Our Trip to Houston, Texas

From August 8-12, 2008, Wendy & I were in lovely Houston Texas to attend the wedding of a friend of mine. Why they chose to get married in TEXAS in AUGUST is beyond me, but we had a great time despite the oppressive heat and humdity!

Our flights were short and uneventful and we landed in Houston’s Hobby Airport with the entire day stretching out ahead of us. We got our rental car and headed to the hotel, the La Quinta Inn on West Loop South, in the city’s swanky Galleria district. We didn’t expect to be able to get into our room since we were several hours early for their 3:00pm check-in. We were pleasantly suprised that Paul, the front desk clerk, allowed us to go right up. The La Quinta Inn was much nicer than we expected. It had a nice pool and hot tub, and the room was clean, interestingly laid-out (not just a box), and included a mini-fridge and a microwave. We got settled into our room and then went out to find some lunch.

I’d done some research on dining options in Houston (B4-U-EAT was very helpful) and we had made some dinner reservations (NOÉ and Feast) and decided against various restaurants (Cafe Annie, Mark’s American, The Grove, DaMarco, Dolce Vita, etc) for various reasons. However, as we were driving toward our original lunch destination that day, I spotted Cafe Annie. We pulled in to get some lunch only to be informed that they weren’t open yet that day. Wendy & I went and did a little shopping for stuff we’d forgotten and then headed back to Cafe Annie for a really enjoyable lunch and a nice culinary introduction to Houston.

Cafe Annie is an elegant place, once you’re inside. From the outside, where it sits at the end of a strip mall, it looks a little dilapidated. Walking up to the doors, we were a little nervous. But once inside, there are comfortable banquettes surrounded by rich wood and brass trimmings, and padded tables set with table linens and nice silver. Professionally attired servers and bussers move silently through the room.

We were seated in a corner table on the raised perimeter of the room, overlooking the entire dining room. Shortly, we were served an amuse bouche of salmon salad with a spicy sauce on a small thin square of fresh jicama. We ordered soups — Wendy had tortilla soup and I had roasted corn soup. Both were very tasty. For my entree, I had the Wood Grilled Salmon with BBQ Guajillo Chile Sauce, which was absolutely delicious. The salmon was perfectly prepared — just a touch translucent on the inside — and the Guajillo Chile sauce was piquant without overpowering the flavor of the fish. The entree was served with a very fresh roasted corn salad. Wendy enjoyed her Redfish Roasted in Banana Leaf with Artisan White Grits very much — the fish was tender and delicious, and the white grits were outstanding. The entire experience at Cafe Annie was very pleasant. I’m glad we were able to eat there!

That evening, we dined at NOÉ (pronounced “no-weh“, shockingly (and inappropriately) close to “no way“) at the Omni Houston Hotel, again surprisingly close to our hotel. Finding the restaurant makes you forget that you’re in the middle of a giant city. The huge red sign outside the hotel is easy enough to spot, but you wind your way back quite a distance down their long driveway before coming upon the lobby entrance. You feel like you’ve driven well out of the city and are miles away. Inside the lobby, the Omni is very impressive. The entrance to NOÉ is off to the left side of the lobby, and walking through their doors transports you again from the bustling lobby (which was hosting a noisy wedding reception) into a quiet, calm, and welcoming restaurant with modern touches.

As I recount our courses, please excuse any name errors — I am reading from the scribbled shorthand notes provided to us by the waiter. (It is another opportunity for the restaurant to impress customers with the level of service when the request to “keep track of what we eat and drink” is taken seriously! The shorthand notes are acceptable to me, but a “civilian” diner might not like them. There is nothing like a beautifully printed, dated menu of food & wine to send with the guests.)

  • Amuse Bouche: Gazpacho shooter
  • Tuna Tartare with Pineapple, Avocado, Cilantro, and Soya, paired with a Jenna Reisling
  • Roasted Sea Scallops with Forest Mushrooms, Vidalia Onions, and Crispy Parsley paired with Sterling Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pan Roasted Salmon with Pasta Pearls, Baby Spinach, Grape Tomatoes, and Basil Broth paried with Bargo Macredo Pinot Nero (this wine was a real standout)
  • Braised Beef Short Rib with Baby Leeks, Horseradish Soubise, Carrots, and the delicious Braising Jus paired with an Edna Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Gosh, do I love short ribs. I know they’re the trendy food right now, but goshdarnit, they deserve to be.
  • a fairly pedestrian cheese course with three selections paired with a nice 20-year old Floodgate Tawny Port
  • Creme Brulee with Ellio Perron Rose Moscato di’Uva.

It was a wonderful meal! Chef Steven Musolf came out and chatted with us for a while after dinner. It was nice to meet him — he’s a young guy, very passionate about food (he recently — and controversially — took foie gras off his menu), and quite talented.

Our chief complaint (one of only a few — for example, I wish they had foie gras on the menu though Chef Steven was able to articulate their reasons for not having it in a convincing way) was that the place was essentially empty the entire time we were there on a Friday evening. We saw just a few other diners during our meal, and were significantly outnumbered by the number of staff running around trying to look busy. I don’t understand that… The restaurant is very good, the prices are reasonably within fine-dining standards, the hotel is posh, & parking is easy (valet). Plus, the chef is new (he arrived in May). I think the place should be packed with local foodies checking it out. And it’s worth it. After a tremendously enjoyable and relaxing dinner, we headed back to the hotel and to bed after a busy day.

