Restaurant Review

At River Oaks District, Two Must-Try, See-and-Be-Seen Spots

Are MAD and Ouzo Bay worth the hype?

By Timothy Malcolm October 28, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

I wasn’t prepared for the nearly seven-foot-tall orange bear relieving himself in front of a men’s bathroom urinal at MAD. But once I found myself alone in the room with the official 3D-printed-plastic mascot of this swanky restaurant, I did the only thing any red-blooded guest would do: I took a photo of it.

“Well, it’s River Oaks District,” I thought to myself, playground of Houston’s ultra-wealthy. Just about anything goes here.

I love BCN Taste & Tradition, owner Ignacio Torras and executive chef Luis Roger’s love letter to Barcelona and romance in Montrose. So I was excited to step foot inside their new restaurant MAD, which, like its sister, takes its name from an airport code—in this case, Madrid’s.

MAD’s design, menu, and vibe are inspired by the wild nightlife scene in the Spanish capital city. Its sense of fun and playfulness—especially on weekend nights, when the DJ spins Ibiza-style dance jams—makes the restaurant a perfect fit for ROD’s fashionable set.

Spaghetti-like gulas.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Diners may feel nervous excitement upon entering the 122-seat dining room, designed by Barcelona-based Lázaro Rosa-Violán. Fit, sexy people are everywhere. Gold and blood-red lights shine through lanterns and blinds. A gilded mural painted over the kitchen resembles something out of an archeology museum. Sculptures of space junk sit in glass cases, hinting at the restaurant’s tagline, “MAD to the Moon,” fitting for Space City. The hallway that leads to the bathroom, meanwhile, is all mirrors and dazzling neon lights. Search Instagram for MAD, and you’ll see more selfies of fit, sexy people in that hallway than actual plates of food.

About the food: MAD’s menu is complicated, featuring everything from tapas made using molecular gastronomy techniques to sandwiches to large-format fish dishes. Much of it is quite pretty, too, especially the MAD Tomato, a parmesan-pesto mousse ball encased in cherry-red tomato-water gelée, served atop toasted pumpernickel crumbled to resemble dirt. Another visual standout is the steak tartare, wrapped in edible newspaper cutely branded with the Houston Chronicle logo. Both are finely wrought technical feats that everyone should try once.

Dishing the paella out tableside

Image: Jenn Duncan

There are other dishes I would return for again and again, such as the textural masterpiece that is the gulas, a spaghetti-like pile of baby eels served atop a mountain of purple potato chips and topped with sunny-side-up quail eggs. And the MAD ‘n’ cheese—in which broth had been gelled into the shape of penne, and then mixed with cheese, crumbs, and pork squares—was a smoky, strange delight. Later I was disappointed to hear that it had been removed from the menu, but so it goes with a new restaurant finding its footing.

When MAD goes with classic preparations, good things tend to happen. I love the tender, perfectly grilled pulpo, although unfortunately it’s served with bland boiled baby potatoes. The jamón Ibérico—salty, sumptuous, razor-thin slices of Spanish ham served with a crusty pan de cristal topped with melted tomato spread—is another winner. And though it was a touch dry for me, I enjoyed the wood-roasted paella. The dish is served tableside, ensuring the crispy rice from the bottom of the pan, called socarrat, gets into every bite. 

The perfectly grilled pulpo

Image: Jenn Duncan

BCN’s artsy gin-and-tonics are deservedly famous, and MAD offers its own delicious spins on the cocktail. If you want a wild one, the acidic, rich, and smoky Paella G&T, served with a paprika rim, tastes like the dish but in drink form. My favorite is the Pimiento, whose flavors of roasted pepper and mango blend together fabulously.

It’s hard not to have a rousing good time at MAD. Your night will be even better if you choose dishes for your appetite and not for your Instagram feed. Save your photos for the walk to the bathroom.

The place to be: Ouzo Bay's bar

Image: Jenn Duncan

A three-minute walk from MAD there’s Ouzo Bay, a fancy newcomer to both ROD and Houston, offering a menu of Greek-inspired cuisine, from Baltimore-based Atlas Restaurant Group. Atlas also owns Loch Bar, the East Coast–style whiskey and shellfish spot next door where, on a recent weekend evening, I was able to snag a bar stool and have a premium Tuthilltown rye whiskey before heading over to Ouzo Bay.

Ouzo Bay is always busy, teeming with servers and managers—I counted at least four snappily dressed folks on the floor checking on tables during the course of one night—along with crowds of people eating, drinking, and chatting beneath the striking coral-like installation hanging from the ceiling. The bar, with its shimmering gold backdrop, is never less than stuffed. Diners want to be there, and if they’re sent to a more private space toward the back of the restaurant, they’ll ask to move—I witnessed three separate parties do this over the course of a single visit.

Above: pastitsio spring rolls. Below: wagyu-stuffed grape leaves

Image: Jenn Duncan

Servers are sweet here, although one took his helpfulness a bit far, going over the entire menu with our table twice. In his favor, he offered my companion two tastes from the restaurant’s robust list of Greek wines to determine what would pair well with her dinner. He was putting his best foot forward, just like everyone else at ROD.

The fish is the thing to get at Ouzo Bay. The rotating selection usually includes branzino from the Mediterranean, red snapper from the Gulf, dover sole from Holland, and yellowtail from Hawaii, known as Kona Kampachi—my favorite. Tender and buttery, it’s served deboned, fileted, and topped with olive oil, oregano, and capers. 

If you prefer to stay on land, Ouzo Bay offers a handful of steaks and chops. The perfectly medium rare, 14-ounce bison short rib—glazed with black garlic sauce and served with smoky yogurt and herbaceous gremolata—is outstanding.

A must-order: the Kona Kampachi

Image: Jenn Duncan

Traditional Greek items shine. There are several spreads served with warm pita—the hummus is smooth and fine, and I love the date-and-goat-cheese dip with thyme and garam masala. And the Portuguese octopus, grilled to a slight char and served with snappy-sweet onions and peppers over hummus, is tremendous. 

Other Greek dishes are tweaked in unusual but successful fashion. The grape leaves are brilliant, stuffed with juicy, chopped Snake River Farms wagyu filet and rice, and served with pistachio pesto, tzatziki, and a handful of chunky pistachios. Lasagna-like pastitsio is presented as a tightly packed, hearty spring roll served with a honey harissa sauce, a cute substitute for duck sauce.

MAD and Ouzo Bay both offer an embarrassment of riches in cuisine and decor—with price tags to match, of course—and you can’t help but get lost in the scene. Dress accordingly, all you fit, sexy Houstonians.

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