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Pork chops with cabbage and apples

Ramshackle Chic

by John DeMers | Photo: Debora Smail | Houston magazine | April 30, 2013

Looking stereotypically Persian except for his all-American retro-hipster outfit, young chef-owner Kevin Naderi gazes out over his cobbled-together dining room as it fills to capacity on what promises to be a busy Friday night, his handsome and dark features warmly animated. Actually, with the sun still shining in the early evening, the springtime temperature close to perfect, and half-price wine and beer for happy hour, the four natural-wood picnic tables out front have been loaded to capacity for an hour already.

It’s been this way for Naderi and his unassuming Montrose restaurant called Roost since it quietly opened in December 2011, taking up a space long occupied by the Cuban Latina Café. Media buzz both real and social has fueled the fire, which only accelerated as diners started lusting after his roasted cauliflower, and his doughnut holes with coffee ice cream. The instant fame for such a small, simple place—it’s regarded in the top tier of city eateries by most serious foodies—took many by surprise, but no one more than the chef himself.

“So we opened,” says Naderi, dressed in his chef non-uniform of an open-collared work shirt (the kind filling-station attendants wore in the 1950s) hanging over a pair of dark shorts. “We had a few days of tumbleweeds rolling through here, and then we had a line out the door.”

A happy thought passes across his eyes, followed by a somewhat less-happy one. “It’s not easy to learn what you’re doing, how a place is supposed to operate, when you have a line out the door,” he says.

It must seem surreal for Naderi, who actually first began to think of opening the place after he answered a Craigslist ad for an apartment next door to the restaurant space. He was looking for a place to crash, and wound up deciding that maybe he was ready to crash into the Houston culinary world. And he figured that maybe, just maybe, he was ready. He had a decent resume, after all, having trained under Randy Evans, first at Brennan’s of Houston and later at Haven.

Naderi took a lease on the restaurant, and also the apartment.

Beneath Roost’s dark-stained, seemingly ancient ceiling, the walls are cream-colored in the open stretches, which are few. Most of the walls are hidden beneath nailed-up wood: blocks, boards, shutters, shelves, all looking rescued from the discard pile of a Montrose or Heights renovation. Shelves are heavily laden with stuff, from books and candles to bowls and vases, with just enough room for a red toy fire engine.

Unlike some restaurants, which emphasize cocktails as part of a style-conscious bar scene, Roost has only two chairs shoved up against what passes for its bar, and on this night they’re filled with people eating. Since there are no spirits served, the emphasis is on craft beers and wines chosen for both quirky appeal and affordability. Randy Evans’ wife Melanie, a Houston-based sales rep for a wine company, has helped turn the modest list into a winner.

Naderi’s menu, touched just lightly by his Persian heritage with a unique mix of spices and herbs, changes often, evolving with the seasons, and with whichever ingredients look best from local farms and fisheries. The chef learned that much from farm-to-table star Haven, for sure. Yet he’s smart enough, or perhaps just interested enough in survival, to keep two dishes in place even when he rewrites the rest of the menu.

First and foremost, there’s the cauliflower—I’d call it “caramelized” if I made a version at home—with a kind of Asianed-up miso mayo and a crunch from crumbled pine nuts. The catchy-crazy thing here is the sprinkle of salty dried-bonito-fish flakes. It’s an unexpected touch that probably isn’t for everybody, but it’s a Naderi hallmark.

The menu’s other never-changing staple is a dessert called “coffee ’n’ donut holes,” a fun spin on many a morning breakfast in Texas—except this coffee takes the form of ice cream, then gets mixed up with crushed pistachios and salted caramel cream. There’s almost as much salty here as sweet, which, contrary to my expectations, I quite liked.

Recently, among the seasonal offerings, I’ve enjoyed several plates that were downright vegetarian—not my usual stomping ground. But I was impressed with the crispy chickpea lettuce wraps with North Africa harissa and cooling lime wedges, and the more substantial poblano pepper that’s roasted and stuffed with a mix of quinoa and spinach. One of my favorite new dishes is the crudo of local fish that’s given amazing textures by jicama, baby kale and a creamy puree of mango and chile.

Other standout dishes have included cured Berkshire pork with braised red cabbage, pickled apples and grain mustard sauce, and seared diver scallops with curried lentils and a cooling raita yogurt sauce with grilled grapes. And lest you think those famous doughnuts are the only dessert in the house, I’ve enjoyed Naderi’s strawberries in Sauternes—and incredible ice cream made with, of all things, balsamic vinegar. And then there’s the red velvet bread pudding with cream cheese icing, and a cookie-by-way-of-candy called a banana cream bar, made with an Oreo crust and cacao nips.

Surprising, and delightful. In fact, there’s a whole lot of things that surprise and delight about Kevin Naderi’s Roost. But I would expect nothing less from a guy who goes out to look for an apartment and ends up creating one of the best and most successful little restaurants in town.

Roost
1972 Fairview St.
713.523.7667
iloveroost.com

4-10pm Mon.-Thu.,
4-11pm Fri.-Sat.

Smaller plates $5-$14, larger plates $18-$27, desserts $7

Why Go?
Use of Persian spices gives unexpected depth to Houston-born chef-owner Kevin Naderi’s new take on farm-to-table cooking. This comfortable and affordable eatery in Montrose has generated quite the buzz.

Ready to Wear
The servers are dressed in jeans with farm-style plaid shirts, and most nights the customers make them look overdressed. T-shirts, shorts and sandals turn up often, as do beards and the occasional dreadlock. This place is as much about comfort as it is first-rate comfort food.

Parking
The first few lucky diners grab the spots out front; the rest track down places on the side streets. For good or ill, there’s not a valet in sight.

Wine of the Times
For such a small-scale eatery, the wine list makes a big statement—from its affordability to its range. Think light whites for outdoor sippers to powerful reds for indoor carnivores.

Sofreh Me Softly
Family-style Persian dinners called sofreh happen occasionally on Sunday nights, with the chef getting help from his mother and grandmother. Great salads, braised lamb shank and saffron-pistachio ice cream are blasts from the exotic ancient world.