I was surprised to find myself eating quinoa and liking it — no, make that loving it — at Backstreet Cafe last Monday.
The ancient Andean grain has become trendy in Houston’s better class of restaurants, yet it is not always well-handled. But chef Hugo Ortega’s team at Backstreet had done quinoa up proud for their weekly Meatless Monday prix-fixe, a three-course meal priced at a modest $30, with $5 going as a donation to Urban Harvest, the nonprofit that runs several of the city’s best-known farmers markets.
Roasted to a deep, pitch-perfect nuttiness and spring, the high-protein quinoa grains made a compelling backdrop for shaved cauliflower, soft sweet leeks and smoked mushrooms, all from area farms and procured from Urban Harvest markets over the weekend. For the first time ever, I could see how quinoa might rival meat as the centerpiece of a dish. I polished off every last earthy grain.
The other two courses of my prix fixe were just as good. A half artichoke had been steamed and served with a sunny lemon aioli, its bottom portion meaty and luxurious. A dessert of an individual almond cake made with heavy cream from local Way Back When Dairy emerged with its crust deeply caramelized and a rivetting shot of kumquat marmalade on the side.
The meal was a triumph, and an indication that under co-owners Tracy Vaught and Ortega — who last week was named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest Award — the 29-year-old restaurant is one of those classic institutions that evolves rather than sliding into comfortable stasis. That’s admirable, and rarer than I’d like it to be: in the course of revisiting many prominent Houston restaurants recently, I found such old favorites as Mockingbird Bistro and Shade caught up in menu torpor and kitchen bobbles.
Backstreet is not free from kitchen bobbles, itself, but the restaurant that made a name for itself with comfortable Not-so-new American bistro standards and a beloved walled patio has slowly turned itself into a place known for more than its popular Sunday brunch.
Wine and spirits guru Sean Beck has made the beverage program a model of excellence, with thoughtful cocktails and a lively wine list that always promises something interesting and new, even by the glass.
Ortega and Vaught’s embrace of local farmers’ markets has transformed Backstreet into the most vegetarian-friendly mainstream restaurant in the city, with lots of appealing choices (not the usual pro forma tokens) and gluten-free options as well.
They’ve made the place user-friendly with continuous service seven days a week, without a break between lunch and dinner. And to generate a sense of seasonal excitement, they’ve instituted four sub-menus a year, printed separately, that are devoted to a single right-this-minute ingredient.
Currently that ingredient is artichokes, mostly sourced from Atkinson Farm and prepared every which way. Some of these which ways are better than others. I found the artichoke pot pie flabby-crusted and bland; and a half artichoke stuffed with whole grilled shrimp and (undetectable) bread crumbs seemed unfocussed and gloppy with butter sauce.
And yet: I am still thinking about the brilliant “Artichoke Cocktail,” a riff on a Campechana bristling with avocado and radish and sparky green-chilied tomato, with meaty young artichoke hearts subbing for the usual seafood. I bow down to the spectacularly light-on-its-feet artichoke fritto misto, with an assortment of late-winter and spring vegetables that were deftly fried and finished off with a couple of crisped lemon slices.
That’s the thing about Backstreet: when it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad it is just sort of meh.
For the most part, Backstreet’s cooking doesn’t approach the clean vivid flavors and well-edited focus of chef Ortega’s food at his flagship, Hugo’s, where he elaborates on the cuisine of his native Mexico.
At Backstreet I sometimes find myself longing for just a jot of acid to perk up the flavors of an otherwise glorious farro, beet, orange and feta salad, say (another example of the grain dishes Ortega and company do so well). Or to liven up a too-timid hollandaise on an otherwise admirable brunch dishes of fresh artichoke-based Eggs Benedict; or to give a little jump-start to a monochromatic brown field of Mixed Grains and Deeply Roasted Vegetables that comes close to being a lovely dish.
Similarly, I might wish for a little more capsaicin top-spin in the chile glaze of my flatiron steak, and just a little less connective tissue. (Although nobody could argue with the pure classicism of the accompanying gratin of mac and cheese.) I could lament that the fish in my New Orleansy “Sustainable Courtbouillon” was something more bycatchy than boring old snapper, and that the snapper itself was not so overcooked it cancelled out the frisky, worcestershire-tinged heat of the tomato stew/sauce. I could complain (and I have) that the lobster in the awkward Crispy Lobster Sandwich really does not want to be fried and jumbled together with fried onion rings and mayo, thwarting its delicacy.
But what I come back to is the pleasures, large and small, of a well-run restaurant that keeps putting little surprises up its sleeve. A sprawling “cat-head” biscuit brunch sandwich with tight-textured country ham and a fried egg; or a lush lamb stew, laced with fingerlings and bronzed soft eggplant and jumpy piquillo peppers. In its resonance and authority, this stew is reminiscent of the braises Ortega does at Hugo’s.
If only the desserts lived up to the ones that Hugo’s brother, Ruben Ortega, does for Hugo’s. Only that one-off almond cake held my attention. The crème brûlée on a mini-dessert trio was unpleasantly scorchy, the chocolate items just sort of there, and the cunning (but unseasonal) pumpkin doughnut holes with mascarpone dip lacking depth of flavor.
Whatever the defects here — and they are not major — it is refreshing to see a comfortable neighborhood restaurant that keeps challenging itself when it could skate along on the path of least resistance. Honor is due.
1103 S. Shepherd;
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.