Somewhere between the short-rib samosas and the Rockefeller-esque oysters baked with sag paneer, I decided the Queen Vic Pub and Kitchen had the most entertaining menu of the year. Everywhere I looked — and nearly everywhere I tasted — big fun was to be had.
Starting with the Bullet Naan, the domed bronze landscape of this Indian flatbread high and mighty and glossed with ghee. On top? The splendid Houston 2010 conceit of Berkshire bacon pieces in a supercharged scatter of green chile and garlic and cilantro. All four triangles disappeared in a flash, as exhilarating as they were clever.
That sums up the Queen Vic’s Anglo-Indian kitchen when it’s running smoothly, which isn’t always. The 3-month-old establishment qualifies as a real gastropub, where the food is serious, without having to brand itself that way, but it’s young and uneven still.
The deep-frying can be dismal. (Beware the fish & chips, which arrived in a poufy soft batter that merged right into mushy fish.) Occasionally the salt levels and even the chile heat can be jacked up too high, which may very well increase consumption of all the enticing craft brews the pub has on tap. When a capacity crowd is on hand, as it was on a recent Saturday night, the kitchen may send out a clunker such as forbiddingly dry lamb vindaloo, or a coconut-sauced Goan prawn and crab curry that sounded so fetching and tasted so cloying and bland.
None of which keeps me from loving the place. The highs seem so vividly expressive of the city we live in — so smart about weaving together disparate ethnic strains and local predilections — that I feel sure it will only get better as it settles in.
Already the pleasant narrow terrace overlooking Richmond, just west of Kirby, is one of my favorite spots to relax in our mild winter weather. It’s a fine perch for those sag-paneer-topped oysters from the bar menu, or for downy late-afternoon “tea sandwiches” that have their crusts daintily removed but manage to have a heft and swagger that would please a Texan. Stand-up pimento cheese with Texas cheddar? Gently curried egg salad with baby arugula? I could eat a flock of them and fully intend to do so, if and when the Queen Vic gets around to serving lunch.
Co-owner and chef Shiva Patel says she plans to, eventually. She launched Queen Vic with her fiance, Richard Di Virgilio, the guy behind the charming Oporto wine bar, where Portuguese tapas are the thing. The couple has managed to re-create Oporto’s warm, relaxed neighborhood feel in this long slot of a building, which is set perpendicular to Richmond and easy to miss. Dark wood, brick, oxidized mirrors and a swath of rich burgundy, damask-patterned wallpaper (the motif of the year in Houston restaurants) has wrought an instant pub homage with a sense of humor. Just try not to smile at the two baby chandeliers glittering over the high bar tables; or at the down-the-rabbithole Tudor effect of the hallway to the restrooms.
The menu has the same playful effect. I laughed out loud one evening when my Indian-kebab burger arrived at my terrace table right around dusk, as I was finishing my Indian-inflected Rittenhouse rye cocktail. Clasped between two pillowy rounds of naan was a fat patty of ground lamb secured with a toothpicked cherry tomato, so that the whole thing looked like some subcontinental ceremonial hat from the 19th century.
It was spectacular to eat, too, shedding juices all over the place, squishing with raita and tomato chutney, singing with warm spices and chile heat. Some Texas blue goat cheese capped things off, and a silver cupful of excellent fresh-cut fries made it one of the best burger ensembles in town.That’s pub food done with freshness and ingenuity.
So is the medium-sized heap of Three-Chile and Cashew Paneer, the roasted chunks of farmer’s cheese tossed with hot, brick-red curry and a crunch of onion and green pepper. You need a $3 order of regular naan to eat with this, and — preferably —at least one of Patel’s sprightly chutneys. Want to sample them all? You can opt for the “chutney flight” (perhaps my favorite new phrase of the year), which might include small pots of a sweetish tomato neem jam; sweet-sour tamarind with a wild, deep twinge to it; sharply herbal cilantro kicked with salt; and a notion of the day that might be a green-pea-and-mint mash or an amusing guacamole rubble with tropical notes.
My only complaint about the chutneys is the servings are too small for me. The tamarind version in particular, which is great with everything from naan to French fries, runs out so fast I’m resigned to just ordering two or three of them on every visit, right off the bat. I advise you to do the same. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried fine French fries with tamarind chutney.
The chutneys are also crucial go-alongs for Patel’s samosas. The small turnovers have a harder, thinner, more uniform crust than I usually prefer, but the fillings are so emphatic, from the lushly spiced shortribs to ground lamb laced with sweet potato, that I count myself a fan. I could sit at the bar with a half pint of Lagunitas IPA, then Green Flash IPA, then 512 IPA — each one better than the last —and make a supper of those samosas.
I could just as easily dine solely on the plump mussels in a riveting green sauce with the racy tartness of cilantro chutney, accompanied by a broad slice of grilled bread with which to sop up the juices. It’s a thrilling dish.
Yet if I wanted to sit at my leisure with friends over a longer dinner, Queen Vic can go that way, too. The unclad tables are pooled with enough incandescent light that you can appreciate the visual charms of a tandoor-roasted whole branzino, say, slashed so that buttery warm spices seep into the dewy flesh. That’s a difficult dish to pull off, due to the high temperatures of the clay oven. Honor is due.
The branzino was one of the interesting nightly specials, along with a “Sunday roast” of thin-sliced, bone-in ribeye seasoned with coriander and rosemary, a little Indian and a little English. I loved the beef’s exotic savor and pleasantly fibrous texture. And its accompaniments were smart, too, from bacon-laced Brussels sprouts to mushroom bread pudding (good, if a bit too scorchy) to a brilliant kachumber-style salad of marinated cucumber, red onion and pomegrantate seeds. It was something a steak-and-potatoes guy could love, or a sworn foodie, too.
My only disappointment on the specials front was a boring sausage-type kebab of ground venison and pork. Nothing wrong with it — just no particular excitement, either. And I felt frustrated anew by the tiny size of the accompaniments serveware, as I would have liked twice as much mango raita to liven the dish.
Major dinner options aside, I think I’ll end up using Queen Vic more for a quick, galvanizing light meal at the long, welcoming bar, or out on the inviting terrace. I can imagine myself dispatching the Queen’s Curry, a Scotch Eggs fantasy of hardboiled egg halves swathed in spicy lamb, deep-fried and moored in a plush red-curry bed. The dish hot and multidimensional and altogether winning.
Or I might go for an order of naan and some Guajillo Chicken Tikka Masala, a Texas-Indian hybrid that worked wonderfully well the night I tried it. In a certain peckish mood, I might sup solely on the cauliflower gratin, a comforting casserole involving mashed potatoes and Texas cheddar. Don’t miss it.
There is so much promise at the Queen Vic that I hope they’ll rise above the kitchen blips, the occasional service lags (they’re nice, but understaffed when it’s busy), the parking hassles (supplemental spaces can be found at the animal clinic next door). I want this place to be around for a long time.
Due to a technical error, an earlier version of this review omitted the last nine paragraphs
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Queen Vic Pub and Kitchen