Have you ever walked into a restaurant and instantly felt it had been planned with you in mind? Judging by the buzz surrounding Zelko Bistro, which opened in April in the Heights, a lot of people are feeling that way.
I had to do three drive-bys to find the 1920 bungalow, because the sign out front is so discreet. But in a way, that’s part of the appeal. Zelko took me back a generation, to the days when so many restaurants occupied revamped older houses. The difference today is polish. Zelko’s walls aren’t stripped to the bare wood but rather painted a mossy green. And the seating includes handsome leather banquettes instead of flea market chairs. In short, style on a budget.
The same might be said of the astonishingly well-priced menu. My friends and I immediately pounced on three appetizers that summed up the homey New American philosophy of executive chef—partner Jamie Zelko. Bruschetta took a Middle Eastern turn with a topping of hummus, feta, and green olives on (sadly dry) pita bread. A beautifully presented blue crab cake came panko-crusted and balanced on frisée with a drizzle of sweet soy spiked with Thai chile sauce; more formal than the other dishes, it seemed reminiscent of the high style of chef Zelko’s previous domain, Lancaster Hotel. As for our third starter, I’m telling you now: Fried dill pickles are the new onion rings.
Turning to entrées, we batted a thousand. Even the simplest—a grouper filet with a tomato-and-pineapple pico—was perfectly pleasant, and the rest were knock-out-of-the-park good. If I had to name a favorite, it would be the juicy fried chicken breast, with Cap’n Crunch in the breading (!), served under a sweet-savory shallot marmalade. Giving the peerless poultry a run for its money was the not-stringy, not-fatty, gloriously succulent corned beef (pictured). And the tender dry-aged ribeye in a vinegary chimichurri was, at $22, the bargain of the evening.
After such a good run, it was surprising that Sunday brunch did not bowl us over. The shrimp and grits were fine, but the fish tacos needed better flour tortillas and a zippier cilantro mayo (loved the fried plantains, though). And the unfortunately named Gas House Eggs (an upscale egg in a hole, with brioche in lieu of Mrs Baird’s) were overcooked. The best dish was the plain ol’ Bungalow Breakfast: two eggs over easy with fab smoked sausage.
But the few problems seemed more like correctable quirks than serious flaws. The crucial thing Zelko has going for it is a menu and spirit perfectly tailored to its neighborhood. That’s something that can take a restaurant months to get right. Zelko had it from day one. Beer & wine. 705 E. 11th (713-880-8691). Open Tue–Fri 11–10, Sat 10–4 & 5–11, Sun 10–4 & 5–9. Closed Mon. $$ W+
Try this recipe for Blood Orange Marmalade from Selko Bistro, Houston.