Review: Houston Restaurant The Lymbar Renews & Refreshes a Local Latin Legacy
You don’t have to know Houston restaurant history to appreciate The Lymbar, located at 4201 Main in The Ion, the sleek, steel-and-glass, multi-use “innovation center” in midtown Houston. The modern Latin restaurant’s appeals are immediately obvious. A window-lit bar at the front enlivened by hanging plants beckons happy hour-seekers, perky two-tops on a platform anchored by a spring green bookcase welcome couples for date night, and red, plush couches bookending long dining tables become temporary homes for festive groups.
However, if you do know something about Houston restaurant history, visiting The Lymbar will make you smile for reasons other than executive chef David Cordúa’s astute and sometimes whimsical cuisine. First off: after a four-year absence, Houston once again has a Cordúa family restaurant. David’s father, Michael, founded Churrascos in 1988, and is credited as the first to bring non-Mexican Latin cuisine to Houston. In time, there would be several Churrascos across Houston, as well as two locations of the upscale Américas, more-casual Amazon Grill and Artista in the Theater District. David grew up in the family business, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and became a chef himself. After Michael took on business partners, both father and son found their roles marginalized. By September 2018, neither was still involved in Cordúa Restaurants, Inc. In January 2019, the family was dealt another blow when matriarch Lucia started treatment for breast cancer. She thankfully made a full recovery.
So after all of that, you really have to appreciate that the family is starting over in the Houston restaurant world, this time with David — the next generation — at the helm. While Michael and Lucia are enjoying their golden years, on my first visit, the elder Cordúa was onsite at The Lymbar doing what’s called “touching tables” — visiting with guests, discussing the food and making connections.
The food and drink at The Lymbar is far from a rehash. David has made the menu his own, reaching beyond Latin cuisine to incorporate flavors from other cuisines, such as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. Of course, there are still nostalgic Cordúa classics. It’s unimaginable, for example, that there would not be empanadas, ceviche, churrasco steak or tres leches. Loyal customers who’ve followed this restaurant family through their decades-long careers will demand these items, but it’s David’s new creations that are the most compelling.
The Rosespud is the must-order, star-attraction appetizer. It’s one of those dishes where if one table orders it, it’s going to appear on all the others. Long, vertical potato slices are fried to a delicate crisp then artfully mounted into a flower shape thanks to clever use of a Slinky-like metal spring ball. It’s eminently shareable for a group (although I greedily munched plenty by myself), and it’s fun to alternate between the cilantro and smoked tomato sauces alongside and try to figure out which you like best. (For me, it’s the cilantro by a slim margin.) For the experience alone, the cost of $9 seems like a great value. Again: it’s a must-order.
Another of David’s own creations that shines is another appetizer: the Truffle “Twinkies”. He created these long, fried, 3D rectangles of brioche filled with egg custard and topped with shaved truffle and a bare perfume of truffle oil for DR Delicacy’s inaugural Truffle Masters competition — and won first place. The twinkies are garnished with slivers of green onion and microgreens, necessary only to add more color. The real appeal of the dish is the contrast of earthy, fragrant truffle and creamy, yolky custard. This worthwhile little luxury — a riff on a dippable soft-boiled egg with toast “soldiers” — is $16. It really hits the spot if you’re in the mood for a brunch-y dish or a very fancy breakfast. (Try it with the espresso martini, a concoction made with house vanilla-infused vodka that doubles-down on coffee flavor with both espresso and cold brew.) I can’t imagine not ordering this every single visit.
I recognized another competition entry, because I blind-judged it earlier this year — the Stuffed Chicken Ballotine with sweet potato purée, sherry cream, arugula and chives. I was surprised it didn’t place among the top three, as some of my fellow judges and I admired that such a meaty, substantial dish was entered into a competition that normally gets over-complicated and intricate ones. I also remember thinking, “I’d absolutely buy this dish in a restaurant.” So, it turns out that I can. (Update: it seems this has been re-engineered for summertime, as it now has mole poblano and avocado in lieu of sweet potato and sherry cream.).
