The Capital Grille
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Nothing says "big spender" like a big hunk of meat, a big, expensive wine and a big cigar. There's no place better to blow a couple of Gs on two people than at The Capital Grille, that clubby bastion of the expense account crowd, the ultimate meat market. Start out at the bar by sipping some Auchentoshan 21-year-old single malt ($24 a shot). Move to your table and order a magnum of Joseph Phelps Insignia 2001/2002 champagne ($505) followed by a bottle of Chteau Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac, 1995 ($640). For your appetizer, a cold shellfish platter ($44), and for the main course, a dry-aged, hand-sculpted, steak lover's dream -- a 24-ounce porterhouse with both the filet and sirloin ($48) along with some au gratin potatoes ($9), creamed spinach ($7) and roasted mushrooms ($10). For a final flourish, a flourless chocolate espresso cake ($6.50), a snifter of Rmy Martin Louis XIII cognac ($195) and, of course, a Padrn Aniversario cigar ($45). Just don't forget your credit card.
The coconut almond cream cheese tart at Tart Cafe contains almost everything people love, with the exception of chocolate. The dessert has a thick pastry shell, giving it the appearance of a mini-quiche at least an inch thick and four inches in diameter. The moist coconut cream cheese is mixed with a delicious almond paste in such a way that each of the flavors is distinguishable. Get one early in the morning, and you won't be able to stop thinking about it all day long.
Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff
A recent expansion means more tables and more room to move at Da Marco -- which is a welcome change, since the dining room was sometimes a little too intimate. But whatever the seating plan, Houston is lucky to have an Italian restaurant this good. Chef Marco Wiles has adapted Mario Batali's cutting-edge concepts to the ingredients and sensibilities of the Gulf Coast. We get fig compote and fig gelato when the local fruit is in season. And we get fresh area treats such as Gulf shrimp alongside rare imported ingredients like branzini, flown in from Italy. We also get a wine list with both big-dollar Barolos and inexpensive discoveries from Slovenia. It all adds up to a world-class restaurant experience. Even better, Da Marco practices true democracy at the reservations desk. The restaurant once refused to stay open late to accommodate Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. So you know that River Oaks riffraff waving fifties won't be seated before folks with legitimate reservations.
Jazzie Cafe
"Jazzie Cafe Famous Hot Wings and Po-Boys," reads the sign on top of the newly painted red, blue and yellow building on 19th Street near Beall. And if they're not famous yet, maybe they will be someday. Jazzie's sweet-hot chile chicken wings are coated with a thick sauce that tastes like a combination of oranges, hoisin and Vietnamese ground chiles. They aren't served with celery and blue cheese dressing, and with these Asian flavors, fried rice would probably be a better accompaniment, anyway. And the staff can fix you up with all the fried rice you need: There are three kinds on the menu, along with poor boys, gumbo and boudin. This sort of Cajun-Asian fusion comes naturally to owner Beth Nguyen, a Louisiana Vietnamese-American who opened Jazzie Cafe after she realized she wasn't going back to New Orleans anytime soon. There are two tables and a walk-up counter inside the tiny establishment, but mostly people stop by and pick up their wings and poor boys to go.
Taqueria Tacambaro
There are two salsas available at this taco truck located behind Canino Produce on Airline. One is iridescent green with a tart tomatillo base and the fiery flavor of fresh serranos; it's superb on chicken gorditas and on the sublime tacos de tripita (tripe). The other sauce is a deep, dark chocolate-colored salsa that looks like it's going to be hellishly hot, but turns out to be astonishingly rich and mellow. Head chef Maria Rojas says it's made with nothing more than cascabel chiles. The dried cascabels are soaked until soft, pureed and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of garlic. It's a purist's salsa with a simple but deep chile flavor. Try it on the fabulous sweetbread tacos for a gourmet taco-truck treat.
