Natural Selection

After my first visit to Down House early this summer, my first thought was that I could spend all day there. A discreetly marked building with an open floor plan that is at once inviting yet refined. The vintage aesthetic here harks back almost to the 20’s with its ornate, dark wood, even apothecary-like bar at the back of the space, or the mustachioed, bowtied, waistcoated, even armbanded staff I saw scurrying about the place. There are dining tables scattered throughout, but also a central seating area complete with couches and repurposed railcar coffee tables.

Down HouseThe simple menu consisted of things like omelettes and breakfast tacos elevated with ingredients like venison sausage and local eggs. My eyes having alighted upon the breakfast torta, however, my mind was made up. An imposing sandwich on bolillo bread, with pulled pork, avocado, slaw, and a fried local egg on top made for an enjoyably messy and filling start to the day. And this was not just pork casually tossed on a sandwich and covered up by the other ingredients: rich and flavorful, tender pulled pork that I would put up against even some of the best BBQ joints in the city – indicative of the quality fare at Down House that this pork wasn’t just served on its own. Paired with the creamy avocado and the runny egg, this was a torta masterpiece.

Even my coffee took me aback. At Down House, this was full-bodied, French press coffee with all the flavors and oils of the (then) South American beans left intact. The fact that this time-intensive service is de rigueur, along with the expertly pulled cappuccinos and cortados, makes Down House a caffiend’s dream. What’s more, they have a nice selection of beers to go with your lunch, simply to quaff while standing at the bar, or paired by suggestion on the weekend brunch menu. Their newly introduced “Sour Sundays” led me to a particularly good example of the style  in Liefmans Goudenband, a Belgian sour. Thus my initial comment: once Down House started serving dinner, why would you ever leave? Come in for a delicious breakfast first thing in the morning, then repair to the couch for mid-morning coffee and newspaper reading, head back over to the table for a lunch of exquisite sandwiches and salads, have a meeting over happy hour cocktails – you get the idea. In fact, my enthusiasm began to wear thin with friends since Down House became a common refrain when we were thinking of places to go.

I had to admit, the short menu got repetitive after awhile, and after the tempest in a Twitter teapot, as well as some high profile reviews lamenting spotty service and inconsistent food, I think Down House was on the bubble of most people’s culinary radar. But when I saw the restaurant teaming up with the Karbach Brewery for a Houston Beer Week dinner, I jumped at the opportunity. I was out of town for the Monsters of Beer event, but I wanted to get my Houston Beer Week events underway as soon as I could. I hadn’t yet visited Down House for dinner, and I was interested to see what Chef Benjy Mason had in store for us – when we started off with grapefruit-dusted pork cracklins paired with a Rodeo Clown DIPA Pagliacci cocktail, I knew the evening would be a gustatory assault of the senses. It was a bit dark for photos, but hopefully I can weave a rich tapestry for you.

The grapefruit dusting paired well with the grapefruit notes of the Double IPA and the citrus in the cocktail, while the slightly acerbic drink was able to cut the rich pork fat. Next came Karbach’s Sympathy for the Lager, a traditional Bavarian style lager aiming to rehabilitate the style’s bastardized image. This was paired with Deviled Wings and a fennel and apple salad. The Houston Press recently hosted their Wingtoberfest event, in which the Party Fowl food truck was dubbed the winner with the best wings, but I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t put Chef Mason’s deviled wings up against the best in the city. A traditionally British sauce with its characteristic Indian influences, the Worcestshire-based deviled sauce with vinegar, English mustard, and a healthy dose of cayenne, along with some bits of red currant, made the flash-fried wings completely addictive. The savory coating made me come back for more despite how spicy they were, bordering on overwhelming, though the cool, creamy bleu cheese dressing on the salad of apple and fennel brought sweet relief. In fact, when a waiter came by with extra wings, I happily obliged, even as my lips burned. At this point Chef Mason got up with Brewmaster Eric Warner to speak a little bit about the dishes and the beers they were paired with. We got a bit of background on both, but I never quite understood why the traditionally German style beer was paired with the traditionally British sauce. The remaining dishes, however, gave clear answers to that question, with the Darwin-inspired restaurant pairing beers that were a natural selection.

The second course was a Kale Salad with a mint vinaigrette and croutons, and the robust greens were able to stand up to the characteristic bitterness of Karbach’s Hopadillo IPA. The course made a nice, light dish after the heavier, fried dishes of pork cracklins and chicken wings. Third was a Belgian influenced course, consisting of the Weisse Versa Wheat ale teamed up with moules frites, or mussels served with French fries. The Weisse Versa is a hybrid style beer, essentially a combination of German Hefeweizen and Belgian Weisse (or Wit) beers. The coriander and citrus notes of the Belgian side of that equation made a perfect compliment with the mussels poached in Weisse Versa and topped with greens and a slice of orange. The hand-cut, twice-fried potatoes showcased a perfectly bronzed exterior with a soft interior, delicious with a powerfully garlicky gravy accompaniment, and inclining me to declare the need for a French fry competition in Houston along the lines of Wingtoberfest.

The final savory dish of the evening was the Pork Cheek Carbonnade served as the fourth course, paired with the hoppy Rodeo Clown Double IPA. Chef Mason had wanted to have something special for the evening when Down House was first planning the dinner with Karbach. The brewery was at that point brewing a not-quite-ready new seasonal beer for the holidays, which has now been released as Yule Shoot Your Eye Out, a winter warmer. The chef decided to braise the pork cheek in the beer (a New Brew Stew?) to recreate another traditionally Belgian dish, generally made with beef. The pork cheek was just absolutely fall apart tender, slow-cooked in the rich beer broth – a hearty winter dish with the heft to pair with the bigger Rodeo Clown ale at roughly 9% ABV.

Finally, dessert. And as if we weren’t already battered about the head with amazing dishes, Chef Mason decided to put us on the mat with one last knock-out punch. He mentioned that after breakfast and brunch service they’re often left with superfluous croissants, and when thinking about what to do with them, he hit upon a bread pudding. Yes, as if croissants weren’t rich and buttery enough, they were given the bread pudding treatment, with Maker’s Mark bourbon sauce and bourbon poached prunes, with caramelized sugar – I think I blacked out. Simply incredible. I could have tried Karbach’s Yule Shoot Your Eye Out last week when it was tapped at the Petrol Station, but I wanted to wait until this beer dinner. When the glass was brought over, it was a midnight black, and the strong winter spice notes were immediately present on the nose, with ginger, allspice, and clove. The spices were almost as strong as in the Pumpkinator from Saint Arnold – minus the pumpkin of course. This is a beer I look forward to drinking over the coming holidays.

Down House is on top of their game, with exceptional dishes and attentive service. Teamed up with Houston’s new kid on the block, the Karbach Brewery, this was an excellent way to kick off some Houston Beer Week festivities.


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