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  1. Since moving to Houston, I've been on a mission to find my new place. I'm the kind of creature of habit that needs a local, a home base. In New York, the dearly departed Redhead, and (also dearly departed) Northern Spy filled that role, and in DC, Boundary Road did the heavy lifting. While it may be a tad premature to say after only one visit, Nobie's is looking the part here in Clutch City. Nobie's is named for the chef's grandmother, and radiates a warm, familiar feel from the very beginning. I think the comforting confines of the former Au Petit Paris help, as do the beautiful vintage speakers displayed throughout, playing an eclectic mix of music off of a stash of vinyl records. It also helped that we immediately ran into an acquaintance at the bar as we walked in...a welcome occurrence when you're new to a city. The bar itself is relatively small, with a few stools, and from the looks of it, the full menu is available there. Cristina and I have a long-documented love of dining at the bar wherever we are, so I imagine we'll end up parked on those stools fairly often. We started with 2 of the 3 cocktail specials of the moment, the lightly effervescent gin-based Snow on the Pines, and the rye-based Baby it's Cold Outside (served warm, which would've been even better if it weren't 70 degrees in Houston right now). Both were excellent, and I imagine it would be tough to go wrong ordering whatever the daily cocktails happen to be. The rest of the drink list is equally well-edited and curated, with 3 interesting draft beer options, and a number of bottles and cans (big ups for Lone Pint Yellow Rose on tap). I took note of the Schlitz tallboy for $3 and $5 shot of Four Roses Yellow Label for another time/context. I miss my occasional late nights at Boundary Road with a friend or 2, winding down with a slightly superfluous Natty Boh and shot of Old Overholt. We started with a couple small plates. The Texas Tartare is a finely chopped steak tartare adapted to our lovely State's tastes with smoked jalapeño and topped with a layer of deviled egg yolk. Served with nicely toasted bread, this was a hit. The "Texas" bits were noticeable but played with a measured hand such that they didn't overtake the basic flavor profile of my beloved steak tartare. This is the kind of thing that can get super gimmicky real fast, and the skill shown with this dish is a real "tell" as to what you can expect from the kitchen here. The beer battered sweet potato tots came hot from the fryer in a bowl ringed with a whipped goat cheese. Crispy, soft, salty, cheesy. So get those. It was tough to pass up some of the other snacks on offer...the dukkah Chex mix and cool ranch chickpeas sounded great. Next time. Our salad of local citrus and fennel was the perfect foil for the richness of the tartare. Segments of grapefruit and orange mingled with paper-thin slices of fennel, bits of mint, red chili, and black sesame seeds. This is a simple salad whose execution elevated it beyond my expectations. There are a few salads on the menu, and if they all receive the care this one did, they shouldn't be missed. Moving along, we shared the Ricotta-stuffed raviolo with crispy duck confit, and the Aleppo prawns with burnt orange. The pasta is a rather robust single raviolo filled with house-made herbed ricotta and an egg yolk that covers everything beautifully once you cut into the shell. This was surrounded with irregularly sized pieces of crisped duck confit. This was a hearty dish whose richness would have been better appreciated in colder weather, but was still greedily devoured. The ricotta was light and lemony, and a nice counterpoint to the richness surrounding it. The prawns were served head-on and simply, seasoned with citrus and Aleppo pepper. These were well-cooked and delicious, though without any accompaniment on the plate, they felt a bit spare. We unfortunately skipped dessert to make it to a movie, but there will be plenty of time for that later. Nobie's hit all the right notes, from the unfussy, comfortable decor, to the friendly, unpretentious staff (none of that "Are you familiar with chef's concept crap), to the soulful, straightforward, ingredient-driven cooking. There's something for everyone here, from bar snacks and well-chosen wines by the glass, to large-format dishes like a grilled octopus and "Fred Flintstone" ribeye. My favorite joints always have that flexibility. Nobie's is a welcome and important addition to the Houston scene. Keep my seat warm guys, I'll be back soon.
