We're fans of Coal Burger, the Arizona-based burger chain from the Grimaldi's Pizza folks.  Their Woodlands Waterway location is the first store outside of Arizona, and we think they serve an excellent burger.

But we've heard reports of some less-than-spectacular burgers being served.  The culprit is overcooked beef.  But the mastermind behind Coal Burger, Chef Bradford Thompson, has devised a simple solution to the problem.

The original Coal Burger was architected around a quarter-pound patty.  The half-pound burger was simply two of these patties, stacked up.  The good news is that there is plenty of exposed surface to hold an aggressive char.  The downside is that the interior of the burger gets hot quickly, and unless the cooking is perfectly timed, all the juices evaporate in the intense heat of the coal-fired oven (over 1000 degrees.)  A juicy Coal Burger is a superlative burger, a dry one loses a good deal of its appeal.  So how do you keep the patty from drying out as it cooks and develops that wonderful char?

The solution is an elegantly simple one:  Enlarge the patty.  The petite quarter-pound patty is now a thicker third-pound patty, and the larger mass of beef holds up better to the intense heat, holding in the juices with aplomb.  Patrons preferring a larger burger now get their half-pound of beef in a single patty.

The new third-pound Coal Burger

After learning about this clever solution, we wanted to grab a table and sample the result.  This led to discovering the other big change at Coal Burger - table service in the evenings.  A hostess, plenty of waiters and tables dressed with silverware and cloth napkins contribute to the decidedly upscale atmosphere; the view overlooking the sparkling lights of Waterway Square completes the setting.

Table service at night, and a beautiful view

We found the idea of table service to be pretty unique for a burger joint, albeit a high-end one occupying prime real estate in the Woodlands.  Coal Burger's staff made it work well; waiters are friendly, service is good, and the result makes for a great date night experience.

So how was the burger?  In short, it's the bacon cheeseburger of backyard dreams, but now with a thicker, beefier, jucier patty.  High quality cheese (American for us.)  Thick cut, smoky bacon.  Fresh veggies.  And that's a win in my book.

We like the changes at Coal Burger, and applaud the attention of Chef Bradford and his staff to refining a great burger experience and making it even better.

Coal Burger on Urbanspoon

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.

We're always skeptical when a successful restaurant group branches out into a new type of restaurant.  Too often we've seen incredibly successful organizations stumble when they try to translate their successful formula to an entirely different cuisine.

So we greeted the news of Coal Burger with a good deal of skepticism.  This small restaurant chain (the Woodlands location is their third store, and their first outside of Arizona) is owned by the same group as Grimaldi's Pizza, the iconic Brooklyn pizza joint that has branched out into locations all over the nation (and not coincidentally, right next door to Coal Burger.)  Would success in the pizza field translate into the highly competitive burger arena?

Half-pound Coal Burger, with cheese and bacon

We aren't sure.  But we love a good burger, and have a great deal of respect for the Grimaldi's organization, so we visited Coal Burger today, on its opening day, to see just what they are all about.  It was a rainy Tuesday, so we headed down to Waterway Square in the Woodlands, and managed to snag a nearby parking spot.  We zipped through a building to avoid the rain, and came out across the street from the Coal Burger location.  There is no sign, but it is located on the back side of the same building that houses Grimaldi's.

Coal Burger in the Woodlands.  That's the entrance at the right

We crossed the street and entered the bright, airy restaurant.  We saw plenty of green-shirted staff members being trained on opening day.  Everyone was bright and friendly, and we learned quite a bit about the philosophy behind Coal Burger before we even ordered.

Coal Burger isn't an ordinary burger joint.  There is a great focus on sustainable, high quality, healthy ingredients.  The organization is green, but it's not pushed in the customer's face as a self-conscious selling point.  We noticed that the disposable drink containers were compostable, the ingredients are from responsible sources like Niman Ranch, and little touches like LED light fixtures point to a thoughtful focus on the environment.  We applaud this approach.

Orders are placed at the counter, so we walked up and gave them ours.

The woman at the counter was very friendly, and in short order we were headed to the table to await our Coal Burgers.  On the way we grabbed a soda - no Coca-Cola or Pepsi products here, but rather a selection of Boylan sodas, all sweetened with real cane sugar.  So we had to skip our beloved Dr Pepper, and instead chose Boylan Ginger Ale.  A sip confirmed that real ginger is a prominent ingredient in this beverage.

