Changing concepts has become a hot trend among Houston restaurants, even when they're successful. Justin Yu turned Oxheart into Theodore Rex, and Chris Shepherd converted Underbelly into UB Preserv. Recently, the Houstonian hotel announced it is getting into the act by converting Olivette into Tribute.
Next up is Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. Although it has long been considered one of the top restaurants in The Woodlands thanks to the culinary talents of executive chef Austin Simmons, the name has increasingly become a problem. First, it’s associated with Hubbell & Hudson Market, the grocery store that closed in 2014. Second, the company operates a fast casual sister concept called Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen, and the similar names sometimes cause confusion for diners who show up at one when they intend to be at the other. Finally, as a semi-formal restaurant, the term “bistro” doesn’t really apply.
"It’s never really been a bistro,” Simmons tells CultureMap. “Even at its inception it sold a lot of steak. A bistro in France is next to a gas station or a hotel; it serves cassoulet.” Later, he says, “we came to this crossroads of, what do we want to be? We’re not a bistro. Where do we want to go?”
Although it remains a financial success, Simmons and the restaurant’s owners hatched a bold plan to renovate and rebrand Hubbell & Hubbell Bistro. They opted for a name that’s personal to Simmons, that emphasizes his role as the star in the kitchen, and functions in a way that they think will appeal to families in The Woodlands.
“We’re going to name the restaurant 'Tris' after my daughter,” Simmons says.
Hubbell & Hudson Bistro will close after service on August 25. For 12 days, crews will work to renovate the space by replacing fixtures and furnishings, installing a new floor, and replacing most of the existing booths with tables. Tris (styled all-caps TRIS) will open to the public September 7. The plan could have been implemented even sooner, but Simmons notes that it was important to him to contribute to Houston Restaurant Weeks.
Essentially, Tris is a new restaurant that's a more refined version of Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. Simmons says he’s looked at his sales and at other high-end restaurants in The Woodlands such as Trulucks. In his assessment, the community supports elevated dining concepts when they feel relevant, aren’t too stuffy, and take great care of their guests. Naming the restaurant after his daughter comes with an implicit promise — that Simmons will put the same care into feeding his customers that he does into feeding her.
In addition to cosmetic changes, Tris will feature a new menu that Simmons has developed with chef de cuisine Courtney Taraboi and executive sous chef Brian Stanek. Inspired by his travels to both Europe and Asia, the new menu will feature a focus on classic technique, particularly sauce work, as well as flavors and ingredients that are true to the regions that inspired each dish. For example, a Spanish octopus dish will utilizes ingredients from the Mediterranean, and a Thai-style tom yum soup is seasoned with ginger and lemongrass, just as it would be in Thailand. In a nod to his French training, Simmons will begin serving lobster Thermidor.
Simmons and his crew are also changing the way they cook steak. Tris will serve four different cuts cooked four different ways: wet aged “Super Prime” beef (considered to be the top 2 percent of USDA Prime) cooked hot and fast over locally-sourced Texas Premium Charcoal; dry-aged beef that’s slow roasted and seared to maximize the amount of fat that’s rendered; Japanese A5 cooked in a pan and basted with garlic, rosemary, and thyme; and tenderloins cooked on a cast iron plates in a broiler. Simmons explains why he’s switching up the technique on the dry-aged steaks.
Our dry-aged, I threw out what I’ve been taught my whole career [which is] throw it in a broiler and hammer the hell out of it, create as much crust as you can. Over the years, I think I’ve always had great dry-aged product, but I don’t think I’ve gotten the response to it. I want people to say, ‘holy shit, this the best steak I’ve ever eaten.’
What we’re doing is slow roasting . . . Slow roasting it gets air all around the steak to allow the intramuscular fat to open up and release some of its moisture, then we get the sear on the end. You get a nuttier, juicier, more tender dry-aged steak.
Swapping the booths out for tables has service advantages as well as aesthetic ones. First, it allows the restaurant’s weekday business clientele to look at each other across a table rather than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder while they’re trying to negotiate a deal.
It also allows general manager Chris Perry to refine the dining experience by having his staff follow classic techniques such as serve from the right and clear from the left — no more awkwardly reaching across a diner to deliver or remove a plate.
“In the dining room, we want to be more service-driven,” Simmons says. “Chris is unbelievable at motivating the staff. He did a great job at Robard’s before. Now you put that with my food, and I feel like we’re going to hit a home run in The Woodlands.”
Fans of some of the more casual dishes on the menu (the Bistro’s burger is legendary) shouldn’t worry. They’ll still be available at lunch and in the restaurant’s lounge.
To go along with those changes, the company is dropping the name “Hubbell & Hudson” from both the fast casual restaurant, which will now be known simply as The Kitchen (its nickname among locals), and from Cureight, Simmons’ luxurious tasting menu restaurant. For the first time, Cureight will have both exterior and interior signage as well as its own website. Since it shares space with the Bistro, Cureight will also close during the renovations and will reopen later in September. The Kitchen will remain open to the public.
“I have probably one of the best teams a restaurant could ask for, and I’ve been able to build it in The Woodlands,” Simmons says. “For me, with the addition of Chris, I feel like we could put a restaurant anywhere and be successful.”
Yes, “anywhere” means inside the Houston city limits. Once he has Tris dialed in, Simmons plans to turn his attention to finding the right location for a new restaurant, but that’s still a couple years away. For now, the message is clear; the best restaurant in The Woodlands is about to get even better.