Washington Avenue is making a comeback. After a wave of closings in 2014, the street seems poised for a revival.
Already, newcomers like Urban Eats and Big Eyed Fish are providing area residents with new dining options, but since Coppa Ristorante's closure in October, the area still lacks a true destination restaurant.
That omission may soon be corrected — if chef Michael Sanguinetti achieves his goals. Formerly the executive chef at upscale Midtown destination Artisans, Sanguinetti has plans to open two new concepts that are designed to hold their own with Houston's best restaurants. First up is Commonwealth, an upscale-casual restaurant built around interactive dining experiences that will open by the end of January in the former TQLA space. Black Orchid, a cocktail lounge that will also feature a nightly tasting menu, will follow in April. (Eater first reported on the concepts.)
"On the upscale end, you’ll get the high level of food, the attention to detail, the level of service that you get in an upscale place, but it is not going to be uptight."
While diners will have to wait a bit longer to evaluate the the chef's skills, he doesn't lack for ambition. "When someone says 'Hey, let’s go Washington Avenue, where do you want to eat?' When they list three places, I want ours to be two of them," Sanguinetti tells CultureMap.
Having worked at the decidedly fine dining Artisans, Sanguinetti wants Commonwealth to set a different tone.
"At Artisans, it was a little bit expensive, price wise," he says. "I want to go for a price point, but at a quality that blows your mind. Where I can see my friends two or three times a week, but it won’t burn through their pocketbooks.
"On the upscale end, you’ll get the high level of food, the attention to detail, the level of service that you get in an upscale place, but it is not going to be uptight. More of a place where we’ll have the same staff all the time, and the customers will know them. An energetic place that will be the center of Washington Avenue."
City Changing Dining?
The chef rejects calling Commonwealth's menu shareable plates but does concede the restaurant will feature large entrees that are designed to be split between two or more people. Interactive elements such as tableside preparations will add to the atmosphere. Prices will run between $14 and $22 for lunch, with per person dinners ranging from $30 to $50, depending on how lavish someone feels on any given evening. Sanguinetti's cuisine will blend his various professional experiences and the food he likes to eat.
"I would say it’s a French base but with Asian influences, mainly Korean and Japanese, with a lot of Cajun flavors," he says. "I’m taking my French base and taking everything I like about the other cuisines I’ve cooked in, that I’ve experienced, and putting those flavors into a very structured system and brightening them or twisting them enough to just give it a little touch . . .
"For example, I have a great dish. I poach a grouper in a garlic olive oil. Then I use kimchi to cut that fat."
"I want to compete with the Underbellys and the Oxhearts and push the cuisine to that level."
Bartender Andrew Grala will create the cocktails. Sommelier Kenneth Lounge worked with Sanguinetti at Artisans. He's fresh off a year in France to guide the 60 bottle wine list. Executive sous chef Kelly Alsobrook will also handle pastries.
Turning to Black Orchid, the chef describes it as "more of a lounge" than Commonwealth. Smaller than its sibling, Black Orchid will seat 40 to 50 inside with a 30-person patio.
"I want it to be up there with Anvil and Julep. The food will be more refined. You’re not going to go in there to eat a full meal, unless you’re sitting down for a tasting menu that I’ll create daily," Sanguinetti says.
He's still working on details on courses and pricing, but expect Black Orchid to serve seven or eight courses plus snacks for a price that starts around $75 or $80 with beverage pairings available.
The nightly tasting menu will allow Sanguinetti to flex his creative muscles, and he has grand ambitions for what he hopes to achieve. My goal in life is to work towards a Michelin star, even though we don’t have a rating in Houston," he says. "I want to compete with the Underbellys and the Oxhearts and push the cuisine to that level."
Although he's only lived in Houston for three-and-a-half years, Sanguinetti is bullish on the city's future as a culinary destination.
"When people to come Houston, more than anything else, other than NASA, I want them to think about food," he says. "We need to come together as a restaurant family, even if it’s just inside 610. If we all work together to push, we can compete, or even outshine, New York, Chicago, LA and San Francisco. We have enough talented guys here.
"Then we’ll start seeing an influx of great chefs. That’s where I want Houston to go."
Whether Sanguinetti's execution matches his ambition remains to be seen, obviously. Still, more restaurants in Houston with aspirations to be known across the country (as Oxheart and Underbelly are) can only push the city's dining scene forward.