More information is coming out about John Tesar's exit from his eponymous restaurant.  We broke the story last week about Tesar's hasty and unexpected exit, and a whirlwind of speculation has surrounded the chef's moves.

Last night, John Tesar recently spoke with D Magazine's Nancy Nichols about his leaving Tesar's in the Woodlands.  We're quoting the highlights, and you can read the full interview on D Magazine's site.

In short, Tesar is leaving the Houston area, and heading back to Dallas.

NN: Are you coming back to Dallas?
JT: I am coming back to Dallas. Currently I have 2 options. They are two separate entities. I have signed a letter of intent with both. 

Our source for the original story told us quite plainly that Tesar was fired by the restaurant's investors. Tesar himself tells a different story:

NN: So were you fired from Tesar’s in Woodlands?
JT: I voluntarily decided to walk away from Tesar’s. I was not fired; I walked away. It’s not going to effect my future.

Tesar goes on to present his version of what happened:

NN: So give me the short version of what happened?
JT: I do not wish ill on my ex-partners. They enticed me to leave New York when I was with David Burke [at Fish]. I went into the business with good will. I realized that the project was opening in the middle of a recession and was undercapitalized. We started out with three partners and the 2 majority partners [Bill and Hilary Burke] pushed out my main contact. But we built this thing [restaurant] and got good reviews. But they had no experience in the restaurant business and we knew it wasn’t going to make enough to pay me, especially since I have a family.

We're sorry to see John Tesar leave the Woodlands.  He's a very talented chef, and his restaurant raised the bar for both fine dining and great burgers outside the Loop.

When asked about the fate of Tesar's in the Woodlands, the chef made a telling comment:

JT: The restaurant is doing well—just not well enough to pay a John Tesar-style chef. I gave them back my 20 percent and we are still wrangling over things like money the and name.  It’s a good restaurant.

Reading between the lines, it appears that Tesar was expecting from his months-old restaurant the type of salary that an executive chef would receive at mature, successful establishment.  That sounds naive to me; part of the reason a key employee gets equity in a startup is the fact that he's willing to work for less than his normal salary.  The term is "sweat equity", and it's one well known to folks who work in startups.  Sweat equity can make a key employee rich when the business succeeds, but it means that he won't be paid a high salary until the business becomes profitable.  It's a great example of capitalism in action.

Apparently Chef Tesar wanted to have his steak, and eat it too.

Chef John Tesar is expected to be making an announcement this afternoon about his new, exciting plans.  We'll be posting the news as soon as we get them.

We're hoping that Chef Tesar decides to stay in the Woodlands.  In the few months that it's been open, Tesar's has established itself as the best restaurant in the area.  And it's an area with plenty of hungry residents who don't mind paying for good food, as the success of Jasper's has demonstrated.

While we wait for the announcement, those who enjoy a bit of restaurant biz drama should read the comments in this thread on D Magazine's Side Dish.  There's also some banter on CultureMap surrounding the event, but it's nowhere near as amusing.

One thing's for sure... he's got a fan in "Pastry Lady".  I have a feeling she is the anonymous commenter on our earlier Tesar story.

Chef, you need to hire this woman.  She's got your back.

The Chronicle's restaurant critic, Alison Cook, posted an amazing account of an unpleasant experience at Jonathan's The Rub, a small, high-end restaurant in the Memorial area.

UPDATE: Apparently this isn't an isolated incident. another patron reported a similar encounter.

You should read the entire account, but to summarize, Ms. Cook ordered a steak medium rare, it came out overcooked, and she sent it back. Instead of graciously handling his kitchen's mistake, the restaurant's chef/owner, Jonathan Levine, confronted Ms. Cook, and ultimately threw her out of his restaurant.

As you can imagine, there was a great deal of discussion about this, both in the food community and among the Chronicle's readers.

It was astonishing to me to hear folks actually defending a restaurant for serving an improperly cooked steak, and criticizing Ms. Cook for not smiling and accepting what was delivered.

Many businesses deliver products that have expensive components.  When the business screws up and delivers a defective product, the customer is well within their rights to reject it and request what was ordered.  The business eats the cost of the component, and hopefully learns how to improve their process so they don't turn out as many defective products.

(And yes, there is skill involved in cooking steaks.  If you can't reliably cook a steak to order, you probably shouldn't be cooking steaks in a restaurant.)

