Corner Table, the latest venture from local restaurateur Bruce Molzan, has quietly opened in the space formerly occupied by the short-lived Brownstone Cafe.
Molzan, of Ruggles fame, was the center of controversy in December 2011 after most of his staff walked out during Saturday night dinner service, protesting that they were owed thousands of dollars in unpaid tips.
When he first opened Ruggles Grill in the 1980s, Molzan was critically acclaimed for his innovative take on Southwestern cuisine. But in recent years, he has been entangled in litigation with investors, managers and employees of several other concepts bearing the Ruggles name (which he no longer owns).
Molzan’s reputation is, in large part, riding on Corner Table — which could explain the ultra low-key opening.
However, when the original Ruggles Grill closed in February 2012, Molzan insisted that he wasn’t going anywhere. It soon came out that he would be taking over a space at 2736 Virginia Street, the large complex that most recently housed the Red Room and 88 Keys.
Molzan’s reputation is, in large part, riding on Corner Table – which could explain the ultra low-key opening. Eater first reported that the establishment opened last Saturday, but other than that, mention in the press has been non-existent. For those passing by, there is little indication that Corner Table even exists.
When I sat down at one o’clock on a weekday afternoon, the manager seemed somewhat surprised by my visit. “How did you hear about us?” he asked. After responding that I read about the restaurant online, he seemed curious, stating that they had done little to publicize the opening.
Perhaps that’s because Molzan wants to make sure everything is just right before he announces his triumphant return to Houston dining.
After being seated in a comfortable corner booth (ironic, huh?), my friendly waiter proceeded to clear wine glasses off of my table. His grip wasn’t quite right, as he then dropped all four wine glasses onto the tile floor, leaving some shards of glass on my boots. Considering that I was one of only three patrons in the restaurant, this was a bit awkward.
The same manager, who made multiple attempts to converse with me throughout my visit, immediately ushered me over to a different table. Molzan curiously peered out from behind the open kitchen. But my waiter continued right where he left off, suggesting that I opt for strawberry green tea instead of water.
I chuckled to myself, reminded of Molzan’s affinity for combining tons of ingredients into his dishes, and apparently, his iced teas. As I started to peer over the menu, I noticed this same principle applied to salads, pizzas and pastas.
Despite his early insistence on the restaurant’s differentiation from Ruggles, I noticed several of Molzan’s famous creations from the Montrose institution reincarnated on the menu, including a goat cheese salad and jumbo lump crab tower. The menu also boasts of many “all natural,” “organic” and “farm fresh” ingredients, similar to Ruggles and Ruggles Green.
Corner Table's Taste
I noticed several of Molzan’s famous creations from the Montrose institution reincarnated on the menu.
I decided to start my lunch with the Gulf Red Snapper & Shrimp chowder. I was a bit skeptical, — as I was of many Ruggles dishes — of the combination of snapper, shrimp, chicken, sausage, cilantro and celery foam in a tomato-based stock.
That’s too many things — namely, too many proteins — to put in one dish, although something I’m sure many Texans will love.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find an incredibly well-balanced dish. The proteins didn’t overwhelm, the spice level was just right and the flavors were actually complementary. It seemed like a more refined interpretation of tortilla soup, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and comforting on a cold day.
A wood-burning pizza oven dominates the open kitchen, so I decided to opt for the Local Farmers Potato Pizza. Although I’m not entirely sure which local farm the potatoes are coming from, they were thinly sliced and served with bacon, arugula, mascarpone cheese, redneck cheddar, roasted garlic, onions and rosemary.
My feelings about the pizza ranged from initial dislike to satisfaction to confusion. With my first bite, I tasted way too much cheese. Then, I found myself enjoying the texture of the perfectly cooked crust and the combination of all the other ingredients. After eating a few pieces, I felt like I had consumed way too much bacon and started wondering why so many of the pizzas seemed to feature it.
As I looked around the restaurant, I noticed how great the space is. Natural light abounds, and the dark-wood tables, exposed beams and white walls create an enjoyable atmosphere for dining.
But I think that Molzan could take a lesson from his interior designer, and remember that at times, less is indeed more. Southwestern doesn’t necessarily have to mean bacon, cilantro and sausage on half of the menu.
Molzan could take a lesson from his interior designer, and remember that at times, less is indeed more.
The staff could also do with a little less fuss. While I appreciate their attentiveness, I felt like I had to answer to a jury with each bite of food, dying to hear my opinions on the food and share theirs. Maybe they were trying to compensate for the initial wine glass mishap, or perhaps they were just bored. Either way, I quickly grew tired of having my table hovered over.
The staff informed me that, on Friday, Corner Table will debut its complete menu, which I’m hoping will include some offerings outside of pizzas, pastas, burgers and salads. A small but interesting section of the menu, entitled “paleo,” indicated two dishes that adhere to the trendy diet’s standards.
Given Molzan’s earlier indication that this would be an integral part of Corner Table, I would assume that a new menu will feature expanded offerings in this category.
As I finished up my lunch, I couldn’t help but think about how much the Houston dining scene has changed in recent years. The wood-fired pizza and farmer’s market vegetable salad craze has finally caught on here en masse — decades behind New York and Los Angeles.
But in recalling my New Year’s Eve dinner at Underbelly, which was nothing short of amazing, I can’t help but think (and hope) that Chris Shepherd’s cuisine symbolizes that Houston is ready to embrace its eclectic culinary identity and lead instead of follow.
For a chef who was an early innovator in Houston’s food scene, and is attempting to make a comeback, I would be a bit more excited to see a menu that represents a greater departure.
I’m sure that, within a few weeks time, River Oaks residents will gladly fill up Corner Table and chow down on food that is, although relatively uninteresting, really good. But for a chef who was an early innovator in Houston’s food scene, and is attempting to make a comeback, I would be a bit more excited to see a menu that represents a greater departure from his previous restaurant.
When my waiter came back to inform me of dessert options, he rattled off a list of offerings that included Oreo cheesecake, domino cake, warm carrot cake and white chocolate bread pudding — all staples on the Ruggles desert tray.
I guess you can take the chef out of the restaurant, but you can’t take the restaurant out of the chef.