Tag Archives: Houston

Bistro 7

Today my inner New Yorker refused to be contained so I headed to downtown Houston. Make no mistake, downtown Houston is not a busy place on a Sunday but its the only area of the city that feels urban to me. Urban kids know exactly what I mean. I’ve grown to like downtown Houston. During the week the energy and law industries keep it insanely busy; when you consider that 70% of the world’s oil transactions go through Houston, it shouldn’t surprise. Shiny, happy skyscrapers seem to materialize overnight. New restaurants, lounges and residential follow. The new sports arenas and park anchoring the east end have spawned the EaDo neighbourhood, which seems to be the destination residential corridor for the early career set.

If only they could do something about the rental prices downtown. Its fine to charge Manhattan prices. In Manhattan that is.

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Bistro 7 is a satellite of the Table 7 brand located in the Club Quarters Hotel. Table 7 restaurants  have replicated a bit recently, from one location to four, all in the downtown area. Its been on my (growing) list of places to try for a year now.

Atmosphere
I find hotel restaurants outside of Las Vegas and NYC rarely depart from a vaguely, pleasant IMG_1271middle of the distribution curve feel and Bistro 7 is no different. However, the contrast of bright yellow and red colors against the dark woods combined with the sunlight streaming in from the glass front facing Rusk St gave it a much more vibrant feeling. For the hour or so I was there I heard almost exclusively Spanish language and South American themed music. Its not often I hear the group Otros Aires outside of Argentina. I noticed during lunch that all the other patrons were Spanish speaking, on the way out I heard only Spanish in the lobby and while exiting,  a gaggle of 20-something girls waiting for a taxi were deep into superficial boy chat. In Spanish.

Was there a Latin American convention in town?  Or is this a new, fun demographic reality previously unknown to me?

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Food
Wins, all.

District 7 Side Salad. Side? Really? This is more on par with a meal salad and it was only a $2 add on. Volume bonus, definitely. The salad foundation itself is ubiquitous – romaine, chopped tomato, purple cabbage but with some roasted pecans, newly minted Parmesan and spears of jicama. Dressing was trying to decide if it wanted to be ranch or caesar.

Teriyaki Mahi Mahi “Burger”. Seriously, a big slab of Mahi Mahi for $11? The construction is simple and meant to enhance the fish. Have to respect that since Mahi Mahi deserves to take center stage but it is light and slightly sweet so its easy to clobber it unrecognizable with sauces and over preparation. Grilled medium, assembled with some purple cabbage and cilantro, bolted together with a creamy red pepper sauce on a big ass bun. The bun itself looks intimidating but its airy and compresses nicely; I liked the slightly crisp outer shell of the bun contrasted with the pillowy internals.

The drink selection here is limited to a few wines and beers; there are more local beers than otherwise. They do have a full bar and it seemed well stocked.

Service
Great, however there were only 6 people here on Sunday afternoon so its probably not a good litmus test for what it would be like on Tuesday noon when the pushy, hyper aggressive oil execs descend.

Price
The prices are extremely reasonable for a hotel restaurant and on par or less expensive than other venues serving comparable fare. I think this is why the Table 7 brand is gaining momentum in downtown Houston.

I’ll definitely be back to Bistro 7; good food, reasonable prices and only 2 blocks from the Main St. Square subway stop.

OKRA Charity Saloon

IMG_1192Candy isn’t her real name, its a moniker bestowed one night at a party when her subtle toe-tapping and head-bobbing to the background music slowly morphed into a modified pole dance. I mentioned this to Candy – “Hey, nice pole dance, we should start calling you Candy the stripper”.

A star is born.

We don’t see Candy often, busy girl with her dispersed family and high pressure job, so when she calls for a happy hour, we answer. I always try to find a central location for happy hours since we all work and live in just about every far reaching corner of this ever-expanding maze of freeways we call Houston; this time OKRA Charity Saloon.

OKRA caught my eye some months back while trekking about downtown. I liked the concept – 100% of the profit goes to charity, hence the name. Local bartenders, chefs and otherwise good people donate their time and personalities to the effort. The patrons vote on which charity they’d like their drink money to be applied and at the end of the month, the money is donated to the winner. Patrons also vote for next month’s charities.

Every city should have an OKRA.

