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Hot to Trot

Houston's 10 best spots for a first date.

3. The Tasting Room, Bistro Alex and Monnalisa

There are a lot of ways to do a date right at CityCentre, but this trio is my favorite. Enjoy a glass of wine (and usually some live music) at The Tasting Room, then walk across the fountain-flanked lawn for dinner at Bistro Alex — the chic little sister to Brennan's, featuring the same sort of classic Creole cuisine with a modern twist. Go ultra-lux after dinner in the adjoining Monnalisa bar, with a second-story swimming pool and deck that overlooks the entire CityCentre complex, or stay cozy by the indoor fire pit. You can even make a staycation out of it by booking a room at the boutique-y Hotel Sorella.

2. Double Trouble, Tacos a Go-Go or Sparrow and Alley Kat

As with Market Square, there's so much to do on the "Best Block in Houston" that you can make several dates out of this two-block stretch of Main Street in Midtown. Aside from the Ensemble Theatre, you can catch live shows at the Continental Club every night of the week — plus, there's usually live music at Natachee's and Big Top Lounge on the weekends, too. Start out with coffee and/or cocktails at Tiki-themed Double Trouble, browse the record selection at Sig's Lagoon next door and walk across the street to eat dinner at Tacos a Go-Go (low-key), Julia's Bistro (mid-range) or Monica Pope's new restaurant, Sparrow (high-end). If you don't catch a show, finish off the evening with drinks at the sleek, surprisingly upscale Alley Kat lounge, which recently took the place of The Mink.

1. Down House

With the perfect mix of fancy and casual, this eatery/drinkery in the Heights is a dynamic spot to take a first date for caffeine, a laid-back lunch or a romantic dinner. Open daily from 9 a.m. to midnight, the cafe/restaurant/bar — decked out with Victorian decor in some spots, modern industrial hip in others — delivers with amazing coffee, salads and grass-fed Texas beef burgers, lots of local beers on tap and a no-joke cocktail list that includes barrel-aged Manhattans and bourbon mai tais. Predictably, it's often busy on weekend nights, but not enough of a zoo to make you change your plans. Plus, the spot is a good launching pad for the next bar, a movie or a show.
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HOW TO

SLURP IT UP
A newbie's guide to eating and enjoying ramen.

MOLLY DUNN

If you've been keeping up with the Houston happenings in Japanese cuisine, you will notice that ramen dishes are popping up all over the place. Carl Rosa, founder of the Sushi Club of Houston, started the Ramen in Common group less than one month ago as a response to ramen's new high-profile status as an "it" food.

"Although Houston-area Japanese restaurants have been serving ramen for years, it's just begun to grow in popularity," says Rosa. "And though many Houstonians are now interested in ramen, they may not have an outlet for recommendations, reliable reviews and guidance. That's where Ramen in Common will come into the picture."

Rosa says there are actually guidelines to eating ramen correctly, and many beginners make a lot of mistakes the first time they eat a ramen dish. So to create a list of rules and guidelines for eating ramen, Rosa visited every Japanese restaurant that he knows and has faith in.

Faith in a restaurant was important to Rosa, since the idea behind the Ramen in Common group is to educate the public not only on ramen but on traditional Japanese cuisine.

"There is nothing wrong with fusion Japanese cuisine," says Rosa, "and there is nothing wrong with traditional Japanese cuisine, as long as people can tell the difference."

According to the Ramen in Common guidelines, traditional Japanese ramen comes in many varieties, including tonkotsu, shoyu, tonkotsu-shoyu, shio and miso. But the foundation of ramen dishes is the same for all of them — broth and noodles. These two components work together to create a harmonious dish, but they must be spectacular by themselves as well.

"The broth is a different issue than the noodle, which is a different issue than the egg, which is a different issue than the pork," says Rosa. "Everything stands alone; you can grade it individually and then all together."

Rosa suggests five components you should consider when evaluating your ramen:

1. Temperature

A ramen dish must be hot, not lukewarm. In fact, Rosa says, if it isn't hot, send the bowl back. That seems simple enough.

2. Smell

Just as you would smell wine before taking a sip, you should smell your bowl of ramen before consuming it. Smelling the ramen is a way to determine if you will enjoy the flavor. For example, with tonkotsu ramen, you should smell slow-cooked salted pork instantly.

3. Broth

The broth of a ramen dish is extremely important and should be the first component of the dish you taste. Basically, if you enjoy the broth, you will most likely enjoy the entire ramen dish.

4. Noodle

After you taste the broth, taste the noodles. When a ramen dish is prepared, the noodles are added to the broth right before the bowl is served. The noodles need to complement the broth in flavor and not stick together, just like pasta, and should be al dente — not hard and not soft. If you pick up your noodles with chopsticks and the noodles break apart or are in one giant clump, then the dish wasn't made properly. Rosa says that you want to be sure the noodles marinate in the broth.

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