After a short wait, the burger appeared, wrapped neatly in paper.  Ours was a half-pound of all-natural Niman Ranch Beef, hand-formed into two patties, topped with American cheese, beautiful thick-cut bacon, shredded lettuce, and crisp sliced pickles.  Only the bun seemed pedestrian, but we later learned that a Brioche bun is available upon request.

A half-pound burger at Coal Burger

Biting into this tall, narrow burger was delightful.  The first sensation was the crispness of the sliced pickles, which was quickly followed by a rich, charry, beefy burst of flavor.  Following the Grimaldi's tradition, the burger patties are grilled in a coal-fired oven.

Coal Burger's coal-fired oven

This magical device imparts a delightful char to the high quality beef.  And it does so quickly, leaving a nice juicy ooze and a pinkish center to contrast to the dark brown exterior char.

The American cheese we selected was thickly sliced and high quality.  The bacon had a slightly sweet, smoky bite.  The result was a superb rendition of a backyard burger, typically grilled over charcoal.  But this one was grilled over real coal, and the result was how one would dream a backyard burger would taste - no home cooked burger we've sampled has sported such an aggressive char and rich, complex flavor.

We realize that it's unfair to judge a restaurant on its opening day, but we were very impressed by the burger at Coal Burger.  We were also happy to talk with Darien, the manager, and to see that he and his staff are very interested in feedback and focused on making the Coal Burger experience a good one.

We'll be back.  Soon.

UPDATE: We learn the secret behind Coal Burger

Coal Burger | 20 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands, TX 77380 | 281-292-6385

Coal Burger on Urbanspoon

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.

Over the past few years, The Woodlands has developed a strong dining scene. While it still has more than it's share of generic chain restaurants, there have been several notable independents calling the area home. Hubbell & Hudson, Eden Cafe, Capri, and Crust Pizza Co. are examples of the kinds of places that would be notable wherever they opened, and are causing foodies to make the trek out past 1960.
What the area has been lacking is the kind of tiny ethnic restaurants that one finds all over the Houston area. We were excited to see someone bucking this trend - a tiny taqueria / taco truck on Gosling called Casa del Sol.

We'd passed Casa del Sol several times driving down Gosling, and finally stopped in to check it out. We were immediately taken by the quaint, relaxed atmosphere. Seating is in a covered outdoor pavilion, very inviting on a comfortable spring day.

The kitchen is housed in a food truck parked semi-permanently beside the pavilion. The feel of the spot reminded me of one of the tiny cantinas in Mexico's costal towns... a welcome change from the slick atmosphere that even the independents build in The Woodlands.

Having never visited before, we wanted to sample a variety of tacos. A brief chat with the proprietor gave us our game plan: One each of al pastor, barbacoa, and beef fajita.

I first dug into my benchmark - the taco al pastor. Served on a freshly-made corn tortilla, quarter-sized chunks of roast pork were liberally sautéed in a deceptively spicy chile pepper sauce, and topped with the traditional fresh chopped onion and cilantro. Biting into this taco was a revelation - the tender chunks of pork were considerably larger than what we typically find in an al pastor taco, and the seasoning was kicked up a notch, starting with a savory, rich note and building to a slow burn. The cup of horchata provided a welcome relief from the heat; I said a silent thank you to the friend who first suggested this beverage with Mexican food many years ago.

Tacos al Pastor at Casa del Sol

Next up was the barbacoa. Prepared in the traditional manner using the cheek meat, it was incredibly tender without venturing anywhere near mushiness. After the tang of the al pastor, the barbacoa's subtle smokiness was almost lost, but a quick shot of the housemade red salsa got my tastebuds' full attention.
Finally the beef fajita was up. Knowing The Woodlands, this is probably the most oft-ordered taco, and it does not disappoint. Beautifully charred beef, still moist inside, was accented with a hearty squirt of lime juice and the chopped onion and cilantro. This taco will please the Tex-Mex aficionado, and will remind him just how boring the tacos are from the big national chains. Yo quero, indeed.

Beef Fajita Taco at Casa del Sol

We really enjoyed Casa del Sol, and recommend that anyone who loves Mexican food stop by. For what you'd spend at Taco Bell, you can enjoy something far more authentic, and most importantly, far more delicious.

