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.
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.
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.
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?
Taste of Thai is one of those restaurants whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, the food is wonderful, whether it's the soups, the angel wings, the roast duck curry with pineapple and tomato, the chef's special duck, the pad thai (last year's Best of Houston winner) or the homemade coconut ice cream, but it's the feel of the place, the warm, friendly family service, that pushes this place over the top. The first time we tried the chef's special duck (and it is really special, trust us), we asked our waitress what was in the dipping sauce, and she blushingly told us, "I'm not sure -- my mom makes it." What's not to love?
From the looks of all the new drive-thrus dominating roadway vistas, this car-crazy city craves speed -- in food as much as commute times. What's been missing is obvious: variety. Menu boards may have expanded, but the basic choices seem so limited. How many ways can a chicken or cow or codfish be broiled, fried or filleted? Or a taco shell be filled and lettuce pressed into a semi-salad? So salute a drive-thru breakthrough that ought to leave the Bayou City breathless: sushi on the run -- the right kind of California roll-ing. Rather than resorting to the pseudo-pagoda exterior and Asian influences so common with sushi houses, Miyagi Bowl takes a respectful bow to the quaint, neon-accented burger-joint architecture. The clean, well-lit quarters form a tempting invitation to interior dining, but the efficient ordering and pick-up window make the buy-and-bye the best route for motorists. There are menu offerings out the wasabi, with reasonable prices. These include 18 nigiri selections (tuna rolls, $2.20), nine sashimi delights, tempura, hosomaki, maki rolls, teriyaki and ten mixed boxes complete with miso soup. Don't forget the green tea. The Richmond location ought to be easy to remember by association; the cross street is Rice. Compared to the tired competition for cars by other drive-thrus, Miyagi Bowl is eel-on-wheels above the rest.
Until recently, Houston lacked an authentic New York-style deli, despite the size of its Jewish community and a natural customer base (a million people who like eating giant heaps of meat in one sitting). Sure, we had our share of fine sandwich shops or bagel joints, but nothing that combined all the elements: an oversize menu, several dozen variations of deli meat sandwiches with cute names, a container of fantastic pickles on every table, and all the classic old-world dishes including latkes, kugel, stuffed cabbage, matzo-ball soup, knishes and nova plates. But five months ago Kenny & Ziggy's opened its doors, and the void was filled. The menu takes half the lunch hour to peruse. With mouthwatering pastrami and corned beef leading the way, K&Z's more than holds its own in the meat department. Its Give Me Liberty or Give Me Schmaltz sandwich heads the list of schmaltzy-named specialty combos. The pickles rock. And the stuffed cabbage! New York?
The current Asian invasion has revived a classic form of entertainment: the Japanese steak house. Family groups, especially those covering a wide age span, are the perfect audience for the sleight of hand of Tokyohana's master table chefs. Though elitists may find the show a little cheesy, children watch in wide-eyed wonder something as simple as preparing the grill flame. Preteens jump at the chance to catch in their mouths the zucchini cubes the chef tosses, and even savvy teenagers get a cheap thrill from the Tokyohana birthday party, which includes a special dessert, song and snapshot. To top off the experience, the food is really good. Though the chop-chop preparation is a sight to see, the cuisine itself is simple, featuring mostly chicken, sirloin and shrimp cooked on the grill, with just a little seasoning and a lot of garlic butter. To impress the in-laws, order the pricey Tex-Jap, a winning combination of beef tenderloin and scallops.

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