Diving Deep into Agricole
Sneak peek: Acclaimed team dishes on new restaurants and bars coming to EaDo
The wait for three of Houston’s most eagerly anticipated new bars and restaurants has finally come to an end. Agricole Hospitality, the company behind Coltivare and Eight Row Flint will soon open three new concepts: Vinny’s, a pizzeria; Indianola, an eclectic restaurant; and Miss Carousel, an innovative cocktail bar.
Located across from Rodeo Goat and Truck Yard in the East Village development at the corner of St. Emmanuel and Dallas streets, the project has been some two years in the making. That seems hard to fathom, but it takes a long time to convert what had essentially been warehouses into fully operational bars and restaurants.
Of course, those delays have not been entirely detrimental. In the time since they signed the lease, the area around the project has exploded. New arrivals like its East Village neighbors, as well as others like 8th Wonder Brewery, Pitch 25, and Nancy’s Hustle, have demonstrated that people from across the Houston area will flock to EaDo — not just before Astros or Dynamo games but also as part of their regular nightlife rotation. At the same time, residential development throughout downtown and the East End has increased the area’s population of people who will support the establishments.
Given the group’s acclaim — it’s won just about every CultureMap Tastemaker Award possible, including Restaurant of the Year (Coltivare), Bar of the Year (Eight Row Flint), and Chef of the Year (Ryan Pera) — it seemed appropriate to sit down with partners Ryan Pera, Morgan Weber, and Vincent Huynh for an extended conversation about what diners can expect from each concept. Let’s go one-by-one in the order they’ll open: Vinny’s on October 31, Indianola on November 6 (dinner only, lunch and breakfast to follow), and Miss Carousel on November 8.
Vinny’s will serve pizza, either whole pies or by-the-slice, alongside a few salads and sandwiches. Rather than adhere to a specific style like New York or Chicago, Vinny’s pizza are defined by their size; each large contains a massive 52-ounces of dough. By comparison, a standard pizza at Coltivare is 14. They’re not cheap — a large pepperoni is $40 — but they’re large enough to feed four adults pretty easily, and, according to Weber, it reheats well the next day.
“I would say the style is the best tasting pizza we can make,” Pera says. “That’s the idea we go in with every endeavor. We’re definitely food-driven and service-driven, but ‘how do we make this great’ is the question we ask ourselves.”
From that starting point, Pera, Huynh, and executive chef Paul Lewis explored every aspect of making dough to achieve their goal of a crust that’s crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and sturdy enough to withstand toppings that run the gamut from housemade chorizo and Italian sauce to Benton’s ham, pickled jalapenos, all the usual veggies, and even Gulf shrimp.
“One of the other major styles of American pizza that people don’t talk about is Pacific Northwest style,” Huynh says. “If you look at Tom Douglas and his success, you look at great dough, it’s happening in the Pacific Northwest. We drew some inspiration specifically from that when we opened Coltivare, the lightness, the freshness. Now we’re applying to an everyman, large, filling format that’s become Vinny’s pizza.”
On the beverage side, Vinny’s offers a range of affordable, easy-drinking wine and beer options curated by beverage director Marie-Louise Friedland. Ultimately, Vinny’s plans to deliver both its pizzas as well as beer and wine, which will make it an appealing option for area residents who want better drinking options than they can find in nearby grocery stores.
It’s also open late: until midnight during the week and 3 am on Friday and Saturday. The line at 2:15 am should make for some entertaining people watching, especially if it mixes people who’ve been popping bottles at Chapman & Kirby with others who have been slurping frozen drinks at Truck Yard.
Turning to Indianola, the restaurant offers an eclectic menu at all times of day in a comfortable environment. As the group’s first proper restaurant since opening Coltivare in early 2014, Indianola is informed by the things they’ve learned over the past four years.
Most importantly, it’s big enough to handle a crowd — it seats slightly more people than Coltivare does inside and out — and will take reservations through the Resy app. Whereas Coltivare can only seat parties of six or fewer, Indianola’s wide, spacious booths are designed to accommodate groups of almost any size.
“We wanted the space to be comfortable, which is why we went to the booth situation,” Weber says. “For the last two years, the restaurant Houston’s has come up multiple times in our conversations when talking about how this room is going to be set up. One of my favorite things about eating at Houston's is how comfortable it is to sit there . . .
