Thursday, June 30, 2011

Where I'm eating now - 2011 version

It has been 12 months, and my standby restaurants have changed. Time for an update.

These are are not necessarily Houston's best restuarants -- although some of them are. They are where I eat most often because of the combination of food, drinks, value, and feel.

Top 20 (2011)

Heavy rotation

Vinoteca Poscol (Italian, Montrose). Marco's wine bar remains one of the most compelling places in town to eat. I haven't found better house-made charcuterie. Most of the daily specials are tasty, but I more often am drawn to the daily-special terrine with unusual combinations like rabbit meat, peas, Lambrusco and sweet potatoes. It has Houston's most affordable great wine list. And that dessert with marscapone and stewed dates is incredible.

Feast (Rustic European, Montrose). I have heard that the original owner team may all return to the Houston location. After all, New Orleans may not be as adventurous as Houston. Let's hope they do return and stay. Although Feast is best known for its offal and other unusual ingredients, the big secret is that this kitchen could make any ingredient, no matter how mundane, taste good. This is delicious food -- and easily one of Houston's top 3 restaurants, if not the best.

Kata Robata (Japanese/Modern American, Kirby). What a remarkable year. As Chef Hori-San continued turning out the best sashimi dishes in Houston, the kitchen added Seth Siegel-Gardner, one of Houston's most adventurous chefs. The result was a mix of molecular gastronomy and Japanese food unlike anywhere else. Seth brought together small plates with bewildering combinations of ingredients. Many of his best dishes focused not on seafood, but on park. For six months, Kata Robata was Houston's best restaurant. Sadly, Seth only planned to stay half a year, and he left this month. Yet Hori remains, and continues to prepare the best Japanese food in Houston.

Pondicheri / The Queen Vic Pub (Indian, Kirby area) These two casual Indian restaurants have taught me how well Indian food works great beer. Indika's sister, Pondicheri, has the edge on food and atmosphere. Chef Anita Jaisinghani changes the menu from week to week, making her unusual Indian dishes even more interesting. The best dishes are often street-food appetizers and thali combination plates. The modern atmosphere with lots of light and Indian fabrics makes this one of my favorite spaces in town.

Queen Vic -- Oporto's sister restaurant -- combines British Indian food with British pub food, yet doesn't hold back on spices. The curries here are particularly good. The best dish may be scotch egg, a gently hard-boiled egg surrounded by a thick crust of ground lamb resting in a sea of spicy curry. The beer list is better than Pondicheri, and one of the best in the city.

Himalaya. (Indian/Pakistani, Southwest Freeway) I don't particularly like to eat in this restaurant, but it is my favorite place for takeout. The Indo-Pakistani dishes burst with spice, flavor, and comforting textures. I have had a lot of Indian food around the country, but nothing else quite so good.

Medium rotation

Down House (Heights). This is a new breakfast/lunch hangout in the Heights with a Darwin theme (!!?). They offer beer pairings with every dish, yet they close at 3 p.m. Surely that will change soon? Although the menu is neither big nor particularly revolutionary, I like the focus on simple flavors and local ingredients. A pork belly banh mi may be my favorite banh mi in town. A grilled lemon chicken sandwich with olive tapenade, capers and feta cream is far better than any chicken sandwich should be. The fish tacos with sauteed cabbage and carots are superlative -- if a little too pricey.

Pho Binh (Vietnamese, locations around town). The lunch crowd is a diverse group of working men. They are drawn by the meaty broth, noodles, and beef parts that populate my favorite bowl of pho in Houston. If you don't want pho, don't go.

Giacomo's cibo e vino (Italian, Kirby area). Despite an excellent entree involving chicken and butter, the highlights are mostly tapas-sized dishes on the ciccheti menu, with dishes like cumin-spiced lamb meatballs and braised chicken thighs with sweet peppers and onions. It's a great place for a light meal. Judging by the crowd, women seem to like this place a lot. Decent Italian wine list.

Udipi Cafe (Indian, southwest). As a meat lover, I feel guilty eating at this Southern Indian vegetarian buffet off Hillcroft. Will they smell the odor of beef on me? Will they see that pork-eater look in my eyes? Yet within minutes of eating this delicious, spicy food, I forget that I am eating nothing but vegetables. This is diverse food, combining a multitude of flavors.

Zelko Bistro (Heights, modern). Perhaps not deserving of all the hype, this is one of the better new Houston restaurants. The menu and preparations are simple, almost earnest. I particularly like the daily fish, which almost always seems to be grouper.

El Real (Tex-Mex, Montrose). El Real does not deserve all of the negative / ambivalent reviews it has received. Were the reviewers eating at another restaurant? Or did they just not get it? This is true, classic Tex Mex of the highest order. That means you get a lot of mild chili gravy, cheese, and lard. El Real captures the classic flavor of Felix's and improves on it. It also channels a lot of other Tex-Mex classics from around the state. I love the queso, the guacamole, the chips, the salsa, and the enchiladas. Nothing too fancy. This is real.

Pico's Mex-Mex (Mexican, Bellaire). While on the subject of Mexican food, Pico's has been on my top 10 and 20 lists from the beginning. Avoid standard Tex-Mex or fajitas and order something from the specials board or something from Oaxaca or Yucatan. The mole is sublime.

Hugo's (Mexican, Montrose). High-end Mexican food that reflects the personality of his chef. Plus the only great wine list I have ever seen in a Mexican restaurant.

Garson (Persian, Southwest). I recently rediscovered this elegant Iranian restaurant, which serves tasty grilled meats and complex stews. I really dig the flat bread, feta, radishes, and herbs they serve gratis to start the meal.

Philippe's Restaurant (French and Southwestern, Galleria). Honestly, it sounds like a bad idea to combine high-end French cuisine with Texas flavors and traditions. That's why Philippe Schmit's new restaurant is so surprising. Tuna tartare with tequila tastes like some classic Tex-Mex dish. Burgundy beef cheeks looks like beef bourguignon, but taste like -- a juicy barbecue brisket? I especially like the dishes served in a jar, such as snapper/potato brandade (dip) and venison pate. I like this food more in winter.

Tan Tan (Chinese, Bellaire Chinatown). I can't decide on my favorite restaurant in Houston's glorious Chinatown, so I will list the one I visited last. Huge menu with great noodle dishes. This is part of Houston's unique Chinese/Vietnamese fusion. Both cuisines are well represented here in a cheesy, festive environment. Fun.

Piola (Pizza, Midtown). My current favorite pizza place. Piola is an international chain with crispy-crust pizza. The menu is as interesting as it is oblivious to American pizza restaurant cliches.

Haven (Southern, Kirby). Not just local ingredients, but local cuisine, inspired by East Texas food from a pre-International era. This is the oustanding Southern food restaurant that Houston always deserved and finally has.

Reef (Seafood, Midtown). The seafood served may change daily or weekly, but the flavors all seem to remain the same. Reef seems like its in a bit of a rut. Still, it has some of the best dishes in town and remains the best representative of Gulf Coast seafood.

Honorable mentions: Bootsie's Heritage Cafe (not on the list because its in Tomball), Mary'z, Stella Sola, Revival Meats, Asia Market, Brasserie Max & Julie, Fung's Kitchen, Benjy's, Shade, Backstreet Cafe, Divino, Dolce Vita, Kraftsmen's Cafe, Teotihuacan, Pasha, Mandarin Cafe, Laurier Cafe, Indika.

There are a number of good restaurants (Da Marco, Tony's, Chez Roux) that are not on this list because I just haven't been in the past year.