Category Archives: Upscale – Leave the Jeans at Home

BCN Taste & Tradition

We’ve not been keeping up with our postings, and we are way over due writing about this recently opened restaurant.  We’ve now been twice, including Valentine’s Day, and we’ve been very impressed.  We were somewhat reluctant to go on Valentine’s Day, particularly as it was a Saturday night, and were dubious about the phone reservationist’s assurance that the chef would have his full menu and not a fixed course and price menu.  Sure enough, while the menu may not have been absolutely every item, it was darn close.  And the quality and service were very impressive for such a busy holiday.  We weren’t rushed and the food was as good as our prior visit.

The chef who hails from Barcelona (with great Spanish cooking cred) cleverly borrowed the Barcelona airport designation in naming this new restaurant.  A lovely contemporary environment sets the stage for this small, ambitious, upscale restaurant serving what we’ve dubbed “contemporary continental” cuisine, although the restaurant’s description is “traditional and modern Spanish cuisine.”   Like most restaurants in Houston nowadays, all manner of attire is seen, but dressing up a little would not be out of place here.  Our reservations were honored right on time; however, as we were leaving, we heard some grumbling in the bar area (which is quite small) that folks with reservations had been waiting quite awhile to be seated.

Complimentary olives and bread set the stage.  For Valentine’s Day, we tried two of the gin and tonic specialty cocktails.  They were refreshing and delicious, particularly the one with rosemary.

For starters, we tried the salted anchovies (both visits) and the mussels.  We can’t get enough of the anchovies — a standout dish, briney and swimming in olive oil, the little filets were delicious topping toasted bread that was very lightly smeared with tomato (Having visited Barcelona a couple months ago, we can atest that the toasted tomato bread is served with many dishes.)  The mussels were very fresh, served in a light cream-based broth with hints (perhaps a little too subtle for our taste) of leeks and Iberico ham. On our second visit, we tried the Iberico ham starter (also served with the toasted tomato bread), and it was delicious.  We shared the roasted vegetable and goat cheese salad which was quite pleasant but not exceptional.   We enjoyed the poached cod with saffron aioli gratin and fresh vegetable ratatouille.  Our second entree — stewed pork cheeks (with prawns and artichokes) — was appropriately tender, but we were seeking perhaps a little more depth to the sauce.   We concede only remembering we had a fish entree on Valentine’s day, and it was very good. 

This is a great addition to the Houston restaurant scene, one of our new favorites. Prices are on the high side but not over the top or unreasonable.  Given the location, complimentary valet parking is a must (access off Roseland). 

4210 Roseland Street (near the intersection of Montrose and Richmond)
(832) 834-3411

www.bcnhouston.com

The Pass

Updated — August 2014

We dined at The Pass twice this past Spring, and we’ve been remiss in reporting.  Likely the menu has changed significantly since our visits.   But that’s a good thing since the chefs continue to turn out some of the most innovative and flavor challenging food in Houston.  Every dish doesn’t make us swoon, but there’s nothing we’ve tried that we haven’t really liked (and  more often than not dubbed drool-worthy) and admired for its creativity.   We found the Spring menu as good or better than our first dining experience (notwithstanding that the to-die-for caviar dish wasn’t there).  And the lovely setting and warm, friendly service hasn’t changed.  Who doesn’t love being welcomed at your table by a champagne cart (with a few long necks thrown in).   And the customized menu (“Happy Anniversary”) if you’re celebrating a special occasion.

There continue to be two multi-course tasting options (5 or 8 courses), including a 5 or 8 course tasting menu of vegetarian (not vegan) options.  We dined one evening with a friend who chose mainly from the vegetarian menu, with a pescatarian item here or there, and she loved her dishes.  Wine or beer/cocktail pairings are available, with every wine on the pairing list also offered in half or full pours.

Standouts from the 8-course Spring menu included Asparagus (a velvety, intensely flavored soup); Langoustine (steamed with hearts of palm and avocado); Yakitori (described as chicken mortadella); and Foie Gras (a decadent terrine served with steamed Asian-style buns).  There was an intermezzo style granita and a white chocolate carrot-cake inspired dessert course.  If one of us had any criticism it’s that the cheese course (ricotta and candy cap mushrooms) was too sweet, particularly when followed up by a beautiful tray of Petit Fours (various pastry and candy bites) from which you could select some or all, as much as you wanted (assuming you had any room left).

