UPDATED REVIEW: SEPTEMBER 2012:
Splendido — located in the Chateau Hotel in Beaver Creek, right next to Grouse Mountain Grill; one of the Vail area’s most highly rated restaurants on Zagat; lovely patio overlooking the mountains where we enjoyed drinks and could have eaten what looked to be a great bar menu cheeseburger, dinner menu is also served outside; equally lovely interior with live music; started with steak tartare and moved on to roasted rabbit (served three ways — ribs, loin, and sausage), sided with mac and cheese, and buffalo steak diane; a wonderful experience that we’d highly recommend, on par with Grouse Mountain Grill (service perhaps a notch better there)
La Tour — good as ever and popular as ever; reservations required for weekends; this was our third visit for dinner; same well-priced 3-course dinner as on our prior trips; dover sole was fabulous again, as were the roasted oysters cleverly served on a mini hibachi
Up the Creek — a lovely, tranquil setting right on Goose Creek in Vail Village; we’ve lunched there on a couple visits; our ‘go to’ place when we arrive just off the plane from Houston, drinks in hand, sitting outside as we soak in the mountain air; well executed food and good service
Bonus Review — Boulder, Colorado — The Kitchen — had a great dinner at this extremely popular, community-focused restaurant; casual in vibe and innovative in food; enjoyed crispy pig’s ears, a charcuterie plate (select your own from a variety of meats, pates, and cheeses; we picked duck rillettes, chicken liver pate, and country terrine ), and pasta bolognese
FIRST REVIEWED — SEPTEMBER 2008:
To escape the heat, we headed to the Vail area one recent weekend —
La Tour — to celebrate its 10 year anniversary, this French restaurant featured a great 3-course dinner for $39; we loved the contemporary yet warm vibe of this place and thoroughly enjoyed our meal; for starters we had beautifully done crispy sweetbreads and beef carpaccio (improved with an extra touch of olive oil); we continued with the duo of lamb chop (nicely cooked medium rare) and braised leg of lamb (yum) and the sautéed dover sole (both of which required a fee supplement but well worth it); we finished with a strawberry rhubarb feuillette, which was decent but a disappointment compared to the rest of the meal, and a selection of ice creams on chocolate foam
Kelly Liken — we had high hopes for this namesake restaurant of a chef recently named as a rising star by Bon Appetit magazine; this is a tough reservation, call well in advance; we were put off initially when we asked for a different table, were told none were available, and then 5 minutes later had a couple seated banquette style at a table right next to ours; this was one of those places where, although the service was not snooty, you felt they played favorites with the clientèle; we started with an overpriced, average tasting, and small portioned duo of a pulled pork tostada and pork belly; our entrées were rack of lamb and the chef’s signature potato crusted trout, both of which were very good; one of the best parts of the meal were the sides — morel potato hash and parmesan grits; we didn’t have any dessert; on leaving, we got two blueberry muffins, a nice touch but with only about one blueberry per muffin; we much preferred La Tour and Grouse Mountain Grill; also, be prepared to spend well over $100 a bottle for wine, as they had a very small number (no more than you can count on one hand) of red wines below $100
Grouse Mountain Grill — our one trip over to Beaver Creek proved a wonderful experience; we loved everything about this restaurant, from the gracious manager to the down to earth and very knowledgeable sommelier to our friendly and accommodating waitress; located in The Pines Lodge, the restaurant has a warm, comfortable atmosphere; this was everything we expected from Kelly Liken but did not receive there; we initially enjoyed a drink in the bar while they graciously put together a lovely table by the window; the food was great; we started with the ritz (cracker) crusted walleye (a unique dish that’s a diner favorite) and continued with the pretzel crusted pork chops (a delicious combination) and venison loin, both of which were perfectly cooked with generous sides; there was a lot of food, and we were too full for dessert, which did look very tempting and which we look forward to on our next visit; if you have one restaurant that you can pick on your vacation in the Vail area, this is it
Alpenrose — popular, longstanding classic German restaurant; other than the friendly service and pleasant outdoor patio, we weren’t excited about the food; the weinerschnitzel was a marginal version of the Vienna classic; the reuben sandwich was good but nothing special that you couldn’t find at an average deli
Bully Ranch — very overpriced and average (located in the Sonnenalp Resort where we stayed — get the B&B package as the breakfast buffet is great, you won’t need lunch); the cheeseburger was overcooked and the fries were wimpy; the roasted chicken was dry and only a quarter of a small chicken (perhaps they used a guinea hen, still trying to figure out where they got a baby chicken), not the usual half chicken serving yet costing more then you would typically pay for a larger serving
Buffalo Restaurant and Bar — on the drive west on I-70 over to Vail, just about half an hour outside Denver, is Idaho Springs; although touristy, we’ve twice enjoyed lunch at this restaurant (located on Main Street about 5 minutes off the interstate); as the name suggests, this casual spot features numerous items with (and without) buffalo; particularly tasty is the buffalo reuben; we weren’t impressed with the overpriced onion rings; the Main Street shops aren’t much, but it’s nice to walk a little after the big meal before you get back in the car
We were remiss not reviewing Kata Robata the first time we dined there a few years ago. But there’s no excuses for not sharing our recent Omakase dinner experiences, particularly after the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook included Kata Robata in her top five Houston restaurants.
