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’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.
Houston has another hot spot courtesy of the guys from Ibiza. The crowds are flocking to this new restaurant named after the River Oaks area zip code in which it is located in the former Tony Mandola’s seafood restaurant on West Gray. Other than opening up the bar area and bathing everything in a contemporary white, the restaurant’s layout is the same as its predecessor. Better head to Paris (or maybe Brasserie Max & Julie’s) if you want old style French surroundings. The noise level was over the top, perhaps the worst of any Houston restaurant we’ve recently experienced.
No surly waiters here. We’d heard the service was shaky, but we couldn’t fault a thing on a recent Friday evening. The wine list, presented on an iPad, was both intriguing and functional. It was easy to scroll through the many bottles (organized by type) and by the glass offerrings. The owners are known for their reasonable wine prices and, while we didn’t thoroughly investigate the list, we found some inconsistencies in that theme, particularly in the wine by the glass pricing. No surprise there since many restaurants significantly mark up wines by the glass. We found a very fairly priced bottle of Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, “touched” our order, and the bottle appeared at our table with the appropriate glasses.
Food comes quickly, so be mindful when timing your order. We’d read that portion size was small, but we didn’t feel that way. If you want bread, you need to ask for it. And the crunchy individual baguettes, served with a ramekin of butter sprinkled with sea salt, are worth the request. We shared an appetizer of steak tartare. The meat was of the highest quality and beautifully chopped; all the traditional familiar flavors were there, including a raw quail egg on top, although the dish had slightly too much pepper. For entrees, we had the roasted duck and Texas rabbit. The duck (breast and leg quarter) was nicely sauced and plated; unfortunately, the leg quarter was way underdone and required two trips back to the kitchen, which the waiter quickly and graciously accommodated. The rabbit was delicious. The dessert menu had a number of appealing items; unfortunately, we were too full to try one.
Reservations are a must, at least on weekends.
1962 West Gray
A fine French restaurant in Conroe? No way. Way. Despite the Chronicle’s Alison Cook’s declaration of Chez Roux as one of the best new restaurants in 2009, even our most seasoned foodie friends haven’t ventured up there and some haven’t even heard of the place. It does take well over an hour (without traffic) to get to the restaurant and, after a few glasses of wine, you won’t want to drive back to Houston. Hence, we stayed overnight at the recently renovated resort — La Torreta Lake Resort — where the restaurant is located. The 70’s resort (f/k/a Del Lago) has been redone with a contemporary Italian flair. The hotel was dead on a recent Saturday night but, admittedly, this is the low season for a lakeside resort. Our room was very nice and reasonably priced, although we didn’t appreciate an extra charge for valet parking when valet is the only parking option. Just include it in the room rate.
Somehow the developer managed to lure a seasoned Michelin-starred (Le Gavroche in London) French chef, Albert Roux, to open a restaurant in Conroe. No telling how much that cost. The restaurant is lovely, about 15 tables (including a chef’s table) in an intimate, warm, contemporary setting. The service was very good, although the bus help needs some polishing. Granted, it’s unlikely that a local teenager (or any teenager for that matter) knows the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses without some training. The General Manager/Maitre D’/Sommelier hails from one of Chef Roux’s restaurants in London. Don’t you know this debonair, nattily dressed guy had a rude awakening when he thought he was opening a restaurant in Houston and found himself heading north from Intercontinental Airport?
Although the hotel was empty, the restaurant was full this Saturday evening. One look at the menu and you realize that the Menu Prestige (tasting menu) is the way to go. A great value, 8 courses (including amuse bouche and petit fours) for $70. Each course was delicious, beautifully presented, and amply proportioned. Although clearly French in orientation, the chef (an American trained by Chef Roux) strives to use local ingredients. Mustard greens, wild boar, and Texas cheese made appearances. The courses in order: artichoke/quail egg/ smoked salmon; chicken oysters (the tiny piece between the leg and the thigh)/hazelnuts/mustard greens; cod/brandade beignet/carrot puree; wild boar chop/pork cheek roulade/turnip salad; cheddar cheese soufflé/corn kernel cream (cheese soufflé is a signature dish of the chef, localized with Texas cheese and creamed corn, but we thought the corn overpowered the delicate soufflé); cannele/chocolate sorbet.
