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The 10 Best Downtown Restaurants

More than tunnels and tourist traps.

Top 10

New restaurants and bars are opening in downtown Houston faster than we can keep up, thanks to a renaissance around the Market Square Park area that's bringing new life to downtown's north side. But that's not the only part of downtown that's blossoming — nor are those new restaurants the only game in town.

Honorable mention:

Treebeard's, for holding it down with badass red beans and rice since 1978; Hearsay, for helping lead the revitalization charge on Market Square and concocting delicious cocktails; Niko Niko's, for offering pitas in the park; Mia Bella, for hosting the best brunch on Main Street; Macondo, for serving excellent Colombian cuisine and coffee; Kobecue, for bringing Korean fusion to the heart of downtown; and Spindletop, for boasting the best view in the city.

Irma Galvan at her namesake restaurant.
Stephanie Meza
Irma Galvan at her namesake restaurant.
Venison carpaccio at Quattro.
Mai Pham
Venison carpaccio at Quattro.
A plate of mixed vegetable wats at Lucy.
Katharine Shilcutt
A plate of mixed vegetable wats at Lucy.
What will become of Raku's red ropes?
Troy Fields
What will become of Raku's red ropes?

10. Goro & Gun / Batanga

Because these two restaurants are still so new, it's risky to put them any higher on the list, but they both deserve a lot of credit for bringing something bold and new downtown. Batanga offers a modern take on tapas and a beautiful patio to enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner on Market Square. Goro & Gun is the city's first full-scale ramen shop but also offers a menu of pan-Asian-­inspired dishes and a cocktail program to rival that at Anvil, plus outdoor seating on this newly busy stretch of Main Street.

9. MKT Bar

Dining inside MKT Bar is slightly akin to an out-of-body experience. You're in a familiar Houston institution (Phoenicia Specialty Foods, which adjoins MKT Bar) and those are definitely Houston's streets outside, but there's an urban European feel to the scene that's unusual and appealing. Credit the long, sleek marble bar and its eccentric wine and beer selection, or the gelato case and menu of Lebanese-inspired pizzas. Grocery shopping in the Phoenicia — the United Nations of food — only adds to the fun, while live music in the evenings and specials like MKT Bar's popular steak night keep it busy every night.

8. The Grove / The Lake House

These two restaurants in plush downtown park Discovery Green are both owned by the Schiller-Del Grande group, although they offer different experiences. Enjoy an upscale dinner inside the architecturally stunning Grove, which provides a beautiful view onto the park by day or night. For something far more low-key, get a burger and fries from the fast-casual Lake House and take in the fun from the sprawling lakeside deck.

7. The Burger Guys / Bombay Pizza

Separated by just two blocks, these two independently owned lunchtime favorites on Main Street are proof that downtown's office workers will emerge from the tunnels onto the streets if the food is good enough. The Burger Guys took its successful gourmet burger concept from far West Houston and transplanted it into a much larger space, with duck fat French fries and Vietnamese iced coffee-flavored milkshakes intact. Bombay Pizza offers intriguing and inexpensive Italian-Indian fusion at lunch and dinner, as well as delivery to downtown offices and high-rises.

6. Vic & Anthony's

Downtown's premier steakhouse is all glitz, all glam, all the time — even during its popular Burger Fridays, when chef Carlos Hernandez pulls out all the stops to create hits like the Bone Marrow and Bacon Burger topped with bone marrow custard, smoked Gouda, pickled shallots, Thai chili and (of course) bacon. By night, the glittering dining rooms offer some of the city's best steaks and service while the murky piano bar is full of "dark corners for doing dark deeds."

5. Hubcap Grill

Ask any burger fan to list his five favorite burgers in Houston, and Hubcap Grill will inevitably fall somewhere on that list. Owner Ricky Craig is famous for his fusion burgers (Philly cheesesteaks and muffulettas are just two sandwiches he's transformed into fantastic burgers); his colorful personality; and the long lines at the tiny, cash-only joint he runs with the help of his family. Hubcap's downtown location is only open at lunch; head to the Heights if you want Craig's burgers (and some ice cold beer) for dinner.

