Channeling Bobby Flay, we held our own throwdown: Spinach Quesadillas. The Veteran — Ziggy’s Healthy Grill — versus the Contender — Zoe’s Kitchen. And the winner is … Ziggy’s by a knockout in the second round.
Zoe’s Kitchen, located on Shepherd near the Southwest Freeway, is the newest healthy choice entry to the Houston restaurant scene. A small franchise operation, Zoe’s offers various allegedly healthy menu items. Although fresh tasting in the sample graciously offered to us by the counter staff, we question how healthy the chicken salad and pimento cheese could be when we are told they are made with full fat mayo. We found the food fresh and o’kay tasting, but the portions were small for the price, particularly compared to Ziggy’s. Apparently, Zoe’s wants to assist us in our efforts at portion control. But value dining is not part of the deal. We tried the chicken wrap (two skinny wraps, with a few pieces of chicken), served like many of the menu items with a choice of a side and chips. We picked the pasta salad and cole slaw, which were nicely seasoned (sans mayo) and laced with feta cheese, a popular cheese at this eatery. Feta was also included in the aforementioned Spinach Quesadillas. A white(!) flour tortilla housed a small amount of chopped spinach that appeared to be frozen. Also served with salsa and a side. Not at all memorable. And overpriced at $7.45. The atmosphere at Zoe’s is clean and new but somewhat sterile.
Ziggy’s Healthy Grill, where we have dined on numerous occasions on a number of items, maintains its well deserved reputation as a great choice for healthy dining. With wider menu choices than Zoe’s, larger portions, more focus on healthy eating with lots of fat free and low fat choices, and a funkier, more comfortable atmosphere, it’s hard to beat Ziggy’s. The Spinach Quesadillas, grilled (without fat) on a large whole wheat tortilla, are chock full of fresh spinach and mushrooms, with low fat cheese, sided with rice and beans, salsa, and fat free sour cream. Although a little pricier at $9, they are more than worth the difference compared to Zoe’s version. The one of us who does not like spinach has scarfed down the chicken quesadillas on a number of occasions. Not to mention the angus beef and buffalo burgers, on whole wheat buns, accompanied by very tasty sweet potato fries.
Age and experience wins out over youth this time around.
3701 South Shepherd
2202 West Alabama/302 Fairview
It took us a while to make it to So Vino, but we’re very glad that we did. We really like this new entry to the Houston restaurant scene. Located in our developing restaurant row on lower Westheimer across from Dolce Vita and Indika, So Vino has an intimate, warm atmosphere that put us right at ease. Although billed as a wine bar, there’s a definite emphasis on food, with more action in the restaurant than the bar on a recent Friday evening. Almost every table was full. There was also a nice mix of clientèle, singles and couples, all ages, enjoying the food and wine. It’s not a large place, and reservations are strongly advisable.
Although food is a highlight at So Vino, the wine list is a welcome change from the lengthy, typically overpriced lists we frequently encounter. There were many choices in the $40-60 range, from around the world. We enjoyed a Tuscan red.
As a starter, we shared the beef carpaccio, which was our only disappointment of the evening. Cut so thin, it had no taste, seeming almost watery. We make carpaccio at home, and we estimated there was about an ounce of meat on the plate. And the billed truffle oil was hard to discern. We moved on to the much lauded short ribs and the wild game chili. The former was one of the best versions of this dish we’ve had at a restaurant. The meat was wonderfully moist but not fatty, which is tricky with short ribs as the more desirable leaner cut can dry out if not properly tended. (Dare we suggest that the meat was better cooked than the short ribs we had at Babbo.) The Shiraz sauce was rich and lush, likely finished with copious amounts of butter. Similarly buttery was the gruyere polenta which resided on the plate with the short ribs. The wild game chili is So Vino’s version of Texas chili pie. Sided with corn chips, the chili was nicely spiced and full of meat. We recall venison and perhaps some pork.
So Vino would be a good place to go on a second date with someone you think you could care about. (Our other suggestion is Café Rabelais.) It’s hip but not a scene, romantic but not too quiet, and the food and wine won’t likely disappoint.
We had not dined recently at this well-established Houston restaurant, which for many years was lauded as the best Italian in town. Opening in the early 1980’s, Damian’s introduced Houston to one of its first upscale Italian dining experiences. Although we note the sentiment expressed in the Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide that Damians doesn’t serve true “cucina italiana.” Like Grotto and La Griglia, among others, Damian’s serves the American version of continentalized Italian.
Our last visit to Damian’s was during the Calamari Travels when we stopped in for a glass of wine and to sample their version of the popular appetizer. We weren’t impressed with Damian’s calamari, and it didn’t make our top 10. A weekend evening at the ballet occasioned an early dinner, followed by Damian’s complimentary transportation service to the theater district. We were surprised at how busy the place was at 6:00, practically full. Reservations are strongly advisable and necessary if you want to use the transportation service.
