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[HOU] Houston Fine Dining 2011


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The economy in 2010 tooks its toll on two fine dining destinations that I know of: Voice and Textile.

I went to Mark's this past summer and was let down by the experience. It seemed exhorbitantly expensive and then they compensate by giving you an obscene amount of food.

There's Robert Del Grande's new concept RDG + Bar Annie but I haven't been. It's gotten good reviews but those that I've read also mention the high price point.

Tony's has seemed to enjoy some resurgence lately.

Not to perpetuate the stereotype of Houston being more of a midpoint town, but that's the type of stuff I go for when I'm in town and there's an abundance of fun, unique, and interesting places: Feast, Reef, Ibiza, Catalan, Stella Solla, Hugo's . . .

Waaaay out in Tomball, far northwest of Houston, is Bootsie's Heritage Cafe which was named best new restaurant in the Chronicle and got national attention for having one of the best dishes of the year in GQ or Esquire. Service is a little rough, but it's again very unique cuisine and there's lots of menu options: a la carte, chef's tasting, Heritage menu, etc.

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Pappa's Bros. is a classic old school steakhouse. I love it. We've been to Mark's several times, and love it as well, although I don't think of it as cutting edge, just a lovely atmosphere and fine, fine food. Hugo's is good, although I don't think of it when planning a special occasion. We went to t'afia several years ago - the atmosphere was almost austire, and the menu was a little weird - in thirds, as I remember, something about it seemed odd. The food was good, though. Reef is supposed to be fabulous, we haven't been there yet.

Although not fine dining, Max's Wine Dive on Washington has a great vibe, super food, and out-of-the ordinary wines.

Stop Family Violence

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  • 4 weeks later...

Anybody know anything about Haven?

Living near Austin now I don't get to Houston nearly as much as I'd like but Haven has been one of the most talked-about new restaurants in the state, I think it even got on Texas Monthly's 10 best new TX restaurants of 2010. I do know that eG member and Anvil co-owner Bobby Heugel consulted on their bar, and last I heard there was at least one Anvil alumnus working at their bar.

When are you going, Chris? Do make sure you check out Anvil, but be sure to get there early, especially on the weekend, unless you want to be knee-deep in hipsters.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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I'm not going until mid-March, but I like to plan my meals well in advance (since eating is most of the reason I travel!). Right now I've got dinners lined up at RDG+Bar Annie, Haven, Stella Sola, and Catalan. I have not even begun pondering lunch...

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Chris Shepherd is leaving Catalan in May - nice to catch him before then (I haven't lived in Houston for two years, but that was our favorite spot).

With that same caveat, I'd recommed DaMarco as well - lunch is a good option there. Similarly Feast.

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I haven't been there since it reopened after the post-Ike fire, but Brennan's is something of an institution, by the same family who owns Commander's Palace in New Orleans. Very elegant and special for brunch or dinner.

This place really surprised me. Commander's Palace has never impressed me, but Brennan's in Houston is pretty darn good.

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We had dinner at Haven in November & found it to be one of the better places in Houston. The service was excellent and the food was above average & is apparently locally sourced insofar as possible. My only complaint was the noise level, but that may have been solved by now. My daughter, who lives in Houston, also likes Reef, Catalan, & of course Da Marco.

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Second the recommendation to do Feast at lunch if you want to go there.

If you end up going to Brennan's, you'll be only a few blocks away from the huge Spec's on Smith St, a liquor store nearly the size of a wal-mart. A more or less comprehensive seletion of the spirits available in the state, huge fine foods selection and a wine area larger than both of those put together. Worth a gander.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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My wife and I had our rehearsal dinner at Backstreet Cafe, and it was really excellent--Sean, the sommelier, could not have been more friendly and helpful, and the food was superb.

"Degenerates. Degenerates. They'll all turn into monkeys." --Zizek on vegetarians

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  • 1 month later...

So, dinner tonight was at RDG + Bar Annie's...

Started with a couple drinks, a mojito and a "Country Western Manhattan": the mojito was normal and quite good, the Manhattan was a bit sweet, and seemed to be either very light on the bitters or missing them entirely. I have no idea what made it "Country Western"--the lack of garnish?

Next up the Crab Beignets and the house bread. The bread was a very lightly-flavored sourdough, nothing to write home about but not bad. The butter was served very cold so was more or less impossible to eat. A common flaw, but I still maintain it is a flaw. The crab beignets were good beignets, but had virtually no crab flavor even before applying the very assertive spiced mayonnaise they were served with. So I don't quite know how to rate it—they tasted good, they just should have been $2 instead of $15, and omitted the crab entirely. That said, I love beignets, I'd probably still order them again.

First course was a foie gras on toast with a frisee and pecan salad. The salad was very good: I'd guess the vinaigrette incorporated some foie fat, and it all worked quite nicely. Frankly they could have left the foie off the plate and I'd have been happy, and I'm not a salad guy. Unfortunately, the foie itself was lackluster: it simply didn't have that much flavor on its own, it was overwhelmed by the sear and whatever it was coated with. I don't know who their foie supplier is, but I've definitely had better.

