When precisely did it happen that Houston became this swanky hip restaurant town? One which no doubt shares a pretty decent chunk of the National Restaurant Association (that other NRA) prediction that the Texas restaurant industry will lead the country’s sales growth in 2013?
I mean, we might have known it was coming even back in the 2000s, before economic crisis woes struck. Montrose was slowly but surely being gentrified. “Mid-town” appeared. The process of downtown urban renewal was on. Lofts were making it possible for downtown business districts to double as living spaces. And districts like Upper Kirby were bridging the divide that separated most of us from the untouchably rich River Oaks.
With these changes, the food scene was changing, too. Rapidly. Chefs were becoming celebrities, and we were beginning to identify their restaurants with them. Think: Monica Pope (of t’afia), Mark Cox (of Mark’s American Cuisine), Hugo Ortega (of Hugo’s), Anita Jaisinghani (of Indika). In 2006, Houston was already a “haven for hip cuisine,” according to USA Today, thanks to its increasingly numerous expert and creative Chefs. While it had never been so important to associate Ashiana with Chef Kiran Verma, when she took over Bombay Palace on Westheimer, the place bore her name: Kiran’s (and stated that the cuisine remained traditional while the Chef was modern–but that’s a separate story). Other names appeared in course: Marco Wiles (of Poscol), and Bryan Caswell (of Reef).
This was in 2009, roughly. I’d left Houston a year before, and when I’d return for D & G’s annual November break, there was this distinct sense, enhanced every year, that Houston was growing into a coveted foodie Mecca. In 2011, Culture Map reported that Houston had not one but two Lower Westheimer restaurant rows. Of course, for those with longitudinal views of the city and its development, this was nothing new. Restaurant rows had always lined Westheimer. It’s just that they were now taking on the character of their exclusive, name-brand Chefs. What Mark Cox had begun by converting an old, 1920s church into one of Houston’s “most romantic” eateries (a status I cannot deny; Mark’s really is a pretty special Houston spot), others continued, converting old houses and taking over older establishments and reinventing them with commitments to the local. As Monica Pope’s trademarked tag-line goes, the promise was increasingly to “eat where your food lives.”
In the meantime, other restaurants either survived or gave in to the new landscapes. Mai Thai on Kirby just South of 59 wasn’t there the last we looked, and there was talk of a high-rise. Ming’s Cafe on Montrose just south of Westheimer (at which I was treated to my 37th birthday dinner) closed to another Bryan Caswell undertaking, Little Bigs. But no-fuss joints like Niko Niko’s remained right across the road, Churrasco’s at Shepherd Square seems a permanent fixture, the sun will never set on the Empire Cafe’s domain between two sets of restaurant rows, and Chuy’s has much too much of a following ever to be displaced by anything, cults of celebrity or any other–even when Pondicheri, Tootsies, and urban lofts move in right next door.
[The image above is borrowed from the Houston Press, which has a fantastic series of maps showing the changes on Westheimer’s restaurant row between 1997 and 2012. Click on the image (or here) to get to the slide show.]
You’re wondering where all this is going, beyond general Houston restaurant mapping? Bear with me, I’m getting there!
I am of course interested in what happens to Indian cuisine in this sort of gentrified Houston landscape, beyond the worship of Anita Jaisinghani’s Indika and Pondicheri. I’ve talked before about how Indian eating in Houston went from ethnic enclave to the mainstream world of gourmet, bistro, and fast-quick alike–and indeed, Jaisinghani’s 2011 Upper Kirby “Pondicheri” undertaking was a lovely example of just that sort of shift.
In 2012, however, two other things seemed to have happened, taking Indian-inspired culinary forms into new sorts of conversations. Let’s call them Doshi Nosh? I’ll explain.
We found The Doshi House on a whim–following a Facebook comment left by a friend who was away from Houston but curious also about its emergent eating scenes. I had no idea what really to expect, or where we were going. Only that the place sounded interesting, a new take on Indian-in-Houston, and I wanted to find it.
I dragged along my smart BAM Mexican student-friend (whose devotion to Arundhati Roy’s poetry politics I cannot fathom) for what turned out to be a 40th birthday lunch treat.
And treat it was, beyond expectation. Doshi House is a virtual outpost in Houston’s historically black, neglected Third Ward, situated at one end of Project Rowhouses. This is a community that resists gentrification in the sense that it demands integration and respect rather than the sort of outright take-over to which neighborhoods like Lower Westheimer and Montrose can so much more easily adapt.
