Fall opening season is in full swing, which means diners have lots of high quality new restaurants to try. Two of Houston’s most recent James Beard Award winners, Justin Yu (Theodore Rex) and Chris Shepherd (One Fifth Romance Languages), have each opened new concepts, to say nothing of contributions from high profile chefs like Bryan Caswell (Oxbow 7) and new concepts from both Pappas Restaurants (Delta Blues Smokehouse) and Goode Company (Kitchen & Cantina).
Although one publication is already foolishly listing this year’s best newcomers, the final six weeks of 2017 will see a number of high quality new options that deserve at least as much attention as establishments that opened earlier in the year. One of these has been flying a little under the radar, but that’s about to change.
Nancy’s Hustle will make its debut later this month, owners Sean Jensen and Jason Vaughan announced this week. Located in east downtown, the restaurant and wine bar will be the new solo project from the hospitality industry veterans. Jensen’s resume as a beverage specialist include stints at Hay Merchant, Shade, and Public Services, while chef Vaughan's high-flying resume includes both time at fine dining establishments like Chicago seafood restaurant L20 and Michael Mina in San Francisco with more casual concepts owned by Chicago’s Hogsalt Hospitality group.
Jensen and Vaughan consulted on the menu and assisted with the opening for Alice Blue, restaurateur Claire Smith’s new concept in the Shade space, but Jensen tells CultureMap that Nancy’s Hustle will have a different perspective than that project. Whereas Alice Blue has been designed to appeal to families in the Heights, Nancy’s will be pitched to its neighborhood’s younger crowd that’s more likely to hang out at the bar through the restaurant’s midnight closing time.
“I think (opening Alice Blue) was good practice, but I think this more expresses what Jason and I want to do, just our ideas and our dreams coming to realization here,” Jensen says. “At the end of the day, we love Claire to death, but we were opening that with and for someone else. While this is for the neighborhood and for Houston, it’s more for us.”
Jensen cites Chicago establishments like Au Cheval (home to one of America’s most famous cheeseburgers), Best Intentions, and Avec as establishments that capture the look and feel of what he and Vaughan want to achieve. The bar top and table tops utilize wood reclaimed from the shuttered Palace Lanes bowling alley in Bellaire. Jensen adds that Nancy’s aims to be Houston’s “best sounding restaurant” courtesy of a vintage sound system powered by a reel-to-reel tape deck that will keep the music pumping all night long.
Vaughan will use the restaurant’s wood burning hearth to create medium-sized, shareable plates like Turkish dumplings in spicy tomato sauce, lamb tartare with Marcona almonds on grilled sesame flatbread, and larger plates like wood-grilled chicken with romesco sauce and roasted scallions or sourdough pasta with pistachio, burrata, and crispy Brussels sprouts. He’ll be joined in the kitchen by former Hunky Dory/Bernadine’s pastry chef Julia Doran, who will be responsible for breads, pastries, and desserts like a shareable, tiki-inspired banana rum shake for people who would rather drink their calories than eat them.
Jensen’s beverage list will feature “naturally-fermented wine and cider from family-owned wineries,” but he’s keeping things approachable by storing those wines in a convenience store-style two-door glass merchandiser. Veteran bartender Kristine Nguyen (Bad News Bar) has developed a menu of food-friendly cocktails. The style of service will be a little different than what people might expect.
“Our goal with an open kitchen is to engage with the cooks, too. Our schedule means we’ll rotate the cooks through the food running station,” Jensen says. “They’ll get to interact with the guests, and we’ll feel like a great team. So often, there’s a chasm between front and back of the house. We want to bridge that.”
For all the growth in EaDo, the area has lacked the sort of progressive, culinarily ambitious restaurants that have been at the heart of dining scenes in Montrose and the Heights. When it opens shortly after Thanksgiving, Nancy’s Hustle will be the next step in the Eastside’s emergence as Houston’s next must-visit dining neighborhood.
Nancy’s Hustle, 2704 Polk Street; Tuesday through Sunday, 5 pm to midnight