Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 10-6

Welcome to the top ten. If you've followed along from the beginning, thanks for sticking with me. If you're here for the first time, click here for links to the rest of the list.

Beef rib burnt ends and a two meat plate with a sea of creamed corn at Killen's Barbecue.
No. 10 Killen's Barbecue (Pearland): There's not much that can be said about Killen's Barbecue that hasn't already been covered on any number of the local or national write ups that Ronnie Killen's smoked meat Mecca has received since it opened. With one of the state's largest and most well executed barbecue menus, Killen's delivers a full restaurant experience. The array of meat options are of the highest quality, from well rendered brisket to pepper packed beef ribs, and Killen's boasts a roster of sides and desserts that take a backseat to no joint. No corners are cut at Killen's in terms of quality, including some of the best smoked turkey in Texas. There's good reason why the restaurant offers a five meat plate option as choosing what to order is difficult. My advice: don't miss the brisket or the creamed corn, whatever you do. While the line can be cumbersome and the trip to Pearland inconvenient for many, Killen's Barbecue is a pilgrimage every meat eater should make.

Hunky Dory: scones with jam, butter, and clotted cream | HD Burger and fries | lamb sausage with beans and egg.
No. 9 Hunky Dory (The Heights): For fans of the late, great Montrose restaurant, Feast, Hunky Dory was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in recent memory. Way back in 2013, The Treadsack Group (Down House, Foreign Correspondents, Bernadine's) announced big plans to open numerous restaurants around The Heights. One of those restaurants, Hunky Dory, would bring former Feast chef Richard Knight back to a Houston kitchen. Knight's British heritage, which was on full display at Feast, shines through at Hunky Dory as well. A massive wood burning hearth cooks much of the meat on the menu and is quite the spectacle for diners. Black puddings, terrines, and shepherd's pie have their place on the menu, but Hunky Dory excels with vegetables and more conventional dishes. The HD Burger is decadent in its simplicity, with two juicy patties topped with melted cheese and served with fries that cry out for malt vinegar. Chef Knight's kitchen is also serving an excellent, well priced brunch. While service in the early days of this restaurant could be a bit uneven, the food and bar program is more than good enough to keep coming back, and I'm confident that the smart folks behind this project will iron out the wrinkles. Feast was a restaurant a few years ahead of its time; I am hopeful that Hunky Dory has arrived when Houston is ready for it.

The ever-changing lunch special at Himalaya.
No. 8: Himalaya (Ghandi District): Kaiser Lashkari, the chef/owner of one of Houston's greatest culinary treasures, is one of the busiest people I've ever met. Kaiser oversees service at Himalaya every day and never seems to slow down. He's constantly on the phone, taking to-go orders, scheduling repairs needed at the restaurant, and checking on the tables to make sure diners enjoyed their meal. If that seems like a lot, then factor in that Kaiser also prepares much of Himalaya's daily menu. Himalaya is revered by locals and industry people alike for its intensely flavorful meats and curries. The dining experience at Himalaya never feels stale as Lashkari is always adding specials, such as a recent masala spiced brisket. The daily lunch special at Himalaya is one of my favorite meals in Houston. Served in a cafeteria tray, it has a rotating selection of curries along with rice, naan, and usually another savory treat in each of the tray's sectioned squares. Kaiser's newest experiment, spiced fried chicken, was on the tray on a recent visit. The food at Himalaya is among the most authentic and delicious in the city and Himalaya remains one of the most quintessential Houston restaurants.

