Houston, the problem is certainly getting solved. That problem would be how to create a marquee cultural city amidst the endless sprawl that is Houston, Texas.
Our fourth largest city in this country, Houston would never be mistaken for one of the four most impressive dining cities. That is not intended to be a slant at all against this excellent city for eating and drinking. Since cities such as San Francisco, New Orleans, and Portland, Oregon (and Maine for that matter) far exceed their modest population size with exceptional dining scenes, Houston faces stiff competition.
With some of the muggiest, sweltering weather around and then the almost daily afternoon thunderstorms, Houston doesn’t exactly have the climate that attracts tourists and screams to young professionals that this is the “it” city they need to re-locate to.
In many ways, Houston out Los Angeles’ Los Angeles. Both have the vast suburban regions that stretch for what seems to be hundreds of miles, complimented by the obligatory freeways. A drive from the Galleria east to Downtown covers really one city, but what seems to be ten cities, just like a drive from Santa Monica to Downtown. Both drives at the wrong time on the wrong day can be slower than if you just walked. Where are the subways when you need them?
Both face major immigration issues being near the Mexico border and both face challenging environmental issues with so much driving and such enormous populations. Los Angeles might have nearly double the population of Houston. Houston, however, covers more land than any other city in the list of the country’s ten most populated cities. A drive north to Dallas from Houston will show you just how vast the city is. It seemed to be at least an hour beyond George H.W. Bush International Airport when finally the suburban world became rural. The airport is almost an hour outside of Downtown to begin with.
Like in Los Angeles and Houston’s friend to the north, Dallas, the money from the Downtown corporations (and the oil money nearby at the Gulf of Mexico) is spent outside of Downtown. The Galleria seemed straight out of Beverly Hills. On Post Oak Boulevard, I felt like I was driving on the Miracle Mile in parts, Rodeo Drive in others. The cultural scene of Montrose and the McMansions of River Oaks thrive away from the city center, making Downtown somewhat obsolete. That is changing in all three cities, but still, unlike what Petula Clark sings, the lights are not always brighter Downtown. In some neighborhoods Downtown, they are getting brighter luckily.
Downtown, you’ve got spectacular architecture amidst numerous skyscrapers, most notably by Philip Johnson. Be sure to visit the observation deck of his JP Morgan Chase Tower for a knockout view of Houston’s buildings and sprawl, then check out the Joan Miro sculpture “Personage and Birds” in the plaza at the building’s entrance. There is the spectacular decade old Minute Maid Park, home to the lowly Houston Astros. At least the design of the stadium far exceeds the caliber of play on the field and the quality of food and beer in the stands (compliments to the extensive salad bar behind home plate).
This Fall, Jeremy Lin will try to lead the Rockets at the next door Toyota Center back to NBA relevance. Market Square boasts some nightlife and the Alley Theatre, one of the country’s foremost theatre companies, is Downtown.
Yet, a walk at night from my Downtown hotel to Minute Maid Park on a beautiful late summer evening proved the city still has a lot of ground to cover (literally). More light rail routes are being made, which should bring more people into the city. On that walk, there were more bail bonds shops than sports bars. The ballpark neighborhood rejuvenation that so many cities have succeeded with has not been achieved by Houston. It’s understandable that fans aren’t coming to see the worst team in baseball last year and this year. Yes, in summer Houston’s weather is truly unbearable, so walking around is never much fun. But still, this is the one of America’s most important cities.
So can you eat and drink in Houston as delightfully as in Dallas and Austin?
Absolutely, yes. It’s just most of the places that are changing the dining culture of this city aren’t Downtown.
The epicenter of Houston’s dining and cocktail scene is Montrose, a residential neighborhood in the center of the sprawl between Downtown to the east and the ritzy Galleria shopping area and business district to the left, with its accompanying nearby mansions in River Oaks. Westheimer Road is the main thoroughfare for eating and drinking purposes. Our recent neighborhood profile goes into more detail about the meals at Feast and Hugo’s.
Amongst the many important establishments, one can find possibly the country’s most impressive cocktail bar (Anvil), outstanding Mexican (Hugo’s), terrific rustic British cuisine with several twists (Feast), the first outside Austin outpost of Tyson Cole’s Japanese meets Texas sensation Uchi, Anvil’s outstanding craft beer bar (The Hay Merchant), a slider bar and Tex-Mex from the city’s leading celebrity chef Bryan Caswell (Little Big’s, El Real Tex Mex)…the list goes on.