Approximately 8-10 courses, priced in the $100 per person range, depending on how many courses you want, the Omakase dinner showcases the restaurants variety of hot and cold dishes, sushi, sashimi, and carpaccio offerrings. There wasn’t a course we didn’t like or, more typically, love. And we don’t recall any of the dishes being the same from our first visit. We sat at the sushi bar both times which added to the experience and which we’d highly recommend. We had great service by the same waiter both times who even remembered we’d ask them on our prior visit to slow down between courses.
Highlights included wonderfully fresh sashimi and carpaccio, expertly seasoned and deftly sauced, including one plate with shaved truffles; sous vide beef short ribs; a decadent shitake mushroom soup with sous vide duck, topped with seared foie gras; sparkling fresh raw oysters topped with ponzu gratinee or mignonette; and beautifully served sushi, both maki (roll) and nigiri style. We even got to try sauteed geoduck, cooked personally for us by the head sushi chef when we said we’d never tried the giant mollusk. And they graciously honored our request to include the miso-crusted bone marrow which was delicious. Every plate was beautifully presented, frequently accessorized with micro herbs or edible flowers.
Creativity and deft hands abound at this place and, judging by the packed house, it’s well appreciated by the Houston dining crowd. Together with Uchi, Kata Robata is serving the best Asian fusion in town.
3600 Kirby Drive
UPDATED REVIEW — OCTOBER 2012
We’ve now dined at Provisions on a number of occasions and have enjoyed everything we’ve tried. Highlights included the roast suckling pig for two, served in a Staub cast iron pot, sous vide’d and then finished in the oven, on top of flavorful noodles and sausage. We also enjoyed the brandade (salted cod) and roasted salsify, hamachi crudo, and a number of the ham o’day’s (Provisions’ take on a charcuterie plate). This place has been packed every time, and reservations are a must, although the full menu is available in the bar, which has ample seating for drinking and dining. Consider ordering each course separately as the food comes when it’s ready in the kitchen, which can result in everything being served at the same.
FIRST REVIEWED — SEPTEMBER 2012
Opened only a week or so, Provisions is half of the much-anticipated new venture from the dynamic chef duo of Terrance Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner. Known around Houston for their Just Eight project and pop-up dinners, the chefs have quite a pedigree (Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Samuelsson). They’ve cleverly renovated the former Gravitas location (be sure to check out the restroom) — half of the restaurant is the more casual Provisions and the other side will house Pass which, not yet opened, will be a fixed price, multi-course, chef’s table style offering.
There is an active bar scene, fueled by a creative cocktail menu, very interesting wines, and a number of craft beers. Food is also available in the bar. Kudos to the sommelier (and our well informed waiter) as we tried four different wine varietals from Germany, Italy, and Greece we’d never heard of no less tried. A Greek red — Xinomavro, Kir-Yianni –particularly impressed us. Three ounce pours are available at half the price of the full glass, making for a great opportunity to try a number of wines.
There are many menu offerings, and we’re already planning a return visit with friends. (The suckling pig for two (really four) served to the pair next to us is calling our names.) Dining early and not too hungry, we couldn’t come close to doing the menu justice. We tried the burrata pizza — an interesting twist which featured an olive oil and garlic roasted pizza bread, sided by a bowl of oozing burrata and roasted tomato designed to spread on the bread. One of us was close to licking the bowl. Our next item was the entree of pan seared branzino in a bowl of mussell-parsley-ginger puree with potato batons. The fish was fresh and deftly cooked, with the vibrantly green broth a delicious touch. We shared a dessert — the intense lemon pound cake sided by laurel bay ice cream (yes, bay leaf ice cream, and it worked). Not too sweet, this was a nice touch to the end of the meal.
