Even if you love to try new things, it's easy to fall into a rut.  For years I was in a pizza rut - every time I'd order a pizza, pepperoni would be the key topping.  Sure, I'd occasionally augment things with some Italian sausage, onion, or bacon, but it wasn't a pizza for me without pepperoni.

Crust Pizza changed all that for me.  Just before the grand opening I stopped by to see how construction was coming, and Clint Price, one of the partners, offered me a peculiar looking slice to sample.  There was no pepperoni to be found... heck, there wasn't even any red sauce.  But it was delicious.  The pizza was later named The Jerk, and it's become one of my favorites.  Jamaican jerk-seasoned chicken, caramelized onions, a variety of peppers and chunks of bacon are scattered over cheddar and mozzarella cheese stretched over their delicious crust.  A tangy Jamaican jerk dressing replaces the red sauce.  It works.
Later Clint devised the Old Smokey, another unique pizza that isn't based on the traditional red sauce.  It's become another favorite of mine.  Spicy link sausage and jalapenos, a tangy ranch dressing and smoked mozzarella cheese are the dominant flavors.  Again, unusual for a pizza, but the result works.
Yesterday I noticed a new monthly special pizza, and it's perhaps the most creatively bizarre option yet.  Called the Mr. Potato Head, it features an ingredient I've never seen on pizza - Idaho potatoes.  I've learned to trust Clint, so promptly ordered one to test out.
What arrived again changed my perception of pizza.  Bits of bacon are the only meat topping.  Prominent atop the alfredo sauce, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses are thin slices of Idaho potato, accented with said bacon bits and fresh chives.  It's a slightly Italian spin on baked potato skins, but much lighter and with the richness of the alfredo sauce making this an indulgent choice.

One of the ongoing battles I hear in the food community is whether one has to stay ITL (Inside The Loop, aka Loop 610 around central Houston) in order to enjoy great food.  Historically, that's where Houston's elite lived, and and it's where Houston's best restaurants were located.

(A quibble: At the time, Tony's was located OTL (Outside The Loop) near the Galleria, and Houstonians gladly braved the dragons of South Post Oak to dine there, but that's a fact that's conveniently overlooked.)

Now that the Houston metropolitan area extends from Sugar Land to the Woodlands, the concept of staying ITL seems rather quaint.  The Woodlands in particular is becoming a dining destinations, with restaurants as varied as Capri Pasta, Corkscrew BBQ and Crust Pizza calling the Woodlands home.  These casual spots compare favorably to any place in their respective categories, and all have garnered a loyal following.

But what about a high end, chef driven restaurant, scouring the earth for amazing ingredients, and putting together unique creations?  Surely places like this are only found ITL.

Challenging this conventional wisdom is Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, the upscale-yet-comfortable restaurant attached to Hubbell & Hudson Market, located at the Woodlands Waterway.  Hubbell & Hudson has become the Woodlands epicenter for all things food, with a superb high-end market, a Viking cooking school, a well regarded catering operation, and the Bistro.

Several months back the Bistro elevated Austin Simmons to the position of executive chef, and this talented man has been gradually putting his mark on the menu.  Simmons first gained notoriety in the Woodlands as sous chef at Tesar's Modern, being elevated to co-executive chef (with Jeromy Robison) at Tesar's when John Tesar parted ways with his eponymous establishment.  When Tesar's imploded, Chef Robison ended up at La Colombe D'or in Houston, and later at Uchi in Austin.  Fortunately for the Woodlands, Hubbell & Hudsons scooped up Chef Simmons and soon promoted him to Executive Chef.

We've been fans of Chef Simmons's cooking ever since we sampled his creations at Tesar's, and have enjoyed the work he has been doing at Hubbell.  For those who've never visited, Hubbell & Hudson Market scours the world for unique ingredients to offer to gourmets, and Chef Austin has leveraged this purchasing expertise to secure ingredients for his kitchen.  He recently invited us to sample several of his creations for the new fall menu.

First up is the Crab Fritter, a unique spin on the crab cake.  A healthy portion of lump crabmeat is accented with marinated tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus, and it's finished with a jaunty ginger vinaigrette.  Absent is the filler that often overwhelms pedestrian crabcakes, and the result was terrific -

Crab Fritter at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

Chef Simmons then presented his ricotta ravioli.  Created entirely in-house (housemade pastas are a new focus at Hubbell & Hudson, and one we applaud) the al dente pasta is pillowed with slightly sweet ricotta, and sauced with an intriguing soy-orange reduction, fennel pollen tomato compote, and topped with crispy prosciutto di parma.  This past fused Italian and Asian influences expertly, and really showcased Chef Simmons's deft touch.

