Want fabulous food, delicious drinks and an overall delightful dining diversion? You will find it at Hunk Dory in the Houston Heights. While Chef John Tesar of Dallas’ Knife is playing his tiny…violin* to Playboy, Chris Cusack and his team, including Chef Richard Knight are playing to the crowd — its diners.
What Hunky Dory is Not
The week I dined at Hunky Dory I experienced the highs and lows of a food and wine critic. At the outset, let me say I dined comped at both. But there the comparisons end. The lows came from another eating establishment, located in Rice Village. I joined what was marketed as a wine dinner, where it seemed the wine was merely intended as a foil for those demanding center stage — the chef and the owner. The place calls itself quaint. But the diva duo was not. It bills itself as a specialist in certain regional fare. Having dined in the particular region it favors I can tell you it does not. It claimed one dish as the recipe of the winemaker’s wife. It was not: She told me so. Her exact words were “in my country our ingredients are fresh.” It is one of those places where Houston diners who are “impressed to be impressed” will love. It serves ‘fusion’ dishes of those it imitates from a chef who gets way too cute — like serving 20-plus burning sage branches at a wine dinner. Let me repeat that — at a wine dinner. Which requires your unmitigated sense of smell to evaluate and enjoy the aromas and flavors in the wines. With media present. Where the owner remarks to guests; the purpose of the burning sage is to “cover up the fact all his kitchen staff is back there smoking weed.” Really?
I prefer good to cute when it comes to my food. I could not wait to get out of there. The dishes were creative yet over-spiced and over-played. The burning sage killed my sense of smell for two days. The ambiance left a bad taste in my mouth. I might have tried it again on my own dime to see if the food was good without the dog and pony show — had it not been my dinner three nights later at Hunky Dory, where good doesn’t need cute to compensate.
Hunky Dory does not do cute. It does good. It does friendly. It does fabulous. It knows who should applaud whom. There are no divas — because it is all about the diners. It does not hurt that co-owner Chris Cusack is easy on the eyes. He is damned adorable. But ladies I will dash your hopes as he just got married. To a babe — who is also a writer. I just discovered the writer part. I will let you research that for yourself the way that I did: Ask Mr. Google about her. Because this is about the food.
Says the website, “Named after seminal David Bowie album, Hunky Dory is housed in a new building designed by Austin-based architect Michael Hsu. The exterior reflects the traditional craftsman architecture of the neighborhood and the building is tucked into the embrace of a 100-year-old oak tree. Inside, the building combines elements of English country architecture, classic pub styling, and a little bit of 70’s glam flair.” It’s a feast for the eyes, as well.
And the chef? The amazing Richard Knight — formerly of Feast, our once-upon-a-time favorite restaurant in Montrose. I did not remember this when Chef visited our Hunky Dory table because at Feast he rarely left the kitchen — I just knew he looked familiar. And there was something about the food: I felt at home. Not so much the way I feel at my own dinner table, although Joe does cook in the same style. But the way you feel when you go somewhere you might not have been before, and you feel like it is where you belong. That is Hunky Dory.
Beverage director Travis Hinkle and Head Sommelier Michaël Peltier have created an impressive wine list that changes as they discover new wines and new vintages. It has doubled since the restaurant opened and is now up to 40 pages. Expect to pay about 2 to 2.5 times the retail prices you see in our wine reviews, which is typical for any good restaurant. Sommelier extraordinaire Taylor Mundy served pairings for our media dinner.
What Hunky Dory Serves
We started, from the “Hot Relieves and Cold Ornamented” menu section, with The Silver Salver ($30). It is a selection of meat pies, liver mousse, fresh homemade breads and assorted relishes served on a salver of silver, of course. That alone would probably have been enough for two or even three of the four of us. But there was more to come.
With our starters we ordered cocktails: I had a perfectly prepared Pimm’s Cup. Then the gastronomapalooza began. More starters served; A Salmagundi of Roast Lamb ($12), Fois Gras with Lady Arundel’s Manchet ($35) and Snapper Tartar with Homemade chips and malt vinegar aoili ($14), followed by Black Pudding & Onions; homemade, wrapped in delicate crispy pastry served over glazed onions with a mustard vinaigrette and apples ($12).
It was all amazing; fresh, crisp, and something for every palate — we had no vegans at the table but they do have The Salad ($9).
