prime time

Cafe Annie's Prime Room is Houston's latest fine dining experience

Cafe Annie's Prime Room is Houston's latest fine dining experience

Cafe Annie Prime Room prime rib and sides
The Prime Room's prime rib. Photo by Shannon O'hara
Cafe Annie Prime Room interior
The Prime Room's luxurious interior creates a sense of occasion. Photo by Shannon O'hara
Cafe Annie Prime Room oysters
East Coast oysters with creamy avocado and shishito pepper sauce. Photo by Shannon O'hara
Cafe Annie Prime Room prime rib and sides
Cafe Annie Prime Room interior
Cafe Annie Prime Room oysters

"Fine dining is back," Bloomberg proclaims, citing the rise of restaurants like Le Coucou in New York, and La Table in Houston (among others). Across the country, diners are embracing luxurious meals and throwback dishes.

In that environment, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Robert Del Grande — long hailed as one of Houston's most innovative chefs for his pioneering work developing Southwestern cuisine at Cafe Annie — is putting his own spin on the trend. On Friday, January 12, Del Grande opens the Prime Room, where he will serve a limited menu based around classic dishes.

The concept has undergone a few changes since Del Grande originally announced his plans in October. Most importantly, the menu is now a la carte rather than prix fixe. For its first incarnation, the Prime Room offers cold seafood as appetizers (raw oysters, smoked salmon, and shrimp cocktail, $18/each), and prime rib as its primary entree — available in either a 10- or 14-ounce cut ($30 or $45); salmon is also available ($28).

The sides have been expanded to six options ($10 to 14 each): asparagus with lemon and herbs; sauteed spinach with garlic; whipped potatoes 'aligot'; carrots with ginger honey; roasted mushrooms glazed with steak sauce; and broccolini with olive oil, garlic, and lemon. Diners can finish the meal with one of three desserts. Del Grande explained why he decided to start with prime rib on a recent episode of CultureMap's "What's Eric Eating" podcast:

"We've done it every New Year's Eve for as long as I can remember," Del Grande says. "The only problem with prime rib, and why it's [only] in the Prime Room is, it's very hard to do it for a large room. It needs something smaller around it. I thought we'd start there: prime rib and oysters. They're two things you try to leave alone the best you can."

The restaurant's entrance has been shifted slightly, to create the Prime Room as a distinct space that's adjacent to the staircase. Candice Schiller, the wife of Del Grande's business partner Lonnie Schiller, designed the space with red and gold banquettes, olive drapes for privacy, and new wall art.

Overall, the design creates supper club vibe — particularly during Thursday night's preview dinner — which was attended by friends of the restaurant including Neal Hamil, who dined with Rhine McNeill; Roxane WitteMike Bloom; and Debbie and Rudy Festari, who hosted Astros Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwellcand his wife, Rachel. Also in attendance were Randall Davis, Michael Hawash, Mickey Altman, and Lizzie and Dee Sullivan.

The room's upscale look gets service to match. Each course arrives on a rolling cart. Servers pour soup and sauces as part of their presentations. It feels very posh, which is sort of the point.

"What is dining? Well, it's about 30 percent food and 70 percent ambience. It's all about the totality of the experience," Del Grande added in a statement. "Sometimes when you recount your favorite meal, it has a lot to do with the surrounds, so the new Prime Room space is really designed to harness great energy. We just want people to experience an outstanding meal paired with great wine and even greater people."

Del Grande has committed to the menu through at least the beginning of May, but it will change eventually. Fried chicken is one possibility. Houston's sudden cold snap makes hearty meals more appealing, and few dishes offer the same comfort as prime rib. Why not treat yourself?