Thursday, March 09, 2006

top 10 and then some

I have been on a hiatus recently. I have been too busy at work, plus I am out of the country all next week.

So, to maintain interest and possibly some debate, here is the list of my 10 favorite restaurants in Houston at the moment. It goes without saying that this is highly subjective and subject to change tomorrow.

1. laidback manor. This is the most creative restaurant in Houston at the moment. Chef Rucker is a genius. Try it.

2. Noe. This is the other most creative restaurant in Houston -- a fusion of French, Japanese, Italian, and American cuisine. A single dish at Noe can have dozens of complex ingredients and flavors.

3. Da Marco. Easily the best Italian restaurant in Houston, or maybe even in the country. Yes, it is far too pricey, and the markup on the extensive Italian wine list is very high. But the food is worth it.

4. Aries. Good ingredients, creative chef, nice setting, high prices.

5. Le Mistral. This is my favorite French food in Houston (actually, it is in far, far west Houston). The wine list is not as good as Cafe Rabelais, but it is very good, and very French.

6. The Strip House. This steak house barely beats out Pappas Bros. and only because the food is a little bit better.

7. Backstreet Cafe. This little restaurant has been serving outstanding, casual, southwestern food and interesting, reasonable wines for around 20 years. Its sister restaurants -- Hugo's, Trevisio, and Prego -- are great, but Backstreet remains the Queen.

8. T'afia. Fresh and local to the extreme. It may not be quite as good as Monica Pope's previous restaurants -- Quilted Toque and Boulevard Bistro -- but she remains an important champion of local foods and wines and one of the best chefs in Houston. This is the only restaurant where I actually have had good Texas wines.

9. Pico's. Houston is a Mexican food town. Pico's is as good as it gets.

10. Ibiza. Yes, the crowd and the proprietors can be a little too hip and fabulous, but Ibiza has a handful of great dishes and the best-priced wine list in Houston. Frankly, it is the wine list that merits its place on this list.

Almost made my list:

-Cafe Rabelais -- Great French food and French wine list. They do not take reservations, and the wait can be painful.

-Indika -- Indian fusion food. This really ought to be in my top 10, but what would I take off?

-Mark's -- For a long time, this was my favorite restaurant in town. But the last two meals I have had there were dull. A restaurant is only as good as your last meal there.

-Benjy's -- Casual Southwestern/Asian fusion. They have not stayed as innovative as they were in the 1990s, but they have stayed very good.

-Bank -- I have had some incredible dishes here and some dull dishes here. One consistent aspect of this pricey restaurant is lousy service. On my last visit, I waited over an hour after my reservation during which time they seated a local socialite who had no reservation at all. Still, the occasional bursts of food creativity were almost enough to make my list.

-Pesce -- Pricey, but creative seafood in a fabulous see-and-be-seen setting. In other words, the crowd is annoying, but the fish is good.

-Simposio -- My other favorite Italian restaurant.

-Hugo's -- The most creative and unusual Mexican food in Houston. It is a shame that the food does not taste quite as good as Pico's.

-Rioja -- The best Spanish food and Spanish wine list in town.

-Bistro Moderne -- Their crab and avocado bombe is the bomb. The food is so good, I don't know why the foodie scene does not frequent this spot.

-Cafe Annie -- The menu does not change enough to be truly creative. The wine list is not as good since their wine guy left for the French Laundry in Napa. But Cafe Annie is still a Houston institution -- the best place in town to sit in the bar and pay $900 for a rare California cult cabernet and a cheeseburger.

-Kubo's -- Best Japanese food in Houston.

-Saffron -- Best Moroccan food in Houston. Then again, it may be the only Moroccan food in Houston.

-Alexander the Great Greek. Best Greek food.

-Mai's. Houston has a lot of very good Vietnamese restaurants, but no great ones yet. Mai's is still my favorite.


Anonymous said...

I posted previous about trying Laid Back Manor, and as it turns out you already reviewed it.
You really seem to know alot about food and wine, and good food and wine at that, for an attorney.
Your reviews are descriptive and accurate, as opposed to some onlinve reviews by people on city search and b4ueat, who explain the food, say it's bad, but don't say why or what was wrong with it, just that it's bad. That irks me, you have to explain if it's tasteless, improperly seasoned, etc..
I am in the food industry in houston and enjoy reading food blogsin my spare time, and I stumbled upon your blog.
LAid Back Manor is one of those places I want to survive , largely because it is everything Houston dining is not. But in my opinion, Houston being the 4th largest city, there is no reason a restaurant like this can't survive and shouldn't be here. The portions are small yes, but do we realy need to be eating as much as food as we are served in most places? Laid Back Manor curbs gluttony and excess, by serving tiny portions, where each bite can be savored and analyzed, not devoured. Hopefully people will frequent it and accept and enjoy it, so it can survive.
Your top 10 is interesting , and mostly right on, as there is one restaurant that you didn't put on, but mentioned afterwards that could definitely be up there.

Anonymous said...

In response to your interest and possibly some in debate, I will attempt to take issue with your listing. I submit the provocative notion that your interest in discussion is a farce and that your restaurant list is narrowly focused and ostentatious. Allow me to elaborate.

One major problem with your list is what it is – “your 10 favorite restaurants in Houston at the moment.” Who can challenge that? Furthermore, it’s “highly subjective and subject to change tomorrow.” Why that’s nice. So a little too much steak seasoning or they can be reported for “slim in the ice machine” and…pop! They are off your list. Nice…. There is not doubt, you’re a very good lawyer.

