Tag Archives: Restaurant

Mai’s

IMG_1440Mai’s Vietnamese restaurant has been a well-known staple in midtown Houston for over 30 years. For a stretch it was one of the few restaurants open until 4a; I am one of many people who have made a 2:15a run to Mai’s for Bo Luc Lac or Lemongrass Chicken after “socializing” with friends in  Midtown. A fire destroyed Mai’s a few years back but they rebuilt and a swankier incarnation appeared.  Same menu, same prices, same quality only without the 80’s kitsch. Shame, I rather liked the 80’s kitsch.

IMG_1438 IMG_1439

Atmosphere
Its a contemporary, high-ceiling feel now. Warm tones and exaggerated  chatter fill the space  almost any hour of the day, night or red-eye morning. Lunch is usually busy with a short wait, dinner can be very crowded with a long wait, particularly on weekends. After 2am its a hilarious mixture of misplaced testosterone, drag queens and ink aficionados.

Food

IMG_1442Wins!
I’ve sampled every part of their menu and it ranges from very good to excellent. This round I tried one of their specialty dishes, Bo Luc Lac (Garlic Beef) with a snow peas add-on;  slices of filet mignon marinaded in a fish sauce base, stir fried and served with grilled onion, red bell strips, jalapenos and tomatoes over lettuce.

Service
Despite persistent crowds, which are often unruly in the wee hours, the service here is efficient, courteous and accurate.

Price
On the high side but reasonable just be careful of the add-ons. If you start adding snow peas, mushrooms and egg rolls to your Bo Luc Lac (normally $13) it will quickly go over $20.

I’m glad to see Mai’s up and running again and I’m most happy to know that their reputation for high quality, great tasting dishes remains intact.

Lunch: 20 September 2013

Mai’s | 3403 Milam | HTX 77002

D’Amico

IMG_1434New people at work means a celebratory lunch. Actually, any Tuesday, a wedding, séance or even a successfully clipped toenail means a celebratory lunch in our circle. Today we took our new people out to an old Italian standby in the Rice Village area and I’m happy to report, its still good.

Atmosphere
D’Amico has been around forever. It feels like it could easily blend with its counterparts in Brooklyn; a small, cramped space packed with groceries, homemade raviolis and canolis, restaurant and large to-go contingency blocking every available entry and exit. The only thing missing is some Italian guy born in Brooklyn circa 1945 barking out undecipherable instructions to people who will give him explicit hand gestures in return. It is loud, it is chaotic. I love it.

IMG_1435 IMG_1436

Food
Having only eaten here for diner I was curious about the lunch special; choose three items from the lunch menu, eat, pay your $8 and get out – that’s all. I went for Chicken Lasagne, Meatball (singular) and Caesar Salad. All three were good but not excellent. The Chicken Lasagne was very flavorful mostly picking up garlic, oregano, tomato, monz and roasted chicken, however it had dried out a bit, obviously it was made a little earlier in preparation for the lunch rush. Meatball, the one, was excellent; ground beef and probably ground pork in a smaller quantity standing tall in a shallow pool of sauce tasting little-ol-Italian-grandma-dressed-in-black homemade. Caesar was decent but not memorable.

Dinner here is better quality, however if you are on a tight lunch schedule and want to keep costs under $10, D’Amico is a spectacular time-cost play.

Service
Very efficient and good balancing skills, considering the tight space and chaotic environment.

Price
Lunch special – three items, $8. You can order off the regular menu for lunch and those items ranged widely in price: $8-30.

D’Amico | 5510 Morningside Dr | HTX 77005

Indika

IMG_1340 IMG_1343

Another Restaurant Week revisit, this time a lower Westheimer Indian Fusion – Indika. I liked Indika the first time I tried it several years back but often times good restaurants turn mediocre. I happy to report this is not the case for Indika.

Atmosphere
Red, orange, yellow and liberal use of sheer fabric dividers set the zen-den tone. Both casual and sophisticated without pretense. Reasonably-leveled Indian themed music allows conversation and focus away from the scruffy chaos that ebbs and flows on the southern edge of the Montrose. Evening is much more energetic, lunch is more reserved.

Service
Efficient, informed, not intrusive.