Casa del Sol | 22507 Gosling | Mo-Sa 7a-6p, closed Su
(4 mi south of Woodlands Parkway, just past the train tracks) 

Funnel Cake is the most popular food at the rodeo.
For the past three years, the best of the various foods offered at the Houston Livestock Show are honored with the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards.  Contrary to popular belief, rodeo food isn't just funnel cakes and BBQ, although you'll find plenty of examples of both.
Here are 2011's winners:

Best Breakfast Food:
1st: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ Big Stone Breakfast Sandwich
2nd: Yoakum Packing Company’s Bacon Blast
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s grilled breakfast burrito

Best Taco/Burrito:
1st Freebirds World Burrito’s carnitas burrito
2nd Tad’s Bodacious Burrito’s garlic chicken burrito
3rd Texas Pride Grill’s fajita taco

Best Seafood:
1st Berryhill Baja Grill’s crispy shrimp taco
2nd Sudie’s Catfish House’s duo of fried shrimp and oysters

Best Baked Potato:
1st: Harlon’s Bar-B-Que’s super baked potato
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork super potato
3rd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Just-Do-It Baked Potato

Best Burger:
1st: Holmes Smokehouse’s angus, bacon, cheese mushroom burger
2nd: Paradise Burger’s ½ lb bacon cheeseburger
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s cheesy burger bites

Best Food on a Stick:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate covered bananas and strawberries
2nd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s jalapeno & cheese sausage on a stick
3rd: Burton Sausage’s Rodeo K-bob

Best BBQ:
1st: Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ’s pork spare ribs (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork bbq sandwich
3rd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s bar-b-que pork ribs

Best Fried Food:
1st: Sweet Cheeks’ deep fried moon pie (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Bear Mountain Bison’s Buffalo chips with The Works
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Tornado Potato Fries smothered and covered

Favorite Food:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate dipped cheesecake
2nd: Sill’s Funnel Cake Hause’s funnel cake
3rd: Saltgrass Steakhouse’s ribs and chicken platter

Most Creative:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s fried Snickers
2nd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Juicy Lucy Cheeseburger
3rd: Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill’s pulled pork sundae

Best Dessert:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s banana split funnel cake
2nd: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ cinnamon roll with “The Works”
3rd: Cobbler Café’s pecan cobbler with soft serve vanilla ice cream

Best New Flavor:
1st: Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Grub chicken, sausage and shrimp jambalaya
2nd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Lava Flow Smoothie
3rd: Paradise Burger’s fried brownie bites

Best Gourmet:
1st: DGZ Chocolates & Fudge’s Toffarazzi (toffee)
2nd: The Caramel Candy Co.’s pecan caramel
3rd: Kettle Korn of Texas’s ribeye sandwich

(via Delicious Mischief)

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

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

As 2010 draws to a close, it's time for us to look back at this remarkable year, and recognize the people, places, and things that we'll most fondly remember.

Trend of the Year

Burgers, burgers, burgers.  The humble hamburger represents a full-fledged trend in the Houston dining scene.  Always a popular choice, we've seen it elevated to new heights by both fine dining establishments and neighborhood joints.  It seems that every other new restaurant features a signature burger, and the result is that diners can enjoy a superb meal for an amazingly modest tariff.

Annoying Trend of the Year
Foodie Backlash.  During 2010, we saw an increasing number of pundits attack foodies and their enthusiasm for great meals, talented chefs, and the whole experience of dinner-as-theater.  Granted, some foodies brought this upon themselves, but we thought it was a bit disingenuous to attack an entire group based on the antics of a few overly self-serious standouts.

Closing of the Year

Tesar's.  One of the most promising restaurants outside the loop fell victim to the slow economy, a seemingly hexed location, and inexperienced management.  But out of the ashes of the restaurant's failure arose two talented young chefs who will be making their mark on the Houston restaurant scene in the coming years.

Honorable Mentions: Amici, Sabetta, La Trattoria, The Rockwood Room

Opening of the Year

Caffe Bello.  Tony Vallone has been the master of fine dining in Houston for decades, and many an eyebrow was raised when he announced plans to open a restaurant in Montrose.  This was not the playground of his usual crowd, but Tony, son Jeff, and savvy young partner Scott Sulma quickly charmed the denizens of Montrose with their spin on modern Italian cuisine, including the tasty, thin-crust pizzas that left all the critics swooning.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, The Burger Guys, Cinq.