Get thee to this restaurant, but make a reservation. Provisions is one of the hottest tables in town right now.
807 Taft Street
UPDATE — SEPTEMBER 2012
Perhaps we had a sixth sense that the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook was about to give Underbelly four stars (which occurred last week), but we knew we needed to get back to Underbelly to give it another shot. Together with some foodie friends who’d also been somewhat underwhelmed with their recent experiences at Underbelly, we set out for what our friend dubbed “Chris’ Last Stand.” I am happy to report that all of us were far more impressed than we were on prior visits.
Even Alison Cook acknowledged that this restaurant isn’t for everyone, including many foodies, but that didn’t affect the crowds on a recent Saturday evening. Our reservation was not honored on time, but we only had to wait about 20 minutes. Service was prompt, although our waitress was not as informed about the dishes as we’d have expected (“it’s leg of lamb, the kitchen doesn’t test the temperature”). Wine was very reasonably priced, water glasses were regularly refilled. There are no extras thrown in — no complimentary bread, no cookies with coffee (which is only offered as regular, no decaf, no cappuccino).
But enough about the niceties, we’d come for the food. As has been written by many commentators, the menu, which constantly changes, has small plates (some smaller than others) and then “family-style” dishes. The intent is to share. We tried a couple appetizer sized dishes — Wagyu beef skewers (with Texas field peas) and coppa (with goat cheese, green tomato and garlic chips). The dishes were beautifully executed and tasty. (Unlike Ms. Cook, we didn’t find the wagyu skewers to be overly salty.) Particularly impressive were the side items, including the wonderfully fresh field peas and the nifty dehydrated garlic chips.
We moved on to two family style dishes — leg of lamb (sided with sauteed kale and roasted squash) and porchetta (served on a spicy slaw). Four confirmed carnivores all agreed the leg of lamb was one of the best we’d ever had and perfectly cooked to medium rare. This dish is an excellent example of the quality of the ingredients used at Underbelly. The porchetta (pork shoulder wrapped around a sausage mixture) was also delicious. The kale, squash and slaw could not have been more fresh and well-seasoned.
An overall observation — serving sizes are not large, even the family style dishes basically serve two at best. We thought we’d have leftovers, with four persons ordering two family style items. Not a chance. We could have easily ordered and polished off a third “family style” dish. Our waitress had clearly underestimated our needs when suggesting the table order 1-2 starters and one family style item. Another friend mentioned that when they dined at Underbelly, their table of four had to order a third family style dish because two weren’t sufficient.
FIRST REVIEWED — MARCH 2012
When Bon Appetit identifies yours as one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in the country, the pressure is on. There’s no denying that a lot of hype has swirled around Chris Shepherd’s announced plans, when he left Catalan last Spring, to open his own restaurant. The construction and related delays only fueled the excitement.
Now opened at the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose, Underbelly shares its quarters with the beer-focused bar, Haymarket, although Underbelly has its own good sized wine bar (no cocktails), and a bar menu that’s separate from that in the dining room. Both the bar and dining room were packed on the Saturday evening we dined. The beautifully redone building, with its warm, contemporary wood tones and high ceiling, is a very inviting venue. There’s a large, open kitchen along one side of the restaurant, complete with glass encased salumi storage. (The charcuterie is only available on the bar menu.)
Our reservation was honored on time, although we went early in the evening, and there were ample servers and bus staff moving like clockwork. In fact, perhaps a little too efficiently. There wasn’t a dish that we ordered (save one) that didn’t come within two minutes of ordering. And we noted that tables which ordered a number of starters (as the menu encourages) received everything at once. This was a frequent occurrence at Catalan, so we knew from experience to space out our order. Perhaps because we dined early in the evening and the server was looking to turn the table a couple more times, there was a discernible sense of rushing us through our meal.
