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.