Conventional wisdom in the Houston dining scene says that the farther you get outside the Loop, the harder it is to find great restaurants.  Heck, some foodies won't go OTL (Outside the Loop) at all for dinner, claiming that it's a wasteland with nothing but chain restaurants serving reheated generic food.

So you can imagine our surprise when we discovered that one of the world's greatest chefs was opening a restaurant on Lake Conroe.  Located at the La Torretta resort, Chez Roux is the creation of Chef Albert Roux, the founder of Le Gavroche, England's first Michelin-starred restaurant, located in London.  Le Gavroche went on to be the first restaurant in the UK to hold the coveted three Michelin stars.
From our Texas perspective, it is tough to understand the influence of Albert Roux.  He and his brother Michel are regarded as the godfathers of modern restaurant cuisine in the UK.  They put England on the culinary map by raising standards across the nation, opened several ground-breaking Michelin-starred restaurants, had a TV series, wrote several books, and mentored many of England's top chefs, including Gordon Ramsey.
The best analogy I can provide would be to wander into a lakeside watering hole, and discover that Eric Clapton was the guitarist in the house band.  To say you'd be pleasantly surprised is an understatement.
This culinary superstar picked Lake Conroe as the location for his first and only restaurant in the United States, and we were thrilled to be invited out to meet Chef Roux and sample his cuisine.  The kitchen at Chez Roux is normally staffed by several of Chef Roux's alumni from his establishments across the pond, including Chef Matthew Gray, who earned his own Michelin star at the famed Inverlochy Castle Hotel in Scotland.  But today Chef Gray was on a much-deserved vacation, and the master was at the helm.

We were escorted to our table by Garrett Donovan, the restaurant director, who gave us a bit of background about Chez Roux and who would serve as our host for the evening.  We were seated at a lovely table with a spectacular view across Lake Conroe of the sunset, and before us was an array of wine glasses and fresh flutes of champagne - House of Albert Roux Grand Cru, Blanc de Blanc.
The champagne was slightly dry and very light, and a wonderful welcome to this French outpost.  We found ourselves leaving the hot Texas summer behind, and stepping into Albert Roux's world.
When Chef Roux strolled up to our table, we were immediately charmed by his warm countenance and his quick wit.  The chef may be 74, but he has the fire in his eyes of a much younger man.  You could tell he was exactly where he loved being, at the helm of his restaurant, overseeing the kitchen and making sure that every dish met his exacting standards.
The chef suggested a six-course tasting with wine pairings.  Not being foolish, we left ourselves in the capable hands of Chef Roux.  

After some time to relax and unwind, the first course appeared.  It was a light dish featuring large Gulf shrimp, veal sweetbreads, and a cauliflower salad.

Chef Roux demonstrated a deft touch with the shrimp, which were perfectly cooked and complemented by the remarkably tender sweetbreads. But we fell in love with the cauliflower, which was gently sauteed and lightly seasoned with only salt, a touch of parsley and a hint of lemon.  The flavors were delicate and layered, and as far away from the in-your-face experience of most local cuisine as London is from Conroe.
The dish was paired with a 2005 Louis Jadot Meursault, a fruity, nutty Chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France.
Next up was the Duck Tourte, served with a port wine jus.
The preparation was classic in the extreme - gently braised duck breast baked in pastry, placed in a lake of port wine au jus.  Cutting into the pastry revealed an incredibly light, flaky crust, moist (but not damp) interior, and an earthy duck breast fillet that was delightfully moist and rich.
The tourte was paired with a Vincent Girardin Gevrey Chambertin, a spicy burgundy that really brought out the earthy duck essence.
Now it was time for our entree.  Chef Roux created Pot au Feu of Salted Pork Cheeks, with Sauce Albert.
We enjoy pork, and this is a preparation that was new to us.  The lightly salted pork cheeks were cooked rare and were remarkably tender, and served over sauteed garden vegetables with a light, buttery cream sauce.  Again, the delicacy of the flavors was remarkable, dancing together with effortless grace.
The pork was paired with a ripe, fruity 2004 Domaine Ligneres "Aric".  This was an inspired choice, as the notes of blackberry, cherry and mint were a splendid match to the buttery pork cheeks.
After this impressive degustation, it was time for the trifle; in this case, a Trifle au Roquefort.  It was a fascinating concoction of smooth Roquefort cheese puree layered over poached pears, and served in a tall shot glass.
After the four previous subtle courses, the pungent Roquefort cheese rolled in like a hurricane.  The flavor was powerful, sharp, and a bit overpowering.  The sweetness of the pears toned it down a bit, but we agreed that this was our least favorite course.
On the other hand we fell in love with the wine pairing.  A very dark Hungarian, it was a 1995 vintage Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos.  Strongly sweet without being cloying, the high alcohol content (over 14%) was masked by the smooth caramel note.  Acid balanced the sweetness, which was a pleasant surprise in a dessert wine.
Finally it was time for dessert - in this case, a petite raspberry soufflé with raspberry sauce and white chocolate ice cream.  The ice cream was dropped into the center of the soufflé, and surrounded with the rich raspberry sauce.  The soufflé was light and almost foamy, and the housemade ice cream added a nice, dense counterpoint.
We were happy that the Tokaji Aszu was paired with this dish as well, and found that the smooth caramel flavor intertwined with the raspberry and provided a decadent finish to a remarkable meal.
Lest there be any doubt, we were impressed by the tasting prepared by Chef Roux, and by the flawless service provided by Garrett and his staff at Chez Roux.  We have confirmed that there is indeed fine cuisine found far outside the Loop, and we're happy that we don't have to travel as far as London to experience the magic that Chef Albert Roux can bring forth for his guests.
Chez Roux - 600 La Toretta Blvd - Montgomery, Texas 77356
936-448-4400 - Chez Roux website

