New Montrose Restaurant Offers Gluten-, Peanut- and Refined Sugar-Free Dishes Without Sacrificing Flavor

Crispy chicken bowl at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

I’ll be the first to admit that I visited Picnik at 888 Westheimer with a dose of skepticism. Having a background in healthcare, a restaurant that touts itself as “healthy” and markets adaptogens (which have no scientific evidence to support their benefits) will always cause me to raise an eyebrow. When Houston Food Finder received an invitation to send a writer to visit, I decided to give it a chance. However, I also went in bracing myself for possibly having to politely sit through pitches about unsupported health benefits or hearing about collaborations with “experts” without proper credentials or training. 

Thankfully, this wasn’t the case, and I instead experienced a restaurant that serves clean and thoughtfully sourced food, while also creating dishes for guests with dietary restrictions without resorting to items that are only “close enough” to the originals.

The tagline at the bottom of the menu boasts that the entire menu is gluten-, peanut- and refined sugar-free, something that my dining companion and I had noted, but did not fully process how well-executed it was until later in our meal.

Loaded smashed potatoes at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Loaded smashed potatoes at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

We started with loaded smashed potatoes ($13) and chicken tenders ($16), where the smashed potatoes were topped with cashew queso, no-sugar bacon and a zesty cilantro crema. I’m usually not a fan of cashew queso, as I find the texture to be lacking compared to its cheese-based counterpart. However, it was great as a rich, creamy topping for the potatoes, and a counterpoint to the crisp edges on the skins, while the cilantro crema balanced it out with a nice tang. The potatoes make for a great starter and could serve as an even better side dish. 

The chicken tenders are coated in a rice-based breading, resulting in a pleasing light, crackly and golden crust. Rice-based batters have a toastiness that isn’t typically found in conventional breading, which adds a certain warmth to the flavor. The honey mustard dipping sauce had just the right balance between sweet and spicy, making the pairing a good crowd-pleasing starter or even a good snack on its own.

Bibimbap at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Bibimbap at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

From the entrées, we sampled the bibimbap ($21), the crispy chicken bowl ($20), and pan fried chicken cutlet ($25). The bibimbap is a take on the Korean classic, built with a mix of cucumber kimchi, marinated mushrooms, carrots, avocado and a perfectly fried egg over a bed of rice, with a cup of chile tahini on the side standing in for gochujang. The cucumber kimchi doesn’t follow conventional Korean flavorings, taking on more of a vinegary Western pickled flavor than what’s typically found in Korean kimchi, which tends to be heavier on garlic and gochugaru (Korean chili pepper). The carrots and avocado were fresh, and the chile tahini tasted remarkably similar to gochujang. The marinated mushrooms are tangy and flavorful on their own, but the marinade’s flavor profile clashes a bit with the chile tahini. Overall, the mishmash of conflicting flavors resulted in a dissonant dish.

Crispy chicken bowl at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Crispy chicken bowl at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The crispy chicken bowl is served with hunks of breaded and fried chicken in spicy Cholula sauce, then combined with raw blue cheese, no-sugar bacon and a drizzle of green goddess sauce all served over smashed Yukon Gold potatoes. The breading on the chicken was crispy and held up to the fiery hot sauce, with the green goddess sauce complementing it with a nice herbal touch. This was a fun dish to enjoy after mixing up, mimicking a fiery buffalo chicken bowl of sorts without feeling too heavy.

Pan-fried chicken cutlet at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Pan-fried chicken cutlet at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The pan-fried chicken cutlet is a panko-coated piece of pounded chicken fried in ghee, topped with a green salad and served with spicy Dijon smashed potatoes. The breading was perfectly light and crisp, with a butteriness thanks to the ghee. The chicken was very lightly seasoned, but any lack of flavor was more than made up for by the accompanying Dijon smashed potatoes — maybe too much so. If the intensity of the Dijon mustard were taken down a few notches, this would be a great meat-and-potatoes offering; easy for any omnivore to enjoy.

Avocado toast at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Avocado toast at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Picnik also features an all-day brunch menu, from which we tried the French toast ($14) and avocado toast ($14). Both were solid examples of these brunch standards, but it wasn’t until we were tasting some of the cinnamon-flecked French toast that we remembered the gluten-free tagline on the menu. I confirmed with the manager that every single dish we had tasted so far was gluten-free, and that Picnik runs a 100% gluten-free kitchen. By this point we’d tried several dishes involving breading, sauces that would normally contain gluten (gochujang in particular) and full-on slices of bread without noticing anything different.

French toast at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
French toast at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Some dishes were better than the gluten-containing versions – which is a feat in itself. Having known people with diagnosed gluten sensitivities, running a completely gluten-free kitchen is an especially thoughtful approach. Cross-contamination is common when establishments serve gluten-free dishes, but are not mindful of preparing them separately from other dishes or using a new set of clean equipment. Keeping the menu entirely gluten-free eliminates having to put in this extra work, while creating dishes everyone can enjoy. Keeping everything peanut-free is also a great way to allow diners with this common allergy to breathe easy knowing that the whole menu is fair game for them.

Maca chocolate pudding at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Maca chocolate pudding at Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The mindful choice of ingredients carries through into Picnik’s dessert menu, where we tried the no-bake cheesecake ($10) and the vegan maca chocolate pudding ($10). The cheesecake was rich in flavor, yet light in texture, with a raspberry-mezcal jam drizzled over the top. The crust, like everything else at Picnik, is gluten-free. The maca chocolate pudding was entirely vegan, topped with coconut whipped cream and a sprinkling of cacao nibs and almond crumble. It was surprisingly rich, and the coconut whipped cream added a nice, nutty flavor to the dessert.

Canned pitaya margarita from Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Canned pitaya margarita from Picnik. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Even the drink offerings on the menu eliminate gluten and refined sugars, thanks to a selection of gluten-free beers and using honey or agave as sweeteners in the cocktails instead of simple syrup. Some of the cocktails are also available canned and can be taken to-go, where they hold up quite well if consumed within a few days.

While we didn’t find any of the flavor profiles to be particularly innovative or distinctive, being able to create well-executed dishes while accommodating for a variety of dietary restrictions is impressive in itself. I may have walked into Picnik a skeptic, but I left with an appreciation for its mission of creating an inclusive dining experience for everyone, without having to feel like they’d be receiving a second-rate version of a dish when accommodations need to be made. This is a dining space where the “better for you” philosophy speaks for itself without the staff preaching it to diners, allowing guests to enjoy the food for the food’s sake.

Picnik is open Sunday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., with brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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