I can’t deal with flying if I don’t go to the gym beforehand – it is just the way I am, I simply function better after lifting or running whether it be at home or on the road. With that noted and a 6:00am flight from Columbus en route to Seattle my wakeup call was around 3:00am and after a good seven miles on the treadmill I showered, gathered the family and my bags, and like clockwork we were in the air due to arrive in the Emerald City at 3:00pm with reservations at Canlis that evening at 8:00pm. With homemade trail mix and vegetables packed for the flight all was well until we made it to Houston, the worst airport I’ve ever been to and the site of a two-day layover for my sister in the past, where I would spend the next 630 minutes of my life because our plane sprung a leak and there were simply no open seats on any other airline. My reward for this inconvenience? A $10 “lunch voucher” in an airport wing that contained nothing but fast food and more trail mix plus a missed reservation at Canlis during a week when their seasonal closure would leave us no other opportunity to visit.
Noting already that I was sleep deprived, hungry, and in a rather foul mood with both IAH and Continental Airlines it was with some frustration that I called Canlis to cancel and then used my phone to assess the options open later than 10:00pm – a limited selection to be sure, but one that led me to The Coterie Room, a spot I’d originally considered for a lunch during our visit until I realized that the menu differed substantially from that at dinner but an option that now seemed almost serendipitously ideal and an opportunity I grasped with a simple click on Opentable – a table for four, 10:00pm – and in the end with all things being equal it is impossible for me to be objective about The Coterie Room not only because of these circumstances, but also because after the worst day of travel that I can ever remember they treated my mother, aunt, sister, and I like we were old friends coming over for dinner.
With the weather rainy, the hour late, and each of us more than a little fatigued our arrival to the Coterie Room would be just after 9:45 and dropping my family off at the door I found parking on an admittedly creepy street with a number of vagrants who all oddly seemed to assume I had a cigarette for them. Making my way to the restaurant I was admittedly surprised when I entered the door to find it not only a bit quiet but quite literally empty save for a table near the living wall where my family sat and a couple at the bar. Greeted at the door by the man who would end up also being our server, Philip T, I was led to our table and with chair pulled out and water already filled was handed a menu.
Browsing the inside of The Coterie Room in comparison to the street I’d just wandered was a stark contrast. Hard woods and plaster with crown molding, an open kitchen with gleaming stainless steel, a well endowed bar, candles, and the previously mentioned living wall of herbs and gently dripping water dominated the space making it feel warm and inviting despite the lack of patrons and with my appetite well past hunger at this point the menu too felt inviting and familiar with not only upscale American classics but also touches of both southern and northern fare in portions from small bites to family sized platters that led to each of us contemplating multiple options before finally ordering.
Sold out of their oft raved foie gras terrine (a minor disappointment all things considering) but with a menu full of great choices the first thing to arrive at our table following a short wait would be a warm house made baguette with butter topped in crisp sea salt. Four slices, each with a dense golden crust and warm fluffy interior I’m normally not all that sold on baguette as table bread but taking into consideration the freshness, flavor, and fact that I’d only eaten celery and trail mix for twelve hours I ate more than my fair share and then requested some more to which Philip gladly obliged us.
Moving on to appetizers, our selections would arrive as a trio with each featuring an updated take on a comfort food classic and a shockingly impressive update at that. Beginning first with perhaps the restaurants most applauded item, “Ham Cracklins served warm with black truffle fondue” would arrive in a large bowl and with each crispy haute-porkrind as delicate as a shrimp chip but as flavorful as a slice of bacon I immediately knew that these would go fast even with the less adventurous eaters at the table. Good on their own yet vastly improved by the ‘fondue,’ a light concoction clearly made with butter, truffle oil, and heavy cream plus a sharp aged cheese my only complaint is that there wasn’t quite enough of the fondue to go around…at least not when you put a heaping tablespoon on each crackling because it is so damned decadent and delicious.
Moving next to “Our Version of Poutine” the team at The Coterie Room opted to update the gravy with braised pork shoulder, use local Beecher’s cheese curds that were first battered and friend, and then add a multitude of fresh herbs including rosemary, sage, and chives to produce something quite different from the down and dirty Montreal classic. With the fries thick cut, skin on, crisp on the exterior and delicate on the inside this was another dish that went quickly – particularly the bites with the squeaky cheese and although I would have personally liked to have seen more gravy atop the crisp spuds as opposed to at the base of the plate one benefit of this presentation was that the fries remained crisp from start to finish as opposed to getting soggy and weighted down like other less refined versions.