Chez Roux on Urbanspoon

Ever since they opened we'd heard great buzz about the Hubcap Grill, Ricky Craig's tiny burger joint nestled next door to the Alden Hotel downtown.  We visited shortly after they opened, but we were underwhelmed by the burger... it was good, but we weren't blown away.

Our foodie friends assured us that this was an anomaly, and we recently revisited to find out for sure.  A rainy Wednesday proved to be a great day to visit, because for once they weren't packed to the gills.

The Hubcap Grill truly is a tiny place.  Only a handful of tables exist inside, there are a few more on the now-covered outside patio.  We've seen the lines at lunch; savvy downtown burger lovers have turned this place into an institution.

During our visit, Ricky's dad was manning the counter, while Ricky and his cooks were in the back whipping up the burgers.  Ricky was gracious enough to give us a brief demonstration of what makes the Hubcap Grill's burgers special:

So how was the burger?  In a word: Spectacular.

Hubcap's style of burger is a thin, traditional fast-food-style burger, but the similarities to any fast food chain end there.  The beef is hand-formed, well balanced between lean and fat, and extremely fresh.  Ricky griddles it on a small, hot, well-seasoned griddle, and the result is a deliciously caramelized crust on a deliciously juicy patty.  The cheese is American, melted to an oozy flow of goodness, and the meat/cheese ratio is dead on.   The vegetables are cut in-house and extremely fresh, and the bun is custom made each day for Hubcap and lightly toasted.  The finishing touch on our burger were some soulful grilled onions, marinated overnight and lightly grilled, retaining flavor and moisture.

What impressed us most about Hubcap Grill's approach to burgers is the attention to detail.  Clearly, Ricky Craig is a chef who is passionate about burgers, and he has done his homework.  Everything from the meat to the condiments to the bun has been thought out and refined.  The fries are fresh, hand-cut and prepared using a painstaking process that results in some of the very best in town.  Even the beverages are carefully considered: Bottled soda instead of fountain, assuring that the flavor doesn't drift because the fountain is out of calibration.

We applaud Ricky Craig's approach to burgers, and his attention to detail.  And the proof is in the result.  We are proud to list Hubcap as one of Houston's Best Burgers, moving ahead of Christian's Totem as the best traditional burger to be found in Houston.

And we won't wait so long to go back.

As @kylejack pointed out via Twitter, Hubcap Grill's Burger Truck makes its debut tonight at the intersection of W. Gray and Montrose. Check 'em out.

Hubcap Grill - 1111 Prairie - Houston 77002
713-223-5885 -

Hubcap Grill on Urbanspoon

The Woodlands area is becoming a respectable culinary destination, but we're often frustrated by the lack of independent restaurants in the Woodlands proper.  Bucking this trend is Caffe di Fiore, a small storefront cafe located at the far West end of Woodlands Parkway, and area that is badly in need of interesting places to eat.

