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Fielding's dishes kissed by wood and smoke

Burgers may lead the menu at Fielding's, but diners shouldn't overlook steaks and side dishes
Alison Coo, Houston Chronicle
Updated 5:23 pm, Tuesday, January 14, 2014
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  • The signature Baked & Fried Idaho potato fries with a flight of four...
  • Fielding's wedge salad consists of iceberg lettuce, smoked bacon lardons,...
  • The 10 oz. Sirloin steak at Fielding's Wood Grill Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, in...

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Fielding's Wood Grill Two stars

1699 Research Forest, The Woodlands 832-616-3275

Hours: L&D: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards: all major

Prices: burgers $7.95-$14.75; salads $5-$12.75; steaks $16-$45; shakes & desserts $5-$10

Must-orders: Smoke Burger; Texas Blues Burger; Un-Caesar Salad; wedge salad; Baked & Fried Idaho Potatoes; Habanero Ketchup; Dirty Serrano Sauce; Caramel Shake; Espresso Doppio Shake; Bananas Foster Shake

Reservations: first come, first served

Noise level: moderate to loud

Website: fieldings.com

Treasure hunt

On a mission: Alison Cook is searching for Houston's best burgers. Find the results of her work at chron.com/bestburgers.

The best advertisement for Fielding's Wood Grill is not the classical entablature that rises over its fieldstone facade, nor is it the floodlights that bathe this momentous topknot in a dramatic glow, one moment cobalt blue, the next fiery red.

No, it's the sharp aroma of wood smoke, pecan mixed with oak, that curls into the parking lot and turns the average Texan into Pavlovian jelly. I'm helpless in the face of that smell, the more so because I know that it promises some of the best burgers in the Greater Metropolitan Statistical Area.

In a town where burgers inspire fierce passions, Fielding's matters. It's a homegrown project by Cary Attar, who launched Hubbell & Hudson specialty market in The Woodlands, and chef Edelberto Gonçalves, the Frenchman who helped put the market's bistro and prepared foods on the map. Both men left H&H in recent years, and though the market itself is closing in March, the superior burgers for which it has been known live on in the DNA of Fielding's burgers.

And then some. Attar and Gonçalves gathered ideas for Fielding's at some of the top burger meccas in America, from San Francisco to Miami to Austin. They've synthesized features they admired into a whole that has its own very particular appeal. With its rustic/industrial looks, gleaming open kitchen and varied menu, the place feels more like a restaurant than a burger joint. And while the burgers have street cred to spare, there's a lot more to recommend from the varied menu.

Fielding's goes out of its way to accommodate a variety of diners, from the various "alternative burgers" to the unusually well-made entree salads. I was much taken with a clever chopped take on Caesar salad that gave the warhorse a Spanish makeover with pimenton aioli, bronzy garlic chips and crisped filaments of chorizo sausage, with punchy Manchego cheese subbing for the usual Parmesan. It was one of those salads I find myself chasing around the plate to the last lonely bite.

Even the wedge salad with bacon lardons added a welcome Texas touch via grilled poblano chile and a blue cheese ranch that puts some edge into that oft-abused dressing genre.

The wood-burning grill produces market fish and steaks along with burgers, and a reasonably priced $19 sirloin had fine flavor and resilience. Good steaks with interchangeable sauces were one of the original draws at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro under the Attar/Gonçalves team, and that applies at Fielding's, too. The sides show a thoughtful touch as well, whether it be sesame-laced green beans or an almost shockingly rich kale and gruyere gratin that tastes like a holiday favorite gone contemporary. A three-bean salad with a too-bland lemon vinaigrette failed to move me, but with a more forceful twinge of citrus, it would be great.

Yet what keeps me coming back is those burgers. The smoky note of the house-ground Texas Angus patties that spurt meat juices when you bite into them. The wood-grilling conjures up the great outdoors, and the patties meet their match in house-baked buns, gorgeously griddle-bronzed, that are springy enough to last and sized precisely right, so that meat and bread are in balance.