The baloney at Public Services Wine & Whisky, to be eaten with an ample amount of sherry.
No. 7 Public Services Wine and Whisky (Market Square Downtown): I am not a bar person, but Public Services is not your typical bar. That is just one of the reasons why I love the place so much. Owned by Oxheart's Justin Vann, Justin Yu, and Karen Man and operated by Vann, Public Services has the city's most varied selection of rare wines and whiskies in the city. The enthusiasm the Public Services staff has about their menu is infectious, and service is always attentive but never pushy. It is a delight to walk into Public Services during their splendid happy hour (4:00-6:30 daily) at which time the entire wine list is half off and pull up a seat at the bar. Most trips in, I take a quick glance at the menu and then just put my drinking decisions in the hands of Vann and his talented staff. The food menu at Public Services is small but as strong as one would expect based on its owners. The house-made "baloney" is the perfect fatty treat, served with cheese and ritz crackers, and the smoked fish spread is a great snack, though I recommend making sure your drink order pairs well with it. If you're not a wine or whisky expert, or even if you are, I cannot recommend enough making a trip to Public Services and entrusting its crew to provide you with one of the most laid back and interesting bar experiences in Houston.

Whole branzino from Helen Greek Food and Wine.

No. 6 Helen Greek Food and Wine (Rice Village): Helen is the rare restaurant where every meal I've had there is better than the last. This is an exciting thought for my next visit considering the spectacular dinner I enjoyed there last month. Respected sommelier Evan Turner realized his dream of bringing his version of Greek food to Houston last year when Helen opened in a small space in Rice Village. Chef William Wright leads the kitchen, and though he does not have a background in Greek cooking, Chef Wright expertly executes Helen's menu of traditional Greek flavors with touches of Houston mixed in to create some of the most interesting plates I've had anywhere in the country in recent memory. The trio of dips, available on all of Helen's menus, is a must order on any visit. The flavors change frequently, but much thought is put into each dip and they are a great introduction to the rest of the menu. Whether it be a smoky eggplant or spiced red bell pepper with feta dip, it is a great bite spooned atop grilled pita bread. Turner's love of Greek wine is on full display at Helen, which boasts one of the largest selections of Greek wines in the country. It is a well priced list and the staff does a great job of pairing the wine with the diners' menu selections. The salads at Helen pop with freshness and a perfect amount of acidity, and a grilled whole branzino dish I enjoyed on my last trip in was one of the best fish dishes I've ever had. The lunch menu equals the appeal of dinner at Helen, where a flavorful brined chicken is served with confit potatoes, a generous lunch portion for its $14 price tag. Helen has brought life to a mostly quiet dining area of Houston, and is one of those restaurants that I feel will get better with age.   

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 15-11

It's coming down to the wire on my 50 favorites list, with only two weeks left before I round out my top five. For a list of my ranking guidelines as well as all of the places on the list so far, click here.

Gulf redfish with seasonal root vegetables (left), teres major with fingerling potatoes and beets (right) from Bramble.
No. 15 Bramble (Tanglewood): When Bramble opened last July, I was beyond impressed with what Chef Randy Rucker and his staff were doing from the start. After a few more visits, I'm still a fan. Chef Rucker's dedication to gulf coast seafood and locally sourced vegetables remains a focus on Bramble's menu. Though Rucker has a well-established reputation for using uncommon ingredients and lesser known cuts of meat, Bramble offers its take on some familiar menu items to the delight of neighborhood patrons. The hamburger has earned rave reviews, and the Monday fried chicken and one dollar oyster specials have been a big hit. I definitely recommend trying the standard fare, but I hope the neighborhood embraces the ultra fresh, delicately cured fish dishes and in-house charcuterie program as well. Though not every dish is a home run and the cocktail program has had some hits and misses, Bramble remains one of the city's more interesting dining options.

No. 14 Caracol (Galleria): The ownership group of husband and wife duo Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught continues to treat Houston diners to delicious, regional Mexican cuisine. Following successful ventures Hugo's, Prego's, and Backstreet Cafe, Ortega and Vaught opened Caracol in the Galleria area a couple of years ago to much acclaim. With a focus on coastal Mexican cuisine, Caracol offers patrons the opportunity to taste wood grilled oysters, vibrant ceviches, and whole roasted fish prepared with traditional Mexican flavors. As is the case with Ortega's namesake restaurant, Caracol offers a Sunday brunch that is not to be missed. While some may think a $35 price tag is too high for a brunch buffet, I assure you that the spread at Caracol is a worthwhile splurge. For fans of the legendary Hugo's brunch, the layout is similar: one area of the restaurant is dedicated to savory dishes such as tamales, salads, seafood soups, ceviche, enchiladas and stuffed peppers, while a separate table is reserved for treats such as flan, cookies, and assorted pastries. If you're not yet ready to commit too much of your dining budget to Caracol, I also recommend stopping by for happy hour to sample some of the seven dollar plates and oyster specials.

