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Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti on Lessons Learned, Earning Respect and Casual Restaurant Brande

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This is One Year In, in which Eater Houston interviews chefs and owners on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This month, we speak with Ryan Hildebrand, executive chef at Triniti Restaurant.

1227RyanTrinitiLarge.jpg [Gary R Wise]

What was your favorite moment of the first year? Opening night was awesome. The dry runs at the very beginning were a lot of chaos. It was a blast. Having the team together as long as we did pre-opening, it was great to finally get together and generate food here, have guests to serve and do all that kind of stuff. We had so much buildup. Especially in the kitchen, we took on most of the guys very early. We were all chewing through our bits to get in here and get to cooking in an environment that wasn't my kitchen at home. That was really cool to get in our home kitchen and jam out some food for actual people instead of just doing testing in my little, tiny kitchen at home.

The Mercury dinners, of course, stand out over the course of the year, just because they were so unique. I've never done anything like that. We do tasting menus all the time with wine pairings, but musical pairings with a live orchestra. It was challenging, and I learned a lot about music and other crafts.

How did those get started? My partner is a big supporter of Mercury. He was looking for ways to help them raise money. It was his idea to put us together and utilize the venue here as a vehicle for their organization. It gave us a chance to do something pretty cool and unique that I'd never seen before. Those stand out for sure.

What did you learn from those dinners? Something I learned through the whole process is that drawing inspiration from crafts other than your own is the best way. It forces you to be original. We all look at magazines and cookbooks and other chefs, of course. When you start to draw inspiration from musicians, architects and other crafts, it makes you think, just within the confines of your own mind, what you can come up with.

Floral design is just one of the things that kinda drove the spring menu. My partner's wife bought me a floral book, because it was very food-centric. Looking at what someone sees in flower I might see in foie gras or whatever it was. It drove the style of the plate and worked backwards into the food.

How would say the menus have evolved? The way the menus have evolved, having changed them so frequently, is that we've realized we need to have a more static core. Not so much that it never changes, but there are certain items that will always be there. People have short memories, or maybe they have long memories. Three months isn't long enough to give any one menu item traction. I ran into it where we'd have a menu item that someone really loved, and the next time they came in it was gone. I ran into that quite a few times.

I think where we are now is we utilize our tasting menus to be local, 100% seasonal. We really have established a more solid core menu. We were doing 100% change every season. The New York strip that we had when we opened was probably our most popular steak, so that's back on the menu for winter. The kale salad is another one that came back. We'll always tweak them to fit the season, but giving people a little more familiarity, giving them something they can come back for, is something that we had to kind of adapt to.

The menu has evolved to a more approachable menu. It's not as manicured. In the beginning, the food kind of gave a mixed message that the restaurant was formal. That was never the intent. It was always to do elegant food in a casual setting. That you can come in jeans and a t-shirt and be comfortable. I think that's going to be our focus in the next year: to tell people you can come and hang out.

That was one of the things we really missed out on; that it's a laid back place. If you know any of the people behind it, you know that we're not a very stuffy bunch. Everybody's pretty chilled out. That's what we're trying to recover is to remind people they can relax.

Do you think the prices affect people's perception of the restaurant? The pricing, when we look at analogous restaurants, and we do every time we change the menu, we're pretty much at or below what everybody else is selling at. Our most expensive entree is $38. That's the prime New York strip. It's an eight-ounce steak. I don't think the pricing was ever the issue.

One of the issues we ran into was portion size. People talk a lot about the portion size. Not so much anymore, because we've addressed it. The truth of the matter is there's no more food on the plate than there used to be. It's all how we plate it. It's interesting, cause we can take, for example, the duck breast. Every place I've ever been it's one, whole duck breast. When I was at Mark's, it was one duck breast. It's sliced or however you plate it. People think, "oh man, I'm not getting any food," and a lot of it has to do with the presentation. It kind of drives the perception.

When we being really manicured and taking it apart and putting the pieces back together, I think it was misleading for some people. That's one of the things we've addressed is how we present the food, how we plate it, making sure we have a substantial portion. Even if it's garnish or more vegetables. We want to make sure the value that people get here is perceived, and that it is a good value. We're not so artistically proud that we're not going to listen to the people that come through the door and do what we need to do to make them happy.

The portion size and the noise in the building were the two things I heard from people. We've more than addressed portion size. We're still doing our aesthetic, doing the food we want to do. We're doing it in a way that's going to make people more comfortable with it.

And the noise, we're getting ready to do that, too. We're putting acoustical tiles on all the white ceiling panels, pretty much everywhere. We got 5,000 square feet of acoustic ceiling tiles. I'm just glad I don't have to hang them (laughs).

You have a lot of talent here. Has that worked well? Does everyone feel represented? The good thing about it is the group is so diverse that we don't get a lot of repetition, which minimizes the friction. Everyone's got a different style, something they like to do. This place has always been about letting artists be artists. If it's the architect or whoever's making the cocktail or the guys in the kitchen. In the beginning, it was a little bit tough. We had some personality conflicts. Some people have left. Some people have come on, which is the nature of this business. The group that's here now is totally jelled, and everybody works well together.

