Randy Rucker is back.
Perhaps that line is becoming familiar. After all, since shuttering Bootsie's in 2011, Rucker has been back a few times: first, when he announced plans for Briar and Bramble in 2012 and again, when he consulted on the opening menu for El Big Bad.
It's a concept Rucker has been developing since last year: a casual restaurant that incorporates his passion for local and foraged ingredients, which he describes as "true luxury."
But unlike those false starts, Rucker is really back, cooking full time in the kitchen of his new restaurant, Bramble. Billed as a "neighborhood joint" in Briargrove next to Roegel's Barbecue and Shepard Ross's new restaurant The Del, the restaurant opened to the public July 7. It's a concept he's been developing since last year: a casual restaurant that incorporates his passion for local and foraged ingredients, which he describes as "true luxury."
Eager to see what he's built, I met two friends for dinner Thursday night. Although the outside still sports a sign for the building's former life as Mancuso's Italian Table, a marquee and banner advise diners that the space has a new occupant.
Inside, the space has been completely transformed from its past life as an Italian restaurant. The 46-seat dining room sports a rustic look that features reclaimed wood panels on the walls and ceiling. Edison bulbs and a concrete floor tie Bramble in with current trends in restaurant design. An open kitchen provides diners with a wide open look at a massive, wood-fired grill where Rucker and his team of cooks ply their trade.
When I visited, the menu featured 12 dishes, three sides, two desserts and a couple of off menu specials. Starters are priced from $5 for a bread basket to $16 for lamb tartare. Mains run $16 (roasted leg of guinea hen) to $26 (teres major, an ultra-lean cut from a cow's shoulder). Our server advised that apps could be shared and each main contains six to eight ounces of protein.
Eager to sample as broadly as possibly, we ordered eight of the savory dishes and both desserts. Grilled sweet corn on the cob recalled Mexican elotes with its dressing of kewpie mayo, lime and chili. Combined with fried hen "foie gras" sliders filled with funky (in a good way) liver and topped with a rich gravy, our meal started off right. We also availed ourselves of an off-menu cheese plate from Waco's Brazos Valley Cheese that featured three varieties as well as a chutney, mustard and various fruits and vegetables.
Only the bland, overly chewy lamb tartare proved disappointing.
Our entrees consisted of sunflower seed risotto in a rich, aromatic chicken broth, redfish "on the 1/2 shell" with salsa verde and tomatoes and the aforementioned teres major steak. All three hit the mark. The steak arrived sliced, properly medium rare and with a compelling mix of fingerling potatoes, kale and an utterly addictive "creamy brown butter." We eagerly shared the juicy redfish and appreciated the rich stock and pieces of duck confit in the risotto.
Despite being new, service was polished, friendly and knowledgeable. When we had questions about portion sizes or ingredients, our server answered them confidently. The wine list offers a variety of intriguing choices with many bottles under $50. As with the food menu, the cocktail menu is tidy but well-executed.
In terms of its overall style and presentation, Bramble reminds me of Roost. As at Kevin Naderi's Montrose restaurant, Bramble focuses on using local ingredients, serving familiar flavors with a slight twist and splits its tidy menu into dishes that diners can choose to share (or not). Even in the days before a meal couldn't be consumed without getting a perfect shot of it for Instagram, Rucker's plating has always been artful, and that's in full effect at Bramble — just look at those tomatoes!
While our dinner showed that Rucker has a clear vision for Bramble's cuisine, we also left with the sense that the chef is playing things a little safe. I confirmed that impression by reviewing a couple of posts by semi-retired blogger Matt Chow from the Bootsie's days. The teres major he served in October 2010 certainly looks similar to the one currently on Bramble's menu. Certainly, a chef is entitled to work in his style, but, the expectations that Bramble would offer something new seem appropriate. After all, a Chronicle profile recently touted Rucker as "one of Houston's most innovative chefs."
Quibbles aside, Bramble is off to a solid start. As Rucker tweeted, "this is only the beginning." Here's hoping diners are treated to the full spectrum of his creativity once he has his sea legs under him.
Bramble is open Monday through Saturday from 4 pm to 10 pm. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more.