My favorite version of ma po tofu in Houston, from Mala Sichuan Bistro
No. 13 Mala Sichuan Bistro (Chinatown and Montrose): I've spoken before of my affinity for Houston's Chinatown. Previously an underrated dining area in our city (some say it still is), the stretch of Bellaire that is home to so many unique and exciting ethnic restaurants has received a much deserved amount of attention the last few years. One of the key reasons in an increased spotlight being shone on Chinatown is Mala Sichuan Bistro. Mala made a name for itself serving lip tingling, spicy Sichuan cuisine true to the region of southwest China for which it is named. My favorite experiences with Mala are the unexpected ones. Cold noodles bring surprising heat while red oil dumplings have a perfect chew and subtle spice that builds. Mala's dishes always deliver on their promise, another achievement for which they should be lauded. Crispy chicken arrives fantastically crunchy and hot and sour glass noodles bring the perfect balance of tang and fire. The expansive menu can be intimidating to work through, but the price point allows for a decent sampling of the different areas of the menu and repeat visits provide opportunities for a new surprise every time. While Mala has opened a second location in Montrose that looks and feels more refined, I prefer the nondescript Chinatown restaurant where it all began. Mala remains one of the best and most important ethnic restaurants in the city.

Two meat plate at Roegels with brisket, pork ribs, pinto beans, and collard greens.
No. 12  Roegels Barbecue Co. (Tanglewood): It's easier to make mediocre barbecue than to work on the craft of carefully produced, well made smoked meat. Russell Roegels, owner and pitmaster at Roegels Barbecue Co. would admit that. For years Russell and Misty Roegels made a good living, serving their restaurant's neighborhood and providing for their family by serving chain restaurant style barbecue. The Roegels could have continued cooking this type of barbecue for a long time and never looked back, turning a good profit and pleasing the masses. Fortunately for Houston - and for barbecue lovers like me - Russell Roegels decided not to rest on his laurels and continued his career education. After attending Texas A&M's barbecue camp and eating at some of Texas' popular joints a few years ago, Russell decided he wanted to start making barbecue his way. Though he was trained on chain barbecue, learning under the Bodacious BBQ brand and later running the Houston outpost of Dallas based chain Baker's Ribs, Russell wanted more. He began altering the spice rubs and cooking methods he had long been using under the Baker's Ribs name and together the Roegels husband and wife team left the Baker's company to re-open as their own operation. The results speak for themselves. The crisp, peppery bark on a fatty slice of Roegels' brisket alone would make it worth a trip in, but the fun doesn't stop there. With a rotating selection of daily specials like smoked pork chops, pastrami, lamb chops, and pork belly, Roegels has been a key player in the ascension of the Houston barbecue scene. Full disclosure, I consider both Russell and Misty friends and visit their restaurant more often than any other on this list. But fear not, their place on this list is completely deserved, and they would be the first to tell you that I'm not shy about giving my honest opinion of their food, good or bad.

