What the Deal, Lucille’s?

I’m not going to lie: I began to eagerly anticipate the opening of Lucille’s a year and a half ago. Back in May 2011, chef and owner Chris Williams told me that he expected to be up and running within a few months. He planned to “redefine Southern cuisine using all the flavors picked up in Europe,” and I planned to visit this new Museum District location as often as possible. After all, aside from the ultra-pricey Monarch at the Hotel Zaza, a Cafe Express in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a build-your-own-burrito place — Bodega’s — tucked into the first floor of a hospital, Houston’s beautiful Museum District is otherwise eerily bereft of restaurants. I couldn’t wait for Lucille’s to come in and shake things up.

A year went by and Lucille’s showed no signs of opening. The old bungalow Williams and his family were converting into a restaurant proved tougher to renovate than they previously thought. But finally, at the end of this past August, they announced a soft opening. By early September, I was enjoying my first meal inside a spectacularly revamped and thoughtfully built-out dining room full of guests who seemed as eager as I was to be there. And what a first meal it was.

A plate of pork and beans was the first signal that Williams was truly “redefining” Southern cuisine, as it were, arriving not as a campfire-style dish of pinto beans and pork nuggets but instead as a shallow bowl filled with vibrantly green fava beans surrounding a pork shank large enough to bludgeon a man with. His European training blazed forth in a sweet-and-sour agrodolce reduction that cleverly mimicked the tangy taste of old-fashioned pork ‘n’ beans from a tin can, slicing neatly through the fattiness of the pork shank and further enlivening the garden-fresh fava beans around it.

His crunchy fried green tomatoes — a staple of the genre — did not disappoint, either. And as someone who routinely makes them at home, I appreciate the fine line one walks to get the cornmeal breading to adhere appropriately to the tart tomato slices without becoming gummy or tough. Williams’s neat row of tomatoes were fine examples of the classic dish, especially when taken with the peppery buttermilk Ranch dressing drizzled lightly across the top.

Even the shrimp and grits — commonly ruined in untrained hands — were perfectly constructed, with a deft balance of flavor and texture throughout. The grits were creamy instead of gloppy; the shrimp were plump and fresh; and a bright, almost citrusy butter reduction and a handful of watercress on top tied it all up in a terrific little package. Between the food and the wisely priced wine list (a bottle of Barnard Griffin Cabernet, for example, was barely marked up over retail), I couldn’t wait to return.

And then something went terribly wrong.

Lucille’s is named after Chris Williams’s great-grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith, a culinary pioneer who owned U.S. Smith’s Famous BBQ in Fort Worth and helped establish one of the first college-level commercial foods departments in the nation at Prairie View A&M University. To name your first restaurant after your great-grandmother — especially one as well-respected as Lucille Bishop Smith — is to set very high expectations for yourself. And over the course of three visits, it doesn’t appear that Williams is quite living up to those standards.

For my second visit, I wanted to take my own 88-year-old grandmother — as solidly Southern (well, East Texan, although the two are interchangeable) as they come and as well-seasoned a cook as you’ll find in the Piney Woods. Lucille’s was closed on the day of our visit, however, and I was chagrined. It turns out that I shouldn’t have been; I wouldn’t have wanted my grandmother to even so much as look at the food I ate the following night. I have never had to apologize to a friend — this one from up north, excited to taste some Southern cooking — as profusely as I did on that Saturday night.

My oxtails were tough and undercooked, missing the promised side of “bruleed sweet potato gratin” and served in a confusingly named sauce termed “aspirations” on the menu. I still don’t know what “aspirations” are meant to be, but judging by this dish, they are a collection of ratatouille-esque vegetables coated in a thick, cloyingly sweet sauce.

My boyfriend’s “pan-roasted chicken” hadn’t a single sear mark on it and looked as if it had been boiled in a pot of water, with a bit of pepper thrown on top. His “fingerling hash” consisted of a few cold, barely cooked potatoes, and his “garden terrine” was kale with ice chips still clinging to the leaves. Only the 45-minute egg was any good, but what a waste of a golden yolk. What would we have swiped through it? The uncooked potatoes? Or the bland, tough chicken?