Businesses that survive recognize this.  A mistake is the time display amazing customer service, and turn a customer into a fan.  Apparently Mr. Levine doesn't realize this; he'd rather alienate a patron and then make excuses about being a New Yorker when he discovers the patron is the Chronicle's food critic.

A $15 piece of meat is dirt cheap compared to all the negative publicity a dissatisfied customer can bring in this modern age of the citizen reviewer.  There are a lot of places to eat in Houston, and I see no reason to spend my money at a place that won't stand behind the product they put on the plate.

There's a reason that Tony's has been in business for 40 years; they know how to keep their customers happy.  Restaurateurs who complain about an empty house would be wise to emulate this approach.

2009 saw an interesting new addition to the dining scene in the Woodlands - the opening of Tesar's Modern Steak House. John Tesar, the proprietor, was born in New York, learned his skill in Paris, and has been owner and/or chef at a variety of great restaurants across the nation, including 44, X Hell's Kitchen, rm seafood, and Dallas's famed Mansion on Turtle Creek. He relocated to the Woodlands, and his Modern Steak House is the embodiment of his philosophy and what he has learned in these fine restaurants.

Tesar's is without a doubt a fine dining establishment, but we came for another reason - the burgers. We'd heard a rumor of some great things going on, and when a friend suggested a trip to investigate, we jumped right in.

The restaurant is situated right in the middle of the Woodland's bustling downtown area, across the street from the Mitchell Pavilion and Market Street. There are two rooms; the main dining room and a slightly less formal bar, which was the venue for today's meal.

Our helpful and chipper waiter presented the menus, and we were faced with a dilemma: Tesar's has some very diverse burgers, and they all sounded interesting. To make matters more perplexing, your choice of grain-fed and grass-fed beef can be selected. But decisions had to be made.

We began with the purist's choice: The Magic. A half-pound of thickly hand-formed freshly ground sirloin, topped with a thick slice of cheddar cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, some nice sweet lettuce, and a slice of tomato. The bun was unusual; an artisanal English muffin.

The burger is well named -- the result is magic. The beef came out perfectly cooked, with a beautiful pink interior and a nicely charred surface. The moderately sharp chedder made its presence known but didn't overpower; this burger is all about the high-quality beef. The bacon added a soulful, smokey overtone, and a satisfying bit of chewiness. The English muffin, which seemed like a curious choice, turned out to be an ideal foundation for this creation, and the veggies provided just enough crispness to complete the package.

What was interesting was what was left out: Pickles, onions, and any sort of sauce. John Tesar is a modern culinary Picasso -- he expertly eliminated what was not necessary, and what remained is a masterpiece.

There were many thoughtful touches that surrounded this creation: A very tasty caesar salad that begun the meal, beautiful cherry tomatoes on the side, and some decadent desserts. But for us, everything paled next to this magnificent burger, which we feel justified as declaring one of the very Best Burgers in Houston... even though it's in the Woodlands.

For a burger this good, the half-hour drive is well worth it.

Tesar's Modern Steak and Seafood | 1701 Lake Robbins Drive | The Woodlands 77380 | 281-465-0700 |

Conventional wisdom (for many) in Houston is that the best restaurants are found ITL - Inside the Loop.

We disagree. Houston is BIG, and most of Houston is OTL (Outside the Loop.) Here are out favorite places to eat that lie in the land of dragons beyond 610:

Burns BBQ
Ciao Bello
Christie's Seafood
Hubbell & Hudson
La Baraonda
Mel's Country Cafe
Ocean Palace
Pappas Bro's Steakhouse
Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

Who'd we miss?

