We reluctantly dub The Grove a disappointment as we really wanted to like it. What a pedigree — brought to us by the Cafe Annie folks with Chef Ryan Pera formerly of 17. And a great location in the new Discovery Green park being developed across from the convention center next door to the Hilton Americas. The dining room is beautiful — contemporary, yet warm and inviting — and we understand there’s a cool roof deck bar (The Treehouse) upstairs, overlooking the Discovery Green.
But, alas, the food doesn’t live up to the pedigree. There are plenty of choices, with a good variety, but most of the dishes that we tried missed the mark or at least didn’t have the excitement factor we were expecting. Perhaps the location promotes mediocrity, needing a menu that appeals to all variety of convention goers. Nothing too innovative or a taste risk. It’s also a very large venue, particularly for a new restaurant that appears to have been busy ever since its recent opening. There’s a reason you don’t get great food at a banquet. Speaking of banquets, the night we dined at The Grove, the restaurant also hosted a large group business dinner attended by friends of ours. They were even less impressed than us. One said the food was “just above picnic quality;” not sure exactly what that means, but it wasn’t intended as a compliment.
In the interest of full disclosure, we were also biased from the get-go as foodie friends had called a few days before we dined at The Grove and, in great detail, described how disappointed they were in their dishes (“close to inedible”) — ceviche (too peppery), pulled pork on corn cakes (not enough sauce/flavor), snapper with meyer lemons (raw lemon chunks, little taste), and duck legs (the best of the meal, but too lightly sauced).
Since we had a group of six, we had the chance to try a variety of items. The best of the appetizers (which were overall better than the entrées) included the deviled eggs with chorizo (rich and spicy); lump crab salad with endive and remoulade (very fresh, generous serving of crab, but the sauce, thankfully served on the side, overpowered the crab); and duck balls (moist and nicely flavorful). The two salads sampled — the house salad and caesar — were acceptable. The sweet potato soup du jour was flavorful but too sweet.
On to the entrées… The highest praise went to the sautéed flounder and duck legs. Four of us tried the menu offering that included a choice of grilled chicken, fish, or meat, a side dish, and a sauce. There were a lot of choices, reasonably priced (in the $20’s or thereabouts). Our picks (salmon, lamb sirloin, beef tenderloin, and leg of lamb) were all fine but a little bland. The salmon was the best of the four. The tenderloin and lamb sirloin were overcooked. The sides were o’kay but no standouts; the mashed potatoes were dry and the brocollini was missing the billed horseradish.
We ordered three desserts — bread pudding, chocolate layer cake, and apple cobbler. The chocolate cake was nothing more than ordinary, easily a taste you could create from a Betty Crocker box mix. The apple cobbler needed more gooey sugar and spice in the filling, and the pastry topping was dry.
Service was a little shaky, which is unfortunate since a 20% gratuity was automatically added to our bill. Our waiter seemed new. Noticeable lapses included not refilling soft drinks and forgetting the coffee with dessert. But, the place was hopping and, to the restaurant’s credit, the food came out hot and fresh. A note about the wine. There are a lot of choices by the glass and the pour is quite generous. It seems an appetizer and glass of wine in The Treehouse may be the way to go with this place. But be prepared for the $7 valet parking charge, with typical downtown surface parking lot options nearby.
1611 Lamar Street
We hadn’t ventured to Cafe Annie since starting this blog, other than to try Bar Annie, which was underwhelming, at least from a food perspective. And one of us had a so-so meal in the dining room about five years ago, so we just hadn’t been inspired to return. But a birthday gave us a reason to try one of Houston’s longtime fine dining institutions. (The birthday celebrant is ignoring the years since she remembers Cafe Annie when it was on Westheimer.)
The place was packed. Both the dining room and the bar area were hopping which made for a fun atmosphere. We were seated in a prime spot in the main dining area where we could see all the action, noting a number of Houston’s boldface print types. Although we don’t fall in that category, we were treated very well. The service can’t be faulted, although, of the two wines recommended by the sommelier, one of them was 10% higher in price than the already pricey upper limit we gave him. The other was in range. We’ll forgive him since his selection was a very good one. And we were in a celebratory mode. But, we’d like to note, as a general observation on dining out, that we don’t particularly care for that approach; they know you’re unlikely to counter with “no, we told you up to $___.”