  2. With my wife and older boy out seeing the Astros take on the Rangers, I turned to take out for dinner tonight, and ordered from the Montrose location of Mala Sichuan Bistro. I went with my standard szechuan restaurant benchmark order of ma po tofu, cucumber with chili oil, and a noodle of some sort (typically dan dan mien, but I went with cold "funky noodles" from Mala). I am pleased to report that Mala is, as the kids say, legit. The ma po was spicy and numbing, but not overwhelmingly so. The funk of the broad bean paste was there, without the overwhelming saltiness I've experienced at other places. I stayed vegetarian tonight, but they do offer it with ground beef. The cucumbers were fresh and crisp, topped with a nice balance of chili oil and crumbled szechuan peppercorns. I think next time I'll try the version in garlic oil to add some variation to the flavors. The cold noodles were similar to Chengdu cold noodles, and a great version of them at that. The noodles were nicely cooked, with a good bit of residual bite, and nicely coated with the sauce as opposed to sitting undressed on a ladle-ful of sauce on the bottom of the bowl. There will be plenty of time to explore the legion of amazing holes in the wall in Chinatown, but for now, I'm glad to have found a more-than-solid joint close by.
  3. Alison Cook has listed Roost in her Top 100 for a few years now, placing it at 29 in this edition. From reading about the restaurant, Chef Naderi introduces a new menu monthly, highlighting local and seasonal ingredients with little regard for staying in one particular "lane" of cuisine. Cristina and I had a quiet and pleasant dinner the other night. Top-line assessment: Pleasant enough to be a neighborhood fave, but in a sprawling food town like Houston, it would be tough to recommend traveling for a special visit. We started with 2 appetizers: the much lauded fried cauliflower with bonito and miso dressing, and the "bread service" of a Slow Dough giant (GIANT!) pretzel, with 3 spreads (marinara, pimento cheese, and furikake butter). The cauliflower was indeed tasty, reminiscent of takoyaki. The only thing I would say is that after a few bites, they became a little dull (as in, not sharp), and could've used some sort of acidic element to brighten things up (capers maybe? a squeeze of lemon? I don't know). The pretzel itself was massive, warm, buttery, and delicious. The spreads...eh. The marinara was totally off-putting in a way neither of us could put a finger on, but it went completely untouched. The pimento cheese was a totally straightforward take, without any noticeable spice. The furikake butter won out, mainly because it was butter. This dish seemed like an afterthought. I moved on to the "Country Captain" chicken - pan seared, along with deep fried wings, and topped with a vaguely curry-ish sauce with raisins. All in all a nicely cooked, but standard take on a Lowcountry classic. Cristina had fried quail served over black eyed peas and greens. I much preferred this dish, mainly for the delicious peas. Earthy and with just enough bite to them. We drank a South African Cab blend (2013 John X Merriman Stellenbosch) that played well with everything we ordered - medium bodied, with a good amount of earthiness that I enjoy. Roost has a small but nicely curated wine list and a number of local beers on tap. Given that the menu changes monthly, I think it's probably worth another look down the line, but for now I have it in my good-not-great category.
  4. Having returned to Texas after a 20-year absence, I've been trying to immerse myself in as much Houston-ness (and Texas-ness as a whole) as I possibly can. Gotta get back into the swing of things. So far, this has meant an embarrassing number of tacos (of the breakfast and non varieties), barbecue galore, all manor of delicious Vietnamese things, Whataburger lunches, and of course, vats of queso. I don't think I've had a non-Texas beer since returning, and I don't feel a longing for anything else at this point. (OK, that's a bit of a lie, as I would kill for a Bell's Two-Hearted right now.) So in that spirit, Hugo's seemed to be a natural choice of venue to celebrate my ##th birthday last week. Dinner started with margaritas (there are a number of interesting variations to choose from in addition to the very well-made standard), chapulines (fried grasshoppers served with salsa, guacamole, and blue corn tortillas), and tamales de pescado. Our waiter only showed the slightest raise of the eyebrow with the chapulines order, but I wanted to compare what I would be served at a restaurant with tablecloths and an award-winning wine program with what I bought in a paper bag in the market in Oaxaca years ago. The crispy critters are served with a standard guacamole, and smoky, mildly spiced chipotle salsa, meant to be wrapped in deliciously thick blue corn tortillas. The bugs themselves are nicely crispy, with no untoward chewiness, and nicely salted. The winner of this round (and the whole night, really), though, were the fish tamales. Served three to an order, wrapped in banana leaves, these were impossibly light, moist, and filled with nicely cooked bits of white fish (I should've asked what type, but it's mildly flavored and on the lighter side). A pleasantly bright and fresh salsa Veracruzana comes alongside and completes the dish. These are a must-order item. I moved on to the cabrito, tender roasted goat served with sautéed cactus, guacamole, rustic corn tortillas, and a fiery habanero salsa. I love the gaminess of goat, but even timid souls would get along with this preparation. My only caveat is that the salsa is no joke, and clashed mightily with the glass of Rioja I paired with the dish. My wife's callo de hacha (scallops) were perfectly seared, and placed atop a half-inch thick slab of sweet cornbread. The menu mentions rajas con crema, though here the poblanos are blended with the cream, creating a pale green sauce topping the bread. Very nice dish, though it seemed tame after a few bites of my habanero salsa. Service was solid throughout, and if you want, the valet service will even wash your car while you eat (which I had no idea was a thing). Chef Ortega has been a Houston fixture, and on the shortlist for a James Beard several times, and not without reason. We'll be back, especially to check out the Sunday brunch buffet, and of course, for more of those tamales de pescado.
