Monthly Archives: May 2013

ElevenXI Restaurant and Bar

This quirkily named restaurant was recently opened in the former Bibas on West Gray in the Montrose area.  A contemporary, elegantly casual setting, there’s plenty of seating on an outdoor patio and in the indoor bar and dining area.  There’s valet parking and nearby street parking.    After an initial discussion about our table location (no, our two couples didn’t want to sit at a banquette style table in the bar), we were seated in the dining room.  Only open a couple weeks, reservations were a must on a recent Saturday evening.

Like many restaurants nowadays, there are a variety of interesting (and well done) cocktails and a limited but perfectly acceptable wine list.  Self-described as Southern Coastal Cuisine, the menu is extensive, varied and reasonably priced.  While the offerings may not impress as super innovative, it’s all in the execution.  And there’s definitely a place in the foodie world for well done, re-fashioned standards, with something that should appeal to most every diner.

We tried three of the starters — grilled oysters, steak tartare and the crab cake.  The former were tasty enough, although the topping on that day’s preparation — tomato, onion and parmesan cheese — was quite heavy, despite the waiter’s indication that it was “light” and meant not to overpower the taste of the oyster.  The steak tartare was beautifully presented, and we appreciated that we could mix in the traditional fixings to our desired taste.  The high quality of the meat was given a chance to shine through.  The runny yolked fried quail egg sitting on top of the meat was an interesting twist, catering to those who are queasy about raw eggs.  Our friends declared the crab cake to be very well done, lots of crab, light on the fillers.

Our entrees were all a success.  Two of us tried fish dishes — the whole fried flounder and the halibut cheeks.  Both dishes were excellent, fresh fish, correctly cooked, and not overly sauced.  The head and tail on flounder was flash fried (minimally battered) with an apricot glaze that worked well on the side.   The pan seared halibut cheeks was a light dish, served with a choice of two sides that include a number of choices, such as grilled vegetables, asparagus, or grits.  Those grits accompanied a cast iron skillet of seared quail that were declared by one of us as the best version of those little birds he’d ever had.  The cheeseburger, with fries, pleased the carnivore and was cooked as requested.

We finished our meal with two desserts — the peanut butter and chocolate tower (not enough of the dark chocolate exterior to our liking, more like a mound of just the interior of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup) and, the better choice, a baked to order cookie platter.  With 20 minutes notice, you get a variety of four cookies, served with a glass of milk.  The macadamia white chocolate were so good that two more were ordered.

For having only been open a couple weeks and faced with a full dining room, the service was very good, and the kitchen was keeping up well.   We didn’t see much that needed improvement, so this new offering should be a hit right out of the box.

607 West Gray

Pizaro’s Pizza Napoletana

Not exactly an out of town destination, it did take us a while to get outside the Beltway on Memorial to this much lauded pizza place.  Open for a year or so now, this very casual, BYOB, made such a hit out right out of the box that it was up for best new restaurant in My Table’s 2012 culinary awards.  And, while it didn’t win, it’s been so successful that the owner is looking for locations inside the Loop.

Pizza making is practically a competitive sport nowadays, with so many new places opening or old ones putting in pizza ovens.  While a wood burning oven seems to be a requirement, beyond that each place has its special preferences (frequently researched in the motherland, giving the owners an guilt-free opportunity to eat their way through Italy) for flour, tomatoes, cheese and, even, water.  We don’t profess to understand the nuances in flour types, but we do know what tastes good (at least to us).  And Pizzaro’s is pretty darn tasty.

Turned out in 90 seconds from the wood burning oven that heats up to 900 degrees, these pizzas are thin, slightly crispy and lightly topped.  Pizzaro’s does not do delivery, and they recommend against take-out.  The pizza is best eaten immediately out of the oven.

Four of us concluded that four bottles of wine (the value of BYOB cannot be overstated) paired quite nicely with four different pizzas.  (Salads are offered and likely are quite fine, but we’d made the trek for the good stuff.)  The favorite of two of us was the Fino (olive oil, cured fennel sausage, goat cheese, garlic and mozzarella).  But we also very much enjoyed the Polpette (tomato sauce, meat balls, ricotta and mozzarella); Campania (tomato sauce, roasted crimini mushrooms, artichokes, proscuitto, black olives and mozzarella); and Calabrese (tomato sauce, spicy sopressata, pepperoni, mozzarella and basil).  The crust on the pizza is thin and delicate,  a great taste,  with just a slight softness in the middle and crisp around the outside, perfect for edge-eating and not just leaving on the plate as an afterthought.  All ingredients were quite fresh and the toppings were well balanced on the pizza, not over-weighting the pizza but also not skimpy.

On the Friday evening we visited, the place was pretty busy, but the owner told us it was a quiet night.  So, do as we did, get there early, open your wine, and eat a bunch of pizza.  You’ll be glad you did.

14028 Memorial Drive

Brooklyn Athletic Club

We’ve been fortunate to have had great weather for outside dining on the two evenings we’ve spent at this new spot on Richmond in the Montrose area.  From Shepard Ross, the same restauranteur that owns Glass Wall, the focus of this place is on outside dining and drinking, going for the vibe that the owner remembers from his time growing up in Brooklyn.  Hence, alot of open space, opposite the dining area, filled with bocce ball, croquet, badminton, picnic tables, and the like.  Due to the venues immediate popularity, the outdoor bar service is being expanded and a food truck is soon to open in the games area.  There are a couple fire pits we’d heard were for s’mores, although we haven’t seen that use as drinkers and diners lacking reservations have sought a place to sit.