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The interior reminds me of every shot gun bar in New Orleans;  more tall than wide with a clear view of everything and everyone. The difference being the large skylight, which really brightens up the place anytime before 8p. Mixture of tables and fabric-covered booths are comfortable and spaced well. The music is good; the standard mix of current and past – what was that I heard – Madonna’s Like a Virgin followed by Vampire Weekend’s Unbelievers? Yep, it was.

Mixed drinks are great in my limited experience here – I had several Pimm’s Cups, both were great however one was more lemon heavy and the other was more orange heavy – different bartenders yield different results. The beer selection is decent, the wine selection is limited. I noticed just about everyone in the bar was doing shots of Cinnamon Whiskey; curious but not curious enough – maybe next time.

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I’m not sure how the crowd changes as the evening wears on but between 6-8p it was a mixed bag, probably heavy on the 25-35 crowd but even they were mixed casual pre-4th shorts/serious just off work suits. The mood was very social and upbeat, singles mixing it up at the large central bar, groups into light-hearted conversation with the occasional table bang of emphasis. OKRA does not feel pretentious nor does it seem a place attracting the see-be-seen.

I’m liking OKRA an evening launch off into other downtown venues. After our cocktails and voting we migrated next door to Batanga for tapas (and even more drinks) however, it would be equally enjoyable to scoot across the street to Hearsay, La Carafe, Macondo or Hotel Icon or even Sundance Theatre in Bayou Place to catch up on the films you meant to see before they roll over to Netflix.

Sucky photos courtesy of my dirty lensed iPhone and lack of focus, you’re welcome!

The Waffle Bus

Food trucks seem to be the new black of trendy cuisine in just about every city I’ve visited recently. Here in Houston there is a food truck festival, where if you are a really hungry average person or just a mildly peckish Texas bubba, you can try 20 or so food trucks in one afternoon. I find food trucks parked at museum and gallery openings; they even show up in swanky neighborhoods as catering service to oil executive’s house parties.

Its completely out of control and I love it.

A dish popped onto my radar last week in conversation with a friend about The Waffle Bus. A dish so Southern it almost begs to be spoken aloud with a exaggerated drawl – Fried Chicken &  Waffles. Go ahead and practice holding the “i” in Fried Chicken until you run out of breath, then you will have the pronunciation down pat.

If everyone would please pull your seats forward, place your tray tables in their upright and locked positions,  prepare the crash cart and call in your Lipitor prescriptions, we will now make our final descent into completely ignoring FDA guidelines for daily intake of saturated fat.

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Atmosphere

Its a food truck so just make your own atmosphere. Today they were parked at Inversion Coffee in the Montrose. At Inversion there is plenty of outdoor seating set back from the main drag and since its in the heart of Montrose, there will always be a good crowd for people watching.

Food

Fantastic. I had the Chicken & Waffle Fryders which is exactly what is sounds like – sliders made IMG_1184from fried chicken and mini waffles. They asked which sauce I wanted and I asked for all of them. The chicken is pounded thin before frying but it was incredibly juicy. And spicy, very spicy, so be careful not to dip into the spicy mayo without testing your heat tolerance first. Of all the sauces (Spicy Mayo, Ancho Honey, Buffalo Ranch and something else I forgot to write down but it tasted like Tobasco), my favourite was the Buffalo Ranch; still flavorful but it worked to balance the heat in the chicken. The waffles are dense; crispy on the out, fluffy on the in. I’m definitely coming back to Waffle Bus again, next time for the Salmon, Cream Cheese and Caper Waffle.

Service

10-15 minute wait for me although I have heard when they park at Rice University it can be upwards of 45 minutes. Happy and efficient staff.

Price

Everything is less than $10; my sliders, which quite frankly were enough on own were $6. I think they prefer cash but there is a iPad on board for credit purchases.

Sure, it doesn’t rank high on the health meter but I had a vegetarian lunch yesterday so the FDA limits on saturated fat can just bugger off today.

Lunch: 30 June 2013

Waffle Bus @ Inversion Coffee | 1953 Montrose Blvd | Houston, TX 77006

Doshi House

I asked the owner of Doshi House why he decided to open a coffee house in the former war-zone known as Houston’s Third Ward. His answer was “Because nothing like it was here”. Really, this is a good answer, if not the best answer. Its simple supply-demand economics in a city that is inundated with eateries and options for coffee. Doshi Guy is young, probably 20’s but he seems to have the head for business and the open-minded personality necessary to keep his small, comfortable establishment moving forward with the surprising changes occurring in Houston’s  emerging Third Ward and EaDo neighbourhoods.