Second major problem…what’s the criteria for making the list? A weeks pay for a meal for two? Look, nothing is wrong with your list. If I’m trying to impress my date or flash the minions. These are fairly high end, see and be seen restaurants. Any local society gossip columnist or want-to-be food critic who has worked their way up through a kitchen could have made this list. Nice list but what’s the criteria for success? High dollar, waiter, expensive wine list, table cloth, expensive small portions arranged in an artful way? What is truly the criteria for a good restaurant? What makes it a favorite?

To me, a restaurant is good within the context of the moment.

Hell, after a long night of hard drinking, you can’t beat Waffle House or Denny’s. At 3:00 AM drunk off your rocker, increase the grease intake. It will make your hair shinny and cuts the hangover in half!

The Waffle House and Denny’s are about breakfast – the best meal of the day. Have you ever had a bad meal at either of these two restaurants? Consistent, good portions, exactly what you expect and you eat something which will help you in the morning. Orange/Tomato Juice, water, various sugars, fats and proteins which mitigate the downside or start you off right in the morning. I even like these restaurants when I’m not drunk.

My kids jump at the chance to have breakfast at Denny’s or WH. The family always has a great time and leave full and happy. The IHOP is in this category, but service is not so good at the restaurant around our house. The context of the moment plays an important role in determining if a restaurant is good or bad.

It’s all in the context of the moment. In one of those corporate team building exercises, I was asked what was my favorite restaurant. The “team members” mention many of the restaurants on your list – Mark’s, Backdoor etc. I blew them away when I said Chuck E. Cheese’s. Yea, I said, it’s the only restaurant in town my kids enjoy it, I can drink a beer for less than a cost of a six pack and complete a conversation with my lovely wife without getting interrupted. What a great place: happy kids-good conversation-good inexpensive beer! Honestly, the pizza’s not that good, but I enjoy seeing my kids have a good time and they haven’t served beer at Rat Pizza Palace for nearly 4 years. It’s still one of my favorite restaurants today.

I do enjoy the hoity-totity restaurants you have listed. I really believe Prego should get more than a mention and the Back Door should come off the list. The Back Door is extremely inconsistent and tried to serve me tilapia instead of the flounder one night (always ask for the skin on one side or the tail). Prego is consistently great, wine list is very good and ranges from expensive for those who need to flash to inexpensive for those who truly get it about wine.

Just some thoughts…more later.

Anonymous said...

Back Door = BackStreet Cafe

Anonymous said...

Maybe the author should have added
"Fine Dining" after Top 10, as these are Fine Dining restaurants.
Not to discredit your family outings/bondings at Chuckecheese and Denny's, but those are not restaurants per se, only -meals under 10 dollars-.
What again is the "context of the moment"
As a person who works in a kitchen, at one restaurant mentioned, I shutter at your almost disregard for what it is exactly that we do, "artfully arranging small portions on a plate" and what role the waitstaff may play...... Fine dining can be an art yes, the experience is a prodution, alot of work goes into what we do........A Top 10 restaurant should have excellent and consistent food, seamless service, and a great ambiance, in my opinion,and after working in this environment around all the high priced food items,my favorite "restaurants" at the end of the day are still Fadi's,Mai's,La Tapatia, Nit Noi.

Anonymous said...

My comments were not indented to diminish or put down the fine dining restaurants and more importantly the staff which deliver the unique experiences for each establishment. I regret my comments can be interpreted as offensive. My intent was to challenge the list maker with the notion that a good restaurant is defined by one’s expectations / criteria for the experience.

I submit that a good restaurant delivers an exceptional experience which meets or exceeds what the guest is looking for at that particular moment. In the fine dinning space, the list above represents the “fine dinning” experience very well. The other, shall we say, eating experiences I mentioned deliver against a somewhat more basic set of expectations. This doesn’t make the restaurant bad, just lower on the hierarchy of needs. These are very different experiences with different expectations. Again, please excuse the lack of tact in my comments above. Can I pass the plate of crow yet?

What is the experience / criteria a fine dinning restaurant should achieve? If there are different expectations/criteria at a particular moment, how can we judge? All we can tell is if we judge the same, not if one is better than the other.

The range of my expectations is based upon my past experiences. I fell in love in a fine dining restaurant...twice! I fell in lust once at a Big Boy in Austin. Both have their place in my past.

How do we evaluate the list above? What criteria should be used? If you have been to Fadi’s, Mai’s, La Tapatia and Nit Noi, you had great food at a nice place. But can these restaurants get on “the” list?

I challenge the readership to dine and post an evaluation based on a consistent set of criteria. These criteria should set expectations.

Minimum Criteria:
1. Decor and Ambiance
2. Wait Staff: Currtuis, knows what is on the menu and how it the food is prepared. Communicates well in English and makes you feel at ease (not up-tight and intimidated).
3. Alcoholic Beverages: wine list should look like the chef selected the wines rather than the distributor. Nice to have variety of Beer and maybe a signature mixed drink.
4. Food Variety and Specialty
5. Food Presentation (appearance)
6. Food Taste (Variety and blend)
7. Help! Others?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your blog--this is good food writing. I especially liked your championing of Laidback Manor. I really hope they make it.

Anonymous said...

eagerly waiting your return! when's the hiatus over?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Anonymous' 8:21pm comment. Regardless of your tact, don't back off of your point. I was initially excited to review the Top 10 list but my enthusiasm quickly waned when I saw the "less than creative" list. I could have picked up a Zagat guide or pulled up Citysearch restaurants with four $$$$ signs for that list. I think it's about expectations. What restaurants exceed your "expectations"? I expect great food, top-notch service, and provocative decor for the price paid at the restaurants you listed. There's no surprise to that or they won't be able to charge those prices for long. I would rather see a list of restaurants that exceed your expectations for its cost/location/expertise/ambiance. What are your top 10 places to eat when you are alone and have no motivation to impress a guest?