IMG_1344 IMG_1345

Food
Indika is Indian fusion, that is, traditional Indian fare but made with ingredients or techniques not typically used in Indian cooking. My Indian friends either love this place or hate it, mostly the former.

All wins

Sweet Potato Samosa Chaat: I learned that chaat just means a combination of appetizers. This one is a spin on potato samosa over chick peas. The sweet potatoes in samosa gave it a much more distinct flavor which paired well with the mint, cilantro chutney, the cumin spiked yogurt sauce and cumin-coriander-ginger flavors in the chickpeas. A sensory assault to revisit, definitely.

Pork Masala Naan Wrap: The pork tasted slow-cooked and was fall-apart tender, spiked heavily with garam masala and ginger, wrapped with sweet potato and caramelized onion in naan.  The naan worked to contain and subdue the strong flavors in the pork and the crispy texture of the side onion-cauliflower pakora balanced out the softer textures of the wrap.

Price
Indika averages about $20 for entrees at dinner, slightly less at lunch. Its one of the few places  I recommend for dinner over lunch since the atmosphere at dinner is much more lively and I think lively pairs better with exotic fare.

While it might not be the traditional Indian fare ubiquitous to the Hillcroft Ave corridor, I’m glad Indika has survived,  not sacrificed any quality and seems committed to turning innovative ideas into plates that taste great.

Indika | 516 Westheimer | HTX 77006

Haven

Its Christmas in Houston! Other people know it as Restaurant Week, now Restaurant WeekS, IMG_1334considering the event runs  from August 1 through Labour Day weekend. Every city has them  and for me its always a good way to try some new venues or to revisit some past favourites.

Today we did some revisiting. Haven was the IT restaurant a few years back and we were curious if the new-Southern localvore favourite had retained their across-board excellence previously making it one of the most popular dining destinations in Houston. Short answer – yes.

Atmosphere
Haven is one big open area; glass-steel-hardwood modern but with a softer, more in-home feeling. Soundproofing is good, which is critical for maintaining conversation in what could be an acoustical nightmare and the chairs are likely more comfortable that the ones about your dining room table. At lunch the crowd here is almost exclusively Greenway Plaza white collar discussing business. Except for the guy in Wranglers and boots who valet parked his big-ass black-out doolie; it is Houston after all.

IMG_1332 IMG_1333

Food
All wins.

Chef takes classic Southern dishes and spins them around until they become dizzy and fall down. Once they regain consciousness they are something new made with local ingredients and arguably, better.

Shrimp Corn Dogs: I don’t have the capacity to remember much about previous dining experiences, hence the blog, however I did remember the one item I consistently order at Haven – Shrimp Corn Dogs. Its exactly what it sounds like – shrimp, butterflied, batter-dipped then fried. Three sticks are served with a Tabasco remoulade and a shot of homemade lemonade. The savory then spicy then sweet taste waves are worth the trip here.

Blackened Catfish on Cheese Grits: Not K-Paul hot but the blackening spices are still warm enough to shine through the creamy base of grits topped with lemon-tinged cheese sauce. Catfish does not have a subtle flavor so despite the other bold flavors in this dish it is still present in the taste spectrum. My favourite at Haven is still the Wild Boar Chili but this is a solid runner up.

Service
Service here is can be spotty in the evening, as the groups become larger and the demands higher, however at lunch it is consistently excellent. Homemade rolls appear instantly on seating. Orders are taken quickly and they seem to appear at lulls in the conversation, just when you want them. I noticed the some of the same servers from my last visit and I believe this set is very good at timing business lunches.

Price
For Restaurant WeekS its $20 for a 2-course lunch and this is a fair deal considering its about a 10-20% discount from the usual lunch prices. Not surprisingly, lunch is a better deal even out of Restaurant WeekS; entrees at dinner are in the $20-$35 range.

Parking
A special note about parking. Algerian Way is now all No Parking. While you could churn butter about Upper Kirby looking for street parking, its probably better just to valet and move on.

Lunch: 13 August 2013

Haven | 2502 Algerian Way | HTX 77098

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.

IMG_1276 IMG_1274

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?

IMG_1272 IMG_1273

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.

Terra

IMG_1215 IMG_1214

I was curious about the big explosion of mixed use real estate around the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. 30 or so blocks of it snuck in while I wasn’t looking and it’s growing still. I’ve always liked this area of Fort Worth with its density of parks, museums and crazy criss-cross streets, some still with the original bricks from a horse-based transport era gone by.