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Atmosphere

Unpretentious, comfortable, quirky. While some long-time Houston residents may still feel uneasy traveling down Elgin St. on the east side of I-59, I did not at all sense any danger. Scruffy area in transition, certainly – daytime gang shootings – no.

Food

The food selection is a small part of the menu; a few paninis and soups during the day, a few other items for dinner. All of the food is vegetarian. Sister is a no-grain-eating vegan so I learned long ago that vegetarian food can be delicious; preparation is key.

Prepare they can. I had the Urban Pepper Panini at the suggestion of Baritsa Girl and it was quite good. The flavor anchors are grilled mushrooms, the two different peppers – pepperocini and banana pepper — and the protein, which is made from soy, wheat and shitake mushrooms; it tasted beef-like.

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The bulk of the menu is coffees, teas and smoothies – perfect accessories for the University of Houston students on both campuses in close proximity who might want to park and study on a sofa. I was really curious about the Mughal Spice, which is an espresso based drink with steamed milk and saffron. Yes, you read that correctly. I have to say, of all the coffees I’ve tried in Houston, this one is the hands-down favourite. The drink is both strong and creamy but with an other-worldly kick of saffron.

While sipping my Mughal and watching the colorful community pass by on Dowling St, I read over the postcard menu, completely convinced there will be a return visit. On the postcard I noticed that most everything is locally sourced. I also noticed that the outside sign touting a cultivation of community is not so much lip service since they expend some considerable effort and expense to advertise all of the artistic talent and events in the community. Doshi Guy was very enthusiastic about the Project Row House effort around the corner, I’ll be soaking that up with my next Mughal Spice, which could quite possibly be tonight.

Lunch: 29 June 2013

Doshi House | 3419 Dowling | Houston, TX 77004

Hermann Park

It was one of those rare days when I wasn’t wearing my headphones while traveling on the subway. Oh, sorry, we call it “light rail” in Houston. I overheard two ladies talking about their day in Hermann Park. A lovely exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, a stroll around the park, a leisurely lunch at Hotel Zsa Zsa. One lady commented to the other in her best southern accent that Hermann Park was just like Central Park in NYC. Right, I had to physically clamp my lips shut not to respond. Granted they are both parks. Granted they are both in urban areas of major cities. However, that’s about where the similarity ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Hermann Park and I walk through it frequently on my way to the Medical Center. Its a low-impact 3-mile jaunt around its perimeter, which takes about 40 minutes and that’s about enough time to reboot before yet another context switch. I’m currently “in training” to hike the Kepler Track in 2015, so I’ve added additional treks about Hermann Park to boost my miles/week.

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In order to capture the area without people I had to get there before 7a. Here are some sights, clockwise: Mecom Fountain with Hotel Zsa Zsa behind, Cancer Survivors Plaza, The Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Museum of Natural History and some Greek-like structure (not really sure this has a name but a lot of 15 year old girls in bright puffy dresses take their Quinceañera photos here).

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The Sam Houston Statue and reflecting pool, this area is the center of the park and its typically inundated with joggers, kids on bike, picnickers and ducks.

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Speaking of kids and ducks, they appeared as I completed the circuit and was on my way back to the subway. I mean light rail. Kids gravitate to these big ground-up water spouts, I have to admit I’ve “accidentally” walked through them too. I think the ducks are still wondering how they got to Houston and how exactly they can escape.

On the last segment, around the golf course and out of the park, I noticed this group of trees looking like they somehow wandered off the set of Sleepy Hollow.

Nice park, yes. Central Park, not even close.

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Istanbul Grill

IMG_1137There are dueling Turkish restaurants in the Rice Village area of Houston, literally a block apart.  Whats on the plate is similar in both however they differ in atmosphere. Istanbul Grill is the more casual, Pasha the more dressed up. For a work outing today we went with the more casual.

Our outing today reminded me that Turkey is on my to-do list but it keeps getting rescheduled. So many places, so little vacation.