Biscuits and gravy with tasso, runny egg, and crispy onion rings from Kitchen 713.
No. 11: Kitchen 713 (East End): Few restaurants can pull off what Kitchen 713 does so well. Sure, there are a plethora of restaurants serving southern, homestyle food. Many even serve it with the flare of chef-ly touches that the Kitchen 713 chef/owners Ross Coleman and James Haywood employ. But I can think of very few that serve it in such a pure and honest way. There is no marketing campaign or culinary buzzword laden menu selling this restaurant. There is just damn good food served without a hint of pretension, full of flavor and care. Shrimp and grits, a menu item I wouldn't mind seeing erased from nearly every menu on which it appears, stuns at Kitchen 713. Fresh shrimp chorizo and a touch of white wine elevates the dish in a way I'd never imagined. While the dinner menu may seem a bit more refined, brunch dishes at this small East End restaurant are comfort food at its finest. Biscuits and gravy from Coleman and Haywood will make you rethink what that dish should be, and the fried chicken for two is so comically large that I wonder which two people the chefs had in mind when composing it. Eight pieces of chicken served with three full sides and biscuits, it's a dish my wife and I have never finished in one sitting. The chefs at Kitchen 713 pay homage to the city's culture with innovative dishes like tres leches pancakes and Vietnamese style turkey neck lettuce wraps that somehow manage to feel gimmicky and genuine all at once. The majority of Houston's most renowned restaurants are managed by smart, savvy restaurant groups and investors with deep pockets, and they should be applauded for their hard work and success. It is refreshing, though, that in a city our size places like Kitchen 713 can still succeed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 20-16

The countdown continues this week as I get closer to finishing the list of my 50 favorite places to eat and drink in Houston. For a recap of the list so far, click here.

No. 20 Bernie's Burger Bus Stop (Bellaire and Katy): Flashback to 2011, when many of us spent an inordinate amount of time chasing around food trucks in search of the latest mobile culinary wonder. I, for one, am glad those days are over. Nothing against kitchens on wheels, but it made for some hasty dining decisions. Even if I wasn't particularly in the mood for a thick, hearty hamburger, if Bernie's was near me I would end up there so as not to miss out on one of owner Justin Turner's juicy beef patties topped with tipsy onions, crispy bacon, or the now clichéd runny egg. Oh, and give me some of those crispy fries served with some of the best scratch made ketchup you'll find anywhere in town. As Bernie's gained both local and national notoriety, one Burger Bus became two, then three, and soon it was much easier to find a Bernie's near you. Unfortunately the expansion came so fast that I feel there was a time that quality dipped a bit and visits to the buses became more hit or miss. One time a burger would arrive medium rare instead of their standard medium while another meal would disappoint with a medium well. When Turner announced plans for a permanent restaurant, I was delighted for two reasons: I felt a dedicated location would help with consistency and I work less than ten minutes from the Bernie's on Bellaire. Fortunately for me - and for Houston diners as a whole - I was correct in regards to the consistency. I'm a frequent diner at the Bellaire location, and Bernie's is once again a reliable spot for good burgers and fries with clever toppings.

Korean braised goat and dumplings from Underbelly.
No. 19 Underbelly (Montrose): It would be a disservice to many of the great restaurants in our city to deem Underbelly as "the restaurant that started it all" in terms of Houston's recent culinary ascent into the national spotlight. After all, it is Chris Shepherd himself who hands his diners a list of great Houston eateries they should visit. But there's no denying Underbelly's importance in our dining landscape. Since its debut four years ago, Underbelly has spawned an all star roster of chefs (see Southern Goods) and its influence on a number of restaurants that have opened since its inception is undeniable. Chris Shepherd's dedication to celebrating the local cuisines of Houston has been on display since day one. The menu continues to be awash with Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mexican influences. Though not every dish has been the hit that the now famous Korean braised goat and dumplings has been, the Underbelly menu is always interesting. There are not many restaurants in which you will find Thai curries and house cured charcuterie on the same menu. Underbelly has been a victim of its own success at times - they've lost a lot of talent in the kitchen and Shepherd has become a highly sought after food personality in the wake of his James Beard Award win, which pulls him away from the kitchen - and that success has in my opinion taken away from the customer's experience. In the early years of eating at Underbelly, a table of four could order a multitude of dishes, sampling all of what Underbelly had to offer at what many would consider more of a casual splurge. Nowadays the restaurant has become a special occasion place for the average diner. A recent look at the menu showed that 12 of the 20 composed dishes on the menu carried a price tag of at least $24 each, and only one dish at less than a $12 price point. Conversely, a look at early Underbelly menus displays 12 of 20 dishes were under $16, and four dishes had less than a $12 price tag. Admittedly, Underbelly is the only place on this list that I have not visited within the last year. The "story of Houston food" has just gotten a bit pricey these days.

