For all of Houston’s culinary diversity, seafood feels a little underrepresented. Sure, the city has plenty of Cajun/Creole, Mexican, and Asian options, but what’s the place that ties these influences together under the direction of a chef with serious chops in a prime location?
Since 2008, the answer to that question has been Reef, chef Bryan Caswell’s Midtown restaurant. Which is why there’s been so much rejoicing at the news that, after a 21-month closure due to damage suffered during Hurricane Harvey, the restaurant has reopened for lunch and dinner.
Just to be clear, the restaurant isn’t fully operational yet. For now, it’s only seating diners in the bar area; the main dining room may not reopen for another couple weeks. In addition, the menu is limited to 15 items (as of Saturday night), the wine list is merely a placeholder for what’s to come, and the service is still a work in progress — friendly, just not very polished.
Caswell seems to be reenergized to be back in the kitchen. After the setback of being released from his contract at Oxbow 7 and a split from longtime business partner Bill Floyd, he’s on his own and serving dishes that take inspiration from his Louisiana childhood, his experiences working around the world for superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Houston’s vibrant culinary scene.
The menu offers a few familiar tastes like crispy skin snapper, East Texas caviar (a highlight of the Oxbow 7 menu that pairs the luxury ingredient with Andouille sausage and potato chips), gumbo, and a twin-patty cheeseburger. Caswell is also offering his signature BBQ crab with tamarind barbecue sauce.
Diners will find a number of tempting options among the new dishes. Soft shell crab get fried in a crispy tempura and served with Vietnamese-style pickled vegetables and a rich, butter sauce flavored with Maker’s Mark bourbon. With a small crab baked into a loaf of bread, the crab fat and dough appetizer infuses every bite with sweet crab fat.
The snapper en papillote arrives on a sizzling comal — borrowed from Caswell’s Tex-Mex restaurant El Real, natch — to ensure it arrives hot and bubbling. Presented tableside, the aromatic preparation, which is fueled by a mix of lemon, grapefruit, and garlic, seems designed to cause maximum envy from diners at adjacent tables.
Whether Reef reclaims its title as Houston’s best seafood remains to be seen, but the promising start demonstrated during Saturday’s meal indicates that Caswell intends to make a run at the title. Seafood-loving Houstonians should be excited that he’s back in the kitchen.
Reef; 2600 Travis St.; Open for lunch Monday through Friday beginning at 11 am; Dinner Monday through Saturday beginning at 5 pm.