Bradley's Fine Diner is the restaurant Houston has been waiting for. At least, the part of Houston that's patronized Funky Chicken, Ogden's fast casual would be Chipotle of roasted and fried organic chicken, and wondered what the Big F'ing Deal is about the two-time James Beard Award winner.
Ogden won those awards for his signature blending of classic American cuisine with farm fresh produce, which is what Bradley's Fine Diner is all about. While the chef tends to his empire from his home in California, son Bryan Ogden has moved to Houston permanently to oversee the restaurant, even bragging to the Chronicle that he's happy his first child will be born a Texan.
Fine Diner may be located in the same strip center that's home to Funky Chicken, but the two restaurants look and feel very different from each other. Fine Diner makes extensive use of wood — on the tables, walls and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling — to create an upscale atmosphere. Exposed brick, subway title and Edison bulbs — those staples of current trends in restaurant design — are all used to good effect here.
No wonder GQ lauded the version served at Ogden's Vegas restaurant as the best burger he ate in 2009.
At the bar, diners will find an extensive menu of original cocktails, a full selection of high quality spirits and a familiar face in the form of Brittany Austin, who until recently had been behind the bar at Triniti. The word "mixologist" may conjure an image of some guy with a mustache who wears a stupid hat, but recent arrival Josh Durr manages to claim the title without looking like an extra from a terrible sitcom.
Most importantly, the drinks taste good, too, particularly one that combined bourbon and rye with a Spanish Amaro variant.
On the menu, Ogden's food delivers elevated versions of familiar flavors. Part of the credit goes to proper sourcing — Bryan can be seen browsing the weekly Urban Harvest farmers market with his cooks. Another part goes to technique — all breads, pastries and pastas are made in-house.
Ogden put the kitchen through its paces last week as part of an organized media tasting that demonstrated why Fine Diner is a restaurant Houstonians should be excited about.
The Restaurant Menu
Housemade brioche gets utilized to good effect in the "Eggs & Toast" shared plate where it's combined with fried quail eggs and an absolute mountain of sustainable, American caviar. Slight sweet bread and properly runny eggs isn't reinventing the wheel flavor-wise, but the combination is a classic for a reason — it's still totally delicious.
A small cup of pea soup ($13) got a lift from the addition of mint, with bright, clean flavors coming through. Rhubarb glazed pork belly ($18) was another highlight, thanks to the glaze that cut through the pork's fatty richness.
Of the mains, both the roasted cod ($36) and pot roast ($28) were good, but it was the burger ($16) that made the biggest impression. Topped with grilled onions, properly medium rare and packing a big, beefy flavor, it's no wonder GQ's Alan Richman lauded the version served at Ogden's Las Vegas restaurant as the best burger he ate in 2009.
A restaurant that's as good as Fine Diner deserves Houston's attention.
The only misstep was that a few dishes, including fried rock shrimp, were too salty. Sensitivity to saltiness varies, of course, and it seems like the sort of issue the kitchen will correct quickly.
Despite the family friendly menu, the restaurant's prices would probably put it in special occasion territory for an actual family. The upwardly mobile young professionals who've flocked to apartments near Washington can certainly afford to eat here, but restaurants including Glass Wall, Zelko Bistro, Liberty Kitchen and Federal Grill are already competing for whatever market exists in the area for this type of cuisine.
On the night of my visit, the dining room contained mostly older (40s and up) folks than one typically sees at spots on or near Washington, but they need to eat, too.
Service, as one would expect, was fantastic, but we were a known quantity. From what we could tell by looking around the dining room, everyone appeared happy: Water glasses were refilled promptly, food arrived quickly, the staff knows the menu and so forth.
Whether a visit to Bradley's Fine Diner is worth the cost depends entirely on one's dining budget. The food here is good. It holds its own with all the immediate competition and even exceeds them in some ways like the in-house baking and craft cocktails.
Ogden may have alienated some people in Houston's restaurant world when he said Houstonians were "starved for great places to eat," but the time has come to forgive and forget. A restaurant that's as good as Fine Diner deserves diners' attention.