We were excited to hear that Trader Joe's, the California-based specialty grocery company, was heading to the Houston area. We were even more excited to find out that their first Houston-area location would be in the Woodlands, across the street from our neighborhood HEB.

We've been keeping an eye on the progress, and it's been good. The building is complete, the sign is up, and now the work is underway getting the interior of the store ready for business. They're making good progress.

We're anxious for them to complete the store, so we can check out the unique product selection. We'll keep you updated on the progress.  

JerryBuilt Burgers, the hot new fast-casual burger place, has announced that the grand opening of its Woodlands location will be this Saturday, March 31, at 11am.  The Woodlands location is located just off the ring road around the Woodlands Mall, near the Container Store.

JerryBuilt Burgers is a locally owned chain that features high quality ingredients that are locally sourced when possible.  They serve Niman Ranch beef, Blue Bell ice cream, and buns from Three Brothers Bakery, for example.

We previewed JerryBuilt's first location on Holcombe, and were very impressed with the thoughtfullness and attention to detail behind this burger concept.  When we visited they were still fine-tuning the burger, so we're looking forward to seeing how they've tweaked their creation.

I'm planning to be there for the opening, so if you're in the area, please stop by and be sure to say hello.

Houston has a new celebrity restaurant opening on the southwest side, and today is the grand opening.
Cherie Johnson (Photo: IMDB)

You may know Cherie Johnson, best known for her roles on situation comedies such as Punky Brewster, Family Matters, The Parkers and her leading role in the movie I Do.I Did.  Ms. Johnson is now ready to make a name for herself as restaurateur. She has enlisted the help of close friend Janice Wright, founder of Houston 411 Magazine and Kay Matthews with Extraordinary Cakes. 

These women entrepreneurs are opening Datt's It Restaurant today (March 26, 2012) in a developmentally challenged and underserved area in southwest Houston. Cherie, Janice & Kay believe that by opening the restaurant will address a need for more restaurant establishments in the area. Additionally, the trio expects to increase employment, and Ms. Johnson ability to attract celebrity interest in the project may spur further economic development in the area.
"Living in Los Angeles has allowed me to witness what happens when entrepreneurs realize the opportunity and invest in underdeveloped and otherwise forgotten areas in a city," said Ms. Johnson.  The group has also sought and received guidance of Houston and Atlanta businessman Toney Means.

"These entrepreneurs fill the void in public interests in investing in these areas either from apathy or lack of available funds" stated Mr. Means. "I believe these ladies have the recipe for success in this venture and in future opportunities. This belief has led me and my investment group to support their activities" continued Means. 

Datt's It will feature American fare such as burgers, hot dogs, fish and chicken and on weekends will feature Saturday breakfast and a Sunday brunch. The restaurant will begin live music on Friday and Saturday nights beginning May. The hours of operation are 10am to 10pm on Monday through Thursday. Friday 10am to 1am. Saturday hours are 8am to 1am and finally Sunday from 10am to 6pm. The restaurant is located at 10101 Bissonnet St Houston Texas, 77036. Cherie, Janice & Kay plan additional ventures in underserved neighborhoods in Houston and other Metropolitan areas.

We look forward to checking it out.

Datt's It | 10101 Bissonnet | Houston 77036

Hubbell & Hudson is one of the unique venues that really adds to the great quality of life in the Woodlands.  From the gourmet market to the Viking cooking school, H & H is one place that every foodie should visit.  And if you're not in the mood to cook, the Bistro is arguably the finest restaurant in the Woodlands, and executive chef Austin Simmons has elevated their already impressive cuisine to new levels.

We were invited to attend a recent wine dinner, sponsored by Napa Valley's Hunnicutt Winery.  Hunnicutt is a boutique, family-owned and operated winery that focuses on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, and six of their wines were paired with Chef Simmons' creations.
We were seated in the private dining area of the Bistro with a charming group of foodies and oenophiles who were eagerly anticipating the first course.  There wasn't an empty seat.  Several of our dining companions were veterans of multiple Hubbell & Hudson wine dinners, and they assured us that this wouldn't be our last.
In short order the first course came out.  Carpaccio always puts a smile on my face, and Chef Simmons' version was unique.  Beautifully marbled angus beef was sliced paper thin and finished with a light peppercorn crust, Italian tapenade, and a crunchy crumble of crostini.  Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and a drizzle of tangy mustard oil complemented the rich, beefy flavor of the high-quality beef.
The carpaccio was paired with Hunnicutt's 2009 Napa Valley Zinfandel.  This was a big, bright zin with fruity aromatics and plenty of tannins, an inspired choice.