For our last appetizer, Sweet Onion Mac n’ Cheese baked in a cast iron pot with crispy shallots would prove to be the least interesting of the three yet even despite ordering it without the “duck ham” at the request of my mother and aunt I found the flavors to be quite rich and well balanced with the macaroni all nicely cooked and loaded with bubbling cheese imbued with a savory onion finish. Caramelized atop and crowned with crispy shallots and chopped green onions a small portion of the dish certainly went a long way but all things being equal I’d absolutely order it again – this time with the duck.
Having contemplated a number of main courses – from pork to pasta to scallops – our final decision was a bit of a rarity for us in that we all ordered the same thing not simply because it seemed to fit the traditional flavor of the menu but also because it was 11:15pm and family style Buttermilk fried chicken served with potato and bacon hash, chicken gravy, and frisee salad sounded just like the perfect thing…and for the most part it was. Beginning first with the chicken, a whole bird minus the wings that we watched the team remove from a buttermilk bath, bread, and fry before a quick finish in the oven the flavor was exquisitely juicy and intensely crisp with the buttermilk notes nicely balanced on the palate by herbs and pepper – the best fried bird I’ve had since Michel Richard Central without a doubt. Not to be outdone, however, what really put this plate on the next level was the aromatic gravy and the “hash” – essentially butter whipped skin on potatoes dotted with lardons, chives, and what I believe was a touch of sour cream; absolutely decadent and a trip favorite for my sister.
With the hour now reaching for midnight and a strange scene being raised up front as a local homeless person had apparently stiffed the restaurant with a bad credit card Philip returned to offer us the dessert menu and with three desserts plus two nightly ice cream selections available we opted for one of each of the three desserts and declining coffee Philip asked us inquisitively whether we always dined out late or if we were ‘celebrating something’ since we’d made the reservation only earlier that day – a question that led to our story of hours in Houston’s airport and a story likewise from him about a time he once got trapped in the wretched place as well.
With the vagrant now returning to the street and yelling at the restaurant window for some time before moving along our desserts would arrive in short order and although not “upscale American” like the savories each would prove impressive beginning first with “Almond Financiers with almond Custard and Quince Confiture” – a stack of Madeline textured cookies filled with creamy custard in the style of a Twinkie and paired with Quince jam; a bit sweet, a bit savory, warm and delicious.
Moving next to the “Apple Galette warm spiced apples in flaky crust with vanilla ice cream and caramel” this dish would prove to be nearly as American as apple pie with the free form galette sitting in a pool of salty caramel and topped with an airy light quenelle of vanilla ice cream. Sweet and buttery with hints of salt underlying the potency of the vanilla and cinnamon this was a serviceable dessert even if it was somewhat “Standard” and the crackling pastry shell was divine.
Moving to what we thought was the last dessert, “Chocolate Caramel Tort covered in orange ganache and candied orange” the final service of the trio would be by far the most intense with a light caramel mousse sandwiched between layers of chocolate cake dipped in a crackling dark chocolate shell and topped with a touch of orange. Not a fan of citrus and chocolate my sister refrained from this dessert, but all things being equal I was alright with that as the delicate orange melded well with the sweet caramel while the chocolate’s natural bittersweet essence brought the flavors all together. As an additional bonus, a few spoons of crumbled corn nuts and corn nuts in crystallized sugar dotted the plate adding a nice textural component.
With desserts enjoyed and requesting the tab Phillip would return to our table not only with the bill but with one final dessert “since the rest of the hospitality world has been shitting on you today we might as well end it with something sweet – Vanilla Ice Cream with Butter Crumble, Caramel, Dehydrated dulce de leche, pound cake – complements of the kitchen” – the dessert we’d omitted thinking it was simply ice cream yet the dessert we would all enjoy the most with the same creamy vanilla ice cream as the galette this time paired with dense pound cake topped with what tasted like soft shortbread cookies, caramel, and a bit of ‘mg’ trickery in the form of dulce de leche powder that gave the whole dish a potent buttery top note on the palate.
Sticking around and chatting with the staff for a little while as we finished dessert and paid the bill my family waited while I went to get the car and upon exiting Philip wished us all a good stay in Seattle before locking the door for the night –yet another nice gesture in a series of many considering that were it not for us the Coterie Room would have probably closed an hour earlier…and were it not for the Coterie Room 12/27/11 would have been a really crappy day instead of one that started off a really great trip full of really great food.