4. Irma's

This enormously popular Tex-Mex spot on the edge of downtown keeps accreting like some whimsical urban coral reef. Take in the irrepressible Irma Galvan's folksy decor, politically wired clientele and enormously comforting Mexican mom-food: landmark cheese enchiladas, real mole, chiles rellenos, pork ribs in home-style tomatillo sauce. Don't sweat the lack of menus, and instead sip some of Irma's lemonade while you wait. Although it used to be lunch-only, Irma's now serves dinner on Thursdays through Saturdays.

3. Line & Lariat

Chef David Luna's modern Texas fare at Line & Lariat showcases the best the Lone Star State has to offer, from surf to turf. Try the Gulf-caught red snapper or cobia for lighter fare that doesn't skimp on flavor, or go whole hog with an antelope steak or mustard-roasted wild boar chop. You'll find everything from German and Mexican to cowboy and Cajun influences on the menu, which ranges from pulled pork tostadas (which make a great bar snack with a pint of locally brewed beer) to filé gumbo filled with Gulf shrimp and local chicken — all of it served in a converted two-story bank lobby that's simply the most stunning dining room downtown.

2. Quattro at the Four Seasons

Lunch is rather standard at this downtown hotel restaurant, offering Continental business fare. Dinner is where Italian-born chef Maurizio Ferrarese is allowed to shine, however, and when the prices reflect the quality of Quattro's simple, streamlined dishes and house-made pastas. Ferrarese's signature short rib ravioli with black truffle and corn purée is a favorite, as are his perfectly executed risotto dishes. Sunday brunch is a popular draw, too, with a lavish buffet that's justifiably famous.

1. Oxheart

Chef Justin Yu joined forces with his pastry chef wife, Karen Man, to create a restaurant that's wholly Houston except for one notable thing: Instead of sprawl, the tiny Oxheart seats only 30 people. Yu and Man highlight locally grown produce and locally raised meats on their veggie-heavy menus, which change from week to week. Three different chef's tasting menus are available at night, priced from two affordable four-course menus to a more extravagant affair with seven courses. All three tasting menus are available with wine pairings, which are as joyfully unusual as the food: a sweet Blandy's Sercial Madeira paired with a dusky, savory sunflower seed soup, for example, or Kalin Cellars Semillon drunk with a rabbit saddle cooked with green garlic ash. Oxheart is one of the restaurants chiefly responsible for bringing waves of national attention to Houston's current dining scene, which is all the more satisfying given the restaurant's entirely humble setting and cozy appeal.
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For Your Health

Bursting Your Bubble
FDA says no to caffeinated gum.

Molly Dunn

Wrigley's new caffeinated gum, Alert Energy Gum, only lasted a couple of weeks on the shelves of supermarkets, grocery stores and convenient stores after the FDA became concerned about the amount of caffeine each piece offered.

With 40 milligrams of caffeine (equal to half a cup of coffee) in each piece of gum, it's no shock as to why the FDA was concerned, especially because we live in a world where energy drinks and coffee thrive. Although other gum companies have released their own caffeinated items, such as Mentos's Up2U Gum and Jolt's energy gum, the FDA has become recently concerned with the amount of added caffeine in foods and drinks.

In fact, the main worry the FDA has about caffeinated beverages and foods is that most of the products are marketed to children, who shouldn't be consuming energy drinks and coffee throughout the day. The FDA's limit for caffeine consumed each day is 400 milligrams, the equivalent of four or five cups of coffee. This limit is set for adults, but the FDA discourages the consumption of caffeine or caffeinated items by children and youths.

Gum is an item consumed by people of all ages, so unlike alcohol, it isn't blocked from being purchased by children or adolescents. In a statement from the FDA, Michael R. Taylor, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the agency, said, "One pack of this gum is like having four cups of coffee in your pocket. Caffeine is even being added to jelly beans, marshmallows, sunflower seeds and other snacks for its stimulant effect."

