As we were walking out of Holley's last week, a car pulled up alongside. The passenger rolled down her window and asked the one question that's on everyone's mind about chef Mark Holley's new seafood emporium that's taken over the Sushi Raku space in Midtown.
"How was it? Was it as good as Pesce?"
Boom goes the dynamite.
Whether or not Holley's matches up to memories of Pesce, the restaurant already feels like a valuable addition to Midtown.
The short answer is, who can remember? Sure, I have fond memories of eating at Pesce with my family, but I don't recall specific dishes or experiences. It was a special occasion restaurant for us — a drive into town from Sugar Land splurge for birthdays and such.
Whether or not Holley's matches up to memories of Pesce, the restaurant already feels like a valuable addition to Midtown. That starts with the space, which has undergone a complete transformation from its Sushi Raku days. The front half of the restaurant is devoted to Lancelot's Oyster Bar, which has a casual feel and a variety of seating options that includes a long community table. Named after Holley's grandfather, it features raw oysters, a variety of shareable crudos and ceviches and a rapidly expanding bourbon list. A signature cocktail, also named the Lancelot, drives the reference home by using Old Grand Dad whiskey.
The main dining room has a more upscale feel, thanks to white tablecloths. The room has a vaguely Art Deco vibe, with lots of blue tones and soft lighting.
While the atmosphere may be luxurious, the prices seem reasonable for the quality. None of the entrees are over $30, and the appetizers are all about $15. East Coast oysters are $16 for a half dozen or $29 per dozen, but the various crudos and ceviches are between $15 and $20 and easily large enough to share.
Wine prices are similarly competitive, with most bottles under $60. All of that will allow Holley's to function as both a weeknight after-work spot and a special occasion destination to compete with neighbors like Brennan's (where Holley worked for many years), Reef and Damian's.
Joining Holley in the kitchen is former Pesce chef Brandon Silva, who left Uchi to rejoin his mentor. Kenten Martin, Silva's partner in a series of well-received pop-ups, serves as Holley's other sous. Together, they provide a youthful balance to Holley's experience that should results in some interesting dishes as the restaurant evolves.
At a tasting with the restaurant's PR representatives and another food writer, I had the opportunity to sample most of the menu, as selected by chef Holley. I found a restaurant that is off to a very promising start, despite only being in the third day of service.
Our meal began with a series of raw dishes. The oyster Ana shooter ($7) combines Aperol, prosecco and lemon with a freshly shucked oyster for a sweet and tart compliment to the oyster's naturally briny flavor. The Peruano ceviche ($12) complements the citrus zing of snapper in leche de tigre with the salty crunch of shaved Corn Nuts, giving it an American twist on the uses of puffed corn in more traditional preparations.
As good as both of these dishes were, it was the hamachi crudo ($17) that had us fighting for the last few bites thanks to screamingly fresh fish and elegant, thinly sliced sweet potato chips.
Holley's muddled stew that brought together braised pork belly, clams, shrimp and snapper with a creamy, runny, 13-minute egg was another favorite.
Moving into the starters section, three dishes stood out. Koonce's peanut soup ($12), named after the longtime Brennan's "wine guy," sounds like something that could be a too-sweet mess, but instead delivers a clear peanut flavor that gets mild heat from the honey-cayenne glazed shrimp. I found myself using the available bread to mop up every last drop of the buttery, spicy chipotle sauce included with the barbecue shrimp ($16) that artfully blends Texan and Creole flavors. Of course, Holley's signature duck gumbo ($13) with crispy fried oysters was one of the night's top dishes.
We were slowing down by the time the entrees arrived, but everyone agreed the crispy redfish with smoked short rib angnolotti and sweet corn succotash demanded our attention thanks to its combination of flavors. Holley's muddled stew that brought together braised pork belly, clams, shrimp and snapper with a creamy, runny, 13-minute egg was another favorite.
Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Melissa Reilly, had us split. I could almost eat a slice of the coconut cake daily thanks to its light texture and a little crunch from the spiced pecans. Others at the table preferred the apple bread pudding or key lime cheesecake.
Throughout the course of the meal, I had broken my personal rule of not taking more than two bites of any one dish multiple times, but it was hard to stop going back for more.
The next day I texted a local chef who happened to be dining a few tables over. "I'm not crazy, right? That was really good last night," I wrote.
"It was good," he replied.
I didn't ask whether he thought it was as good as Pesce, because the question is ultimately irrelevant. Holley's is good enough to merit diners' attention, and that's all that matters.