The only down point of our dinner was the automatic 18% gratuity that was added to our bill; this wasn’t noted on the website or the menu. We didn’t argue that night, but raised the issue with hotel management the next day. We typically tip 18-20% on food but less on wine when we splurge (which we did here). Hotel management told us it was not supposed to be Chez Roux policy to charge an automatic service fee, and they allowed us to adjust our tip.
All in all, we had a big time in Conroe. (Brunched at Whataburger.) We’ll go back.
La Torreta Lake Resort & Spa
600 La Torretta Boulevard, Montgomery, Texas
We ventured to this long-time Houston restaurant, cozily located in the woods on Post Oak Lane. (We’ve heard rumors they’re moving.) Four of us dined on a recent weeknight during the holidays. A number of parties were going on and the bar area was quite lively. Valet parking was a must, despite the large parking lots.
Our server was a little too familiar, particularly for the somewhat formal setting (Note to all servers: if you must smoke, please ensure that your breath is smoke free prior to waiting on your table.) When asked about wine selections, he pointed out only bottles in the $200 plus range, and, when decanting the wine, left too much in the bottle. Allegedly for the sediment although it was not an old vintage; it was a 1999 Bordeaux. And then he removed the bottle. We asked him to bring it back, which he did. (Contrast this with our recent experience at Pappas Steakhouse where the sommelier properly left the bottle on the table after decanting.)
We started with four appetizers — seared calamari (nicely cooked with an Asian sweet and sour twist), butternut squash soup (declared to be very good), three mushroom ravioli (rich and delicious with a prominent mushroom flavor), and a salad. We moved on to sautéed john dory, seared duck breast (generously garnished with foie gras that was perfectly seared), and sautéed bluefish entrées. The food arrived hot at the table (a bugaboo of ours). Everything was appropriately cooked and declared by all to be very good. When the requested risotto substitution was not reflected on the plate, the chef sent out a piping hot separate order of wild mushroom risotto.
Some may find this comparison off, but Masraff’s has the feel of a sophisticated version of the now shuttered Confederate House, with more innovative, interesting food. This place is not frequented by the trendy crowd, the clientèle is on the older side, the acoustics permit conversation, and the food is very good. Now, if they just work on the attitude of the servers.
1025 S. Post Oak Lane
UPDATED REVIEW — APRIL 2009
Housed in new digs in a strip shopping center next door to its original location, Le Mistral has morphed from a modest French country bistro to a posh dining venue. Gone are the lace curtains and the view of a gas station. The dining room has skylights, but no windows, the walls adorned with modern art, including a nod to its Texas home — a very large picture of a reclining cow. The restaurant was packed on a recent Saturday evening, with parties in the wine and banquet rooms, and a lively crowd in the adjoining bar. There’s not much else that compares in far west Houston, and the restaurant appears to be thriving. Reservations, particularly on a weekend, are recommended. While jeans are acceptable, the attire is on the dressier side, with many men in sport coats.
The great service continues in the new location. This is Houston, so our good ole’ boy waiter, lacking any pretense of a French accent, seemed right at home. The wine list was extensive, not limited to French wines, and pricey.
We started with a seared scallop on fettuccine style leeks with smoked salmon sauce, which sounded better than it tasted primarily because the sauce was gluey and lacked zing. Perhaps a little citrus (or some acid as they say in the trade) would have helped. Our other starter, the foie gras terrine, was far tastier, and we ate every morsel. The rack of lamb entrée was a real winner — a generous serving of the whole 8-rib rack, nicely cooked, with a ginger herb crust that didn’t overwhelm the taste of the lamb. The lamb came with a side of good (but not fabulous) potato gratin. Our other entrée, a salmon steak, was acceptable but nothing special, slightly overcooked and a smaller serving compared to the lamb. The salmon sat on spinach fettuccine with a few fresh clams in a chive butter sauce, which also lacked punch. Our waiter didn’t recommend the salmon as one of his favorite fish dishes, and we should have listened.
While we may not venture that direction again soon (although it is a lot easier with the Westpark Tollway), we enjoyed our dining experience and are happy to see an upscale French restaurant thriving in the Houston suburbs.