You closed for a week and a half. What happened? We flipped the menu for spring. We planned on closing anyway, but not for 10 days. We had a leak somewhere in the building. Some people say it was a sewer backup. Some people say it was a leak. It depends on who you ask. All I know is the floors buckled in a matter of days. I looked down at the floor one day and I noticed they were starting to buckle. In a matter of days, it looked like a fun house. There was moisture under the floor. It got to the point that I was afraid someone was going to trip. We had to rip out and re-floor 70% of the hardwoods, which is 90% of the building. That's the big reason we had to stay down for so long. We couldn't reopen until you could walk on them again.

That set us back a little, because we were rocking. After the closure, some people thought we were gone for good. I heard a lot of grumblings like that. "Oh, they're done. They blew their nut on the build out." It's not the case.

Can we put that definitively to rest and say that this place isn't going anywhere? It's not going anywhere. As definitively, definitely, not going anywhere. We're going to remodel the lounge and get some more seating out there. I heard a rumor about mass layoffs.

My version was that I heard you missed your payroll. That's never happened, and that never will. My partner would never let that happen. We've never missed a payroll. We've never missed our bills. The lights are still on. If we were missing payroll, you'd see it. All our servers, these are all first generation guys. No one's left. Which says something about the crew we have and what we're doing here. This core group is what we started with. We've got an amazing front of the house team, top to bottom, and they've all been here since day one.

I want to ask you about (Houston Chronicle critic) Alison Cook. She gave you a two-star review but left you off her list of Houston's top 100 restaurants. She left you off her list of 2012's best new restaurants. Do you have an opinion about how she's treated this restaurant? Do you care? I used to care. I think the people that appreciate it are the people I need to focus on. The people that are coming through the door and enjoying the restaurant are the people I need to focus on.

I looked at the thing they put out today with all the reviews she wrote for the year. Two stars in her opinion, it's difficult to say what it really means. Some of them are, like, eh, some of them, you read it, and it's like, that doesn't really match up. I've personally extended invitations to her for the Mercury dinners and never got a response, good or bad.

I'm not sure what she doesn't like about it. In the review that she wrote for us, I didn't think it read like a two-star review. When I read it, I didn't think it was four, but I thought it was three. Then it was two, but she said some really nice things. (That we) put out an eight-course tasting menu and didn't miss a step, or something like that. To me, it didn't read like a two-star review.

Leaving us off the top 100, I thought that was a little strange, but she also left off some people that were even more strange. People who have been doing it a lot longer than we have and doing it well. So, everybody has an opinion. It used to really bother me, but not so much anymore. My focus is more about doing what we do and doing it well, my crew, and the people that are actually coming through the door.

It just seems natural to me to compare this restaurant to Underbelly and Oxheart, the new, chef-driven places. She seems to be the only one that doesn't group it like that. I don't really understand why. We always have tasting menus. We're seasonally-driven. I'm from Houston. A lot of the things that I see anchor other descriptions: seasonal, local, local boy. We fit a lot of those criteria. I don't know why she disregards it. I don't think it's negative. I just think it's disregard, which is weird to me.

I don't quite know how to explain it. I feel like this restaurant gets overlooked sometimes, which doesn't make sense given its location and staff. We get plenty of press. It's not that we're hurting for press. We're on Katharine's top 10 list, which was nice. It's weird. The lack of attention from one person out of many. It almost makes it seem personal. I've had little to no interaction with her throughout my career. I hope it's not me. I don't think it's any of these guys. I'm very proud of what we've done here. I'm proud of these guys. I'm proud of the product we put out everyday. If it gets overlooked by one person, I'm ok with that.

Let's talk about Brande. When are you going to start construction? We're redesigning some aspects of it. That's mostly a size issue. It was a little too big. We're scaling it back. After the first of the year, we should be able to complete the designs. It could be fall of next year. Not August, maybe October.

All the major hoops to jump through have been jumped. We got all the variances we needed. The neighborhood supports it. I'm back on this until that gets going.

How do you conceive of what that places is going to be like? It's going to be more rustic, more casual. The food is a little bit heartier, a little bit more masculine. It's centered on a wood-burning grill. Dax has a style that lends itself to that cuisine. He likes to cook it. He and I have pretty much finalized the menu. Of course, once we start cooking, that will change. It's breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday through Friday. Then brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday. It'll have a pretty heavy baking component, doing all the pastries and stuff for breakfast, breads, everything. It's laid-back. It's comfortable. The kind of place where you can go in for coffee, get on your computer, chill out and end up having lunch. It's very pedestrian friendly. It's got a walk-up patio and all that stuff. I think it's going to fit well in the neighborhood.

Triniti Restaurant & Bar [Official Site]
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