Did the food knock our socks off? Unfortunately, no, although there were a couple near shining moments (yes, it’s March Madness time). The menu is designed for the table to start with the appetizer/small plate sized items (our waiter recommended 2-4 for two persons), and then move on to the family-style entrees in the hunk-o-protein category. Consistent with the chef’s emphasis on featuring locally sourced and seasonally available products, we understand the menu changes regularly. (The menu posted on-line as we write this review is not the same as when we dined a week ago.) And, with a conscious nod to Houston’s multi-cultural food scene, the menu features a variety of cuisines.
The highlights of the evening included the lamb papusas and Korean goat and dumplings. Both dishes included braised meat, tender and deliciously spiced. The homemade dumplings, almost like noodles, made for a unique dish. The housemade burrata (interestingly, perhaps curiously, sided by whole grilled fava bean pods that you popped open) was pleasant but lacking a depth of richness. (Sorry for the comparison, but we have to give the nod here to the version at the Catalan-replacement, Coppa.) We finished with a special that evening — Akaushi ribeye — nicely trimmed and perfectly cooked, sided by roasted baby fingerling potatos and sauteed onions. (For $50, perhaps the plate could have included a few more than three potatos.)
Next time (and there will be a next time), we’ll go for one of the family-style entrees. We’re suckers for pork in pretty much any form, so braised pork collar and crispy pork shank not to mention goat shoulder (on the menu the night we dined) sounded very enticing.
UPDATED: AUGUST 2012
A special celebration on a recent weekday evening gave us an opportunity to get back to Tony’s. From start to finish, we had a wonderful experience. The place was packed, possibly due to Restaurant Week, but you wouldn’t know that by the service we received. We’re not sure when we last had better service than we experienced at Tony’s, and that includes the high-end restaurants where we’ve recently dined in London and San Francisco. And we aren’t boldface types with recognizable names on the Houston social scene. We make it to Tony’s once every couple years or so.
In his new book, Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich talks about how Mario Batali and he have created a very successful restaurant empire. One global point stands out: make every customer’s dining experience the very best that it can be, exceeding expectations. While this may seem obvious, its created through an attention to detail at every step of the way, with a sensitivity and focus to each customer’s needs. Tony Vallone has learned that lesson, making him one of the most financially successful restauranteurs in Houston.
While the obvious things are important — honoring a reservation on time, filling water glasses, replacing an empty bread basket, bringing the food when it’s hot — it’s the subtleties that make the real difference in a high-end restaurant, again, focusing on the customer’s experience. Every wait person was gracious and attentive. Unlike many restaurants, we weren’t made to feel like our table was put in a queue for drinks, ordering, food, etc. Menus weren’t brought until we’d finished our cocktails. And the captain didn’t appear on multiple occasions pushing to take our order. (Likely they weren’t trying to turn the table that night, unlike many of the London restaurants which tell you in advance that you have the table for a certain amount of time.)
The food was delicious. We started with the burrata with heirloom tomatoes and tomato quiche and the ricotta stuffed ravioli with chanterelles and walnuts. Our entrees were both pan sauteed fish dishes — branzino and dover sole. The branzino was wonderfully fresh and beautifully cooked, standing well on its own since we thought the sweet/tart blood orange sauce overwhelmed the fish. The dover sole was tasty enough, with a lovely citrus beurre blanc sauce (although not served tableside as the captain had indicated and, as a special, priced at $54). We also couldn’t resist the decadent truffled penne and cheese. We passed on dessert. We’ve experienced the souffles in the past and, while wonderful, were more than we could handle this evening.
UPDATED: AUGUST 2008
On our last visit, the service was terrible. Not the case on this visit when we again dined in the bar after the theater. We didn’t have a reservation and were fortunate to get the last two seats at the bar. Nothing much was happening in the formal dining area, but all the tables were taken in the bar. The piano player was in full swing, couples were dancing, and the atmosphere was quite festive, including the hooping and hollering that accompanied one woman diner’s efforts to strategically position herself on her date’s lap. Yes, this was Tony’s.
Once again, we were greeted by the longtime bar manager. If the Vallone Group gave out stock options for longevity, this guy would own the place. He was as gracious as ever, pouring an extra glass of a new single malt scotch for us to try. The bartenders were just as helpful.
Now, dare we suggest that at least one aspect of the experience was half-ass. That would be the late night menu, served after 10 o’clock in the bar. Not that the offerings were bad. In fact, we were quite interested in the crab cakes benedict. Despite the menu’s use of plural versions of the words eggs and crab cakes, we only got one crab cake, albeit quite delicious, sitting alone in the middle of a large white plate, no fruit, potatoes, or even parsley garnish. We did feel inclined to comment to the bartender about the menu’s use of the letter “s,” and the manager authorized another serving be brought to us. Tony’s is not the type of place where you want to complain about prices and portions, but our belief in truth in advertising prevailed.
