It “does my heart good” to visit a small business… a viable restaurant, owned and operated by a delightfully creative young chef who wasn’t born until five years after my first article about food was published in Houston! Chef Jamie Zelko is young in a chronological sense, but exudes creativity and a culinary vision beyond her age. In what looks from the street like many other small houses in the Heights, is Zelko Bistro… the creation of the former executive chef of the Lancaster Hotel in Houston’s theatre district. Chef Zelko calls her cuisine “New American Comfort” food.
There have been many reviews written about Zelko Bistro, mostly good ones. So, I am sharing one lunch experience from MY perspective. Our first impression was that even though we entered a near-capacity restaurant, we experienced immediate seating and courteous, beaming smiles from all. Just as pleasing was the fact that a wait person showed up immediately with our individual bottle of chilled water. We were surrounded by many seemingly very pleased (and loud) customers. While that may sound like a negative, it merely reinforced the validity of the name “bistro” to us and we commented that this is a place to enjoy a fun lunch (or dinner… or brunch), or entertain a business client… but not necessarily the best place to quietly negotiate the details of a private business contract with someone.
We started with the Chopped Bleu… a delightful chopped salad with bleu cheese, romaine, red onions, apples and pecans. Fresh ingredients and the crispy salad was perfectly delivered on a chilled plate. It had a choice of two sizes and the smaller was fine for one person. The apples and pecans gave the salad its character. The complimentary foccacia bread with olive oil and fresh herbs was the perfect mate for the salad. I guess this is the place to mention that when I met Jamie, after lunch, our conversation was filled with the descriptions “sustainable”, “free range”, “local” and “seasonal”. Good things to hear from a chef.
Shrimp and Grits
My real love is seeking out local takes on regional American specialties… so, while there were several, I went first for one of my favorite “low country” dishes, Shrimp and Grits. If you don’t have Shrimp and Grits in Charleston, South Carolina, you must have slept through several meals. I would expect that extraordinary Houston Chef, Jamie Zelko would have her take on it. She did. This one has all of the components to make it great… white cheddar polenta … apple bacon… sautéed jumbo shrimp and a sweet agave soy sauce to add contrast. To compare this with the dish I’ve enjoyed in the deep southeastern U.S. is not intended, as the phrase “shrimp and grits” describes the inspiration… not necessarily the “traditional” dish. This creation is purely Jamie and her vision will become as valid a Heights Houston regional dish as its inspiration is typical of South Carolina.
While traveling around the northern Baja of Mexico, I frequently enjoy the (now famous) Fish Tacos. I ordered the Zelko Bistro Fish Tacos. Again, a quite tasty… yet different (healthier) taco than the regional Mexican inspiration for it. Cilantro mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, pineapple salsa served on griddle-heated flour tortillas. Why healthier? The fish in those in Mexico is frequently battered and fried mystery fish. These are sautéed Tilapia… and served with very ripe perfectly caramelized plantains. The two tacos are huge and sharable.
A young diner next to us was polishing off a burger 50% bigger than her head and I wished I could have had a bite. Another dish one might expect to be served in the South, somewhat east of here are Fried Pickles… and if there are a couple of people in your party, there are seven of them, sweet and breaded in Captain Crunch and served with Zelko’s house-made Ranch dressing… a fun way to start off your meal.
There’s a Chef Jamie “take” on everything and some other choices are Captain’s Crunch Fried Chicken, Seared Tuna Salad, Root Beer Braised Short Ribs (if that doesn’t sound good, nothing does), Lemon Icebox Pie and even Funnel Cake. Along with her business partner/wine expert, Jeb Stuart, she has no wines that I saw above $40, yet an interesting selection of wines and beers to complement all dishes. A native Houstonian, Chef Zelko has worked with some of the best chefs in Houston, as well as New York… and has literally been in restaurant kitchens for half of her young 30 years of life.
Zelko Bistro is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner with brunch on the weekends. All (ample) parking is behind the restaurant.
705 E. 11th Street in Houston, TX. 77008
Between Studemont and Beverly
Parking off Beverly