Interestingly, a few reimagined classics didn’t hit the right notes. The ceviche is a combination of snapper, shrimp, octopus, red onion and sweet potato in a mix of leche de tigre (the flavorful combination of spices and juices used to marinate the seafood) and coconut cream. The whole shebang, adorned in chili oil the color of an electric orange, was one of the most beautiful dishes. However, the flavors fell strangely flat, and I didn’t love the excessively heavy, creamy feel. (On the other hand, one of my dining companions loved the novel texture.) I’m more the type of person who wants to drink just the leche de tigre on its own. The smoked turkey, ham and Gruyère filling in the Monte Cristo Empanada had an unpleasant pungency, like the smoky turkey didn’t go with everything else. The accompanying raspberry-sesame vinaigrette just provided additional clashing flavors. I also didn’t love the nubby, processed texture of the meat. Upon a second trying, my opinion was different but not better. The ham seemed to have gone on walkabout as the filling was mostly turkey, and the interior dough was a little gummy.
However, I did love the winning combination of spinach with cheese — pleasingly salty feta and halloumi — as an empanada filling. The beef kofta filling — Middle Eastern-style ground beef with cumin, garlic and other seasonings — is also very good — but my favorite application for this was as the patty in the Kofta Burger. It’s now gone and has been replaced with the Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger sporting two smashed Texas Wagyu patties with bacon, cheddar, caramelized onions and pickles on a brioche bun spread with garlic aioli. It comes with wedge fries. It’s a respectable, juicy burger, and the caramelized onions help distinguish it, but it’s less interesting than the Kofta Burger. I am sure there were people who probably didn’t expect the Middle Eastern flavors and pine nuts in the prior burger; sometimes, you just have to give the people what they want.
Dessert is a requirement. Don’t leave without it. Try the decadent tres leches, which put the Cordúa name on the books or, if desserts with savory notes are to your taste, get adventurous with Foie Doughnut Holes — sugared, round doughnut holes gently laid atop foie gras mousse in a shallow, oblong dish, then adorned in dots of fig jam and a dash of sea salt and black pepper. (If not, but you still want to try something novel, aim instead for the Sweet Corn Flan with caramel custard, housemade “cracker jacks” and corn shoots.)
You also simply must try the cocktails. That’s not a knock on the wine list, which has selections from France, Italy and Napa, although curiously few from Latin countries, save for one from Chile and two from Argentina. It’s just that the cocktails are so well-made that it would be a pity to miss out. For this time of year when it’s blazing hot outside, the Greenergy is an outstanding choice. Made with Plantation 3 Star white rum, muddled lime, mint and piloncillo syrup over plenty of crushed ice, it’s essentially a mojito riff with Green Chartreuse — but even just that herbaceous addition turns it into a far different, much more intriguing cocktail. (Apparently, adding 130 herbs and botanicals to a mojito makes an impact. Chartreuse, though, has gotten more expensive and harder to find.) Other summertime cocktail considerations are the Mezcalrita (a margarita made with mezcal, natch) and Singapore Sling with Bombay Sapphire gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, pineapple just and Gran Gala, an orange liqueur. Of course, there’s no shame in just getting a classic old fashioned with Buffalo Trace bourbon. If you don’t imbibe, you can always ask the bar to make a virgin cocktail, or enjoy one of the daily aguas frescas or hibiscus tea.
Some of The Lymbar’s prices are a little dear. Thanks to ingredient, labor and rent costs that rose during the pandemic and have stayed high ever since, restaurant dining overall is more expensive these days. The empanadas, for example, are $9 each or all three types for $25. Beef prices have pushed an eight-ounce churrasco steak, a center-cut tenderloin, to $48 — $90 for the 16-ounce.
As someone who patronized the Cordúas prior restaurants — especially Américas in River Oaks — it warms the cockles of my heart to see the historic nods around the Gin Design Group-designed dining room, like the plush, Dutch cocoa-colored chairs meant to resemble chocolate shavings and sexy, ruby-colored upholstered couches. (Most diners probably didn’t realize it, but Américas design was symbolically erotic on purpose.) Those things represent Michael — but David is there, too. His collectible Marvel Defenders and Namor the Sub-Mariner comic books adorn the shelves (as a fellow comic collector, I notice such things) as do books from Jacques Pépin and Anthony Bourdain. The Lymbar is both distillation of and expansion upon decades of hard work built for a new generation of diners. There’s no telling if it will be replicated, as was the case with Churrascos, but I’m happy to even have one.
The Lymbar is open Monday through Thursday from 11 to 10 p.m., Friday from 11 to midnight (note the late hours, night owls and party people) and Saturday from 5 to midnight. Make reservations via OpenTable.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.