Burger of the Year

Hubcap Decker at Hubcap Grill.  This category was a tough one in 2010 - we sampled dozens of fantastic burgers, and didn't even work our way to the end the list of places we wanted to try.  But one burger stood out for us among all the rest - Ricky Craig's superlative Hubcap Decker, perhaps the finest incarnation of a traditional double cheeseburger we've ever encountered.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille Burger, Bleu Cheese Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen, Beaver Burger

Foodie of the Year

Dr. Ricky.  Anyone following the Houston food scene knows that Houston has no shortage of people who are willing to share their experiences and opinions about food and dining.  But we think that Dr. Ricky goes above and beyond, and educates his audience with every post.  His knowledge of food is vast, and we had the pleasure of dining with him and learning that the man is just as insightful and interesting in person as he is online.

Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, J.C. Reid, Nishta Mehra

Critic of the Year

Katharine Shilcutt.  When Robb Walsh stepped down as critic for the Houston Press, a vacuum was formed, and we were very curious to find out who would fill it.  Enter Katharine Shilcutt, a popular local blogger and foodie who had recently started making great contributions to the Press's Eating Our Words blog.  Shilcutt had big shoes to fill, but her engaging writing style, quick wit, and genuine love of exploring new places made her the right choice for the Press.

Honorable Mentions: Alison Cook, Sarah Rufca

Restaurateur of the Year

Bryan Caswell.  We've watched Bryan Caswell expand his sphere of influnce from the kitchen of Hotel Icon to the living rooms of foodies across America.  Along the way, he's opened what many consider to be the best seafood restaurant in the United States (REEF), an outstanding slider joint (Little Bigs), and a unique spin on Texas Italian cuisine (Stella Sola).  Between all this he had a chance to represent Houston on The Next Iron Chef, and explain to up-and-coming cooks why they need to work in a Waffle House.  Next up?  Opening a classic Tex-Mex place in Montrose with Robb Walsh.  After that, we expect a run for the Governor's Mansion.

Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Jeff Vallone, Cary Attar

Chef of the Year

Cesar Rodriguez.  Houston is a town with a lot of churrascarias.  But one, Samba Grille, stands above them, with an impressive slate of composed dishes alongside the savory grilled meats.  Chef Rodriguez has brought his years of experience (with both the Vallone and Cordua organizations) to this new restaurant, and right out of the gate the new kitchen was firing on all cylinders.  We attended the soft opening, and can't remember a new organization ever executing so well.  The result was that after being open for only a month, Samba was on every critic's short list for 2010, and deservedly so.  From unique soups to a top-notch burger, the kitchen at Samba Grill delivers, thanks to Chef Rodriguez's watchful eye at the helm.

Honorable Mentions: L.J. Wiley, Jeramie Robison, Austin Simmons, Bryan Caswell

Restaurant of the Year

Hubcap Grill.  There are tens of thousands of restaurants in Houston, and the safe choice would be one of the city's superb fine dining establishments.  But to us, Hubcap Grill sums up what a great restaurant is all about: A superlative product delivered with vision and passion, making its guests very happy.  A tiny location in the shadow of the tall buildings downtown, Hubcap Grill has become Houston's go-to spot for great burgers, due to the hard work and brilliant insight of Ricky Craig, the chef and proprietor.  Ricky's approach to designing a burger is as meticulous as the work of any Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and the results speak for themselves: Hoardes of satisfied guests, and a list of accolades including three coveted stars from Alison Cook.  We concur with the esteemed Ms. Cook; Hubcap Grill has succeeded, and is among the very best restaurants to be found in the city.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, RDG+Bar Annie, Chez Roux

UPDATE: Caffe Bello closed in the Spring of 2011.

I make no bones about it - I'm a big fan of Tony Vallone, and I think his restaurants set the standard that few others in town can even approach.  From the food to the service to the setting, Tony and his staff show an attention to detail that is rare in the restaurant business.