The next day was the wedding of Tucker and Patience. We woke up in the morning, went for a dip in the hotel’s pool, and then went to the church (which wasn’t far from our hotel) a bit early. We were the first guests there, followed shortly by Nora, the next-door-neighbor of Tuck & Patience. After chatting with her for a few minutes, a long-haired guy in a tuxedo came out. I thought he was Tucker (we’ve been email friends for over 6 years but had never met in person), so I jokingly asked him for a kiss. The guy’s eyes went really wide, and he looked very confused, at which point I said, “You’re not Tucker.” He quickly agreed, informing me that he was, in fact, NOT Tucker and was the best man. Embarassed, I asked him to take me to Tucker. I went back to the groom’s ready-room to find Tucker standing, nervous. I talked to him for a few minutes before assessing that he was far too focused on the upcoming nuptials to be a sparkling conversationalist, so I excused myself and went out to the sanctuary.

Their wedding was very nice — understated and intimate. Patience appeared just a little petrified as she walked down the aisle, but still managed to look stunningly beautiful in her dress. Tucker did NOT lock his knees and, therefore, did NOT pass out (though he was sweating up a storm!).

At the end of the wedding, we followed the caravan of people to a lovely house for a reception with cake, champaigne, and all manner of snacks, including our first taste of true Tex-Mex fajitas. Delicious! While there, we learned that if you’re a young Texan, you stand outside in the heat & humidity. If you’re an older Texan, you stay inside in air-conditioned comfort. Wendy & I drifted back and forth from inside to outside, and that was reasonable. We also learned a new (drinking) game — The Name Game, the rules of which are as follows:

  • Go around in a circle in one direction. One person starts with a name, for example, “Johnny Rotten”.
  • The next person says a name beginning with the first letter of the last name you said (“R”, in this case, resulting in “Robert Goulet”, followed by “George Thoroughgood”). You must be actively drinking while thinking of the name. Real, living, dead, fictional — it doesn’t matter as long as another person backs you up on the name.
  • If it’s a double-letter name (“Tommy Tune”) or a single name (“Zeus”), then the direction reverses, which allows for “battles” between two players.

It’s really easy, a lot of fun, and FINALLY provides an outlet for all your esoteric band-member names or comic-book hero names.

A day or so later (Wendy & I somewhat holed-up and swam, watched Olympics, and were lazy, so time is a blur), Tucker & Patience joined us for dinner at FEAST, a 3-month-old restaurant in Houston for a delicious dinner celebrating their marriage. It was their first time expreriencing fine dining, so it was very exciting to watch them, and the fine folks at FEAST took outstanding care of us.

We started with Sweetbread and Pea Soup (though we didn’t tell Tucker or Patience what sweetbreads were until after they tried them (and loved them!) — don’t worry; we weren’t being deceptive… Tucker & Patience told us to encourage them to try new things and they were real troopers about it!). The soup was pureed and finished with a handful of fresh peas thrown in for texture and color, and the sweetbreads were a delicious replacement for a crouton garnish. A second starter of Roast Pork Belly with Radish and Orange Salad was lovely. I am so happy pork belly is appearing on more menus… Two of my favorite things (pig and roasted meat) are involved! The weakest dish of the evening was the Duck Liver Pate, which had a too-soft texture and was overly liver-y. Throughout the evening, we enjoyed two wines… Macon-Villages Old Vine Unoaked Chardonnay (2006) and Albert Bichot Bourgogne Pinot Noir (2006).

We moved on to our entrees… Wendy had the Lamb Shank with Kale and Roasted Potatoes, perfectly prepared and cooked. I had the Pork Cheeks, Duchess Potatoes, and Red Cabbage with Apples, which was delightfully fatty (perhaps too much so if you weren’t expecting it, but if you’re not expecting it, what are you doing ordering this dish?!) and extremely tasty. Tucker & Patience both enjoyed their Smoked Salmon, Bacon and Scallop Pie, Topped with Mash and served with Braised Leeks. Tucker called it “a bowl full of awesome”, and I do believe he was correct. The braised leeks combined two of my other favorites — braising and leeks — (though I particularly adore fried leeks (take note, future culinary students of mine!)).

We were pleasantly surprised when the server brought out a lovely Summer Berry Pavlova to commemorate their wedding day (a pavlova! in Houston! in August! — check that out, Joanne!), and we added a scoop or two of the outstanding Treacle Toffee Ice Cream to round out the excellent meal. A visit from Chef Richard completed the evening, and we headed home, full but tired.

The next day, Wendy & I explored Rice University, the Houston Zoo, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. All were excellent (though the Zoo in August was a sweaty experience!). Lunch was at Mi Luna (against the protestations of one of my students, Rice alum Miguel, who encouraged us to RUN!). We bravely chose not to heed his warning and were rewarded with a very nice brunch.

For dinner that evening, we decided to lay low, near the hotel, and ended up at California Pizza Kitchen. After eating their frozen products for so long, it was nice to enjoy it fresh-from-the-oven. The next day, we had lunch with Tucker & Patience at one of their favorite TexMex places (delicious brisket tacos!) before heading to the airport for the ride home.

It was a great trip. We really enjoyed the food, the company, and the wedding.

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