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Our 10 Favorite Affordable Luxuries: Treat Yourself This New Year

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Most of our readers will hopefully remember Robin Leach's signature sign-off at the end of each episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous during the show's decade-long run: "Champagne wishes and caviar dreams."

As far as sign-offs go, the phrase is no Walter Cronkite's "...and that's the way it is," nor Edward R. Murrow's famous "Good night, and good luck." But over the course of 11 years, the cheesy catchphrase helped to cement America's notion of champagne and caviar as symbols of the wealthy, luxuries only to be enjoyed by the rich and/or famous.

To that, I say pfffft. Sure, these luxuries aren't meant to be enjoyed every day (or else the term "luxury" itself would quickly become moot). But that doesn't mean you can't treat yourself every once in a while. If you have a little holiday spending money left over after shopping -- or perhaps some cash that Grandma tucked into your Christmas or Hanukkah cards -- here are our favorite places to indulge without completely breaking the bank.

10. Oysters on the half-shell at Gilhooley's

Cost: $9.50/dozen, plus the cost of gas

What you get: The freshest oysters in the greater Houston area -- although you'll have to drive down to San Leon to get them. For some, the biggest luxuries of eating at Gilhooley's are the twin benefits of being able to smoke inside the ramshackle old restaurant and not having to deal with any children (kids under 18 are strictly forbidden here). For me, however, it's the knowledge that the fat, buttery Gulf oysters I'm eating came straight off the boat no more than a few yards away.

9. Lunch martinis at Brennan's

Cost: 25 cents, plus the cost of an entree

What you get: If you're taking the day off or simply playing hooky from work, do it in style at the oh-so-elegant Brennan's where the cost of the martinis at lunch are more in line with a hole-in-the-wall's daily happy hour specials. Order any entree (the shrimp and grits are naturally my favorite) and your martini is only 25 cents. One shiny quarter. Every week day until 3 p.m., with no other catches. And you even get to choose the flavor: cosmo, melon or the standard, old-fashioned gin martini.

8. Lazy Lane frites at Brasserie 19

Cost: $21

What you get: If you think that $21 is too much to pay for a plate of french fries, you haven't tasted chef Amanda McGraw's Lazy Lane frites at Brasserie 19. Your perfectly fried Belgian-style frites are topped with sauce au poivre from Brasserie's terrific steaks, a scattering of chives, freshly-grated Parmesan, truffle oil and -- the coup de grace -- a wonderfully unctuous lobe of seared foie gras, which melts onto the hot fries like goose liver butter. I recommend it as Houston's best bar snack at Brasserie's cool marble bar with one of bartender Joe Stark's excellent Sazeracs, or -- if you want to stick with the Belgian theme -- a bottle of Saison Dupont.

7. Champagne and oysters at The Oceanaire

Cost: $49

What you get: A bottle of Piper Sonoma Brut Rosé (non-vintage) and half a dozen of the chef's specially selected oysters of the day. As Jeremy Parzen pointed out yesterday, Rosé is an ideal wine all year round -- and the crisp, bubbly kind is especially terrific with some salty oysters. The Oceanaire was one of the first restaurants in town to sell Gulf appellation oysters and although those specific oysters aren't being brought out of the water quite yet, the art deco seafood palace is still one of the spiffiest places in town to enjoy a plate of bivalves.

6. Foie gras breakfast at Triniti

Cost: $19

What you get: Breakfast...for dinner...topped with foie gras. Halle-freaking-lujah. This has been one of the only dishes to stay in constant rotation on Triniti's menu despite quarterly changes. It's simply too popular for chef Ryan Hildebrand to take off. The breakfast itself changes a bit with the seasons, however, and on the current winter menu you'll find a buckwheat-blueberry pancake (as opposed to a waffle this past fall) along with bacon, maple syrup and a single fried quail egg. The amount of foie gras you get is nearly as big as the silver dollar pancake, too, so this is best split with a friend. (Or not. Greedy.)

5. Afternoon tea at the Four Seasons

Cost: $36 or $42 with a glass of Prosecco

What you get: A full, traditional tea service, one of two ways: Texas Tea or International Tea. I love the Lobby Lounge at the Four Seasons for a variety of reasons: the wide and wonderful whiskey selection, the casually elegant ambiance and -- of course -- afternoon tea. There's nothing quite as civilized as taking a break from your hectic day and spending a quiet, calm hour or two with friends, catching up over fresh pots of tea and delicious nibbles. Service runs every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m., and reservations are strongly encouraged.

4. Souffle at Tony's

Cost: $12.50

What you get: The tallest, grandest, fluffiest souffle you've ever seen -- and in any flavor imaginable -- with a side of freshly whipped cream, also in the flavor of your choosing. While the souffles at Tony's aren't even on the dessert menu, you can always order them. And as Tony Vallone told the Chronicle 11 years ago, there isn't a flavor of souffle his kitchen can't make. The most popular? It's still the Grand Marnier -- a favorite of actress Shirley Maclaine -- after all these years.

3. Lobe of foie gras at The Pass & Provisions

Cost: $125

What you get: An entire lobe of foie gras. Does $125 sound like a lot? You'll pay $120 retail at places like Dean & Deluca, so take that into consideration. You'll also get over a pound -- and I can't stress enough how huge of a portion this is for something as rich as foie gras -- so tackling it all on your own is pure folly. Grab a big group of friends and split the cost at least four ways. Or do what I want to do for my next birthday: Order the foie gras instead of cake and have the kitchen stick a candle in it.

2. White truffles at Da Marco

Cost: $95

What you get: A bowl of handmade pasta, tossed with butter and cheese tableside, then topped with freshly-shaved white Alba truffles while you watch, eyes as big as platters. The white truffle tagliatelle at Italian favorite Da Marco is one of Robb Walsh's favorite dishes in Houston, although you'll pay dearly for it. A bowl of white truffle pasta (or risotto) costs nearly $100 right now thanks to the drought that delayed and limited the annual white truffle crop out of Italy. But you do get another special treat along with your meal that you can only find at Da Marco: a cup of white truffle gelato for a truly decadent dessert.

1. Traditional caviar service at Vic & Anthony's

Cost: $260

What you get: A full, traditional caviar service -- something rarely found in even the classiest of restaurants nowadays. Vic & Anthony's is currently serving Petrossian's Tsar Imperial Ossetra caviar, a nearly translucent caviar with a notably nutty flavor that's highly prized -- and pricey. Only the revered Beluga caviar is more expensive. At the downtown steakhouse, the Ossetra caviar is served with brioche toast points, finely grated egg yolks and whites, minced capers, red onions and sour cream. And, of course, you'll scoop the caviar up with a mother of pearl spoon.

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