While the package of Alert Energy Gum has eight pieces, it's quite easy for a single person to chew an entire pack in one day. In fact, many Americans are guilty of being chain chewers. If caffeinated gum were chewed in such a manner, many people would take in too much caffeine on a daily basis, especially if they consume other caffeinated foods, such as coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks.

Taylor praised Wrigley for taking the product off the market once the FDA raised concerns about added caffeine in general.

The concern raised by the FDA calls for us to wonder if caffeinated beverages or foods, including caffeinated gum, will be restricted for use by children and younger adults or if the amount of consumption by individuals will be limited. Caffeine has the potential to produce effects on sleep, heart rates and blood pressure, and can cause headaches and dizziness and increase anxiety.

But for now, you won't see Alert Energy Gum on the shelves in your local grocery or convenience store while the FDA investigates caffeinated foods and drinks.
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Top 5

Teach a Man to Fish
The 5 best cookbooks to give as gifts to recent grads.

Molly Dunn

The end of May is approaching, meaning that graduation season has begun. Many high school and college graduates will soon be on their own and no longer under the wings of their parents, which means that they must provide for themselves. All parents want to know that their children can feed themselves properly and otherwise take care of themselves.

So, as a gift to these recent graduates, give them a cookbook to help guide them through cooking on their own. Here are some we think are good bets:

5. The Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen Cookbook

Not only does this cookbook provide 375 recipes made in a test kitchen, it's all bound together with a ring-binder, making it easy to flip through while you're cooking. It's filled with all sorts of recipes varying in cooking methods and nutrition. In fact, some dishes come with a smart-phone tag that links the user to a how-to video for more help.

4. Modernist Cuisine at Home

If your son or daughter is a cooking fanatic and loves the science behind cooking, then this book is for him or her. Rather than buying the complete six-volume set of Modernist Cuisine, simply give your child the at-home cookbook filled with basics for a modern kitchen and more than 400 recipes. If your graduate loves to experiment with different techniques, equipment and foods, then he'll have a blast cooking out of Modernist Cuisine at Home.

3. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics

Anyone who reads this cookbook will gain useful information about basic techniques in the kitchen, providing him with the skill set he needs to prepare basic recipes. For someone who's living life on his own, a basic cookbook like this is exactly what he or she needs to learn how to cook. It's filled with photo illustrations to better teach each recipe, as well as 185 recipes.

2. Martha Stewart's Cooking School

When I left for college, my mom gave me this cookbook, and it has proven to be a useful guide whenever I'm searching for tips and steps on certain techniques, like peeling and de-veining shrimp, preparing certain vegetables and learning what different cooking terms mean. Having this reference guide on hand has definitely made life much easier in the kitchen, and the techniques include easy-to-follow photographs. With the pictures, simplified lessons and 200 recipes, this is a must-have for recent graduates, high school or college.

1. Joy of Cooking

Joy of Cooking is a staple for any household, the encyclopedia of all encyclopedia cookbooks. With basic recipes and techniques, it's a cookbook that will stand the test of time. Whether you want to pass down your Joy of Cooking or buy your son or daughter a revised version from the bookstore, he or she will definitely love the recipes, tips and techniques it provides.
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Here, Eat This

What'sWat ?
A beginner's guide to Ethiopian cuisine.

Katharine Shilcutt

African food is diverse and distinct, especially in Ethiopia — a country with incredibly fertile land and a rich history. Indeed, this corner of the world is the site of the earliest human habitation. The country has been marred by war and famine in its more recent history, however, which tends to overshadow its immense contributions.

Houston's newest Ethiopian restaurant, Lucy, is looking to change this perception by offering inexpensive, accessible food in a modern, attractive setting. Even its name calls attention to the positive aspects of Ethiopia, which is where the 3.2-million-year-old skeletal remains of Lucy — an Australopithecus afarensis and one of our earliest ancestors — were found.

The rest of the world is slowly discovering Ethiopian food, too, thanks in no small part to people like Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef who owns the renowned Red Rooster in Harlem, and to the large Ethiopian diaspora in cities such as Washington, D.C., where the cuisine is as popular as Indian food is in Houston.

