My bride's birthday was last week, and I wanted to arrange a birthday dinner for her and the immediate family.  One restaurant immediately came to mind:  Ciao Bello, the upscale but casual family-oriented restaurant in Tanglewood owned by the Vallone family.

One thing I love about Ciao Bello is that their menu has items that appeal to everyone.  If you're a foodie, and want to be adventurous, they've got you covered.  But if you're just interested in a good meal, they do a good job with Italian favorites like chicken parmigiana.
Shortly after we were seated, our waiter came by with a precious amuse-bouche.  A single butternut squash raviolo, glazed with a sage cream reduction.  It's my bride's favorite dish, and for Valentine's weekend, it was served with a twist - the housemade pasta was shaped into a heart.  
I told my bride that the heart shape must have been created especially for her birthday.  She gave me that look that tells me that she's indulging me, but she devoured her raviolo and ordered more as her entree.
We were all pretty hungry, so we ordered a pizza for the table.  We decide on one I'd never sampled, a classic with Italian sausage and peppers.  It came out quickly, and our kids attacked it before I could snap a photo, which explains the missing slices.
We really enjoyed this pizza.  The crust was thin and crispy, with just enough chewiness to keep things interesting.  The sweet peppers, fresh basil, and chunks of Italian sausage combined into a mild, savory combination that was enjoyed by both the adults and kids.  Even Alex loved the pizza; he is our 12-year-old pizza connoisseur who is quick to dismiss any pizza that's too spicy or too bland.
I ordered an appetizer that I'd never tried; pork tenderloin carpaccio.  The presentation was lush; the lightly cooked and seasoned pork was sliced thinly, topped with some mild arugula, shaved aged parmesan,  roma tomatoes, then drizzled with a hint of the Vallone's private labelled olive oil.
The overall impression of this dish was mild but complex.  The dominant flavor was that of the parmesan; the fresh arugula added a nice, subtle crunch, and the tenderloin's gently smoky flavor was more of an undertone.
Next up was the pasta, and I was drawn to something else I'd never sampled here:  Bombolotti Amatriciana.  The short, thick tubes of the mombolotti pasta were prepared al dente, and the signature Vallone Amatriciana sauce was a standout; the fresh tomatoes, bits of basil, and slightly crispy guanciale melded into a rich, tangy delight.  Tony Vallone introduced me to this sauce many years ago the first time I shared a meal with him, and it's one I never tire of.
After this hearty pasta, I had to select a light entree, so my eye was drawn to the seafood.  Sea bass sounded like a good choice, and the waiter assured me that the chef was very happy with the fish that had flown in.
What came out was a firm, flaky sea bass steak, deftly cooked and topped with another Vallone classic, the Barolo wine reduction sauce.  The fish was smooth, buttery, light and flavorful, and the robust tang of the Barolo reduction was a fantastic counterpoint to the creamy flavor of the fish.  On the site was some nicely crunchy garlic-grilled rapini, adding another texture and the rich butter-garlic flavor that was a satisfying complement to the fish.
We weren't surprised to enjoy this special occasion at Ciao Bello; ever since it's opened it has become one of our family's favorites.  Three generations were able to each find something they really enjoyed on the menu, something that's very important for a family event like this birthday dinner.  As a bonus, the resident foodie was able to enjoy some new dishes that he'd not experienced before.  
That's a win in anybody's book.

Ciao Bello - 5161 San Felipe - Houston 77056
713-960-0333 -

Ciao Bello on Urbanspoon

If you didn't win the OVO contest, but you'd still like to go see Cirque du Soleil new show, we have a special offer for our readers.  You must take advantage of the offer by February 16, 2011, so act today.

And Cirque du Soleil tickets make a great valentine's gift, so if you're a last-minute shopper, we can help you out!

Click on the image below to find out more.

You commented.  You e-mailed.  You tweeted.  Hundreds of our readers entered our special Valentine's contest, sponsored by Cirque du Soleil and Samba Grille.

And now it's time to announce the winner.

We'd like to congratulate Catherine Green, who submitted her entry via e-mail.  Catherine, check your e-mail for a message confirming your prizes.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to enter the contest, and to our friends at Cirque du Soleil and Samba Grill for generously providing the prizes.

When chef Philippe Schmit left the Hotel Derek's hot bistro moderne, we joined Houston's foodie community in wondering where he would be cooking next.  Buzz about a new restaurant on Post Oak was heard, but the rumored opening date came and went.  But restaurant openings are frequently delayed, so we didn't give up hope.

Last week we were excited to hear that Philippe Restaurant + Lounge had opened next door to Robert del Grande's swank newish RDG, and couldn't wait to give it a shot.  When a client meeting got pushed back, the opportunity arose for lunch on their first day of lunch service.  We were there in a flash, and here are our impressions.