Then came selections “From the Hearth” and “Braise, Roast & Simmer.” Again amazing. First up was Chicken and Eggs; herb rubbed Poussin with ember eggs, trencher and beet greens: the ember eggs right on top the chicken ($25) — who cares which came first, because the dish as combined was divine.
Next was the Gulf Fish of the Day, Grilled Bean Salad & Tomato Broth. Flaky pan-roasted filet served over fire-roasted mixed beans – in this case black-eyed peas ($27). Our white wine pairing was a 2014 Melville Vineyards and Winery Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills, available both by the bottle and by-the-glass.
Our final main was the Cake Stand Pork Chop. Juicy, hearth-grilled chops served in fours “for one or more” topped with a decadent herbed butter (4 for $28, 8 for $50, 12 for $75) Those chops come with double-duty potatoes, both mashed and french fries — and why should you have to choose? “We find folks often like to dip the fries in the mashed,” said our server. Now why didn’t I think of that? The chops were moist, hearty, succulent with a note of Applewood smoke. Our red wine pairing was a 2012 Azienda Agricola Cigliuti, “Campass,” Barbera d’Alba, and it worked. The menu also includes an entrée of Hearth Grilled Eggplant served over couscous for the non-carnivores among us.
Every selection was delicious, and by the time we finished our chops, I was ready to call “Uncle.” But it was time for dessert and some after-dinner drinks. We passed around a Rusty Nail Sundae; scotch and sour ice cream with Drambouie caramel and a drunken gingerbread man ($10). Then came the Dark Chocolate Terrine: Hazelnut, port prunes, spiced port caramel topped with creme fraiche ($11). Suggested pairing for that one is a 2011 Domaine de la Tour Vielle, “Rimage” from Banyuls, France.
Servers also delivered the Eccles Cake, a warm pastry with dried fruit and spices that comes with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar ($9), and the Pear Ginger Crumble served with warm vanilla custard ($10).
The final pièce de résistance was Chef Knight’s Sticky Toffee Pudding ($11), which got my tête ticking from my particular palate recall of Feast. We ended every meal with that and a glass of bourbon or scotch back in the day. Hunky Dory has a full bar with a wide selection of Speyside, Islay, Highland and Lowland Single Malt Scotch, Bourbon, Blended Irish and Worldly Whiskeys, Cognac, Brandy and Cordials as well as Port and Sherry to complement your dessert.
Hunky Dory also offers “Three Decades of Chateau d’Yquem” (currently 1981-1995-2003) for $120, if you’re really feeling the sweet pull of Sauternes.
The Bottom Line
I love Hunky Dory. The drinks, the wine list, the food are all top-notch. The atmosphere is convivial, and that the owner, sommelier and waitstaff treat the customers as honored guests they are happy to serve will help make this restaurant a success. Yes, we attended a media dinner, so one would expect the extra mile. But I observed the same treatment toward other customers in the restaurant, and have heard nothing but good words from other diners. It’s a place where I would be happy not only spending my own money, but inviting friends to join us as well.
Hunky Dory is located at 1801 N. Shepherd Dr. on the site of what Cusack tells me was one among a swath of used car lots. It is open for lunch Monday through Friday, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., dinner Sunday through Wednesday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Reservations are available through Open Table.
Joey Treadway and Chris Cusack, the duo that created the restaurant management company Treadsack have a gem in Hunky Dory, another in their Houston Heights portfolio that now includes Down House, D&T Drive Inn, Johnny’s Gold Brick, and Foreign Correspondents, Houston’s only farm-to-table Northern and Northeastern Thai Food from Chef PJ Stoops. They also bring fresh Gulf seafood to Houston’s Finest Restaurants through their distribution company Choam; operate the Kipper Club Test Kitchen and have a magazine called Sugar & Rice, which covers food and culture on the Gulf Coast.
Recently opened Bernadine’s they call “A Love Letter to the Gulf Coast,” sits beside Hunky Dory and is currently open for dinner, with brunch and lunch coming soon. Berdandine’s is also looking for experienced hosts, servers, server assistants, sous chefs, line cooks and prep cooks. Applicants can e-mail a resume Email firstname.lastname@example.org or apply at www.treadsack.com/team/#join-our-team
Treadsack’s webpage opens with “We’d all be better off if everybody made things they like instead of making things they think other people would like.” Treadsack seems to like food in a variety of expressions. That’s good for the Houston Heights, and good for the rest of us Houstonians who favor tasty grub. I cannot wait to see what they create for us next!
*You can read all about Chef John Tesar at my friend Chris Kassel’s Intoxicology Report