hether you were born in Houston or found your way here, you’ve probably dined in a Pappas-owned restaurant. After all, this expansive Houston-based hospitality group has nine restaurant brands to date, with 90 locations in eight states. Brothers Chris and Harris Pappas now lead the third generation of their family, expanding the legacy inherited from their father and grandfather, who left Greece in 1897 to pursue his culinary dreams in America. (They also acknowledge the contributions of their late brother Greg Pappas.)
Until the recent reopening and complete renovation of Little’s Oyster Bar on South Shepherd in Houston (in the space formerly home to Little Pappas Seafood House), most of the restaurants under the Pappas umbrella stand upon much larger footprints, their kitchens overseen by corporate chef Michael Velardi. Those chefs don’t enjoy the autonomy that California-native chef Jason Ryczek brings to Little’s Oyster Bar, Pappas’ first chef-driven restaurant.
With only 80 seats inside and 50 on the temperature-modulated patio, Little’s is a decidedly more intimate and upscale-looking space. Design director Evy Pappas has created a cool, comfortable setting with crisp shades of white and nautical navy blue, indoors and out, and gleaming brass lighting. The Pappas team even fabricated all the upholstered banquettes, tables, millwork, entry canopy and back bar in-house. It’s all part of the group’s unique vertical integration philosophy.
Chef Ryczek plied his craft in restaurants from San Diego to San Francisco, working many of those years with sustainable seafood at the lauded Waterbar. He served as executive chef at the powerhouse seafood restaurant Farallon, which frequently graced the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 list during its 23 years in business. You can trust him to know which sustainable fish to source — and how to glean the most from the seafood found in Texas’ own Gulf waters. Ryczek also takes caviar quite seriously — a real boon, given Houston’s recent caviar craze.
After all, he worked with the California Caviar Company for years and participates in Caviar Camp every October. This year, he personally harvested six California white sturgeon specifically for Little’s Oyster Bar. He even controls the salt ratio — 3 percent sea salt — for the most delicate expression of the roe. I chose the signature white sturgeon, smeared atop warm, golden orbs of fried potato (think upscale tater tots) with a dollop of crème fraiche and sweet-savory red onion jam ($95). You could also indulge in imported golden imperial osetra ($185) or kaluga-osetra hybrid ($155), both harvested in China.
Robert Smith, Pappas Restaurants’ fine spirits and expanding concepts wine director, has developed a European-focused wine list of bright, mineral-laden whites and champagnes for Little’s Oyster Bar that pair well with those gifts from the sea, including some splurge-worthy options. Bar manager Oliver Bondwell’s cocktail list riffs on the classics, from the Golden Martini with gin, chamomile licorice stock and grapefruit bitters to the spicy but semi-sweet Tropic Like It’s Hot tincture with tequila, lime juice, coconut, passionfruit and a zing of habañero bitters ($18 each).
A Deeper Dive Into the Little’s Oyster Bar Menu
Since this is an oyster bar, be sure to order a dozen oysters on the half shell (market price), served with traditional accouterments such as a mignonette, cocktail sauce spiked with pomegranate molasses and grated fresh horseradish root. Little’s Oyster Bar make its own hot sauce from mild fermented Fresno chiles. So try a few drops atop your bivalve instead. Or perhaps you’d enjoy a classic wild Gulf shrimp cocktail with the aforementioned cocktail sauce ($24). If you visit with a group, order fruit de mer for the table, an icy array of oysters, shrimp, crab, lobster and tuna crudo ($169).
The tightly edited menu, which invites sharing, includes three chilled appetizer options, from a summer greens salad with goat cheese, pecans and fermented honey ($15) to burrata and boquerones (fresh anchovy) atop a little Caesar salad ($23). I recommend the Atlantic yellowfin tuna crudo, a summer-like mélange of diced fish in a chilly broth made with onions and pickled watermelon rind and red peppers, topped with chopped peanuts ($26). Warm apps include baked oysters with garlic-scented sauce soubise ($18), a Creole bisque studded with crawfish ($19), and crab croquettes served with chilled asparagus, pickled cultivated mushrooms, basil and coconut sauce inspired by vichyssoise.
In another example of vertical integration, all Gulf fish — snapper, grouper, tile — are sourced by Pappas’ own boats. The yellow-edge grouper is one such fish. Caught only in the deep, cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, it retains its moisture during cooking, the delicate flesh napped in caper radish brown butter ($46). Chicken-fried snapper is accompanied by a sauce ravigote with a Southern twist: holy trinity and creole mustard in lieu of Dijon ($41). Carnivores can cut into a prime, dry-aged New York strip ($62).
End your meal with a dessert created by Janiece Velardi, executive pastry chef for the Pappas group, such as a key lime tart, smoked chocolate pot de crème with toasted honey marshmallow, or a warm, spiced carrot blonde brownie topped with cream cheese gelato ($15 each).
Little’s Oyster Bar is located at 3001 S. Shepherd Drive. It is open from 5 pm to 9 pm Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and 5 to 10 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.