You'll notice that there's no pork or shellfish of any kind served in Ethiopian restaurants. This is due to the major religions that have influenced the country over thousands of years: Judaism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity. The Kingdom of Aksum, encompassing what are now Ethiopia and Eritrea, was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century. Today, nearly 50 percent of Ethiopians identify as Orthodox Christians, while 34 percent are Muslim and 19 percent are Protestant.

This also means that you will find stimulants in Ethiopian restaurants, in particular coffee and alcohol. And if you look around, you'll probably also find at least one icon of Saint George slaying a dragon. Ethiopia shares this patron saint with Greece, and it's just one reminder that the country has shared such a fascinating history with Western culture over the years.

Injera

This is perhaps the most important foodstuff in Ethiopian cuisine, since it serves not only as a source of protein and vitamins but also as your serving utensils and, often, your plate. Injera is a flatbread made from teff, a grass (not a grain, like wheat) that's fermented with water for several days before being baked into large, floppy pancakes that have the texture of crepes and the taste of sourdough bread. Teff flour is incredibly high in fiber, iron and calcium. It has all the amino acids required to be a complete protein, but it's also gluten-free. It's kind of a miracle food.

To eat Ethiopian food, simply tear off a piece of injera, grab some food with it, roll it up, pop the whole thing into your mouth and repeat until finished. Most restaurants will bring you silverware if you ask for it, but eating food this way is traditional and shows camaraderie among your dining companions — especially as everyone usually eats from the same plate and most Ethiopians feed each other as they dine, not just themselves.

Berbere

This is the chief spice blend found in Ethiopian cooking, a fragrant mix that's somewhere between Indian curry and Southwestern chile powder. Berbere is a dark red blend of sun-dried chiles, ginger, garlic, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, coriander and other spices. In his memoir, Yes, Chef, Samuelsson describes berbere as "both masculine and feminine, shouting for attention and whispering at me to come closer. In one sniff it was bright and crisp; in the next, earthy and slow."

Wat

Simply put, a wat (or wot) is a stew. It begins its life as red onions cooked down with berbere and/or niter kibbeh, a clarified butter infused with ginger, garlic and other spices (and itself also an essential Ethiopian ingredient). From there, the wat can become anything from a vegetable dish to a meat stew. Lentils, carrots, potatoes and cabbage — all highly common ingredients — are staples of the Ethiopian diet, and it's common to find them stewed separately or together and served on a large vegetarian platter.

Doro wat

Doro wat is my favorite type of wat, a chicken-based stew that's colored an intense shade of red from the berbere spice and stuffed full of dark-meat chicken and a whole boiled egg. Imagine a thick, spicy chicken chili and you have doro wat. Along with a simple vegetarian platter, this is the dish I use to lure people into becoming converts to Ethiopian cuisine.

Kitfo and gored gored

If you're a connoisseur of steak tartare, you need to meet the spicy Ethiopian version: kitfo. Like traditional tartare, kitfo is made with minced raw beef, although there's no raw egg mixed in. The minced beef is tossed with mitmita (a hotter version of berbere) and niter kibbeh, after which you gobble it up with sheets of injera. Gored gored is the same preparation, but the beef is diced into small cubes instead of minced.

Tibs

It seems as if nearly every culture has its own version of "fajitas," or marinated beef sautéed with vegetables. Tibs can be made with beef, but you'll also find it made with lamb. Although the meat-heavy dish is traditionally served on holidays and special occasions, you can find it on every Ethiopian menu in Houston.

Fit-fit and foul

Fit-fit (or fir-fir) is simply scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions. Foul (pronounced "fool") — which has its roots in Middle Eastern trade routes and shares its name with a similar Levantine dish — calls to mind refried beans, served with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and scrambled eggs. Both are typical Ethiopian breakfast foods, and both would probably be equally at home on your own breakfast table. You can try both at Sheba Cafe, where the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Coffee

Coffee junkies can thank Ethiopia for introducing the caffeinated bean to the rest of the world. It still plays a central role in Ethiopian society today, with coffee ceremonies that include three rounds of the beverage; finger-food snacks such as popcorn; and the burning of incense as you commune with friends over coffee that has been roasted, ground and prepared on the spot. You can enjoy your own coffee ceremony with all the traditional accoutrements at Blue Nile, the city's oldest Ethiopian restaurant.

