Change happens quickly in the restaurant business. One day things are buzzing along just fine; the next, the lights are off. Hurricane Harvey took down two celebrated Midtown-area seafood palaces, Mark Holley’s Holley’s Seafood & Oyster Bar and Bryan Caswell’s Reef, when it devastated Houston in 2017. A year later Kyle Teas’s beloved Montrose seafood restaurant, Danton’s, lost its Chelsea Market digs for a different reason: The landlord had sold the property to apartment developers. Now all three chef/owners are back with new eateries.
Holley has taken over the reimagined Davis St. at Hermann Park, which reopened in August. It’s still the same large, comfortable space with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, but the Holley-fied cuisine of Gulf seafood and buttery comfort food takes things to another level entirely. The chef hasn’t lost a step.
Yes, Holley’s famously fluffy benne-seed Parker House Rolls are here, with all the decadent smoked-drum mousse and pimiento-and-poblano dip you can handle. And a starter of cheese grits with pork belly, brightened with slivers of pickled strawberry, is impossible to put down.
Among Holley’s seafood dishes, you can’t go wrong with the elegant, fiery scallop aguachile, the whole blackened grouper, or the muddled stew—redfish, clams, jumbo shrimp, hearty pork belly, and grits in a zippy tomato-saffron broth, topped with a runny egg. Elsewhere a harissa-dusted Cornish hen entrée is an exhilaratingly succulent, rich treat complete with perfectly crispy skin, served with a refreshing faro and feta salad.
A couple of items fizzled, like the poorly constructed beef lettuce “wraps” and the oddly flavorless chocolate cake. But the winners win big. The stunning apple pie bread pudding, for example, was even more delicious with the recommended $5 two-ounce digestif: an apple-y pommeau de Normandie.
I also adored the Sir Lancelot cocktail, a mint julep cousin made with cherry-infused Ol’ Grandad. The wine list won’t bowl anyone over, but there’s plenty of affordable bottles and lots of $10 by-the-glass offerings. In short, you can have an excellent, affordable meal here, complete with cheerful service. I’m so glad Holley is back.
I’m also glad Caswell is back with Reef, which he reopened in the same space this summer after a number of challenges and setbacks. Trouble has followed the 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist. In October, shortly after Reef’s opening, Caswell’s other restaurant, Montrose Tex-Mex favorite El Real, suddenly shuttered; although they were eventually paid, some workers’ final checks were delayed. It’s clear there’s been a lot on Caswell’s mind. Perhaps that’s why so far, I’ve found his classic Gulf seafood spot to be inconsistent.
There are stunners to be had here. The seafood and andouille sausage gumbo—full of big, earthy flavors, yet somehow light—is a marvel, as is the collard green pie, greens inside a flaky pie crust with an artful swipe of garlic aioli and fresh herb salad. The delicately fried crispy oysters, served with a snappy radish salad, are excellent, as is a crudo showcasing cured Gulf cobia belly, served with bright cucumber water.
Other items disappointed when I tried them. The popular Crab Fat & Dough—a whole crab baked into a loaf of bread—was undercooked, and, oddly, I couldn’t taste the crab. The subtly smoky, perfectly cooked double-cut pork chop, while excellent, came with a puzzling side of field peas and Napa cabbage. And a dessert of berries and cream was tantalizing, until our server poured an avalanche of limoncello cream over top. It was too much.
The restaurant itself has been redone in a dramatic black and gold motif, with a soundtrack of electronic music. I find the more casual 3rd Bar to be more inviting than the dining room, and I plan to try it out the next time I visit. I’m looking forward to it: Reef is still working out the kinks in its new iteration, but with his focus now on this one restaurant, maybe Caswell will recapture the old magic. There's certainly a chance.
Editor’s note: On Nov. 25, Reef closed permanently, shortly after this issue had gone to press.
Kyle Teas has kept to what he knows with Eugene’s, which he named for his father. Open as of this summer in the old Mockingbird Bistro space in Montrose, the place feels like it’s been there forever, which is driven home by its vintage decor, stately bar, and black-and-white family photos, which came over from Danton’s. The decidedly old-school service, courtesy of pros in black bowties, adds to the feeling.
The menu is mostly unchanged from the one at Danton’s, and that feels right. Start your night with a selection of baked oysters—get the tasso version dotted with smoky house-made ham; the Jonny, topped with crab and basil-spinach sauce; and the mouthwatering Montrose, topped with crab and garlic butter. A new appetizer of pimiento cheese dip is also worth ordering.
It’s hard to go wrong with anything here, but menu standouts include the rainbow trout in a light, crunchy pecan crust; sides of hearty red beans and rice or okra and tomatoes; and Jonny’s Dessert, a fresh, sweet, and rich combination of cheesecake and key lime pie that makes for a most excellent treat.
Holley, Caswell, and Teas are beloved in Houston for a reason, and our food scene is all the better now that they’re back. Here’s hoping the lights stay on at their new restaurants for a long time to come.