We also tried the steak tartare, identified on the late night menu as being prepared tableside. Not true, according to the bartender. The dish is, in fact, prepared in the kitchen, which is unfortunate as we could have avoided the heavy handed use of whole grain mustard if we had viewed the preparation. And, while it was sided with an acceptable arugula salad with cherry tomatos, we had to ask for toast points. What arrived were french fry size pieces of garlic toast. Fresh and quite tasty but not appropriate for steak tartare. (At $19 for a small portion, we’ll stick with Max & Julie’s $25 version that’s about four times the size, served with thin slices of toasted baguette and frites.)
Of course, we’ll return to Tony’s. We drank. We dined. We danced. We were quite entertained by the clientele. But we may not order from the late night menu again.
FIRST REVIEWED: SEPTEMBER 2006
We stopped by Tony’s one evening after the ballet. We’ve eaten at the “new Tony’s” twice since it opened, but not since we started the blog … duty called. We love the warm, contemporary, more casual feel of the place, particularly the beautiful stone sculpture of three curving ladies. We chose to sit at one of the tables in the bar area; the piano player is great, and the fireplace adds a nice cozy feeling. The presence of the longtime, always accommodating bartender is an added plus.
Now for the big, big, big, big (thanks, Marvin) bitch … the service was terrible. It was not entirely the fault of our disinterested, harried head waiter. He was responsible for the entire bar, which had 7 or 8 full tables. Where to begin, well, at the beginning — we waited way too long to order a drink . We had to ask for menus (as did the table next to ours) and butter (cold and hard). The wait staff gave us very hot plates for the salmon carpaccio, which, upon request, they tried to replace but were interceded by the head waiter who tried to put the hot plates back on the table. The aforementioned bartender had to come from behind the bar when he noticed an empty drink glass sitting for some time. He graciously got us a glass of wine. The waiter perked up a little when he was forced to have a discussion with us concerning the cheese cart, which he wheeled to the table with the markers facing away from the table.
Everything wasn’t lost as the food was very good. The salmon carpaccio was fresh and glistening with a light coat of olive oil. The sea bass (yes, we know it’s not politically correct) was both crispy and moist, served on a bed of black Chinese rice that was almost risotto-like. The roasted snapper was nicely sauced with lump crab, shrimp, and some exotic mushrooms. Unfortunately, the snapper was slightly overcooked and drier than it should have been. We enjoyed three selections from the cheese cart, although we weren’t particularly impressed with the range of choices.
We’d had great service on prior visits so, hopefully, this was an aberration. But our most rec
ent experience suggests that Mr. Vallone could be doing a better job. We’ll return to Tony’s because, after all, it’s Tony’s. But only after we go to Mark’s again first.
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
We’re such fans of French food that this place had us with its name, not to mention the pedigree of its namesake chef/owner who served as the executive chef at Tony’s for a number of years. Located on lower Westheimer, the newly renovated space is contemporary, cool, and comfortable. Reservations are necessary, particularly on weekends. Ours were honored right on time. Valet parking is available and seems necessary, given the location.
We started, as we are prone to nowadays, with a couple of the special cocktails. Lately, we’re into bourbon, and we enjoyed the restaurant’s version of a manhattan. Our apppetizers included a silky smooth, rich chicken liver pate that even the one of us who is not a fan of chicken livers was scraping off the plate. The luscious pork rillettes (slightly underseasoned and improved with a sprinkling of sea salt) were generously served in a glass crock. The raw oysters (progeny Pacific Northwest) were cool and briny, served with a nicely tart mignonette sauce.
For entrees, we tried two of the seafood dishes — clams with linguini and whole grilled branzino (one of a number of fish specials). Both were wonderfully fresh and deftly prepared. The linguini let the flavor of the clams shine through with a light white wine sauce, not much butter, tinged with fennel and an ample serving of clams. The boned, but head and tail on, branzino was delicious, topped with a lemon butter caper sauce and (curiously) sauteed broccoli.
Price points are reasonable — below $10 for starters and in the $20’s for entrees. Wines are moderately priced. Our service was very good. We look forward to returning.