The menu continues to lean toward Southwestern (f/k/a “New Southwestern” but, now, not so new). They’re still serving the goat cheese and black bean terrine and crab tostada appetizers. Both of which seemed more innovative in the 1980s, but we understand that Cafe Annie loyalists won’t let the chef take them off the menu. Our food was very good. We shared an appetizer of raw white elf mushrooms with steak tartare, sauced with chipolte egg dressing. We’d never heard of those mushrooms, but they had a unique meaty, salty flavor, almost reminiscent of tuna. We would have preferred a little more dressing. The steak tartare, although excellent quality meat, was not seasoned enough, resulting in an interesting, albeit not perfect, pairing with the mushrooms. Our entrées were roast suckling pig and pheasant. The pork was moist and flavorful, with a Thai twist of coconut. The cinnamon coated pheasant was better, nicely crisped but very juicy, generously portioned, and sided with polenta garnished with a chorizo topping. We finished with an o’kay, but unremarkable, fresh berry cobbler.
Would we pick Cafe Annie over Mark’s? Probably not. Tony’s? Maybe, but probably not. It seems the crowds continue to flock to Cafe Annie based on reputation alone, even if the food doesn’t hit on all cylinders. Nonetheless, we are very glad we returned to this restaurant. Our overall experience was befitting of a birthday celebration. We hear the restaurant is moving, and we’ll look forward to checking out the new location.
1728 Post Oak Boulevard
We fell down on the job, earning a foodie demerit for not having heard about this new Houston restaurant, which opened in late November. We first read about it in Allison Cook’s end of the year list of the best new restaurants in 2007. Apparently, so did the rest of Houston as the place has been hopping ever since. Reservations are definitely advisable and appear necessary on the weekends.
We love French food, so any addition of this genre to the Houston restaurant scene is a cause celebre. Located in a house on a residential street near Shepherd and Richmond, the place is cozy and charming. We were warmly greeted with “bon soir” by one of the chef-owner’s wifes who serves as hostess. She was gracious and accommodating when we asked for a different table. The restaurant has two small dining rooms, and a very small bar area.
The menu is somewhat limited and has a fair sprinkling of the classics, such as goat cheese salad, french onion soup, rack of lamb, and duck confit. As a small operation, be forewarned that they run out of items or certain dishes may be unavailable if the chef doesn’t like the quality of the ingredients at market that day. Neither the skate wing entree or crab appetizer was available the evening we were there, and the snapper went quickly after we arrived. We heard our waiter telling a nearby table that the chefs are quite particular about what they serve, shopping daily for just what’s needed each evening. Judging by the size of the toque on one of the chefs making the rounds in the dining room, he’s also quite particular about his headgear. But that’s a French chef thing.
No escargots appeared on the menu, but that was fine with us. We shared the foie gras terrine appetizer, which was delicious although perhaps a little skimpy given the $19 price tag. We moved on to the sautéed snapper with green apple sauce and the chicken fricassee on wild mushroom risotto. The snapper was nicely flavored, and the chicken dish was great comfort food for a cool Houston evening. We ran into friends who were also there for the first time. They dined on the “signature” seared scallop entrée and the duck confit; they reported that both dishes were very good, but the scallops were better than the duck. They did remark that the dollop of cauliflower puree served with the scallops was tasty enough for them to want a big scoop.
The service was fine. Our bread basket (only two slices were served initially) could have been refilled, but it was probably better for us that the water glasses were regularly refilled. The wine list is limited and reasonably priced, and we appreciated that our waiter had some knowledge about it. And, unlike many French restaurants, they offered both French and non-French wines.
We remain big fans of Cafe Rabelais and Max & Julie’s, but Au Petit Paris deserves a try. It’s nice to see that the Houston restaurant scene has room for new places that are small and intimate as well as big and trendy like Reef and The Grove.