(From the press release)Austin, Texas-July 17, 2009 - Texas Monthly, the expert on all things Texan, has published in the August issue their definitive story celebrating the iconic Texas food: the hamburger. A team of 31 eaters scoured the state, covering 12,343 miles, visiting 253 restaurants, and gaining a cumulative 45 pounds in their quest for the best 50 hamburgers in the state. In the introduction to the story, executive editor Patricia Sharpe and editor Jake Silverstein said: "In seeking burgers that stopped us in our tracks, we left some hallowed names in the dust. Undoubtedly, burger-loving readers will be outraged at a few of our picks and misses, but so be it."In a story accompanying the hamburger list, senior editor Gary Cartwright, through his extensive research, set out to prove that the world's first hamburger was served in Athens, Texas, despite the fact that three other towns take credit for inventing the hamburger: New Haven, Connecticut; the Village of Hamburg, New York; and Seymour, Wisconsin. "The documentary evidence supporting this claim is strong," Cartwright says.Founded in 1973, Texas Monthly has a circulation of 300,000 and is read by more than 2.5 million people each month-one out of every eight Texas adults. Texas Monthly is published by Emmis Publishing, L.P. Emmis owns and operates radio stations and other regional magazines.Texas Monthly's 50 BEST HAMBURGERS IN TEXAS:The Grape, Dallas, Classic CheeseburgerCounter Café, Austin, Counter BurgerAlamo Springs Café, Fredericksburg, Cheeseburger (With Green Chiles on a Jalapeno-Cheese Bun)Toro Burger Bar, El Paso, Toro BurgerThe Cove, San Antonio, Texas BurgerThe Porch, Dallas, The StodgPerini Ranch Steakhouse, Buffalo Gap, Hamburger Steak on a BunDutch's, Fort Worth, Bacon and Bleu Cheese BurgerBeck's Prime, Houston, Bacon CheeseburgerOrlando's, Lubbock, Cheeseburger in ParadiseWhite Buffalo Bar, Gage Hotel, Marathon, Buffalo BurgerCover 3, Austin, Chop-House Burger (With Cheese and Bacon)Burger Fresh, Conroe, 1/2 Pound HamburgerBurger Tex II, Austin, Bulgogi BurgerTwisted Root Burger Co., Dallas, HamburgerMax's Wine Dive, Austin, Houston, Kobe Beef BurgerLove Shack, Fort Worth, Dirty Love BurgerFatty's Burgers & More, San Antonio, Ref BurgerMoMak's Backyard Malts & Burgers, San Antonio, MoMak Classic BurgerKelly's Eastside, Plano, Southwestern BurgerBig'z Burger Joint, San Antonio, Big'z Famous No. 1Chicken Oil Co., Bryan, Snuffy BurgerCafé Michael Burger, Galveston, Tiki BurgerBurgers, Fries and Cherry Pies, Midland, The French Connection BurgerMockingbird Bistro, Houston, American Kobe Beef BurgerParkside, Austin, CheeseburgerBlack Sheep Lodge, Austin, Black Buffalo BurgerMiss Hattie's Café and Saloon, San Angelo, Miss Hattie BurgerMel's Country Café, Tomball, Double HamburgerRoaring Fork, Austin, Half Ass BurgerGene's Tasty Burger, Wichita Falls, Frisco BurgerCliff Café, Dallas, Brie and Granny Smith BurgerBracken Store Café, San Antonio, Bean and Frito BurgerSam's Deli Diner, Houston, HamburgerDry Creek Café, Houston, The Regular (With Asadero Cheese)Hamburger Store, Jefferson, Build-Your-Own BurgerMighty Fine, Austin, HamburgerRoadhouse, Bastrop, Jalapeno Cream Cheese BurgerLankford Grocery and Market, Houston, Old-Fashioned HamburgerClassics Burgers and "Moore," Kerrville, CheeseburgerKoffee Kup Family Restaurant, Hico, Jalapeno Cream Cheese BurgerHruska's Store and Bakery, Ellinger, CheeseburgerRosco's Burger Inn, El Paso, Rosco BurgerPort Aransas Brewing Company, Port Aransas, Stopher BurgerGoode Company Hamburgers and Taqueria, Houston, Mesquite BurgerSnuffer's Restaurant and Bar, Dallas, Green Chile SwissburgerFred's Texas Café, Fort Worth, Diablo BurgerSpeedy's Burger, Houston, Hamburguesa MexicanaGourmet Burger Grill, San Antonio, HamburgerJakes, Dallas, #1 Jakes Special

(Houston-area burgers bolded.)

Let's get this out of the way up front: We're not huge fans of large restaurant chains. We are all about small family owned restaurants where the chef and owner is intimately involved with everything from the cuisine to the decor.

But in our modern world, most folks dine regularly at chain restaurants. So it's helpful to find out which ones deliver, and which ones confirm the stereotypes.

Consumer Reports did a recent survey of over 70,000 subscribers making over 150,000 visits to over a hundred different chains. And the results are interesting.

