I had a chance to visit Houston over a long weekend and took the opportunity to check out the city’s vibrant dining scene. For this trip, I focused on a combination of stalwarts and new additions to Houston’s downtown and surrounding area. Which establishments lived up to its hype and which restaurants failed to summit?
After checking into the Hilton Americas in downtown the previous night, my friends and I were ready to start with brunch at Backstreet Café. This is a popular establishment in Houston and of course, we had to check it out. The exterior reminded me of a fancy French country home with a gorgeous patio beckoning us to waste the morning there; however, we could not compete with Houston’s heat and humidity. We were wimpy New Yorkers so we opted for an indoor table overlooking the brick patio. The menu at Backstreet Café focused on American dining. We ordered a few dishes such as Tuna Poke, Housemade Fresh Burrata, Skirt Steak and Eggs, Lamb with Pesto and Gulf Coast Beignets. All the dishes were well executed, but there were none that stood out. Furthermore, the atmosphere had the ubtiquous casual Southern charm, with well-dressed ladies and gents. I spied a few Hermes Birkin bags while I was there and the prices reflected that ambiance perfectly. [Verdict: Try]
Next we rolled our stuffed selves over to the Trellis Spa at the Houstonian for some much deserved pampering. This is considered the best day spa in Houston and was packed when we arrived. The amenities included a pool, steam room, Jacuzzi and rest area in addition to the usual spa services. The deep tissue massage was excellent and pricey at $200 after tip and tax. This would be a splurge for special occasions and a great way to unwind with friends. I would suggest coming a few hours early to maximize the benefits of this spa, especially at the high price point. [Verdict: Try if you have the budget]
All that pampering made us famished so we dressed to the nines to try out a buzzy new restaurant, Roka Akor, for my birthday dinner. Roka Akor is a chain of high end steak and sushi restaurants with locations in San Francisco, Chicago and Scottsdale and just opened its Houston outpost a few months ago. The chain has been voted one to of the top 10 sushi spot in America by Bon Appétit. The restaurant is cavernous, but we never felt lost in it. The décor, especially the bar area, is spectacular. How can I package all that oomph into my tiny home in NYC? My party of six opted for the omakase menu costing $128 per person, which did not disappoint. The menu consisted of Roka’s best dishes spanning sushi to seafood to waygu beef. Surprisingly, the beef was a bit of a letdown while the sushi and seafood shined. Our favorite dish of the night was the beef wrapped in onion and topped with truffles. It was decadent and bursting with flavors. The only negative was that this was one of the most expensive dinners that I had had in a while at around $200/per person after wine, tip and tax. Overall, the trendy yet elegant ambiance really brings special occasion dining up a notch for Houston. [Verdict: Must Try]
Houston heat and humidity set in, which made us all too lazy to venture far for lunch. We settled on Brasserie du Parc with its bistro interiors across the park from the hotel. The menu was typical of a French café and the food was quite average coming from the renowned Chef Philippe Verpiand. I actually think some of us had stomach aches after that meal. I would recommend passing up this brasserie for better options around the corner. [Verdict: Pass]
My friends then left for the airport so I was solo for the rest of the trip. For dinner that night, I arrived at a small strip mall to try Kata Robata, a highly rated sushi restaurant in Houston. I did not know what to expect and let my curiosity dictate what to order. I was seated in front of the sushi bar and noticed that there were a lot of people behind the counter who were not necessarily experienced sushi chefs and were putting out various rolls and sashimi dish with too much urgency. To my right and my left were diners that raved about how good the sushi was…so my expectations were heightened. The head chef, Chef Manabu Horiuchi, was also not there that night so that affected my experience. I ordered a few dishes that highlighted Kata’s creativity. My favorite dishes were uni chawanmushi for its light bonito broth with a perfect egg custard texture and chef choice of nigiri made with waygu, uni, quail egg and caviar. My least favorite dish was the roasted bone marrow with miso and bonito. I was searching very hard for that miso flavor profile and ended up disappointed. The quality of the nigiris were inconsistent such that my hamachi with quail egg literally fell apart as I was picking it up. There was a strong emphasis on the mismatch of ingredients for sushi where it should be focused on the essential basics: rice and the quality of the fish. At $10-$15 per nigiri, the sushi was just average. Overall, the sushi was good for Houston standard, but the pricing was misaligned with the quality being offered. [Verdict: Meh]
I researched and found Xochi, a restaurant from famed Chef Hugo Ortega, that opened 8 months ago and was only a block away from the Hilton. Xochi’s food is focused on an elegant interpretation of Oaxaca cuisine. The new restaurant has a fantastic “2 for $22” lunch special where you can try some signature dishes at an affordable price point. After being seated, I ordered the popular Ostiones De Lujo (half-dozen wood-roasted oysters, mole amarillo, cotija, breadcrumbs) and Robalo (sea bass, aguachile verde, cilantro, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, plantain tostada). I had some concerns whether the portions would keep me full as they are technically appetizer dishes. Luckily this was Texas where everything is supersized! The oysters were perfectly roasted so that the bread crumbs were warm and crunchy, while the oysters were still rare on the inside. Next came the gorgeously plated sea bass that showcased strong French influences in its presentation. The Robolo was perfectly seasoned so that there was enough tartness without giving me the sour lemon reaction that I often get with ceviche. The dining space is ginormous, yet the service is also personal. I normally do not go for Mexican food, but I would not hesitate to come back the next time I am in town. [Verdict: Must Try]
For dinner that night, I was able to secure a reservation for Theodore Rex, a hot new restaurant that literally just opened. It felt like being part of a secret club to be able to try this gem. The dishes were inventive and experimental, while remaining approachable for the average Joe. As the restaurant is new, there were inevitable misses when the chef tries to be creative. I appreciated the courage to do something different even with a simple seared chicken breast. (Click here for a detail review of Theodore Rex) After dinner, I would say this was my favorite restaurant of this trip to Houston. Houston has a booming culinary scene that only gets better with time. [Verdict: Must Try]
I look forward to seeing what I can discover on my next visit to the vibrant city.