Once we had devoured the carpaccio, the next course arrived.  Stacked tall was a crispy preparation of Berkshire pork belly crowned with a gently seared diver scallop.  Along side was a fresh salad of granny smith apple, celery hearts, jalapeno oil, and yuzu.  The pork belly was one of the better renditions I have sampled; the rich, fatty meat was marbled with areas of leaner pork, and the diver scallop's smooth, almost creamy texture brought subtle aromas and flavors of the sea.  The bright, tangy salad was a clever counterpoint, lightening up the rich pork and scallop profiles.
One of Hunnicutt's more playful wines, their 2008 Fearless Red, accompanied the dish.  It is a varietal blend of 50% petite sirah, 32% zinfandel, 16% cab, and 2% petit verdot.  This dark, lush red held up well to the powerful flavors of the course.
The third course was deceptively simple.  A slow-poached organic egg, accented with shaved serrano ham, aged comte, a dab of Italian truffle oil, and basil.  I'm usually not much of an egg guy, but the light, airy result of the slow poaching was seductive.  The serrano and compte (similar to Gruyere), along with the appropriately used truffle oil resulted in a complex melding of flavors that I wasn't expecting from this simple dish.  Looking around the table I don't think anyone left even the tiniest morsel on their plate.
The egg was paired with Hunnicutt's 2008 Cab, an interesting wine with complex flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, and black cherry.  Heavy tannins kept it from being too sweet.  It was a bold paring choice that I doubt I would have considered, but which worked extremely well.  Kudos to sommelier Tanya Hinson for this inspired choice.
Next came the fourth course, a gently handled slab of hudson valley duck foie gras topping lightly seared sea bass, served over melted leeks in a pomegranate port butter.  The foie gras was as rich as one would expect, and it offset the more muted flavor of the perfectly cooked sea bass.  The leeks added both a nice texture counterpoint and a bit of tang, and the flavor of pomegranate brought a fruity punch to the very successful dish.
Tonight's only white was paired with this fish/fowl creation:  Hunnicut's 2010 Chardonnay.  I rarely order chardonnays, but this one was worthy.  Complex aromas of lemon, pear and hazelnut were rounded with honey and caramel undertones, and several more fruity flavors I couldn't accurately describe.  This was my bride's favorite wine of the night, and I cannot disagree with her choice.
The highest point of the evening, for me, was the next course.  Deftly prepared with a combination of sous vide and oak grilling, a gorgeous slab of venison was presented atop a foundation of white cheddar grits, and topped with a gastrique based on chipotle infused bing cherries.  Chef Simmons juggled the sweetness of the gastrique, the subtle heat of the chipotle, and the sourness of the cherries with the rich venison; the result was superb, with not even the slightest hint of gaminess.  The hearty cheese grits stood up well to the powerful flavors above.  I could have devoured three servings of this dish without hesitation.
An entree with that much punch demands a bold pairing, and again sommelier Tanya Hinson rose to the occasion.  Hunnicutt's 9-3-5 Cabernet is a big, powerful red, delivering notes of raspberry, cherry, plum, and a hit of flint.  Tannins are there to be sure, but balanced by the explosion of fruit.  My favorite wine of the night, expertly paired with my favorite dish.
After indulging in this degustation, I wondered how Chef Simmons would wind down the meal.  I didn't have to wonder long, because out came a jewel-like presentation.  Rich dark chocolate pot de creme with hints of lavender was adorned with a meyer lemon/blueberry compote, and finished with tiny housemade tapioca-like spheres and a blast of citrus.  
Paired with this lush dessert was a 2007 Hunnicutt Late Harvest Zinfandel, a rich, spicy, lush red redolent with plum and berry flavors.  The resultant fruity, chocolatey, spicy, creamy combination was the stirring final movement of Chef Simmon's culinary sonata.  I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, savoring this experience that was unfortunately drawing to a close.
Our companions were correct.  We'll be back.  Kudos to Chef Austin Simmons, Sommelier Tanya Hinson, and the rest of the Hubbel & Hudson and Hunnicutt team on their splendid performance.
6/3/2012 Update: We've been getting overwhelmingly negative feedback from our readers about Zunum. Caveat diner.

We'd read cryptic press releases about a new restaurant being developed in the Woodlands, and wondered what was behind all the mystery.  Called Zunum, it's a new concept being launched on Research Forest within the city of Shenandoah.  The team behind Zunum isn't new to the restaurant business, owning Russo's Pizzeria.

The concept is a unique one.  Zunum is a place for families, catering to both children and adults while not expecting either to compromise.  For the adults, Zunum offers them a place to "relax and enjoy a gourmet meal in an adult environment", while the kids can "play, be active, and behave as kids in a safe environment".