Between Montrose and Downtown is Midtown, more of an up and coming residential area. There is Mr. Caswell’s flagship, Reef, where an order of the crab cake and the bowl of steamed mussels in a Shiner Bock broth with ancho chilies is vital. If the roasted grouper with salsa cruda is on the menu, don’t think twice. Caswell is a seafood master, with a delicate touch to the fish and a somewhat heavier hand in the preparations.
On my visit, the grouper was terrific, but the grilled peach and corn pudding spoke of everything that is great about summer and Southern cooking, outshining everything on the plate. Desserts disappointed. Neither the somewhat dry chocolate cake nor the run of the mill boozy “Adult Milkshake” made any impression. Crisp, friendly service and the focaccia bread with jalapeno jelly deserve an extra bravo. The stunning aquatic themed room and terrific service accompany the crab cake and grouper, not to mention a burger and numerous other seafood dishes worth driving (or taking the light rail) for. Reef is essentially Le Bernardin for weekly dining, with a Gulf of Mexico accent.
Over at the Galleria, you’ll find the ultra luxurious St. Regis Hotel, strip shows and steaks at The Penthouse Club, the glossy shops of the country’s most well known upscale shopping mall, and for our purposes, RDG Grill + Bar Annie. That would be the domain of the chef that helped invent contemporary Southwestern cuisine, Robert Del Grande.
South of Montrose is the other major “Downtown” of Houston, where the Medical Center, the professional football stadium (Reliant Stadium) and the old Astrodome, the Museum District (home to the excellent Museum of Fine Arts, Menil Collection, and the bizarre Rothko Chapel), and Rice University all occupy an area roughly the size of the real Downtown. For aficionados of college campuses, don’t pass up a stroll around Rice.
Just east of Downtown, the restaurant Oxheart is right now the real game changer of Houston’s culinary scene. Houston happens to have one of the country’s largest Vietnamese populations, making for excellent banh mis and crawfish boils as Bon Appetit wrote a year ago.
Of course there is noteworthy barbeque: Goode’s or Gatlin’s? A peanut butter and banana covered burger at The Hubcap is essential, as is a reuben at Kenny and Ziggy’s deli.
How about Downtown? For lunch, without question the homestyle Mexican cuisine at Irma’s. It’s such a classic a menu isn’t needed or wanted. Vic & Anthony’s is the legendary steakhouse for the porterhouse and Cabernet Sauvignon expense account carnivore crowd. Line & Lariat inside the Hotel Icon is making strides for its food, including some of the most addicting bacon grits imaginable. Hearsay Gastro Lounge on Market Square is worth noting as well, for covering the great quartet of upscale comfort food done well, craft beer list, craft cocktails, and even a worthwhile wine list with Texas wines (not usually worthwhile after tasting them).
And the most visited part of Houston for tourists? Of course, 45 minutes south at the Johnson Space Center.
Just do yourself a favor and pass on a meal there. No problem, there is no shortage of terrific places to eat instead back in Houston.
Five Best Dishes of Houston
Feast: Exmoor Toasts
Placed in the middle of a short list of “extras” at the bottom of the menu, you’d be forgiven for not noticing these amidst a menu of pork belly, pickled lamb’s tongue, and beef heart with fennel sausages. The toasts could be the star of this feast. This being the offal and cholesterol heavy Feast, the thin rectangle toasts are crisped in pork fat, then smeared with clotted cream, the only time I’ve seen clotted cream outside afternoon tea with scones realm. A pale anchovy is placed on top, more rewarding with its calm umami blast than the cherry atop a sundae.
Feast: Coq au Vin
Coq au vin at a British restaurant? What? A hearty stew on a sultry Texas summer evening? Yes and yes. Oh, what a dish. Far from heavy, the broth tastes almost of barbeque instead of the usual red wine. The chicken is as tender as you could hope for, fortified with mushrooms and bitter swiss chard. Only the worthless minted potatoes should be held back. Here, a master chef meets a French classic with New American vision, blending an element of Texas, at a British inspired restaurant.
Hugo’s: Cabrito: Roasted Goat Meat with Nopales Asados, Habanero Salsa, and Guacamole
Wrapped in a banana leaf, the goat meat couldn’t me more tender. The salsa has that kick you think you want and then need buckets of water to control. The guacamole is textbook smooth in parts, chunky in others. The grilled cactus almost outshines the goat meat and corn tortillas.
