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A new Houston restaurant wants to shake up Midtown's party happy scene

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Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 Angry Birds
The angry birds appetizer plays to Cook & Collins strength of combining sweet and spicy.  Photo by © Kim Coffman/Cook & Collins
Cook & Collins chef holding steak on a plate January 2014
Cook & Collins chef Josh Shobe shows off the restaurant's brown butter-topped ribeye.  Photo by Jack Tyler
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 oyster Rockefeller fondue with spinach, bacon, tobasco crumbs and flatbread
The oyster rockefeller appetizer combines fried oysters with a cheesy spinach dip.  Photo by © Kim Coffman/Cook & Collins
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 sign
Signs like this one adorn the walls.  Photo by © Kim Coffman/Cook & Collins
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 party fowl flatbread with duck leg, candied bacon, pickled shitake, bleu cheese and arugula
One of the flatbreads is named party fowl due to its combination of duck, candied bacon, pickled shitake mushrooms, bleu cheese and arugula Photo by © Kim Coffman/Cook & Collins
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 interior at night
A look inside the dining room.  Photo by Eric Sandler
1 Cook & Collins Houston tasting January 2014 bar
There's a bar for diners to sit at, but Cook & Collins is definitely a restaurant.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 Angry Birds
Cook & Collins chef holding steak on a plate January 2014
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 oyster Rockefeller fondue with spinach, bacon, tobasco crumbs and flatbread
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 sign
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 party fowl flatbread with duck leg, candied bacon, pickled shitake, bleu cheese and arugula
Cook & Collins Houston January 2014 interior at night
1 Cook & Collins Houston tasting January 2014 bar

Midtown suddenly has a new-look restaurant.

Cook & Collins opened this week in the former El Patio/Xuco Xicana space on Brazos. The restaurant, a product of the IronCress hospitality group that's an offshoot from the owners of 3rd Floor, Pub Fiction and Crisp, is designed to be a casual neighborhood restaurant that serves classic comfort food. The restaurant is open everyday with brunch on the weekends.

Hours are reasonable, with Cook & Collins closing by 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, to distinguish it from the bars that dominate Midtown's scene.   

"For me to keep making Midtown the single best neighborhood (in Houston), it needs more restaurants," co-owner Michael Paolucci told CultureMap in October. With Reef, Sparrow and Ibiza, Midtown doesn't lack for high-profile destinations, but when it comes to getting a good salad for lunch or a simple steak for dinner, the pickings are kind of thin.

 "For me to keep making Midtown the single best neighborhood (in Houston), it needs more restaurants." 

Cook & Collins aims to change that with a menu full of familiar flavors presented in new ways built from ingredients that are mostly local (and listed on the menu).

At a recent preview, Paolucci, chef partner Jared Estes (from Crisp), general manager Donny Salvato and executive chef Josh Shobe showed off the new space. The change from its time as a Tex-Mex restaurant is dramatic. The restaurant feels like an upscale diner thanks to the blond wood, overstuffed banquets and subway tiles.

While the restaurant will likely want to turn tables, the staff may discover diners prefer to linger over dessert or a final cocktail just to enjoy the atmosphere.

First Taste

As for the food, it's more of a mixed bag. The menu's strengths are the dishes that combine sweet and spicy flavors such as the Angry Birds fried chicken appetizer and the Pig Popper flatbread. Less successful were dishes that employed seafood.

Fried mac and cheese can be a winner, but Cook & Collins adds crab meat that winds up coming out mushy, with the crab's sweetness lost in mix of batter, cheese and noodles. The mix of chili, mustard and fried egg for the Red Eye Fries simply didn't come together.

 It's reasonable to think Cook & Collins will improve to solidly better than average and become successful.  

Of the entrees, our group most enjoyed the brown butter-topped ribeye steak and the crispy fried chicken that's served with braised greens and mashed potatoes. The kitchen runs into trouble when it tries to extend itself, as in the not-quite-chowder seafood pot pie or an overcooked pork porterhouse with a too-sweet apple cider reduction.

I was mostly too full for dessert, but the pink lemonade ice box pie had a nice sweet/tart balance that I'd go back to try again. A friend raved about the butterscotch pudding jar, but I didn't get the chance to try it. 

"This is all pretty average," one diner commented to me as the meal wrapped up. I thought it was a little better than that, and I think brand new restaurants deserve the benefit of the doubt. Execution will likely get better with practice, and recipes will be tweaked to match diners' tastes. 

Given the ownership's track record of success, it's reasonable to think Cook & Collins will improve to solidly better than average and become successful. After all, the neighborhood needs a casual, everyday restaurant, and this team understands Midtown well.

But, please, ditch the crab in the fried mac & cheese.  

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