For six decades, Houston lore had it that Felix Mexican restaurant, in River Oaks, was so popular because everyone in the swanky neighborhood ate there on their cook’s night off. Whether the story is true or not, the Tex-Mex cafe was dearly loved until the day it closed, in 2008, and one person who can testify to that fact firsthand is chef Ford Fry, who went to school in the neighborhood in the eighties. “What I remember most,” he recalled in a quasi-sentimental mood, “were the enchiladas. They were covered in this really dark chile gravy—probably made with Mexene or Gebhardt’s chile powder—and filled with what tasted like a blend of cheddar and ‘government cheese.’ We all loved them.”
When he grew up, Fry moved away, attended the New England Culinary Institute, and, in 2007, started an Atlanta-based restaurant empire. Eight years and some ten concepts later (the Optimist, No. 246), he had maxed out his adopted city and state. So, logically, he turned his attention to another restaurant-crazed megalopolis, his hometown of Houston. State of Grace, just off River Oaks Boulevard and across from his old high school, marks his Texas debut.
It’s a bit luxe, high-ceilinged and full of light, yet not stuffy or intimidating. The menu, under the direction of Bobby Matos, formerly of Tony Vallone’s Ciao Bello, also manages to be both comforting and current. And, as you scan the concise single page, your eyes stop in astonishment at an item that Houstonians likely never expected to see again: “cheese enchilada ‘a la Felix,’ ” in all its molten, Tex-Mex glory. Genius, pure genius.
On two visits to State of Grace, the scene was like something out of a big Hollywood movie set in Palm Springs, where everyone is bathed in a flattering, rosy light. Fry’s in-house designer, Elizabeth Ingram, wanted a home-like feel. “I like to make up a backstory,” she said. “I knew that Texans like to hunt, so my theme evolved in that direction, with lots of antlers and mounted animals on the walls.” Despite the chatter and table-hopping, you can actually talk with only slightly raised voices, thanks to Ingram’s decision to pad the upholstered walls and ceiling.
Although Fry and Matos say they are emphasizing Houston as an international culinary capital, the strongest influence, I felt, is the Old South, beginning with the much-promoted appetizer of lobster hush puppies. “They’re lobster beignets,” a friend insisted, nibbling one like a dainty squirrel. And given that the well-browned cornmeal sphere was adrift in powdered sugar, she had a point. Another starter, Alabama apple salad, cued more Southern memories with its thin-sliced sweet-tart apples, celery curls, and—fun variations—candied pecans and a dressing of sherry vinegar, bacon, and maple syrup.
But while the South rules the roost, the Lone Star State does get its share of attention. One of the best dishes is the German Texan–inspired pork schnitzel, pounded to dinner-plate size and remarkable tenderness, glistening with panko bread crumbs and buttery “mustard frills,” a spunky topping of minced mustard greens. But it was the classic chicken—juicy, and just a bit crisp-skinned, lolling on creamy potatoes à la Joël Robuchon and garnished with caper berries—that showed the kitchen at its best.
On both of my forays, everybody was in the mood for seafood, so we tried a lot. The word “paella” was not used for the seared diver scallops with grilled squid on Spanish bomba rice, but the dish actually had a socarrat—that irresistible crusty bottom layer—and it was in fact very accomplished. Other seafood came off mixed. We liked the hefty cobia filet, toasted brown on the outside and cooked a shade past medium, even though its accompanying medley of infant root vegetables proved not only underdone (for the most part) but also inexplicably flavorless despite a toss in harissa vinaigrette. But it was the drastically overcooked flounder filet, slicked with a lemongrass-and-ginger-tinged shrimp mousse and surrounded by various undercooked field peas, that remained unfinished at the end of the meal.
Another thing that surprised us was the crazy swings in service. On our first trip: perfection. Our waitress delivered an entertaining spiel on the Ford Fry dynasty; knew the menu up, down, and sideways; and tended us so expertly that Carson on Downton Abbey could not have found fault. The second visit: disaster. Our cheerful but harried waiter was so overworked we rarely saw him, and after wiping down the table with a wet rag like a sailor swabbing a battleship, he unknowingly dropped a piece of pasta in my friend’s water glass. Much hilarity ensued when she discovered it floating like a belly-up minnow a minute later.
Soon enough, both evenings wound down to dessert, a mere four choices, no doubt influenced by the fact that everybody in River Oaks is on some sort of spa diet. If what you want is a straight-ahead sugar fix, by all means get the apple cake or the smoked-chocolate sundae. But the clever deconstructed lemon-curd pie, with snappy-crisp squares of crust, has real finesse, and that classic English date cake—sticky toffee pudding—is fall-to-your-knees fabulous.
As I was mulling over the ups and downs of the visits a few days later, I had a sudden thought. When Fry was telling me about Felix’s cheese enchiladas, he happened to mention that the best thing from the old days was the basket of brown-sugar pecan pralines beside the cafe’s cash register. Of course. Everybody who grew up in Texas back then remembers the basket of pralines at their favorite Mexican restaurant. As soon as it hit me, I began to wonder: Is a praline dessert “a la Felix” in State of Grace’s future? I wouldn’t be surprised.
State of Grace: 3258 Westheimer Rd, Houston (832-942-5808). L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. $$$–$$$$
Opened: October 19, 2015