2009 saw an interesting new addition to the dining scene in the Woodlands - the opening of Tesar's Modern Steak House. John Tesar, the proprietor, was born in New York, learned his skill in Paris, and has been owner and/or chef at a variety of great restaurants across the nation, including 44, X Hell's Kitchen, rm seafood, and Dallas's famed Mansion on Turtle Creek. He relocated to the Woodlands, and his Modern Steak House is the embodiment of his philosophy and what he has learned in these fine restaurants.

Tesar's is without a doubt a fine dining establishment, but we came for another reason - the burgers. We'd heard a rumor of some great things going on, and when a friend suggested a trip to investigate, we jumped right in.

The restaurant is situated right in the middle of the Woodland's bustling downtown area, across the street from the Mitchell Pavilion and Market Street. There are two rooms; the main dining room and a slightly less formal bar, which was the venue for today's meal.

Our helpful and chipper waiter presented the menus, and we were faced with a dilemma: Tesar's has some very diverse burgers, and they all sounded interesting. To make matters more perplexing, your choice of grain-fed and grass-fed beef can be selected. But decisions had to be made.

We began with the purist's choice: The Magic. A half-pound of thickly hand-formed freshly ground sirloin, topped with a thick slice of cheddar cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, some nice sweet lettuce, and a slice of tomato. The bun was unusual; an artisanal English muffin.

The burger is well named -- the result is magic. The beef came out perfectly cooked, with a beautiful pink interior and a nicely charred surface. The moderately sharp chedder made its presence known but didn't overpower; this burger is all about the high-quality beef. The bacon added a soulful, smokey overtone, and a satisfying bit of chewiness. The English muffin, which seemed like a curious choice, turned out to be an ideal foundation for this creation, and the veggies provided just enough crispness to complete the package.

What was interesting was what was left out: Pickles, onions, and any sort of sauce. John Tesar is a modern culinary Picasso -- he expertly eliminated what was not necessary, and what remained is a masterpiece.

There were many thoughtful touches that surrounded this creation: A very tasty caesar salad that begun the meal, beautiful cherry tomatoes on the side, and some decadent desserts. But for us, everything paled next to this magnificent burger, which we feel justified as declaring one of the very Best Burgers in Houston... even though it's in the Woodlands.

For a burger this good, the half-hour drive is well worth it.

Tesar's Modern Steak and Seafood | 1701 Lake Robbins Drive | The Woodlands 77380 | 281-465-0700 | www.tesars.com

Update: Our second visit to Grimaldi's was a much better experience.

We've searched for years for superlative pizza in Houston. Sure, we have some decent places, but we've always hoped Houston would get a world-class pizza joint.

We'd been hearing great buzz about the Brooklyn import, Grimaldi's, which opened recently in Sugar Land. We'd not been down to try it, but we had been tracking the news about a second location in the Woodlands, which is our neighborhood. When we heard that they'd finally opened, we were anxious to find out what the noise was all about.

Grimaldi's is located in the scenic Woodlands Waterway area, right across the street from the popular Goose's Acre pub. It's a charming, two level restaurant, with a bar, small dining room, and charming sidewalk seating area upstairs. Downstairs is the oft-mentioned coal-fired oven, a bigger dining area, and more outdoor seating. The feel is classic NYC pizza joint, with lots of black-and-white photos of the Big Apple adorning the walls.

We grabbed a table on an early Saturday afternoon, and perused the menu. Pizza is clearly in the forefront here; the only entrees were pizza and calzone. Three versions are offered; classic marinara, white pizza with garlic, and a pesto option. We opted to try our benchmark: An extra-large marinara with pepperoni. Nothing fancy, just Grimaldi's take on the most popular pizza in America.

We also started with a small Caesar salad, which was plenty for the table. The caesar was mild but tasty; the romaine lettuce had a nice snap to it, and was very fresh. We'd have preferred more bite to the dressing, but we remembered that we weren't here for the salad.

After about 15 minutes, the pizza appeared. Beautifully cooked and resplendent with the bubbles that are a hallmark of a pizza cooked at high temperature, we savored the moment and dug into our first slice.

Wow. Disappointment.

What we tasted was one of the blandest pizzas we'd had in a long time. The marinara was barely to be found, and the cheese was extremely mild. The pepperoni was very greasy (it was running down our wrists as we ate) and almost flavorless. The high point was clearly the crust, a thin, crunchy/chewy creation, hand tossed, cooked perfectly and begging for some better toppings.

Perhaps we caught them on a bad day; perhaps our expectations were too high. But our pizza was nothing special; there are three places in the Woodlands that we enjoy more. We'll give them another visit, because we find it hard to believe that our fellow foodies would have raved as they have over pizza like this.

Bottom line: Our search continues for world-class pizza in Houston. Maybe Grimaldi's will deliver next time.

Grimaldi's. 20 Waterway Ave. The Woodlands, TX 77380. 281-465-3500

Grimaldi's Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Conventional wisdom (for many) in Houston is that the best restaurants are found ITL - Inside the Loop.

We disagree. Houston is BIG, and most of Houston is OTL (Outside the Loop.) Here are out favorite places to eat that lie in the land of dragons beyond 610:

Burns BBQ
Ciao Bello
Christie's Seafood
Hubbell & Hudson
La Baraonda
Mel's Country Cafe
Ocean Palace
Pappas Bro's Steakhouse
Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

Who'd we miss?

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