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Ritual Can Be Magic But Doesn’t Always Perform

Butcher's Cut at Ritual


No matter what The Butcher's Cut of the day is at Ritual, it's always exemplary.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Posted: November 5, 2016 at 2:00 am   /   by   /   comments (4)

THE UPSHOT

Our Grade: B-. When Ritual is great, it’s fabulous, but five months after opening it’s still struggling with consistently hitting the mark on food, cocktails and service. That said, it’s still a recommended visit. The expertly prepared and very flavorful cuts of beef and pork from Texas-raised livestock are usually exemplary. The setting, a harmonious marriage of wood, dark steel and glass is a casually handsome place where diners will want to linger.

What To Order: The Butcher’s Cut ($29), which changes regularly but is always good, the Tomahawk Black Hill Ranch “Red Eye” Pork Chop ($1.50 an ounce) and Smoked Chicken Lollipops (a misnomer, as these are whole fried chicken wings that are nothing like lollipops) are all excellent bets, as is The Butcher’s Breakfast for brunch. Yes, it’s a meat-lover’s paradise but even vegetarians will find favor with the beautiful “Green Plate,” a $21 combination of yellow beets, oyster mushrooms, heirloom carrots, rapini and Brussels Sprouts blended with farro and laid on a foundation of puréed butternut squash. For wine by the glass, ever since co-owner Felix Florez recommended the McPherson Cellars Windblown red wine, we’ve been hooked. It is a Texas-made, Rhone-style blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Petite Sirah and Syrah that will surprise and delight even sophisticated sippers. Dash in for the Pumpkin-Persimmon “Tiramisu,” a parfait with cinnamon-laced Chantilly cream, while it’s still available. It’s a perfect fall dessert.

Skip These: The Dark Chocolate Pie, unless you enjoy eating baking chocolate right out of the pantry and The Pig Mac, a heavy take on mac & cheese that still manages to be underseasoned. The Ritual Burger has potential, but ours arrived with the bottom bun disintegrating in a puddle of jus. We also were disappointed in a pricey 24-ounce aged ribeye that was half comprised of fat and bone.

Ritual, 602 Studewood, 832.203.5180

Reservations: 832-203-5180 or www.ritualhouston.com

Ritual Dining Room

The ruggedly elegant dining room at Ritual
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

REVIEW: Ritual is a departure from its predecessor, El Cantina Superior. Gone are the funky signs and other bright memorabilia. The interior has been transformed into a harmonious marriage of metal, wood and glass. There are big windows, warm, wood-topped tables, a high ceiling and pale green upholstered chairs. It’s a rugged but comfortable setting. In the dining room, a huge board that looks like a train schedule hauled from Grand Central Station showcases the craft beer list. In the back, a glass-fronted room showcases primal cuts of beef and pork that hang from the ceiling to age.

Those big hunks of meat represent some of the best of what Ritual has to offer. Black Hill Meats’ Felix Florez is a partner in the business (along with Ken Bridge of Delicious Concepts) and he’s an award-winning purveyor who has been honored for his work in getting meat from small Texas ranches into many Houston restaurants. The results from such careful sourcing are dense, rich and flavorful, thanks in no small part to the livestock having better food to eat and higher levels of activity than those from factory farms.

Ritual hasn’t had a particularly smooth road when it comes to finding the right chef for the concept. By October 2016, it was on its third chef in four months. Jordan Asher, formerly of Dosi, set the stage for the rustic, hearty fare. Alberto Vasquez, who used to work with Florez at Scott Tycer’s long-gone restaurants, Aries and Gravitas, followed him. Vasquez left after only about a month and was replaced by Crash Hethcox. Interestingly, Hethcox has worked in this building before, back when it was still El Cantina Superior.

Ritual Dining Room

The board hanging on the wall that looks as if it came straight from Grand Central Station displays the beer list. To the right is the glass-fronted aging room that showcases the prized cuts of meat.

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Parade of chefs aside, the kitchen staff is adept at preparing the carefully sourced meats: everything from prime cuts to pork chops. The price ranges from $2.25 to $2.95 per ounce depending on the cut and how long it’s been aged. (Ninety-day cross-cut flat iron is on the low side and 30-day porterhouse and ribeye are on the high.) These arrive at tables with deeply seared exteriors, crispy rendered fat and tender interiors.

The Butcher’s Cut one night was a tremendous value: a dense New York Strip that just could not have been more beefy or flavorful.

This is a phone photo taken during a review visit. (Sorry; it was dark.) This shows the $70.80 30-day aged ribeye at Ritual. The big fat lobe on the back half was pretty much inedible and thick marbling ran through the meaty portion as well.

This is a phone photo taken during a review visit that shows our 30-day aged ribeye at Ritual after the outer crust had been cut off the meaty end. The big fat lobe on the back half was pretty much inedible and thick marbling ran through the meaty portion as well.

Yet, on occasion Ritual is also capable of serving up a real loser. The 30-day aged ribeye is $2.95 per ounce and can’t be ordered in a portion less than 24 ounces. That came to $70.80. When it arrived, it was not only run though with very thick veins of fat, but the entire back half was solid fat as well. That, along with the bone, constituted about 50-percent of the entire steak. While ribeyes are known for their rich marbling, this was excessive. Comparatively, B&B Butchers’ 22-ounce bone-in ribeye is $51.

For meat by-the-ounce, the Tomahawk Black Hill Ranch “Red Eye” Pork Chop is a much better choice ($1.50 per ounce). It’s a tender, high-quality hunk of meat, with sizzling, crispy-edged fat and an exquisite coffee rub (made with coffee from local Houston roaster Katz Coffee) punched up with ancho chili and “burnt sugar.”

