Think of a cozy fire burning inside a brick fireplace. As the flames lick the wood, hot coals fall down through the thick metal rack that supports the logs. That rack is called an andiron, after which Michael Sambrooks named his latest Houston restaurant. Sambrooks describes Andiron, which opened just five weeks ago, as “a modern, progressive version of a steakhouse.” It’s swanky—both in design and menu—but the kitchen runs on the rustic fuel of post oak logs and hardwood lump charcoal.
“Where there’s smoke,” reads the sign on the corner of the building pointing to the entrance. You first see smoke on the walls and ceilings, which are made of wood planks with burnt surfaces, a Japanese process of shou sugi ban. Bronze accents, warm lighting, and plush chairs complete the look. Beyond the front dining room and bar is another dining area that looks into the open kitchen where multiple fires burn for chef Louis Maldonado’s many dishes.
Steaks from California-raised Holstein cattle, Australian and Japanese Wagyu, and American Angus are cooked on oak in the Basque-style Josper grills. Whole maitake mushrooms hang overhead to catch the heat and smoke from the beef fat. Butterflied chicken wings and chunks of Japanese A5 Wagyu sizzle over binchōtan (white charcoal) in a Josper Robatagrill. Inside the Mibrasa wood- and-charcoal-fired oven, oysters are slowly roasted with oak smoke to become the base for a smoked aioli that dresses the beef tartare. There’s plenty of smoke and fire to go around, and we haven’t even gotten to the smoked beef rib.
In 2016, Sambrooks opened his first restaurant, the Pit Room in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. It’s a well-respected barbecue joint and helped Sambrooks make his mark on Houston restaurant culture. The smoke followed him to Candente, where he added barbecue flair to a Tex-Mex menu, including smoked pork ribs with ancho chipotle barbecue sauce and chile lime butter. He wanted to nod to his barbecue history at Andiron, and began planning a smoky showpiece from the beginning. A smoked beef short rib, which Sambrooks calls “the lobster tail of barbecue,” was the obvious answer.
The menu at Andiron is broken into sections, unlike a traditional steakhouse. Selections from the raw bar, salads, tastings, and items from the robata grill are all treated as appetizers. Each section has a few set items, but the servers also point to the smaller “Daily Reserves” menu that lists specific oysters, caviar, Japanese A5 Wagyu varieties like snow beef from Hokkaido and olive beef from Kagawa in tasting portions, and full-size steak options that can change daily. “It’s a choose your-own-experience steakhouse,” Sambrooks said.
I chose a small bite of a Wagyu saucisson (which is a fancy French way of saying a sausage made from Wagyu trim) sandwich. It was well-spiced, and each half was topped with shaved black truffle. At the bottom of the menu, you’ll find the large-format proteins meant for sharing, while the “Meat & Fish” section has a selection of more personal-size entrees and traditional steak cuts like ribeyes and strips. That’s where you’ll find the beef short rib au poivre.
My reaction to the first bite of the rib was that the surface was packed with an uncomfortable amount of peppercorns. After the burn mellowed, I tasted their floral and sweet notes, and I wanted more. A combination of white, green, pink, burgundy, and black peppercorns are ground in the kitchen in a large mortar and pestle. The pepper mix is used just for the beef rib, and it’s generously rubbed onto racks of Holstein beef short ribs from Brandt Beef (the Pit Room now uses their briskets exclusively as well). Once the smoking is done, the meat is taken off the bone, trimmed of the membrane between the meat and bone, and shaped for plating. Sambrooks said they get two ten-ounce portions of smoked beef rib from each three-bone rack. That’s a pound and a quarter of meat from a full rack of beef ribs. “We sacrifice a lot,” Sambrooks said. No wonder the dish costs $56.
The peppercorns provide the sparkle, but it’s the sauce that brings the steakhouse elegance. A traditional au poivre sauce is built with shallots, garlic, beef stock, green peppercorns, and plenty of cream. Maldonado’s kitchen keeps it light on the cream so the rich beef demi-glace can shine. The sauce is a deep brown and tames the heat of the peppercorns. The notable absence on the plate for a barbecue fan is the bone. Sambrooks said there was a debate about what to do with the bone, but it got in the way of the rib, and especially the sauce, when plated. “It looked a touch prettier without the bone,” Sambrooks said. I didn’t miss it.
The current menu isn’t yet online, but Sambrooks promises it will come soon. He said after announcing the project two years ago, it seems like it just opened yesterday. Even after the prolonged construction, the restaurant hasn’t gotten all of its equipment yet. A cabinet lined with Himalayan salt is coming and will be used for dry-aging beef. There is currently just one andiron, used to efficiently produce the hot wood coals for cooking all that beef. A couple more are being custom-fabricated to fit within the grills they already have to increase coal production, which means there’s even more smoke coming to the Andiron kitchen.