BACK WHEN HOTSHOT Houston chef Lance Fegen was at Zula and Trevisio, there was a whole lotta shaking going on: a lot of food on the plate, a lot of flash in the kitchen, a lot of figures on the check. But that was then and this is now, and while nobody would mistake the 36-year-old Fegen for a disciple of Henry David Thoreau’s (“Simplify, simplify”), you can’t help noticing that he’s adopted a much simpler philosophy at his popular new dinner venture, the Glass Wall.
Take the location, for starters. It’s in the Heights, that bohemian, ethnically diverse, laid-back neighborhood north of downtown that has always seemed out of place in Space City. The Heights is on the rise, and if you’re a recovering whiz-kid chef, it would be hard to find a better place to open a small, creative, moderately priced restaurant.
More proof of Fegen’s devotion to simplicity is apparent as soon as you sit down. The menu—printed on plain, cream-colored paper—contains seven or eight choices each for appetizers and entrées; for dessert, you have half a dozen choices. The revised ethos shows up, too, in the look of the restaurant, a compact dining room and bar painted chamois yellow with polished concrete floors and a Zen-like wall of black river rocks. (Hey, is it too late to rename the place the Rock Wall? It’s a much more striking feature than the glass wall etched with the restaurant’s name.) But Fegen’s new approach is most evident in the fact that there are only three chefs and two prep people in the kitchen, period, which means that straightforward is the order of the day.
My absolute favorite appetizer, the one I am still dreaming about, was the roasted whole baby beets (all caramelized and sweet) with two side dishes. The first was a refreshing homemade mint yogurt jazzed up with garlic and a grind or two of toasted Indian Tellicherry peppercorns. Nothing else. Zip. Nada. The other, a rich eggplant salad, was also simple, with smoky roasted red bell pepper, honey, and cider vinegar for added spark; imagine a cross between Sicily’s relishlike caponata and the Middle East’s magnificently mushy baba ganouj.
Among the entrées, the best of five sampled was the rack of lamb—astoundingly flavorful, pink, tender chops sided by a coarsely chopped ratatouille. Equally fabulous was the perfectly cooked filet of king salmon in a novel sauce made of thickened corn milk (the sweet white liquid that flows from cut kernels). Crunchy fiddlehead ferns came alongside as an accent (they taste like the color green, by the way). In contrast, a semi-flavorless New York strip didn’t live up to its $25 price tag. And the black sea bass was tragically overcooked.
Desserts are out to satisfy, not razzle-dazzle. I liked the creamy coconut panna cotta with pineapple sorbet, but the one that rang my comfort-food bell was the fresh-rhubarb-and-strawberry crisp, even though the top crust could have been, ahem, crisper.
The menu changes every two to four weeks, so who knows what next month, and the next, and the next, will bring. But I really like what I’ve seen of Fegen’s less-is-more approach. So many chefs today attempt superhuman feats (maybe to feed superhuman egos?). It’s nice to find one who’s operating on a human scale. (For more information, see Glass Wall, right.