There’s a small bar area and about 10 indoor tables in close quarters.  Dining reservations are definitely required, specifying indoor or outdoor.  We dined on the earlier side, and, on both evenings, despite a busy scene, our reservations were honored on time.  (By the time we were leaving, the valet parkers were asking if you had a reservation.)  Commendations to the on-the-ball hostess who clearly has things under control, understanding that the tables, particularly outdoors, are not going to turn as often as other restaurants as diners come to hang out and enjoy the patio scene.  We’ve had very good wait service on both visits.  

While we wouldn’t call Brooklyn Athletic Club fine dining, the menu is more ambitious and varied than typical bar fare.  We haven’t had a bad dish.  We’ve yet to see a table in our vicinity not order the short rib mac ‘n cheese, whether as a starter (as it’s billed) or as a small entree.  And we’ve had it twice and, yes, it’s very tasty and comes out piping hot.  And we’ll have it again.   We’ve also tried the pork rillettes, which were enjoyable, nice for sharing, and benefitting from a little added salt.  The cheese burger is a justifiably popular dish, sided with crispy thin frites, with optional bacon or a fried egg.  We’ve also tried the pappardelle and meat balls, generously portioned, with good flavors, and a sufficient ratio of meat sauce to pasta (i.e., not skimpy on the sauce).  The porkobucco, which, as its name inplies, is a slow cooked pork shank, was also nicely flavored (perhaps a little underseasoned), sided with a tasty mixture of braised brussel sprouts, mushrooms, fingerling potatos, and crispy bacon pieces.  Unfortunately, the fat and gristle that are typical to the shank resulted in less edible  portions than the initial hunk-o-meat presentation on the plate might have suggested.

Brooklyn Athletic Club is a great venue when the weather accommodates.  We’re not sure how things will go as we approach the summer months.  The outside bar area should still attract the very casual, drinking crowd willing to sweat a little.  We’re not so sure about the dining crowd which, on both our visits, was quite diverse in age.  While we’ve enjoyed the food and will return, we may wait until Fall as the indoor seating area is cramped (one friend called it claustrophobic).  And the single person bathrooms (only one for each gender) need expansion, which we understand is underway with additional outside facilities being built. 

601 Richmond Avenue

Del Frisco’s Grille

From the same folks that have Del Frisco’s Steakhouse in the Galleria comes their new direction in dining in the West Ave complex.  Located where Ava was formerly housed, significant renovations have resulted in one of the current “places to be” in Houston.  This is a large space, with many tables for dining (including patios on the Kirby side and the interior of the complex) and an expansive bar area.  Reservations are a must, at least on weekends.

Del Frisco’s is not our favorite Houston steakhouse.  We understand this is a more casual, less expensive concept being rolled out by the Del Frisco’s folks (initially in Dallas), and we weren’t sure what to expect.  Our reservations were honored right on time which is a good thing as there was no room anywhere for waiting.  The waitstaff was very busy, but service was good.

One of the selling points of this restaurant is its varied and extensive menu choices.  If you want traditional steakhouse fare (at the same prices), there are a few steak offerrings.  And plenty of appetizers, salads (appetizer and meal sized), and sandwiches and entrees (not at steakhouse prices).  We dined with friends and tried two of the most popular appetizers — the cheesesteak egg rolls and tuna tartare tacos.  Del Frisco’s Grille managed to elevate these ubiquitous items to a pretty high level.

One of the highlights of the meal was the kale & brussel sprout “Big Greens” salad.  Chocked full of the aforementioned vegetables with toasted almonds, manchego cheese, dried cranberries, and a yummy creole mustard dressing, this salad alone is worth a trip to the restaurant.  The entrees also impressed.  There wasn’t a speck left on one diner’s plate of a very generously portioned serving of blackened texas gulf red fish (topped with fried oysters).  The lamb burger was nicely seasoned and appropriately cooked, sided with crispy frites. 

For what they’re trying to accomplish, the Del Frisco folks are doing a very good job, and we look forward to returning.  Get there when you can.  Just be sure to make a reservation or expect to fight with the throngs for a seat at the bar.

2800 Kirby Drive

Costa Brava Bistro

We’d heard good things about this ambitious new Bellaire neighborhood restaurant.  Located in a strip shopping center that houses one of the areas long-time restaurants (Auntie Pasta), Costa Brava’s food offerings have a decidedly upscale French or Spanish orientation.  This is a small space, with reservations required on weekends.  There’s plenty of parking either in the front or back of the center.

We admit we’re not always easy to please and can be critical diners.  And, while being able to hear oneself speak, having a comfortable cozy vibe, and not worrying too much about what you’re wearing, are definite positives, if the food doesn’t excite us, we’ll not likely return.  Unfortunately, we weren’t impressed with any of the dishes that we had.  We’re huge fried calamari fans, but the skimpy portion and average quality didn’t do much for us.  Given the Spanish leanings of the restaurant, we had high hopes for the paella, but, in addition to not being served in the traditional paella dish (more like seafood risotto in a pasta bowl), the lackluster spices didn’t compliment the generous portion of nicely cooked seafood.  The duck two ways (duck breast and confit hash) was also okay but not quite up to the mark.  The confit hash was practically cold (literally, slightly colder than the room temperature of the restaurant), and we sent it back, only to have the whole plate put in some type of heater that proceeded to overcook the previously nicely done medium rare breast.

The dining crowd was definitely on the older side, and we’re sure they’ll continue to come for a small, comfortable place close to many residential areas.  Perhaps the kitchen is trying a little too hard or perhaps the overall good press this restaurant has received, resulting in high demand, has caused some inconsistencies in the kitchen.

5115 Bellaire Boulevard