Okay, so technically it's still spring. But on a recent balmy evening when the temperature peaks at 85 degrees, then slowly descends to a comfortable 72, it might as well be June. My ideal June, that is, not the Houston version. Anyway, these conditions combined with a reprieve from rain prompted me to step into Lillo & Ella, then step right back out again because the opportunity to dine al fresco on the charming patio was too good to give up.
Lillo & Ella have a new assortment of non-alcoholic shrub drinks on hand for the summer months, and while I was more than happy with my cool glass of Walter Hansel Cahill Chardonnay, equally delicious and more hydrating refreshment could probably be found in the Black Pepper Pineapple Shrub made with apple cider vinegar and topo chico.
The servers at Lillo & Ella are laid-back but informative, and our waitress was quick to apprise us of her recommendations. They included the tuna tartar, the coconut and lime soup, and the charred brussels sprouts, all of which we ordered. They did not include the over-sized sesame pretzel, but thank God for my combative streak. This thick twist of warm malty dough served with a side of sriracha butter was absolutely divine and later proved helpful in soaking up the extra sauce from our main courses.
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Although the lime and coconut soup was technically just for one guest in our party, she was kind enough to give me a few spoonfuls...and shrewd enough to cut me enough before I ate the entire bowl. Laced with ginger and studded with sweet potato and napa cabbage, the opaque broth had an incredibly strong coconut flavor just slightly tinged with a bit of citrus tartness. It is the best soup I have ever eaten in a Houston restaurant.
The tuna tartare, a mild, sweeter rendition than those I've enjoyed at other establishments, wasn't too shabby either, and its flavor made particularly memorable with the addition of some mango pico. And while I know brussels sprouts in any form are, like, so 2013, I hope Lillo & Ella continue to serve them until at least 2023. The delicate char on this "vegetable candy" as I like to call these cruciferous buds give rise to a slightly smoky taste that was wonderfully balanced by fresh mint; crumbled pistachios likewise complemented the soft flesh of the vegetables.
Although one could easily be wholly satisfied dining on small plates at Lillo & Ella, don't miss the chance to try the Malaysian curried mussels. Other entrees, such as the vegetable pad thai are very good, but the sumptuous liquid redolent of coconut and garlic in which the mussels and black rice bathe is par excellence. As you might guess, here's where the remaining sesame pretzel came in handy. Forget moules frites, Thai-style is the way to go for bi-valve mollusks.
Does Lillo & Ella, as they claim, serve "Asian Food At New Heights"? You bet and at such an elevation that I'm willing to overlook the cheesy pun.