I am constantly amazed at otherwise savvy travelers who, when told I'm going to Houston to eat around town, ask, "Oh, you mean Tex-Mex and barbecue?" "Yep," I drawl, "along with great steaks and an ever-expanding wine list at Pappas Bros., an array of Vietnamese restaurants, innovative Central and South American food at Americas, great tapas at Beso, authentic Italian food at Carmelo's and Arcodoro, even kosher Indian food at Madras Pavilion. The new Hugo's advances Mexican cooking by leaps and bounds, while promoting the virtues of a fine wine list to go with it. I can hobnob with society's swells at the venerable Tony's, plug into 'new Texas cuisine' at Café Annie, and enjoy some of the world's finest wine lists, including 32 with Wine Spectator awards."
Houston is a young city, and thrives on young chefs with impressive résumés and enthusiasm enough to prove theirs is a major restaurant town-and on a dining public worldly and ardent enough to support them. One of the most engaging of these chefs is Charles Clark of Ibiza Food & Wine Bar. Ibiza refers to the chic island off the coast of Spain known for its Iberian and Mediterranean food; at this Ibiza, the cuisine gets a good dose of Gulf Coast spicing as well. With partner Grant Cooper, Clark has created a wide open, bright space with an open kitchen, concrete floors, sheet-metal walls, bird's-eye maple furniture, a custom-designed rolling cocktail cart and a 14 foot by 25 foot wall of wine that showcases the owners' commitment to being a major wine destination in Houston. Indeed, they are determined to serve wine to everyone at Ibiza, stocking the 4,000-bottle cellar with 450 selections that include excellent buys on unusual wines such as Delectus Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2000 at $75, Jarvis Chardonnay Napa Valley Unfiltered Reserve 2000 at $86 and El Molino Chardonnay Rutherford 2001 at $71. Champagnes and sparkling wines are sold for a song: Louis Roederer Cristal 1996 at $169 and Charles Ellner Millésimé 1989 at $71.
Clark cooks with plenty of gusto, and, this being Texas, portions are big, even the "small plates" such as panfried oysters with spicy andouille sausage fricassee and a mess of piquillo peppers stuffed with smoked duck breast and pistachios. Foie gras comes with roasted sweet-and-sour apples and juicy blackberries. The superb steak tartare with a creole mustard rouille reengaged my appetite for this old classic.
Among the entrées, I was enchanted by succulent braised rabbit with bacon and tangy, sharp Dijon mustard placed atop homemade tagliatelle. Also delicious were pan-seared sea scallops served simply in their own buttery pan juices, with couscous dotted with slivers of Spanish ham. Best of all was a lamb shank braised for six hours and exotically scented with Spanish mint oil. Except for an addictive mocha-espresso bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and Jamaican rum caramel, desserts were a tad predictable.
One of the early innovators of fine dining in town is Brennan's of Houston, run by Alex Brennan-Martin of the family that owns Commander's Palace, Mr. B's, the Palace Café and other restaurants in New Orleans and Las Vegas. For three decades Brennan's has been a beacon of Southern hospitality and sumptuous celebratory dining, as befits a restaurant located in the former premises of the city's Junior Leagues International branch.
Brennan-Martin is fond of quoting Will Rogers to the effect that, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." So he keeps things fresh, recently altering the restaurant space and appointing Randy Evans executive chef this year to replace his predecessor, Carl Walker, who became general manager.
Evans has his own ideas, but he happily maintains those marvelous creole classics for which the Brennans are famous, from shrimp rémoulade and a crab cake with hot sauce beurre blanc to Gulf Coast seafood gumbo and "soupe à la oyster Rockefeller." But his heart is deep in Texas, evident in dishes like Premium Gold Angus rib eye set next to a hash of pancetta and Yukon gold potatoes, with a homemade Worcestershire glaze. Locally raised ring- necked pheasant is decadently enriched with a foie gras and black truffle johnnycake and finished with brown butter laced with balsamic vinegar for a dish that defines Houstonian lagniappe. And how can you resist a dessert like "baked Alaska beehive," made with Galveston County honey ice cream atop a Bit-O-Honey chiffon cake, or bananas Foster flamed tableside? Brennan's also stocks an extensive selection of American artisanal cheeses.
Brennan's offers a 390-selection Award of Excellence-winning wine list, overseen by sommelier Chris Shepherd, starting with more than 30 wines by the glass and equal numbers of half- and large-format bottles (the latter fall under the category "Big Expense Account Wine"). The "For the Wine Geeks" section includes Prà Monte Grande Soave Classico 2001 ($42), Robert Weil Riesling Kiedrich Gräfenberg 2001 ($119) and Havens Albariño 2001 ($43). A fine selection of international whites and an impressive collection of reds follows, though the Bordeaux and Burgundy holdings could bear bolstering.