Atmosphere

Casual, stripped-down fun. There’s about equal indoor and covered outdoor seating; if the weather is nice and particularly if its at night, its a more lively experience to be outside. The steady stream of Rice college students seeking escape from their studies at any number of bars along this stretch of Rice Village creates a youthful energy and occasional eye candy.

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Food

I’ve been to Istanbul Grill loads of times and had almost everything on the menu. The Iskender Kebab is my hands-down favourite here but today with a group of 20 we had a fixed menu and it was not listed. I had the Lamb Kofte, which was good; highly seasoned ground lamb, shaped into a long oval, grilled then served with a rice / chickpea concoction and  salad.

For the group we also had a table full of their bread, which is delicious; crispy on the out, fluffy and chewable on the in. To pair, a sampler platter of their apps, my favourite being hummus. Maybe its just the local Turkish way, but the hummus both here and Pasha has a very strong sesame flavor, so heavy on the tahini. I like it but it is distinctly different from the Lebanese/Israeli variety which tends to be heavy on the chickpea and garlic.

IMG_1140I simply cannot visit a Turkish restaurant without having Turkish coffee. They know how to do this well. Thick, rich grounds-in variety, which has a distinct blackberry undercurrent and comes pre-sweetened. At Istanbul Grill you can order it half-sweet or quarter-sweet, that is, if you don’t want your coffee to taste like a dessert.

Service

Service here is always good but at lunch and dinner rush hours, particularly on a Friday, it can be spotty due to the small kitchen and often limited number of wait staff. Twice, when it has taken too long for something, they just waived some item off of my bill; always a nod to customer loyalty. It happened again today with the Turkish Coffee, they just comped it and thanked us for choosing them for our group meeting.

Price

For lunch $8-15, for dinner $10-20; dinner portions are notably larger. This is on par or lower than neighboring Pasha. I think at Pasha you are paying for a little more for the upscale atmosphere.

In a city with surprisingly few Turkish venues, you can always depend on Istanbul Grill to be a good, and occasionally great experience, particularly if the weather is nice and you snag a table outside on a Friday or Saturday evening.

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Istanbul Grill | 5613 Morningside | Houston TX 77005

Andalucia

IMG_1083Th-upSpain has a passion for just about everything: food, music, dance, architecture. I’ve been there and loved the experience but continuing to travel to Spain to experience these passions is cost-prohibitive, so I continue to look for surrogates locally. Andalucia comes close, excelling in some areas, while being flat in others.

I noticed the downtown tapas venue on a walk back from neighboring Phoenicia. I then remembered a coworker’s raves from weeks earlier and thought – must “research”.

Atmosphere

IMG_1093Open, heavy wood tables and high bar benches, warm tones, lively. Like all open, indoor areas filled with people, its sometimes difficult to hear against the background levels. But Andalucia is not about quiet conversation, its more about replicating the energy and experience you would find in Spain. The overwhelming reason to come here is for the live flamenco – 830-1030p – which for me, dictates the atmosphere. The performers are fantastic, the is crowd energetic, transforming Andalucia into a more of a performing arts venue with a food & drink bonus.

Service

Courteous,  prompt and otherwise good but there were some missteps with drink orders, likely due to the noise level.

Food

Some wins

Sangria: Too sweet for me. The base flavors were spot on with the red wine giving the drink its depth; present orange flavors added the requisite citrus notes. But I think either they are mixing a store-bought sangria or adding sugar to their own brew. Or maybe they were heavy handed with the fruit juices, possibly grape or apple. Not bad but not the best.

Patatas Bravas: Ah, the quintessential tapas plate. These were good but constructed differently than their traditional counterparts. The potatoes themselves are spicy, heat level rising only to mildly amusing with aioli piped in criss-cross pattern over the lot. It works well from a flavor perspective but the presentation was uninspired.

Albondigas Marroquis: Good but the advertised spicy, cumin pepper sauce was weak on both spice and  cumin and I was actually looking forward to the spicy, cumin pepper punch to break up the sweetness of the sangria.

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Price

Tapas range between $5-15. My two tapas and two drinks were under $30, which I considered reasonable.

I recommend Andalucia but I would book an 8p table on Saturday and consider live flamenco the highlight while the food and drink, an accessory.

Dinner: 18 May 2013

Andalucia | NW Corner of Polk & Caroline | Houston TX 77002