Best Place to Skip Dinner and Go Straight to Dessert

Dessert Gallery Bakery & Café

There are two kinds of people in the world: dessert people and people who do not even bat an eyelid when dessert is mentioned. The former can get more excited about a piece of Chocolate Decadence than any appetizer or entrée. The Dessert Gallery was created especially for these people. There is so much to choose from that you almost wish they had an all-you-can-eat buffet (hint, hint!). Of course, there are the standards that appear on many a menu: pecan pies, carrot cakes, German chocolate cakes, Italian cream cakes and tiramisu. Then there those that raise the passion in a dessert person -- like the key lime cheesecake, which adds a lime curd topping to a deliciously smooth cheesecake, or the Turtle Candy Cake, whose gooey chocolate cake is filled with caramel and pecans. So, if you're the kind of person who's always saving himself for dessert, here's the place to let yourself go.

Owner Jorge Fife is the chef, bartender and occasionally the waiter. He also provides the entertainment at this wacky little joint in the northern suburbs. Fife isn't from Portugal -- he grew up in Mozambique, one of its former colonies. So while there's Portuguese chourico and feijoada on the menu, you'll also find curry from Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, and piri-piri sauce from Mozambique. The decor includes a simulated African hut and a giant map charting the travels of Vasco de Gama and other Portuguese explorers. The restaurant might as well have been called A Taste of Portugal and Its Far-Flung Colonies. But whatever you order, the sparkling hospitality shines. Eating here is like going to a dinner party at a friendly stranger's house.

Bistro Lancaster
Jeff Balke
Dim the lights and let the show begin. The cast of characters in this cozy nook of The Lancaster Hotel ranges from the elegant to the occasionally eccentric. The richly hued set reflects the intimate, refined taste of a real Broadway in the heart of the Theater District. While the city shells out millions in tax breaks for hotel and restaurant newcomers, Bistro Lancaster is the proud experienced veteran from the lean years of downtown. The always efficient waitstaff serves up simple but savory full-course meals and spectacular appetizers and drinks. Savvy patrons of the arts know that this spot, at the corner of Louisiana and Texas, has become as much a part of Houston's theater scene as any performance hall. Shows come and go -- the Lancaster's excellence proves it's here to stay.

Maria Selma - CLOSED
Besides the fact that the orange building with hammered-tin ceiling and yellow-stucco interior is pretty retro in itself, the food at Maria Selma harks back to bygone times. Traditional enchilada dishes feature the meat and sauce on top of the tortillas, not rolled up inside. And the old-style Mexican flavors mingle in such soft tacos as carne asada con nopales (marinated beef steak with grilled cactus) and the tender pork loin in green mole. Comfort food doesn't get much better than the hearty caldo pollo and the pastor (pork) tortas made with thick telera bread. It's a Ret-Mex spin on soup and a sandwich.

Russian Bear
The Russian Bear is actually two dining establishments in one. The front room is a charming little cafe with excellent Russian food -- a wonderful place to take the kids. But on the other side of the room divider, there's an exotic-looking nightclub with red velvet curtains, huge mirrors and crystal chandeliers that serves up dinner and Russian entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. If you're a collector of bizarre dining experiences, don't miss the Russian Bear nightclub dinner. Make a reservation, gather six or eight of your strangest friends, and come prepared to party. When the folk dancers, the belly dancer and the singers are finished, the crowd takes over the dance floor for some swinging Slavic disco.

Jim Goode is a fisherman. If you don't believe it, check out the photos on the wall. Goode is the intense-looking character in the flowing ZZ Top beard and the chef's pants decorated with skulls. And he seems to have been photographed holding up a string of nearly every variety of fish that swims in the Gulf of Mexico. Goode Co.'s cooking is pure Texas. There's catfish, redfish, Gulf red snapper, flounder and shrimp, all of it simply fried or grilled over mesquite and served with a minimum of accompaniments. For appetizers there's boiled shrimp, crabs, raw oysters or ceviche campechana. The Mexican seafood cocktail comes with lots of shrimp, crab and big chunks of avocado in a spicy salsa with tortilla chips. The daily fishing report for Galveston Bay is blown up and posted on an easel in the dining room, just in case you want to take the rest of the day off.
Brenner's Steakhouse
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Brenner's was well loved by several generations of Houstonians, and there were a lot of moans and groans when it closed its doors last year. But the place has reopened after a complete renovation by its new owner. Landry's Restaurants Inc. CEO Tilman Fertitta had fond memories of eating here when he was growing up, and he gave the place a sentimental restoration. Sitting in the newly redone main dining room, you feel like you're visiting an antique inn out in the country. The impressive gardens and waterfalls have been further expanded. The steaks are wet-aged, USDA Prime, and they're served on an oval plate in a puddle of au jus. It's a smart idea. The meat juice soaks in as you cut each bite, so there's never a chance for the meat to get dry. The Gulf red snapper with crabmeat is also outstanding.
Charivari Restaurant
Dawn M Simmons
An intense-looking man with very short dark hair and a Bela Lugosi accent, Charivari chef and co-owner John Schuster grew up in the Transylvanian region of Romania. He worked as a chef in Vienna and Budapest before opening his first restaurant in the Black Forest of Germany. So as you might expect, Schuster's shredded veal "Zurich-style," as well as all the rest of the Austrian, Russian and German cooking at Charivari, is stunning. Particularly spectacular is the Alsatian seafood choucroute, a platter of sauerkraut in Riesling wine sauce topped with lobster and fish. And don't miss Schuster's white asparagus festival every spring, when he cooks four or five white asparagus dishes each night.

Sasaki Japanese Restaurant
If you're bored with the minimalistic architecture and uncluttered decor of Japanese restaurants, you'll find Sasaki refreshingly bizarre. The place goes overboard on goofy serving contraptions and Japanese tchotchkes. But Sasaki is on the opposite end of the hipness spectrum from popular sushi restaurants like Coco's and The Fish. There aren't many guys with piercings or babes in little black dresses eating here. Nor are there any Godzilla rolls, jazz rolls or crazy rolls on the menu. But if you're looking for a Japanese sushi guru, someone who takes the time to talk to you and who really cares about your individual tastes, chef Toda is your man. His sweet and salty eel and rice rolls (unagi) are best saved for dessert. They're so addictive that, otherwise, you wouldn't be able to stop eating them.
The two-plate Mexico City dinner at Molina's is a classic of the genre. The salad plate includes a beef taco, a bean tostada, a puffy tortilla with queso and a guacamole salad. And on the hot plate, there are gooey cheese enchiladas in chili gravy with onions, a tamale with chili con carne, and rice and beans. A pecan praline is included with dinner, just like in the good old days. But if you think the Mexico City dinner has something to do with the Mexican capital, guess again. The name refers to the Mexico City Restaurant, a once-popular Tex-Mex joint on South Main that the Molina family purchased in 1940. "Restaurants were run by families then. Mom cooked, Dad waited tables, I washed dishes," remembers Raul Jr. of the early years. The Molina's Mexican Restaurant operation is now run by the third generation of the Molina family, including Raul the third.

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