Restaurant Review

Classic American and Unexpected Houston Flavor Meld at B.B. Lemon and Indianola

Two ambitious restaurants—one sweeping, one super-specific.

By Timothy Malcolm February 25, 2019 Published in the March 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Indianola's gnudi surprises with every bite.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Indianola, Texas: the old port near Victoria where thousands of mostly European immigrants came ashore during the 19th century. After getting hit by a hurricane in 1875, it became a ghost town, but the mystique lives on. The new concept from Agricole Hospitality in EaDo, Indianola, was named for the place. And fittingly, the menu is, per co-owner Morgan Weber, “a mashup of different ethnicities that have now produced food that has become the canon of American cuisine.”

Each member of the restaurant’s team totes something different to the table. Weber is a fifth-generation Texan, while co-owner Vincent Huynh, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam, provides Pacific and Southeast Asian influences, co-owner Ryan Pera lends an East Coast and Appalachian perspective, and executive chef Paul Lewis brings his British roots.

Menus like Indianola’s, with its wide-ranging list of influences, are all the rage here these days—often considered the very definition of “Houston” cuisine. And the dishes here are always interesting and often excellent.

Chief among the successful offerings on my visits are three “large plates” selections. The roasted lamb collar felt like a signature dish, although it’s not on the menu right now. The tender, slow-cooked neck meat was served with fresh, sweet English pea puree, snap peas, and super-soft gnocchi. Here’s hoping the team brings it back. Another hit is the gnudi—delectable, pillowy pasta spheres filled with ricotta and tossed in broth with cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and bread crumbs. And the wood-grilled cauliflower with green chutney and house yogurt is a standout.

At Indianola, small plates and dips shine.

Image: Jenn Duncan

My favorite starters are two dips: a smoky, tangy creation made with minced Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham, served with Ritz crackers, a nod to Pera’s North Carolina upbringing, and a creamy blue crab version sourced from the Chesapeake Bay, topped with bread crumbs, and plated with saltines. There are plenty of highlights on the small plates menu, too, particularly the outstanding charred carrots with a zippy green goddess dressing and the crispy duck wings slicked with a sweet soy sauce, then topped with Fresno chiles and crispy onion bits.

The Savage Fashion from Miss Carousel

Image: Jenn Duncan

On occasion, the disparate influences and ingredients compete with one another within dishes. Take the Texas wagyu burger topped with provolone, lettuce, onion, and a charred tomato relish, on a cheddar-jalapeño bun. By the time you’ve experienced the heat of the bun, the smoke of the relish, and the crunch of the veggies, you’ve forgotten you’re eating wagyu. I want to know I’m eating wagyu. Still, it’s tasty.

Dessert, too, may need a little refining. Pastry chef Natasha Douglas, who has a sterling reputation through her other work with Agricole, drew from her experiences traveling the world to create her menu, which often combines unexpected ingredients. The approach works in her lemon tart with coffee ganache and lavender meringue, whose flavors complement each other well. But her passion fruit pudding—tangy, lemon-like yuzu gelée and sesame gelato—doesn’t quite gel. Her Spanish-goat-cheese cheesecake, meanwhile, lacks richness, although the accompanying apple cider caramel and sweet quince paste positively shine.

If it seems like there’s a lot happening here, well, there’s more. The restaurant’s EaDo property also includes upscale pizza joint Vinny’s and sexy cocktail lounge Miss Carousel, which does the outstanding drinks served at Indianola, headlined by a gorgeous gin and tonic poured into a miniature fishbowl and adorned with star anise, and the Savage Fashion, a slightly sweet, deeply satisfying dark-rum-and-sherry original.

Given all that, Indianola’s minimalist decor and muted color scheme is a blessing. The empty seafoam green walls and pastel-pink tufted banquettes wrapped around the restaurant’s enormous white tables are comfortable, a nice place to relax with friends.

While the food can be confusing, probably a result of the team trying too hard to pull it all together, its owners’ outstanding track record—Agricole runs Coltivare, Eight Row Flint, Revival Market, and Night Heron—means it’s easy to see Indianola becoming the restaurant it really wants to be.

The burger is simple but effective.

Image: Jenn Duncan

If Indianola’s ambitions are all over the map, B.B. Lemon, across Washington Avenue from B&B Butchers in the former Caddy Shack sports bar space, is going for one, very specific, place. The new effort from restaurateur Benjamin Berg of B&B Butchers & Restaurant and Carmelo’s Cucina Italiana is a loving ode to J.G. Melon, the cash-only Manhattan haunt that Berg visited as a youth. Like that restaurant, B.B. Lemon features a menu of straightforward tavern favorites.

The cheeseburger aims to be an exact replica of the one Berg remembers: a perfectly cooked patty with cheddar on a fluffy bun with an inner sear, with pickles and red onions on the side. It’s a great burger, but unfortunately, as at the New York establishment, there’s nothing else on the plate. Remedy that with an order of the crispy, crinkled cottage fries.

B.B. Lemon’s elevated bar food includes enormous hog wings—hard-to-put-down pig legs served with three sauces—along with generous, tender blue crab beignets, and briny East Coast oysters with vinegar, horseradish, and cocktail sauce. Other New England favorites include clam chowder in a bread bowl, chock-full of seafood in a curiously light broth. Of the three soups on offer, I loved it most, although the others—a lovely roasted-tomato bisque and a messy French onion with stretchy cheese—weren’t far behind.

You can't go wrong with soup and a sandwich.

Image: Jenn Duncan

The sandwiches are a must-try, whether you’re getting the hefty, crispy fried-chicken version with mayonnaise, lettuce and pickles; the mammoth, extra-creamy grilled cheese with tomato and bacon on Texas toast; or the lobster roll, which is positively stuffed with flesh, although I wished my bun had been toasted.

If you want an entrée, I suggest the chopped—that is, Salisbury—steak, essentially a larger portion of that tasty burger meat with peppercorns in a light broth with a side of cottage fries. Other big plates include corned beef and cabbage, fish and chips, and a build-your-own omelet modeled on the one at J.G. Melon.

Dessert is headlined by a to-die-for banana pudding; a to-go version comes in a sweet Mason jar. The lemon sorbet, served inside a frozen Meyer lemon with limoncello, is a bit too puckery, but the cheesecake, sourced from S&S Cheesecake in the Bronx, is a thick, indulgent masterpiece.

The interior feels very New York—cozy and frantic in the front room, darker and intimate in the back room, green-checkered tablecloths, a crowded and narrow bar that you have to weave your way through. Adding to the throwback feel are the matchbooks on offer, as well as the candy dispenser (Lemonheads, naturally) and an actual phone booth that rings when you call B.B. Lemon’s listed number. But because this is Houston, there’s also a spacious back patio, plus a grassy area for private parties, with a cute lemonade stand as the bar.

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