Having indulged in a lot of upscale dining on our recent trip to Great Britain, we were looking for a very casual spot one recent Saturday evening. We remembered that Chris Shepherd (formerly Catalan, now Underbelly) raves about the cabrito at a Mexican place on Long Point (home to many wonderful ethnic retaurants). It didn’t take much research to identify this as El Hildaguense, which also gets raves from other Houston foodies, including Houston Press awards for best cabrito.
Although we arrived early in the evening, the two-piece combo was in full swing entertaining the entirely Hispanic crowd. It was quite helpful that one of us speaks Spanish, although the menu is in both English and Spanish. This is a casual place, even by Houston Mexican restaurant standards. If you’re put off by old formica tables and less than perfect bathrooms, don’t make the trip. You’ll be missing out on great food, but your dining sensibilities won’t be offended.
This is not Tex-Mex. Beer only, no margaritas, no tequila. And no chips and salsa. Everyone gets a complimentary chicken flauta which, although a little dry and greasy, perked up immeasurably in the wonderful ancho chili based salsa. Although we’d come for the cabrito, we wanted to try a few other dishes. The queso fundido knocked our socks off; we don’t think we’ve ever had better, and it was all about the chorizo. (A steal at $3.99.) Served with corn tortillas (be sure to pay a little extra for the “handmade”), this stuff was fabulous.
When we looked around the room, many parties were ordering plates of chunked and shredded meat that was clearly not cabrito. It was lamb barbacoa, which we’ve not typically seen in Mexican restaurants. We ordered both the roast cabrito (cooked on a large grill that opens to the restaurant) and the lamb. While the cabrito was very good (and not inexpensive at $20), it was the lamb that we really enjoyed. Not heavily seasoned, but very tender and moist, shredded and layered in one of those homemade corn tortillas, with some of the salsa, it was quite delicious. We didn’t realize until after we’d finished that, on weekends, they also serve the lamb cooked in foil with a chili sauce. We’ll be back for that soon. The cabrito was served with a charro bean soup (very tasty, particularly when doctored with some onion, lime and cilantro), and the lamb came with a very spicy lamb consomme with hominy, which we didn’t care for as much as the charro beans but still quite good. The lamb was also sided by a nopales (cactus) salad which was a very good version of this classic dish.
No question this is worth a trip.
6917 Long Point
We’d been hearing great things about this new addition to upper Midtown. Nothing but superlatives, although it was interesting that one person raving about the place insisted it wasn’t “French food.” We knew better and, although we’ll go the extra mile for French food (literally, having driven to Artisans’ cousin, Le Mistral, a number of times), the Artisans menu hadn’t been overly enticing us. Perhaps that’s also why the food was not characterized by the commenter as French food. There are some folks who routinely say they don’t like French food, and Artisans serves basic continental cuisine with a French emphasis. But what we found one recent Saturday evening is that what it does, it overall does very well.
As a party of two, we were seated at the very large semi-circular counter around the open kitchen. Parties of four or more get the tables, and it appears that, for a party of two, you’d need to specifically request a table (if available). So, if you don’t want to sit side by side, together with others at a counter, think twice about Artisans. We ended up enjoying watching the chefs in the kitchen and receiving the personal, chef’s table type service at the counter, although it was a little warm so close to the kitchen. Dress accordingly.
Artisans has a full bar, and we enjoyed a couple classic cocktails (manhattan and old fashioned). The pricing on the wine list was average to high, and, like many upscale restaurants, there were few bottles below $60. The wines by the glass were just fine.
Unlike many restaurants that require the entire party to have the tasting menu, we were able to order one 5-course tasting menu (all items are also available on the a la carte menu) and a separate appetizer and entree. And we give kudos for the spacing of the dishes, so we could share everything. The amuse bouche (served to all tables) was a snapper ceviche that we recall as underseasoned. The two starters on the tasting menu — seared foie gras and diver scallop — were very well done and beautifully presented, which is one of the restaurants strong points with every dish. The scallop was accompanied by spinach ravioli and a delicious lobster bisque cappuccino. The one real disappointment of the evening was the steak tartare appetizer that we separately ordered. The meat appeared to be ground and not chopped, creating an unpleasant mush. The taste was o’kay but not a well executed version of this classic French dish (which we love and order pretty much every time we can).
For entrees, the tasting menu included the Chilean sea bass and beef tenderloin au poivre. Our separate entree was the salmon. There’s a reason sea bass is an endangered fish — it’s delicious and pretty hard to screw up. Artisans’ version was quite pleasant although the pistachio crust was only slightly discernible and not browned. The beef tenderloin was a very good version of this classic dish. On balance, we’d give the salmon the edge over the other two entrees; it was beautifully cooked, with nicely carmelized leeks and tasty risotto (same version was served with the sea bass). Dessert was a few bites of chocolate cake and vanilla frozen yoghurt.
Artisans may end up being a special occasion place for the mainstream diner. Or a place for a business lunch. The pricing is in the Tony’s and Mark’s range. And the old standard menu items, with some contemporary twists, are done very well. It’s unlikely anyone won’t enjoy their meal.
3201 Louisiana Street