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
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
Three words: Expensive Train Wreck
We wouldn’t bother with any other comments, except the chef at Bohemia is Alberto Baffoni, the original chef/owner of Simposio, which opened a number of years ago to rave reviews, including from the national press. Not sure where he disappeared over the years, but he lost his mojo. He’s back at a far Houston location, with limited resources, poor quality ingredients, and a hodgepodge menu of Italian and Eastern European dishes that are priced comparably to Houston’s finest restaurants. To add to the ethnic mix, there’s belly dancing on Fridays and Saturdays, although not until 10:30 when we doubt there are any diners, given there were only three tables full when we arrived at 8:00 on a recent Saturday night.
The decor is tacky. The food was disastrous. And the service was sincere but inept, starting with the bartender (and self proclaimed sommelier) who poured our Chianti by announcing that he hoped we were ordering meat since that was the only thing you could eat with a Chianti. Actually, we drink red wine with everything, and we were ordering seafood. He volunteered that Chianti was too “big” for him, and that he was really a fan of the Barolos, Barberas and Brunellos. Go figure.
Neither of the featured menu items — the whole grilled branzino or the whole lobster — were available. (We didn’t realize that branzino is “seasonal” and, if that’s the case, why do you have it on your printed menu?) And this was a Saturday night at a new restaurant. The best we could guess was they didn’t anticipate enough diners to invest in pricey, perishable inventory. The veal tonnato appetizer was inexpensive veal with a bland sauce. The $31 grilled seafood platter was way overcooked, including inedible salmon. The three “Secret Sauces” were salsa, balsamic vinaigrette, and tartar sauce. (We’re not kidding.) The selected side dish — asparagus and pancetta gratin — showed up as just grilled asparagus. The pistachios in the $32 pistachio crusted halibut were unrecognizable and burnt, as was the halibut. The saffron sauce was yellow but otherwise tasteless. The billed haricot verts that accompanied the halibut were grocery store green beans.
To top things off, a DJ and a lounge singer started in around 9:00; they were mediocre and quite loud. Although they did help to damper the silence of an empty restaurant.
We’re sorry to be so ugly, but this was really a bad experience. (Read the review just posted on Houston Citysearch if you think we are critical.)
Off the beaten path at Richmond and Chimney Rock, when this restaurant hit the scene a number of years ago, it got rave reviews in the local and even national press. In 1998, John Mariani of Esquire magazine named Simposio one of America’s best new restaurants. We had not been there in years so decided to give it another try. Not sure what has happened in the intervening years, but eight of us dined there recently for a business dinner, and only one person liked her meal. One diner went so far as to comment to her husband later that it was one of the worst meals she’d had in a long time. There’s a reason the place was practically empty, and we felt a need to apologize to our business guests the next day.
To lead with the positive, the non-complaining diner ordered pasta with meat sauce, not exactly a test of an upscale Italian kitchen, although she did say the pasta seemed homemade. And the caesar salad was nicely done, appropriately dressed with a garlicky, anchovy laced dressing, draped with a large sliver of parmesan cheese. They also did a good job with the cappuccino.
Now for the negatives — chewy, nondescript calamari served with the obligatory marinara and also curiously with tartar sauce (in an Italian restaurant?); a spinach salad topped with rotten smelling eggs that was sent back to the kitchen (no, Mr. Waiter and Mr. Busman, that smell was not the gorgonzola cheese; we know gorgonzola and that was no gorgonzola); bland veal, chicken, risotto and gnocchi entrees; a very nice veal chop ruined by a thin tasteless brown sauce with microscopic pieces of mushrooms; and overcooked halibut served in the shape of McDonald’s hash browns. We could continue but probably don’t need to … you get the picture.
5591 Richmond Avenue
On a recent Saturday afternoon during the holiday shopping season, we stopped by this relatively new Rice Village area sushi restaurant, which is located in a strip shopping center on Kirby. The room was nice enough, and we were encouraged by the number of tables that were filled.
The service was somewhat inconsistent — our waiter seemed a little overwhelmed. We also aren’t big fans of green tea (we know, we know–it’s very healthy), and that’s the only hot tea available.
Admittedly, we only tried two sushi rolls, but they were the rolls that our waiter advised were the most frequently ordered. We can’t recall the names (they were the first two listed on the menu) or even much about the ingredients (probaly the usual suspects — tuna, salmon, etc.), which should be an indication of how unimpressed we were. Plain is probably the best way to describe both items. We didn’t discern any of the advertised spiciness, and the sauce was almost nonexistent.
For a Saturday sushi lunch in the area, our vote goes to Sushi King further north on Kirby.
5600 Kirby Drive
http://www.azumajapanese.com/ (under construction)
If you’ve looked at this website much, you know that we really like French food. (We don’t care what you call them, as long as you call us when the frites are ready.) So, we ventured out to the western suburbs to try Bistro Le Cep. There’s no question that Toto wasn’t inside the Loop. The atmosphere was quaint, somewhat kitsch, punctuated with the not so dulcet (altho hardworking and well-intentioned) tones of an accordion player. You haven’t experienced life until you’ve heard “New York, New York” played on the accordion.
