Ryan Hildebrand is ready to serve some comfort food. The chef, who closed his upscale restaurant Triniti earlier this year, is putting the finishing touches on FM Kitchen & Bar, his new restaurant that debuts May 15 with a soft opening on Shepherd Drive just north of Washington Avenue, with the grand opening celebration on May 19.
Even by restaurant standards, the road to FM Kitchen has been a long one. Originally, the concept was called Brande, then it was FM 903, both of which were to be located on the former site of Ruggles Grille at 903 Westheimer and feature a significant baking program. Once the restaurant moved to its current location, it changed to FM Burger, a Shake Shack-style fast casual concept with a massive patio and a full bar.
FM Kitchen & Bar keeps the patio and the drinks, but the menu has significantly expanded to include comfort food classics like chicken fried steak, smoked ribs, and brick chicken, as well as salads and appetizers like wings and Frito pie. Hildebrand says the space’s size dictated the decision to expand the menu and switch to full service.
“When we actually got into the building, it’s just so big. When we designed the kitchen, (we realized) we’re capable of doing more than just burgers and chicken sandwiches,” Hildebrand says. “It’s been organic, becoming what it is, especially with the patio and live music. It’s been a very organic progression.”
One signature item looks to be the Salisbury pork chops. Yes, the cafeteria classic of thinly sliced chops with mushroom and onions is making a comeback.
“It’s funny, because when I was playing around with it, I said, we should Salisbury the pork chops. Everyone was, like, what’s a Salisbury pork chop? I didn’t realize it was that weird.” Hildebrand says. “I dig it, so let’s do it.”
The chef says that he’s excited about moving from Triniti’s upscale “tweezer food” to more familiar fare, but he realizes it comes with a certain element of risk. As Ronnie Killen recently stated on CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast, diners have very firm expectations for dishes they’re familiar with, and chefs have to exceed them.
“We were doing dry runs, and they over-melted the cheese so there was burnt cheese around the edge of the burger. I was, like, this is exactly what I’m talking about. You can’t send that out,” Hildebrand says. “You can’t burn the cheese, you can’t over-toast the bun, you can’t overcook the meat. There’s no margin for error. The brick chicken, the skin’s got to be right. If it isn’t crispy, it’s wrong. That’s what I was saying, (this restaurant has) a legit saute station, because you can’t miss. Everybody has a preconceived idea of what these things are. They have to be right.”
Beverage options are just as accessible. FM Burger’s shakes are still around. Adults can choose from draft and canned beer (both craft and macro options), draft cocktails, and about a dozen different bottles of wine that are priced at only $25 each (or $7 by the glass).
The menu isn’t the only aspect of the concept that has evolved. FM Kitchen now has a significant live music component thanks to the addition of a stage and a relationship with local music company Wonky Power to produce up to four concerts per week during the first 90 days. Hildebrand says the bands are an eclectic mix with “a lot of funk and bluesy jazz” that play original compositions.
The rest of the outdoor space features a section with picnic tables for dining and another section with games. FM Kitchen already has a ping pong table and will soon add a bocce ball court, cornhole boards (that diners are invited to decorate with bumper stickers), and more. An outdoor grill with the ability to cook with either gas or wood will allow Hildebrand to create specials.
Taken together, all those elements make FM Kitchen a concept that could grow into multiple locations. Hildebrand affirms that’s a possibility if the concept takes off the way he hopes it will.
“I would like to,” Hildebrand says. “The core menu is pretty static. It’s spec’ed out and ready to go, so it can be duplicated. This will always be the flagship, I think. Then we could go into other, smaller spaces and try to recreate some of it.”