Best Of :: Food & Drink
It should come as no surprise that a Vallone Group restaurant would claim the coveted prize of best service. Tony Vallone, the patriarch of Houston's most elite dining dynasty, has instilled this work ethic in all his progeny, who provide a horde of servers, from captains to busboys, to surround each table, doting on diners with the tender care of a grandmother. The trick, however, is to be at the customer's elbow when needed and to fade into the woodwork when not. At La Griglia, the pace is noticeably frantic at times, yet still accommodating, providing a welcome air of informality. And the willingness to please extends to the kitchen. After a patron pouted over the disappearance of the capellini-encrusted snapper, a line cook appeared at the table to confirm all the ingredients so that he could prepare it to specification. What arrived was even better than the original, crunchy on the outside, scrumptiously gooey on the inside. Come to think of it, you're not likely to get that kind of service from your grandmother.
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.
At this time last year, Charles Clark was making an impressive name for himself as head chef at Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar. These days Clark heads up the kitchen at the new downtown Elvia's, where he proves he is a master of many culinary disciplines. The killer bee menu includes grilled sea bass, cold avocado soup, portobello mushroom tacos and seviche. After dinner on the weekends, stick around for live Latin music and dancing. After midnight, the dance floor is as lively as the food.
With south-of-the-border fare having gone gourmet, Felix is often dismissed by highbrow naysayers. They forget that it's the good old-fashioned grease factor that makes true Tex-Mex. It's in abundance here, although it's a little sad to see the disclaimer: "We cook with cottonseed oil only!" Felix also is keeping up with the changing times with its light, bright hacienda. A recent fire not only fanned the flames of Felix's popularity but also afforded the 50-year-old place a much-needed face-lift. Colorful linoleum floors and table settings now serve as a fanciful backdrop to cheese enchiladas smothered in onions, chili and the kind of cheese that sticks to your palate. Fried taco shells are stuffed with fried meat and then fried some more, but Felix aficionados -- like former hometown girl Linda Ellerbee -- most often praise the chili con queso, an oozy blob of that questionable cheese spread nearly a half-inch thick over a fried corn tortilla. Also good are such rare nonfried and cheeseless items as the oniony guacamole, served on a lettuce leaf. As the famous Fido says in the commercials for that other Tex-Mex place, "I think I'm in love."
There's nothing quite like rolling through the drive-thru around 7:30 a.m. at the Kolache Factory, the morning sun in your eyes and the mouthwatering prospect of imminent kolaches teasing your palate. Even better, should you have a spare moment, step in just as a warm batch of sausage-and-cheese kolaches emerges from the oven, filling the store with that tantalizing smell of freshly baked goods. They will melt in your mouth -- if that woman in front of you doesn't buy them all for her office. (Yeah, right.) Where else can you get that homemade baked and buttery taste that infuses each of these delectable goods? Carnivores aren't the only ones who can oink out here, though. Several fruity flavors, like apple, blueberry and strawberry, blur the line between breakfast and dessert, health food and indulgence. And the pastries, particularly the cinnamon rolls, hold their own against the classic kolaches.
All the bars are closed, there's no life on the streets, but you and your friends aren't ready to trundle home. Plus, you're all starving. Usually late-night fare is limited to those 24-hour egg-and-bacon places or the drive-thru lane at a fast-food joint. But you want real food. Mai's Restaurant offers an extensive array of Vietnamese food, and the eatery's schedule definitely keeps late-night diners in mind. Open from 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, Mai's is jam-packed during lunch and dinner, and sometimes just as busy late at night. The soft spring rolls and accompanying peanut sauce are second to none in the city, and the various combinations of bun (vermicelli) just may hold the magical powers of menudo in warding off next-morning hangovers.
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.