We’d heard good things about the food which, while enjoyable, did not impress us. The complimentary pate was agreeable enough. The lump crab meat and fennel salad was fresh and well executed. The onion soup was a traditional version. The steak au poivre may have been the best dish of the night, as our other entrée — the duck confit special — was disappointing. We try this dish at many French restaurants since we like it, and it’s a good test of the kitchen. It takes a lot of work to get it right; this version lacked in effort as the meat was not as rich as it should have been, and it suffered from a real faux pas — the skin was not crispy. Due to copious amounts of butter, we did enjoy all the vegetables (asparagus, green beans and spinach), but the frites were soggy.
The wine list was reasonably priced and, altho it was the ‘burbs, the glasses were appropriate for a cabernet sauvignon.
Although a pleasant enough experience, we were disappointed. The owner, Joe Mannke, used to own the highly-rated Rotisserie for Beef and Bird. We had expected better.
UPDATE: CLOSED DECEMBER 2006
We struggled with whether to characterize Pic. as a disappointment but decided that, given its genesis (same location, owner, and chef as Aries), it just didn’t live up to our expectations. Aries has morphed into a more casual, less expensive venue, but with mixed results. We dined with another couple, so we had a better than usual sampling of the fare. We seem to be having bad luck as of late with the initial drink service. It took too long to place and receive our order. Of course, our harried, indifferent waiter didn’t help matters. We tried two of the signature cocktails — Hemingway Daiquiri and Bad Santa — with the former being better than the latter, but neither was great. The wine selections are reasonably priced and one of the other waiters who helped us with the wine menu was much more knowledgeable and friendly than our designated guy.
The menu is quite limited, categorized into four groups — appetizers, salads, plates, and entrees — with 4-6 selections in each category. The gnocchi with bacon and savoy cabbage was the best of the starter selections, although the tomato basil soup was very good and lighter than the version you get in many places. We do give credit to the chef for cooking on the healthier side with all the dishes we tried. The raw vegetable terrine salad was nicely done — a stack of thinly sliced fresh vegetables over arugula, marred only by an overly vinegary dressing.
Our entrees were very good but not great — roasted chicken, grilled salmon, and beef hangar steak. The roasted potato wedges that accompanied the steak were underdone and underseasoned. One of us opted for the hamburger and felt something was missing — it needed some kind of sauce or other condiment to add to the otherwise fine beef, grilled mushroom, and cheese combo.
It’s a pet peeve of ours when a chef uses a commonly recognized food word to describe a dish that doesn’t fit 99% of the population’s understanding of the word. (The chef at laidback manor has taken this to an art form.) At Pic., it was the use of the word Sundaes on the dessert menu. Ice cream sounded good to all of us, so we splurged and ordered three selections under the Sundae list — chocolate swan, strawberry cheesecake, and hazelnut. There was not a bite of ice cream to be found — it was replaced with mousse like substances in every dish. Tasty enough, but not Sundaes.
Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Tycer, but we like that other place in which you also have an ownership interest — Gravitas — better than this new venture.
4315 Montrose Boulevard
UPDATE: CLOSED SEPTEMBER 2006
Like Dolce Vita, we wanted to like this place, but it just didn’t work for us. As a starting point, the parking situation is a pain — no valet parking and no easily accessible parking lot. We know we are spoiled Houstonians, and this is what downtowns are like in other big cities. More than any other restaurant in Houston, laidback manor takes risks that only an urban foodie could appreciate. We thought we qualified, but it seems we don’t meet the requirements. Although the main item of each dish was recognizable, many of the other ingredients described on the menu were ones we hadn’t heard of them. We swear the chef made up some of the words. We would have had the tasting menu if even half of it had sounded enticing. (We aren’t fans of the trend to turn food into foam.) The non-tasting menu portions were very small, although priced like other upscale restaurants. When the waiter suggested we not share the salmon terrine appetizer because the appetizers were designed for one person, he was right. We didn’t realize they made terrine pans that small. Ditto with respect to the portion sizes on the entrees — pork and duck. We have never seen sauces served literally as dots on the plate. The food was good, but not remarkable. We were still hungry when we left, so we stopped off at Cafe Rabelais to share some mussels.
UPDATE: CLOSED EARLY 2008
We had heard alot about this place in the Memorial area, so we wanted to try its new location inside the Loop. Maybe it just wasn’t our night for seafood, but we weren’t excited about this restaurant. Perhaps our error was going to eat dinner at 8; it appears from the age of the clientèle that the action likely happens during the early bird dinner hour. The well lit restaurant didn’t have much ambiance. Our visit started off on a slightly wrong foot when the waiter (who said he had been a bartender for many years) brought a gin & tonic without any lime. As usual, we ordered calamari, which was o’kay, but nothing great. The menu is somewhat limited and we didn’t want any more fried food, which was probably a mistake since the fried shrimp are supposed to be a specialty. We couldn’t find anything else that sounded good to us, so we left and went to Carrabba’s.