As soon as we were seated, we were greeted with the bread basket. It hasn’t changed much over the years and, while perhaps not the best in town, the foccacia is pretty tasty. The ubiquitous olive oil dipping sauce included some welcome additions of garlic, basil, and chili flakes. We shared as a starter the cold seafood salad, which was a medley of scallops, squid, and shrimp. It was o’kay but lacked some zest, needing more citrus. For our entrées, we had the chicken and pork tortellini and a veal special. The tortellini was appropriately rich and gooey, the pasta tender, the filling flavorful. The veal special — sautéed scallopini with a lemon white wine sauce, topped with crab meat — missed the mark. The dish just didn’t quite work; perhaps it was the overly thick sauce that overwhelmed the veal. And it’s not true that lump crab added to anything improves the dish.
The service at Damian’s is consistently good. Many of the waiters have been there for years. And they are happy to accommodate special requests. Will we return any time soon? Probably not, but we wish continued good things for this restaurant that has managed to survive and thrive for so many years.
3011 Smith Street
UPDATED REVIEW: MARCH 2008
We weren’t sure what to expect since we knew that the original hot shot young chef had left Max’s Wine Dive, going to the Cordua Restaurant Group for what can be assumed were big corporate bucks. Although we’d read that the sous chef was carrying on the same menu concept, we were disappointed to find that the menu lacked a number of the dishes we had enjoyed previously or had looked forward to trying on another visit. (For example, the veal cheese steak, although it’s on the menu posted on the website.) There were new items, but the menu just didn’t stir the same excitement as we’d experienced on our first visit. We consider ourselves adventurous eaters, but fried pig ears didn’t appeal.
Because of the concern with crowds, we went late on a Sunday afternoon. No waiting required; in fact, we got one of the cherished booths. We don’t know if this was unique to Sunday or if the crowds have gravitated elsewhere (such as down the street to Soma). One benefit of our timing is that we enjoyed half price glasses of selected wines. And we did have a celebrity sighting — one of the bearded guys from ZZ Top. Don’t know which one as they both look the same to us. (One of us has a conspiracy theory that there only exists one bearded guy in ZZ Top, and they created an elaborate hoax through a complex mirror scheme.)
We started with the Texas-grown tomato salad with cucumbers, pickled onions, and blue cheese. It was a very healthy portion for the price and the tomatos were admirably tasty given the time of year. We moved on to the buttermilk fried chicken and kobe beef hot dog. We got half a fried chicken, nicely cooked, sided with mashed potatos and greens, although we can’t recall ever having paid $18 for a fried chicken dinner. The kobe beef hot dog was basically a very good hot dog, served with venison chili; the fries continued to be a standout. Unfortunately, those fries, served Quebexas style, that we scarfed down previously are nowhere to be found on the menu.
We enjoyed our meal but were disappointed with the lack of creativity we were craving. Needless to say, we probably won’t be rushing back soon.
FIRST REVIEWED: MARCH 2007
Having barely been able to get past the crowds clustered around the door on a recent Saturday evening, we picked a Tuesday night to try this new and wildly popular wine bar and restaurant on Washington near Shepherd. We managed to get the last two seats at the bar and settled in to our own version of a tasting menu of upscale, imaginative Texas inspired diner food.
Brought to you by the same folks that own the Tasting Rooms, this is a new concept in wine bars. Don’t expect the somewhat refined atmosphere of other wine bars. This place is hopping, with as much emphasis on food as wine. Indeed, given the menu, the wine almost takes a backseat to the food, although there are many good, reasonably priced choices. Just a note–they only serve beer and wine.
Now for the food. There’s a long menu of an amazingly eclectic mix of dishes — everything from tuna tartare to pancakes with fried chicken wings. We started with the mussels steamed in Lone Star beer with limes, chilies, and cream, served with Texas Toast. Yum. We moved on to the tuna tartare, the flavors of which were much more subtle than some of the other menu items, but fresh and delicious. The wasabi flavored caviar was a great touch. We then tried the Three Big Balls, which, while not as inventive as many of the dishes, were a tasty, very large version of meatballs served with a tomato sauce. We finished with the Quebexas, a Texas version of chili cheese fries –Max’s Frites topped with venison chili, gruyere and truffle cheese sauce, and two fried eggs! The plate was so large and towering that everyone at the bar stared as the waitress carried it in our direction. But, not to be deterred (or embarrassed), we persevered through a delicious mess of food, with particularly good venison chili; the subtle cheese sauce got lost in the mix. If that wasn’t enough, we tried a side of Max and Cheese — tubular corkscrew pasta with the aforementioned cheese sauce. This decadent version of the ultimate comfort food, together with the meatballs, made great leftovers for dinner the next night.
Readers take note, despite the great food, the atmosphere is as much that of a bar as a restaurant. There is limited seating, particularly for two to four persons. There are a number of booths that appear to be available, at least during peak dining hours, only for groups of six for which they’ll take a reservation. There are no four tops and the only tables for two are a few small round cafe style tables along the front window. Now that the weather is nicer, there is some seating on the sidewalk outside. There’s also a “communal table” at the back that looks like it can be separated for smaller parties. Lacking a table, you get the bar where they will gladly serve you food. We understand that, at popular times, the wait for any type of table can be hours. Otherwise, you play the hover and pounce game at the bar, trying to guage who is going to leave.
The great food and many menu items that we didn’t have a chance to try will bring us back, probably sooner than later, and also likely on a weeknight. Or, even better, we’ll get a group together, reserve a booth, and settle in for the evening.