Ricotta Ravioli at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

Next up is a fascinating dish, Chili Rubbed Pork Tenderloin.  A generous slab of fork-tender pork tenderloin is rubbed with a mild chili seasoning, and served over hand-rolled cous cous and tangy peach chutney.  Drizzled on the pork was a complex Moroccan jus - I detected hints of nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon, and several other flavors that I couldn't isolate, but greatly enjoyed.

Chili-rubbed Pork Tenderloin at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

I received an eye-opening surprise when I bit into the fried vegetable served with the tenderloin.  The sharp, fresh flavor of pickled okra burst forth from the crispy breading, an unexpected flavor that paired masterfully with the earthy pork.  This is an incredibly successful dish, and one that I hope remains on the menu for a long time.

I didn't really have room for dessert at this point, but I've learned never to refuse the suggestions of a chef as talented as Austin Simmons.  The waiter whisked out a unique pie - an apple / almond crumble. French vanilla gelato topped a slice of heaven - a dense pastry crust with rustic apple filling, a cinnamon crumble upper layer, and a hint of rum-spiked almond cream.

Apple Almond Crumble at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

Chef Simmons's new creations are demonstrating a mastery of complexity and a sense of focus and pairing that we've rarely seen.  I believe that he is one of the upper echelon of chefs working in Texas today, and I look forward to sampling future examples of his superlative work.

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro | 24 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands 77380 | 281-203-5641

Hubbell & Hudson Market & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Trader Joe's opened its doors in Texas this morning, and the residents of the Woodlands showed up in droves to welcome this newest import from the West Coast.  This fabled grocer is known for quality food, an interesting, well curated selection, and affordable prices.  We joined the crowd to see what all the fuss was about.

Walking through the door, we were greeted by the sound of a Jamaican steel drum, and hundreds of Woodlands residents checking out their new neighbor.  Navigation around the store was tricky; the word had clearly gotten out, and intrepid foodies packed the aisles.
Working our way through the smiling crowd, we were pleasantly surprised by both the interesting selection of unusual food items, and the amazing prices.  A few items that caught our attention:
A deli case with some very aggressively priced trays of Italian meats and assorted cheeses.
Over a pound of Belgian chocolate for under $5.

Amazingly delicious "Cookie Butter" - creamy gingerbread spread.  I'm anxious to try this on waffles, bagels, plywood...

A sample of TJ's Mandarin Orange Chicken - one of the best frozen Chinese entrees we've tried.

And last but not least, one of the Charles Shaw wines, aka "Two Buck Chuck".  (Now $3, thanks to inflation.)

The assembled masses were scooping up items left and right, and the lines for checkout were easily 30 shoppers deep.  But Trader Joe's friendly staff was doing a great job of keeping the line moving, and doing so with a smile.

If opening day was any indication, Texas has a great new addition to the grocery store scene.  Trader Joe's combines an interesting product selection with great prices, and that's a winning combination that will draw in foodies for years to come.

We'll be back.

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

Thanksgiving is this week, and I'll bet that many of our readers have yet to finalize their plans for the traditional holiday meal.  While we're fans of a home-cooked extravaganza, we realize that busy schedules often make this impossible.  Heck, out here in the Woodlands, football playoffs have resulted in practice on Thanksgiving Day, further complicating plans.

