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A rare slow moment at the usually hopping bar at Del Frisco’s Grille

Grille Power

by John DeMers | Photo: Debora Smail | Houston magazine | June 28, 2013

If a man (for surely it would be a man) swept in from a lifetime of eating in dark-wooded, old-line steakhouses like Peter Luger’s or Gallagher’s in New York, or even from their more recent progeny like Morton’s of Chicago or Ruth’s Chris of New Orleans, he’d probably feel more at home on the planet Jupiter than inside the new Del Frisco’s Grille, a fun-minded and bustling new spinoff of the Galleria’s Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House.

From the moment I make my way past West Ave’s high-end retail like Tootsie’s and Jonathan Adler, and even past other hip restaurants like Eddie V’s and Pondicheri, I’m too fascinated by everything that’s new within this red-hot development to contemplate anything old-school. And the Grille’s young women servers in black “skorts,” fishnet stockings and high-topped boots aren’t helping my concentration.

“It’s hip and trendy,” laughs the manager. “The food’s fresh. The cocktails are supreme. You’re never gonna have a dull time here. Oh, and it’s River Oaks.”

Make no mistake: Del Frisco’s Grille has all the basics that an old-time steakhouse would have—and indeed does many of the same things foodwise that Del Frisco’s Double Eagle and its other sibling concepts, the “neighborhood steakhouse” Sullivan’s nearby on Westheimer, do daily. What’s different is that it serves up those things at lower prices with a free-form, modernist, “have it your way” sensibility. Del Frisco’s Grille uses youthful creations like Buffalo-sauced “grit cakes” and cheesesteak egg rolls to turn the beloved American steakhouse into something cool.

From certain vantage points outside, the Grille looks for all the world like a two-story restaurant, its levels connected by a soaring, rounded corner of glinting glass. Or perhaps we’re merely remembering the space as home to the short-lived paired eateries, Ava and Alto, fielded by Houston’s usually successful Schiller-Del Grande Group. But no, the Grille is a one-story restaurant, the old Ava space plus a large former retail area turned into the lively bar that is key to this new place’s attitude, atmosphere and profitability. Anybody who’s seen the busy watering holes at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle or Sullivan’s knows that much going in.

This bar welcomes you from the development’s public space, after letting you tour a cluster of outside tables long enough to note how pleasant they’d be in mild weather. The actual drink-making area is theater-in-the-round, or at least in rectangle, one entire wall taken up strikingly by a colorful installation of resin art by Marty Dawe of Atlanta, the same New South city that’s home to the restaurant chain’s design firm, John Studios. The art, however, is a varied series of contemporary accents handpicked by Del Frisco’s own CEO.

The side of the main dining room that edges Kirby Drive is all glass, looking out through trees to glimpses of passing cars. Two of the other sides feature uber-contemporary glassed-in wine rooms, while the last side offers the most striking visual of all—the Grille’s busy open kitchen, with chefs flashing back and forth beneath a passion-red ceiling beam emblazoned with a motto, “Do right and feed every man.” Sure, I think, and start right now with me.

Overhead, there are brown wooden beams reminiscent of steakhouses past, not entirely covering the industrial pipes and mechanisms above. The most intriguing lighting runs along the Kirby wall: a family gathering of hanging chrome sticks, each ending in a glowing crystal that might resemble Texas stars if it didn’t look even more like glowing stalks of Kryptonite from the old Superman stories. A soundtrack that includes the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” plays over the din of the at-capacity crowd.

The entire scene is meant to be lively and fun. And, in turn, so is the menu.

Replacing the traditional sequencing of appetizer, soup or salad, entree and then dessert, this double-truck card offers sections delineated as Food to Fight Over, Flatbreads (creative spins on pizza), Ruffage, Big Greens, Signature Steaks (implied to be the same prime beef as at Double Eagle), From the Sea, Knife and Fork, Two-Fisted Sandwiches and a final flourish of sides colorfully known as Lil’ Somethin’ Somethin’. You are encouraged to mix and match, to order a little or a lot.

The apps to fight over—or share, per your mood—are many and high-spirited, from pimento cheese fritters with chipotle ranch to the “grit cakes” with spicy Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese crumbles. Two best-sellers from Double Eagle and/or Sullivan’s have been allowed to sneak in—the Asianized cheesesteak eggrolls, a variation surely never seen in or around Philadelphia, and the ahi tuna tartare tacos with spicy citrus mayo.

Flatbreads here are satisfying, too, especially the version with barbecue beef, smoked Gouda, jalapeños and crema. It’s one of several dishes created exclusively for the Houston restaurant by Executive Chef Jeff Taylor.

Seafood options include the Bay of Fundy salmon with arugula-citrus salad and the so-called sole Francese with lump crabmeat and chive-lemon butter—your basic French dish with an Italian name for an American market. I love the dishes categorized under Knife and Fork, not just to practice my utensil skills but to indulge in comfort-food spins like veal meatloaf with mashed potatoes and mushrooms, beef short rib stroganoff with pappardelle noodles, and mesquite-smoked pork chops with grits and a bourbon-apple glaze.

If you’re a regular at other Del Frisco’s concepts, you are within your rights to insist that dessert be their company-wide six-layer lemon doberge cake. But I think the oozy warm chocolate cake and the wow-that’s-big coconut cream pie with white chocolate shavings are even better. In fact, if you want to start with dessert and work backward, it’s a safe bet the skorted servers won’t stop you. This newfangled steakhouse—truly a fun place to dine out and act up this summer—didn’t come to its smashing new success by following the old rules.

Del Frisco’s Grille
In West Ave, 832.623.6168

Hours
Lunch Monday-Friday 11am-4pm; dinner Monday-Saturday 4-11pm and Sunday 4-10pm; brunch Saturday-Sunday 11am-4pm

Prices
Appetizers $7-$16, flatbreads $12-$14, main dishes $14-$39, sides $6-$9, desserts $8-$9

Why Go
It just may be the steakhouse of the future, where beef is only one aspect of what’s for dinner—along with global flavors, innovative dishes, a fun high-energy vibe and an assault of killer cocktails, including shots on tap.

Parking
Complimentary lunch valet at the entrance inside West Ave, $7 in the evening, plus complimentary self-parking in the convenient multilevel lot

Attire
Fun, hip and casually fashion-forward, especially in the bar, where regular diners dress to be seen. A remarkable number could pass for J.Crew models.

Weekend Brunch
You haven’t fully lived until you chase a cleverly outfitted Build-Your-Own-Bloody-Mary with either the red velvet waffles or the chicken-fried steak and eggs with a jumbo biscuit and chorizo gravy. Factor in time for a nap afterward.