During this way-too-long, way-too-hot summer here in Texas, there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a cold slice of watermelon – especially if it comes with a martini attached. This, one of several creative-meets-classic cocktails at the brand-new Sorrel Urban Bistro, brings the quality that had people driving all over creation to Ray’s Grill in Fulshear right into the heart of Houston on West Alabama between Shepherd and Kirby.
Though the space inhabited by Sorrel (which owners Ray Salti and chef-partner Soren Pedersen choose to pronounce Sor-ELLE) was long home to a joint called Ziggy’s, they pretty much stripped the building down to its bones and started over. Their idea was to create a sophisticated but very casual interior filled with sunlight and airiness that offered some of the best approaches to farm-to-table cooking anywhere. Based on a tasting and radio taping at Sorrel last night, I’d say that a mere few weeks of operating have gotten them close to that goal.
Chef Soren, a native of Denmark who’s been cooking his way around restaurants and private clubs in America for many years, is very serious about his farm-to-table mantra. He’s especially happy when the best version of something is seasonal, organic AND local, but he isn’t afraid to look elsewhere when that’s where better quality or more selection comes from. The process is helped along by his creating new lunch and dinner menus each day, using only what he really likes the looks of.
Chef Soren’s pride and joy is his daily Innovation Menu (five courses at dinner, three at lunch), which he says offers him the ultimate freedom to express the best stuff coming into his kitchen. We opted to wrestle back control, ordering too many dishes that we were simply curious or excited about trying. These lovely whole shrimp (yes, with heads and tails still attached) are spiked with ancho chile and positioned above their own broth with wilted spinach.
Sometimes, in the middle of so much chef innovation, it just feels right to revisit a classic. You’d be tempted to think of potato-leek soup with creme fraiche as a serious wintertime thing, so rich and warming and tasting of the hearth. But when Chef Soren gets through with it, potato-leek soup is lightier, even livelier than we’ve ever tasted it before. It’s nothing short of a wonder. You should try it next time he’s in the mood, or maybe just ask if he can make it for you.
I know a lot of people these days say they’re weary of tuna tartare, so I’m delighted to report that this isn’t it. The menu describes it as peppercorn-crusted ahi, and happily it doesn’t spare the pepper. The crust is crunchy and a tad hot-tasting, in a good way, slowly letting you taste your way into tender tuna that’s, naturally, served very rare. The dish shows up with a saffron drizzle and something called “eggplant stew.”
If you prefer your fish on the lighter, whiter side, boy does Sorrel have a snapper for you. Under this crinkled, lightly charred skin awaits some of the moistest and most delicious snapper you’ve ever tried. The dish comes with two great pieces of summertime Gulf Coast produce: tomato turned into a slaw and okra that’s “quick-fried,” meaning without the ball o’batter so (rightly) popular across the Deep South.
Chef Soren serves red meat several ways on any evening’s menu, all of them worthy as best we can tell. On this night, for instance, there’s iron-skillet seared beef mignon with parsnip puree (in the role of mashed potatoes) and grain mustard demi glace, plus rack of lamb crusted with black lava salt with grilled sweet potato and a pinot noir reduction. We opted for this grilled veal mignon with portobello rosotto and a demi of dried cherries.
Responding to our table’s assembled groans that we were much too full for any dessert, the pastry chef brought us a sampler platter with three of them. Spoons were passed around ceremonially and the force-feeding began. Most sweets were light, or at least (like the blueberry bread pudding) cut unnaturally small for Texas, no doubt at our urging. We particularly enjoyed this dessert, built around a simple grilled peach. It is peach season in Texas, after all.
A couple additional visuals seem in order here, before we dismiss the congregation from this service. At Sorrel, part of the “chef-driven” attitude gets a boost from this and at least one other video monitor. Ironically, this one is right by the open kitchen, letting the diners gaze – you guessed it – right into the open kitchen. There’s another monitor upfront where diners wait for their tables, I guess to reassure them all their waiting is not for naught.
And finally, a visual that’s closer to my heart than any silly old open kitchen on TV… In case you weren’t there to see us at Sorrel Urban Bistro last night, and maybe in case you’ve never seen Delicious Mischief being recorded, here’s the table where it happened. That’s me, of course, interviewing chef on left and owner on right. And toward the front, that’s PR goddess Kimberly Park keeping her eye (and her camera) on things, plus our good friend Ashli, known for her food website Almost Veggie Houston. Since my daughter Amanda (now known as The Texavore) snapped this photo, there’s a whole lot I like about it.