(The Vallones are also clients of mine.  Ever since my friend Jack Tyler introduced me to Tony almost a decade ago, my company has created all of the web sites for Vallone restaurants, from the original pre-Landry's Grotto to Ciao Bello, and of course for his flagship, Tony's.  And as a foodie, they are the best client I could ever have, because every meeting involves wonderful food, and the opportunity to learn from Tony, his son Jeff, Chef Bruce McMillian, their young front-of-the-house wizard Scott Sulma, and the rest of their team of extraordinary minds.  It's like being a baseball fan, and being asked to create something for the Yankees.)

So I was very happy to hear from Tony and his son Jeff about the new concept for a restaurant they were creating in Montrose, to be called Caffe Bello.  The excitement in Tony's voice was palpable.  Caffe Bello really was to be something different, targeted at a young, hip, Montrose crowd, while still maintaining the signature Vallone touches that lift their restaurants above the ordinary.  Most restaurateurs who had 45 years under their belts would be coasting, but Tony was visibly excited by the challenge of bringing his art to a whole new generation of patrons.

Caffe Bello is an Italian restaurant, of course.  That's what the Vallones do best.  But what would Tony bring to Montrose, the epicenter of hip and cool?  Driving down lower Westheimer one encounters a veritable who's who of hot, trendy restaurants, with places like Feast, Indika, and Dolce Vita each doing a brisk business.  In this setting that craves the new and different, how would Houston's iconic establishment restaurateur create a restaurant to surprise and delight this finicky neighborhood?

The answer: Tony would do this the way he does everything else:  By adapting to his customers, and creating for them something unique.  And exceeding expectations, which are already high, given the Vallone name attached to the project.

Upon entering Caffe Bello on its first Friday night, we were surprised by how different the space feels.  This isn't Tony's with its soaring ceilings and world-class art grabbing your eye.  Nor was it Amici, feeling upscale and casual and filled with families and couples on dates.  This was edgy -- a long narrow room along Westhimer, exposed brick, no tablecloths.  It's fairly dark.  A bar hugs one end of the room.  It felt more like the Village or SoHo in Manhattan than near downtown Houston.

One new Vallone trademark grabbed us immediately - stunning abstract works by John Palmer.  Palmer's canvasses captured the edgy energy of the room, and reflected it back.

The edge extends into the back of the house, with chef Michael Dei Maggi, formerly of Max's Wine Dive and the Rockwood Room helming the kitchen.  Chef Dei Maggi is the kind of chef you'd never picture working with Tony Vallone - sporting numerous tatoos that speak volumes about his cutting edge sensibilities.  But a look through Dei Maggi's previous gigs shows the sort of creative flair that Montrose craves - he's the type of chef who's looking forward, never backward.  We've been a fan of Chef Dei Maggi's work, and were looking forward to seeing how he and Tony would work together.

The youth isn't just in the kitchen.  Scott Sulma is a partner in this project.  For those who don't know him, Scott is the twentysomething general manager of Tony's, the Vallone's flagship restaurant and considered by many to be the finest restaurant in Texas.  Scott brings an intuitive grasp of hospitality and organization to Caffe Bello; he is simply unflappable in very demanding situations, and the fact that a man in his 20's can rise so high in the Vallone organization is testament to his ability.

We drove into Montrose from the Woodlands, and handed off our car to the valet.  After a very brief wait, we were seated.  The restaurant was going through its soft opening, and hadn't advertised its presence, but the buzz had already started in Montrose, and the dining room was full.  It turned out that we were at a table next to Tony, his wife Donna, and their daughter Lauri, there to enjoy dinner and make sure the new store was up to speed.

We perused menu, and were immediately taken by the tightly edited menu of unique offerings.  A variety of pizzetta (small, individual pizzas), none of which looked familiar to us.  A meatball burger.  A chicken-fried sirloin.  And a variety of other dishes you'd never seen on the menu at Tony's, Ciao Bello or Amici.

We couldn't wait to order.

First came the bread service - instead of the expected basket, it was placed on a sheet of brown paper, and casually arranged.  Of course, being a Vallone joint, the casual arrangement somehow looked effortlessly artistic.

The breads were warm, housemade, and had surprisingly complex flavors - we fought over the dense, chewy, sweet roll, and fortunately more were quickly delivered when ours was devoured.

We jumped around the menu, ordering items that looked most fascinating.  First up was a pizzetta - one with bresaola (thinly sliced cured beef) pear, taleggio and Italian truffle honey.

