It has been probably the weirdest year of my existence. My wife and I have juggled our schedules to facilitate round-the-clock care of our children. I haven't interacted with many people beyond my immediate family. Heck, I haven't shaken hands with anyone in months. We're wearing masks and not doing the things we normally do (especially eating out regularly at restaurants). So I'm here for any feeling that lets me forget, even for an hour or two, that life is considerably different right now.
Bludorn is the antidote.
Raised in the Pacific Northwest, trained in the Bay Area and New York, and bringing with him a wealth of influences and touch points, Aaron Bludorn has arrived in Houston, and he has done so with a fully formed, highly oiled restaurant that, just three weeks into dinner service, feels like it's been around for years. It's breezy and bright; sexy and smooth; and more playful and comfortable than a young restaurant could ever dream of being.
Located in the Fourth Ward, Bludorn is set inside the former Pass & Provisions, but with a considerable overhaul. There's now one main dining room downstairs and a separate bar on the other side of a staircase. The dining room has classy blue banquettes, an open kitchen, and a raw bar. It buzzes all night while maintaining all the touches of a restaurant that opened during the Covid-19 pandemic: Its tables are set well apart, Plexiglas barriers maintain boundaries, and everyone on staff is hustling about in masks and holding menu-bearing tablets. Staff members, including major players who nearly all came to Houston this year from elsewhere, are snappy with smiles (general manager Cherif Mbodji seems to bounce around excitedly, setting the tone for the front of the house). It's thrilling just to watch them work.
In the kitchen Aaron Bludorn is already producing high-quality, finely executed plates, though that should be expected from someone whose mentor is Daniel Boulud. Thematically the chef is picking inspiration from across his life—there are items you'd find on menus in San Francisco and Seattle; lux proteins that make perfect sense in a French restaurant in New York City; and even some Greek splashes as a nod to the restaurant's co-owner and his wife, Victoria Bludorn, daughter of Chris Pappas.
What ties all the influences together is Bludorn's skill at bringing out the most natural expression of his spotlighted ingredients. The cioppino, a Bay Area specialty, is filled with Gulf clams, mussels, shrimp, and red snapper, which is bathing in an ocean-kissed tomato broth that tastes like two ingredients, salt water and ripe tomato. Chicken on a masterfully rich pea puree is served with crawfish and ham, and neither overpowers the succulent bird. The quail, a definite showstopper that's wrapped tight in bacon, is intensely meaty. A side blackberry sauce is there to add some subdued tart notes.
Raw bar items like oysters in every way (raw, fried, roasted) are sure to please, especially the wood-roasted beauties with watercress and Parmesan, making for an oysters Rockefeller worthy of 1930s New Orleans. A fresh tuna crudo with snappy melon makes a refreshing change of pace. Appetizers include a nicely fried squash blossom with ricotta, basil, and pepper jam.
But don't be shocked to find a constantly changing menu with special one-off dishes and more permanent insertions. If octopus (tender beyond belief) is on the menu ... get it. If your server wants to show off a basil-focused cocktail that he has made and hopes to get onto the list ... say yes. (The cocktail list at the moment showcases riffs on classics, like an old fashioned made with tequila and mezcal.) I imagine that you can return to Bludorn nightly and have a completely different experience each time, all filled with excitement and surprise.
Dessert from pastry chef Alejandra Salas, who was previously at Bar Boulud and The French Laundry, is often stunning. The headliner is baked Alaska, but her panna cotta is smooth and rich, punctuated by a big, bold melon gelato. If corn ice cream is on the board as a house offering, go for it; as with Bludorn's savory items, it's the most natural expression of the vegetable. (It's also served with house-made corn flakes and a snickerdoodle, for good measure.)
Salas will also try new things. For my visit she served a soufflé—the first time she's ever made one. It was quite good.
When I was at Bludorn, all the stress left and the focus turned to outstanding service, a vibe I had to instantly photograph and save for later, and food that made me appreciate a chef's technical prowess. Best yet, I had fun, and you're bound to have fun too.