REEF is the most exciting restaurant to open in Houston within the past year.
The vibe of this midtown spot in an old building is young, loud, hip, urban, and very cool. You can sense the coolness in REEF'S minimalist decor as you walk into the reception area. Each of the three walls is coated with a slightly different shade of sea blue-green. The far wall of the dining area is textured like white ocean waves. Don't expect a romantic evening or even the chance to have conversation: the restaurant is usually packed and the acoustics are deafeningly loud. But do expect outstanding food and wine.
It is hard to describe or pinpoint the influences on the cuisine of chef-owner Bryan Caswell. Unlike Cafe Annie or Ruggles, it would be difficult to blind-taste a dish from REEF and guess the restaurant that made it. If there is a consistent feature, it is that each dish restlessly borrows from some cuisine around the world -- Mexico, France, Japan, China, India, Italy, Southern U.S., California farmer's market. Yet each dish combines these eclectic styles and flavors in a way that is completely unique. Every dish I have tried has been outstanding. Here are some examples:
Crispy skin snapper on sweet and sour chard. The fish was delicate and flaky, perfectly cooked with a crisped skin on top. The real surprise was the unusually spiced greens underneath. They did not taste so much like sweet and sour chard as an Indian saag paneer -- creamed greens with exotic spices. Because of its richness and slight sweetness, my wife described the dish as "dessert fish."
Raw vegetable and fresh herb salad. This salad was so different from my snapper that it was hard to believe it came from the same kitchen. It consisted primarily of farmer's market vegetables -- weedy greens, tiny heirloom tomatoes, small carrots, a radish-like pink vegetable -- mixed with flavorful herbs such as tarragon, basil, and chives. This austere salad had virtually no fat or carbohydrates, yet it was full of flavor. It is a thrilling adventure for farmer's market fans.
Another wonderfully odd ethnic-influenced dish was a tempura soft shell crab with "taqueria-style" pickled vegetables vinaigrette. The delicious crab was very delicately fried in a way that emphasizes the crab meat over the batter. But it was the sweet, spicy-hot, pickled white greens (cabbage?) that took this exotic appetizer over the top.
Another flavorful appetizer was a snapper carpaccio with pink grapefruit. The delicate flavor of the fish was highlighted by the acidity of the grapefruit and some flavorful herbs. I could tell I would love this dish on its own, but I had made the mistake of tasting it after the palate-destroying spiciness of the softshell crab dish.
Our dessert was a fairly standard French-style chocolate fondant with a gooey center - not inspiring, but better than most chocolate fondants in Houston. It was a let down only because it was the first dish we tried that was not utterly innovative.
REEF has a fantastic wine list for a newly opened restaurant. It a good-sized list, dominated by reasonably priced wines in the $25 - $40 range, but peppered with some more expensive cult wines. The markup is low, placing it along with Ibiza and Catalan as one of the best value lists in Houston. Although there are some fairly standard offerings, it contains wines from some unsung wine regions and made from exotic varietals. We had a German reisling, which was perhaps the only wine that would go well with the extreme range of spicy, sweet, and garden flavors we had ordered.
If you want to go to REEF on a weekend, make your reservation days in advance. The reservations fill up because the restaurant is so popular -- and with good reason.