New Heights Restaurant Chivos is Full of Delights Both Simple & Complex
I didn’t make it to Calle Onze — another writer, Beth Levine, did — so I can’t make many comparisons with its successor, Chivos, at 222 West 11th in the Heights. I can say, based on the previous interior photos, that a livelier, more vibrant environment awaits guests. The permanent features remain — a rectangular room anchored by a marble-countered open kitchen in the back and a bar to the side — but concrete tables have been swapped for warmer wood, and bright green upholstery and decorative plants give the vibe of a never-ending springtime. In the back of the open kitchen, cured ducks hang and dry over the stove — a technique not confined to Peking duck and that hints of succulent dishes to come. (Duck breast is on the menu, but I’m betting on the rest of the bird showing up as duck carnitas someday.)
Chivos is a recent addition to the rapidly expanding Night Moves Hospitality Group. Initially, chef Lyle Bento, formerly of Southern Goods and Sambooks Management Company, which owns 1751 Sea & Bar and Candente, was part of the company but recently exited. That seems to leave chef Thomas Bille the culinary star of the company — or at least, for Chivos. Night Moves’ brand identity for most of its concepts, which includes bars Space Cowboy and Trash Panda Drinking Club, is a little tongue-in-cheek. Chivos means “goats”; a play on the acronym G.O.A.T., or “Greatest Of All Time”.
It was Hugo Ortega, the James Beard Award-winning chef of H Town Restaurant Group, who opened the door for Bille to move from Los Angeles to Houston after two decades of fine dining experience. Bille worked for Ortega at Xochi for four months, then took a stint with Clark Cooper Concepts. Ultimately, Bille acknowledged that he didn’t really want to work for anyone else — but at least the opportunities gave him a start in Houston.
His next move was opening his own restaurant in Old Town Spring called Belly of the Beast. Regardless of his skill or experience, or the warm reception he received from locals, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The pandemic hit shortly after he opened, and Governor Greg Abbott ordered restaurant dining rooms to close in March 2020. Bille kept Belly of the Beast afloat by focusing on to-go-friendly options; first family-style meals and then tacos. While the latter was popular, “I didn’t open a restaurant to be a taquero,” he said.
Aspirations for the chef’s life seem to be part of Bille’s heritage. He told Voyage Houston that his father was the chef of a French bistro, and at the ripe old age of 27, after putting himself through culinary school, Bille became a chef himself. He’s worked under the likes of Ben Ford (the star-chef progeny of actor Harrison Ford) and Timothy Hollingsworth, and Bille’s mid-city L.A. upbringing exposed him to all sorts of cuisines. Foundationally, he’s well-prepared to make an impact on Houston’s culinary scene, and his first dishes at Chivos prove that he has much to offer diners.
Take, for example, the creativity of his Pozole Dumplings, made with almond salsa macha (a type of salsa made with fried nuts and/or seeds with chile oil). Like traditional pozole, the dumplings are topped with Napa cabbage, green onions and radish. A glimmering, thin pool of pozole broth anchors the dish. Bille says this is a play on wontons with chile oil. Full of contrasting colors and textures, the dish seems like a likely candidate for a permanent spot on the menu. After trying it once, customers will probably ask for it on every visit.
Bille’s not just about crafting intricate dishes. The handmade flour tortillas with truffle butter and salmon roe speak to the simplest yet most compelling pleasures of food. The truffle butter yields and spreads easily across the warm tortilla, and topping it with a few red bubbles of roe lend a pop of needed saline. (It’s akin to sprinkling a little flake salt on the tops of hot rolls.)
The pollo al carbon with gluten-free soy glaze, onion, shishitos and cherry tomatoes also spoke to our basic hungers. Unless it’s a really good fried chicken, it’s rare that I’d say a chicken dish is a must-try item, but this one is. Served as a half-chicken, it’s the type of preparation that will have you gnawing on the bones. The shishitos and cherry tomatoes served alongside are a nice touch, plus the small roasted tomatoes burst pleasantly in your mouth.
There are roasted carrots a-plenty on menus around town, but Chivos’ version is special. These are garnished with cross-cut slabs of blood orange reminiscent of little suns, while the rest of the components — toasted pistachios and a swath of “garbanzo purée”, i.e. simplified hummus — come straight from the Mediterranean playbook. It’s another example of Bille breaking boundaries for the sake of bringing together complementary flavors, colors and textures.
The surprising showstopper, though, was the unlikely sounding combination of Uvas y Burrata: grapes roasted in brown butter, pistachios and shallots and served over burrata lightly dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper. The whole dish is sprinkled with mint and parsley and anchored with a hefty schmear of fig chamoy. (“Think of it like a fig mostarda,” said Bille.) The buttery, sweet and juicy grapes with the creamy burrata were a flavor sensation. I couldn’t keep my hands off of it, nor would I allow anyone to whisk it away from our table. I might have needed it again later — you never know.
Leesly Valdez is the perfect bar manager to craft drinks that compliment Bille’s vision for the food. Some of her drinks are inspired by Mexican candies and sweets, while others serve to showcase liquors that many U.S. diners have never tried or heard of before. (Yes, Mexico exports liqueurs other than Kahlúa.) The West Tejas cocktail at Chivos is an interesting, corn-based concoction of Nixta Licor de Elote (a corn liqueur from Jilotepec, Mexico that comes in a fun bottle shaped like an ear of corn), mezcal, tequila, cilantro, roasted corn, epazote, broiled lime and salt. It’s garnished with a dried cricket. Yes, really. Eat it, or don’t. (I’ve heard from another diner that his didn’t come with a cricket, so maybe restaurants just give bugs to food writers. Seems fair.) There is also a broad assortment of margaritas (spicy mango, cucumber and watermelon, just to name a few).
We never know what fate holds in store for a brand-new eatery. Restaurants are complex microcosms that rely on many non-food factors, such as management, location and even parking (which, thankfully, Chivos has onsite). Adding to the complications for restaurants opening this year are ingredient shortages due to supply-chain issues and difficulty finding capable staff after a pandemic-driven exodus.
Speaking strictly in terms of the food and drink, though: I think it’s fair to set some high expectations of Chivos (after all, its stated aspirations is to be the G.O.A.T. — it’s right in the name) and for Bille. His dishes reflect a culmination of decades of experiences that include watching his dad craft exacting French fare, his diverse Los Angeles upbringing and his affection for his new hometown of Houston. Yet, he also understands the simple appeal of a freshly buttered tortilla and a hunk of beautifully roasted chicken. He’s one to watch.
Chivos is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m. Visit the website for more information and reservations.