By JOHN DeMERS
After a life blessed with dinners in Provence and Tuscany, and also in the likes of Finland, Morocco and Brazil, I finally got around yesterday to eating in Alvin. And the meal, as they say at le Guide Michelin, was definitely worth the special trip.
That comment, of course – like every other rave or at least positive consideration recently published about The Barbed Rose – has a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek. Yet whenever that carefully placed tongue gets in the way of eating this food, it’s time for it to get out of my way. The restaurant, named after owner Joe Schneider’s mother, Barbara Rose, is doing most things you’d expect in a suburban, Outside the Loop commercial setting, from offering express-lunch specials to keeping the wine markup low. But when you move from what Schneider is charging to what executive chef Jason Chaney is cooking, you’ll scratch your head and decide this can’t be the same place.
Yes, there are burgers served at the Barbed Rose, offered not only as your choice of quarter- or half-pounder but spilling out into a more casual space outside. Still, it’s hard to get more casual and comfortable than the Barbed Rose itself. There are jacketless and collarless shirts in the dining room on this day, plus three unapologetic cowboy hats, kept on. Young servers, mostly trying to remember their OJT from the day before yesterday, do their best as ambassadors of food that’s unrelentingly local, seasonal, organic and, most importantly, laboriously created from scratch. When a restaurant produces its own ketchup and mustard, you know you’re not in Kansas (or indeed Alvin) anymore.
Terrific starters at the Barbed Rose include the crispy alligator bites with Crystal (Louisiana hot sauce)-bacon aioli, the even better country fried oysters with thick-cut bacon and pickled jalapenos, and a nice, super-thin spin on fried onion strings with chile peppers. Since The Barbed Rose opened a few months back, an entire religion has sprung up around Joe’s Gumbo, something of a departure for a burly Jewish guy originally from New York but super-downhome with its Deep South crackling-as-croutons nonetheless. It may be some of the best gumbo you’ve ever tasted; it certainly will be the best rice and gravy.
Chef Jason offers many things, including many steaks – The Barbed Rose subtitles itself “Steakhouse and Seafood Co.,” trying to be helpful and persuasive at the same time. The steaks are terrific, seemingly all hailing from small, artisanal ranches here in Texas, seasoned and cooked with immense care. We love the “filet and fries” (when was the last time an eatery in Alvin offered “composed dishes”?), but we also love the texture fest of the BBQ Shrimp and Grits, made with blue-corn, stone-ground grits from a mill powered by water instead of electricity. Best desserts within these walls are the Grand Marnier cheesecake and the bananas Foster bread pudding.
Joe Schneider, who used to run officer’s clubs across Europe when he was in the military, is a man with a vision – which he hopes will revitalize Alvin’s historic downtown in the months and years to come. He thinks his town is more than ready for a restaurant that does all the things it already loves but just does them a lot better. We salute him for that.
Photos: (top) a quarter-pound burger with caramelized onions, (center) the fried gator bites, with seared scallops waiting behind them.