Tris brings true destination dining to The Woodlands.
The Korean butter poached crab on a kimchi pancake is the No. 1 seller.
Chef Simmons' cuisine is globally inspired, but never fusion.
Tris boasts a casual, business-centric lunch service and an upscale, intimate dinner service.
Chef Simmons' desserts are familiar, with flair.
Chef Austin Simmons
Tris serves up an unbeatable steak board.
Tris is one of The Woodlands' true fine dining restaurant pioneers.
Tris' menu is inspired by the chef's trips across the world.
Tris is all about the experience.
Thai flavors are a chef Simmons favorite.
It’s 11 am on a Tuesday, and Tris in The Woodlands is already getting packed. This is not a brand new restaurant on Waterway Avenue, per se. It’s the streamlined, upscale and transformed Hubbell & Hudson Bistro.
Sure, you’ll find some tributes to the original here and there — here’s looking at you, lobster bisque — but overall, Tris is an all-new experience with an elevated, refined menu that puts an emphasis on seafood. And then there’s Cureight, the avant garde, tasting-menu-only restaurant within the restaurant.
“Tris stands for something different than what Hubbell & Hudson stood for,” executive chef Austin Simmons tells PaperCity. “Tris has a philosophy of service and cuisine curated by our team. It stands for integrity, redefined service and food. To me, that’s what makes it so different.”
Simmons considers his new menu the next level up from what it was before. In the place of Hubbell & Hudson’s classic crab cake in beurre blanc, you’ll find the chef’s prized Korean butter poached crab on a kimchi pancake — his house-made kimchi is his favorite ingredient.
You’ll also find tonkatsu miso ramen, bone marrow with bacon jam and chives, foie gras with blood orange and truffle, and Texas exotic venison with a mushroom tart and apple pernod.
Simmons himself goes on the hunts for the exotic venison with the hunters. Tomorrow, it’s West Texas.
Other days, he’s off to his ranch in South Texas to shoot white tail — all these wild animals raised and harvested the right way, no GMO corn, no feeding lots.
It’s this attention to detail that makes Tris stand out in a Woodlands dining scene that is still largely upscale chain dependent.
Simmons sits at the long table inside one of Tris’ dining rooms, his back to black and white portrait after black and white portrait of Tris’ employees lining the back wall. “Really, it’s the team that’s done it,” he notes.
One of the major differences comes in the distinct approaches to lunch and dinner service. At Hubbell & Hudson, the same menu extended from afternoon hours into the evening.
At Tris, lunch service is geared toward the business crowd, all about high quality dishes in a casual setting that come out of the kitchen quickly to get people back to work on time.
For dinner, the white tablecloths come out. It’s more intimate.
“It’s a little more romantic, if you will. A little more finesse. We take our time,” Simmons says. “We’re the theater. It has just as much to do with the service as it does with the food.”
In redeveloping the menu, Simmons took a counterintuitive culinary approach that the community seems to have embraced.
“We pulled back to go forward. It’s interesting how pulling back really shot us forward,” the chef says.
Bringing the World Home
The simplistic, refined approach maintains Simmons’ flair for the global — thanks to recent trips to Singapore, Japan, Switzerland and France, where he stays for weeks at time cooking alongside local chefs.
“I cook with global flavor for sure. But I don’t fuse anything more. I stay true and try to pay homage to the culture of flavor I’m cooking in. I’m very methodical about how I make food now,” Simmons says.
He gives himself a margin of leeway when it comes to textures, though. “Maybe a textural element here and there, as long as it doesn’t change the flavor profile,” he says.
The chef offers up the Hamachi tostado as an example: the traditional Thai blend of Hamachi, shredded cabbage, peanuts, shaved onion and Serrano tossed in a Thai vinaigrette sits atop a crisp blue corn chip.
“I think the food really tells a story. Most of the bites have a beginning, middle and end. If your palate can discern it, if you really have a story in your bite — I think the best foods have that,” Simmons says.
The Korean crab may just be the best storyteller on the menu — outselling every other dish by three-to-one. “It’s dynamite. The sweetness of the crab plays against the sourness of the kimchi. (Chronicle food critic) Alison Cook called it ‘The crab cake of the 21st Century,’ ” Simmons says.
“I try to cook seafood that I like. I think that speaks volumes.” This chef grew up in a strictly no-seafood household.
“My mom wouldn’t touch it. I didn’t eat seafood for the first time until culinary school, when I was 18,” Simmons says. “I’ll never forget the first time I tried lobster. I called my mom and said, ‘Why haven’t we eaten this before? Can we talk about this?’ ”
The next dish to debut is the seafood meets Thailand’s tom yum soup. Simmons has created a riff on Thai fried rice — rice with tom yum broth to make it a little thicker, shrimp inside of that, and then hot salmon spoked inside the pit topping off the plate with some peanuts. For lunch, you’ll find the fried rice with pulled pork instead.
Meawhile, the Collaboreight dinner series at Cureight, served on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, are what Simmons calls thoughtful and progressive, a little more experimental with a little more manipulation of classic techniques.
But he doesn’t go for gimmicks. “We don’t make vegetable-centric tweezered food that looks like a caterpillar and tastes like nothing,” Simmons says.
And don’t expect tiny plates that leave your stomach rumbling.
“We’re not protein-centric, but you get value in our tasting menu. You’re not going to leave and go to Whataburger,” Simmons laughs. Examples from the eight-course menu include the 2018 Truffle Masters-award-winning grilled cheese, Akaushi tenderloin, king crab and blue crab ravioli.
It’s true destination dining in The Woodlands. Some restaurants are worth a little drive.