  5. Eric Sandler reports that Ignacio Torras and Luis Roger are planning a more casual pintxos-focused restaurant in River Oaks to be named MAD (sticking with the Spanish airport theme). I celebrated my most recent birthday at BCN, and very much look forward to visiting whatever Torres has planned for MAD. BCN is certainly fine dining, but maintains a friendliness and relaxed-enough vibe that it never feels stuffy (despite the fact that you'd probably feel out of place if you weren't wearing a jacket). Paco, the GM treated us as though we were old friends from the moment we walked up to the front door. They do the classics well, including an extensive gin & tonic list. I have a soft-spot for Spanish culture and cuisine, so I am likely to be predisposed to like a place like BCN, but I do think it does a fantastic job of balancing the classics with modern interpretations of Spanish flavors. Our arroz negro hewed closely to the Platonic ideal, while the confit pork cheeks with lentils and chanterelles introduced a new way for me to obsess over Iberian pork. (Click through to see other photos on IG.)
  6. Since opening five years ago, Chris Shepherd's Underbelly has been a self-appointed beacon for the evolution of Houston food. The menu has a half-page thesis on why Houston is the most interesting culinary city in the country, there are dozens of celebratory links to *other* Houston restaurants on their main webpage, and Bun B is quoted on the wine list. From afar I've found the chest-beating a little too much, but I can appreciate a chef who wants to represent his city -- especially in a time where many owners are happy to replicate restaurants from other cities. And being such a vocal proponent certainly helped Shepherd win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. But hey, what about the food? Head-on Gulf shrimp with buttermilk dill panna cotta, pickled beans ($24). Plump and sweet, this was a great showing for Gulf seafood. The panna cotta was a nice compliment. Hand-torn cornbread pieces and pickled beans were both sort of throwaways. Seared soft-shell with eggplant curry ($24). Shepherd recently made a big PR announcement about getting away from beef and pork, which meant a larger focus on seafood. Soft-shells are among my personal favorite foods, and this was a very good one. The eggplant curry was nicely done with a touch of heat; Shepherd is a fan of moderate-to-significant spice (if you're not, be aware, as it permeates the entire menu). Vinegar pie with salt brittle ($9). Previous savory dishes were not coursed (nor labeled as appetizers or entrees; guess by price) so I was rather full after two. Still curious enough to try this dessert, which I believe has been on the menu since 2012. It's not scary at all; more key lime in flavor than sour or acidic. Overall, a quality showing by Shepherd and his team. I didn't fall in love with Underbelly, but it's worth visiting for anyone who appreciates loud flavors with global influences -- basically the "Houston creole" cuisine that the restaurants trumpets.
  7. Houston is a taco-rich environment, and I had come to believe that at a certain level of goodness, all tacos kind of play at the same level, without stand-outs. I was wrong. The tacos at Tierra Caliente are the truth. These are the Platonic ideal of taco. They are the essence of taco-ness. I sampled 3: lengua, pastor, and barbacoa. Both the corn and flour tortillas are excellent, each spending a little time on the griddle before getting wrapped with the meat and a generous sprinkling of onion and cilantro. Both red and green salsa tasted fresh and bright, with a little bite, but not so spicy as to overwhelm the other ingredients. My only quibble was that the pastor veered a little on the sweet side for my tastes. (I prefer the version I had at Taqueria Tacambaro the next day up in the Heights.) Grab your tacos, head over the the Ice House and grab a beer or Topo Chico. If anyone else can think of a place that consistently tops (or even meets) what Tierra Caliente is putting out, I want to hear about it.