Two hotel chefs much impressed me with their precise modernism sans a whit of eccentricity: Toby Joseph, of the Remington at the elegant St. Regis, and Jeff Armstrong, at 17 in the newly renovated Sam Houston. Joseph, 33, counts among his guests numerous River Oaks neighbors, including George and Barbara Bush, as well as the members of legendary rock band AC/DC. He actually works two dining rooms-the Grill, with a predominantly steaks and chops menu, and the Restaurant, a beautiful conservatory-style dining room with floor-to-ceiling French windows and candlelit tables. Here he works a more refined menu reflecting strong European roots, as with his scallopine of seared scallop with scallion blini and trout roe. For something celebratory and a bit more Houstonian, try his spit-roasted Cornish game hen stuffed with poblano chiles, white corn, smoked bacon and vegetable couscous. His Caesar salad gets a Texas twang with the addition of grilled corn, rattlesnake beans, avocado, Manchego cheese and a chipotle dressing-a lavish bargain at only $9.
Joseph loves pasta, combining it with Gulf seafood, as in his sautéed jumbo shrimp with red pepper fettuccine and aromatic truffle butter; his ravioli are stuffed with wild mushrooms and married with sea scallops in a butternut squash cream. There are also Asian accents in his ahi tuna steak, served with a snow pea slaw and ginger-pecan sauce.
The Remington's 200-selection wine list has good coverage in most categories, strongest in American reds, weaker in French bottlings. Pricing is remarkably fair, with wines like Destino Chardonnay Russian River Valley 1999 at $78, Carpe Diem Chardonnay Edna Valley Firepeak Vineyard 2001 at $51 and Arietta Kongsgaard & Hatton Napa Valley 1998 at $187-just double retail, if not less.
For more than a year, downtown Houston was torn up while the city built its light-rail system, and restaurants suffered terribly. But the new Sam Houston Hotel has pumped life back into the area, and its restaurant, 17, has been a hit with those now coming downtown to dine. The numbered name refers to Sam Houston's comment that this port city was "where 17 railroads meet the sea." The dining room's expansive windows open onto the street, and the barrel-vaulted ceiling, garnet- and cream-colored walls and excellent table settings have a freshness complimented by the midday Texas sun. The service staff could not be more congenial, in the way Houstonians invariably are.
Jeff Armstrong came to 17 from Southern California. He brought a Pacific Rim style, evident in dishes like his shrimp curry with basmati rice, lemongrass, coconut milk and crispy shallots, and his lump crab salad with avocado, citrus fruit and ponzu sauce. I jot down little stars next to exceptional dishes, and my pilfered 17 menu is littered with them: Seared foie gras with roasted pineapple, coriander seed and pink peppercorn gastrique; pan-seared red snapper with baby artichokes, fingerling potatoes and a brown sugar-caper vinaigrette; I gave double stars and a "Wow!" to a dauntingly rich, downright scrumptious black truffle macaroni and cheese side dish I could eat every day. But then I wouldn't have room for pastry chef Adam Sanchez's wonderful apple and butterscotch bread pudding with crème fraîche or a chocolate s'mores cake with graham cracker ice cream.
I must assume that competition has driven many Houston restaurants to keep a close eye on wine prices, for here at 17, too, there are bargains to be found in every category-Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé NV for $50, Silver Oak Cabernet Napa Valley 1999 ($108), Château Haut-Brion 1996 ($275) and Jadot Chambertin Clos de Bèze 1995 ($115). Even Château Pétrus 1996 for $1,133 sounds like a steal.
I could go on listing excellent new and established restaurants around Houston-Mark's, Aries, Rouge and Mockingbird Bistro, to name a few. But then, that wouldn't be fair to all those great Tex-Mex and barbecue places for which the city is known.
Contributing editor John Mariani has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1993.
Where to Find It Brennan's of Houston Ibiza Food & Wine Bar The Remington Restaurant and Grill 17
3300 Smith St.
Telephone (713) 522-9711
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost $26-$36; four-course tasting menu $45, $65 with wine
Credit cards All major
Award of Excellence
Telephone (713) 524-0004
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $14-$29
Credit cards All major
St. Regis Hotel, 1919 Briar Oaks Lane
Telephone (713) 403-2728
Open Restaurant, breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily; Grill, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $26-$36
Credit cards All major
Sam Houston Hotel, 1117 Prairie St.
Telephone (832) 200-8888
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15-$30
Credit cards All major
Where to Find It
Brennan's of Houston
Ibiza Food & Wine Bar
The Remington Restaurant and Grill