Our solution?  Let a pro take care of the food.  We've complied a list of Houston-area spots that are on call to take the fuss out of Thanksgiving dinner, delivering great results without breaking the bank.
Hubbell & Hudson's Ho-Ka Roasted Turkey Dinner
Hubbell & Hudson
First up is Hubbell & Hudson, the Woodlands' own epicurean market and bistro.  Under new executive chef Austin Simmons, Hubbel & Hudson is offering a full slate of Holiday offerings.  Chef Austin is particularly proud of the Ho-Ka House Roasted Turkey Dinner, featuring a free-range, all-natural brined turkey, madeira giblet gravy, housemade side dishes and one of the superb Hubbell & Hudson pies to top it off.  $199, feeds six to eight.  281-203-5600
HEB Central Market
Folks inside the loop might scoff at driving to the Woodlands, so we contacted HEB Central Market to peruse their offerings.  We were impressed by their Naturally Gluten-Free Turkey Dinner, featuring a free-range oven-roasted turkey, gluten-free gravy, rustic Italian gluten-free rolls, and traditional sides, all gluten free.  $140, feeds six to eight.  713-386-1700
Kenny & Ziggy's
A New York-style deli isn't an obvious choice for Thanksgiving, but Ziggy Gruber's crew has put together a nice lineup of traditional and unexpected dishes that will make your meal memorable.  Their 20 lb whole roasted turkey, chestnut stuffing, and homemade gravy is the traditionalist's choice, but we suggest moving outside the expected with the superb glazed corn beef.  $ Prices vary.  713-871-8883
Update: Our Summer 2012 Map

Updated Nov 30, 2011

The dining scene in the Woodlands is never still.  Restaurants open and close on a regular basis as they try to find the perfect balance of food, service, and atmosphere that will keep notoriously fickle Woodlands patrons coming back.

The Woodlands Market Street (photo credit: The Woodlands Development Co.)

Most suburbs have the reputation of being filled with chain restaurants, and the Woodlands certainly has its share.  But the Woodlands has also attracted more than its share of independent restaurants.  We don't discriminate - we enjoy good food no matter who owns the kitchen.

Here are the best restaurants in The Woodlands right now (May 2011).  In alphabetical order:

The Black Walnut - This locally grown casual cafe has toned down the quirky factor, but it's still like going to a restaurant that's run by your crazy cousin Louie... if Louie could cook.  Breakfasts are very good here, as are the unique sandwiches and salads.  And be sure to save room for dessert; seasonal gelato offerings are rich and enticing.
Capri - The secret is out about this small, family-run Italian cafe.  Barbara Coglianese's kitchen turns out exquisitely handcrafted pastas, and entrees, both featuring sauces made from family recipes brought over from Bologna.  An enthusiastic cadre of very happy regulars calls Capri the best Italian spot in the Woodlands, and one of the best in the Houston area.  This isn't the Olive Garden; it's more a place for foodies in search of authentic, handmade cuisine than for those wanting overly Americanized versions of Italian classics.


Chuy's - The Woodlands is home to plenty of UT alums, and when they want Mexican food, they often choose to visit this Austin export.  You'll find offbeat wait staff, Mexican food that trends as much toward New Mex-Mex as Tex-Mex, and some of the best margaritas anywhere.  Texas Exes will insist on asking for the complimentary creamy jalapeno sauce alongside the light, citrusy salsa.

Chuy's in the Woodlands

Crust Pizza - This new locally-run pizza parlor has been garnering great reviews from everyone who's tried it.  The owners are on-site, the pizza dough is handmade and never even refrigerated, and the creative toppings give pizza aficionados reason to order outside their comfort zones.  We're usually pepperoni traditionalists, but the jerk chicken pizza is something we can't stop ordering.  Crust has proven to us that great pizza isn't about a special oven, it's about massaging all the variables until the result speaks for itself.

Jerk chicken pizza at Crust Pizza

Corkscrew BBQ - This new Woodlands food truck is backed by an experienced BBQ team, and the results speak for themselves.  Delicious brisket, buzzworthy pulled pork, and perhaps the best cobbler we've tasted in years.  Daily specials, too.

Brisket at Corkscrew BBQ

Eden Cafe - Located in Egypt (literally, it's the name of the area just behind the northwest border of the Woodlands) this family-run cafe surprised and impressed us with its well edited menu and daily specials.  The talented kitchen turns out excellent work in a variety of cuisines (we're particularly fond of their chicken entrees), but their Cuban dishes stand out among the best in the Houston area.
The Goose's Acre - This pub, located on the Woodlands Waterway, features a beautiful deck perfect for al fresco dining on the water.  The kitchen turns out considerably better-than-average pub food; can't miss items include the half-pound burgers, creative salads, and well executed pub favorites.  A spirited weekend crowd keeps the parting going.
Grimaldi's - The second Houston-area outpost of this iconic Brooklyn pizzaria calls the Woodlands Waterway its home, and locals are raving about the coal-fired NY-style pizzas.  We're fans of the savory Italian sausage, rich with fennel.

