Best Of :: Food & Drink
Aries When the editors of Food & Wine chose Aries chef Scott Tycer as one of the top ten new chefs in the country last year, they pegged Aries as part of a national movement. Highly trained chefs such as Tycer who run their own small restaurants are bringing kitchen craftsmanship to a new level in this country. It's an approach to cooking that requires enormous dedication. Aries doesn't have a freezer. Everything is made from scratch every morning. The chefs shop and forage for ingredients that no other restaurant can offer, and they hire farmers to grow things other restaurants have never heard of. Tycer's bread is so good, he opened a bakery, which now supplies many other Houston restaurants. But this kind of chef-driven restaurant also requires a sophisticated clientele. Houstonians who think that great restaurants cater to a demanding customer's every whim, from "sauce on the side" to a tomato salad in the dead of winter, are apt to be disappointed here. Go to Aries and let chef Scott Tycer cook for you. Odds are he will wow you with his considerable genius. If you need to "have it your way," you're better off at Burger King -- or Tony's.
Byzantio Cafe Ilias Giannakopoulos gutted his house on West Gray to make room for the European flourishes omnipresent in this hip new cafe, where he and partner Dora Manolopoulos keep the Greek tradition of hospitality alive day after day. Inside you'll find a smorgasbord of Hellenic delights: stuffed grape leaves, fresh olives, sliced meats and feta, feta, feta. But it ain't the food that makes Byzantio the best new cafe; it's the atmosphere, where wood meets stone meets some random Greek guy yelling about something. Welcome to Europe in the middle of the Montrose. The place changes faces once the sun goes down; the music starts pumping, and maybe, just maybe, the patrons start dancing on the bar. Hey, it's a Greek thing.
Cafe Brasil The perfect microcosm of Montrose, Cafe Brasil does it all. It has great ambience, a lively, diverse crowd and surprisingly good food. The scones, baked on-site every morning, are miracles of flaky, buttery deliciousness. It's one of the few places in town where you can order an inexpensive, top-notch salad, and the beer flows as freely as the coffee. Housed in an old brick storefront with vintage windows, Brasil hosts wooden tables brimming with professors, chat groups and mysterious, bearded bohemians. The lime-green walls, leafy patio and chic blue tile-work of the bar give the place a classy, vaguely Latin American feel. On certain nights, Brasil even screens classic and foreign films. But don't let the cosmopolitan trappings fool you: One taste of the eggs and crawfish étouffée, and you'll agree this popular hangout is a Bayou City classic.
Da Marco You'll get the best pizza and pasta dishes in the city at this intimate and unassuming little Montrose restaurant. And you'll also find cutting-edge fare such as tuna tartare salad and an appetizer of cold lamb's-tongue slices served with the Tuscan mustard-brined fruits known as mostarda. Some of the unusual varieties of fish, such as the branzino (Italian sea bass) are jet-flown in from Italy. Chef Marco Wiles strives to offer Houstonians the same kind of new Italian cuisine that Food Network boy wonder Mario Batali serves at Babbo, one of New York's favorite restaurants. The wine list is just as innovative as the food, with lots of crisp Proseccos and unusual Piedmont reds. Daily specials take advantage of local seasonal ingredients, such as the fresh fig compote with gelato. And the service is exceptionally well informed, attentive and cordial -- unless you ask for spaghetti and meatballs.
Becks Prime If you really want your burger your way -- say, mooing on the inside, black on the outside -- this is your place. Huge juicy beef patties -- made with a half-pound of mesquite-grilled, ground chuck -- as well as fresh toppings make this one of the best burgers in town. Thick fries and forget-the-diet milk shakes complete the experience. Pricey, yes, and don't expect to drive through too quickly. The folks at Becks Prime may think they're a fast-food place, but the meals are mouthwatering, and that takes a little time. Feel like being healthy? The grilled chicken sandwiches are great. And where else can you grab a steak or swordfish sandwich without getting out of your car?
Captain Benny's Half Shell Oyster Bar This small tugboat-shaped eatery, nestled almost out of sight off South Main, is a happy docking place for a diverse array of diners with a lust for crustaceans and other fare from la mer. Folks know that if it's fried or on the half-shell, it's fresh. And just a glance at the clientele proves there's a seafood fan in all of us: A diverse group of patrons converges here. You'll find folks in Sunday-go-to-meetin' duds, business suits, punk dos and tattoos, all united by their love for Captain Benny's seafood. And the management recently added broiled entrées to the lineup, so health-minded customers have been showing up in their gym clothes, too.
