Above the winding trails that run through the urban woods of Buffalo Bayou Park, there is an airy, glass-walled tree house perched. Formerly an events venue known as The Dunlavy, the prime space has been thoughtfully reimagined by enlightened concept creator Grant Cooper as Flora, a new Houston restaurant with a fresh take on what Mexican food could be when it’s stripped down clean.
Recently Cooper and his former business partner chef Charles Clark parted ways. The duo — which opened the wildly popular but now-shuttered Ibiza in 2001 — amicably divided their holdings. Cooper walked away with Coppa Osteria, Gratify and The Dunlavy, while Clark is now the sole proprietor of Brasserie 19. (For more on Clark’s plans for Brasserie 19, read Shelby Hodge’s PaperCity exclusive.)
“I’m always working on a new concept,” the ambitious Cooper reveals. “At any given time, I might be conceptualizing four to five completely different restaurants. From fleshing out the menu to the decor to the graphics to searching for just the right location.”
Flora is the first new restaurant under the umbrella of The Big Vibe Group, devised by Cooper and his business partners Josep Prats and Marc Cantu. They conceptualized Flora more than two years ago, but the pandemic delayed its opening. Flora blooms in the glittering space lit with more than 40 crystal chandeliers — a pretty holdover from its former incarnation.
The name was inspired by the sustainable farm Flora Farms near San Jose del Cabo, Mexico — a resort frequented by Cooper and his wife Jacy (a frequent collaborator on his projects). One can appreciate how Flora riffs on a few Tex-Mex favorites, as well as more authentic Mexican regional dishes and ingredients. Yet unlike other Mexican-style restaurants, Cooper’s mandate here is to cook clean, banishing lard from the kitchen in favor of olive oil, crafting cocktails and sauces that utilize fresh, cold-pressed juices. His team is also grinding everything from cacao beans to masa for Flora’s house-made tortillas and chips.
Consider starting with a refreshing cocktail perhaps the El Pepino, a blend of fresh-pressed cucumber juice, jalapeño-infused agave syrup, tequila Blanco and a squeeze of lime, inspired by one made at Chulita in Venice Beach ($18). The margaritas come frozen ($15), on the rocks with reposado tequila ($16), or with mezcal ($16). The wine list is a thoughtful array of European, South American and California labels moderately priced, half of which are available by the glass.
One must-try dish at Flora is the charred octopus. The unexpected coupling of roasted sweet potato, a dollop of sour cream and crispy bits of house-made chorizo enhanced with seven varieties of smoked chiles imparts a depth of subtle spice to the entire dish ($29).
Everything on the raw bar will make you feel virtuous, from the simple Gratify ceviche created with red snapper, shrimp and octopus mingled with a mango habanero sauce ($24) to ceviche negro, wherein yellowtail tuna, cucumber and avocado take on a glossy black hue when tossed tableside, care of the ash derived from blistered peppers, squid ink and a squeeze of lime ($28).
The yellowfin tuna tostadas spotlight thin, sashimi-style strips of tuna atop sautéed leeks, with avocado and crisp fried leeks atop spiced with serrano chile and chipotle aioli ($16), while the green enchiladas a la Caymus are made with salsa verde, which provides a smooth, balanced accompaniment to corn tortilla-wrapped poached chicken ($23). Also notable is the beef short rib, a tender sous-vide cut served on the bone and bathed in a 34-ingredient red mole, with a delectable black bean tamal by its side ($48).
Desserts elevate the classics, from perfectly cooked flan ($9) to a sweet, rich cajeta caramel pot de crème ($11). Flora’s chocolate tart ($15) is a gluten-free indulgence made with house-ground cacao beans encased in a pistachio crust with a dollop of whipped cream and berry compote ($15).
Flora is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. It’s located at 3422 Allen Parkway, (713) 360-6477, florahouston.com.