It's hard to pinpoint the moment when my misgivings about Dish Society - and its in-your-face farm-to-table branding - began to turn around.
Perhaps it was during my second visit to this modern urban diner, when a crazy tangle of collard ribbons caught my fancy. Narrow and bouncy, the strands of green seemed to have been flash-seared in very hot cast iron, so that they wilted just enough for comfort, not enough to kill their aura of right-from-the-garden freshness. They were too salty, but they were really interesting.
Maybe it was even earlier in that meal, when I took a tentative sip of an elderflower spritzer that fizzed quietly in its slender, round-bottomed glass. I had braced myself for over-sweetness, only to find that a little boost of champagne vinegar and lemon made the sparkling wine cocktail come to life. That touch of vinegar was genius.
By my third visit, when a brunch-menu hash of pork belly and diced potatoes wowed me with its crackling pork-skin textures, I had to admit that Dish Society has its moments. Jalapeño wheels snaked through the scramble, a serious farm egg oozed its deep yellow yolk, and a splash of Hollandaise made it all come together.
My first meal at this Tanglewood newcomer had been a grim disaster. Had it not been my job, I would never have returned. The vaulting industrial space felt over-air-conditioned and aesthetically chilly, too - probably because I was seated with my back toward the few warm notes of yellow that soften the back wall.
The food depressed me. Fried zucchini and lemon wheels had too much batter and scant flavor except for the lemon-slice fritters. An avocado half mounded over with dark quinoa salad was a singularly ugly object. It tasted fairly agreeable, with the citrus notes of the tartly granular salad contrasting with the soft avocado richness, but presenting the dish as stuffed rather than sliced and composed exacted a visual cost that was hard to overcome.
And oh, dear, those kale tostadas. They may have sounded all healthful and everything, with the sautéed greens over black beans decked out with radish and roasted corn pico de gallo and crumbles of cotija cheese. But they sorely needed more acid or salty cotija to work.
"You know," I groused to my companion," I don't care if you get your kale from Atkinson Farms or Plant it Forward or The Last Organic Outpost if that's what you do with it."
The young owners of Dish Society (go ahead and call them entrepreneurs) are fresh out of the MBA program at the University of Texas at Austin. They picked a Houston location as part of their business plan, not because of any deep connection with the city.
They hired an Austin-based chef, Johnny Romo, to do their menu. They made the rounds of Houston's premier organic and artisanal producers, and every last one of them, from Greenway Coffee to Cloud 10 Creamery to Slow Dough Bread Co, is prominently name-checked in large type at the bottom of the menu.
It all feels calculated rather than heartfelt: the type of capital-C Concept that could be replicated in a variety of markets just by changing up suppliers.
Yet what felt terminally annoying in light of my first awful meal began to seem less objectionable as I found items to like on Dish Society's menu, and as I came to appreciate their very smart drinks program and their bright and bushy-tailed service style, with well-spoken staffers decked out in dark corporate tees or yellow gingham dress shirts.
"At least they're going for good ingredients," I told myself as I discovered that my coffee-crusted pork tenderloin from Black Hill Ranch tasted surprisingly swell with its not-to-sweet cherry-port sauce. It had been meticulously roasted, and it looked beautiful plated with mashed sweet potatoes and those bright emerald ribbons of collard greens.
A nicely grilled flank steak, its slices perfectly medium rare, got a garlicky chimichurri sauce of impressive conviction, plus roasted red potatoes and more of the collard ribbons. Just as appealing to look at was a Citrus Beet Salad with both pickled and crisped shredded beets. All the arugula, fennel, grapefruit and avocado involved never quite meshed with the soft-spoken citrus vinaigrette, but with some tinkering (I'm thinking dressing recalibration) this could be a terrific dish.
Dish Society's is a menu designed for broad appeal, with the predictable citrus salmon, truffled mac and cheese, roasted chicken and the like. Even spinach dip, albeit made with "fresh Atkinson Farms spinach and artichokes with Deep Ellum blue cheese and house chips."
There are a few little surprises here and there (cucumber-cupped ceviche shooters, anyone?), but in the main these are soothing documents that bring freshness and a quiet Texas touch to the all-day urban upscale-diner genre.
And that's fine. More so when the kitchen produces a creditable dish of caramelized bananas foster with Cloud 10 vanilla ice cream than when it sends out stodgy rectangular beignets that a New Orleanian (or a Houstonian weaned on the supernal puffs of Chez Beignets) would disown.
The usefulness of this continuous-service restaurant, which anchors the ground floor of a fancy Gables apartment block on San Felipe, is plain to see. Dish Society gets good crowds from the surrounding Galleria and Tanglewood neighborhoods, and on Sunday people are lined up to the back door to order brunch. (Breakfast, lunch and brunch are semi-service; dinner calls for table service.)
There's a counter with an open kitchen view to accommodate solo diners, and both front and back patio dining. An important inducement to linger is the beverage program that combines interesting wine cocktails (including a sophisticated and noncloying white-wine sangria) with local craft beers and credible vegetable- and fruit-juice combos. Even the Greenway coffee tastes serious.
In short, Dish Society seems to be fitting into its niche just fine. There's not a lot of "there" there, but time will tell whether this particular business plan turns into a restaurant that feels more organic - and more specific to its city.