Riel is headed by executive chef and co-owner Ryan Lachaine, who has been an integral part of the kitchens at Underbelly and before that Reef, working with Chris Shepherd and Bryan Caswell, two of the city’s best chefs. It is a very good resume to have for Houston, and his productive time at Reef, especially, was on display during my visit, with three very good to exemplary seafood dishes: a pleasantly vibrant snapper crudo; blue crab with bits of bacon and tomato on top of a luscious toasted brioche; and something called Gulf Fish Karagge. The last was the highlight of the meal for me. It is a Japanese name that translates here to pieces of delicately fried redfish and grouper coated in a piquant fashion and served with a surprisingly complementary and subtle house-made ranch dressing; the overall effect was more sophisticated, and more flavorful than my description provides.
The top quality sourcing for these Gulf seafood preparations were evident, and expected in Houston for a restaurant of this caliber (and price), but was probably best represented the other night with the dish with just the name of ‘Carrots.' Featuring much-smaller-than-your-supermarket carrots from a farm in Louisiana, these tasty carrots were made much more so with a light touch of cardamom-laced honey, yogurt and powered hazelnut – a possible modernist trick that worked quite well here – plus a slightly sweet sauce from golden raisins, all for a pleasing effect that highlighted the natural flavor of sturdy, well-cooked carrots.
Our final dish was a steak, the Hanger Steak that featured a perfectly cooked steak cut with a terrific, salty crust encasing the moist, deep-red interior. Served sliced for sharing along with a horseradish cream sauce, crisp, deep green haricot verts and a couple of pierogis filled with potatoes and a sharp-tasting smoked cheddar. As much as I love pierogis, part of a testament to my Ukrainian and Polish heritage and childhood memories of the dish from my grandmother, these pierogis, though pan-finished and as attractive as pierogis can be, were my least favorite of the dishes I had that night. The sharp taste of the cheese were discordant with my thoughts of what potato and cheese pierogis should be and even with the rest of that dish. No matter, it wasn’t much of a fail. I still ate them with relish.
The seventeen dishes, fifteen of which are savory, at Riel the other night were meant for sharing. Well, maybe not the borscht. Though Lachaine’s Ukrainian dishes have been mentioned in seemingly all of the pieces about the restaurant – writers and restaurants have to come up with stories to tell – it only shows in the borscht and the pierogis, which are just one component of a dish. These two items fit in well with the rest of the menu, as does his Canadian-influenced ones, something called Montreal Smoked Meat and another, Tourtiere, which we were told is a type of French-Canadian meat pie. All in all, Riel offers what is a sensible, contemporary Houston menu with some personal touches that should be readily approachable and very enjoyable for most diners.
To note, and important for those with large appetites, portions are definitely side at Riel. And some, like Snapper Crudo, can be miniscule. Priced at $13, I could have quickly eaten over $60 worth as a starter. But, with the quality of ingredients, technique and skill in the composition of the dishes and menu, for that matter, I was impressed. They have a nice, very well-edited wine list that has more than enough food friendly choices and a full bar with plenty of fine quality liquors, even if the current crop of specialty cocktails might not entice – it did not me the other night.
The restaurant is quaint, maybe sixty seats or so, small by Houston standards, but has a nice, energetic vibe that goes well with the style of small plate service. The quaintness is most evident in the two stalls: one for women, the other unisex. The waitstaff the other night was friendly and attentive, if not polished. It’s Houston, after all, and truly polished service is a rarity. It will be expected. And, it won’t really detract from what will certainly be one of the best restaurants to open here in 2017, at least if my first visit was any indication.
1927 Fairview (east of Shepherd), 77019, (832) 831-9109