Over the past decade, Houston’s dining cognoscenti have become accustomed to restaurants and bars with oddball names—Oxheart, Theodore Rex, Anvil, the Pastry War, Tongue-Cut Sparrow, Better Luck Tomorrow. So when Squable opened, it seemed like business as usual. Oh, a few people might have paused briefly to wonder why the word seemed to be misspelled or if it actually meant anything (see box below), but anyone who follows local restaurant news knew that Squable was in fact the brainchild of the two friends who dreamed up all those other weird names: James Beard Award–winning chef Justin Yu and nationally lauded bar mogul Bobby Heugel. (Yu started Oxheart and T. Rex, Heugel founded the next three, and the two collaborated on the last.)
Squable follows in those highly successful footsteps. Yu and Heugel have handed over cooking duties to two talented up-and-comers (more on them in a minute), and the four of them have crafted a menu that walks the line between down-to-earth and elevated. That balance, which they define as “European with American touches,” has resulted in many original combinations.
With that in mind, and given that the place is still new, you might want to make reservations. Or at least go early in the week, when there are more likely to be available tables in the pleasantly modern, low-key dining room. Interestingly, Yu and Heugel did all of the interior design themselves. Once you’ve settled in—pausing to appreciate the industrial brick walls and aqua-blue booths—a beverage would be a good idea. The Chartreuse Daisy is quite nice (Citadelle dry gin and yellow chartreuse with a hint of raspberry and a pucker of lemon), one of a slew of clever drinks developed by bar maven Anna Wilkins. So is a glass of the unusual Bele Casel col fondo bottle-fermented prosecco, a choice in the natural-wine vein from sommelier Justin Vann.
After imbibing, it might be wise to lay in a bit of ballast, so how about some bread? There is actually a section, albeit a small one, entitled “Bread” on the menu. As well there should be: the man behind the dough hook is none other than co-chef and baker extraordinaire Drew Gimma, 37, who did time at New York’s Per Se and was responsible for the glory days of Houston’s Common Bond bakery. The fat, pillowy squares of focaccia are splendid unadorned and even better slathered with their novel accompaniment, a spread of spicy mashed carrots laced with zhug (a Middle Eastern hot sauce), dusky-flavored za’atar oil, and a swirl of cashew cream. Other bready choices explore variations on texture. I truly wanted to love the Dutch baby, which is basically a giant, plate-size popover, but it was a tad leathery (if eminently Instagrammable). I was utterly taken, though, with the rye crisps: snappy shards of mahogany-hued toast riding swells of melted, paprika-rich Liptauer cheese spread a’bob with mint leaves, serranos, and pickles.
I know, man cannot live by bread alone. (No, I’m not sorry; I never apologize for bad jokes or puns.) So once you’ve finished with the carbs, it would be an excellent time to turn your attention to the more substantial, garden- and farm-sourced sections of the menu. These are the province of co-chef Mark Clayton, age 33, Squable’s other soon-to-be-major talent, whose impressive bona fides include time at Yu’s former award-winning restaurant Oxheart as well as at Stella, in New Orleans. Heirloom tomatoes, in all their multihued glory, had achieved near-peak sweetness on our visit, but what made them special was a kick-ass spin on tonnato sauce—that strange-sounding, umami-rich Italian concoction of olive oil and canned tuna. Ingeniously, Clayton made his version with confited fresh Gulf fish and finished it with a crunchy scattering of bread crumbs and leaves of heady Texas tarragon.
Bird is the Word
Yu is so fond of squab, young domesticated pigeons with delicious dark meat, that he wanted to name the restaurant after them. Heugel wasn’t convinced. After a friendly squabble, they came up with Squable.
Good as it was, though, it was bested by a not-your-everyday yet still comforting succotash made with fresh corn, a multitude of pole beans, and a pungent breath of basil, wonderfully unified by, of all things, a French brown sauce based on chicken instead of beef stock—it made for a summer dish that could stay on the menu as long as the produce holds out.
By now, you’re perhaps beginning to flag. But hold on, because—wait! There’s more! And one of those rewarding options is Clayton’s crudo of Kona Kampachi—thick-cut pieces of the ivory-pink, Hawaii-farmed fish, casually piled in a bowl and brightened with dabs of a citrus-infused chile paste. If you’re not crazy about raw fish, that’s perfectly all right. For you, there are lightly poached shrimp with a horseradish-sassed, mayo-based white cocktail sauce. Or, perhaps best of all, Clayton’s fabulous mussel toast. Already a signature, this creation is an open-faced sourdough sandwich piled with the briny shellfish (steamed and then marinated in a snappy escabeche), meaty calico beans (speckled limas), and a bonito aioli. Not only does it avoid the annoyances of the usual mussel service—tedious prying, messy dunking, trips to the dry cleaner—but, brilliantly, the beans are precisely the same size and texture as the mussels! This dish made me very happy.
When it comes to the serious protein plates, my money is on the amazing loaded salt-cured sweet potato; it comes piled with chunks of tender pork shoulder and crème fraîche tinged with Mediterranean salsa verde—parsley, oregano, and shallots. The poached snapper with pea shoots and pumpkin-seed pesto is fine if the fish isn’t overdone, as it was when I tried it, and so is the pan-roasted chicken, but the clear winner is the market steak (sliced ribeye on our visit), cooked to a smoky turn in a cast-iron skillet along with a yummy assortment of slooow-roasted vegetables—carrots, mushrooms, potatoes—and a variation on beefy sauce chasseur. They’ll put you in mind of the Sunday stews of your childhood, but infinitely better.
Just as the bread course must not be skipped, the desserts—under the direction of both chefs—are absolutely obligatory. My dining companions and I were quite taken with the roasted strawberries capped with a pert green sorrel granita, but the one that turned everybody’s heads was the sultry pain de mie, a brûlée-crisped variation on French toast brazenly floating in a pool of buttermilk-and-sherry crème anglaise.
When you visit a lot of new restaurants, as I am lucky enough to do for a living, you sometimes get a little jaded by kitchens that recycle the greatest hits of the past few years (brussels sprouts are great, but please). A menu with even a couple of creative dishes gets my attention; one with a half dozen makes me sit up straight. At Squable, I was on high alert through two entire visits. This is a kitchen that is taking chances, and the feeling that I get from Clayton and Gimma is that they’ve only just begun. Their spirit of invention is very much in tune with the free-form zeitgeist that pervades the current Houston dining scene. The restaurant with the funny name is definitely one to watch.
632 W. 19th, Houston
Opened April 23, 2019
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Everything Comes Together at Squable.” Subscribe today.