Restaurants are still opening?
Terrible economic times. Worst recession in our lifetime. Dozens of Houston restaurants have closed -- even Hue.
Yet somehow, someone keeps opening new restaurants.
A new Benjy's
Benjy's just opened a second location on the far west end of Washington. Last night -- a Tuesday -- every table was full, and the restaurant buzzed with energy.
The question that every fan of Benjy's will ask is: Is it different? The answer: a little.
The dining room seems bigger -- and much more brown. Wood dominates. The feel is a little 1970s, a little contemporary, and warm. For diners on Washington, you might expect an average age of about 25. Strangely, though, the crowd seemed about decade older than the Rice Village location, which has remained forever young.
The menu looks similar to the Village's menu. Only a handful of the listed dishes are different. But the teams of chefs are different. And the preparations also differ slightly.
Take, the tuna pizzette. It had most of the same ingredients as in the Village, but less wasabi cream sauce and a much thinner, more cracker-like crust. I usually prefer thin crusts, but this one was less like a pizza, more like a matzo cracker. Yet it had some nice flavor additions, including dried peppers and wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe).
One dish served only on Washington is crispy tofu steak with curried tomatoes. I enjoyed the tofu's texture - crispy outside and soft middle. And I especially liked the bright and spicy Indian-flavored tomato sauce.
Although Benjy's always has dabbled in international cuisines, this was the first dish I remember with an Indian twist. I hope they continue to experiment like this.
And I hope they continue to get the crowd.
Although Cafe Byblos only opened in the past several months, the Press's Paul Galvani already called it "Houston's finest Lebanese restaurant." So what does he mean by "finest"?
Perhaps Byblos has the finest decor. The restaurant, on Richmond near Fountainview, feels like it could be in Vegas - a large dining area with a giant television projection screen, surrounded with oversized booths.
Or perhaps Byblos has the finest atmosphere. Byblos seems to want to sell itself as a party place. It often has belly dancing and flamenco. But last Sunday evening, only four tables were full. And the only entertainment was loud, sexually-suggestive Syrian music videos - something I didn't know existed. I enjoyed the videos, but they did not fit a quiet restaurant on a Sunday night.
Does Byblos have the finest food?
The babaghanuj had too much tahini and not enough smoky eggplant flavor. It tasted more like nut butter than an eggplant dip. I much prefer the babaghanuj at nearby Mint Cafe - and at least 4 0r 5 other Houston restaurants.
Byblos's Lahm Bi Ajeen (Lebanese pizza) was a nice surprise -- a mix of minced lamb and tomatoes on a thin crust. It is an interesting taste, not on many other Houston menus.
Galvani had recommended the mixed grill, which includes (1) a kafta kebob with mixed lamb, (2) a beef kabob, and (3) shish taouk - marinated chicken breast. I have had better shish taouk in Houston - especially at Mary'z. This chicken did not have much marinade flavor, and was not accompanied with garlic sauce. But the lamb had exotic spices and a nice charcoal flavor. And the beef kabob was the best of the bunch -- cooked medium rare and full of juice.
So, is this the finest Lebanese restaurant in Houston? I am not ready to say that about the food -- at least not yet. Byblos is off to a good start, but it has some tough neighborhood competition.