Best Neighborhood Spot in the Village Area

The Raven Grill

The Raven Grill
Don't be too quick to quoth "Nevermore," upon a first visit to The Raven Grill. This tribute to Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem and the nearby elementary school bearing his name has taken flight as a neighborhood haunt. The flock of fans may be due to the trendy industrial decor with the huge raven print and cute boxed birdseed cocktail tables. But also high in the pecking order are such top sellers as the mesquite-grilled catfish, served with pico de gallo and grilled veggies, as well as the Raven's signature tacos, which are more like flautas. The pot-roast dinner, featuring heart of chuck that is slow-roasted with burgundy, herbs, garlic, rutabagas, turnips and tiny onions, is also something to crow about. Lunch favorites include tuna, chicken salad and veggie sandwiches and the favorite margarita grilled cheese, prepared with mozzarella, roma tomatoes and pesto, all of which goes to show that anyone can find a nesting place on the menu.
Nuevo Latino gets funky at this new outlet for Michael Cordas cooking, located in the back of a shopping mall in the Galleria area. At his nearby fine-dining restaurant, Amricas, Corda uses traditional South American and Central American dishes as jumping-off points for exciting upscale presentations. Here at Amazon Grill, he shows us a more casual side, with lower-priced entres, big salads and interesting soups, like the Latin American-style seafood gumbo. The signature dish here is Chicken Amazon, corn-crusted chicken breast served with a cream sauce, sauted vegetables and Peruvian rice. Non-exotic beef and chicken sandwiches and soups like chicken noodle also are available for the non-foodies at the table. Its a walk-up counter format just like Cafe Express, and theres a good reason for that: This location used to house a Cafe Express. But now there are plantain chips and chimichurri where the baguettes and olive oil used to be.
If you're looking for a chicken-fried steak covered in cream gravy with a strawberry shake on the side to wash it down, this is not the place for you. And you won't find the sparkly blue vinyl booths or garish neon signs that good old Americans have come to expect at the local diner. No, owner-chef-busboy Tom Williams's cozy, quirky Fox Diner transcends such banality with an array of delightful culinary options, from beef tenderloin stuffed with spinach and blue cheese to seared jumbo shrimp with tasso red-eye gravy and lump crabmeat to "angel's" pasta with love apples and herbs. And fanciful art from rotating exhibits transforms this petite Fourth Ward gem into a casual gallery. But there's one traditional comfort food the Fox is always fixing: unique, sinful desserts.
Some restaurants feature a table, generally in the kitchen, where you can experience the hustle and bustle of the back room firsthand. Others feature small intimate rooms or cozy nooks for a private get-together, away from the common folk. All of this, in an effort to make the dining experience extra special. If privacy is what you're after, then there's no finer chef's table than the wine room at the Rainbow Lodge. Tucked away behind the sommelier's office is an intimate space where the walls are lined with wine bottles. While it can seat up to ten people, it is best enjoyed with your one favorite person, and you can count on the waitstaff to know when not to disturb.
Restaurant CINQ at La Colombe D'Or Hotel
Jeff Balke
Start out at the intimate bar, then move on to the elegant and sumptuous dining room, where you'll experience not only first-class classical French cuisine but service to match. If the evening is going well, and you're feeling lucky, upstairs rooms with names like Renoir and Cezanne go for $195 to $575 per night. Of course, you could go all the way, and for $10,000 on Friday night rent the Grand Salon de la Comtesse, an elaborately decorated large salon with hand-carved wood paneling dating from the early part of the 18th century. Since it's large enough for 300 guests, it might be a bit grandiose for two, but it would make one hell of a dance floor.
Backstreet Cafe
