While the former shrimping town of Kemah has been converted to an amusement park, crusty Old Seabrook, right across the channel, is still the home port of a small fleet of shrimp boats. Seafood delivery trucks are parked along the streets, waiting to take the fresh catch to Houston. And the glistening, never-been-frozen, heads-on shrimp in the Vietnamese-owned markets along the waterfront are ridiculously cheap. That's why the shrimp dishes at Merlion, a few blocks away, are absolutely transcendental. Merlion is not an exceptional Thai restaurant -- it's a solid Thai restaurant with exceptional seafood dishes. The chef has the good sense not to overcook the shrimp and to buy it fresh every day. And when you combine perfectly cooked seafood with even average Thai curries and garlic chile sauces, you get something very special.
Located in the beautiful space formerly occupied by Ba Ky restaurant, Jasmine is in full flower. Stop by for lunch, but don't let the short list of $4 specials fool you. Sure, the noodles are excellent, but wait until you see the gigantic dinner menu. Seafood is the specialty at night, and among the "must try" dinners is the whole grilled catfish. Don't miss Jasmine's variation on the better-known "beef seven ways": "fish seven ways," which substitutes grouper for beef. The beef isn't bad either; in fact, the bo luc lac may be the best in the city. Its huge, tender pieces of filet mignon are cooked medium and served with savory sauteed onions over a big salad. This is the Asian restaurant of the moment in Houston -- check it out while the kitchen is at the top of its game.
Readers' choice: Mai's
Photo by Houston Press staff
Chef and owner Marco Wiles is Houston's answer to Mario Batali. He loves to surprise you. He'll start you off with his own freshly cured anchovies served over a cream-injected fresh mozzarella called burrata. And while you're trying to figure that one out, he'll blindside you with something like cold poached lamb tongue served with the spicy mustard-brined fruits called mostardo. Forget about Gulf seafood -- he'd rather introduce you to some unusual varieties of fish like branzino (Italian sea bass), which he flies in from Italy. Da Marco's wine list is equally cutting-edge. Instead of offering the usual bunch of overpriced Barolos and Amarones, Da Marco's sommelier, Antonio Gianola, goes looking for great deals from off-the-beaten-track Italian regions like Puglia and the Slovenian border. But don't be intimidated: You'll also find some of the best pizza and pasta dishes in the city at this unassuming little Montrose cottage. Try the raviolo with ricotta, egg and truffle, for instance. It's a single, giant pillow made of two loose sheets of pasta filled with a gently poached egg and napped with truffle oil -- and it will alter your mind.
Readers' choice: Carrabba's

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