First, the location.  BLVD place on Post Oak.  Literally a stone's throw from RDG.  Valet parking, or self-parking behind the building.  Inside is a very cool lounge area downstairs; the restaurant proper is up a long, dramatic staircase.  The dining room is sleek but warm; the fabrics chosen keep the space from feeling sterile, and floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of Post Oak and the buildings across the street.

Upon being seated, we were faced with something a bit playful and a bit peculiar.  Paper placemats with clever quotations... from Chef Philippe Schmit.

We perused the brand-new lunch menu, and our first reaction was that it wasn't terribly French.  Salads, pizzas, sandwiches, seafood, pasta, and meats were all represented.  We zeroed in on their bacon cheeseburger, served on a house-made brioche bun.  Ordering it medium rare wasn't a problem.  We also wanted to sample a salad, and the Texas caesar, with BBQ-brushed skirt steak was a tempting, if non-French, choice.

The burger was a thick hand-formed patty, served on the aforementioned brioche bun, which had been griddled perhaps a touch too enthusiastically.  It was smothered in melted and re-congealed cheese, then crowned with some nicely peppered, thick-cut bacon.  It was dressed with thinly-sliced housemade pickles and butter lettuce.

There is much to like here - good quality beef, a deft touch with the seasonings, and a nice, dense housemade bun.  The patty was medium-rare, as requested.

But there were some missteps.  The beef, while tasty, was perhaps too high of grade; it was only minimally oozy, which is rare (no pun intended) in a medium-rare burger.  And the cheese was obviously melted at one point, but had congealed into a firm blanket by the time the burger reached our table.  Regardless of the missteps, this was a solid burger; tasty and featuring top quality ingredients.  We can't expect perfection out of a brand-new kitchen, and we expect it to become even better over time.

Next up was the salad, and it really grabbed our attention.  It was served on one of the longest plates we've ever seen; it literally spanned beyond my shoulders, and the salad was artfully arranged upon it.

The bits of romaine lettuce were drizzled with the mild caesar dressing, as were the croutons, tomatos, and bits of what we found out to be grilled cactus.  Our take on this dish was that it was lovely, but not particularly flavorful.  The extremely tender skirt steak tasted as if it had been grilled, not barbecued, and the expected smokiness was nowhere to be found.  The caesar dressing was also mild, and we admit to being perplexed by the inclusion of tomatoes on a caesar salad.  To be clear, it was a very tasty salad, just not what we were expecting from the description on the menu.

We saw hints of greatness on the plate at Philippe, and we hope the kitchen hits its stride in the coming months.  Considering the ample talent of the executive chef, we don't expect a long wait.

Philippe Restaurant + Bar, 1800 Post Oak Blvd, 713-439-1000.

Philippe Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon

We love to eat.  We also love spectacular entertainment, and Cirque du Soleil is high up our list.  If you've never been, it's a circus like no other - visual spectacle, acrobatics, music, drama, and stunts that will take your breath away.

Cirque du Soleil is not your parents' circus.

Since Valentine's day is coming up, and we love our readers, we are offering a gift that goes straight to the heart.  We were thrilled when asked by Cirque du Soleil to sponsor a contest for our readers, giving them the chance to experience the upcoming OVO performance as our guest.  Two tickets to the upcoming show.

OVO by Cirque do Soleil is a headlong rush into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life, where insects work, eat, crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for love in a non-stop riot of energy and movement.  (Sounds like Washington Ave. on any Saturday night, but we digress.)  OVO opens on March 10 under the Big Top at Sam Houston Race Park.

Then our friends at Samba Grille sweetened the deal even more, offering dinner for two for the winners.  For the three of you who've not heard of them yet, Samba Grille is the brand-new South American restaurant located downtown in Bayou Place, offering both the traditional latin rodizio grilled meats, served churrascaria-style, and some fantastic composed dishes that have been wowing both patrons and critics since they opened late last year.

Dinner at one of Houston's hottest new restaurants.  Then one of the most spectacular shows you could ever see.  That's our kind of evening, and one we think any of our readers will excited to win.

There's no catch.  All you have to do is either leave a comment below, or e-mail our special contest e-mail address, .  We just need your name and a method of contact - e-mail or twitter (make sure you follow @htownchowdown us so we can DM you).

The contest closes on Thursday, February 10; we'll announce the winner here on Friday, Feb 11.

The fine print:

Tickets are for the performance on March 11, 2011, at 8pm.  The contest is open to all adults, 18 or older.  Employees of Cirque du Soleil, Samba Grille, Binetix, or their families are not eligible.  One entry per e-mail or twitter address.

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