Comfort: Beignets and cheese
Shrimp and pork and greens at Ritual restaurant.
It really began with the hush puppies. Our cocktails were agreeable — the French 125 a big hit — and we had decided to share a few plates. I was dining with a couple who had hosted a Brockhaus dinner, and we were at the restaurant because of their invitation. They had been to the place once before, and told me they liked it, and thought I would, too. I did, especially those hush puppies and the greens on the Turf & Surf. The former are made with sourdough, and are lightly bathed with jalapeño jelly, served in a coffee cup lined with butcher paper, an eye-pleasing appetizer. Moist, hot, tender, nice juxtaposition between the crispy exterior texture and the dense (in a good way) interior. I’ve eaten more than my fair share of these things, and other than my grandmother’s and a basket of them I had years ago in North Carolina, these are the best I’ve put in my mouth.
We were at Ritual, in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, a fairly new establishment that’s part of the Delicious Brands group (Pinks Pizza, Lola, among others). Its masculine interior — wood and brick, glass garage doors — is welcoming, and the bar was full of singles and groups enjoying pints or cocktails. It was a Tuesday evening, and as our second appetizer arrived the place suddenly grew more crowded. We admired the look of the Granbury Gold Cheese Skillet. Green tomato chutney, roasted pecans, pretzel beignets, and brown butter sugar, plus Granbury Gold cheese from Texas. The beigets are dusted with a cheese (think Pecorino or Parmigiano), and these components are meant to be together. You get saltiness, richness from the cheese and brown butter sugar, the chutney brings a wonderful acidity. We took turns dipping the beignets in the concoction and our table grew silent. (Tip: Make sure you use a spoon to scrape up the layer of cheese that adheres to the bottom of the skillet; do not leave it behind.) Another tip: Get to know, if you don’t already, Houston Dairymaids; Ritual gets some of its cheeses from the well-stocked fromagerie.
Our bottle of 2013 Cristom Pinot Noir was opened and poured — Ritual’s wine list is full of value — and after a democratic vote we decided on the Turf & Surf and the Beef Butcher’s Steak. (Ritual is dedicated to selecting Texas products when possible, and those of you familiar with Black Hill Ranch and Felix Florez will be happy to know that his pork is used here.) The turf and surf plate (grilled pork steak, Nola barbecued shrimp & Gulf oysters, JC rice grits, southern greens, as the menu reads) looks the part, but I found the shrimp to be overcooked. The pork, however, more than made up for that, and the greens sang. Salt, acid, that magical and good bitterness that is difficult to achieve: they had all that. I found myself wanting a bowl of them, and would have happily sat there for another hour enjoying them. The oysters? Fine, as were the roux and grits. But the greens overshadowed them.
We shared everything, and the beef was our next course. Heartiness is the operative word here. Large fries (crisp and hot), and you’ll eagerly dip them into the rosemary aioli that comes on the plate. And the meat, which comes in two forms: spinalis (rib eye cap), and tenderloin, both Brangus. Transglutaminase (also known as meat glue) is used to fuse two pieces of spinalis together, and the two cuts of beef are arranged roulade-style, the spinalis wrapped around the tenderloin. The onions and peppercorn marrow glaze served on the beef was a touch too salty, but several bites of the beef were just right: full of flavor, tender and rich, and the aioli I especially liked with it.
We declined dessert, instead lingering over the wine. Ritual is up to something good, and it’s on my return-engagement list.