Also part of the Fielding's package are carefully selected ingredients and ingenious condiments that make the various burger combinations spring to life. A Texas Blues Burger draws its mojo not from any old garden-variety blue cheese but from Point Reyes farmstead blue, creamy stuff with a proper racy funk. Add to that pickled red onions, the quick heat of raw jalapeño slices and house-cured bacon slabs that are chewy rather than crisp, plus a layer of fig jam that almost tilts the flavor profile too sweet without ever crossing over the line. It's terrific.

So is the Smoke Burger with more of that flexible, porky bacon, which plays neatly off a slide of nutty aged Italian provolone, a frizzled fried egg with a runny yolk, some grilled onions and a layer of tomatoes oven dried to a nice firm intensity, sweet and tart at once. (If those oven-dried tomatoes are a hat tip to the brilliant ones used by Bernie's Burgers, so be it: Part of the creative process is knowing whom to borrow from.)

I get nervous when I see the word "truffle" on menus, especially casual ones, bracing myself for the overweening truffle oil that usually follows. But surprise: The truffle-bacon mustard that animates the Smoke Burger works nicely, providing just the right sharp kick. And despite all the burger's parts, that wood-smoky beef flavor never gets lost. That's key.

It's key to the very fine grass-fed bison burger, too, in which pimento cheese, shaved red onion and candied jalapeño slices combine into a galvanic whole. Even a risky-sounding special, the Salumi Burger, kept its basic integrity despite a lot going on: from the spicy salami that formed one-third of the patty grind to the cap of spongy fresh mozzarella on top. Arugula, oven-dried tomato and even brined artichoke hearts couldn't throw this sandwich off its stride, and the slick-satin slices of translucent salami on top make the textures sing.

The tendency toward muchness in the burger combos here is something that bears watching, though. Avocado, poblano, habanero ketchup, pickled jalapeños, mole spices and salsa cruda quickly turned the Baja California Burger into an undefined mush. And a gutsy Goat Burger (ground in-house, no less) didn't make a clear impression under its cargo of pineapple chutney, feta, curried tzatziki sauce, pickled red onion and cucumber.

Still, I love the cheffy sauces and condiments at which Gonçalves excels. Yes, you must pay extra for them - in the manner of the late, great Burger Guys - if you want to sample them with the reputable french fries or the crazy-good Idaho potatoes that have been baked and then sundered into hunks to be crisply fried.

Go ahead and pop for a four-portion "sauce flight" to scope out your favorites because they're worth it: Whether it's the gentle pimenton aioli, alight with garlic and mild red pepper; or the electric "dirty serrano," a hot green murk with just a tiny, well-calculated shade of sweetness. I've had some depressing examples of house-made ketchup in recent years, but Fielding's fearlessly sunny-hot habanero ketchup is not among them. I wish they'd sell the stuff along with some of their bottled pickles and condiments that are on display.

The milkshakes show as much chef-ly care as the condiments do. Fielding's offers the same spiked-versus-innocent-shake dichotomy as Grub Burger but surpasses the College Station concept by starting out with a good gelato base that's made in-house, then adding carefully calibrated ingredients rather than harsh syrups. So the caramel shake with gray sea salt is a thing of beauty here, and the Espresso Doppio shake vibrates with deep coffee flavor under its soft peak of real Chantilly cream and its garnish of chocolate-covered coffee beans.

Textured shakes don't always work for me, but I admired the bananas foster shake with rum and crunchy cocoa nibs; and the tiny blistered marshmallows on an Oreo-S'Mores shake won me over in spite of my pop-kitsch skepticism. In fact, I've forsworn ordering dessert here in favor of the shakes. They're that good.

Fielding's seems determined to be a useful amenity in its neighborhood, which is north of The Woodlands Mall, where The Woodlands turns into Shenandoah. It's open every day of the week, and it's making a big deal about Saturday and Sunday brunch. The brunch menu still seems to be evolving, but I tried a splendid baked egg skillet with bacon, white beans and cream, and a rather stiff lavender-and-honey doughnut that could use some tweaking.

The bar makes very decent cocktails, there are local and regional craft beers on tap (at premium prices, I must say) and a selection of wines by the glass that is adequate, although it could be better. The service is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the extreme, and I'll confess to rather enjoying the gung-ho team spirit.

The staff here seems to believe in what it is doing, right down to founder Attar, who can be seen working the door and bussing tables right along with everyone else. That's always a good sign.

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