Photo by Houston Press Staff
Legendary salsa star Celia Cruz made her way to Cafe Piquet every time she visited Houston, and it's easy to understand why. Made-from-scratch food, a stylish atmosphere and attentive service -- all staples here -- have made this a haven for Cuban-Americans in search of a taste of home. Don't let the strip-mall exterior fool you; inside, it's all low-key sophistication, kid-friendly without sacrificing a grown-up atmosphere. For starters, try the croquetas or yucca frita. The empanadas are also a favorite with regulars. For hearty appetites, try the masitas fritas or the ropa vieja. And don't forget to leave room for a little Cuban coffee or a serving of tres leches for dessert.
There's so much to do at the Rainbow Lodge that lunch might be an afterthought. Stroll through the lush grounds overlooking Buffalo Bayou. Visit the pond and gazebo, where many have celebrated their nuptials. Smell the herbs in the garden. Then enter the old lodge, examine the stuffed hunting trophies on the wall or check out the collection of antique outboard motors. Linger in the Tied-Fly lounge, closely examining the hand-carved bar, which resembles a busy trout stream. Sneak a peek in the wine steward's room, which is the finest place in town to enjoy a private, intimate dinner for up to six. Examine the wines. Take a look at the rotisserie, where meats are roasted on the spit. Examine the many levels of the restaurant with its nooks and crannies. Then, and only then, focus on the menu, which leans toward wild game and Texas Gulf Coast cuisine. By the time you've enjoyed your tour and meal, you will have passed an enjoyable afternoon.
Photo courtesy of Artista
Few restaurants have a better view of downtown Houston, and none has a more beautifully appointed interior, than Artista, which is located on the second floor of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Extremely elegant and very quiet, the main dining room is an expansive, high-ceilinged space dominated by a distinguished onyx wrap-around bar and floor-to-ceiling windows. A fabulous outdoor seating area lets diners get close and friendly with the skyline, and warm tones, soft lighting and wonderfully comfortable seating make this a place to impress anyone, no matter who they are. An innovative menu with simple, precise presentations is designed to excite the senses. Choose your protein, sauce and side dish separately, each from a different list; timid diners will be well guided by the experienced waitstaff.
Photo by Troy Fields
The half-bottles are called "Mini Mes," and there's a whole page devoted to wines for "wine geeks" on this, the hippest wine list in the city. Subheads include "All that Shimmers" for champagnes, "Clean Whites" for crisp white varietals, "Dirty Reds" for the big Cabs and Zins and "Rose Water" for the newly fashionable ros varietals. But beyond the bon mots and wine-world witticisms, there's a concise yet impressive collection of great bottles. The list includes both innovative and economical bottles as well as some of the classics. There are trendy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, highly allocated wines from Gaja in Italy, big Burgundies from the Cte d'Or and trendy Pinot Noirs from California. Former Brennan's of Houston chef and sommelier Chris Shepherd put this list together before he left, and we look forward to reading the wine list at Shepherd's newest venture, the Catalan Food & Wine Bar, which opens soon at 5555 Washington Avenue.
Spewing happy talk and fawning over socialites has long been mistaken for good service in Houston's top-end restaurants. (It's actually an institutionalized form of panhandling.) T'afia exemplifies a new and more enlightened approach to restaurant service. The waitstaff is unobtrusive, unassuming, yet helpful. Most important, they're extremely well informed about the food, its provenance and its preparation. It's nice to know that the carrots are cooked with ginger tonight, but at T'afia, the staffers can tell you the name of the local farmer who grew them, how long the farm has been certified organic and which day the carrots were picked. And they'll invite you to come back on Saturday morning when you can buy the same carrots at the farmers' market held every Saturday in the T'afia parking lot. Credit for the highly informed service goes in part to chef Monica Pope's concept; she serves local produce and artisanal food products because she's dedicated to changing the way Houstonians eat -- and she understands that it's her waitstaff who's doing the educational outreach.
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
You can get brunch just about anywhere these days, but at Backstreet Cafe, the meal's staples are redefined. The fluffy gingerbread waffle is served with sauted cinnamon apples. The French toast is reinvented as brioche generously stuffed with bananas and served with a sticky-sweet caramel sauce. The Eggs Benedict are served over cheddar chive biscuits and come with a zingy jalapeo barnaise. Standouts include the red pepper polenta with poached eggs, spinach, Choron sauce and andouille sausage. Our favorite is the chicken and andouille hash: Tender grilled chicken is mixed with cuts of sausage, onions, mushrooms and potatoes. The hash is topped with two sunny-side-up eggs and a delectable jalapeo hollandaise. Brunch at this cozy River Oaks home-turned-eatery is kicked up by superb cocktails such as a creative wild berry mimosa and a fruity, crisp blackberry mojito.
It's 8:30p.m., you're starving and sitting in your underwear, and the last thing you want to do is get in the car again. What to do? Savvy diners in the Heights area call on Spaghetti Western, named for the cowboy shoot-'em-up movie staple. The Italian restaurant's delivery menu features obligatory -- and darn good -- pizzas, such as the Good (veggie), the Bad (sausage and meatball) and the Ugly (grilled chicken, red onions and chipotle tomatillo sauce). Pasta favorites like spaghetti (natch) and tortellini don't disappoint. But it's Spaghetti Western's specialty dishes that make for a doorstep delight. The grilled pork chop, dressed with a spicy sweet jalapeo kiwi glaze, is thick, tender and bears perfect sear marks. The carb-riffic Pasta Man Special boasts an Italian bread-crumbed crab cake on a grilled chicken breast, topped with crawfish tails and a garlic cream sauce -- all on a bed of pasta. Dinner in your drawers was never better.
Goat isn't the kind of meat you just throw on the grill and smother with a slice of cheddar. Roasted long and slowly, good cabrito is as hard to come by in Houston as a village campfire. But the closest thing you'll find to the real deal -- the Mexican pueblito method of steaming a cabra whole in a pit of flames -- can be found on a table amid the socialites at Hugo's. Here the chefs wrap big pieces of goat in banana leaf along with chile de arbol, morita peppers, avocado and bay leaves. They steam it for hours until the fragrant meat nearly falls off the bone. When you order the dish (at $17.95, well worth it), the carefully deboned goat morsels are steamed again in a smaller leaf and served alongside guacamole, refried black beans, a bowl of habanero salsa and sauted nopales (cactus leaves). It's the rarest of combinations: a dish served on a fancy table on a trendy block of the Montrose that's also muy autntico.

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