RDG and Bar Annie:Chocolate Cake RDG for MDG with Chocolate Mousse and Candied Orange
A love letter for Del Grande’s wife Mimi. I’ll try to replicate it for my future wife. There’s not a lot of glitz going on. It’s a quenelle of chocolate mousse atop a liquid center miniature chocolate souffle with a thin coffee meringue topping. The slightly mocha tasting chocolate duo dances perfectly in tandem with the garnishes of milk chocolate crème anglaise and candied orange segments.
Reef: Crab Cake with Taqueria style Pickled Vinaigrette
Here you go chefs everywhere, an exemplary crab cake. It’s about the crab, not the cake. And the cake itself isn’t just filler. It tastes almost of the most moist skillet fried cornbread. What are taqueria styled pickles? Not sure, other than it means alert for the spice! It’s really slices of peppers, some hot, some not, atop cabbage and raw cauliflower. No crab cake outside Baltimore has ever compared with this one.
Concept of Houston: The Decor
I could go on and on about the importance of ingredients and seasonal cooking in Houston, but that’s the case nowadays everywhere. Valet parking everywhere? That’s by necessity with the city’s design. Dress up? I was amazed by how Houston likes to dress up, while the rest of the country dresses down. Then again, sandals mingled with ties at Anvil and the Hay Merchant.
But from Reef’s aquatic world to the country club home feel of RDG, the design of the restaurants in Houston was fascinating. That goes perfectly with the handsome skyline of Downtown, the St. Regis at the Galleria, and Renzo Piano’s masterful work at The Menil Collection. It’s a terrific city for architecture little did you probably know, including at many restaurants. Fortunately, these restaurants are about a lot more than just indoor aesthetics.
From “The Brave” to “Pliny’s Tonic” to a stellar Pisco Sour and Pimm’s Cup, Alba Huerta, Bobby Heugel, and their crew are cocktail shaking and stirring virtuosos. But really, “The Brave” is their “Mona Lisa.” It’s delightfully haunting in that wonderful and mysterious way of the painting. It’s powerful and challenging, to be debated and savored for centuries. Anvil is certainly Houston’s leading cocktail bar, if not the country’s. Oh and the short beer list is a heavy hitter too.
Check out the intriguing list of Manhattan variations at Line & Lariat in Downtown. Also visit Hugo’s for tequila and mezcal creations, but skip the bland Margarita with Grand Marnier…unless they remember the Grand Marnier, unlike the case for me.
Under the Volcano, El Gran Malo, and Fitzgerald’s are three other highly regarded cocktail destinations.
Beer or Wine?
It is hot and humid here, which means beer. For wine? A good chilled rosé of course. Underbelly, the new wine bar/restaurant from the Anvil folks is the place to go for wine tastings far beyond chilled rosé.
But it’s the next door Hay Merchant, the craft brew bar also from the Anvil group, that deserves its name on the beer and wine marquee. Boasting 80 or so taps, are you thinking “sociable and refreshing” or “not for the faint of heart.” Beers come from all over, but do certainly try Houston’s newest brewery Buffalo Bayou’s 1836 Copper Ale. It’s still new, but The Hay Merchant is for craft beer what Anvil is to cocktails, as extensive as it gets. And the dining isn’t bad here either: a “Bad-Ass Bowl of Gumbo,” “Fake Ass Canadian Poutine,” or Did Someone Say Corny Dog?”. Pardon the language, I didn’t create the dishes. Everyone seems to get the warm pretzel with a local kale, IPA, and chihuahua cheese dip.
If you have the chance, be sure to visit the Saint Arnold’s Brewing Monday to Saturday tour of the facility and tastings. Saint Arnold’s was the first of the new Texas craft breweries and still is the only major one outside of Austin. Unfortunately, many of the beers falter. Skip the bland Amber Ale and Brown Ale, the tasteless Lawnmower Kolsch, and the Santo Black Lager with no depth to the coffee nose. I didn’t mind Elissa’s IPA, but the runaway winner was the hop powerful Endeavour Double IPA.
The best part of a visit to Saint Arnold’s is what a community event the open house there is. Families, guys looking to get drunk, tourists, hop heads…everybody is having a great time. It is a very calm, civilized Oktoberfest with cowboy boots instead of lederhosen. Last call tends to be quite the mad dash.