First Reported — January 2013
The holidays got in the way of our reporting on The Pass, the upscale, tasting menu half of the hot, new restaurant — The Pass & Provisions.  Opened around Thanksgiving, we dined at The Pass in early December.   While Provisions has a contemporary casual vibe, The Pass is urban chic, with lovely table linens, banquettes, and a champagne cart.  Open to the kitchen, with the “pass” (that part of the kitchen where the plates are finished before transferring from the kitchen to the dining room) on display, the chefs conjure their magic, presenting dishes very different from anything we’ve experienced in Houston.  Our closest comparison is Scott Tycer’s short-lived Textile or perhaps a more upscale version of the ahead-of-his-time Randy Rucker’s laidback manor.  Maybe a more sophisticated, carnivore-oriented Oxheart.  (Actually, we don’t think there’s much similarity between The Pass and Oxheart, but they are mentioned by some in the same breath, given that both restaurants opened this year, with a tasting menu concept and chefs with excellent out of town pedigrees.)

Enough with the comparisons.  The Pass stands on its own as the most innovative dining experience currently available in Houston.  Diners can choose from either a five ($75) or eight ($95) course tasting menu ($120 and $160, respectively, with wine pairings).  While you’re asked when you make the reservation whether you have any food allergies, this isn’t the place to take a fussy eater prone to requesting substitutions or changes.   And, unlike some tasting menus, there aren’t choices within each course.  We mention this only for the sake of our readers because we have no interest in interfering with Chefs Siegel-Gardner’s and Gallivan’s creativity.  We’re happy to let them do their thing and sit back and enjoy.

Of course, we went for the eight course tasting menu and one of us did the wine pairings.  We’ve been very impressed with the wine program at Provisions, having been introduced to some new and interesting wines on our visits there.  The wine pairings at The Pass also impressed, working very well with each of the dishes.   And the service was impeccable.

The Chefs intend to re-work the menu periodically, but we’d guess the themes of each course may remain somewhat consistent — Snacks, Truffles, Raw, Beef, Bread, Pig, Vegetables, Cheese, and Petite Fours.  Every course was a visual and culinary delight, with multiple components, creating a lovely and delicious palette on the plate.  Either the chefs or one of the sous chefs served each course, accompanied by a verbal description of the dish.  Yes, there were truffles, caviar, and foie gras. but the chefs clearly have fun with these classic high end ingredients.  For example, one of the Snacks was a tiny gelatinous cube flavored with foie gras and bourbon (appropriately  named a “foie gras ‘ol Fashioned”).  The truffles were grated tableside on top of a soft cooked egg.  The Raw course featured nori bucatini, uni and clams.  The Beef course was “tar tar with marrow brioche.”  The Pig course featured headcheese and blood pudding.  The Vegetable course was the most dramatic — a burning rosemary branch was presented with a squash cake and, with a visible nod to molecular cuisine, tableside created (in a huge tureen) dippin dots that (thankfully) taste nothing like those available at Space Center Houston.  And the Cheese course featured beautifully executed savory macaroons with three different cheese fillings.

Open only for dinner, a weekend reservation at The Pass continues to be  hard to come by without about a months’ wait.  Get in line.  It’s worth it.   And, taking nothing away from the Mandola and Pappas families, we need to cherish and nurture chefs and restauranteurs who are willing to bring this type of dining experience to Houston.

807 Taft
713/628-9020
http://passandprovisions.com/

Tony’s


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.
 

3755 Richmond
713/622-6778
http://tonyshouston.com/

Up Restaurant


This may be one of the harder reservations in Houston to obtain for a prime dining time, although that may change with summer upon us, and many of Up Restaurant’s target clientele headed to cooler climes.  Located in Highland Village on the third floor of what many refer to as the Cole Haan building, this restaurant is quite an ambitious endeavor by its owner who also owns Highland Village.  The restaurant is very lovely, with a warm, contemporary, upscale decor.  Kudos to the designer as there’s not a bad table in the place, which has many booths and banquettes.  There’s also a large terrace, facing west overlooking the rest of the shopping center.

