Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: Glass Wall

Glass Wall opened in the Heights in 2006. That makes it the dean of the recent explosion of restaurants and other hot spots in the Heights and along the Washington corridor of Houston. From the beginning, Glass Wall has been trendy, and so it remains today. Big crowds come from the neighborhood, along with some of those wrap sunglasses-wearing, pinky ring-wearing, blueberry Stoli-drinking hipsters from the Washington scene who are looking for something “old school” like a three-year-old restaurant.

The best thing about Glass Wall hits you immediately upon walking in. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, inspired by chef Lance Fegen’s passion for surfing. A large (what else?) glass wall separates the bar from the main dining area. The room is colored in cool shades of blue, green, and white. The ceilings are high. And the worst thing about Glass Wall hits you at the same time: the noise. When will successful restaurants bother to invest a pittance in a few acoustic panels that would make it comfortable for a table of four or more speak in indoor voices?

In any case, Glass Wall doesn’t let its popularity and trendy reputation go to its head. The staff plays it cool, which is the best part of the restaurant’s personality. Everyone, from the put-together hostess and co-owner Ross Shepard at the front of the house to Chris the excellent bartender and the wait staff, keeps Fegen’s laid back, surfer mentality in mind.

From Glass Wall

The menu changes a couple times each quarter, keeping it in tune with the variety of seasonal produce. But the menu doesn’t have a heavy-handed seasonal overtone, which is emphasized by occasional inconsistency from the kitchen. There tend to be staple dishes offered, with a seasonal bent to them. Appetizers will include a play on a fried junk food; entrees choices will feature pork tenderloin, short ribs, grass-fed steak, and a white fish.

Fegen has a nice flair for the creative, jiving subtly with the surf theme of the restaurant. He’ll toss in a dash of exotic fruit unexpectedly or do something a little wild, like crust tenderloin in jalapeno potato chips. There is a kind of casual fearlessness about the food that jives with the surfer mentality.

At its best, Fegen’s dishes are some of the most imaginative and skillfully executed comfort food around. His oyster beignets on top of a candied bacon pancake with hollandaise and hot sauce syrup from the winter was one of the most inspired dishes in town. Fegen isn’t afraid to take risks with flavor combinations, as the current menu’s chorizo mashed potatoes demonstrate with glorious success. The chicken fried steak — in whatever form it takes on the menu — contends in “best of” discussions. He also makes good use of lesser known cuts like the flat iron, creating solid, tasty dishes that are reliable standbys.

Not every move by the kitchen is a hit, though. The pork tenderloin tends to be overcooked and boring. The recent preparation of short ribs has been dry, a bad misstep for meat that is difficult to overcook; it allows them to be overshadowed by the excellent gouda grits that share the plate.

From Glass Wall

Where Glass Wall tends to be weakest is when it makes efforts to go more upscale. The best example is the bread service. Having someone come over with a selection of bread feels out of place, and the constantly awkward demeanor of the server underscores that. The poultry dishes are more pedestrian, coming off as an exercise in the mundane and seemingly prepared out of obligation to expectant diners.

The wine list is fairly limited but, in comparison with its peers, smartly chosen. The prices are decent; you can usually find something worth drinking. Kudos to them for suggesting a wine pairing with each dish on the menu, even appetizers. These tend to be the most interesting wines they serve. Glass prices are the now-standard $9 to $14 range.

The noise level can be blistering, which makes sitting in the bar an attractive option. It is quieter there, and it’s also a great place to watch sports. Given this, Glass Wall really succeeds in being a better version of Max’s Wine Dive: smart comfort food done in a laid back atmosphere, rather than the arrogantly in-your-face flavors you find at Max’s that are too obvious to merit serious interest. Glass Wall has a terrific ability to cut down your craving for greasy comfort food in the way a great diner does, and it will make you feel slightly cool at the same time. A bit sharper focus and consistent execution on the more complex, ambitious dishes, and it would rise up another notch.


Ed Wrath said...

The noise scared me away at first, but the food brought me back! Nice post.

Unknown said...

Limited wine list? We eat there 2-3 times a week in the bar and there are like 30 wines by the glass and 200+ bottle selections in an 85 seat restaurant. How much more should they have? I do agree that it can get noisy. Gravitas and Reef bother us in the same manner but we go anyway. Better to have good chow in a bustling place than crap food in a mausoleum.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting, Stacy. The number of seats shouldn't dictate what makes a wine list "limited." After all, the French Laundry has 60 or so seats and thousands bottles. In this context, I meant it to indicate that too many of the wines are just macro producers that pump out fairly generic wine. The excellent wine-by-the-glass selection is where you can find the most interesting stuff at Glass Wall for sure.

Of course, it bears noting that it's not always the fault of Glass Wall or any other restaurant in town when their list has too many big producers on the list. They can (and are) held hostage by the shoddy wholesaler network in Texas and restricted by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, which mandates all restaurant wines must be purchased from a Texas wholesaler -- cutting off a wide swath of compelling, smaller wine producers from potentially showing up on Houston lists.

Unknown said...

We come to all the Glass Wall wine dinners and none have ever been big producers. Most things we drink there are 1000 case or under. They even email us as new vintages of the boutique wines when they come in so we get some before their gone. Enkidu, Joseph Swan, Futo, Meander, Schrader, Dancing Hares, Reverie, Larkmead, Trespass, Venge, Waugh, Carter, Bond, Mercury Head, Hendry, Cliff Lede.... We go out alot and don't order Caymus or Silver Oak. We've been to wine country with one of the GW owners and he's never taken us to a mass production facility. Maybe your tastes are more esoteric than ours but My husband and I are happy with Glass Wall, Shade, Reef, and Catalan. Price, selection, and service mean the world to us. Keep up the posts, we enjoy keeping up tp date!!!