In this sort of space does Doshi House introduce a blend of old and new. It continues the conversation on what food can do to open up spaces of community. It makes use of well-worn ingredients–an existing structure, couches, books, fittings, a used piano–to fashion an invitation to sit, read, converse, commune, and congeal; it’s not brand-spanking new synthetic stucco in spaces which are deeply self-conscious of their sagging wooden habitations.
Within this framework, Doshi House opens out some possibilities. It’s the only coffee house in the vicinity. It’s the only Indian-inspired eatery in the Third Ward, and one of few establishments to attempt a conversation across historically race-divided lines–anything else Indian is either in suburban ethnic enclaves on 59 and Hillcroft or Sugarland, or on gentrified urban rows. It speaks to the bohemian, student-scholar, artist, environment-conscious, and second-(or third-) generation Indian Americans, all of whom thrive in such mixed ethnic spaces. And although it’s run by its own chef whose name is projected onto the establishment, it’s not so much celebrity that matters here, but identity. And a young chef named Deepak Doshi who was experimenting with new recipes when we got there, and who apparently loves to cook.
We found Nosh Bistro on another whim, learning of its opening through another foodie friend who remarked at once on its über style. She wasn’t wrong.
Set alongside the old but face-lifted Taco Cabana (site of many a cheap grad student lunch) and the long-standing Café Japon (site of birthday dinner #36), in the once-upon-a-time bank space across, Nosh is a visual treat. Plush and purple, rich and red, shot through with shine and silver, sitting in the dappled sunshine of Houston’s lovely live oaks, Nosh is a stunner. Food-wise, Neera Patidar’s undertaking with partner Kwan Lee, Nosh takes on that new genre “Asian” but with Indian tones of the sort that Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly on Westheimer doesn’t even try to incorporate.
So, I’m honestly glad for these sorts of new directions in Indian food, but gosh, Nosh was just a tad too posh for me.
We went with children: mistake #1. When the waiter approached us to take drink requests, we asked for water: mistake #2. We should have specified: sparkling water, flat water, smart water, bottled water. Just water is like drinking out of a tap, and that’s just not über chic at a place like Nosh. We went in between errands–heck, we were about to undertake an international move in weeks–instead of a nice, long, leisurely lunch with girlfriends or business colleagues: mistake #3. And we went hungry: mistake #4. Portions were gorgeously presented, but miniscule. The bill was over twice what we paid at Doshi House, and less than half as satisfying.
[In fairness to Nosh, we did come upon them barely a week after they had begun opening for lunch. Their eagerness and nervousness showed. Badly. Perhaps they’ve since settled into a different sort of comfort zone?]
Now places like Underbelly and Mark’s are not necessarily child-friendly at all, even at lunchtimes–and that’s unfortunate, because we happen to have very foodie children who are summarily written out food narratives except those involving mac-and-cheese, soul-less pizzas, or other thoughtless assemblages. “Children” are presumed to be those picky-eater noisy mannerless sorts, to which no restaurant worth its salt, save Pondicheri (or Chuy’s whose jumble just mixes up kids and adults) really creates anything special.
But that’s not the only trouble with Nosh, which seems so absorbed in its own über self-referential Asian style, it’s not really attempting a conversation except on terms it sets. And while Deepak Doshi was bustling around with experiments and modifications to accommodate, Nosh worked flatly within its established parameters: glamour, style, “Asian.” All of which make Nosh a rich-crowd party that wants to invite non-River Oaks guests in, but hasn’t yet figured out how to do so. I hope it does yet, because it certainly has eye candy enough to draw people in–and then surprise them, rather than affirm the inevitable race/class/ethnic barriers.
What these two new Indian additions to the gentrified Houston restaurant scene mark are points in an emergent narrative about Houston food that experiments like Underbelly–which I don’t mean to pick on, they do have the best tortilla soup I have ever tasted, but heck, they do claim to tell the story of Houston food and yet do it so partially–just don’t capture. While Nosh tries to take the already-established into new heights of glamour, Doshi House brings us back down to earth in a gentle, unpretentious and yet creative way that extends neglected conversations about race, space, and renewal. They’re both telling responses to the unfolding story of Houston’s culinary and urban gentrification, to put it in a nutshell.
Although I was slightly less than enthusiastic about Pondicheri on our first visit, compared to posh Nosh it’s creative, lively, inclusive, and interesting in a grounded sort of way–open to kids and families and other sorts of gatherings alike. It also has a new pastry counter, and something called the “Pondi bar”–chivda snacks made into a sort-of rice-krispie bar–that make it just that much more charming. At the very least, its breakfasts and brunches are well worth a trip across town.
What’s to happen on the Houston foodie scene next, I wonder? Will I get a chance to see it unfold? I hope so–either myself or via your mailed-in narratives of what’s new and trending in H-town.