Notable Houston Chef Rolls Out Savvy, “Snackable” Menu at Popular Wine Bar
Brandi Key, culinary director of Lasco Enterprises and an award-winning Houston chef, put her expertise to work on refreshing the menu of Max’s Wine Dive with new dishes earlier this year. Now she’s done the same for the company’s wine bar, The Tasting Room, with locations at 1101 Uptown Park in the Galleria area and 818 Town and Country in CityCentre in west Houston. “For the new menu items, it was a matter of me really embracing why people come here — to spend time with friends and drink wine. I wanted a menu that evoked the idea of shareable items, which is why it isn’t called a ‘dinner menu’: it’s an ‘evening menu.’”
The Tasting Room has long been known for big patios and its sweeping, approachable wine program, now guided by beverage director Eric Hastings, a Houstonian who spent years refining his craft at the like of Jean Georges and Del Posto in New York City. Key’s smart and exciting menu is likely to draw diners just as equally for the food. It has multiple sections including simple dips and spreads, an entire section of flavorful vegetable dishes, cold seafood plates and bruschetta. Houston Food Finder was invited to try the results of Key’s creative process.
“Our concepts have incredibly strong bones. They’re smart, fun, and they’re hip,” said Key “For me, the challenge has been how to come into a place that’s established and give it new life, make it relevant, and positively impact the staff and guests.” In our opinion, Key has conquered that challenge. The Tasting Room’s new menu is absolutely fun, sophisticated and likely to be an eye-opener for guests.
An excellent starter is the Whipped Feta, made from creamed feta cheese topped with diced cucumber, tomatoes and a fresh herb mix of chervil, thyme and oregano. It’s served with grilled pita bread and finished with olive oil. The fresh cucumber and tomato balances nicely with the natural saltiness of the feta, which makes for a refreshing and satisfying light bite. The dip serves two to four people and its $10 price tag makes it an economic, sharable snack.
New for the fall are sweet and savory Roasted Brussels Sprouts. To make this dish, Key slices the sprouts lengthwise and adds shredded duck confit, pine nuts and currants for extra richness, flavor and texture. The pine nuts and the occasional lone sprout leaf add crunch to the tender duck confit and chewy currants. Saba, a reduction made of grape must (a byproduct of wine production), is added as a finishing sauce and cuts beautifully through the fattiness of the duck confit.
The Whipped Goat Cheese Bruschetta also makes great use of saba. For this dish, the kitchen whips French goat cheese with caramelized onions and dates. It’s then generously layered onto grilled ciabatta and finished with delicate prosciutto slices and a saba drizzle. The wood-grilled ciabatta lends a lovely smoke flavor and the prosciutto is tender enough to separate cleanly with each bite. The six-piece serving feeds two to three people and costs $12. Overall, the dish was on the sweet side and could even be a fitting meal-ender for those who like their desserts “not too sweet”.
Key says she’s always been a fan of well-composed and simple vegetable dishes and has added a significant section of vegetable-focused dishes labeled “From the Garden.” In addition to the aforementioned Brussels sprouts, there are multi-colored young heirloom carrots sautéed and finished with black pepper gastrique, cashews and crispy diced capicola. The black pepper gastrique wasn’t as strong as anticipated and a touch of finishing salt could have elevated the dish, but the carrots were consistently tender from the thin end to the thick end, which requires a skilled cook to accomplish.
The pièce de résistance was the Spanish Tapas Antipasti Platter designed to evoke pinchitos, the mini-kabobs that are common in southern Spain. (Key cleverly fashioned her own presentation system that employs a tubular metal pizza rack.) The dish is a snacker’s dream and includes “devil’s on horseback” — or goat cheese stuffed and bacon wrapped dates — chorizo with piquillo peppers, and Mediterranean octopus. Each item rode high on its own merits. The dates were rich, smoky and sweet. On another skewer, paprika aioli played well with the spiced, dense chorizo while blistered sweet piquillo peppers adds earth and depth.
The favorite offering on the tapas platter, though, was the grilled octopus with chimichurri sauce. The tender octopus’ delicious smoky flavor gets a garlicky punch from chimichurri. Bonus accoutrements for the skewered bites include manchego cheese, large green olives, Marcona almonds, quince paste and grilled ciabatta bread. Each platter, which ranges from $22 to $28 depending on the selections, easily serves four people, which makes it a great option to share with wine-loving friends.
The Tasting Room is open Mondays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to midnight, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Sundays from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. The happy hour, which features $6 dish and drink specials, is weekdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.