Masala Dosa (left) and Madras Thali (right) from Shri Balaji Bhavan
No. 18 Shri Balaji Bhavan (Ghandi District): One of my favorite dining areas of Houston is the Mahatma Ghandi District. The small stretch of Hillcroft west of Highway 59 is home to many of the city's best ethnic restaurants. None of these restaurants will stand out aesthetically, but the flavors of the different Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines more than make up for that. Nestled in a strip center on Hillcroft near Westpark, Shri Balaji Bhavan specializes in vegetarian Indian cuisine. Nothing is tamed for Western taste buds here; the filled dosas and chaats are as spicy and aromatic as one could hope for. With a menu that lacks descriptions of the dishes, it can be daunting deciding what to order at Shri Balaji Bhavan if you are unfamiliar with South Indian cuisine. My best advice would be either to go with a friend who is well versed, or just ask the person behind the counter to recommend a few different dishes. Most items on the menu are less than ten dollars, so it won't hurt your wallet to take a chance here. Still afraid to take the plunge? Order the Madras thali which comes with different types of curries, soup, rice, one dessert sample, and chapatis (similar to a tortilla). This will allow you to try different items for seven dollars. The spice levels at Shri Balaji Bhavan range from mild to atomic, so beware. There is good reason why they leave full pitchers of water by the silverware station for customers to take to the table.

Beef belly with grits and greens | Porterhouse pork chop with caramelized mashed potatoes at Southern Goods
No. 17 Southern Goods (The Heights): Those of us who follow the Houston restaurant scene closely will look back on 2015 as one of the most exciting, important years in our dining culture. Every month new restaurants opened that caught the attention of our city's passionate dining community. No restaurant, however, opened up with more culinary star power than Southern Goods. Chef Lyle Bento, a rising star in our city with restaurants like Rainbow Lodge, Stella Sola, and Feast on his resumé, left his sous chef position at Underbelly to open up Southern Goods with Cottonwood owner Charles Bishop. Chef Bento recruited some of his former Underbelly kitchenmates in JD Woodward (another Rainbow Lodge and Stella Sola alum) and Patrick Feges (Brennan's and Killen's Barbecue) to join him at Southern Goods. With Woodward installed as chef de cuisine and Feges in as sous chef, expectations were high before Bento and his crew ever opened the doors. To put it mildly, Southern Goods has been a huge hit. Beloved by locals and food writers alike, it has delivered on its promise of fun, creative dishes full of flavor in a laid back atmosphere. Feges' barbecue background has allowed Southern Goods to provide clever smoked elements on its menu; the beef belly with grits is a stunning visual on the plate, though it has recently been rotated out with a brisket plate. The restaurant also does monthly Saturday barbecue lunches, something I regretfully have not attended yet. One will find one of the great burgers in Houston on its menu, a simple but well executed double meat cheeseburger full of flavor and a comeback sauce that is true to its name. You'll find different southern and cultural influences on the seasonal menu as well. Whether it be Mexican street corn one week or crisped up pork belly "cracklins" the next, Southern Goods dishes are both delicious and approachable.

