For the past three years, Millard Kuykendall has garnered fans who drive into downtown Comfort for his modern Texas cuisine served in a historic Hill Country building.
It's a recent success that has been some 30 years in the making.
With no formal training, he produces thoughtfully conceived and well executed dishes at 814 A Texas Bistro, which he owns and where he serves as its chef. His learning came throughout his career, starting when he was 25.
“When I decided that this was what I wanted to do, I was smart enough to start at the bottom,” he said. “I kept my eyes and ears open at all times.”
The Oklahoma native who grew up in Kansas City and Ohio worked in a variety of country clubs and restaurants in Texas and spent seven years working with a company that operated a restaurant at a Disney resort in Orlando, Fla. He grew up in a ranching family.
“I spent time learning not everything can be perfect. The best thing you can do is make sure everybody is happy,” he said. “You need to work in a big place to get your perspective right. You learn a lot.”
His hand, steadied and confident from his years in the culinary industry, shows in the cuisine. His menu changes weekly, based on what he procures. It doesn't get much more chef-driven than that. “The concept has always been to keep the food simple,” he said. “Our philosophy is to take good quality product and consistently put it on the table at a high level.”
On a recent visit, a grilled filet mignon on top of a sweet potato mash and topped with a roasted poblano cream sauce demonstrated his approach. This filet offered plenty of beefy flavor, instead of just a yielding texture. When Kuykendall came by the table to ask how we enjoyed everything, we asked if he used any kind of spice rub. He just used salt and pepper, because “when you start with good ingredients, you don't need to do much to them,” he said.
The sweet potato didn't need any of its typical holiday spices and spoke for itself without competing with the filet. The poblano cream on top of the meat looked at first like crumbled Roquefort cheese. It subverted the bistro expectations by bringing a completely different flavor and sensation to the dish.
Truly, it's a cuisine with classic technique that deftly celebrates Texas.
“You gotta cook what you know,” he said. “I'm an American and I grew up in the Southwest, so how can I match these flavors with what we have?”
The building complements the cuisine. Even from the outside, the place gives a welcoming and comforting feeling. With hardwood floors and wall decorations that include several handmade quilts, the interior gives a strong sense of place and authenticity.
At one time, the building housed the town's post office, and now holds 10 tables in an intimate but not crowded dining room. There's enough space for diners to hold conversations and a small kitchen for Kuykendall to work.
COMFORT — The e-mail writer was insistent without offering too many details. Come on up here and have dinner at 814 — A Texas Bistro, she wrote, it's a Hill Country treasure.
I have heard similar declarations about restaurants before, and not all of them have proven to be true, so I was a little cautious. The first menu I saw looked fine, but its array of burgers, sandwiches, salads and soups was not exactly food that made me want to drive 50 miles each way.
Still, I was antsy to get out of town recently, so a few friends and I, armed with reservations and a couple of bottles of wine, headed west.
I needn't have worried. From the moment we saw the restaurant, in a converted post office, we knew we were going to like the place.
The space, which housed several restaurants before, exudes country charm, with its gleaming hardwood floors, rustic tables and chairs, and simple, effective wall hangings that include a couple of handmade quilts. You feel welcome almost instantly.
We noticed that every other occupied table had at least one bottle of wine at it, as the regulars have learned that you can bring in your own. The restaurant has applied for a liquor license and that practice will stop once it has been received, so ask when you are making your reservations.
And do make those reservations if you're visiting in the evening. We noticed that even though not all of the tables were full, potential customers were being turned away. The restaurant had been hit that evening — a large party was supposedly on the patio out back — and the kitchen was in danger of running out of food.
The menu was also different. The one I had seen before the trip was for lunch. Dinner is a different matter. It features three appetizers and three main courses, which vary each week, according to what chef-owner Millard Kuykendall finds in season. For that first visit, options included a fresh cut of Arctic char sautéed and served over spinach orzo; mahi mahi, a substitute for the quail the kitchen had run out of; and strip steak, which turned into beef tenderloin after the kitchen ran out of that, too.
Appetizers included escargots in a red wine-thyme sauce; a goat cheese and tomato salad (a substitute for shrimp and avocado salad); and best of all, an iceberg wedge salad with a Crab Louis-style dressing on top. The latter was so good one friend wanted a second order instead of dessert.
Most everything had been prepared with a deft hand, with flavors carefully layered for great effect and with the freshness of well-chosen ingredients taking center plate.
There were a few minor problems: The escargot sauce had a pinch too much thyme, the mahi mahi was cooked a couple of minutes too long while the green beans on the side were a little too raw, and a too-liberal hand applied the balsamic vinaigrette on the goat cheese-tomato salad.
But these were minor complaints that didn't mar what proved to be an evening of good food, good friends and good times.
That wave of contentment carried over into a lunch visit where I happily stuffed myself on a juicy half-pound Angus burger served on a sturdy Kaiser roll while a friend enjoyed the daily seafood special, salmon with a parsley-garlic butter sauce. Also good were the simple, well-seasoned chicken salad and the lush Bacon, Tomato and Guacamole sandwich.
I wish I could be just as kind about the desserts, but this is the one area that demands attention. Each one we sampled — bourbon pecan pie, brownie, chocolate chip cookies and chocolate mousse pie — tasted like wasted calories, not good enough to justify a third bite. Even the vanilla ice cream was a bit too powdery and mundane.
Any of the desserts could have been made any time of the year, and that's not what the rest of 814 seems to be about. What worked best was Kuykendall's flair with fresh, savory ingredients — and the chance to dine on those dishes in a comfortable setting.
Hit: Look for an iceberg wedge salad with crab dressing.
Miss: Desserts across the board were adequate, but nowhere as good as the savory items.
Noteworthy: The restaurant does not have a beer/wine license yet, so guests can bring their own for no corkage fee. This will likely change once the license is obtained.
Price range: The menu changes weekly, but lunch items cost $6-$12, dinner appetizers cost $7-$11 and dinner entrées cost $20-$25.
Lunch: Wed.-Sun. Dinner: Thu.-Sat.
Rating key: Excellent **** Very Good *** Average ** Poor *
Express-News dining critics pay for all meals and strive for anonymity.