Haidar Barbouti has a very different take on running a restaurant than some chefs and owners.
“It’s not about what I want, it’s what the customer wants,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t very vocal about food. Because he is. Very.
Barbouti owns the Highland Village shopping center and when he decided to build a third story on the east end he thought it would be a perfect spot for a restaurant with open windows and a large patio overlooking the Galleria area.
“ I didn’t want another wine bar with a tapas menu,” Barbouti says. “Tapas is just leftovers on a fucking plate.”
“I had just come back from Europe,” he recalls, “and I had eaten at all of these great open-air restaurants so I thought something like that would be perfect for the top of this building.”
The only thing was he couldn’t find the type of tenant he wanted.
“I didn’t want another wine bar with a tapas menu,” he says. “Tapas is just leftovers on a fucking plate.”
So he decided to open his own restaurant. Even though he had no restaurant experience or culinary degree he did know two things: How to make money and what good food tastes like.
“It’s about what you grew up eating,” Barbouti says. “Everybody’s grandmother knew how to cook better than the local chefs. You went home to eat a real cooked meal, not somewhere where a guy is painting on a plate.
“I see so much food that doesn’t even look like food. It’s a disgrace and a fraud they have to decorate the plate and there’s only three ounces of fish on it. If people are spending good money to eat out they should get real portions of real food.”
And don’t even get him started on molecular gastronomy.
"It’s a disgrace and a fraud they have to decorate the plate and there’s only three ounces of fish on it. If people are spending good money to eat out they should get real portions of real food.”
Anyway, with these ideas he opened his own restaurant a little over a year ago and Up Restaurant has been a popular spot ever since.
It’s a chic, white-table cloth eatery accessed by elevator only and the clientele is pretty much the see-and-be-seen set. But even if that’s not your style, it’s worth going up to Up just for the food and the views. In perfect weather, the windows are opened and the patio is always packed.
And the food is, as Barbouti says, is real food.
It’s not trendy. It’s not all organic or all locally sourced. It’s just good food.
“We make everything here but the ketchup,” Barbouti says. “We tried doing that but people kept asking for Heinz.”
So what’s good here? Plenty. There’s a mix of American classics from Caesar salad to oak-grilled USDA Prime filet mignon and redfish, both of which come in 10-ounce portions. No three-ounce portions here. There’s also a few Asian-styled dishes and Italian pastas, made in house with imported 00 flour.
If you’re eating light, the best bets are the pizzas and salads. The pizzas, which can be made gluten free, run from a basic Margherita to a hearty short rib version packed with beef, Fontina and Roquefort cheeses, caramelized onions and a whole garden of baby arugula.
The business lunch offers two salad trios as entrees: A European plate with crab, beet and Caprese salads and an Asian version with a rock shrimp salad, spicy tuna crisps and a very good crunchy duck wrap.
And save room for the six-layer vanilla meringue cake, or at least the French macaroon sampler.
Barbouti chooses every dish on the menu and also tastes and tweaks the recipes. He knows his way around the two-story kitchen, which has both wood and gas pizza ovens, as well as the front of house. On a tour of the kitchen, he grabbed two jars of pre-peeled garlic and threw them out.
“Who ordered this?” he asked. “We only use fresh garlic here.”
He insists on a certain level of quality. When he’s in town he eats at Up every day so he knows what his guests are being served.
“In this business,” he says, “you are only as good as your last dish.”
The man certainly knows his food. He can talk cooking with the best of foodies and his favorite movie is Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Which he’s seen three times now.
“You’re not going to be good at something unless you’re passionate about it,” Barbouti says. And he’s certainly passionate about food.