Patrons gave 21 chains top marks for food. Included were The Original Pancake House, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Texas Road House, Bone Fish Grill, Morton's the Steakhouse and Abuelo's.

Five chains earned exceptional scores for value: Black-eyed Pea, Sonny's Real Pit BBQ, Azteca Mexican Restaurant, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, and First Watch.

At the other end of the spectrum, with lower marks across the board, were Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, Joe's Crab Shack, and Friendly's.

For good meals on a budget (less than $20,) respondents recommended Mimi's Cafe, Abuelo's, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, Elephant Bar Restaurant and Texas Roadhouse. Those restaurants earned better-than-average marks for food and value. First Watch and The Original Pancake House were also standouts for food and value, but are limited to breakfast and lunch fare.

When choosing a chain for a special occasion, Houston's, J. Alexander's, Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Maggiano's Little Italy, Il Fornaio, Bonefish Grill, McCormick & Schmick's, The Capital Grille, Morton's the Steakhouse, Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Melting Pot all earned the highest marks for food, mood, and service.

Respondents weren't shy about discussing problems. Noise (from loud customers and crowded tables) was the complaint cited most often. The Texas Road House, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, and Hooters were among the chains cited with higher than average noise complaints. Sloppy service (waiters or waitresses were inattentive or slow to bring food or the check) was next. The Rainforest Cafe, Friendly's and
the Cheesecake Factory were among the eight chains with above average
complaint rates.

Friendly's, Shoney's, and Logan's Roadhouse were among the chains cited for lack of cleanliness (bathrooms or floors were dirty, tableware was grimy). On average food-prep problems complaints (dishes were under- or overcooked, had too much or too little seasoning, or looked unappetizing) were low--only about 7 percent

There were also complaints about long waits, which were more likely than average at The Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe, Texas Roadhouse, Houston's, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, and Outback Steakhouse. At those restaurants, 6 to 14 percent of respondents waited 30 minutes or more to be seated.

Texas may not have been the most likely place for an east coast kid who grew up in the Hamptons to settle but that’s exactly what he’s doing. Chef John Tesar announced today he would open Tesar’s Modern Steak & Sustainable Seafood this August in the Woodlands.

The chef says his roots are submerged deeply in the ocean he grew up near and always will be: "I identify with the sea there so completely and it’s companionship with our modern steak concept though I look forward to opening my first eponymous restaurant in Texas. Texas and Texans have been kind to me. I lived in Dallas for three years and loved it. Came back to New York for less than three months and found I missed it," said Tesar.

Tesar, a 2009 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef: Southwest has seen crowds gather for his fare and his commitment to sustainable food sources when he revamped the menu and restaurant into three distinct dining areas at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.

Nationally lauded restaurant critic, John Mariani wrote Chef Tesar brought "New York edge to Texas swagger," when he named the Mansion Restaurant one of Esquire’s Ten Best New Restaurants of 2008.

Since his early 20's Chef Tesar has created his own restaurants and reinvented others for some of the best chefs, hotels and resorts from New York, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and Dallas. "I’ve been asked many times to brand my name, but timing is everything, and this is the time. Tesar's will be a special place," Tesar commented.

Fresh from his success in Dallas, Tesar looked to investors who believed in modern gastronomy for his next adventure. "Planning this concept has been intense," Tesar says. "Plenty of investors showed interest, but I needed to find the dedicated 'sustainable' backers. We take from flora and fauna without regard to maintenance; even poisoning it with the chemicals we use to make 'earth-foods' grow. But, people care more about what they eat now and my customers are desirous of the locavore and sustainable movement," states Chef Tesar.

Tesar’s Modern Steak & Sustainable Seafood will parlay the chef’s talents with a varied menu loaded with organically grown, "green" selections using side-by-side comparisons of grass and grain-fed beef and earth-easy seafood.

"Modern Steak is not only tastier it’s healthier." opines Tesar. "I’m currently engaging ranchers who practice these newer, cleaner modern ways of raising and aging cattle. My entire menu will be 100 percent sustainable created with a zero-waste food ethics in mind. This will also include our hamburgers served at our outside burger bar."

Tesar’s will have multiple options and price points for diners including a bar lounge menu, raw bar, chef’s room and main dining room with whole fish choices. "Whole fish will be a principal part of our menu. It’s an amazing way to taste the true flavor of the sea and the quality of finfish," informs Tesar.

