JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS. Making assumptions. Forming snap judgments. Call it what you will, we all do it, me included. So when I found myself at the address for Felix 55, staring at what looked like an upscale bar with a restaurant attached, my first reaction was, Michael Kramer is cooking here? The former executive chef of Houston’s swanky Hotel Icon, the one who sent me into raptures with his mushroom “cappuccino,” is executive chef at a place wedged between a pub and a trattoria in Houston’s Rice Village? Something has gone terribly awry.
But that was before I actually sat down and sampled the ambitious and imaginative fare: sharp Peruvian ceviche with contrasting bits of sweet pineapple and mango, a lush corn soup boosted by a dab of goat cheese and a sprinkle of crisp pepitas, and a sumptuous cremini mushroom and Parmesan risotto, to name just three of the dishes I tried on visits to the two-month-old restaurant. My revised first impression? Michael Kramer is cooking here—and how.
He’s an interesting character, Kramer. Educated at the California Culinary Academy, he began his career at Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago, in Los Angeles, then moved to the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas. He ventured east to fill the executive chef’s clogs at well-regarded McCrady’s, in Charleston, then took over the kitchen at the Icon. But he is hard to pigeonhole. When friends asked, “What kind of food does he do?” I found it hard to be more specific than “eclectic.”
The truth is, he’s global. I would put an “Italian” label, for instance, on his bucatini pasta with gorgeous, perfectly cooked Gulf shrimp jazzed up with kalamata olives, basil, and tomato confit. Ditto for that lovely mushroom risotto I mentioned earlier. Those are easy calls. As for the wonderful thin squares of seared bigeye tuna in sesame-ginger vinaigrette, I’d go with “Asian-influenced.” And “Peruvian” is obvious for the corvina ceviche with an intensely tart marinade called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), made up of lime juice and fish stock spiked with fresno chile. But what would I call the meaty beef short ribs that I wanted to tear into like a wild dog? “New American”? Hard to say.
My point is that Kramer has a world of culinary tricks up his sleeve and he’s pulling them off with aplomb. True, a couple of things didn’t quite work: a beautiful bourbon-brined pork chop came off a touch dry, and its interesting-sounding sofrito of onion, Granny Smith apples, and pine nuts failed to meld. A chocolate-hazelnut bread pudding, which strove not to be saccharine and predictable, somehow ended up dense and clunky. But the problems are few and far between. If you can overlook them—and ignore the schizoid setting that combines smart gray velvet chairs and crimson panels with bizarre portraits of women adorned with moose and deer antlers—you can have a very nice evening. And you will probably arrive at a