The Chillin' Dog and Curryous Frank from Good Dog Houston
No. 16 Good Dog Houston (The Heights): Growing up in a New York household, I never thought of hot dogs as more than a quick meal that fit the grab-and-go mentality. Shame on me for never thinking of the possibilities that existed within the confines of a bun and a frank, and thank heavens that Good Dog owners Amalia Pferd and Daniel Caballero seem to have thought of them all. Another food truck turned brick and mortar, Good Dog has made a name for itself by taking flavor combinations from different cultural influences and craftily incorporating them into hot dog buns. In the mood for Mexican flavor? Try the Chillin' Dog that's topped with beef and chorizo chili, pickled jalapenos, and Good Dog's excellent house mustard. My wife's personal favorite is the Curryous Frank with curried onion relish, sweet potato crisps, cilantro chutney, sriracha ketchup, and garlic aioli. This may sound like too many ingredients on a simple hot dog, but I assure you that the deft hands in the Good Dog kitchen never overdo it. All of the flavors come through perfectly with each topping feeling like it belongs in the dish. The overly large Slow Dough buns that Good Dog uses are a perfect vessel for their clever accompaniments. Lightly toasted and hefty, the buns can withstand the weight of the toppings admirably. With every hot dog on the menu in the seven to eight dollar range, I defy you to find a better meal at that price point in this city. If you happen to leave room, the Good Dog milkshakes are all made with Fat Cat Creamery ice cream and are a great indulgence. I have long thought that this is a restaurant that just "gets it" when it comes to delivering great food and service, but my most recent experience at Good Dog took that belief to another level. When the server dropped off my wife's meal at the table, she explained that my hot dog was being remade because when it was plated for service, it "didn't look pretty." While to some this could appear to be the most trivial of reasons to delay an order, it shows how savvy the restaurant is in terms of its image and reputation. We live in an age where every diner has a camera phone at the ready, many use online review sites, and every plate a restaurant sends out of its kitchen has a better than average chance of ending up displayed across multiple social media outlets. Good Dog is a smart restaurant that recognizes the importance of maintaining that quality standard, no matter how silly it may seem to watch us clowns photographing a hot dog.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 25-21

