Hurricane Harvey may have made landfall six months ago, but many Houstonians are still recovering from the storm. Just as rebuilding a flooded home takes time, so too does a flooded restaurant.
Consider Reef. The acclaimed seafood restaurant in Midtown suffered extensive damage during the storm when water leaked in through the roof. Although the kitchen remained sufficiently intact to turn out as many as 20,000 meals per day for refugees, volunteers, and first responders, the damage to the dining room provided an opportunity for significant changes to the restaurant’s design. That work has taken longer to complete than expected, but it’s almost complete. Owners Jennifer and Bryan Caswell tell CultureMap they expect the restaurant to reopen in the next two or three weeks.
Diners got a sneak peek at the changes on March 4 when Reef hosted California winemaker and farmer Steve Matthiasson for a five-course dinner that served as both an opportunity to preview the restaurant’s new design and taste the cuisine that chef Bryan Caswell has been describing as “Reef 2.0.” While no one mentions the situation that led to the couple being “released” from their contract at the Le Meridien hotel, it’s clear that they’re both ready to reopen Reef and reassert themselves as an important part of Houston’s restaurant community.
Upon entering, the most noticeable changes are a new chef’s counter that has been installed near the pass and new, dark grey paint that replaces the light green that dominated Reef’s design for its first 10 years. An art piece on the restaurant’s wall has been painted blue instead of the original white, and the wine rack is now gold. Still pending are new banquettes that will occupy the middle of the dining room.
“We tried to darken it up to make it a little sexier, a little more intimate, to provide a little more of that date night feel,” co-owner and general manager Jennifer Caswell tells CultureMap. “It was open and airy. It was really cool for what it was at the time, but I feel like that intimacy was missing. We go out to eat all the time, and that’s (a quality) I really enjoy in a restaurant, feeling cozy.”
The new counter is a significant component of the Caswell’s plans to make Reef a better place to work. By allowing cooks the opportunity to serve diners there, they’ll be eligible to receive tips, which Bryan estimates could raise their pay by as much as $4 per hour. He’s hoping that extra income — along with the opportunity to learn from someone with a pedigree that includes a lengthy stint working for celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and a Food & Wine Best New Chef award — helps him attract the next generation of cooks who want to spend a year or two working and learning from him.
“I’ve got all these people that I’ve been working with for 10 years, or even 13 going back to the Hotel Icon. I don’t need to tell them anything,” Caswell says. “Sometimes that’s a bad thing, because it gets me out of the teaching role, which is what I’m good at. I’m happier when I’m working with those kind of people, and it keeps me on my game.”
While her husband is looking for a few more cooks, Jennifer says she wants to hire an assistant general manager to help her run the restaurant. She realizes that finding the right fit can be tough.
“I need somebody who meshes with the way I talk and the way I communicate. It’s not harsh. I can be very direct. Not everybody is good at taking that part of my personality, especially as a female,” Jennifer Caswell says. “I’m trying to find someone who doesn’t say ‘she’s a bitch’ (but says instead) ‘she’s a strong leader.’”
Sunday’s menu served as a preview for what diners can expect when Reef reopens. Crispy shrimp spring rolls, a Reef classic, appeared alongside new dishes like glazed pork belly with butternut squash, red snapper crudo with Asian pear and pomelo, and fried quail with beets and turnips. Amberjack, a Gulf fish that Reef helped popularize, served as the entree; Caswell served it in a dashi broth with butter beans.
Caswell says he’s been developing menu ideas with Jennifer and sous chef Tony Carranza, but it’s a tricky process. Reef has been around for so long that many diners have favorite dishes — among them the crispy skin snapper, salmon with Meyer lemon risotto, and fried mac and cheese — that they consider essential. Caswell says he’s trying to decide how to balance those expectations with his desire to create something new.
“Somedays, I think maybe we’ll have a classics section and a new section,” he says.” Somedays, I’m like fuck it all, I want to give it all up.”
Giving up all the old dishes won’t happen; Caswell calls the crispy skin technique “the coolest thing I’d ever seen” that will always have a place on the menu. How different Reef 2.0 will be remains to be seen, but diners can only benefit from a fully motivated Bryan Caswell with a little something to prove.