McCarble and Tesar say they hope this to be the first of many restaurants. "Diners are searching for modern thoughtful cuisine everywhere, and the demand is high," states Tesar.

Sometime you should trust your first impression.

We were out in the NASA area on a sunny Sunday, and were in the mood for a nice brunch somewhere. But we had no clue where to go. The only place that serves brunch that came to mind was Cullen's; the over-the-top restaurant offering poorly prepared Applebee's fare at inflated prices.

Maybe if we tried some things that would be difficult to ruin it would be a success? Could Cullen's pull of a respectable meal? After all, it is a striking venue, the giant stone edifice located alone in the middle of nowhere. At least we'd enjoy decent food in a pretty atmosphere.

Let's ignore our first impression, and give 'em another chance. Maybe they'll surprise us.

It was not to be.

We arrived, and were promptly seated, in the cavernous and nearly empty main room. We were again taken by the extravagance of the setting, but couldn't help notice the little things that were done poorly. A talented interior designer could make this a spectacular room; apparently none were available when Cullen's was built.

On to the food. Our plan for the day was "Keep it Simple".

We started with the Wedge salad. A wedge of bibb lettuce, bleu cheese, bacon, some roast beets... this has to be tasty. Nope. The bleu cheese was overpowered by some shockingly lemony dressing that was a bad idea, and apparently the bacon market was cornered by Allen Stanford, because the few tiny bits present couldn't be tasted amidst the lemony morass.

Next was the frito pie. On the menu it sounded very interesting; "berkshire pork & chairman's reserve beef chili, toasted corn chips, texas goat cheese, oregon cheddar, creme fraiche & scallions"

What came out was perhaps the worst frito pie we've ever sampled. The heart of the problem was the "berkshire pork & chairman's reserve beef chili". There may be a blander chili somewhere on the planet, but it's a safe bet it's not in Texas. Combine that with nearly flavorless cheese and a glop of sour cream (what does sour cream have to do with frito pie, you ask? So did we, after trying it) and you end up with a really bad rendition of this ballpark favorite. (And yes, the average little league concession stand does a better job.) The generic fritos were lacking in flavor as well, but at least they were crispy - that's the only positive we could find with this unfortunate creation.

Finally the main course: Chicken-Fried Ribeye. Served with truffle-scented country gravy, mashed potatoes and wilted greens. How can you mess up a chicken-fried steak, especially if you start with a ribeye?

You can mess it up by not trimming the lumps of fat and gristle from the cut of meat before you bread it. Our first bite was about 2/3 gristle, underneath a fairly decent hand-breaded coating. The truffle-scented country gravy seemed to be standard CFS white gravy with a bit of fake truffle oil added; as with everything else served by Cullen's, the overwhelming experience was blandness. And after the chunk of fatty gristle that was our first impression, we weren't anxious to finish the entree.

The mashed potatoes weren't bad. They weren't terribly good, but they weren't bad. For this brunch, that was a major success.

The large, round room was essentially empty; there were perhaps six parties dining there. We were seated right in front of the window to the kitchen, where staff milled around, not doing much cooking. Our waiter was an enthusiastic but clueless young man who disappeared for long periods of time, apparently not waiting on others.

At one point the general manager walked by and asked how we were enjoying lunch. He got an earful; we politely described the failed dishes they pumped out. He nodded politely but seemed essentially uninterested. He did say he was going to "take care of the the food" for us, which we assumed meant that we weren't going to be charged for this dreadful meal.


Our check arrived, with one item (the ribeye) comped. "Didn't like" was the reason. I suppose there was no button for "Utter Failure in the Kitchen" on Cullen's no doubt state-of-the-art point-of-sale system.

Or perhaps there was, and it was worn out from overuse.

Post-Mortem: The items described on the menu actually could have been quite good had they been executed successfully, with the meat properly trimmed and the dishes properly seasoned. Perhaps if they invested a bit less in the over-the-top setting and a bit more in training the kitchen staff, they could improve things.

With a great deal of rework and attention, Cullen's could one day be a mediocre establishment. But don't hold your breath.

Cullen's Upscale American Grille on Urbanspoon

Here's a fun exercise for the devoted foodie.

Here’s what you do:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% alcohol
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

(Thank you to MyTable Magazine for passing along this great list, originally from English blogger, Andrew Wheeler, at Very Good Taste.

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