New York-style pizza at Grimaldi's

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro - This upscale American bistro is attached to the Woodlands' largest gourmet market, guaranteeing access to some amazing ingredients.  And Executive Chef Austin Simmons makes the best of them, turning out impressive seafood dishes, entree salads, and a variety of design-your-own steak dishes designed to please the pickiest Texan.  He's even added an epic Wagyu Burger to the menu, and it blew us away.

Wagyu Burger at Hubbell & Hudson

Hubble & Hudson Kitchen - The more casual cousin to Hubble & Hudson has been packing them in since the day they opened.  Patrons wait in line to order superb burgers and outstanding sandwiches, and the brunch offerings on weekends are among the best in the Houston area.  Thank goodness for the outdoor patio, because the dining room can be packed during peak hours. Hubble & Hudson Kitchen combines perhaps the best fast casual concept we've experienced with a small gourmet market, giving home cooks the perfect place to stop for ingredients, inspiration, and a delicious quick meal.

Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen

Jasper's - Upscale backyard cuisine is how this Dallas export describes its fare, and we think that fits it to a T.  This is Texas cuisine as imagined by Kent Rathbun, an Iron Chef contestant who's known for his innovative takes on hearty food.  Great bets include the prime steaks, excellent pork loin, and half-pound burgers.  We're always impressed with the care that goes into the excellent side dishes, and their desserts are some of the best in the Woodlands.  But you simply cannot miss the housemade potato chips with Maytag bleu cheese.  Addictive.

Maytag bleu cheese-topped potato chips at Jasper's

The Olive Oil - Suburbs aren't know for their ethnic food, so we were pleasantly surprised to find an excellent Greek restaurant in a nondescript strip center location along Sawdust road.  All the Greek standards are well represented on the menu; the gyro is one of the best we've enjoyed anywhere.  The restaurant turns into a party on weekend evenings, with belly dancers, Greek dancers, and live music, so be sure to make a reservation to guarantee a table with a view of the festivities.
Perry's Steakhouse - There are plenty of steakhouses in the Woodlands, but Perry's stands apart for three reasons.  First, it's located away from the "downtown" area, making parking a breeze.  Second, it's a local business, albeit one with several locations.  And most importantly, the grilled meats are very satisfying, and handled with an expert touch.  Those in the know go for the absurdly thick pork chop, which is perfectly prepared and rubbed with seasonings that really bring out the flavor.
Rico's - Tex-Mex in the Woodlands is popular, and it seems that every second Tex-Mex place is now a Rico's.  This local empire has been growing rapidly thanks to its deft handling of traditional Tex-Mex favorites.  The fajitas are very good and offered with some tasty embellishments (melted oxaca cheese and chunky bacon are our pick) and the margaritas are strong and tasty.

Schilleci's - The Houston area has become the home to many New Orleans expatriates, and the Woodlands is lucky to be the new home of the Schilleci family's eponymous restaurant.  This New Orleans-style restaurant serves up outstanding etoufee and gumbo, and the authentic po boys are as good as you'll find outside of the Crescent City.  The secret?  The Schillecis import bread from New Orleans for that authentic chewy crunch.

Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen

There you have it.  Our favorite places to eat in the Woodlands.  If we've missed yours, tell us about it in the comments.

