Ava Kitchen and Whiskey Bar
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THE NEW THREE R’S—retail, restaurants, and residential—have got the Houston intersection of Kirby and Westheimer in their mighty grip. Thanks to the glitzy West Ave development, you can wheel in (or gaze down from your luxury apartment) and map out a Kardashian-worthy day of shopping, sipping, nibbling, and preening. If you plan your stroll so you finish at Tootsies (designer labels on the left, stuff the rest of us can afford on the right), you can stroll across the drive for lunch or dinner at Ava Kitchen, the latest restaurant from chef Robert Del Grande.
Ava’s long, contemporary space unfurls languidly along plate-glass windows, accented with splashy decorative details like crimson sofas and zebra-striped bar chairs. Pale periwinkle walls unite the disparate parts, and as in RDG + Bar Annie—Del Grande’s primary venue—tables and banquettes are cleverly grouped to give a sense of intimacy despite the size of the space.
The approachable menu skews Mediterranean in general and southern French in particular, but it doesn’t take its bistro basics so seriously they cramp innovation. The salade niçoise, for instance, featured lightly poached fresh ahi tuna instead of the traditional canned version, with unusual accents of jumbo black and green Cerignola olives, piquillo peppers, fava beans, and fingerling potatoes. The bistro steak with fries (pictured), a slightly chewy but juicy and flavorful skirt steak, came crowned with a luscious blob of herbed butter and sided with sweetly caramelized cipolline, a touch you don’t see that often (the fries, hot and semi-crispy, came lightly dusted with Parmesan in a small silver cup). A plate of unapologetically fatty, beautifully grilled lamb T-bones was dabbed with sharp, sweet pomegranate molasses.
But if meat entrées fared well, the fish were having a bad day when my friends and I visited, getting an A for freshness but a B for less-than-spot-on cooking on two occasions. The so-called Gulf Coast shrimp sauce on redfish pêcheur shouted of saffron and the fish was overdone to boot. The opposite problem afflicted the striped bass; the uppermost of the two stacked skin-on filets was perfect and moist, the lower one sadly mushy. Good accompaniments—piquant slices of Spanish chorizo and tiny steamed mussels arranged in a pretty ring—redeemed the package.
If you were to ask me if I have a sweet tooth, I would indignantly deny it, but the desserts at Ava’s gave the lie to that little pretense. For something straight out of grade school, I liked the assorted cookies, with the itty-bitty sugar-glazed palmiers taking top honors. Chocolate profiteroles confirmed the wisdom of all chocolate all the time. But the most seductive creation was the tarte tatin, a super-homey version with the apples all but melting into a pool of heavenly caramel sauce. Too sweet? No way.
One final note: By April 1, Ava’s sibling, Pizzeria Alto, should be open upstairs. If you can’t get into Ava, try for a pie in the sky. Bar. 2800 Kirby (713-386-6460). Lunch Mon–Sat 11–3. Dinner Mon–Wed 5–10, Thur–Sat 5–11. Closed Sun. $$$ W+