Ouisie’s Table is an upscale restaurant on San Felipe in River Oaks.
It reminds me of the Republican Party in four respects. First, the crowd is well dressed, somewhat aging, and drives mostly Mercedes. Like most Republicans, you would never call these people “hip.”
Second, the atmosphere is country club. Tables have white tablecloths. Service is impeccable. And on weekends you can hear a duo that plays cool jazz – a conservative form of the music that emerged in the 1950s from mostly white musicians.
Third, the food is more traditional than progressive. You won’t find any creative foams or unusual amuse bouche offerings. Instead you will find dishes that are more “conservative populist” -- dishes like veal picatta, prime rib eye, and fried snapper.
Finally, like the modern Republican Party, the focus of the food seems to be Southern. Ouisie’s offers Southern dishes such as fried oysters, crab cakes, lump crab with sliced tomatoes, roasted quail with apple smoked bacon, and most famously, the chicken fried steak.
Perhaps because I prefer my jazz and food a little more on the progressive side, I am not completely at home at Ouisie’s. But I like it just fine. After a few visits, I finally got the courage to order the famous chicken fried steak. Or more precisely, I ordered a variation on the dish – the chicken fried venison steak.
The fame of Ouisie's CFS was cemented in 2001, when Robb Walsh wrote one of the best columns ever about Texas food called “Chicken-Fried Honor." In it, he defended the CFS from critics. And he pronounced that “Ouisie’s Table serves a world-class chicken-fried steak – without a doubt, one of the best in Texas.”
Ever since Robb’s endorsement, I have wanted to try Ouisie’s CFS. But then last weekend, when I finally went to try it, I saw the more exotic venison variation. This is how Ouisie’s menu describes it:
“Back strap of Axis prepared the way the chuck wagon cooks fixed ‘em when out on the trail or for the Boss back at the ranch house. Pounded out pieces of venison were dipped in seasoned flour and skillet-fried over a camp fire. Tonight we bring it into our kitchen to pan-fry some beautiful Axis back strap medallions ‘til crispy and serving ‘em with, a mess of greens, wild Rice Risotto with butternut Squash, mushrooms and Lucy’s Corn Pudding. Cream Biscuits will be served to round this out along with extra gravy on the side.”
With that description, I had no choice but to order it.
If you read my posts about dumplings, you might guess my criteria for a perfect CFS: a marriage of (1) tender, thin meat with (2) a crispy, flavorful crust, plus (3) cream gravy that complements, but does not overwhelm, the flavor of the meat.
As it turns out, Ouisie’s venison CFS is near-perfect in two categories, but falls a bit short in another. The meat is great. The three small rounds of deer meat are thinly pounded and incredibly tender, almost milky. The taste of venison is obviously gamier than beef, but it works in a CFS. This is possibly the best meat I have ever had inside a CFS. The gravy is equally outstanding. Although a cream gravy, it is colored brown, presumably from meat juices. It has a perfect bechamel consistency, and enough salt and spice to make it interesting.
The only problem is the crust. It is not my favorite kind of CFS crust. It is appropriately crispy, but the batter is very thin, almost like finely ground cracker or cornmeal. I prefer big, crispy flakes of flour batter that create a profound contrast with the thin, tender meat.
For comparison, the meat at Ousie's is much better, but the crust is not as good, as the CFS at 59 Diner, the Pig Stand (RIP), Prince’s Hamburgers, and Avenue Grill. And overall, I might not like Ouisie's CFS quite as much as the versions at the Barbecue Inn and Hickory Hollow. Plus, most of those competing versions cost about $20 less than Ouisie's.
Still, Ouisie's CFS dish is very good, especially considering the sides. Although the risotto is nothing special, the greens and corn pudding are perfect Southern dishes. The biscuits are tiny, but flavorful and flaky.
If you can handle a greying River Oaks crowd, if you can stomach jazz that is played a bit on the "white" side, and you don't flinch at buying a very good chicken fried steak dinner for around $30, then you probably will love Ouisie's Table. If not, there are plenty of other places in Houston to get a perfectly good chicken fried steak.