Long before Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on America’s fourth-largest city last summer, he was a mild-mannered, 6-foot invisible rabbit created by playwright Mary Chase in the hit Broadway show of the same name. I’m almost six feet tall, not invisible, and an omnivore (unlike herbivore bunnies.) I decided to head for Houston recently to see if it had dehydrated and was open for laid-back meals with libations. The sprawling city is definitely in full swing this spring, welcoming foodies, craft beer and cocktail buffs ― not to mention oenophiles who like to linger over encyclopedic wine lists.
In 2015, The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema published his annual ranking of America’s great food cities. Houston ranked 5th just behind New Orleans and other usual suspects: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland. There are, however, so many specialized lists these days, I wondered if Houston appeared primarily for barbecue and/or Tex-Mex. My astonishment grew with each eclectic repast. Here are some memorable places to wet one’s whistle and partake of Houston’s vibrant food scene any time of day.
I could enjoy breakfast three times a day, so I was delighted to discover Snooze, an A.M. Eatery in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood adjacent to the lovely, live oak-laden Museum District where we were staying. Think of a retro diner serving creative fare with cocktails.
I knew my day would launch well when a couple waiting (there’s always a line) came up to the “Order drinks here” counter and asked for a Morning Marg: Espolón Blanco Tequila, orange liqueur, house sour & a lime squeeze.
I’ve since learned Snooze is a Colorado-based chain with locations in Arizona, California and Texas, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I’d lobby for Ohio to be the next site of one of their hip eateries, which have adopted the motto, “Peace, Love, Pancakes!”
Another hot breakfast and lunch destination is Black Hole Coffee House. It serves up an industrial chic vibe with exotic roasts, Texas microbrews, wine, ice cream and pastries.For a leisurely lunch or brunch with plenty of wine choices, don’t miss Emmaline on the border of Montrose and downtown. The sun-saturated dining room with Victorian-flowered menus and daintily engraved wine glasses might give the impression of a ladies’ lunch spot, but it draws a diverse crowd of millennials, businesspeople and families celebrating in the sunroom. Owner and wine buyer Sam Governale has created one of the most user-friendly wine lists I’ve ever perused. It has the right adjectives with clear category descriptions suitable for novices and oenophiles alike.
Here are some examples among the whites: “Time-honored Chardonnays;” “Bright and Aromatic;” “Herbal and Fresh;” and “Rich and Layered.” Emmaline’s extensive wine list offers Old and New World selections. Since it was a sweltering 70-plus degree day for this Northerner, I sampled some delightful lighter choices including Chateau d’Esclans 2016 Rosé and Machherndl Gruner Veltliner 2015.
If it’s happy hour or time for “linner,” head for 13 Celsius in Midtown. General Manager Adele Corrigan explains, “Anything you can order by the glass, you can order by the half-glass [3-oz.].” That’s a great way to range beyond the tried and true.
Corrigan challenged me to try my first orange wine. Orange wines are whites made in the style of a red. The skins are left in contact with the juice longer to impart flavor and color. Adele says, “It’s the opposite approach of a rosé, where the skins [of red grapes] come off quickly.”
I was dubious but sipped Il Censo “Praruar” Catarratto 2014 from Sicily. It has Cab-like qualities such as leather and smoke in a lighter body—talk about cognitive dissonance! When paired with 13 Celsius’s dark chocolate S’mores, it might be the perfect climax to a custom-designed flight Certified Wine Specialist (CSW) Corrigan will create for any guest. Mention your preferred style or variety, and she’ll select among 2,000 bottles with prices to accommodate any budget.
13 Celsius serves a variety of small plates and charcuterie. The bar salad, made with local greens, goat cheese and prosciutto, is a crowd-pleaser. For beer buffs, the Belgian beer selection is worth noting. Corrigan explained that in Texas, if a firm only sells wine and beer, it may sell bottles at retail prices. Visitors may want to return in mid-December. That’s when 13 Celsius hosts its Annual Wine Sale & Customer Appreciation Event. It will offer free tastings and will sell distributor close-out wines. Stay tuned for this 2018’s wine sale date.
Houston is a seafaring town despite the fact it’s about 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, it’s natural to chase the ultimate seafood experience in a city also recognized for barbeque, Vietnamese cuisine and Tex-Mex. Locals are waiting with great anticipation for Reef to reopen (slated for late 2018.) Owned by Chef Brian Caswell and his wife Jennifer, Reef played a key role in feeding first responders and evacuees during Harvey. Although Reef never lost power, there was water damage, and the Caswells are taking the opportunity to rebuild in the same downtown location. “Reef 2.0,” as the couple calls the project, will feature a long counter in front of the open kitchen where the chefs will interact directly with diners.
Wine and seafood lovers should make a point of experiencing Star Fish, which opened last spring. Tucked into a shopping center in the historic Houston Heights neighborhood, the casual coastal kitchen ambiance belies the sumptuous wining and dining experience served up by gracious manager Adrian Cuneo (also a CSW) and Executive Chef Joseph Stayshich. We sampled an interesting selection of European whites from the Loire Valley, from the south of France and from Austria, accompanied by some of the best seafood of the trip:
a salmon carpaccio appetizer followed by diver scallops with avocados tempura and ahi tuna pepper steak. Don’t miss the vegetable sides such as sautéed cauliflower with lemon, dates and capers, or the braised heirloom carrots with yogurt and Moroccan spices. These dishes are so naturally sweet, one is tempted to advise diners: “Eat your vegetables, and you won’t need dessert.”
Star Fish’s wine list is an intriguing presentation of sparkling, whites, reds and rosés. Its beverage menu makes it clear there are more choices in the back by exclaiming: “Don’t forget to ask about our off-menu wines!” The food and wine are excellent, but the shining star of most evenings is Cuneo, who thoughtfully brings out 20-year old Port to accompany dessert. Next time we may quiz him about what wines to pair with just vegetables.
For those who want a Mediterranean-influenced menu, head to Helen in the Heights, where the entire wine menu is from Greece. I ordered the soutzoukakia (lamb and beef meatballs the manager says have been voted Houston’s best meatballs) accompanied by the remarkable citrus and fennel salad. This salad achieves the perfect balance between sweet (torn mint, pomegranate) and savory (Kalamata olives and fresh feta.)
I don’t know a lot about Greek wines and would have loved to sample the afternoon away, but I had appointments to keep. So I tasted the Gaia “Ritinitis” Retsina, NV (non-vintage.) It was crisp with a clean finish and lots of piney flavor. It reminded me of a non-carbonated hybrid between white wine and hoppy beer. It was refreshing, and I could understand how it gained traction in a country that has sizzling summers. I also tasted the Kir-Yianni “Akakies” Xinomavro Rosé (Macedonia 2016), because my quest seemed to develop into a search for my favorite springtime rosé. It was fun to explore this genre a few months earlier than usual.
My husband and I ran out of time. We didn’t even scratch the surface of H-town’s barbecue scene and barely ingested any pig parts, save for the mouth-melting pork belly and grits we tried at Chef Chris Shepherd’s beloved Underbelly (now closed, but soon to be reincarnated as UB Preserve less than a half-mile down Westheimer Road in Montrose.)
Thoroughly sated, we headed for Galveston to walk the beaches, swim and otherwise atone for our culinary and fermented indulging. But we vowed to return to this complex culinary metropolis with way more cuisines than we’d envisioned. Sietsema’s ranking was dead on.
For general trip planning, see: www.visithoustontexas.com.