“Presumptuous” was the word that came to mind when I saw Roost restaurant’s Twitter handle back when it opened last December.
@ILoveRoost? Really? It felt a little like being asked by a waiter, “Is everything delicious?”
Of course that was before I passed through the door of chef Kevin Naderi’s little bistro on Fairview Street, only to be disarmed by the world within. Despite its name, Roost is less of an aerie than a snug Hobbit burrow crossed with a mid-20th century basement rec room, exposed ductwork, painted concrete columns and all. It’s a low-ceilinged stage set for a teenage dance party from back in the days when music involved records made of vinyl.
Dark Venetian blinds cut the sun from the southern exposure, and workaday linoleum covers the floor. Buff colored linens lend a retro feel. An ingenious patchwork of ancient wooden shutters runs every which way across the back wall, which opens through windows to the kitchen and a small bar.
Squint and that wall looks like the facade of a vintage Mexican beach joint. When chef Naderi breezes by in cargo shorts and flip flops, the effect is perfect, the message clear: we’re not standing on restaurant ceremony here.
With food this good and this personal, Naderi and his small, friendly service team don’t need to. Roost reeled me in from my first bite of roasted cauliflower and never let me go.
Yes, cauliflower, of all things: tightened and concentrated by the roasting process, clad in an earthy/salty miso dressing, and crowned with a translucent thicket of bonito flakes that waved in the rising eddies of heat as if they were alive. I stared in childlike wonder at the undulating shards of dried mackerel until the action died down, then competed with my dining companion for every last bite.
Like many of the young Houston chefs who’ve grown up feasting on Houston’s wildly multicultural buffet, the 27-year-old Naderi regards Asian flavors and textures as his birthright, right along with the Persian influences from his family background and the Gulf Coast traditions that form the base of our city’s cuisine.
So he feels as free to send out a vegetarian version of an Indian rogan josh curry as he does a Japanese-inflected cauliflower dish, or a deftly fried quail that perches, crunchy and bursting with juices, atop a serious lard biscuit with peppered cream gravy and a swizzle of reduced cane syrup.
That quail costs only $12, and it’s one of nine smaller plates the menu designates as “to share ... or not.” Which makes this one of those young-Turk menus that refuses to steer diners in the direction of a conventional three-course meal. (Think Underbelly and Triniti, among others.) It’s a laissez-faire approach to menu writing and construction that drives some diners crazy, and it does take a visit or two to get a sense of how a meal at these restaurants works.
It’s worth the practice. I could easily eat the quail as an entree (and I have), preceded by a simple and effective salad plate of creamy burrata cheese, sharp arugula greens and a ripe local tomato with a basil dressing. Just as good a first course would be the cool, crisp wedge of iceberg with an ranch dressing that fairly bounces with black pepper and tartness, set off by a dice of red tomato and good smoky bacon.
Even bread functions as a first course here. You pay for it — six dollars, in fact — and what you get in return is a loaf or two of whatever the excellent Slow Dough bakers have furnished the restaurant, along with your choice of two flavored butters.
Last week the bread was the slender mini-baguettes called ficelles — three of them — with a crust that snapped and crackled, and a moist, dense interior crumb. I loved the red-chile warmth of the Sriracha butter, although the smoked-bacon butter came on too salty. But here’s the deal: I would much rather pay for good bread and butter than take my chances on the not-so-good bread and butter many restaurants offer for free.
And overall, the prices at Roost seem more than fair. Eighteen bucks for a brilliantly spare treatment of Gulf almaco jack, a sturdy amberjack relative seared so that its large flake remains dewy, then served with a yogurt-and cucumber tzatziki sauce, a hothouse tomato and a ribbon of Texas olive oil? That’s a deal.
The fish dish revolves with the day’s catch, and it’s representative of the clean, well-edited flavors and textures Naderi achieves on his short menu, which changes every month or so according to what the season brings.
There’s a simple confidence to Naderi’s food that’s very appealing. It shows in the rosy roasted duck breast thrown into high relief by a panzanella salad reinvented with rye croutons, beets and a jumpy sweet-and-sour dressing. It’s obvious, too, in a beautifully fried tempura softshell crab, popping with sea juice and running rampant over a tumble of sesame-spiked Asian slaw, a daily special that could compete with the finest softshells in town. A less sure-footed chef might have felt compelled to add a sauce; Naderi knew himself (and his crab) well enough to let the herbal and root-vegetable slaw speak for itself.
And my hat is off to the scallop dish on the current menu. I’m not a big scallop fan, but I make an exception for these fat, seared specimens set on an Asian-style porridge, or congee, made of steel-cut oats. The housemade XO sauce — in which red chile and soy and mirin and fermented black bean come together to galvanize the whole dish — makes it really special, and the dark-green bitter note of mizuna leaves gives it all a clean, vegetal lift. It’s brilliant.
Aside from that very salty bacon butter, I’ve had exactly two dishes here that failed to please. One was a too-runny chicken-liver mousse appetizer served with ill-matched parsley oil in a glass jar, which made it maddeningly hard to get at. The second was a promising but flawed dessert of doughnut holes with coffee ice cream, dulce de leche (puro Houston!) and crushed pistachios (puro Persia!). It would have been swell had the doughnut holes not been soggy and heavy at their cores, as if they had not been thoroughly fried.
I have no further objections, save a hope that with time and success and cash flow the reasonably priced wine list might expand a bit, since the by-the-glass choices are on the sketchy side right now.
I’m even OK with the no-reservations policy. Roost is just that kind of democratic neighborhood place, and if the tables fill up to the 50-or-so-person capacity by 7 p.m. — which they do — well, there are outdoor picnic tables at which to drink a little wine and admire the last of a classic Montrose view as the posh mega-townhouses close in.
So yeah, @ILoveRoost. It turns out the presumption was all mine.
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.