Main course was a ribeye with cheddar sauce, served with lovely potato wedges and a totally out-of-place sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. The ribeye was fine, but again nothing special, at all. I was actually quite disappointed, they talked up the quality of their steak, but it simply was not that great. Good, yes. But I've had a lot of better steaks at a lot of different restaurants. This was not even top ten.

For dessert, a pecan tart and a coffee ice cream sundae. Both were quite good: again, nothing special, but not bad. Probably outsourced...

I am starting to sympathize with complaints that RDG + Bar Annie is overpriced: not just expensive, but actually more expensive than the food is worth. This was a fine meal, but not a great meal, or a memorable meal, or even an interesting meal. The whole place had a "see and be seen" vibe to it, I really don't believe the food is the focus here at all.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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The latest higher-end restaurant we tried was Stella Sola. The food was overall very good if a little heavy-handed with salt (at least for my main course of pork belly and scallops). The desserts were not that interesting but solid. My appetizer of polenta, a sous vide egg and house lardo was phenomenal and alone worth another trip to the place.

I would love to go back with a couple of friends to try out their suckling pig as well.

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Tonight, however, was dinner at Haven, which was head and shoulders better than RDG, and at a lower price point to boot.

First off, the cocktail program is serious, with well-trained bartenders, a creative menu, and a great ingredient selection. I tried several of the drinks, and all were well-prepared and well-balanced. I'd consider moving to Houston from OKC just for this bar, we've got nothing like it.

Next, on to the food: I started with a pork-belly pastrami on sauerkraut with rye (obviously a take on a Reuben, though not a sandwich). The sauerkraut was a bit bland, but the pastrami was fantastic: I really enjoyed this course. Next up was the wild boar chili: very good, rich, meaty and spicy. Hard to do chili much better than this. For a main I had the fish special, a mahi mahi with local oysters and creamed cabbage. It was all delicious: everything was delicately flavored so the sweetness of the oysters and the cabbage was really highlighted. As a final course I had the buttermilk pecan pie: I didn't care so much for this, the buttermilk pie was a bit bland and could not really stand up to the pecans. It wasn't bad, but I'd have rather had another drink (alas, I was driving). The free valet is a nice touch, and they were pretty speedy too. My only complaints are that it is definitely loud in there, and I thought the pacing was a little fast. Still, the food was excellent, and in contrast to last night, well worth the price tag.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Well, we tried to stop by Anvil for a pre-prandial cocktail this evening, but they were already pretty busy at 6pm, so we gave up and just headed straight to Stella Sola. Oh well, hopefully next time I'm in Houston I can plan that better.

Stella Sola was pretty good: not as good as Haven, IMO, but better than RDG, even not considering price. I started with the beef tartare, which had a good hand-cut texture, but was overdressed to the point where you could not taste the beef. The dressing was good, mind you, but my preference for steak tartare is to be able to taste the steak under whatever dressings the chef chooses to employ. Not a bad dish, but not a good one either, in my opinion. Next up I had the gnocchi, which was an excellent dish: it was easily the most interesting gnocchi I have ever had, and evoking an almost Asian quality in its sauce, and was very spicy: overall I thought it was very successful. Following that was a fish course. The menu said snapper, the waiter said grouper, and the taste said "red pepper." I think there may have been fish on the plate, but I couldn't taste it. Once again, the flavor was good, but the sauce completely overwhelmed the main ingredient.

One final point in their favor was their very nice, and incredibly nicely-priced wine list. I have never seen wine priced so close to retail, it is really remarkable that they are able to do so. We enjoyed a very nice Vigonier with our meal for only maybe 20% more than I pay in the store for the same bottle. The courses themselves were hit and miss, but I suspect with judicious choices you can have a very good meal here for a very good price.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Dinner last night was at Catalan, which I'd give a very mixed review to. First off, the wine list was again very reasonably priced, and they have a unique and interesting selection of champagnes that we availed ourselves of. Ordering champagne for no occasion in particular is fun sometimes, and the Rosé we got was quite good. We stuck entirely to small plates, and started out with the Bread service, Crabmeat croquettes, Foie gras bon bons, and a Bruschetta with some sort of pork belly and a soft-cooked sous vide egg. The bread was served with a flavorful whipped lard and was pretty good, and the Bruschetta was also OK. The croquettes themselves were nice, but the lemon sauce they were served on was cloying. The foie gras bon bons were terrible in too many ways to enumerate (I do believe this is the first foie dish I've ever had to describe as terrible... bummer). On the upside, when the manager discovered I didn't like them he insisted on taking them off the check: all told the service was probably the highlight of the meal, everyone was very gracious. The waitress then recommended the Roasted Berkshire Pork belly, which we ordered, along with a cheese tray. The pork belly was fine, if not exactly thrilling, and the cheese tray was a bit off-kilter, with one very assertive cheese and two quite bland options. We finished off with a couple of nice dessert wines. All told, we ordered a pretty massive quantity of food and liquor, and the bill came in around $160, so the price was quite reasonable. Unfortunately, the food was simply not that great.

