A little more than twenty years after opening her first Houston restaurant - the much-lauded in its time Daily Review Cafe, native Houstonian/Rice Grad/California Culinary Institute Valedictorian and award-winning restaurateur Claire Smith just opened Woodbar - adjacent to her Canopy restaurant in Montrose. The chic, art-filled space will offer early morning craft coffees and house made pastries, plus a full service bar, and small bites menu starting at 11am.
Smith also owns Shade in the Heights. We sat down with her to talk about all she's accomplished through the years and why felt compelled to take on the challenges of opening a new space amidst the city's ever-growing restaurant landscape.
Q. What made you decide to take on Woodbar and how does it affect Canopy?
A. Canopy restaurant is such an incredible place - it deserved a bar on the same level with the design and planning that went into the restaurant space including the art and the architecture. I always wanted a bigger/better bar area for the restaurant and so when the space next door became available, we seized the opportunity for a real bar, a real space with its own identity keeping with our whole theme of shade, canopy, trees ... still with a style influenced from where we are, near the Museum district. We decided Woodbar was a fun name.
Where the bar used to be inside Canopy, we now have "the nest" - another dining area and more specifically another private dining space. We're really popular for events - brunch and shower events, and dinners. So where the bar used to be offers another space and more flexibility in addition to what we already have. And now we get to have a rowdy bar that serves the restaurant! We also have always wanted a space to do early morning coffee, fresh juices, granola parfaits and of course our pastries, People can order from the weekday breakfast menu at both places along with the grab and go option at Woodbar and we also serve the brunch menu at both on the weekends.
Q. Talk to me about the food at Woodbar.
A. Chef Liz Brooks and I come up with ideas together and then she executes a plan. I give my chefs a lot of freedom - Liz runs the kitchen here and the boys at Shade (chefs Kent Domas and Gregg Beebe) run the kitchen over there. For this project, we've collaborated quite a bit but Liz is executing and doing her thing. There are different things we want to try and change out for the menu at Woodbar. People can order from the entire Canopy menu as well as the Woodbar menu. The bar really serves the restaurant and vice versa.
We've always been dedicated to a really good bread and pastry program - all the way back to Daily Review. Back when we opened Shade, our baker made everything by hand for years - even hand rolling the croissant dough. We ramped up the production in this space to do the bread and pastries for Shade and Canopy here and we've continued to emphasize the quality people have come to know us for. We're using great coffee from Fontana Roasters right here in Montrose. And of course we're making fantastic original cocktails in the bar.
Q. Do you have a favorite item from Woodbar's menu?
A. The eggplant and onion ring appetizer is a by-product of our off-premise catering and we do this panko-crusted eggplant so we had eggplant where they'd cut the rounds and we'd top with mozzarella and tomato. I was looking at the leftover rings and I thought they'd be fun - with the onion rings and the creamy feta and the harissa-tomato dipping sauces - everyone loves them. We do a ton of catering so a lot of ideas come from that.
Q. What's your take on the growth of the Houston restaurant scene these days?
A. It's insane. I love the new, young energy and all these people who have been raised in the age of things like food network and so much awareness about food and about the industry. There's such enthusiasm. I feel like the competition is extremely stiff with so many who want to be in the business. It's raised the bar - it has to - when so many people are exposed to the idea. When I was a teenager and wanted to get into cooking, there was The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child - that was it. Times have changed! We have a great restaurant community and the city is exploding. It's an exciting time.
Q. What's different about the way you feel now - opening a new restaurant/bar vs. how you felt when you opened Daily Review twenty years ago?
A. Well .. I have a great staff - I have a lot of help that I didn't have twenty years ago. I was fearless then and I have a lot of people to diffuse the fearlessness now. Opening Woodbar, we have executive chef Liz Brooks, pastry chef Jonny Ugarte, barista Annie Huynh and of course, Brendon Fetzer - General Manager at Canopy/Woodbar and Diedre Goodhue, GM at Shade and Beverage Director for both restaurants. So many great people at all of our restaurants - it's easier now than it was then! This is my neighborhood - where I grew up. I'm excited about what we've created here and with our presence in Houston overall - whether we're serving at the farmer's markets or at our restaurants.
Q. You were one of the first restaurants in Houston to serve a seasonal menu. What remains from your days of The Daily Review?
A. We still serve the lamb stew at Canopy and have plans to bring back the chicken pot pie by mid-February. It's fun to have people still asking for those dishes all these years later. And of course we're still seasonal and local. At the farmer's market, I'm still buying from the same people I've been buying from for many years. Glad to see so much more of that happening overall compared to when I opened Daily Review.