It was 6:30 on a Saturday evening - early, perhaps, in the night life of an urban thoroughfare - yet Houston Street was deserted. Meanwhile, at this same hour, the nearby River Walk teemed with seated diners and roving pedestrians.
Still, we have spent lavishly on Houston Street for the very purpose of equalizing the traffic. We have widened sidewalks in anticipation of the madding crowds. There are lighted palm trees and the vaunted connection at Presa Street between Houston and the River - a stairway and associated water feature calculated to "suck" people up off the River Walk. Unfortunately, the water feature is as often featuring mud as not, and the Presa-connection public art, a series of neon-illuminated, etched glass "manhole covers" set into the sidewalk as way-finding runway lights, hasn't functioned fully since its installation. (It's useless during the day even when working properly.) Should you, despite all odds, actually make it to Houston Street - past the handsome, and brave, glass gallery and the Buckhorn's enthusiastic, bless 'em, barkers - your first big urban experience is a view of a parking lot. A real crowd-pleaser every time.
This is all a shame, for Houston Street doesn't need to be our very own Boulevard of Broken Dreams. There is already a lot to offer: Between the brash Buckhorn and the posh, new Valencia hotel alone there are several cultural and commercial attractions - the Children's Museum and the Majestic and Empire Theatres among them - worth the attention of locals and visitors alike.
And there are classy bars and upscale restaurants, pioneers on an underpopulated frontier. In addition to strategic and inventive marketing, the street needs the bars and the restaurants. Among the first to stake a claim was the Houston Street Bistro, and their most recent reward for vision and perseverance has been the canceling of the final portion of the symphony's season in the adjacent Majestic. So much for the prix-fixe, pre-theater menu - at least on symphony nights.
The regular menu, which can also be enjoyed at sheltered, sidewalk seating, offers music- and theater-themed dishes aplenty however, Bistro's crab cake "Handel" comes juxtaposed against an obbligato of, we assume, roasted red pepper puree further accented with a drizzle of dilled mustard. (The sauce is fine, but the mustard tips perilously close to French's with added herb.) The generous cake is crisply coated in coarse panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or its equivalent, and the coating is among its best features, considering the mild quality of the crab. Still, this is an extremely pleasant starter, one that would work well with a glass of, say, chardonnay or pinot noir from the brief, but adequate wine list.
Chicken gorgonzola "Bye Bye Birdie," beef ravioli "Chicago" and pistachio-crusted snapper "Titanic" are some of the available entrées. "Anna and the King of Siam" having been a TV feature that very night, I was inspired to select the grilled pork chop, "The King and I." You'll be happy to know that the chop is not served Yul Brynner bald; it comes with an Anna-inspired mango-cinnamon chutney. A little more of Anna's spunk might be suggested; the cinnamon-dominated chutney needed less sweet and more gravity, but it wasn't an altogether bad consort to the superb, marinated pork chop. Good mashed potatoes, showing some skin for authenticity, and a sautée of well-seasoned, julienned carrots and squashes accompanied the chop. The bellwether crème brulée was not available come dessert time, but the equally litmus-like tiramisu got the nod - both before and after. Although the sheet-cake style isn't my favorite form, the layers and flavors (ladyfingers, coffee, cocoa, and a sour-sweet whipped cheese) were fine enough to make me forget. The restaurant, by the way, may have boasted four or five occupied tables during the entire time I was there. These are not the numbers of a restaurateur's fondest dreams.
Lunch, fortunately, is another story - yet without the nearby SBC office building, it is imagined that the story wouldn't have a happy ending. Light options include the ubiquitous grilled chicken Caesar, although here, at least, the chicken is grilled to order, not pulled pre-cooked from a refrigerator, and the romaine is fresh and crisp. A full, half-pound Bistro Burger tops the sandwich list, but the portabella (or portobello, if you prefer- just not portabello, please) mushroom sandwich with grilled onions, balsamic, smoked gouda, and aioli seemed more challenging. Served in a small, ciabatta-like roll, the sandwich rewards with interestingly complex flavors (although the smoked gouda tends to get lost in the shuffle) which actually taste better cold. (I took half home. Cold, the balsamic has more to offer.) The skinny fries seemed both limp and salty. Although the lettuce, tomato, and pickle looked pretty, it had nothing to do with this sandwich. But a bowl of tomato basil soup proved to be a worthy starter in its own right and a good partner to the sandwich.
More-ambitious eaters might appreciate entrées the likes of pasta primavera (no theatrical subtitles at lunch), chicken marsala and the 8-ounce New York Strip steak. Looking to the lighter side, pistachio-crusted filet of salmon leaped from the page and settled nicely on the plate. The nut crust was peppery and crunchy, the salmon perfectly cooked, and if the foundation puddle of red pepper purée was a little skimpy, it at least had good flavor. The same mashed potatoes and julienned vegetables accompanied the salmon - again good, but the one-side-suits-all approach will discourage repeat customers in time.
Yes, there's talent on Houston Street - at HSB and all along its length. So how to encourage both new and repeat customers? The developers don't seem to have figured this out yet, and time is running short. One suggestion to energize the bar and restaurant scene at night might be a series of culinary pub crawls linking the likes of Citrus (and the bar) in the Valencia, the Davenport, the Gunter, Houston Street Bistro, Bohanan's, the Palm, and the Buckhorn. Close the street if need be. The new courtyard adjacent to the old Frost Brothers might be a good gathering point; there is more-than-adequate parking nearby. Then advertise as an antidote to the overcrowded River Walk. Offer discount cards common to participating establishments. Fund the symphony (yes, you, the developer/realtors and other stake-holders) and get them out on the street playing during the crawl. And the rest of you out there, get off your butts and get downtown. There's more than just a few restaurants to save. •