On a rare visit to Houston, I made it a point to find my way to REEF, generally regarded as one of the best seafood restaurants in America. The chef/owner, Bryan Caswell, is a serious cook with major bona fides. He trained under some of this country's most revered chefs — Charlie Palmer, Alfred Portale, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten — and was himself selected as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs in 2009.
The hallmark of a great restaurant is consistency of excellence over time. Too often we end up disappointed by establishments whose reviews were so promising early on, yet whose stars have faded like the print in the newspapers that published those reviews. REEF is approaching its sixth birthday this summer. I can't speak to what it was like five years ago, but I can faithfully report that Caswell can flat-out cook. And on a recent Saturday night, a whole crowd of happy and beautiful Houstonians were clearly enjoying the wonderful food that he is still delivering.
The Louisiana-born Caswell is obviously passionate about fish and seafood, both as a chef and sport fisherman. REEF sources almost all of its product from local waters and farms, and Caswell prepares them deftly, infusing his own Cajun-ish style into the proceedings. Caswell's cooking is sophisticated without being fussy. He coaxes the maximum flavor out of the best possible ingredients, amplifying them to their best effect without obscuring their underlying goodness. When that's done well, all corners of the palate are happily stimulated. Caswell is the kind of guy who is prouder of having perfected a Louisiana-style sauce piquant than of winning a culinary award.
The high-ceilinged space is modern-looking and acoustically challenged, which is to say, cacophonous. But the din can be assuaged by slurping down a half-dozen clean, freshly shucked Gulf oysters on the half-shell coupled with your favorite crisp white wine, cold beer, or icy martini. Keep it simple, kids: lightly brush your mollusk with just a touch of mignonette sauce, maybe a shard or two of shaved horseradish, then close your eyes and delight in the essence of the sea. Also worth sampling are the unique smoked San Antonio Bay oysters topped with chow chow relish and ghost pepper caviar, a blast of bold flavors that underscore the oyster's briny creaminess.
As you peruse a 16-page wine list featuring many affordables, consider a sprightly La Poussie 2010 Sancerre, whose light grapefruit notes pair particularly well with seafood. If that astringency isn't to your taste, perhaps a pinot noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley or a rounder chardonnay would be. And even if you're the type to forego the bread basket to save room for dinner, don't miss out on the jalapeño apple jelly that accompanies it. Killer good, even straight up.
Although the menu offers concessions to meat eaters (rib-eye, pork chop, chicken), the restaurant's name and the chef's saltwater devotion should persuade you to order the fruits of the sea. The menu is a challenge in the best possible way: there's not a thing on it I wouldn't be eager to eat. Appetizers such as baked oysters with creamy Swiss chard, lime pickle, and Asiago breadcrumbs or jumbo crabcakes with taquería-style pickled vinaigrette compete for your attention with seafood and Andouille sausage gumbo or perhaps sweet potato and bacon ravioli over a green apple salad. Steamed Prince Edward Island mussels are prepared in a Shiner Bock beer and tomato broth infused with toasted ancho for a touch of smoky heat. These mussels are the plumpest I've ever seen and you'll scoop up the full-flavored liquid with an empty shell, a tablespoon, or via the "soppage" provided by the thick toasts served within.
Current main courses include crispy-skin snapper in tomato brown butter; redfish with fried mac and cheese; roasted Gulf shrimp with smoked bacon, fresh lemon pepper pasta, and garlic oil; and slow-baked salmon with Meyer lemon risotto and chile oil. Roasted grouper is a big hit, a firm and meaty white fish set against the creamy backdrop of cauliflower grits punctuated by bits of sweet potato and oyster mushrooms. And perfectly seared scallops sit like four fat, sweet pillows of seafood on a bed of smoky polenta topped with pickled okra and the aforementioned sauce piquant for a slightly spicy, bright kick. These dishes reflect the chef's talent for marrying tastes and textures that highlight the starring protein with a savory supporting cast that lights up the tongue.
For sweets, my super-knowledgeable server, Paige, turned me on to the Milkshake "No Minors," a truly beautiful invention involving brandy, Kahlúa, and crème de cacao mixed into vanilla ice cream from Blue Bell, whose brilliant motto is, "We eat all we can and sell the rest." Boozy and decadent, this is my kind of dessert. For those who like to close with cake or pie, the thin lime tart with charred meringue on the side and a splash of raspberry coulis will not hurt you at all.