Over the years, Lowbrow, John Sheely‘s new spot, has been a thing or two – a coffee shop, a pizza joint and a burger kinda house. And, over the years, Sheely has reinvented himself: the path of his career not a straight shot to stardom, rather a twisty road of experimentation, personal growth and professional development.
Most know him and his food from his 16-year run at the Montrose-based Mockingbird (the bouillabaisse was dream food for me).
A lucky few may recall his Riviera Grill at Westheimer and Gessner – 21 years ago, his debut restaurant. When I show up for brunch at Lowbrow, Sheely reminds me that I wrote the first article on Riviera Grill and the wondrous French accented food he served in that teeny, tiny inauspicious strip mall location.
(I admit it. I am a Sheely fan. I have been for long time. We have a mutual admiration – Sheely has put my marvelous pimento cheese on the menu as an appetizer item.)
Over the years, Sheely has worked hard keeping the popular Mockingbird humming along while trying his hand at an upscale and large Osteria Mazzantina, in the trendy Post Oak district. Didn‘t work. He retreated to Mockingbird until December 24 of last year when he served the last meal. Landlord issues.
For the first half of this year, he kicked around town, hoping for a cooking job. “I was sick and tired of worrying about bills, rent, all the details. I did not want to be an owner, I just wanted to cook.”
But fate came calling. “Lowbrow just fell into my lap. In April, I heard it was available. I had a month to get the money together. And we opened in June.” Closing down for July 4th weekend so he, his wife and his business partner, Christopher Ray, could give the place a good scrub down, refurbish the rest rooms and start to make the place feel – well – feel like home.
And here at Lowbrow, Sheely, who had just confided that he never wanted to be an owner/boss again, does feel at home.
It‘s a locals kind of spot; casual, solid food, kitschy wall paper, cozy bar area. Not too big. “I can see every table from those two windows,” says Sheely indicating the windows in the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen.
He checks in with his chef Michael Blacke, head huddles with his partner Ray, hustles plates out to the tables to customers, shakes a few hands here and there. And on Saturday and Sunday when Lowbrow rocks brunch, he grabs a bowl or two of tater tots hash with gravy. “I have to have a bowl or two every brunch – I think I gained at least 10 pounds from that hash,” he confesses with a chuckle.
“We kept the brunch menu pretty much as it was – tweaking it here and there,” says Sheely.
Big fluffy biscuits anchor several breakfast plates. My fave? Easy choice. The Chicken & Biscuits – crispy chicken schnitzel with a sweet and spicy honey sauce, scrambled eggs and a dollop of queso-–soft biscuits, crunchy, crunchy chicken, smooth queso. Texture city and super delicious.
Not so adventurous? You‘ll be happy with the Biscuit Benedict, a country ham and biscuit rip on the traditional. And if you are super hungry hit up the Lowbrow twist on steak and eggs – CFS, eggs your way and creamy dreamy cheese grits.
While you are mulling over the choices, share the fried brie – a wedge of pungency, coated in panko crumbs and deep fried to a golden crisp crust, oozing goodness into the streak of honey mustard.
If you are old enough to remember Sheely‘s Riviera Grill, you may not appreciate the brunch DJ – tho the hordes of ball cap-wearing millennials seem most content to shout over their eggs and biscuits. Those who prefer less auditory stimulation should request a patio table.
At lunch the burger – juicy, meaty, loaded with goodies – rules. The Croque Madame made from thick Texas toast and topped with a runny fried egg runs a close second.
Sheely has begun to work some Mockingbird-style magic at dinner time – having just introduced slow-braised short ribs with horseradish mash and haricot vert to the menu, joining other Mockingbird faves like scallops on a bed of grits with mustard greens and a balsamic curry sauce and the classic NY strip steak frites. Currently, he features a mesquite-grilled ribeye with Indian summer succotash as an evening special.
Like Sheely himself, Lowbrow is a work in progress. Dishes will continue to be refined, as the menu responds to seasonal availability and customer reactions.
He hopes that his long-time Mockingbird patrons will find their way to this Menil district location. They should make the effort and so should you.
1601 West Main St. | Houston, TX 77006 | 713.527.8647