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Early Days (and Nights) at Houston’s Triniti

At Ryan Hildebrand’s new chef-heavy Triniti, whenever I sit near the open kitchen, I get the feeling I’m in some trench-claustrophobic strategy meeting in an old war movie. There are always chefs on one side of the counter and servers on the other side, with maybe a manager or three hovering for good measure. And everything about these meetings always looks, feels and seems life or death.

I doubt it is – life or death, since it is only food. Still, I don’t recall another Houston restaurant opening with such fanfare, meaning such buzz, helped along by the social media side of the fence that operates without deadlines or  publishing lead times. Triniti opened Dec. 24 after about three nights of “friends and family” trial runs, and within hours the local foodie community had declared it a huge success. Anybody with a brain understands the challenge inherent in that.

By this point, Chef Ryan and his partners (not to mention Greg Lowry and the other high-powered chefs in the kitchen) might seriously need a drink. So last night, in solidarity with their stress levels, we had two of them. I’m now a huge fan of something called The Derby on the right of the photo, which might be the best mint julep I’ve ever tasted. And while nobody we asked seemed to have a clue why the name, the Hello Kitty was excellent as well. It was great for lychee lovers, that’s for sure.

Time and again, talking about trends, successes and signature dishes at Triniti presses you up against the crazy fact that the place has barely gotten open yet. On the other hand, one of the more popular dishes (especially among that first assault of foodie types) is the veal broth. The stuff is see-through but intensely flavored, and there’s a foie gras dumpling in there that oozes open when you cut into it.

Another huge hit is the pork belly with corn risotto. That’s my translation anyway, since the menu at Triniti has an annoying habit of listing one item on the left (not even always the most important), then setting forth three or four others arbitrarily on the right side. In the dish titled RISOTTO, there is an immense amount of great stuff going on. And true to its title, the risotto is worth eating even if you don’t want to lay eyes on pork belly. Besides, it comes with a few delicate bay scallops strewn about.

Some of the dishes at Triniti strike me as overly cheffed-up, which is my way of saying pretentious. It’s as though a kitchen owns every device from the foodservice catalog and sets out to use every one – in every dish. Now think of that in human, not in equipment terms. The Texas quail starter strikes me as the exception more than the rule, a flourish of good taste: just one bird stuffed with sausage from another, beans and some grits turned purple with port wine, all done well.

I don’t think it says anything about who’s right or who’s wrong, but I do think the sea bass entree uses simplicity and good sense in a manner not all the dishes on the menu do. First, it’s an incredible piece of fish, cooked skin-on the way chefs love these days, then served with saffron rutabaga, bok choy and red (no, not white!) wine. Still mildly over the top, the dish comes at you with primordial great taste that could almost pass for home cooking.

Wiinning the award for food you might want to hang on your wall, the  entree titled PORK presents a crazy visual indeed. Chefs these days love to pool, poke and smear, and this dish lets them do all of those things. Incorporating pumpkin, yams and cranberry, it is also a modern and minimalist spin on the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving. Which is odd all the way around.

I call it the runway… the tire track of sauce or whatever that marks where the main element of a dish seems to have just skidded to a landing. And seldom has the runway been more so than with Triniti’s dessert built around pistachio semi freddo. The sweet finale seems a huge hit, however, since several tables had one at the center with the flashing of spoons turning adversarial. We were well-behaved at our table, but I did love the chocolate shortbread on the bottom.

By this point, we’ve all been instructed that life is like a box of chocolates. But when you order the dessert titled BOXES (?) at Triniti, you get a selection of lovely chocolates both dark and white, plus something the restaurant bills as macaroons. I really need to look up what a macaroon technically is, since these lime-green things are nothing like the gooey-delicious coconut confections that typically go by that name.

This final generosity of some form of transmuted mango (yes, the stuff that looks like an egg yolk) with a smattering of chocolate truffles reminds me that we should all be generous – maybe especially with a restaurant open less than two weeks. In that spirit, I have to tell you: I’m really excited about the prospects of Triniti, knowing that for Chef Ryan (who has cooked everything for everybody just about everywhere), this opportunity has been a long time coming. I hope Triniti’s future is, well, sunny side up!

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About John DeMers

I've been a journalist and author forever. My favorite single word in the English language is "foodandwine." This spirit drives my 45 published books and my weekly radio show heard in Houston, Dallas and Austin.

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