When it comes to chef Michael Kramer, I think we have to keep meeting like this. We encountered him first at Voice, the strangely named eatery that followed Jean-Georges’ Bank (where we first met Bryan Caswell, come to think of it) at downtown’s Hotel Icon. Then we met him again – yes, as though for the first time – at a fresh, more interesting spin on The Tasting Room at City Centre. We met him one more time the other night, at his new place in Rice Village, Felix 55.
Starting with its bar serving up “Scratch Cocktails,” Felix 55 is a restaurant/hangout for today’s young-to-middle-aged global-minded eater and drinker. Word is, the owner wanted the casual atmosphere to carry over into very casual, almost “bar food,” but when he bought into Kramer he bought into the whole culinary package – seasonality and global dishes and worldly creations. Kramer’s menu is, as in the other Houston places he has cooked, anything but boring.
If one country rules (slightly) over all others at Felix 55, it’s Italy – I guess pizza and pasta are just too good to ignore. Then again, the pizzas here are called Flatbreads, and they divide between one built around prosciutto and another built around mushrooms. The one above is the mushroom, with muti-colored teardrop tomatoes and caramelized onions. We opted out of the truffle oil, being entirely over it. Real actual truffles themselves – those we’ll never get over!
Kramer has always had a flair for gnocchi – though to us, saying “potato gnocchi” on a menu is about as redundant as saying “ciabbata bread – and this flair continues at Felix 55. This selection from the list of Small Plates features perfectly made gnocchi plus brussels sprouts (fried, as they need to be to make me eat my vegetables) chorizo, grape tomatoes and a nifty, light Parmesan broth.
Also stunning in its “simple” good taste is the mushroom risotto. Chef Kramer, in conversation, says he wishes this stuff didn’t need stirring for so long – but since it does, he has no intention of changing his ways. The mushrooms are crimini, sometimes sold in the stores as Baby Portabella, and they meet up here with lots of Parmesan and chive.
Moving to the Large Plates (which are also excellent for sharing, as we did and always do), Kramer’s version of Gulf snapper is one of the best I’ve tasted. While vegetarians and others may howl at the chef’s insistence on cooking seafood with bits of bacon or chorizo, the proof is in some very flavorful pudding. Italy again gets a nod, with those wonderful white beans underneath the fish.
Duck can certainly disappoint, since there’s so many ways to do too much or too little to it, and so little room in between. All the same, Kramer’s mesquite smoked duck has become a favorite, with its fig mostarda (a kind of sweet-sour relish), Israeli cous cous (the big stuff) and crushed hazelnuts. Even the sauce on this is sweet and sour, known in Italian as “agro dolce.”
Except for the odd topping of just-translucent diced onions across the top, as though steak were a burger at some White Castle, the grilled hanger steak at Felix 55 is terrific. I guess that’s what the menu means by “roast onion vinaigrette.” Better accents to the lovely, char-kissed beef are provided by the mustard-glazed cubes of potato and, almost in hiding, spears of asparagus.
There are four desserts on the current Felix 55 menu, and we sampled three of them – sorry, that was all we could face after so much of Michael Kramer’s food. The gooey chocolate cake, a kind of souffle meets molten lava thing, was pleasingly intense. Still, our favorite was the orange-fennel panna cotta, swirled through with berry compote and candied fennel like some too-weird escapee from Blue Bell, and sided with wonderful biscotti. Yum!