I walked the area opposite of the Modern Art Museum and stumbled across Terra, a pan middle eastern restaurant buried underneath a tumble of post modern apartments. Anytime is the right time for kebabs!

Atmosphere
The interior is soft mod and comfortable, it’s lively without the need to scream through a conversation. Casual, mixed crowd, good patio space, which is probably quite nice on a day that isn’t 103.

Food
Chicken Kebab. So, I forget that the crowd in Fort Worth likes volume which is the polar IMG_1216opposite to the crowd living in its younger sister, Dallas. I asked Server if it was a double order since the plate weighed 3 pounds. Server laughed a little at my surprised expression and said “Good luck and welcome to Fort Worth!”. The chicken was marinaded in saffron and cream then grilled; pleasantly charred on the out, juicy and flavorful on the in. The rice had a distinct flavor of chelo, the Persian saffron rice, but the long grain rice was mixed with a pan fried vermicelli giving it a more silky texture; perfect. Grilled vegetables were just that although did pick up a faint lemon and pepper taste on what was mostly yellow bells, zucchini, button mushrooms and carrots; good pairing with the rice and chicken.

I could barely finish a third of the kebab, so it made for nice snacks later.

Service
Friendly, informative and efficient, apparently with a good sense of humor.

Price
Prices are a little more than normal about $15-20 for the kebabs but factor in that its seriously enough for two people. Unless you live in Fort Worth.

IMG_1213If you are ever in the Fort Worth near the area hosting the Botanic Gardens, Modern Art Museum and The Kimbell, I would definitely hop over University Ave and take a meal break at Terra. Just remember to bring a friend so you can split one Fort Worth sized plate. Also, parking in this area is completely insane so I’d leave your car at the museum and just walk the few blocks; it will take less time and be more enjoyable.

Dinner: 11 July 2013

Terra | 2973 Crockett St | Fort Worth, TX 76107

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.

IMG_1138 IMG_1141 IMG_1139

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.

Th-up

Istanbul Grill | 5613 Morningside | Houston TX 77005

Seasons 52

IMG_1119Memorial Day weekend seems to mark the beginning of events season in my life: weddings, birthdays, graduations, bbqs and even some quite spectacular divorce parties. Most of these require travel on my part; I know,  the horror of escaping the oppressive Houston summer for a weekend.

This time I traveled for a birthday celebration to Cincinnati, OH; birthplace of one of my favourite bands, The National, and … well, I’m sure there’s some other stuff.  The birthday venue was Seasons 52, which opened a location in the Galleria area of Houston 2 days before leaving for Cincinnati. It seems life is not without a sense of irony.

Atmosphere

Even though Seasons 52 is a national chain, it is highly polished and it appears to have deflected the typical stigmata of chain restaurants. Both inside and out, Seasons is conservatively modern without clinging to any specific trend. What registered with me was the attention to customer experience. The interior is big and open but it has both floor and ceiling sound proofing, the groups of tables are spaced such that all groups can be seen but not heard; a feeling of intimacy while still maintaining a crowd connection.

In Cincinnati it was obviously an event destination and while very crowded, with a line of drop-ins piled up at the front, it maintained a sense of upbeat calm and I never felt pressured to hurry up and out.

Service

This is obviously their calling card, since our service was flawless and the birthday was played up with a personalized card, group photo in a nice insert and a gratis selection of mini desserts.

Also, I have to give them a huge thumbs up for creating specific menus for vegetarians and vegans, we had some of both. This made the vegetarians/vegans very happy because they had many options for apps and entrees rather than the usual ho-hum side salad and grilled vegetables, which are really more of an afterthought than a premeditated menu item in most places.

Food

The vegans and vegetarians raved but alas, I am a carnivore.

All wins

IMG_1125

Strawberry Basil Martini: Clearly they need to make a reversal in the name since this was strongly a basil martini with strawberry accents. But what’s in a name, it was still fantastic! A strong basil simple syrup probably mixed with an handmade strawberry infused vodka since I did not detect the fake strawberry flavour typical of off-the-rack flavoured vodkas.

