Every few weeks, the Art Institute of Houston holds wine dinners at its student restaurant, Courses. This particular dinner was a tribute to Chef Arue Moore's daughter, a cancer survivor, and the proceeds went to the American Cancer Society.
The place has no more than 10 tables, most of which have a view of the kitchen through a large window along a wall in the restaurant. Ours was a non-dairy dinner, as our dining companion had called ahead to arrange this for us, so our meal varied slightly from the selections on the table menu. Our first course was a basic shrimp cocktail with roasted shrimp (which added a nice texture), served with a homemade cocktail sauce and a glass of 2005 St. Francis Merlot (which was fantastic).
The second course was a tomato-basil soup served with hummus-and-roasted-tomato finger sandwiches. The soup didn't have the sweetness or creaminess of normal tomato-basil soups as it was dairy-free, but once we got past our expectations, it was quite enjoyable. The little sandwiches really made us wish they were bigger, as the hummus was amazingly garlicky and full of flavor. We couldn't taste the tomato at all, but we fixed that by dunking our sandwich into our soup, which made a tasty pairing.
Next came a little salad of field greens, grapes, raspberries and walnuts. It was nice, but nothing too out of the ordinary. But we noticed how meticulously the salad was composed. This dinner must have been an exam, because the patience in preparation was apparent.
Course four was a small piece of glazed teriyaki salmon and a scoop of papaya salad. The salmon itself was borderline dry, but still pretty tasty. The papaya salad, again, was meticulously prepared, with teeny little perfect cubes of fruit. This course came out with a 2007 Erath Pinot Noir, which had a nice berry flavor to it, and although it seemed too thin to be preceded so closely by the Merlot, it was still a pleasant choice.
We were then brought a chicken breast (instead of the chicken fricassee), which was topped with near paper-thin shiitakes in some sort of brown sauce, served over brown rice dotted with perfectly minced vegetables and steamed asparagus. We weren't sure what the brown sauce was, but it made this dish the star of the evening at our table. Our companions begged for a bite (we were nice and shared), and they agreed that whatever it was, it was really good. This course was served with a 2008 Simi Chardonnay, which we didn't think was a good pairing, perhaps because of the special menu.
A seemingly simple angel food with berry topping was the dessert, but it was fantastic - a delightful tart and lightly sweet choice.
For the price, ambiance and amazing personal service you get, this is well worth the charitable donation. We left stuffed, slightly tipsy, and very satisfied. During the week, Courses has some simple lunch choices, all for under $8. For information on upcoming dinners, and for takeout, hours of operation, or reservations, call 713-353-3644. The Art Institute of Houston is located at 1900 Yorktown Street, just a few blocks from the Galleria.