Best Of :: Food & Drink
Sinatra's music bellows through this quaint corner cafe featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and Chianti in diner juice glasses. Such a place easily could be found in the Little Italy section of New York, but this bistro overlooks Bellaire's Paseo Park and its newly reconstructed Trolley Pavilion. Locals love the friendly atmosphere of checkered tablecloths and tiny white Christmas lights. It's comfortable enough to accommodate the whole family, yet the menu is trendy enough to attract serious foodies. Southwestern specialties, left over from Ruggles's Bruce Molzan's stint as a co-owner, include the hit cilantro fettuccine with jalapeos and crawfish. It keeps company with such Italian favorites as chicken Minelli, tossed with a creamy garlic sauce, and clams Tuscano, spiced up with red pepper and toned down with a tomato-cream sauce. The chicken Gorgonzola is sautéed with fresh vegetables and tossed with blue cheese and polenta. And don't pass on the To Die For, a heavenly stack of ladyfingers, creamy mascarpone cheese, almond torte and seasonal berries.
If you think good tunnel food is an impossibility, and if you think the only stuff you can find down there is doled out by chain fast-food eateries, stop by Panini for a pleasant lunchtime surprise. Homemade soups. Freshly baked pizzas. Wonderful salads. Terrific sandwiches (we particularly like the homemade meatball with a light tomato sauce and lots and lots of gooey melted cheese, served with or without the cool garlicky red pepper garnish, as well as the prosciutto, tomato and fresh mozzarella sandwich). There are even granitas. Owner Vittorio Preteroti has made a nice little shop for himself, down in the depths of the tunnels. Now if he only served a good veal-and-pepper sandwich...
Many will say this category is too broad. Do we mean best power lunch? Best place for ladies who lunch? Best place for a quick bite -- alone? How about all of the above? No longer a tiny cafe in an old house, Ouisie's has moved to more upscale digs, where it offers Southern comfort in a rustic yet sophisticated wood building. It still has its namesake community table, where you can munch with new best friends, and what's more, it has something on the menu for everyone. Fried oysters are compliments of Elouise Adams Jones's grandmother's recipe, as is the longtime favorite pimento cheese, which can be part of a taster plate with egg salad and a house salad. More adventurous roughage is found in the Stilton Kit, with romaine, arugula and endive, or the grapefruit sections with avocado and red onions. Longtime loyals also swear by the Ouisie's Spud with caviar -- yes, caviar. The wildly popular chicken-fried steak is served only on Tuesday, but any day finds the south-of-the-border treat grilled chicken à la Juanita, piled high with poblano pesto, green chilies, Jack cheese and a scrumptious corn sauté.
If you like your meat well hung -- gastronomically speaking, that is -- you'll love the dry-aged, certified Angus porterhouse steak ($30) at the Capital Grille. The dry-aging process takes place in an environment where the temperature, humidity and airflow are controlled. The meat cures for up to 21 days. Once the stuff that has turned bad is removed (up to 30 percent of some cuts), what's left retains the essential flavor. For a meat lover, it's 24 ounces of heaven, seared on the outside, pink at its core, with blood-red juices flowing freely from its mass. It is, without a doubt, the most tender and most flavorful steak we've ever tried. Its flavor can best be described as nutty, sour and musty. Its tenderness will amaze you on the first bite. Under the theory that the better the meat, the less it needs, there's not a sauce or side dish in sight. A mere sprig of watercress hides its nakedness.
The low-slung white building with its spreading porch housing Floyd's Cajun Kitchen almost looks like a home you might find in South Louisiana. Inside, the aromas of food definitely put you in Cajun Country. The five-page menu covers everything from crawfish boulettes (crawfish stuffing rolled into balls, breaded and fried, $6.50) to court bouillon (seafood stew, $12.95), the best crawfish étouffée you'll find in Houston ($10.95) and blackened catfish, served with a three-alarm rendition of red beans and rice ($8.95). Recipes have been in Floyd Landry's family since the 1930s. No skimping of portions here, either. The grilled flounder ($15.95) is bigger than the plate on which it is served. One look at the fried or broiled seafood platter ($14.95) will wilt the biggest appetite. It includes a catfish fillet, shrimp, crawfish tails, oysters, a crab cake and stuffed shrimp. The bowl of red beans and rice that accompany many entrées is a meal unto itself. Take it slow. A Cajun is rarely in a hurry.
With its dark wood furniture, abundant greenery and well-stocked bar, Bombay Brasserie exudes a glory-days-of-the-British Empire sort of elegance. The $9.95 lunch buffet is one of the best samplings of Indian food we've seen. The long line of chafing dishes reveals one excellently prepared Indian dish after another. But dinner at Bombay Brasserie is even better. The menu includes chicken, lamb and seafood curries with prices ranging from $7.95 to $14.95, along with many elaborately seasoned vegetable, rice and tandoori dishes. The service is knowledgeable, friendly and extremely efficient, and there are seldom any crowds to contend with at night. Besides, in the evening you can get acquainted with the bartender (and what a place to drink a gin and tonic or a Pimm's Cup). Buffets are nice, but there's something to be said for getting a tall libation, a big dish of spicy lamb curry, some fluffy nan and kulchas and just settling in for the evening.