by Chuck Pena
Houston is doing pretty well in what we all seem to be
calling "this economy." However, even the best-run luxury lifestyle
establishments, particularly those in fitness, food, and furniture, have
suffered recent reductions-in-force or closures, even in the upscale Galleria
and in the trendy, aggressively marketed and re-gentrified Houston Heights.
Given that status quo, one might question the wisdom of
Whole Foods opening their brand of a high-end, self-described "ultimate"
shopping experience, located between Montrose and the Heights at this particular time. The land in Houston
hasn't really suffered, so it can't be an opportunity that they can't refuse on
the lot.
Also, Houston and surrounding areas already offer three Whole Foods, Central Market,
Hubble and Hudson, a  handful of Rice
Epicureans, and HEB's latest crown jewel, Buffalo Market. All of these
groceries/restaurants play in the epicurean/green/organic market  space.
I arrived at the preview tour truly curious about why they
were here, and why right now. Years ago, I'd been a customer of Whole Foods in
Austin, both at the North Lamar location and at Westgate, and found them to be
largely venues for a slacker/yuppie mix of posers with attitudes about what
makes a good kiwi or pomegranate.  I
guess that no matter how right I was at that time, what I neglected to register
that they did, indeed, have kiwis and pomegranates, fresh ones.
As a Texan, I'm obliged to be man enough to reconsider my
opinions given new data, and surely enough, as the tour progressed, I had no
choice but to readjust those old stereotypes of Whole Foods. This place, or at
least our great town's latest incarnation of it, is a lot more than a
"luxury shopping experience"—that is, a place that simply stocks the
better or rarer items. Whole Foods represents  a comprehensive commitment to genuinely
implement "green" in every aspect of their business.
The green commitment includes not only the meat and produce,
but every packaged item, every bulk item, every fresh-made item, every prep
facility, and every sourcing practice. It also includes the architecture of the
building and even the physical plant, right down to the water reclamation
subsystem that provides the water for drinking, washing, cooling (even the meat
lockers) and landscaping.
Water reclamation system at Whole Foods
Local growers are
used whenever available, and items are offered strictly when they are
available, on a seasonal basis. Local sourcing and seasonal offering
significantly reduces the business' carbon footprint in trucking transit and
long-term storage.
Of course, the name Whole Foods pervades the merchandizing
philosophy. This is the only place I know of that I could buy anything from a
box of cookies to a fresh-made deli sandwich from one of the many fresh-food
counters and not have to worry about consuming one gram of color additives, trans-fatty
acids, artificial sweetener, endangered animal, unsustainably-farmed grain,
stripped grain, or bleached grain.
What makes it better, all this tasty-yet-guilt-free bounty is
offered  in a beautiful, bright,
comfortable facility with an near-zero carbon footprint. Downside: no
double-stuff Oreos...
That's when you realize that this is not a business playing in the luxury grocery space at all, but indeed have invented their own product: they're not selling you truffled spinach pesto from Sicily; they're selling you a sustainable lifestyle—or at least as much of the part of one as they can that relates to food.
So I recommend that your first stop be the coffee stand.
Similar in size to a Starbucks in other grocers, this is a separate business,
similar to how Panera bread shares space with Schlotzky's in Austin. The
Starbuck's-killing features here are the local roaster, and the availability of
some of the rarest coffees in the world. Now, these top-shelf brews are not
cheap, but they are appropriate and creative 21st-centruy alternatives to
bringing a bottle of wine to every holiday. Be forewarned however; the
"Dom Perignon" of coffees can run you $75/lb of roasted beans.
Beyond the coffee stand is the front porch, which blends in
with the coffee shop seating. Both areas are equipped with wi-fi and feature
works by local artists. I didn't get any good shots of the art, sorry. One of
the more interesting interactive pieces is the "art vending" machine:
 a converted 1960s cigarette machine that
makes original art placards, suitable for a coaster, for $5 apiece. It's all
similarly-appealing, non-threatening -but-still-occasionally-provoking, urban
Which, by the way, is a great description of the
freshly-prepared food area; I'm loathe to call it a "food court"
simply because of the images that that phrase recalls to me. The Whole Foods
version as the deli, Italian, pizzas, bistro, olive bar, extreme dry-rub
barbecue with ready-to-go, all-organic briskets, and then the perfunctory salad
bar and premade cold fare. This area is so huge you might even be able to
navigate your cart through on a Sunday, which believe me, is going to be
We've covered a lot, but several major points of interest

Peanut butter grinding.  This is a station where you can grind and jar
your own peanut, almond, or cashew butter.
Bulk area includes barbecue rubs and seasonings,
including a tethering system that discourages "scooper-sharing" from
container-to-container, a big pet-peeve of mine.
 Wine bar, conveniently located right by the
cheese counter, that opens at 8am, which, oh, BTW, offers 24 beer taps. I'm
thinkin', if you take advantage of this amenity, you may want to bring a designated
driver AND shopper.

