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Mussels are prepared traditionally, steamed in white wine, garlic, lemon and herbs.

High Numbers

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | July 23, 2013

We’re talking raw oysters—the tall, slender, hiply unshaven server and I—at chef Kevin Bryant’s new Eleven XI Restaurant and Bar in Montrose. We’re talking about where their Gulf oysters come from, versus where their East Coast oysters come from, when I impulsively decide what I would like to do is sample one oyster each from six different locales. “Unless,” I tell the fellow, “that’s bucking the system.”

He laughs, “The system was made to be bucked.”

Of course it was. The place, while chef-centered, is devoid of pretense, a restaurant that deep-fries game hens like old-time Southern chickens and serves an oversized cheeseburger both lunch and dinner. It’s also a craft-driven bar starting remarkably early in the afternoon, one that’s not especially froufrou about its creative cocktails or snobby about its wines or beers. In short, Bryant and company really are shaking things up in Houston. And I love them more for it each time I go.

A veteran of Tony Vallone’s culinary bootcamp, Bryant is that oddity among today’s chefs: a guy who seems more interested in cooking what people feel like eating rather than in making them eat what he feels like cooking. And Eleven XI’s pro-customer stance isn’t lost on its black-clad waitstaff. Servers seem ready to become your personal lobbyists, convincing the kitchen to make anything you want, any way you want it.

You enter Eleven XI, carved out of the old house where Biba’s One’s a Meal once was, by way of a large patio—which in milder weather is a great additional dining space as the main room seats only 42. And since the place has been packed since about 10 minutes after opening, you may have to wait for your table at either a small sitting area to your left or the sloped-ceilinged bar with brick-framed windows to your right. That’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. Inside the latter, GM Joe Welborn (Soma Sushi, Rockwood Room) and Joe Hausner (Austin by way of Eddie V’s) have come up with one of the more satisfying cocktail lists I’ve seen. Two instant favorites, especially for the tail end of summer, are the 11 Cherry Limeade, inspired by Sonic but featuring Grey Goose Cherry Noir, and the Spicy Anabella, its lemon-lime pop showcasing pisco.

The dining room—flanked on one end by a glassed-in kitchen, with sliding windows the chef can open to get closer to his guests—is lovely and comfy, chockablock with four-tops and banquettes beneath oak ceiling panels. But my favorite touch at Eleven XI is kept on the far side of an art deco door salvaged from the original Ruggles Grill on Westheimer: The soap dispenser in the men’s room started out as a Maker’s Mark bottle.

Bryant’s menu is spread across a single horizontal card; and while it’s true that waiters would lobby for anything off-menu you requested, it’s hard to imagine not finding great items here. This chef’s journey over the years from the Italian-tilting fine-dining stalwart Tony’s to the mod French brasserie L’Olivier taught him how to make people love him with food. Thus the several deep-fried things. And the burger, with a mound of sweet caramelized onions and your choice of challah or pretzel bun. Go with the pretzel, soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, and nowhere near as salty as the word “pretzel” might imply. Houston’s Slow Dough’s commercial baking mastery strikes again.

In addition to that selection of raw oysters, there’s a daily grilled oyster dish—one recent hit combines pico de gallo, bacon and cheese to such wonderful effect it had better stay on the menu. Other starters seem to spin off from certain entrees, like the game hen salad and the baby-back rib sandwich. From the section titled “bites to share or not,” I particularly like the very traditional steamed Cape Cod mussels in white wine, garlic, lemon and basil—and the braised pork shank with broccoli slaw, a nontraditional reworking of barbecued ribs.

Among the seafood entrees, it’d be hard to miss Eleven XI’s “whole fish program.” Around the room, several tables are enjoying whole fish—often a variety of flaky, white-fleshed snapper—snapping the dish’s photo before laughing about how exactly to pull off the meat. Hint: Your fork or your fingers work just fine.

Outside of whole fish, Bryant’s menu steers unabashedly toward poultry and meat. In lieu of any chicken, there are two smaller birds worthy of attention: Texas quail seared in a cast-iron skillet and served atop smoked Gouda blue grits—they taste better than the unusual color makes them look—and a wild game hen that’s been brined in Katz Honeybush apricot tea and then deep-fried whole. (You can get it roasted instead if that’s your cup of, well, tea.) In addition to the filet mignon with grilled asparagus and a tangy shaved mushroom salad, Bryant serves up a caveman-style bone-in beef short rib, its mushroom topping laced with Dublin’s Black Cherry Cola syrup, and a majestic 14-ounce double-bone grilled pork chop.

For dessert, there’s always a Daily Fried Pie. Peach and apple fillings are good when it’s their day to shine, but try to be there for the pie filled with fig cheesecake. There’s an excellent country apple crumble served warm under sharp cheddar cheese, a classic bit of Americana. And if you’re feeling at all state-fair-deprived, you can get an excellent mini funnel cake.

Still, if you suddenly pine for one of those fancier eateries where everything is pomp, circumstance and tweezers, you can enjoy a tiny piece of that experience by ordering the peanut butter tower. It’s one of those molded frozen affairs, like grown-up Reese’s made with creamy filling given texture by Valrhona chocolate. The dessert stands proud and chef-like, like so many things earn the right to at Kevin Bryant’s new Eleven XI.

Eleven XI
607 W. Gray St.
713.529.5881

Tuesday-Thursday
11:11am-10pm;
Friday 11:11am-11:11pm; Saturday 4pm-11:11pm

Appetizers $9-$17;
Salads and Sandwiches $9-$15;
Entrees $16-$42;
Desserts $8

Why Go
Named after the “wishing hour” of 11:11, this is a comfort zone of food, atmosphere and service. Chef Kevin Bryant emerges as a force with fresh spins on everybody’s favorite flavors, also offering excellent wines and even better cocktails.

Parking
Valet at the entrance is complimentary at lunch, $5 at dinner, plus limited spots on nearby residential streets.

Attire
Comfortable and casual, per the style of the place. But do consider this for a date; you will still be served well even if you dress up.

Tasting Menus
Bryant does offer tasting menus of five, seven and nine courses, a fun way to dine if you sit at the chef’s tables along the kitchen-end of the dining room and have him popping in via the kitchen’s sliding windows.

Anything Goes
The beverage-pairing program is nontraditional, with some night’s tasting menus mixing and matching wines, cocktails and beers, in no particular order—except the quest for a memorable culinary experience.