The countdown continues, though I must make one thing clear before kicking off the second part of the list. Restaurants change frequently, chefs move on and I want to try to make sure that I'm providing my opinions of these places based on fairly current information. Thus, I have tried to go to at least one place on the list every week before it gets posted to reinforce my feelings on its merits. That said, as always you can click here for my other self imposed rules and to find out the other places on the list to date.
Fried eggs with chilis (left), spicy pork with long beans (right) from Hunan Bistro
No. 25 Hunan Bistro (Chinatown): If you've never spent much time in Houston's Chinatown, it's an experience I cannot recommend enough. The stretch of Bellaire Boulevard between Highway 59 to about a mile beyond Beltway 8 is home to many different Asian restaurants and bakeries, most of which offer unique offerings at good prices. It is in Chinatown where you'll find the 25th spot on my list. Hunan Bistro is located in the Dun Huang Plaza, which houses the more well-known Banana Leaf and Fu Fu Cafe. Hunan cuisine is known for its intense spice levels and use of preserved and cured products, and Hunan Bistro stays true to that style. I like to think I have a higher than average spice tolerance, but some dishes at Hunan have tested my limits. Not to worry- not all dishes pack this amount of heat, and the staff will help guide you through the menu to make sure you can handle it. Fried eggs with chilis is a dish I could eat once a week, and most of the lunch specials are a more than generous portion at around a six dollar price tag. I recommend going with a group and ordering a few dishes to share. A spotlight has been shone on some Chinatown restaurants in recent years, but Hunan Bistro is still relatively unknown in the food community. With a long list of flavorful, interesting dishes, I have a feeling they won't toil in obscurity for long.
The show-stopping banana split from Cloud 10 Creamery.
No. 24 Cloud 10 Creamery (Rice Village): I don't think I've ever anticipated a dessert place's opening more than when highly acclaimed pastry chef Chris Leung announced he was going to open Cloud 10 Creamery in Rice Village. Leung, the former Kata Robata pastry chef, started Cloud 10 in 2012 selling his small batch ice creams to restaurants. It was at Underbelly that I first got a taste of Leung's unique ice cream creations. After building a successful clientele, plans for an ice cream shop began to take shape. Now open in Rice Village, Cloud 10 serves up unique ice cream flavors that change with the seasons. One visit in the fall may bring a scoop of gingersnap or maple butter, while a stop in the spring may reward you with a smoked peach ice cream. The seasonal sundaes are always interesting as Leung and company play with different flavor and textural profiles. The Cloud 10 banana split, comprised of a caramelized banana sliced in half lengthwise, vanilla, chocolate, and Nutella with marshmallow ice creams all topped with berry sauce, fudge, magic shell and Nutella "powder," is one of Houston's great desserts. Though Cloud 10 specializes in one of the core childhood indulgences, it is much more than just that. Going to Cloud 10 Creamery is truly a culinary experience.
A typical spread at Asia Market.
No. 23 Asia Market (North Houston): In the last few years, our city has seen a number of food trucks transition into brick-and-mortars, but Asia Market may be Houston's only eatery once housed inside of a grocery store to transition into a full service restaurant. For years Asia Market operated within a market on Calvalcade on the north side with the market's employees pulling double duty as both cashiers and servers. Last year the owners opened up a full service restaurant not far from the market, and while it is nice to have a more proper sit down meal, I do miss a bit of the charm of sitting in the market. The food, however, has not changed and some have said it has actually improved. Thai food dumbed down for American taste buds runs rampant in Houston, but not so much is the case at Asia Market. The green curry is my favorite in the city, and Asia Market is one of only two restaurants I know of that serves sour Thai E Sarn sausage. While there are some stumbles - I don't need Thai eggplant in every dish - they deliver on flavor and heat when requested. The som tum at Asia Market has proven to be a bit more consistent in terms of flavor and spice level than some recent trips to Vieng Thai, and don't miss the pad kee mao.
The pastry case at Common Bond is still a sight to see.
No. 22 Common Bond (Montrose): I must admit this is one of the most internally debated places on my list. Six months into its existence, Common Bond likely would have been a top five spot on my list. The pastries were and still are world class. Impeccably flaky and buttery croissants are the star of the pastry case, but the citrus accented, sugary kugelhopf are a close second for me. Common Bond also serves one of the city's finest chocolate chip cookies. Why then is it not ranked higher for me? Simply put, I remember what the place used to be and could have been. Common Bond was launched by one of the country's most touted pastry chefs, Roy Shvartzapel along with investors. Shvartzapel amassed a culinary dream team upon return to his hometown of Houston, creating a lot of buzz with his claim of wanting to open the "best bakery in America." By all accounts, Common Bond was off to a great start with fantastic breads, pastries, and an always changing hot breakfast and lunch menu that rivaled some of the best restaurants in the city. Unfortunately for Houstonians, a year into its run, Shvartzapel broke from his business partners and left Common Bond. While their pastry program is still as strong as our city has to offer, the overall menu that was so well produced and innovative has become more standardized and less reliable. Common Bond has recently been sold to Johnny Carrabba, a transaction that one can't help but find curious. Carrabba does promise more parking which should come as great news to its patrons' endless battles to find a spot. But will Common Bond ever get back to its early glory days? I have my doubts. But please, for the love of baked goods, don't change a thing about those croissants.
Simple but very good misto from Giacomo's
No. 21 Giacamo's Cibo e Vino (Upper Kirby): An expansive menu of thoughtful, delicious Italian food served in a quaint restaurant with one of Houston's best patios? Sign me up. Giacomo's is one of those restaurants that just makes you feel good about dining out. One can go hearty with arguably the city's best bolognese or an order of the polpetti puccini, spicy meatballs in a creamy tomato sauce that don't skimp on the fennel. If something lighter fits the occasion, order from the vegetable side of the menu with options like a seasonal misto. The pasta dishes are portioned well, and the menu is set up for diners to sample a few things without breaking the bank. While I have encountered a service issue here and there, the food that comes from the kitchen always seems to be made with such care and a touch of home. We need more places like Giacomo's in Houston.