Finally, I must mention the attitude of the Whole Foods team
associates. Any specialist in any area is always happy to tell you about how
they achieve their quality and how they're doing things differently, and their
sense of ownership and pride is obvious. This point perhaps illustrates the
difference in the Whole Foods experience that I realized that day: Everyone,
every facility, every practice, spoke with one voice, one message—and that is
the hallmark of the most successful ventures in the world.
Of course, this store shall attract its share of tiresome,
iPad-addicted, Croc-clad hipster clones, but if you're someone who takes your
green commitment beyond the purchase of a Prius, beyond whining on political
blogs, into actual practices in your life, then this is your store. You are why
Whole Foods is expanding; you are the niche I didn't see before.
I thought we may have had too many Whole Foods, but now,
maybe we don't have enough. They're not a player in the luxury grocery space at
all: their product is a slice of a relevant, green lifestyle, from the food
itself (no additives, organic) to how they get it there (local, seasonal
growers) to how they offer it (green outlet architecture and engineering).
Get this as well—if you do drive a Nissan Leaf or other electric vehicle, you can charge it up right outside by the rainwater reclamation tank.
I gotta say, it's truly impressive to see a corporation that
doesn't just talk the talk.
Best of luck, Whole Foods.  Welcome to the neighborhood.

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 - CiaoBelloHouston.com

Ciao Bello on Urbanspoon

The Woodlands quickly becoming a full-fledged city, its residents not needing to leave the area when they want to shop or dine. But the savvy diner will notice one distressing fact: Most of the restaurants in The Woodlands are part of a chain that's based elsewhere.

Fortunately, that's starting to change. Now there's a new kid on the independent pizzeria block: Crust Pizza Co.

Crust Pizza Co. is an upscale, family-oriented pizza parlor located in the Panther Creek Village Center, on The Woodlands Parkway at West Panther Creek. It's a true independent — the owners, Mark Rasberry and Clint Price, are on-site and deeply involved. Price is a resident of The Woodlands, and Rasberry is currently making a weekly commute from Dallas — he'll be relocating after the school year ends.

They decided to open their pizza concept in The Woodlands, citing the family-friendly environment as a key reason for Crust Pizza debuting outside both the Loop and the Beltway.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken Pizza at Crust Pizza Co.

The strip-center location has been converted into a warm, inviting spot for lunch or dinner. Custom is the operative word here — custom banquettes, custom countertops, and beautiful custom lighting with exposed copper supports.

The warmth extends to the new staff — a bunch of fresh faces, many of whom have never worked in the restaurant business before. Price and Rasberry are training them to be professional as well as friendly, and from our first impression, we received a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and a growing degree of polish.

The warm, inviting dining room at Crust Pizza Co.

The experience, however, is behind the counter. Crust's pizzas are hand-built by a pizza chef who was brought in from New York, and his East Coast sensibilities are baked right into his work.

Each pizza features a handmade thin, crispy crust with house-made sauce. The fresh toppings range from the traditional pepperoni and sausage to the exotic, like cashews and muffaletta-style olive relish.

Preparing a pizza at Crust Pizza Co.

"So how's the pizza?" you ask.

I'm typically a pizza traditionalist, so I started by sampling a margherita pizza. The crust was light and crisp but not hard, and its faintly sweet flavor was a solid base for the savory roma tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh chopped basil.

The crushed garlic added a bit of swagger, and the result was both fresh and bold. (Bold is a recurring theme at Crust Pizza Co., and one that is a welcome change from the often bland offerings at chain restaurants.)

Margherita Pizza at Crust Pizza Co.

Next was a walk on the wild side. We tried The Jerk, featuring Jamaican jerk chicken, caramelized onions, red, green, and yellow bell peppers, thick-cut bacon and a mixture of cheeses.

This was, again, a bold pizza, the jerk chicken's spicy bite offset by the sourness of the bell peppers and the smoky undertones of the nice quality bacon. I didn't expect to like this pizza (I'm not a big bell pepper fan) but it turned out to be my favorite.

We also sampled their sandwiches, including a memorable Spicy Link sub, with hot Italian link sausage, a variety of peppers, caramelized onions, and a blend of cheeses over the housemade pizza sauce.

Spicy Link Sausage Sandwich at Crust Pizza Co.

Not to be trite, but this, too, was a bold piece of food art. The Italian links were nicely spicy, and the peppers' gentle sourness made for a very savory combination.

We were impressed by the food coming out of this new kitchen, and feel that it's only fair to overlook any pre-opening jitters, which were few and far between. Rasberry and Price are pros, and they've brought their distinct style of upscale, high-quality pizzas to the central Woodlands. And they're doing so at very reasonable prices.

The verdict? We'll be back.

Crust Pizza Co. - 4775 West Panther Creek Dr. - The Woodlands 77381 - 281-298-8844

(This entry first appeared on CultureMap.)

Crust Pizza Co. on Urbanspoon

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