In a plot twist straight out of a reality TV show's playbook, change came swiftly last month to Corner Table, the River Oaks restaurant owned by Darla Lexington and her daughter Michelle Coopwood. Originally known for a Paleo diet-friendly menu created by controversial former Ruggles chef/owner Bruce Molzan, the restaurant was forced to change directions when Molzan made an "amicable" departure to launch a concept tentatively known as Ruggles Black in the former Nosh Bistro space on Kirby with owner Neera Patidar.
Into the void stepped Ja'Nel Witt, the local chef who first captured people's attention as the winner of Season 11 of popular reality show Hell's Kitchen. Witt survived being screamed at by Gordon Ramsay long enough to prevail over her rivals, even if Ramsay's Las Vegas restaurant ultimately withdrew the chef job that was part of her prize. After that disappointment, she has found a new home working with Lexington and Coopwood.
"If I’m going to work in a restaurant, I want to work closely with the owners . . . it’s really personal."
"I got a phone call and met with Michelle and Darla and Bob (Meyers, director of operations)," Witt recalls. Despite working for the past year as a private chef and developing a clothing line, Witt "was ready to get back into a professional kitchen. It kind of all worked out for the best."
Witt cites the "uniqueness of the space" and the challenge of crafting a Paleo menu as part of the appeal of the job, but it was the connection she felt with Lexington and Coopwood that sold it. "If I’m going to work in a restaurant, I want to work closely with the owners . . . it’s really personal," she says.
Paleo Take Two
To rewrite the menu in her own style, Witt began researching Paleo recipes and techniques. She also consulted with pastry chef Alyssa Dole, who remains at the restaurant and maintains a mostly Paleo diet. "I put my nose in every book I could find to kind of change my thinking," Witt says.
Instead of focusing on what Paleo removes, Witt decided her approach would be "how would I change what I was doing and make it paleo?"
Although Witt didn't land up with the prized Vegas job, she did bring some lessons from the show to Corner Table.
New items feature Witt's signature Asian influences, along with an emphasis on higher quality ingredients and portions that, while still generous, aren't as over the top as the quantities Molzan is known for. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dole's new dessert tray, which only offers eight items compared to the previous 20-plus choices.
Beet root hummus is one signature product of those experiments. It gives diners a Paleo-friendly alternative to a dish they normally can't have. The preparation brings out the beet's natural sweetness, and it proves to be a tasty substitute to chickpeas. Beef cheeks braised in the Korean paste gochujang bring a fairly mild, slow-burning heat, but they do provide a lot of beef flavor without resorting to the typical short ribs.
"Beef cheeks (are) something I’ve done for years. I always feel like I have to talk people into trying it. It’s really soulful, really comforting," Witt says.
Hell's Kitchen fans will be pleased to see one non-paleo item on the menu: Witt's "signature dish," a pasta that features grilled shrimp "tossed in an Asian-inspired pesto."
The restaurant closed for two weeks while Witt trained her new staff. Those changes should be mostly unnoticeable to diners since, in addition to Dole, longtime front of house manager Vik Sen and sommelier Derek Sawyer both remain in place.
Although Witt didn't land up with the prized Vegas job, she did bring some lessons from the show to Corner Table. "I've been applying the confidence I gained, not just from being on the show and winning the show, but also from following my gut," she says.
Whether diners will flock to Corner Table without Molzan remains to be seen, but Witt says the initial reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. In the meantime, she'll keep tinkering and making the restaurant her own.