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.
Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse
The martini is icy, the club chair is plush, and Frank Sinatra is crooning on the sound system in the cushy lounge at Vic & Anthony's, the opulent new steak house across the street from Minute Maid Park. On the back wall of the bar is a small black-and-white photo of a smiling Old Blue Eyes posing with owner Tilman Fertitta's cousin Anthony. It's a nice touch. What a joy to have a steak house with a Houston atmosphere. The Morton's chain builds shopping center clones of their original Chicago steak house; Capital Grille builds imitations of their Washington, D.C., operation; and Palm apes a chop house on Second Avenue in New York. At Vic & Anthony's, the exterior architecture matches that of Union Station and the baseball park down the street, and the interior is decorated with old photos documenting the history of downtown Houston and Fertitta's colorful Italian family. What a difference a little local pride makes.

Empire Turkish Grill
Some say Turkish food is the mother of all Middle Eastern cuisines. The overloaded mezeler plate at Empire Turkish Grill proves the point. The dish includes foods from many different regions, few of which lie within present-day Turkey. But it was the Turkish sultans who first brought Asian eggplant and okra, Persian spinach and caviar, Arabic hummus and tabbouleh, and all the delicacies of the Ottoman Empire together on the same table in cosmopolitan Constantinople. Empire Turkish Grill follows in their footsteps. Along with the incredible selection of appetizers and hot-out-of-the-oven flatbreads, the restaurant boasts tangy kebabs and succulent marinated lamb. Most of the kebabs are also available in the form of a "yogurt grill," in which seasoned bread cubes are covered with yogurt and then the kebab meat is placed on top. The iskender kebab is the best of the bunch. Wine aficionados will love this place for its free corkage policy.

This new Spring Valley strip mall spot offers a surprising multiculti take on vegetarian food -- from its steamed veggie dumplings to soy sausage hot dogs to roasted eggplant Parmesan. Although Soya Cafe exudes the antiseptic aesthetic typical of vegetarian restaurants, the food here is much tastier than what you get at the old standbys. The stir-fried rice, loaded with big pieces of fresh vegetables, is refreshingly light on the oil. And the tofu, mushrooms, onions and other treats in the Soya kabobs are lightly dressed in a tangy red barbecue sauce. Plus, the portions are as satisfying as the ingredients. One off-the-menu burger consists of three patties -- two crispy, oregano-dusted "codfish" squares and a meaty breaded soy circle -- in addition to all the usual fixins.
Bombay Sweets & Pure Vegetarian Restaurant
Photo by Houston Press Staff
In the Indian community, Bombay Sweets is known for its huge candy case and elaborate selection of chaat, the popular Bombay snacks made with crunchy stuff that tastes like breakfast cereal. For everyone else, the buffet is the main attraction. Try the awesome chickpea curry called chana masala and the spicy fire-roasted eggplant stew called bengan bhurta. Lots of other dishes rotate in and out of the lineup. Don't miss the velvety miniature stuffed eggplant fried in chickpea batter and served in a spicy tomato ginger sauce when it's available or the kadhi pakora, with crusty graham flour dumplings that look like chunks of meat floating in a yogurt-based yellow curry. In truth you can hardly go wrong with any of the featured dishes.

This is no tourist joint, so don't expect anybody to explain things in English for you. But if you're looking for exotic Vietnamese specialties, you can't beat A Dong. Muc rang muoi, hot fried cuttlefish over a cold watercress salad, is the No. 1 thing to order here. "Summer delight," a tossed salad of pork, shrimp and jellyfish over salad, is another standout. The rock and roll beef (bo luc lac) is pretty good, and so is the curried goat (ca ri de). If you go for the goat, get the one listed under house specialties: This presentation features the tasty goat curry in a small bowl, served with rice and a baguette on the side. Who knew French bread would taste so good dunked in goat curry?
Tony's
Oh, come on. You knew it was still Tony's, right? The Post Oak institution is the white-glove, cork-waving place to dine if you want to really be waited on. And it's not just about being surrounded by help -- it's the feeling that you're somebody. If Cheers is the place where everybody knows your name, then Tony's is the place where everyone is someone special. It doesn't matter if you're a bricklayer or a captain of industry -- you always get superb treatment. It's the philosophy that made Texas famous: If you can afford the prices, you deserve the service.

According to the sign in the window of this no-frills grill on Hillcroft, Kabul serves such traditional Afghani foods as tekka kebab, shami kebab and the ever-popular qaduiy pulow. But don't worry about the weird names: Everything ends up being highly spiced ground lamb or ground beef shaped onto kebabs and grilled. The green chutney is made with jalapeos and tastes just like Tabasco's green sauce. Another relish made with tomatoes, onions and cilantro might as well be called pico de gallo. You get rice mixed with carrots and currants and a velvety eggplant stew on the side, along with hot crusty Afghani "slipper bread" -- all for incredibly low prices.

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