Concepción

I almost wept when I heard that chef Jonathan Jones was leaving Xuco Xicana, formerly known as El Patio, in Midtown. As far as I was concerned, he was making the best ceviche in town there, as well as the best posole. During his tenure at Xuco Xicana, the kitchen actually put a pig trotter in every bowl. (You either love it or hate it.) On Sunday mornings, if I was in a mood for gentler fare, I could have the tres leches French toast – the bread was dipped in the same milks used for tres leches cake – or orange-scented pancakes.

When JJ (as he’s known) left Xuco Xicana, I despaired, not sure where he would cook next. Would it be a place where that kind of cuisine would never work? Thank goodness that has not been the case. JJ is now at Concepción, a huge renovated former house in a slightly out-of-the-way spot on W. Alabama east of Montrose. You may remember this location as the one-time home to Bistro Vino and, more recently and briefly, Ocean’s.

Concepción is built to party. There’s a bar area upstairs bordered by sofas. Outside, there is an enormous, beautiful patio with flowers, shrubbery and a fountain. The patio is also ideal for Sunday brunch. It was on the patio that I was reunited with some old favorites, like JJ’s ceviche, and some new ones.

JJ’s ceviche is always good, but it’s never the same. He relies on bycatch as often as he can, and the limited supplies means the type of fish changes frequently.

(“Bycatch” refers to the fish accidentally caught when fishermen are actually going after a more popular, marketable species. In the past, the bycatch were literally thrown away due to not being salable to restaurants and markets, even thought they were perfectly good fish. Chefs like JJ, Justin Yu at Oxheart and Chris Shepherd at Underbelly have helped create so much demand for bycatch that supplier Louisiana Foods often has none left for public sale at their local market in Houston.)

The first time I had ceviche at Concepción, it had Texas grouper, lime, hibiscus, paper-thin rings of habañero and mint. The next time, it was a totally different combination of fish and seasoning garnished with neat wedges of grapefruit. Freshness and quality, not menu-driven consistency, rules at Concepción. I like it. It’s like getting a little surprise every time I visit.

This is the kind of place where you want to eat every nubbin of fish and then barbarically tilt the plate into your mouth to drain the ceviche’s leftover leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). Some people claim it’s an aphrodisiac, and even if it’s not, drink it anyway. It’s delicious.

The Yucatan dish called sikil pak is one of my new favorites. It’s a hummus-like dip made with pumpkin seeds rather than chickpeas. Don’t expect it to taste like hummus, though. This is a darker, more complex concoction that will grow on you until you find yourself ordering it every time you visit.

The posole no longer has a pig trotter in it. Instead, JJ has breathed new life into the dish and it’s now a ramen. It’s garnished with dancing bonito flakes, shredded cabbage, hominy and a luscious egg that has been cooked for a long time in a circulator, which results in a deep orange, rich yolk. The last time I visited, I had all three of my kids along. Every single one of them had the posole and loved it.

On the patio, you’ll simply want to have a mimosa or a Bloody Maria in your hand. Concepción offers a setup with your choice of two juices, including orange (which tasted freshly squeezed to me), grapefruit, mango or guava.

There were a few wrong notes, but only a few. The pretty-looking florjito (photo at left), a cocktail with Flor de Cana rum and hibiscus, tasted flat and needed something to bring it alive and help it talk to the tastebuds. The sopes salmon {photo below) had an amazing maize cake (think cornbread, but even more awesome), but the house-cured salmon (which seemed barely seasoned), cilantro and avocado crema that topped it proved forgettable.

Hopefully, as Houston temperatures rise over the summer, the patio will stay relatively cool and enjoyable. If not, there’s no reason to not have your meal inside the elegant house.

Concepción’s hours are rather limited, so commit them to memory or call ahead. There is no dinner served on Sundays, but they are open for Sunday brunch 11 am to 3 pm. The restaurant is closed on Mondays and serves dinner only 5 to 10 pm Tuesday through Saturday.

CONCEPCIÓN, 819 W. Alabama just east of Montrose, 713-520-7744

by Phaedra Cook, photos by Chuck Cook | SideDish | Date June 1, 2012

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