  8. My husband and I were recently in Houston and made our second trip to Da Marco with his parents. This is exceptional non-traditional Italian. I started with the artichoke alla giudia, a whole roasted artichoke. I was a little surprised because basically its presented whole, with a sweet sauce (maybe pineapple? its been a while). I think I would have preferred a more savory sauce. My husband had the very tasty mozzarella di bufala with roasted cherry tomatoes, drizzled with a wonderful extra virgin olive oil. My father-in-law had the oyster special, basically a plate of three oysters, which he said he wasn't the best he's ever had, since it was kind of late in year for Houston. We also split an order of corn ravioli served with bits of lobster on the side. The ravioli was good, but quite frankly, I think I would have preferred a lobster-stuffed ravioli. For our entrees, my mother-in-law chose the garganelli mmmmmm. I can't remember what it was, unfortunately, but she enjoyed it very much. My husband and his dad split the 48 oz porterhouse, which they loved (I think they actually got this a previous time). I got the chianti-braised short ribs with gremolata. At the first bite, I swooned. And I finished it all, without sharing. Well, maybe my husband stole a few bites, but I didn't really offer any. We also had a side of polenta for the table. Very rich and creamy. We were too full to have dessert, but they looked delicious. Da Marco only serves wine, no hard alcohol or even beer as far I could discern. We split two bottles of wine, both in the $50 range. I would highly recommend this restaurant for anyone visiting Houston.
  9. Great night at Riel a few days ago. I went in with very few expectations, other than remembering that I read somewhere that the chef was Canadian, and at some point served borscht. We didn't opt for the borscht on our first visit, though we will certainly get into it (and the plate of Montreal smoked meat) next time. Cocktails are interesting, well-crafted, and well-priced at $10. I started with "Oslo in the Summertime," a nice riff on a Negroni, with Aquavit subbed in for the gin. Cristina is a sucker for gose, and started with a refreshing beer cocktail (Ready Set Gose) of Real Ale Gose (which has dominant lime notes), Cocchi Americano, and cucumber. It was feeling like that kind of night, so we opted to roll hard and start with the caviar service. Beautifully presented on a cut log platter, were were served 3 varieties - American, Russian, and Iranian along with house made butter (fantastic), freshly made rye blinis, and traditional accompaniments. Just as I was about order a couple glasses of champagne, the manager came over with an ice cold bottle of house infused vodka. All the better. (Click the arrows on the photos to see the crab and hangar steak.) Tempura cauliflower was served with a slightly too-salty kimchi sauce. The cauliflower were nicely breaded and fried, drizzled with the smoothly pureed sauce. There was some spice, but I would have liked a little more kimchi funk. Seemed like a popular dish, as we saw several plates heading out from the open kitchen. Having spent the last few years in DC, it's almost impossible for me to pass up a seasonal soft-shell crab special. Riel's comes lightly breaded and fried, served with greens and a tamarind sauce. Great dish that balances the salty fried crab with the sour tamarind. Bright and aggressively spiced. We wrapped it up with the 44 Farms hangar steak, cooked to a perfect medium rare, served over a horseradish cream sauce alongside pan-crisped potato-cheddar pierogi. Another winner of a dish. Simple, unfussy, but cleanly presented. Riel generated a lot of early press, but still somehow feels a little under the radar. Such is life in a sprawling city with so many choices. That said, I'm confident we'll be back, and would be happy to recommend a meal there to anyone visiting.
