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.
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.