We parked, and entered the establishment, and were seated promptly.  Our visit was during a World Cup match, and the restaurant was filled with patrons dining while watching the match on the flat panel TVs.  We're not huge fans of soccer, but we got caught up in the excitement; the enthusiasm of the crowd was infectious.

We browsed the menu, and were surprised and pleased by the eclectic offerings.  Part Italian, part Mediterranean, part Mexican, and part new-age Californian, the menu was filled with the sort of light dishes that seemed well suited for a hot Texas summer afternoon.
Scanning down the list, my eyes were drawn to one of my all-time favorite Mexican dishes: Tacos al pastor.  It's rare to find this dish outside of taquerias and taco trucks, so it was an easy decision for me.  (It was also an easy decision to avoid ordering it "Gringo style", with cheese added.)
What arrived was a plate lined with five smallish tacos filled with lushly marinated grilled pork.  The coarsely chopped onion and cilantro were very fresh and served on the side, allowing me to add just the right amount.  The juicy lime slices were appreciated as always, and there was a mysterious green sauce as well.  Avocado?  Not even close - a quick taste revealed a muy caliente green chili sauce, which handily overpowered the more delicate flavors of the marinated pork.  After sparingly applying the sauce to one taco, we concluded that the sauce was best left in its dish.

The pork was nicely marinated and moist, but not too juicy.  These are some of the best tacos al pastor we've had, and certainly the best we've found in the Woodlands area.  They're nearly up to our gold standard, Guero's in Austin.
The second dish we sampled was a ham and cheese wrap, served with a light summer salad.  The wrap that came out looked gigantic, but it turned out that the wrap was almost entirely filled with lettuce; there was one skimpy slice of ham, and a lonely slice of unidentifiable cheese thrown into the mix.  If you're on a diet or you really love lettuce, this may be a great wrap for you, but we were a bit underwhelmed.
As with most restaurants in the Woodlands proper, prices are slightly high, but not objectionably so.
All in all, we like the concept at Caffe di Fiore, and if they will be a bit less strict in rationing the non-vegetable fillings for the wraps, we think they've got a winning concept.

Caffe di Fiore - 10110 Woodlands Parkway - 281-298-1228 -

Caffe Di Fiore on Urbanspoon

We'd been hearing good things about a new burger place that opened south of the Woodlands on 2920.  Called Jax Burgers, it's not associated with the longtime Houston favorite Jax Grill.

We drove over, and discovered a clean restaurant in a strip center.  Parking was easy, and we walked in and ordered.

The look is very polished and slick, the first thing that came to mind was Five Guys.  Jax is owned by Melissa and John Recio, and it's a family operation.  (The name Jax comes a combination of their sons' names, Jake and Max.)  Eric Recio was manning the counter, and keeping things running smoothly.
But the real question - how are the burgers?

The Jax burger is a half pound of USDA Angus chuck beef, handformed and never frozen.  It's served on an eggy bun, and dressed with a wide variety of toppings.  We took our traditional route, dry with lettuce, onions, and pickles only, so that the flavor of the meat would be front and center.

The burger that came out had a nice, thick, handformed patty, but it was cooked well done and wasn't particularly juicy.  It could also use a bit of seasoning; the meat was tasty but somewhat bland.  Oddly, the meat had large cuts all the way through the patty - perhaps someone inexperienced was manning the grill?  Regardless, the burger was good; similar to what we've had at Five Guys.
The sides were interesting.  Jax offers several types of fries; we sampled the garlic fries and the sweet potato fries.  Everyone agreed that the sweet potato fries were the winner; the only thing they were lacking was some sort of sauce customized to the sweet potato flavor.  Less successful were the garlic fries; while they were topped with what appeared to be fresh chopped garlic, the flavor didn't infuse into the fry itself, which ended up somewhat soggy after a few moments on the plate.

Overall we enjoyed Jax.  We do feel that the prices are a bit high for what they offer.  The prices are edging into Beck's Prime territory, and the burgers we tried still have a way to go before they can challenge Houston's best home-grown burger chain.  But we'll be back to check 'em out again.

(This was our first post with a video segment, shot and edited on the iPhone 4.  We think it adds to the review - what do you think?)

UPDATE: We've visted Jax several more times, and it's even better.

JAX Burgers, Fries, & Shakes on Urbanspoon

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