  10. Family dinner last night at Paulie's. A few things to know going in: It's counter-service, which is a surprising choice (to me) for a restaurant like this, but seems to be a fairly popular model in Houston. It is small and tables are first-come first-served. Portion sizes are mind-bogglingly big, and a half-portion of pasta will be enough for 2 meals. The panzanella salad in no way resembled any panzanella I have encountered before, and was essentially a spinach salad with a few croutons in it. Not bad, but not what we expected. Again, the portion size was crazy, and I would suggest a half portion to share between 2 or 3. The Caesar salad my in-laws got was the better choice, and perplexingly had a higher crouton to roughage ratio than the panzanella. The kids happily devoured spaghetti and meatballs. A couple small bites I had were good...a smooth, fairly sweet sauce with light and well-seasoned meatballs. At $8 for a "small" that 2 kids only finished half of, this is a ridiculous value. Cristina's creste di gallo was served with that same tomato sauce, kicked up with some red pepper, pickled onions and half moons of sweet Italian sausage. The sausage itself is nothing special, a finely ground and tightly packed version with a good dose of fennel and caraway (but not too much). My mother-in-law had the skirt steak served with a side of pesto gnocchi. The steak itself was described (by my MIL) as "a bit chewy, but hey, it's skirt steak," and the gnocchi I tasted were good - medium density and coated in a solid standard basil pesto. I think I won the night with my bucatini Amatriciana, which was smoky, and spicy, with a good amount of sweetness from the tomatoes. This is the must-order dish as far as I can tell. With prices that are $11 or less for "small" portions of pasta that are really enough for 2 people, the value at Paulie's can't be denied. The pastas are reportedly made in house, and were all decent, though I prefer a bit more al dente texture. Reasonable people may disagree though, as my wife thinks my "al dente" is too chewy. There are a number of well-priced beers by the bottle (local bottles priced at $5), and Italian wines by the glass ($10-15) and bottle (all in the $40 range). Paulie's is a neighborhood gem that I would compare favorably to Frank or Supper in NYC. Dinner isn't going to blow your mind, but it is solid, and perfect for a family-style night out.
  11. We were absolutely blown away by dinner tonight at Cuchara. A kind of last minute decision, with kids in tow, all we needed was a couple beers, a patio, and adequate food. What we got were aggressive, authentic micheladas, perfectly crafted, soulful Mexican dishes, and...a patio. We started with a trio of dishes to share (and the portion sizes really are ample enough for sharing): huitlacoche quesadillas, nopalitos, and tacos chero. The quesadillas resemble empanadas more than what I've become accustomed to, but were filled with delicious white cheese and huitlacoche. Drizzled with cream, these are served with a small side of a smoky and a bit more than medium spicy salsa. The nopalitos are served essentially as a salsa, the cactus paddles diced with tomato, onion, and cilantro, alongside a plate of crisp tortilla chips. The tacos cheer were my favorite of the starters, 3 crispy rolled tacos filled with mashed potato and topped with an eye-opening salsa verde and crumbled cheese. Addictive. The huachinango Veracruzano comes in a small cast iron skillet. A sweet plantain and amaranth cake is topped with red snapper in a rich tomato sauce with peppers (both fresh and pickled), olives, and onion. The perfect balance of all the flavors here reveals a kitchen that knows their game. Sweet met salty. Sour held hands with rich, and everyone played nicely without a cross word. Bravo. Finally, the mole verde won me over by avoiding the dullness I often find with the sauce. Many times, the pumpkin seeds round out any fun sharp edges of the sauce, but Cuchara's version had plenty of piquancy to compliment the tender cubes of pork tenderloin bathed in it. I love getting blindsided by a delicious meal, and Cuchara completely won me over tonight. We'll be back to explore more of the menu (and definitely to try the unique brunch offerings).
  12. A recent visit for lunch put The Pit Room into contention among the best barbecue in the Houston area. Starting with the standards: the brisket was moderately to heavily smoky, with a great peppery bark, and well-rendered fat. Sliced in front of you as you order, I asked for half moist, half lean. Both were fantastic, though I'm a sucker for the fattier cuts. Pork ribs had a similar peppery bite and were tender without being mushy. I'd have a hard time choosing between these and the ribs at Gatlin's when they're firing on all cylinders. Of the three house-made sausages, I went with the venison. Taste-wise, this was a hit, though I prefer a little looser of a link. These are very dense. I'll opt for the jalapeño on my next trip. The meats are served with a piquant sauce that, while not at all necessary, made for a nice addition on every few bites. There are a few non-canon twists to the menu here that really identify this joint as a Houston restaurant, rather than a generic Texas barbecue place. One of these is an appetizer of freshly fried chicharrones drizzled with a house hot sauce (like e a slightly more vinegary and spicy Cholula). If you're with a group of 4 or more, go for these for sure. For just 2, the serving size was just too much. It'd be nice to be able to order a half-size order of these. The option for Elote and charro beans as sides (among the standard cole slaw and a nicely done mustardy potato salad) also makes this place feel like home. The tacos served on freshly made flour tortillas made from rendered brisket fat have been highly touted, but I couldn't fit anything else in on this trip. There are a number of local brews on tap and in cans and bottles, and a accoutrements bar with pickles, escabeche, and salsas. FYI, by 12:30, the place was full with a growing line out the door, but it seemed to move pretty quickly.
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