Shall we Grab a Coffee?
Even though it sure is hot here in Texas, two addresses in particular are terrific spots to grab a coffee. Near the 59 Freeway, Greenway Coffee roasts its own beans and crafts excellent drinks, plus a terrific shot of espresso. Catalina Coffee, on Washington Ave. (the “frat row of Houston”) is the shop to meet at and the Houston answer to the hipster crowd/dead serious barista coffee houses à la Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia that represent the “Third Wave” coffee movement sweeping across the country. Catalina’s beans are roasted by the Amaya Roasting Co., also in Houston. Catalina’s espresso is a touch too bitter, but boasts a lovely crema and depth. It’s the iced brewed coffee that steals the show. Maybe that’s because it’s a “humid” 92 degrees.
Restaurant of Houston: RDG + Bar Annie
Oxheart is the darling of the city, Feast is the most comforting, and Reef may be the most trustworthy destination dining room. But no name is more important in the rise of Houston’s culinary scene than Robert Del Grande. Del Grande started cooking at Cafe Annie in 1981, when the cafe really was a French inspired cafe. Then at around the same time as Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing, the fathers of Southwestern cuisine in Dallas, Del Grande helped shape French nouvelle cuisine à la Troisgros philosophy, through the vision of Texas and Mexico, into contemporary Southwestern cuisine.
The result? Texas quail with summer corn tamale and a huitlacoche sauce. The French classic steak tartare, here with a salsa verde. And of course, Del Grande’s famous coffee roasted filet mignon with adobo sauce and deluxe mashed potatoes.
In many ways, what Del Grande did for the cuisine representing the Southwest’s terroir is very comparable to what René Redzepi and the New Nordic cuisine movement of today do for Scandinavia. Del Grande doesn’t serve ants and pine needles…yet.
The design of the massive restaurant is strange and a little off putting with the somewhat rustic cuisine. From outside, the two tiered restaurant looks like a Frank Gehry designed Hollywood Hills home. You enter the sleek BLVD Lounge after walking by Mercedes after Range Rover at the valet. Then upstairs, there is a long communal table and bar at the entrance, followed by a somewhat crammed front dining room that shows hints of being upscale, but really is more of a bistro.
That is followed by the luxurious, spacious grill room with a nearly room wide canvas painting of a tropical forest, and couch banquettes and leather seats that would be right at home as the Grill Room at London’s Savoy Hotel, except the wood paneled ceiling wouldn’t fit the Savoy. The hectic kitchen is mostly visible from both dining rooms, leading to a constant rushed feeling in the restaurant. You are never completely at ease.
The hectic nature of the restaurant stems from the fact it is power lunch central. The suits and ties dine on the burger and terrific rabbit mole enchiladas with gusto. Never have I seen more energy at 12:30 then clear out and make a place dead quiet by 1:15.
The service reflected this gusto, first taking a half hour to bring a drinks menu then bringing dishes too quickly. During the lunch rush, we had three different servers, nobody knew who was in charge of us. So the water kept coming and coming. When the tables cleared, it became clear who would be our actual waiter. Everyone took a deep breath. The meal then was mostly terrific.
Del Grande’s watery, bland tortilla soup made one dining companion yearn for the version at Wolfgang Puck’s airport cafes. The signature RDG Margarita is passable, if a very unspectacular rendition. Sashimi of yellow tail paired with avocado could be found anywhere, until it gets livened up several notches by a red pepper ginger sauce. Del Grande’s talent is on best display with those rabbit mole enchiladas, the mole with as much depth as oil drilling platforms in the Gulf, and the lettuce slaw is no ordinary cole slaw. Best of all in the dish? The refried beans with pork lard. Hey, this is why lard should still be used. These are the first refried beans I’ve ever applauded.
Just as impressive were seared sea scallops, paired brilliantly with a tortilla and red chile hash. How about skirt steak with poblano and cheese relleno? Or cinnamon roasted pheasant, foie gras “poor boys”, or the famed Bar Annie nachos that share nothing to do with the usual nachos except they both have tortilla chips and cheese? Just stay away from the tortilla soup.
It may not be the newest or most exciting in town these days. However, a meal in the hands of Del Grande is still very special. Especially when you end with the RDG Chocolate Cake for MDG.
Symbol of Houston: NASA’s Johnson Space Center
And finally from Houston: Everybody on your feet and sing along…