Ritual Can Be Magic But Doesn’t Always Perform
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.