That's the promise.  Short of attaching a Chuck E. Cheese to Tony's, how would you pull this off?  On a drizzly Tuesday, we went to find out.

Zunum's execution is tasteful, and shows a clear vision.  The front of the house is a modern, airy restaurant, featuring dishes aimed at an adult palate.  It's a bright, attractive space, featuring modern decor and muted earth tones.

The dining room at Zunum

Behind a glass wall are multiple supervised play areas designed for kids of different ages.  Cleverly avoiding the one-size-fits-none issue, the first play area features soft surface, active toys, and a bright, fun environment for toddlers and early school-aged kids.  The area is themed with creatively imagined creatures, each with its own back story; I expect that at least one will appeal to every young child.

Little kids' play area at Zunum

The bigger kids (up to age 12) have their own space, with an active climbing area and a zone featuring multiple state-of-the-art game consoles.  There's also a private party room complete with an interactive projection game system sure to fascinate both kids and adults.

Big kids' play area at Zunum

Parents can keep an eye on the little darlings via a panoramic window between the play areas and the dining room; thankfully there's a door that should keep the roar to a minimum.

Unlike other places that cater to kids, Zunum has a wide variety of inventive dishes that won't make the grown-ups think they're in the penalty box.  Beer and wine are available.  From seafood to salads, panini, burgers, crepes and pastas, there are dishes to appeal to almost anyone.  There is, of course, a dedicated kids' menu with the usual suspects and also a variety of healthier options.

On their recent soft opening, we sampled several of their dishes, and management graciously picked up the tab.  Since the restaurant isn't officially open, this isn't a full review, but rather a preview of what's to be offered when the doors open.

We started with a couple of appetizers.  Our favorite was Zunum's unique spin on the traditional Italian bruschetta.  The crunchy Italian bread was topped with a generous portion of marinated tomatoes and shaved parmesan cheese, but the flavor profile was more southwestern than Italian, a surprise that we found delightful.

Bruschetta at Zunum

Next up was Zunum's tuna tartare.  Chunks of fresh tuna were bound in a creamy dill sauce with avocado, with wasabi drizzles on the plate to spice things up.

Tuna Tartare at Zunum

We then ventured into the entrees.  Zunum's version of parmesan crusted chicken caught us by surprise; instead of breaded chicken with the traditional marinara, the grilled chicken breast was topped with artichokes in a creamy mushroom sauce.  It was served with chunks of potato and gently grilled asparagus.

Parmesan Crusted Chicken at Zunum

We couldn't avoid a the epic, 1 pound Zunum Burger that was featured on the menu, even though it contains two or three times the amount of meat we usually prefer in a burger.  Up for the challenge, we put in our order, and this behemoth appeared:

Zunum Burger

Yes, folks, that's a 1 pound burger patty parked on a bun the size of a personal pizza.  We'd forgotten to mention cheese, so a quick spin back into the kitchen resulted in a lovely glaze of melty, high-quality American cheese.  The burger was so huge that we cut it in half for maneuverability, and we were impressed by the meat's perfect medium preparation.

Inside the Zunum Burger

Other than its enormous proportion, the burger was exactly what we hope for in a burger; nicely handled and seasoned beef, good quality cheese nicely melted, and fresh, crisp veggies.  The only flaw was a bottom bun that simply wasn't up to the task of supporting a pound of juicy beef; we wonder if Mrs. Baird's will consider titanium reinforcements.  Maybe not.

All in all, we're intrigued by Zunum's unique concept.  We believe that a restaurant that offers to delight both kids and parents has a bright future in the Woodlands, and we look forward to the grand opening and seeing how crowds react to this unique restaurant.

Zunum | 1620 Research Forest Drive | The Woodlands, Texas 77381 | 281-419-5400

Zunum on Urbanspoon

New York City's famed Le Cirque, named by Gayot as one of the Top 40 Restaurants in the USA, is bringing its show on the road, and Houston will be one of the stops this spring.  On April 13, the main dining room of the Downtown Club at Plaza will host this culinary classic.  Executive chef Olivier Reginensi will be overseeing the travelling kitchen.

Le Cirque's Creme Brulee (photo credit: Le Cirque)

The $150 prix fixe menu will deliver a three-course meal with wine pairings, and a copy of the biography of Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque.  Featured selections will include Le Cirque favorites like filet of beef, tuna tartare, and porcini risotto, and of course their famed Creme Brulee will be offered.

For reservations, call 800-402-3933 or click here.

(via New York Times)

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