On the Saturday evening we dined, the place was hopping.  The beautiful people, of all ages, appear to be flocking.  Both the dining and bar areas were filled to capacity.  We’d read on-line reviews about bad service, but our service was great.  We were warmly greeted when we emerged from the elevator.  Our reservation time was promptly honored.  And the drink and food orders came quickly.  The food (more later) probably a little too quickly.

Upon arrival, we were presented with complimentary flatbread and hummus.   It was a very good snack with our drinks and, to the restaurant’s credit, seconds and thirds were offered without asking.  We shared the chopped tuna appetizer, which was a generously sized, nicely seasoned disc of fresh tasting tuna tartare served with flatbread.   We aren’t pizza afficianados, but we’re enjoying sampling the fare from all the brick ovens opening for business in our city.  The short rib and gorgonzola pizza was topped with a mound of fresh arugula, a kind of pizza salad.  The crust was the very thin and crispy style;  the short rib pieces were tender and the gorgonzola didn’t overwhelm.
 
For an entree, we shared the crab cakes with a side of roasted brussel sprouts.   We received two large crab cakes, mostly lump meat, appropriately cooked and very enjoyable.  The roasted brussel sprouts had good flavor and carmelization, but they were way undercooked, and a trip back to the kitchen didn’t help matters.    The price point on the crab cakes was $38.  The remainder of the entrees were similar priced, comparable to Brennan’s or Mark’s.   Appetizers and pizzas were less pricey overall,  in the low to mid teens.  There’s no dessert menu and the waiter recited some of the usual suspects (cheesecake, creme brulee) that didn’t particularly entice us.  But that’s not really a criticism as we don’t usually order dessert, and Up isn’t catering to the diner that judges a place based on the pedigree of the pastry chef.

Complimentary valet parking (carefully wedged into parking spaces along Westheimer; look for the orange cones) is available and, given the restaurant’s location, is almost required unless you want to park in the shopping center across Westheimer.

Would we go back with all the many great restaurants in Houston?  Probably not soon.  We’re more into the food than the decor and who is air kissing who.  That being said, we had a lovely evening.

3995 Westheimer
713/640-5416
http://uprestaurant.com/

Restaurant Cinq at La Colombe D’Or


We hadn’t dined at this longtime Houston restaurant in many years.  It just didn’t come to mind when we thought about fine dining despite its well deserved reputation for having some of the best food and loveliest settings in town when it comes to private events.  But when we read about the new chef, Jeremie Robison, who had been at the Mansion in Dallas, and we had friends visiting from out of town who were staying in the Medical Center, it seemed like a great choice.   We were particularly excited to see the holiday decorations at this Montrose Boulevard architectural standout.

We weren’t disappointed.  Very few tables were filled on the weekday night but the ambience and service were warm and inviting.  The menu is divided between old standards that have apparently been on the menu for years and new additions from the chef.  Our friend raved over the butternut squash soup, and we enjoyed the appetizer duck tasting plate (the arugula confit salad was a standout).   Generously portioned entrees included a NY strip, grilled whole branzino, beef filet, and Chilean sea bass.  The beef was of the highest quality and perfectly cooked.  The delicate branzino was nicely done. 

The maitre ‘d couldn’t have been more gracious.  After dinner, he gave us a tour of the lovely bedroom suites and the top floor art gallery.

Give this place a shot, particularly for a special occasion.  There likely wouldn’t be a lovelier (and quiet) setting in Houston for a wedding proposal.   We look forward to trying Zimm’s Little Deck, the self-described fancy icehouse on Richmond, where the chef is also minding the stove.  

3410 Montrose
713/469-4750
http://www.lacolombedor.com/

Mark’s American Cuisine

UPDATED REVIEW:  FEBRUARY 2007 —

We are no different than many Houstonians in considering Mark’s to be a destination restaurant for special occasions.  And you can’t beat that Zagat recently listed it as one of the top ten restaurants in the U.S.  This time it was a birthday, and we splurged with the eight-course tasting menu.