Tej

While a coffee ceremony is the traditional way to close out a meal, I prefer tej. The honey wine has the thick sweetness of mead but with an orange-blossom lightness to it that's intoxicating. It's served in unusual glass jugs that don't look as though you should drink from them, but that's the idea. Bottoms up!
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
The bar beat gets busy.

Katharine Shilcutt

News of four exciting upcoming bars was announced last week, with three of those heading downtown. Two are from the Clumsy Butcher team (the guys behind Anvil, Blacksmith, The Hay Merchant, Underbelly, OKRA Charity Saloon), and one of those was a total surprise. The team had already announced plans for a tequila bar, but a press release issued this week added another bar to their downtown roster.

The Pastry War will be a tequila bar at 310 Main that also carries "an incredible selection of mezcals and tequilas, many of which have never been poured in Texas previously." The bar, named for a Mexican battle against French forces, will also serve classic Mexican cocktails and beer at what Clumsy Butcher promises will be affordable prices.

The surprise bar is Trigger Happy, which will open right next door at 308 Main (yes, that's underneath Bad News Bar). The bar plans to carry "around 50-60 wines and 20 beers on draft," all of which will be "bold and daring," the selection chosen as a "tribute to the drinks Clumsy Butcher loves and wants to share with Houston."

Meanwhile, in Montrose, a new wine bar is headed into the space next door to Paulie's. Camerata will be a joint venture between Paulie's owner Paul Petronella and David Keck, a wine savant who was most recently the beverage director for Uchi. Camerata will have its own separate entrance, although Paulie's customers can enter the bar directly from the restaurant as well.

"In the Camerata at Paulie's, David wants to provide an unpretentious meeting place where guests can enjoy delicious beverages that are made by people, not companies, and speak of the place where they are grown, harvested, fermented, and bottled," writes Petronella on his Web site. "The food menu will be limited to fine charcuterie and cheese options. If looking for a full meal, dinner at Paulie's is recommended, then follow with drinks next door at Camerata."

And in north downtown, here's a fun blind item for you to puzzle out: A popular Mexican restaurant will soon be significantly expanding its patio and its dining room, the latter to make way for a full-scale bar.

In openings news, the restaurant that took over the old Convivio space on Durham is now open. Katch-22 is a partnership between two native sons of Houston legends: Kory Clemens, whose father is former Houston Astros MVP Roger Clemens and Luke Mandola, whose entire family runs half of the restaurants in Houston among them. That's a rough estimate. Katch-22 calls its concept a "new alternative to casual dining" that's "Sports in Spirit, Modern in Style!" with a menu that seems family-friendly instead of trendy.

In closings news, heads up if you want to catch Feast before the British restaurant closes for good: The closure has been pushed up to June 14. "Also, please be advised," the restaurant posted on its Twitter account, "our liquor license runs out June 3. So after that we are officially BYOB!"

Just a few blocks away, Sushi Raku has closed its doors after a three-year run in Midtown. But it wasn't the only sushi spot to shutter this week: Zushi on Memorial Drive closed as well. No word on what will become of talented chef Chris Nemoto, but at least there's good news for the equally talented chef Adison Lee of Sushi Raku.

Lee has landed a job as the chef at Kuu, the new Japanese restaurant in the Memorial area that plans to open this fall. Kuu is just one of the restaurants slated to open in the Gateway Memorial City development that's long been under construction at Gessner and I-10, just west of Memorial City Mall.

The other two restaurants are Tony Vallone's new steakhouse — Vallone's — which was announced late last year, and a new location of Churrascos. The Memorial spot will be the Houston-based chain's fourth location.

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