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Nestled between La Griglia on West Gray and Tila's on Shepherd, amid a sea of lofts that are sprouting like weeds, you'll find a quiet oasis on the patio of the Backstreet Cafe. Flowers are plentiful and always in bloom, and there's plenty of shade from a huge oak tree, although umbrellas cover those areas that the tree limbs don't quite reach. For those who don't enjoy the blistering heat, there's a transitional sunroom with French doors, where you can pretend you're eating outside but still enjoy the comforts of air-conditioning. This is the perfect spot to enjoy some lighter summer fare like the sherried wild mushroom soup or the roasted beet, goat cheese and orange salad or the wonderful lobster sandwich.
It doesn't attract much attention to itself in the large strip center in the 3800 block of Bellaire, but Hunan's food is worth coming back to -- again and again. Go before you're really hungry. You'll need the extra time to wade through the eight-page menu in the understated but elegant surroundings. Where to start? The vegetable dumplings ($5.25 for ten), stuffed with Chinese black mushrooms, hot bean curd, carrots, spinach and Chinese cabbage are a good place. The accompanying ginger sauce packs a punch and is the perfect complement to the fresh-steamed delicacies. From there, just choose what you're hungry for -- there's not a bad item on the menu. The most popular entrées are the shrimp and chicken with cashews ($8.50), the General Tso's chicken ($8.95), the scallops and shrimp with vegetables ($9.95), and the shrimp with chili sauce ($9.95), an intoxicating blend of secret family ingredients made fresh. Other notables are the crispy duck ($8.95), steamed ahead of time to rid it of extra fat, marinated in another secret family recipe, deep-fried and served with vegetables in a hoisin sauce; and the "volcano" crispy shrimp, fried in cornmeal, served on a bed of broccoli and with a bowl of the sweet but powerful volcano sauce, made fresh, on the side. You'll erupt in cheers.
In a city proud of Texas-size portions, the waitstaff at Osteria d'Aldo still feels obliged to explain to patrons that the serving sizes are like Italian tapas -- we prefer to call them civilized. And with such manageable portions, one can do a multicourse Italian meal just as the good Lord intended. Start with perhaps a white bean soup, a shrimp bisque or maybe a nice bruschetta. Follow up with a pasta (maybe you'll be extra lucky and roasted duck ravioli will be available) and then move on to an entrée -- the veal with foie gras, truffle oil and frisée is wonderful, but then we've never eaten anything here that wasn't. Good desserts, an excellent wine list and the decor of a Renaissance palace wine cellar all add to the experience: Italian dining at its most authentic.
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We're always happy to walk into Cedars, see that splendid buffet line and remember how very little it's going to cost us to dine royally. For meat lovers, there's terrific roast lamb served up simply with just its natural juices, or a nice piece of red snapper with tahini sauce. But as with most Middle Eastern restaurants, this place is vegetarian heaven. There's a veggie platter with 14 different items. Among the highlights: baba ghanoush and tabbouleh, truly fabulous roasted eggplant with pomegranate molasses, and a roasted cauliflower that's so good it temporarily makes us forget how much we normally dislike cauliflower. Don't forget dessert, though; after eating all your vegetables, you deserve a sweet reward.
Star Pizza
Americans spent more money last year on pizzas than they did on computers and software combined, or so says an industry trade group. At any rate, pizza is one subject about which nearly every American can be counted on to have an opinion. Why Star Pizza? It is not a chain, a "concept" or theme restaurant. The only reason to go there is the pizza. The two Star Pizza restaurants belong to their original founders, Hank and Marilyn Zwirek, who opened for business at the Norfolk location in 1976. Local ownership is a plus. Consistency is a plus. A Star Pizza in 2000 tastes like it did 24 years ago. Then, being courageous enough to offer a garlicky deep-dish spinach pizza in a whole wheat crust -- when no one this side of a Berkeley anarchist women's commune had seen such a concoction -- was a plus. The fact that today the aforementioned pizza, called Joe's Special, is the best-selling of all the varieties is enough to reaffirm your youthful belief in the values of individuality and nonconformity. It also assuages your hunger. Would a slice from Domino's do the same?

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