No course disappointed, each was accompanied by a wonderful sauce and side, and some were particular highlights.  And the portions were quite large for a tasting menu.  In order, we dined on: a sea scallop/fried Ipswich clam combo; sauteed skate; smoked duck breast (moist and crispy, but not fatty); pineapple sorbet; a lamb chop/venison combo; a wonderfully pungent Spanish goat cheese; a dessert trio; and a selection of homemade candies and jellies.

As usual the service was very good, although perhaps a bit condescending.  Be sure to make reservations well in advance, particularly for a weekend evening.  Our request made at the time of the reservation for a table in the main room was not initially honored, but they did quickly find us the requested table.  Of note, the popularity of Mark’s means the tables are very close together.  We had to move our table to avoid being continually bumped by the waitstaff.
    

FIRST REVIEWED:  JUNE 2006 —

Expectations run high when you dine at the restaurant that Houstonians (including us) rated #1 in both the Most Popular and Top Food categories in Zagat’s most recent poll.  Mark’s lived up to the ratings.

For a Tuesday evening prior to a holiday weekend, the restaurant was hopping.  The noise level was somewhat higher than usual, probably enhanced by our sitting in the balcony next to a group of rowdy businessmen drinking flaming shots of Sambuca.   The lack of a waitress with glasses on her belt and the incredible food reminded us we weren’t at the Cadillac Bar.  We’ll get the only other gripe out of the way quickly — the service was not as attentive or cordial as usual.  Our harried waiter was spending a lot of time with the businessmen.

Now for the food — it was as good or better than ever.  There were four in our group, and we started with two appetizers —  fried oysters topped with softshell crab and fresh crab (a little pricey at $22) and a quail/foie gras combination.  Both were excellent, with clean plates all around.  Our main courses were equally as delicious.  The grilled Ahi tuna was declared the “best I’ve ever had” from someone who has spent quite a bit of time in Hawaii.  We’ve never seen such large lamb chops as those that appeared in a rack of lamb/duck breast combination, and the taste wasn’t compromised by the size; the accompanying foie gras only further improved a great dish.  The soft shell crab reappeared as an entrée, served over yummy artichoke risotto.  And the seared tenderloin of beef medallions disappeared quickly.  For dessert, we enjoyed the coffee toffee tart (try saying that after a few glasses of wine) and the peanut butter sundae (yes, it actually had ice cream, unlike the “sundaes” at Pic). 

Once again, a great dining experience.  We highly recommend you visit.  (If you’re going for quiet conversation or romance, which is not a bad idea as the former church is a lovely setting, you may want to ask for a table in the side room.)

http://www.marks1658.com/
1658 Westheimer
713 / 523-3800 

 

Brennan’s

We had occasion to lunch separately on two consecutive days at this Houston institution.  Brennan’s was one of the last places in town to require that men wear a jacket (supplying a jacket with the scarlet letter “B” on the lapel if you arrived without, which you only did once), but that appears to be a vestige of the past.  The restaurant is as lovely as ever; in fact, in the 25 years since at least one of us first dined there, it doesn’t seem to have changed much.  We didn’t eat in the courtyard but have always found it to be a very lovely setting.

The service was very good.  On one day, it was slightly less than perfect but not a fatal flaw.  It is a curious practice to replace water and iced tea with new glasses rather than simply do refills, although that avoids the age-old problem of having continually to readjust the lemon and/or sweetener balance.

With respect to the food, the turtle soup continues to be a very popular choice, with nobody avoiding the sherry even at non-drinking lunches.  There were no food disappointments among a total of 14 diners.  The crab cakes were particularly good; the crab and fried green tomato salad got raves, as did the fried oysters; the steak frites was a popular choice.  The ever popular Brennan’s dessert — Bananas Foster — continued to delight, as did the pecan pie parfait.

All in all, this is a great restaurant, well-deserving of the praise it receives.  And, if you work downtown, it can’t be beat for a business lunch — an opportunity one should take since the prices, even at lunch, are up there.

3300 Smith Street
713/522-9711
http://www.brennanshouston.com/