At this point, you may fear that Ritual sells nothing but meat. Well, that’s not the case. In fact, one of our absolute favorite dishes is a vegetarian delight: the “Green Plate.” At $21, it’s a little pricey. However, the colorful combination of yellow beets, oyster mushrooms, heirloom carrots, rapini and Brussels sprouts blended with farro and laid on a foundation of puréed butternut squash is a stunner in looks, flavor and texture.

Smoked Chicken Lollipops at Ritual

Interestingly, the Smoked Chicken Lollipops served to us on our review visits were whole wings. They were much more lollipop-like when prepared for our review photographer. Regardless of the shape, they’re crunchy and made tangy with white barbecue sauce.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Sometimes the names don’t always make sense. One example is the outstanding fried, whole chicken wings doused in tangy Alabama-style white barbecue sauce. The name? Smoked Chicken Lollipops ($13), which isn’t really a good description of the dish. Either way, it’s a must-try. (Post-review note: when we had this dish during a review visit, whole wings were served. When they were prepared for photography, the drumettes had been separate and frenched. Obviously the ones in the photo are much more lollipop-like. We’re not sure if the dish has changed or if they were incorrectly prepared during our visit.)

Similarly, some liberties are being taken with a cocktail named Blood & Sand which deviates dramatically from the classic. Normally a Blood & Sand has scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth and Cherry Heering. Ritual’s incorporates mezcal, grapefruit sherbet, kirsch and sweet vermouth.

Speaking of cocktails: we have yet to get one that wasn’t out of balance. The worst of the bunch was the simply named “Rum Cocktail” which included dark rum, light rum, Kümmel (a liqueur flavored with caraway seed, cumin and fennel), coconut, orange sherbet, pimento dram (allspice liqueur) and orgeat. All of those fine-sounding, tropical-flavored ingredients regrettably conspired to make the cocktail taste like Banana Boat suntan oil smells. The best was a traditional Old Fashioned that erred on the side of booziness, but that’s a far cry better than one that’s too sweet.

Ritual Pumpkin-Persimmon Tiramisu

Ritual’s Pumpkin-Persimmon Tiramisu captures layer upon layer of autumnal flavor in a glass.

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

For dessert, run, don’t walk, for the Pumpkin-Persimmon Tiramisu, a dessert enriched with cinnamon-tinged Chantilly cream that captures some of the best flavors of the season. It was a far cry better than our experience with the Dark Chocolate Pie. The accoutrements of “burnt bourbon marshmallows,” Luxardo cherries and toasted peanut oil sounded wonderfully intriguing. It was the dense, thick chocolate itself that failed. It was so dense and bitter, it was reminiscent of eating unsweetened baking chocolate out of the pantry (something I fortunately haven’t attempted since I was a child). Dark chocolate is terrific but there’s a certain amount of sweetness needed to make it palatable.

As far a service goes, it’s usually excellent and prompt. It was on our final visit that we ended up on the patio with a server who was either overwhelmed or just off his game. After an hour, all we had to show for our time were drinks and appetizers. It took another hour to make it through dessert. After finishing, we decided to stop waiting for our check to be picked up and marched it inside so we could go home and tuck ourselves in.

Wobbles and bobbles aside, Ritual is a good-natured, appealing restaurant. The concept is solid. Quality ingredients are used. Most of the staff members are earnest, prompt and a pleasure to deal with. Diners will likely find that their meals will be punctuated by high notes—but may have to endure the occasional sour one.

Comments (4)

  • November 8, 2016 at 12:48 am Chris White

    Review well in line with our own experiences there. A couple add-one – the beer list is maybe the best ‘fine dining’ offer in the city. Well balanced Texas-focused without being myopic and with so many options. Definitely a winner. I’ve had the same struggles with that ribeye (twice!) as you, so it rightly deserves a pan. I’ve also had misses on other dishes in our 4ish visits. One of be stars from the original appetizers was a Gulf Coast seafood dish that was basically a dip – approximating consistency between jambalaya and gumbo, loaded with shrimp, crab, oysters, fish & served with brioche. It was INCREDIBLE. Sadly it seems to be gone from the menu. I really hope they can maintain the momentum and build on their success. I also dug the powerful old fashioned 🙂

    One other add – it’s a good place for families. Have taken my two kids (4 and 18 mos) twice, and staff are great – and they have a kids menu.

    • November 8, 2016 at 1:12 pm Phaedra Cook

      Thanks very much for sharing your experiences at Ritual, Chris! I totally agree with the beer list. It’s a refreshing mix that isn’t just a presentation of the same local options that we see everywhere else in the city.

      Is the seafood dish the Gulf Seafood Gravy? If so, I think it’s back on the menu and one of my guests really loved it, too. Good to hear that overall that you found the atmosphere to be family-friendly! I often get asked for recs on that and it’s kind of interesting how hard it can be sometimes to find a “nice” restaurant that’s truly welcoming to kids!

      Thanks for the feedback!

  • November 5, 2016 at 9:00 pm Fulton

    Still trying to find its groove… We visit regularly, and like many of the dishes. However, when a very meat-centric restaurant has a big butcher window, and is furnished with rustic wood and metal tables, the side dishes ought not be served in delicate little china cups. That speaks to the overall lack of consistent direction.

    • November 6, 2016 at 12:15 am Phaedra Cook

      I actually thought those plates were charming. 😉 Overall agreed, though, and I think the flaws are indeed in part due to the revolving door of chefs. Every chef has his or her own methodology and way of doing things in the kitchen. Thanks for the comment! You will literally go down in history as Houston Food Finder’s very first commenter. 😀

Comments are closed.