Of all the places we ate this weekend, I think Haven was easily the best, both in absolute terms and in terms of value. I think considering the rather large number of restaurants that I haven't yet tried in HOU, Haven is the only of the four fine dining establishments I went to that I will go to again.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I've been reading your Houston reviews with great enjoyment and smirked with great glee at your assessment of RDG. I loathed Café Anne, but somehow, RDG irritates me even more. And, thanks to you, Haven is now at the top of my list of new places to try.

I was dying to see if you'd try Catalan and what you thought of it, so I was very excited to see this last post. What I love about Catalan is the wine list and its range (both in terms of type, variety and prices), as well as a sommelier who *really* knows his stuff, makes astute and very personally tailored suggestions, and who doesn't immediately push you towards the more expensive stuff. And if you *do* want something more expensive, he has the knowledge to discuss and debate lesser known varietals with you. (I'm a huge, huge fan of the Pinotage grape from South Africa, particularly from the Stellenbosch region.) I think only Backstreet Café's sommelier and the wine list made me feel so comfortable.

What I don't like about Catalan is the food. I've been there about 5 times (the last 3 times not of my choosing) and each time, it's all been so mediocre, over-hyped and, yes, small for what you're getting. I have no problems with small, or even tiny, plates.... if the food is spectacular; sometimes, just one perfect biteful is better than a moderate plate of things. But Catalan... eh. For the price -- at least, the price to get enough food to satiate you *and* that you think is actually tasty-- the food is just not worth it, in my opinion.

Like you, I was unimpressed by the Foie Gras bonbons and, like you, it was one of the few times that I didn't like something that included even a minute amount of foie gras. (But I'd be curious to know why -- exactly -- it did nothing for *you*?) Similarly, the pork belly was nothing to write home about. I actually prefer the pork belly dish at Feast, where the chefs (or one of them) studied and worked under Fergus Henderson.

Out of curiosity, what cheeses did you order tonight that did not impress you?

I've tried everything that you had tonight and wasn't impressed with any of it. I thought the Bruschetta was beyond boring. Actually, most of their food I thought was beyond boring. (Except one dish with bone marrow that was, I think, a special and which was quite tasty. And, to be fair, my first time there, I ordered one of the "large" dishes which was okay. I can't recall what it was -- which says something, in and of itself -- but I did think it was a lot better than the small dishes which most people associate with Catalan.) But, overall, I've had dishes at a tiny hole-in-the-wall Shanghai dumpling place in Chinatown that had more flavour, "wow" factor, and pizazz than all the dishes at Catalan combined.

I know you were asking only for fine dining places originally, but if you still have a few days in Houston and are willing to try some places with WAY better food than RDG or Catalan, there are a few, small, ethnic cuisine places which might appeal to you. The aforementioned Shanghai dumpling place is Fu Fu's Café (esp. the 2nd one which is in the same strip mall). They have a Napa Cabbage dumpling dish that is to die for, along with another mushroom dish, and the famous soup dumplings (imagine the sort of thing that Anthony Bourdain put a straw into, but just a wee bit smaller. I've had soup dumplings in Shanghai, and these are almost as good. Certainly better than those I've had in NYC.)

There is also a phenomenally tasty, small, low-scale Ethiopian restaurant (Blue Nile) that I'd recommend too and which has been around Houston for ages. It has the most delicious tartare (among other dishes), in one of it's giant meze-like platters. But that tartare.... damn! It's the only tartare I've ever had that made me moan, the way my favorite place back in Monte-Carlo would do. It's not the only good thing on the menu though: their various lentil preparations are addictive, and they are the only people who can prepare collard greens in a way that makes me want to lick the plate. (Just stay away from the overly-sweet, utterly tasteless, seemingly non-alcoholic Ethiopian "wine".)

Lastly, and more upscale than those two famous, strip-mall ethnic local secrets, there is a relatively new-ish Spanish/Portugese wine and tapas boutique bar in the Greenway Plaza area -- Oporto Café -- that has some wonderfully delicious tapas, appetizers, cheese-and-meats selection and an absolutely delicious Paella special (on Tuesday nights only, I think?). It's quite an interesting, Euro-like place, and fun for a quick stop. (Especially if you're a fan of Tallegio cheese, which I don't find on the menu of huge number of restaurants here in Houston.) It also has a moderately large selection of interesting wines by the glass, in addition to ports, cocktails, etc.

Just out of curiosity, have you ever tried "Feast" and, if so, what did you think of it?

"There are dogs, and then there are German Shepherds.... "- Unknown

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