Grace's, the new comfort restaurant from Kirby empresario Johnny Carrabba, opened quietly to the public. The restaurant marks a move away from Italian food for Carrabba, which is named after his grandmother and inspired by the variety of dishes she used to prepare for Carrabba and his family.
Walking in through the double doors to the hostess stand, one immediately becomes aware of how big this restaurant is. In addition to the large bar area with a side patio, there are three dining rooms and seats that look into the open kitchen. The restaurant may be styled to look and feel like a house, but the size gives the impression of being a mansion.
Clearly, the neighborhood has already discovered the restaurant. Friends move from table to table, shaking hands and exchanging hugs. On the way out, my friend spots a couple she knows. They say they've been here twice since it opened. Generally, people are reluctant to break their typical dining patterns and try a new place, but the curiosity surrounding a new concept from such a prominent restaurateur overcomes that inertia.
"It'll never be perfect. I've had Carrabbas for 27 years, and it isn't perfect."
Grace's isn't taking reservations, but diners can call ahead and reserve a spot, which will be a good idea on the weekends. Valet-phobes can park in the adjacent garage.
Johnny Carrabba presides over the dining room like everyone's favorite uncle. He seems to know at least half the diners coming through the door, greeting them by name. He stops at each table to shake hands and ask what people think about the restaurant.
As for the cuisine, the menu offers a wide array of options. There are Chinese influences in the form of sweet and sour calamari, sticky pork spare ribs and a riff on General Tso's called Johnny Chang's Kung Fu Chicken.
Japanese cuisine shows up in two dishes that utilize yellowtail, and the seafood cocktail has kimchi. Try the carne asada with cheese enchiladas. Classic comfort food comes in the form of steaks, chicken pot pie, braised short ribs and more.
Prices run a similarly wide gamut. Entree sized salads cost about $15 and many of the entrees are under $25, but a 16-ounce Wagyu strip ($42) and lamb chops ($45) wouldn't look out of a place at a steakhouse.
In an age where the closest thing Houston has to an official sandwich is the banh mi and children are as likely to find comfort in California rolls as meatloaf, the hodge-podge feels like a more modern definition of comfort food that reflects the way people actually eat in 2014. The key, as always, is in the execution, which I had the chance to evaluate at dinner on Wednesday night.
A Meal At Grace's
After deciding to leave the various Asian influences for a subsequent visit, my friend and I ordered tortilla soup ($10) and gumbo ($11) to start followed by the short ribs ($28) and an off the menu special of pot roast ($19).
Both of the soups were impressive for a week-old restaurant. The gumbo had a dark, flavorful roux with gumbo and bright shrimp. The tortilla soup had a thin broth with large pieces of white meat chicken and generous chunks of avocado. Each had a slightly spicy kick that made reaching for any sort of supplemental hot sauce superfluous.
Johnny Carrabba presides over the dining room like everyone's favorite uncle.
The pot roast delivered as well: Fork tender, with the salty (in a good way) beefy goodness that recalls memories of dinners at grandma's house. The short ribs were less successful — seasoned with cinnamon and star anise, they had an unpleasant sweetness that masked the beef's natural flavor.
A fried pie trio for dessert offered apple, peach and cherry filings. I preferred the apple and my friend the peach, which meant neither of us finished the cherry, but we were already pretty full. As promised, all of the portions are very generous.
After the meal, Carrabba sat with us for a few minutes. He's still fine tuning in order get the recipes that worked in the test kitchen translated to this bigger stage. Grace's has already tried three bread recipes. On Wednesday, it was a buttered garlic bread, but the owner may already be on to something else.
"It'll never be perfect," he mused. "I've had Carrabbas for 27 years, and it isn't perfect."
Maybe not, but given the crowds and the success of his other two concepts, bet on Grace's getting close quickly.