Review: Poitín in Sawyer Yards
By Alison Cook
Now is our blessed season of winter greens here in Houston. There may be no place better to savor them in a variety of surprising applications than Poitín, the 6-month-old bar and restaurant that occupies a vast, dramatic end space in the industrial-chic complex known as Sawyer Yards.
Here Dominick Lee, a disarming young chef with a languid New Orleans drawl, puts greens — from collards to dark taro leaves — to ingenious use. He simmers risotto rice in collard pot liquor before adding enough aged cheddar to make the grains gleam, then sluices rivers of forest-green collards and pulled smoked pork over the surface. It’s risotto gone Deep South.
Greens pop up without notice in a collard pesto that adds a subtle vegetal undertow to thick slices of rosy Rohan duck, farmed in upstate New York by D’Artagnan, a premium supplier. Glazed curves of winter squash, slim circles of apple and notes of pecan and bacon chime in on a plate that’s apt for the weather.
Or consider the astonishing Filipino-style laing greens that accompany a whole chicken that has been smoked and then flash-fried, without batter or breading, so that it emerges plump and juicy under shiny brown skin.
Laing is a traditional Filipino dish involving dried taro leaves simmered in coconut milk. Here, they emerge dark and smoky and mysterious, as if some powerful wizard has transfigured creamed spinach into something compelling. Put them together with drop biscuits and macaroni gigged with miso-laced bread crumbs, and you have a supper that’s all about the New South, drawing upon the old one of which Houston was once a part.
That’s Lee at his best, utilizing his Creole heritage and the diverse culinary strains of modern Houston to make something new and personal. Lee, who practically radiates warmth, is a deeply collegial chef who urges contributions from his mini-United Nations of cooks. The laing idea, for instance, sprang from Filipino staffer John Degala. (He’s the brother of recent “Master Chef” Season 9 contestant Ralph Xavier Degala.)
The impulse doesn’t always work. In the restaurant’s early months, trying to navigate the menu felt like being shot pinball-style into a disjointed carnival. You banged up against mushroom congee here and Cambodian pork skins there; caromed off elotes and ceviche and Spanish octopus; bounced from African-inflected Gulf prawns to Wagyu corned brisket to hummus with lamb neck.
It seemed difficult to put together a meal that made any kind of sense.
Back then, in August, I found the kitchen promising but bumpy. The lamb neck with that hummus was terribly salty. The house bread box did not delight. Elote-style corn off the cob, with queso fresco and cilantro crema, tasted too innocent for its own good.
But there was a payoff on that jarring early visit — a hint of the restaurant to come. One of several large-format entrees so fashionable lately, meant for a table of diners to share, was a spectacular bone-in rib-eye served sliced, with accessories that turned it into an audacious Indian-style fajita platter. There were papadum chips and onion roti, the Indian flatbread, for rolling; sautéed onions and sweet peppers with a twinge of garam masala spices; and a brilliant mirliton (aka chayote, or alligator pear) pickle in achari masala style.
It was wild and fun and delicious. And it made perfect sense if you knew that Lee’s last posting was at Kiran’s, the contemporary Indian restaurant where he was chef Kiran Verma’s first lieutenant for a year and half. He added his own Creole ideas to certain menu items there to brilliant effect. And to this critic, it is when Lee’s ideas stay tied to his own strong roots that they work best, that they taste most deeply felt.
An example: Dirty Mushrooms from the new winter menu, a mesh of cremini and fat little enoki umbrellas laced with nubs of chicken liver and Patton’s New Orleans pan sausage, for a dirty-rice effect. The Louisiana icing? A holy trinity of sautéed onion, bell pepper and celery cut as fine as mirepoix. Pure genius.
So, in its gentle way, is a small dish of the antique Southern staple Country Captain, here done vegan-style, with meaty winter squash replacing the usual chicken in the mellow curried broth. A gorgeous lineup of small, smoked roasted beets with candy-striped, pickled slices rides on a bed of Creole cream cheese that’s like thick, stretchy satin.
That’s not to say Lee’s notions should all stay close to home. He takes that modern chestnut, the burrata cheese appetizer, and turns it into something memorable by using a superior imported hand-pulled cheese, creamy and supple, and ribboning it with an amusing basil-seed vinaigrette. Yep, I’m talking those gelatinous little eyeball seeds that animate certain drinks in Chinatown beverage parlors. It’s fun, and it works — even though I found the Parmesan-crisp accessories too brawny and forward for the delicate cheese.
Not every brave idea quite comes off. The current menu features a showstopping ceramic vat of braised oxtails under a puff-pastry dome, and it’s a good, hearty stew that is hard to eat. No bowls; no custom-tailored sides; just meat chunk after meat chunk, with caramelized onion and peas and mushrooms, for $35. It seems curiously unfinished in its current form.
Not so the very fine beverage program, which runs from deftly balanced, sophisticated cocktails to interesting and affordable wines, both by the glass and the bottle. It figures since Poitín owner Ian Tucker was a successful Dublin bar owner until a young woman from Houston lured him across the sea. The establishment’s name — pronounced PUUT-cheen, according to the website — refers to a primal Irish moonshine that is served in various forms here: in a lovely poitín and tonic, for instance, with a rounder, wetter profile than you’d get from a dry, botanical gin. Try it by the shot and taste something new under the Houston sun.
Desserts are by Dory Fung, and carrot-cake connoisseurs will want to try her graceful version lightened up with pineapple and crowned with candied carrot curls. Her peach and walnut baklava is a rich, fragile-leaved variation on the genre. Do ask about the chocolate-Creole-cream-cheese tartlet from the bar menu; it’s an amusing small finish to a meal.
The service is hospitable, thanks to an accomplished team of managers, and it’s willing even when it comes off, occasionally, as wet behind the ears. The long bar counter is an easy hang with its own menu. And the metal-gridded venue is theatrical as can be whether you’re dining on the back deck with its dazzling view of downtown, complete with rumbling trains passing close by, or under a striking, illuminated bottle-wall in the vasty deeps of the dining room.
I’m left with the feeling that the best is yet to come here, as Lee settles into his first executive-chef role. He’s a unique voice with a relentless curiosity and a talent for gathering people and ideas, and I am eager to see where that leads.
Alison Cook is the Chronicle’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic. Follow her on Twitter, and keep up with Houston’s latest dining and drinking news and reviews by subscribing to our free Flavor newsletter.