Churrascos
The signature dish there is, what else, churrasco, a charcoal-grilled, center-beef tenderloin steak. From a petite six-ounce serving to a platter-sized 16-ounce slab, these are some of the best steaks in town. But there are plenty of other tasty delights to be sampled at Churrascos as well, including doblones (chargrilled salmon with an achiote-shrimp salsa) and the "owner's cut" (filet mignon served with fire-roasted pasilla sauce and goat cheese salsa). The side dishes are just as delicious -- grilled lobster tail, jalapeos and onions flambed tableside, and yucca empanadas with cilantro dressing. The restaurant also serves Sunday brunch and hosts a series of special wine dinners, during which a different wine accompanies each of four courses. All this in a sophisticated but low-key atmosphere with excellent service.
Call us purists, but we love enjoying a good mojito in distinctly South American environs. And when we want to sip on the pretty, minty cocktail and watch pretty people, we head to Arturo Boada's Beso (Spanish for "kiss"). Downtown scenesters, young professionals and hip South Americans flock to the restaurant, where the bubbly, effervescent Amy tends bar. With the efficiency of an assembly-line worker and the skill of a lab scientist (and the zeal of a cheerleader), she fills tall glasses with large fresh mint leaves and muddles them down. Then come the fresh lime juice, sugar, ice, light rum (Bacardi for a light refresher, or Meyers's Dark for a mellow sipper) and a splash of soda. For a fruitier spin, Amy whips up a berry mojito, featuring fresh raspberries and mint mixed with Citadel vodka. Want a little more sugar? Just ask Amy, who's got plenty herself. "I try not to touch the glass too much when I make them," she says with a giggle, "or they're too sweet to drink." Awwww.
Glass Wall, The Restaurant
Glass Wall is a great new American bistro just where we needed it most: in the restaurant-deprived Heights. Predictably, the eatery has been packed since it opened in early April. Lance Fegen, former co-owner of Zula and chef at Trevsio, has left behind the overwrought designs and menus of his previous ventures and found his own cleaner, simpler style. Fegen is a surfer, and "glass wall" is surfer slang for a big wave -- it's also the name of a 1965 Jim Freeman surfing movie. The restaurant's interior design, which is built around a wall of glass and black stones, is light and airy. The open kitchen, visible from anywhere in the restaurant, invites spectators. The menu is heavy on seafood, although, oddly, hardly any of it comes from the Gulf of Mexico. With meats garnished with butter, vegetables accented with bacon, and boldly flavored sauces, the food manages to be sophisticated and hearty at the same time. The wine list, though short, is composed of a spectacular array of hard-to-find bottles. The menu changes monthly, to take advantage of seasonal ingredients.
Greasy hamburgers, fries and chicken all have their devotees in this town, but if you want to try a place that has really earned its grease, look no further than Himalaya. At this Muslim-Indian joint, a massive dose of oil and meat fat carries off an equally massive dose of piquancy, perfectly blunting the sharper edges of a delicious bouquet of spices. Try the goat biryani; the rice glistens with tasty unctuousness, and the meat is so tender it falls off the bone. The saucy dishes (stick to the meat fare) carry off a vindaloo-like punch. This is no place for sissies. Plastic grease guards cover the wooden tables. Sweat and oil will stream from your pores. But when it comes to prospecting the heart-stopping outer limits of flavor, this place serves liquid gold.
The bass booms at the chic Zake Lounge, where Asian hipsters with asymmetrical hair mingle with Inner Loop hotties in halter tops and Montrose bohos in Birkenstocks. While amped-up dance versions of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" (huh?) and Paul Simon's "Call Me Al" (WTF?) throb overhead, regulars order chilled blue bottles of Moonstone Sake -- a sweet, smooth number with hints of peach -- and sip it from small, clear glasses. Others down Zipang, a sparkling, bubbly citrus sake that tastes like a fruity beer (or Sprite with a kick), from little black ceramic cups or straight from the bottle. High rollers nurse the more traditional (and way more expensive) Hakushika Chokara Dry, a full-bodied spirit. Can't let go of the brew? Try a Zake bomb. A colorful cup is filled with beer, and a cup within the cup is filled with sake. It's a great table shot, and a delicious way to learn sake with a chaser.

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