“We wanted this to be conducive for people to come, sit, and not feel rushed. I think at Coltivare there’s that feeling that, even once you’re eating, I’ve got to get up because somebody else is waiting to sit down. We didn’t want this to be that way.”
The restaurant’s eclectic menu has been designed to satisfy just about every craving. Like Coltivare, it’s built around a lot of shareable items, but, instead of being primarily Italian-influenced, the dishes are inspired by cuisines from around the world. Diners will find crispy duck wings tossed in fish sauce, goat cheese wrapped in hoja santa leaves with chili aqua fresca, and lamb collar with Parisian gnocchi. Feeding a crowd or wanting to dive into the deep end of the wine list? Consider a 60-ounce, bone-in, wagyu ribeye from Texas producer Strube Ranch.
“The chicken and rice is awesome,” Pera says. “Chicken and rice is one of those things that every culture seems to have. I love to travel, and I always get a chicken and rice. This has been around for generations, so it’s going to be safe and good. It’s the last thing you want to muck up, and I think we hit the nail on the head.”
At breakfast, the restaurant aims to be equally appealing to area residents looking for a coffee and a quick bite as well as downtown office workers who want to hold an off-site meeting; it even has wifi for mobile workers who want to linger a bit. At lunch, they hope to draw a similar crowd as well as visitors to the George R. Brown Convention Center who are looking for something a little different.
Seeing as how the restaurant is open for three meals a deal, has an open kitchen with counter seating, and lots of booths, is it a modern diner? Maybe not in the most traditional or literal sense, but that is part of the goal.
“What does a diner do,” Pera asks rhetorically. “It satisfies someone at any time of day, giving comfort, and you kind of know what you’re going to get. We want to satisfy that aspect of a diner; you can come in here any time of day for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and know what you’re going to get. It will be comfort.”
Finally, let’s turn to Miss Carousel. First of all, it feels huge — approximately 5,000-square feet. Second, it lacks a literal bar where someone can sit on a stool and watch a bartender make drinks. Both of those reflect deliberate choices by the partners to emphasizes things they do and don’t like about most other bars.
At a crowded cocktail bar, the bartender fills a variety of rolls: order taker, drink maker, cashier, etc. On the other hand, restaurants have a clear division of labor between order takers and food preparers. Miss Carousel applies that formula to a bar; a server will take a group’s orders for a team of drink makers who are divided into different stations. Just like one cook makes a salad while another grills a steak, each bartender will focus on making a certain style of cocktails as quickly and precisely as possible.
Patrons may miss the theatrical aspect of watching a bartender shake a drink in one hand while stirring another, but they should appreciate the goal of getting the order out more quickly. It also allows the bar to serve cocktails to Indianola, too.
“We created a solution for problems we see in our existing bars,” Pera says. “We haven’t tried it, but we felt like we had to do something. We love going to get cocktails as well. In the modern, good cocktail bar, sometimes the wait for a drink can be maddening. We were trying to solve part of that problem.”
Instead of a regular bar with tables and booths, Miss Carousel takes its inspiration from hotel lobby bars that offer a comfortable array of couches and chairs. Weber has been collecting the pieces for awhile.
“I don’t really know what to say inspired the direction all that went, other than to say it’s a collection of random shit I like,” he says. “What we didn’t want it to be was trendy. We leaned heavily on what has become classic pieces in America over the last 50 to 60 years.”
The bar offers its own food menu that includes dishes like the duck wings, carrot and beet tartare, and a burger, but patrons can also opt for a slice of pizza from Vinny’s or even a dish from the Indianola menu. As at Indianola, the goal is to be as comfortable and accommodating as possible.
“I think Miss Carousel stands as a capstone to what Agricole Hospitality’s current and future goals are,” Huynh. “Not as a finisher, but we’re leaning in more towards hospitality, and our better peers are doing the same. When we evaluate what hospitality means, it’s really about bringing people into your home, welcoming them as a guest, and giving them the best care you can for the money they spend. Hopefully, they want to come back.”
Yes, the whole project is very ambitious. Houston’s recent history is littered with groups who grew too quickly or confused their lightning-in-a-bottle success for thinking they’d cracked the secrets of success. The partners know they’ve taken some big risks with this project.
“We’ve gambled on a lot of things,” Huynh says. “We’ve gambled on these large tables and comfortable booths [at Indianola]. If all people come here as two people, we’ve got ourselves a situation, but you’ve got to play to win. We’ve gambled on no bar in a bar, but we’re hoping to have greater service. You’ve got to play to win.”