Cafe Rabelais
Photo by Houston Press Staff
François Rabelais's writings were known for combining earthy humor and sophisticated themes. And this tiny French cafe honors its namesake with delicious irony. Though located in a sophisticated urban shopping center in Rice Village, Café Rabelais features rustic peasant dishes from the French countryside. Try the astonishing mussels in cream sauce, the merguez et frites (lamb sausage and french fries) or a goat cheese and olive tart. The blackboard menu might also include steak salad, bavette frites (flank steak and french fries) or an old-fashioned vegetable potage. The mottled cream-colored walls look like old plaster, and somehow the French rural look is absolutely charming despite the parking lot outside the window. Maybe the French rustic thing works so well because the employees are actually French.
Grilled mustard shrimp with tomato chutney and a sensational seafood mulligatawny are just a couple of the new Bombay-on-the-Gulf of Mexico seafood dishes you'll find here. All of the food is remarkably innovative. Owner and head chef Anita Jaisinghani once worked as a pastry chef at Cafe Annie, and the sensibility shows. This isn't a typical Indian restaurant with a couple of special dishes, this is a complete departure from the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet concept of Indian cuisine. Try the crab samosas with papaya ginger chutney, and the Maple Leaf Farm duck grilled tandoori-style and served in a toasted almond curry with fluffy white basamati rice. And don't miss the exquisite nan bread and the unassuming yellow lentil dahl, which is flavored with garlic, ginger and cumin. Renowned sommelier Paul Roberts, now of the French Laundry in Napa, put together the short but intriguing wine list.
Among the smiling faces on the cover of July's Food & Wine magazine is Scott Tycer, the chef and co-owner of Aries restaurant. Tycer and nine other young chefs were chosen by the magazine as "America's Best New Chefs 2003." According to the magazine, Tycer's work at Aries fits in with a movement going strong in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere: chef-run restaurants with a dedication to fine ingredients and craftsmanship. Perhaps his awards and national reputation will help quiet local fussbudgets who fault Tycer for refusing customer requests for tomatoes out of season, sauce on the side and vegetarian remakes of existing dishes. Let the chef do what he does best.

Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff
When The New York Times reviewed San Domenico, a restaurant thought by many to serve the best Italian food in Manhattan, the critic raved about an incomparable pasta dish that was so good it was unfair to the competition. It was a giant ravioli stuffed with a poached egg yolk and drenched in truffle butter. Sound good? Well, you're in luck. You can get that same "incomparable" pasta dish any night of the week at Da Marco. Which just goes to show, Da Marco's competition isn't in Houston -- it's in New York. The food here is a radical departure from the old-fashioned red sauce-smothered fare that's served in most Houston Italian restaurants. But sophisticated palates will recognize chef Marco Wiles's take on Italian as truly world-class.
You're out having fun. You've had a few. You get the munchies. But you want to keep partying (or a member of your party wants to keep partying). Cosmos Cafe will keep everyone happy. The bar/live music venue/eatery serves food until midnight Mondays through Thursdays, until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10 p.m. on Sundays. And we're not talking typical bar food here. Try the grilled tuna fillet sandwich with wasabi mayo, the pork chops with rosemary or the Thai beef salad. All go down well with alcohol. And you better believe you can light up that after-dinner smoke right at your table.
Rainbow Lodge
The wine room at the Rainbow Lodge will seat six, but to enjoy a really long lunch, it's better to go just as a pair. The cozy room is actually the wine steward's office, so you'll be luxuriating next to some of the all-time great bottles of wine. (Don't be tempted to lift one, since any suspicious-looking packages may be inspected.) The waitstaff is expertly trained, meaning they know when to take their leave and allow you some privacy to enjoy the wild game that the restaurant is famous for -- or perhaps even a wild game of your own. Along one wall is a comfortable bench seat where you can have a nice tête-à-tête with your guest. The menu is heavy with venison, quail, duck, elk and buffalo, but the chef does an equally outstanding job with salmon, trout and lobster. With the perfect food, elegant surroundings, outstanding wines and a good companion, lunch could turn into dinner before you know it.

Istanbul Grill & Deli
We should be up front and say that there are plenty of other reasons to visit Istanbul Grill and Deli besides the fine-looking staff. They have amazing stuffed mushrooms, soft bread that melts in your mouth and a wonderful Rice Village setting that includes outdoor dining. But what's wrong with wanting a little something nice for the eyes to digest as well? All of the staff members at this Turkish restaurant -- the men and the women -- have quite an appealing look. Maybe it's the pleasant foreign accents or the striking dark complexions. Maybe they put a secret aphrodisiac in the hummus. Either way, who cares? This staff will have you drooling over your tabbouleh.
El Hidalguense
When you walk in the front door, the scent of mutton commands your attention. Or is it goat? The restaurant's specialties are barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (Hidalgo-style lamb "barbecued" in maguey leaves) and chivito asado al pastor (charcoal-roasted kid goat). For a weekday lunch try the fabulously decadent tulancigueas, three thick flautas stuffed with ham, jalapeos and mayonnaise, sprinkled with cheese and topped with cold avocado slices. There are no concessions to Tex-Mex here -- no chips and salsa on the table and no frozen margaritas. This place is dedicated to providing folks from the Hidalgo region of Mexico with a place to eat their favorite foods, listen to Huatecan music on the weekends, and hang out with their fellow expats. If you're looking for gringo-friendly Mexican, try Otilia's or Pico's. But for the real thing, check this place out on a Saturday.
Tex-Chick
Jeff Balke
The mom-and-pop team of Teo and Carmen Gonzales has been running the funky-looking Tex Chick restaurant since 1982. The food is a schizoid mix of burgers, chicken-fried steaks, tacos and other Tex-Mex dishes, along with the only Puerto Rican food to be found in Houston. The mix owes itself to some shrewd thinking on the part of the owners, who bought a going concern and decided not to change the menu but rather add to it. Still, the food that makes the Gonzaleses beam with pride is that of their homeland, and they'll serve it to you as if you were family, which is appropriate since the place has only four tables -- it's like eating in their kitchen. Traditional foods like their arroz con pollo, carne frita or even the salt-cod specialty, bacalao, will be a welcome addition to your Latino dining experiences. And they're all served with rice and beans and a smile.
La Sani Restaurant & Banquet Hall
Jeff Balke
You expect fiery curries and hot masalas in the Little Karachi neighborhood around Bissonnet and U.S. 59, but La Sani is something special. The food here is spicy in every sense of the word. Whole ginger, fenugreek seeds, chiles, garlic, cumin seeds and coriander come blaring at you in concentrations so intense that you can barely tell what you're eating. Few restaurants cook with whole cardamom pods and whole pieces of cinnamon bark, because average restaurant customers freak out when they find such objects in their mouth. La Sani, a halal restaurant whose patrons are mostly Pakistanis and Muslim Indians, pays little attention to such mainstream inhibitions. Imagine producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recording technique transmuted into a cooking style, and you have some idea what to expect from La Sani's wall of flavor.

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