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Thursday, November 27, 2014

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City Oven long on concept, short on soul

Alison Coo, Houston Chronicle
Published 12:30 pm, Tuesday, March 18, 2014
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City Oven

(No stars)

2802 White Oak 713-868-3400

Hours: L&D: 11 a.m.-midnight Sundays-Wednesdays; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Prices: starters $2.99-$10.95; pizzas $9.99-$14.99; sandwiches $8.99-$9.99

Must-orders: Bacon Cheddarburger

Reservations: first come, first served

Noise level: moderate

Website: thecityoven.com

The menu at City Oven promised an "artisan fresh thin crust pizza" from a wood-burning oven.

The 16-inch oval crust with roasted garlic and spinach sounded like it had possibilities. And perhaps it might have, had the many cloves of garlic strewn across it been anywhere close to roasted. Instead of mellow and lush, the toes were hardish and sharp. Seriously unpalatable. I started picking them out, which left a cracker-crusted pie spangled with feta cheese, leathery strips of sun-dried tomato and a precious few leaves of baby spinach, all mounted on a base coat of olive oil and creamy garlic sauce.

Not fun. Especially not with a warm glass of mediocre Chianti into which I ended up plopping a couple of ice cubes as self-defense. (A hoppy 512 IPA out of Austin, one of the local and Texas beers City Oven keeps on tap, would have been a happier choice.)

I'm not sure what was artisanal about a uniform crust with a uniform crackery texture, but if it wasn't exactly good (or interesting), it wasn't exactly bad either.

I wish I could say that dreary supper was the exception rather than the rule at City Oven, but I can't. Dish after dish struck me as mediocre or barely passable, except for the very good burgers that are a saving grace.

If City Oven were a struggling mom-and-pop, I would have walked away and left its failings unremarked. But it's a new concept from HUSA Management, the company that owns Sherlock's Pub and Baker St. Pub & Grill along with Local Pour, which is about to expand to its second location on Lake Woodlands.

So there's money behind this self-described "pizza tavern," and a certain amount of corporate stability. HUSA is clearly riding the recent trend that has seen bars blending with restaurants, along with the surge of interest in craft beer and pizza - both of which have undergone a renaissance here in the past few years.

In a booming restaurant market like ours, so many operators rush to get in the game that you end up with a certain percentage of derivative, paint-by-numbers places such as City Oven. I could have shrugged the spot off had the contrast with Crisp - another Heights pizza tavern with an emphasis on craft beer - not been so stark.

Crisp has been put together well enough - by other pub owners from Pub Fiction, as it happens - that it yields more pleasure than pain. Its premium wine system and temperature-controlled storage puts the dreary choices and abysmal wine service at City Oven to shame. The beer selection is far more varied and intelligently served.

And the pizzas at Crisp can be surprisingly good, a phrase I would not apply to a single pie I sampled at City Oven. A thin-crusted Sicilian pie one evening at City Oven tasted not so much of pepperoni, Italian sausage and baby portobella mushrooms as it did of salt. Lots and lots of salt.

A thick-crusted "traditional" Heights Special pie featured an overbearing breadlike crust as a platform for processed artichoke hearts, feta, roma tomato, green olives and red onion. Its sparse scattering of dryish grilled chicken hunks did nothing to change my opinion that chicken does not belong on a pizza.

Best of the lot was a thick-crusted "White Oak" pizza, named for the street on which City Oven sits, that was a simple, extra-cheesy variant on the classic Margherita. Fresh tomato slices and basil leaves gave it some spark, and the creamy olive-oil-and-garlic base picked up all that molten provolone and mozzarella.

Alas, the White Oak grew stodgier and less appealing as it cooled, so that by the end of a second piece I had had enough. Two pieces of pizza? That's some kind of record for me. Not the good kind.

One of City Oven's specialties is giant meatballs, and I was perplexed by the first one I sampled. It arrived clad in a nice enough tomato sauce and a snowdrift of ricotta cheese, but the interior was stiff and insufficiently heated. The advertised mozzarella stuffing was a solid clod of cheese at the bottom of the meat.

On another night, the meatball was much better: softer, greened up with more basil and filled with mozzarella that had a little ooze and stretch to it. I still wished it had been served hotter, but it was perfectly OK.

Not so the miserable excuse for a Caesar side salad with a dressing that was no better than what you'd get out of a supermarket bottle. Sure, it was cheap at $2.99. But charge a few dollars more and give me something I actually want to eat.

So what to order if you find yourself joining friends at City Oven? The enormously likable Bacon Cheddarburger, which sounds maniacal on the menu, with its bacon-cheese stuffing surmounted by more cheese and more bacon, in the form of crisp crisscrossed strips. They grill the dickens out of the slightly sweet buns and cook the wonderfully oozy patty to your specifications - always a selling point. The results are so flavorful, I ate the whole thing without a single condiment.

A blue cheese burger was almost as successful, although blasting the cheese to a bronzed finish tamped down some of the jumpiness I prize in blue-veined cheese. Still, it works fine. The french fries served with it are crisp and ostensibly fresh-cut, but their interiors somehow manage to mimic the texture of the frozen kind.

There is nothing in this slightly glum-looking room, with its sea of browns and wood tones, to lure one in off the street. It feels a little like an oversize basement rec room, with corny holiday inflatables looming overhead (leprechauns at this season) and your brother's pick-up band performing for Karaoke Night or Open-Mike Night - just two of City Oven's many weekly events and nightly specials.

But the young staff is generally cheery and welcoming, and their friendly attitude and the burgers are the two best things about the place. And maybe, on this burgeoning strip of restaurants and bars that feels like Washington-Avenue-in-training, that's enough.

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