FIRST REVIEWED — JUNE 2006
Braving I-10 construction, we ventured outside our Loop comfort zone to this far westside French restaurant that has received great reviews. Located in a strip shopping center, with a view of the Shell gas station through the curtains, we understand they will be building a new freestanding restaurant next door. The dining room strives for the quaintness of a French restaurant but comes up slightly short on the charm scale. Although we saw a number of diners in jeans, we would recommend dressing up a little more.
We enjoyed reasonably priced Kir Royales, and Manager/Owner Denis could not have been more helpful with our wine by the glass selections, even bringing out three bottles that weren’t on the menu that he offered to open for us. The food was very good, although not outstanding, traditional French fare. We started with the foie gras terrine — a well done version of this classic dish that was highlighted by the toasted brioche accompaniment. The seared Chilean Sea Bass was nicely cooked, although the basil risotto was a little too basil-y, and the red pepper/black olive sauce seemed slightly too assertive for the delicately flavored fish. The roasted veal chop was prepared at the requested medium but also overpowered by a large amount of sauce that tasted of onion and not of the billed apples and Calvados. The chocolate fondant (a/k/a molten chocolate cake) with a shot glass of coffee liqueur-infused ice cream was a standard version of this popular dessert.
We would return to this restaurant, and we’d like to try more dishes. However, for our first visit, the food didn’t quite live up to the charm of the owner and the otherwise great service.
1400 Eldridge Parkway
We were in the Galleria on a recent Friday night, so we ventured a little bit further west to this recent addition to the Houston restaurant scene. Located on a side street off Voss just south of San Felipe, this restaurant is housed in a fading strip center across from Hartz Chicken and a do-it-yourself car wash. It’s owned by the same folks that own Bistro Provence on Memorial. We were encouraged by the packed parking lot, and the cozy bistro style dining room was equally busy. The very accommodating hostess found us a table for two, and we were quickly greeted by our friendly waitress. Service was great from start to finish.
We aren’t sure about the origin of the name, but the food is a somewhat odd mixture of French and Italian. (A merger of two of the best mediterranean cuisines into one concept, according to the website.) We saw a number of families, so they may be catering to a mix of tastes. The prices were very reasonable. It was quite refreshing to find good wines by the glass for only $8 or so. Once we ordered, we were served two large bread sticks right out of the pizza oven. Dipped in the accompanying olive oil, we had to restrain ourselves from filling up on bread alone. We tried the calamari (no surprise) with aioli and spicy tomato sauces. Served piping hot, it was very good, laced with a few fried zucchini and pepper strips. We moved on to the salmon carpaccio, thinly sliced house cured salmon with a taste of lemon and dill, which was probably the best dish we tried. The person sitting next to us offered us a taste of the duck liver mousse, which was a little too strong flavored, resembling chicken liver. Encouraged by the low prices, we tried a delicious Italian style thin crust pizza with ham, goat cheese (which they generously applied), and artichokes. The pizza also fared well for lunch the next day. Finally, we ordered the duck leg confit entrée. Served in a casserole over white beans, this dish was similar to cassoulet, but without any sausage, pork belly or the like. It was tasty enough, and we give the duck points for being crispy, although it was overly salty even for salt lovers like us. The dish was better a couple days later when the beans were cooked a little longer for Sunday evening supper.
We enjoyed our meal. Give this place a try. No reservations are taken except for larger groups. If we lived in the neighborhood, we’d probably be regulars. But with Cafe Rabelais and Max and Julie’s nearby, we may not get out there very often.
6510 Del Monte
Road Trip. And to Missouri City of all places. Only about 30 minutes from inside the Loop, we found Aura, Chef Frederic Perrier’s new digs in the Fort Bend ‘burbs. Opened since November, this French restaurant has garnered very good reviews. Chef Perrier, the French trained owner-chef, has quite a history in the Houston restaurant community, from Grille 5115 to Café Perrier.
The cozy, two room restaurant has as much of a French bistro atmosphere as you can achieve when located in a typical suburban strip shopping complex. There’s no pretension here, casual clothes are just fine. Reservations, at least on a weekend, appeared to be a must as the place was packed. The chef’s wife is a charming hostess, and the wait staff is very accommodating. The wine list was very reasonably priced but limited in selection. (No liquor license, only beer and wine are served.) The manager/sommelier was helpful but not overly knowledgeable. But that’s o’kay, this isn’t the place you go to splurge on wine. It’s the food that’s the draw.
