yes, a taco salad. What looked initially like something that belonged on the menu at McDonald’s was robustly flavored with a red chile-lime dressing. Chunks of chicken, in turn, were marinated with chile and grilled. Thick fried tortilla strips crunched like Chinese noodles with olives, cherry tomatoes and avocado.
There are almost no entrées in common between lunch and dinner at Eloise. Cornmeal-fried fish served over Texas caviar with a yogurt dill sauce is one highlight not available at night. So is the Texas lamb burger, robustly spiced like Middle Eastern kofta and served on a pretzel bun with feta and sundried sambal.
Stayshich admits that he keeps dessert simple. But there’s no complaining about chocolate cake in a warm chocolate-hazelnut sauce. It’s the kind of thing the real Eloise might throw together for a last-minute dinner party. And it highlights something important: As much as Gulf Coast food is maturing, especially in Houston, comfort is still its key.