Alison Cook dines on Houston’s best patio at The Nash – well, almost

I had my visit to The Nash all planned out in my head.

I wanted to sample the casual menu drafted by chef Omar Pereney, the Venezuelan wunderkind who opened the ambitious Mexican seafood restaurant Peska Seafood Culture, back in the day. I had loved his sauces and his raw seafood treatments there, and I was curious to see what he’d bring to a more eclectic American mix of pastas and pizzas, salads and snacks.

Too, I wanted to sit on the barrel-vaulted arcade that runs along the restaurant’s southern side so badly I could taste it.

Houston doesn’t offer diners many grand urban architectural spaces, and the soaring stone columns that mark a rhythm along the 1915 Texaco Building perimeter certainly qualify. The weather had warmed, the sun had been out for days and the advent of daylight saving time promised that an early supper on that patio, when The Nash opened its doors at 5 p.m., would offer some magical light to go with the food and the downtown views.

Houston’s weather had other ideas. The afternoon turned chilly, and then the rain started just as I set out for downtown.

The parking garage at The Star — the name of the luxury apartment high-rise that now occupies the former Texaco Building — was difficult to use for a newbie. I managed to park in a forbidden slot, then wandered around looking for the way to the restaurant, trying various locked doors and finally exiting down a stairwell to the wet street.

Rain spit down at me as I stood gazing upon that gorgeous, deserted arcade, with its neatly set tables and chairs. I felt forlorn. And nervous, because I hadn’t eaten inside a restaurant in nearly a year.

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Within minutes, though, I felt so welcomed and reassured that I calmed down. The staffers on duty were double-masked. The room was cavernous, the tables well distanced. “I can open the doors to the patio if you’d like,” offered a hostess who told me their policy included frequent temperature checks.

“It’s you I’m worried about, more than me,” I confessed. I’ve had both Moderna shots, but the thought that I might pass on an asymptomatic case of COVID without knowing it haunts me, and it will keep doing so until I’ve seen some rigorous studies showing the odds — or until more restaurant workers can get vaccinated.

For the moment, though, in the presence of staffers so hopeful for business and with plans I couldn’t undo, I simply sat back with a glass of wine. After months of tumblers and plastic cups, I marveled at the delicate glassware. Most of all, I reveled in the feeling of sitting in a dining room again.

There were only a few other guests, seated far away, but a constant parade of downtowners passed by The Nash’s big window walls. I realized how much I have missed people-watching at restaurants all these months. I laughed at gamboling dogs tugging their owners along the front arcade.

My friend blew in the front door on a gust of wind, and we counted the months since we had seen each other in person. Was it really early November? It was.

We fell upon a plate of Yellowfin Tuna Crudo as if we were starving, and in a sense, we were: for the luxury of high-quality tuna chunks in a savory black-garlic vinaigrette, umami upon umami; for the delight of cucumber cut so thin and so perfectly tightened up in salt water, that it hardly seemed of this Earth; for the slither of pureed avocado and the short sharp crack of a puffed wild rice grain.

That crudo tasted like Pereney at his best. The chef has consulted on this menu, so he’s not back there running the kitchen and making sure every dish passes muster. The Nash isn’t that kind of restaurant, really. It’s meant to be a stylish canteen for the adjoining luxury apartment complex (“Room service from The Nash” is a listed amenity); and, in presumably happier times to come, a downtown lunch and happy-hour outpost, and a pre- or post-performance mecca for arts- and theatergoers.

My sense is that at not quite 2 months old, the restaurant has a promising future on those fronts. The wine prices are unusually good. There’s already a serious little happy-hour menu, with lunch and brunch still in the offing.

The food can be excellent, as illustrated by the tuna crudo and a couple of desserts — a surprisingly bold Four-Cheese Cheesecake involving Asiago and a gentle lemon olive-oil cake with lemon-lavender syrup and lemon curd.

A pair of entrées just missed high marks because of too-shy seasoning, a deficit we were able to fix easily once we asked for salt and fresh lemon.

A skin-on fillet of pan-seared snapper pinged off an earthy parsnip puree, sweet braised leeks and baby carrots spiced with vadouvan, the Frenchified curry mix. Had its garlic mojo baste provided more lift, it would have clicked. And more lemon in the chardonnay wine sauce would have added life to an otherwise blameless Lemon Shrimp Bucatini, with good tails-on shellfish and blistered cherry tomatoes.

I figured that Tequeños of artisanal Venezuelan white cheese wrapped in dough were a must, considering Pereney’s heritage. The go-alongs of tartar sauce and Korean barbecue sauce seemed cheeky and fun. All it would have taken for peak Tequeñohood would have been for the dough jackets to be more aggressively crisped and the cheese a bit more molten.

Blips like the above are easy to fix, and I’m betting this handsome young restaurant can even out on the execution front. I am determined to go back for a pizza, and Forbidden Eggs, and maybe even for Cauliflower Paneer Curry.

My plan is to eat them on that barrel-vaulted patio.

Top F&B Leaders Award GSAF, Las Vegas