Mykonos Island Restaurant Forget the freezer. At Mykonos, every day is a shopping day for fish, shrimp and snapper, so the seafood is never more than 24 hours old. The baklava and custard are made every morning, too. The Greek sampler plate comes so heavily laden with Mediterranean favorites like meatballs, stuffed grape leaves and spinach-and-cheese pies that two folks can fill up without moving on to the entrées. But who would want to do that? The menu's star, by far, is the butterfly snapper, an oh-so-moist boned fish charcoal-grilled with olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. It will have you shouting "Opa!" the minute you taste it.
Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse Nearly two inches thick, the USDA Prime New York strips here strike a perfect balance between flavor and tenderness. The three-pound Maine lobster, which comes split and shelled with a bowl of drawn butter sitting atop a candle-heated warmer, is spectacular. The salads are huge and bargain-priced. And while the wines aren't cheap, the newly revamped list features hard-to-get cult classics such as Beaux Frères -- probably the best Pinot Noir made in America. Vic & Anthony's exterior architecture matches that of Union Station and the nearby ballpark, and its interior is decorated with old black-and-white photos documenting the history of downtown. Palm, Smith & Wollensky, The Capital Grille and Morton's of Chicago are all clones of originals in other cities. It's nice to finally have a steak house that Houston can call its own.
Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant Larry's cheese enchiladas actually have a lot in common with their spaghetti mexicano. They're both relics. The difference is, Larry's cheese enchiladas taste as good, or better, than modern Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas. The viscous yellow cheese swirls around the dark brown chili gravy, creating an abstract masterpiece that's half melted cheese, half enchilada sauce. Even after 30 minutes of beer drinking, the cheese doesn't harden on the plate. How does this stuff stay liquid? Maybe Larry's has perfected a secret process whereby cheese is melted into permanent submission. Maybe they're importing magic cheese from Mexico. They say if you love hot dogs, you're better off not taking a tour of the wiener factory. I think it's the same with Larry's cheese enchiladas. Let's leave a little mystery in those swirls of cheese and chili gravy. And please pass the tortillas.
Backstreet Cafe The recipe for a successful brunch should include the following: excellent food (particularly egg dishes), great drinks, great atmosphere, live jazz and stellar service. Backstreet Cafe delivers on all of these. Plus, you have a choice of where you'd like to enjoy the best meal of the week: indoors in a transitional covered patio area, or outdoors on a gorgeous patio shaded by lots of old trees. Wherever you sit, the cares and pressures of the last few days will disappear as quickly as the mimosas. Freshly baked scones and muffins arrive the minute you're seated. Specialty brunch cocktails like apple-rum tea and smooth brandy-milk punch help to set the mood for the food, which includes such spectacular dishes as lump crab cakes with eggs, brioche French toast, gingerbread waffles and red pepper polenta with andouille sausage, spinach and poached eggs. Pity Sunday comes but once a week.
Star Pizza Star Pizza has been turning out perfect pies since 1976, and they do it every way possible: Chicago-style thick crust or New York-style thin crust; whole wheat or regular; vegetarian or meat lover's; single topping or the kitchen sink. Because they sell so much of the stuff, the ingredients never have time to sit, and the pizza always comes to the table piping-hot and fresh. Among the most famous pies are Joe's -- a mixture of sautéed spinach and enough garlic to scare off a gang of vampires -- and the rosemary-and-garlic grilled chicken pizza, slathered with a creamy white sauce made from hunks of molten Gorgonzola. Star is a Houston original with a gourmet kick.
Shiva Indian Restaurant From the saag paneer to the rice pudding, this Rice Village spot and its Sugar Land cousin serve up some of the best vegetarian Indian food around. Fun Indian decor and soothing music, along with good spinach pakora, creamy curry with rice and fresh-baked nan add to the busy buffet at noontime. And candlelight and friendly service make nighttime dining a romantic experience. Shiva offers some of the best Indian food around, with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes (including the mango ice cream). But entrées like the moist and tender tandoori chicken make this a place all your friends (veggie or not) can enjoy.