We were somewhat inclined to write a two word review: Not Uchi. But that’s unfair. Katsuya isn’t striving to turn out the uber creative, intricately prepared dishes for which Uchi excels, and Katsuya isn’t marketing to the same demographic. Katsuya hails from Los Angeles, touting its “master sushi chef” (Katsuya Uechi) and “design impresario” (Philippe Starck). Located in the trendy West Ave complex, Katsuya has been featured regularly in the social columns for its celebrity sightings.
Frankly, we were expecting to be more impressed by the design. Perhaps it’s because Houston has not lacked for distinctive rooms in recent restaurant openings (Triniti, Uchi, Underbelly, Phillipe). There’s a large four-sided sushi bar in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by tables, with the walls lined by banquettes. We peeked into the lounge area, with its many white sofas, but we were at the restaurant far too early to check out the action there.
We had the multi-course Omikase dinner on our first visit to Uchi, so we wanted to give Katsuya the same opportunity. We appreciated our waiter’s candor when he advised against Katsuya’s Omikase dinner, which the menu said included all the chef’s specialties. Indeed, very few of the items featured as specialties on the menu were served with the dinner. So, we embarked on a la carte ordering.
Like at so many places nowadays, cocktails are prominently featured. We found one of the specialty drinks — the Burning Mandarin — to be pleasant enough. We tried one of the signature dishes — Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna — which turned out to be fried sushi rice cakes topped with tuna tartare that wasn’t really all that spicy. (Our waiter had tried to steer us instead to the seared tuna with Japanese salsa.) We also tried the soft shell crab, which was not overly battered (a good thing) although a little soggy.
The highlight of the meal was another of the signature dishes — miso marinated black cod — beautifully cooked with a lovely flavor. The square of potato gratin on the plate tasted good but was also a little soggy. Our other entree dish — Cajun halibut cheeks — was dry and overcooked, the pieces too small to be cooked correctly when also trying to blacken the spiced exterior.
If it’s fair to compare Katsuya and Uchi — both of which arrived on the Houston scene at about the same time — Uchi wins by a mile (about the distance between the two on Westheimer).
2800 Kirby Drive (West Ave Complex at Westheimer)
We waited a while to try Liberty Kitchen. We don’t consider ourselves to be part of the restaurant critic world; we’re never recognized, no special treatment, no offers to comp our meals. But it was somewhat off putting (and humorous, we admit) to hear that, when this restaurant first opened, they posted a sign banning Alison Cook from the Houston Chronicle. Seemed like a strange way to make one’s entry into the Houston restaurant scene, certainly it suggested a sense of confidence, if not contempt, for what anybody else thinks.
Anyway, we made it there on a recent Saturday night. No reservations are taken, dress is very casual. Early in the evening, the place was full, and it was a diverse group. The Heights locals appeared out in force — older patrons, families (this is a very kid friendly place, with kids’ meals), young couples. We got lucky with a nearby parking spot, but we can see how parking could be challenging. For a casual place, we see no need for valet parking, which can be helpful but also appears to be veering out of control (note the new JerryBuilt Burgers on Holcombe).
There’s plenty to like about the large and varied menu. And we have to admit that we wanted to try pretty much everything. With oysters in the name of the restaurant, we couldn’t pass up a couple versions — a raw oyster, garlic butter smeared, chargrilled in the shell, topped with a fried oyster (a fabulous dish we’ll have again without question) and raw Gulf Coast oysters (nicely sized, very fresh). We moved on to one of the chalkboard fish specials — chargrilled flounder (dusted with a house special spice rub), served on top of sauteed spinach. The fish was fresh and nicely cooked (perhaps a little dry). We also tried the Rodeo Reuben (spiced brisket, which was tender and smoky, with slaw, on grilled pumpernickel). Finally, we couldn’t resist the Americana-style macaroni and cheese. We’ve had that uber-popular dish at many restaurants and this was one of the better versions we’ve tried.
A note about the service. Ours was very good, and, on a number of occasions, the manager also came by to check on us. (We do have a small gripe with having been charged almost the full price for the slaw to substitute it for the fries that came with the sandwich when the slaw was regularly priced at only 50¢ more than the fries.)
We liked the place so much that we almost went back again the next weekend, but, despite our anonymity, we take our responsibility of trying new restaurants seriously, so duty called.