We had read about the house made pate, an off the menu request at dinner. We were served two slices of a good country pate and a crock of foie gras mousse. Yum. We would have liked toast points, rather than sliced french bread. And the dish would have benefited from a little sea salt to accompany the traditional condiments of mustard and cornichons. But we ate every bite, and we were particularly excited with the $9.50 tariff. Now, that’s value.
For our main courses we tried the heralded buffalo sliders and the scallop and short rib appetizer. The mini burgers, served cooked as ordered on toasted brioche buns with grilled onions and topped with foie gras, were delicious. The accompanying french fries were good but not quite crisp enough. The seared scallops were perfectly cooked, sliced in half, stuffed with rich short ribs and sauced with a burgundy reduction. An intriguing combo that worked. The four large scallops were beautifully plated, each cutely skewered sitting on an oblong serving dish. And also a great value for $12. We had a side of truffled macaroni and cheese as we remembered this dish from Cafe Perrier, one of the first Houston restaurants to introduce the now very popular upscale mac and cheese. Not as rich as some versions, we enjoyed the gruyere focus. We saw a number of dishes served to other tables and the portions were quite generous. A beautiful rack of lamb was a popular special that night.
Desserts were displayed on a chalk board. The restaurant features soufflés which seemed to be a popular choice. We tried the dark chocolate bread pudding, which could have been a little moister and fluffier. Next time we’ll try the baked to order apple tart.
We’ll make the trip down the Southwest Freeway again. The food was great, reasonably priced, and served in a very comfortable atmosphere.
3340 FM 1092, # 160, Missouri City
We fell down on the job, earning a foodie demerit for not having heard about this new Houston restaurant, which opened in late November. We first read about it in Allison Cook’s end of the year list of the best new restaurants in 2007. Apparently, so did the rest of Houston as the place has been hopping ever since. Reservations are definitely advisable and appear necessary on the weekends.
We love French food, so any addition of this genre to the Houston restaurant scene is a cause celebre. Located in a house on a residential street near Shepherd and Richmond, the place is cozy and charming. We were warmly greeted with “bon soir” by one of the chef-owner’s wifes who serves as hostess. She was gracious and accommodating when we asked for a different table. The restaurant has two small dining rooms, and a very small bar area.
The menu is somewhat limited and has a fair sprinkling of the classics, such as goat cheese salad, french onion soup, rack of lamb, and duck confit. As a small operation, be forewarned that they run out of items or certain dishes may be unavailable if the chef doesn’t like the quality of the ingredients at market that day. Neither the skate wing entree or crab appetizer was available the evening we were there, and the snapper went quickly after we arrived. We heard our waiter telling a nearby table that the chefs are quite particular about what they serve, shopping daily for just what’s needed each evening. Judging by the size of the toque on one of the chefs making the rounds in the dining room, he’s also quite particular about his headgear. But that’s a French chef thing.
No escargots appeared on the menu, but that was fine with us. We shared the foie gras terrine appetizer, which was delicious although perhaps a little skimpy given the $19 price tag. We moved on to the sautéed snapper with green apple sauce and the chicken fricassee on wild mushroom risotto. The snapper was nicely flavored, and the chicken dish was great comfort food for a cool Houston evening. We ran into friends who were also there for the first time. They dined on the “signature” seared scallop entrée and the duck confit; they reported that both dishes were very good, but the scallops were better than the duck. They did remark that the dollop of cauliflower puree served with the scallops was tasty enough for them to want a big scoop.
The service was fine. Our bread basket (only two slices were served initially) could have been refilled, but it was probably better for us that the water glasses were regularly refilled. The wine list is limited and reasonably priced, and we appreciated that our waiter had some knowledge about it. And, unlike many French restaurants, they offered both French and non-French wines.
We remain big fans of Cafe Rabelais and Max & Julie’s, but Au Petit Paris deserves a try. It’s nice to see that the Houston restaurant scene has room for new places that are small and intimate as well as big and trendy like Reef and The Grove.