IMG_1128

Lobster & Shrimp Spring Roll:  Seasons has a regular menu and a seasonal menu; the seasonal menu changes weekly and this was from the seasonal side. I loved it. Done Vietnamese style, cold-wrapped in a rice paper with large chunks of both suspects from the sea, sprouts and possibly some jicama sliced impossibly thin.  Crunchy and toothy with the bonus of three different dipping sauces. My favorite was the Thai Chili. No, wait, the Lemongrass Kefir Lime, scratch that, the Thai Chili. Definitely.

IMG_1131

Copper River Salmon: Also from the seasonal side. Lightly seasoned and grilled atop fingerling potatoes, caramelized onions and grilled asparagus & corn. Incredible, eye-popping color in the salmon, a very deep, rich flavor which paired well with all of the other members on the plate. There really was no need for the accompanying dill bearnaise sauce but I tried it anyway – super rich, I used it more on the asparagus.

IMG_1135

Mini Pecan Pie: Wow, feel the caramelized sugar coarse through your veins, the pecans, the butter, the crunch, the gooey. Good thing it was miniaturized, otherwise I would have needed a crash cart followed by an Epi stick. Absolutely a must should you be in the mood for a mini dessert. Note: I finished mine before I could take a picture so the photo is of my niece’s mini rocky-road.

Price

I found it odd that there were no prices on the online menu since, to me, this is one of Seasons advantages. My salmon was the most expensive thing on the menu and it was $27. Our table of 5 with drinks, apps, entrees was $170, which I considered very reasonable.

I hear tell that Seasons 52 is an expense account venue, where the business types take their accounts for “serious discussions” and deal signings. I think the reason it has this rep is that it has great food, polished atmosphere and maintaining excellent service is a crucial aspect of their brand’s identity.

I’ll look forward to test driving the Houston location to see if it measures up to Cincinnati but so far, I like.

Th-up

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.

IMG_1089 IMG_1090

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

Saba’s

Th-upAt my full time job I work with a very diverse group of people, and I mean that in every sense. We are from different countries, religions, ages and preferences. While a smaller group of us make our ritual bi-weekly run to AKA Sushi for the 2-roll lunch special, its somewhat more challenging to find a place the whole lot of us will enjoy.

To that end, I thought Saba’s might be universally appealing. Turns out – I was right.

Saba’s is a kosher, Israeli-run restaurant and to my knowledge the only one in Houston serving Israeli dishes like Shakshuka and Malawach. I noticed on this trip it seems their menu has expanded but I was happy to see Shakshuka on the menu.  Shakshuka, in case you’re aren’t familiar, starts with a base of tomatoes, onions and pepper, seasoned and cooked down. Next a couple of depressions are made in the base then eggs are cracked into them and allowed to poach. The whole lot is typically served with pita, hummus and Israeli salad; finely diced tomato and cucumber, usually accompanied by self-serve lemon juice, olive oil and hot pepper.

On a trip to Israel to visit family, I think I irritated the hell out of my cousin, since I made her stop at every single place serving Shakshuka between Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea . At least I have a surrogate now and its a little closer.

Atmosphere

Saba’s is a small family-run restaurant with very little pretense; its clean, pleasant and efficient but the focus is on the plate.

Service

So, I was a little worried about dropping 14 extra people on their typically light-traffic lunch hour but they didn’t miss a beat. Israeli’s, in case you didn’t know, are a frighteningly efficient lot. They can also be painfully blunt and short, however this is not the case at Saba’s.

Food

I keep ordering the Israeli dishes: Shakshuka and Malawach and both are exceptional. I like the combinations of flavors and textures in Shakshuka. The base is flavorful and thick, the eggs firm, the pita hot and soft, the hummus creamy and rich and the Israeli salad is fresh and crunchy. I’m not sure how they season their base but when I make it at home I keep it simple: salt, Aleppo pepper, lemon juice and maybe a pinch of cayenne.

IMG_1071

Price

Aside from the fish dishes, most everything is $10 or less. Also, should you want to take home some hummus they have a small ($4) and large ($7) to go option. Pita included.

If you’re ever looking for a casual place to take a mixed group of people or you just want to try a typical Israeli dish, I highly recommend Saba’s. Its not very visible from the street but it is located exactly at the stated address. Also, be aware, they are closed on Saturday for Sabbath.

Lunch: 13 May 2013

Saba’s | 9704 Fondren | Houston TX 77096