One of the fall's most anticipated restaurants will make its debut at 11:30 am on Monday. Chef Ford Fry, the Houston native who has owns nine restaurants in Atlanta, will open his River Oaks restaurant State of Grace a year and a half after signing a lease for the space on Westheimer across from Lamar High School.
Fry tells CultureMap that he understands that he's entering the market with high expectations.
"Coming to Houston has been kind of like a movie where everyone hypes it. Then the movie starts and the movie sucks, and everyone is pissed," he says. "This is a lot of hype for me. Now we have to perform on a whole different level, and that starts with the look and feel of the place. It carries on to the food."
To deliver the food, Fry tapped former Ciao Bello executive chef Bobby Matos to run the kitchen. "I’m planning on being down here, but the reality is it’s not about me. It’s about Bobby," Fry says.
Designer Elizabeth Ingram crafted the look and feel, which recalls an upscale Central Texas hunting lodge. Dozens of pairs of antlers — as many as 100 — hang on the walls. The marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the main dining room and looks towards a massive oak tree, adds a further upscale touch. Expect the Westheimer-facing Oyster Room to be particularly popular, as it will be primarily reserved for walk-in diners.
"When we hired Elizabeth to be our in-house design person, my interview for her was to do a mood board. I described this restaurant. It took a lot of inspiration from German heritage, German immigration into Texas," Fry says. "I think her goal in designing a restaurant is to make it look like it’s evolved over time, so there’s different pieces from different eras."
Outside of the private dining room, the decor doesn't project River Oaks luxuriousness in the same way that SaltAir Seafood Kitchen does, but it's an undeniably good looking space that should help State of Grace achieve its mission to be a comfortable neighborhood restaurant.
Something for everyone
Beyond the decor, the restaurant's menu — created by Fry, Matos and Fry's vice president of culinary Drew Belline — offers something for just about everyone. In addition to the dishes revealed during last month's farm dinner, mains run the gamut from seafood to steaks to Korean-style fried chicken. State of Grace's burger has butter in the patty and is cooked on a plancha to deliver crispy edges and a juicy interior. Callbacks to Fry's Houston childhood include cheese enchiladas "ala Felix" and a "nod to Hofbrau" salad.
"We kind of styled the menu around not so much a genre but just food that is really something people want to come and eat multiple times," Matos says. "It’s a neighborhood restaurant. It’s not Italian, it’s not French, it’s not German, it’s not a steakhouse. We kind of tie all that in."
Many of the entrees are prepared on a massive, wood-fired hearth that serves as both grill and oven. Yes, that makes it at least the third new restaurant of 2015 to employ a wood burning stove, after Bramble and Hunky Dory. A six-seat chef's counter provides a direct view of the action and could be used for tasting menus down the road.
"What’s really unique about it is that hot box that comes off it," Matos explains. "It’s hollow underneath so the smoke circulates through it. Everything will have a little smoke: even fish that’s sautéed in a pan."
Of course, the raw bar will be a major draw. State of Grace will serve both Gulf and East Coast oysters as well as a massive shellfish tower that Fry previewed on his Instagram account. "Our oyster bar is one of my favorite things that’s happening at this restaurant," Matos says. "The oyster program we’re trying to put in will rival anybody in the city as far as selection."
Initially, the restaurant will be open for lunch Monday through Friday and dinner every day, which will give the neighborhood a rare, high-quality dining option on Sunday nights. Fry and Matos concede that brunch is probably inevitable given the restaurant's proximity to three large churches, but they haven't set a date. Late night dining on Friday and Saturday is also a possibility, which could be a welcome alternative to nearby options like House of Pies and Whataburger.
"Really super affordable with the burger and maybe a funky dog, steak frites, poutine," Fry says. "I think what makes it work in Atlanta is to super underprice the food, like, probably at cost, pretty much."
In conversation, Fry refers to State of Grace as his "first" Houston restaurant, but he cautions that he doesn't have any immediate plans for a "second" Houston outpost. "Would I want to do more restaurants in Houston? Definitely. But is there anything in the works? No," he says. Instead, he's close to signing on a location in Charleston and scouting possibilities in Nashville.
Of course, if State of Grace lives up to expectations, Fry may soon find himself shopping for more real estate.