Rarely am I a fan of what I call "designer" pizza - I am a devoted pepperoni guy.  But this pizza was outstanding - bubbly, crispy, slightly sweet crust, dense, chewy, smoky beef, creamy and herby white cheese, and the tangy bite of the pears made this a dish we'll be reordering as soon as possible.  Even my lovely bride, who is not a terribly adventurous diner, found herself drawn to this creation.  A pity, because that meant I had to share it with her.  But love conquered... at least this time.

While I dolefully watched my wife enjoy her last slice of pizza, Tony caught my eye from the next table.  He handed me a plate, and on that plate was a sandwich.  As was the theme for the evening, it was no ordinary sandwich.

First, half of it was missing, and Tony's wry smile let me know who had tested it.  Second, it was a veal cutlet grinder, containing a gently breaded slice of veal, some fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and greens, and it was served on a housemade ciabatta bun.  The bite of the peppers, the smooth, lush cream of the mozzarella, and the mild beefy flavor of the veal played together like a well-practiced band, with each ingredient playing well on its own, but the combination being so much more than the sum of the parts.

This demostrated something I learned years ago - if Tony or Jeff suggests something, do not pass it up.  And if Tony orders something for himself, prepare to be wowed.

Tony was very interested to know what I thought of the dish, and he was very happy when I raved about it.  His interest caught me off guard when he asked for my feedback the first time, many years ago.  The man is a true master of the culinary arts, yet his humility is a guiding force... he really wants to know what makes each and every guest happy, and he will figure out how to give it to them.  He's built a very successful business doing so, and his patrons display the sort of loyalty that is unheard of in the restaurant industry.  There's a reason for this.

Back to the food.  Next out of the kitchen were the diver scallops saltimbocca.

We've always enjoyed Tony's seafood offerings, but this was something totally different.  Rich, silky, just-past-al dente scallops were blanketed in thick-sliced, earthy prosciutto, and a sharp, sour caper agresto added a bold note.  Served with tomato and grilled asparagus, this small plate demonstrated convincingly that combining the deft Vallone approach with daring Dei Maggi strokes was going to lead us in some deliciously unexpected directions.

After a brief break, it was time for the entree.  I love chicken-fried steaks, and I honestly never expected to see one served at a Vallone place.  But here it is:

Unsurprisingly, this is not a typical chicken-fried steak.  Tender sirloin was hand-breaded, and topped with truffle cream gravy - the mild, soulful truffles were a nice bonus.  The accompaniment for this dish was the side of whipped potatoes, highlighted with reggiano cheese.  We've never before encountered a chicken-fried steak that spoke to us with an Italian accent, but we're glad we tried this one.  The quality of the meat alone made a huge difference, and adding the Italian accent elevated this dish to new heights.

Around this time Jeff Vallone wandered over, and said we had to try something.  In this case, "something" proved to be their orecchiette pasta, a simple but unique dish composed of pasta, rapini, grape tomatoes, and breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumbs?  The breadcrumbs were crunchy, and added a delightfully new texture to the slightly tart pasta dish, and the rapini added an assertive bitterness that was deftly offset by the acid from the tomatoes.  Again, the rule of thumb:  If Tony or Jeff suggests something, do not pass it up.

At this point, I was so full as to nearly be in pain, but I've learned that I cannot bring my bride or our daughter to a Vallone restaurant without ordering dessert.  Thankfully, they were doing the selecting at this point, so in my food-induced haze I sat back and watched what came out:  First were petite, housemade ice cream sandwiches.

Both the cookies and the ice cream were housemade; we were particularly taken with the strawberry, which was lusciously creamy and studded with pea-sized chunks of fresh strawberry.

The end of the meal was a staple of any Vallone dessert menu - Elizabeth's cheesecake.  Finally we'd get something that was familiar.  Or so I thought.

This was a remarkable juxtaposition of the familiar with the new - the silky, lutescent filling and the delightfully crispy crust were present and accounted for, but the serving was a bold rectangle, the topping was thick, rich caramel sprinkled with nuts, lightly caramelized bananas were sliced on the side, and a smear of delicate, ambrisial butterscotch sauce punctuated the service.  Apparently even family icons are not safe from the twists that come forth from Chef Dei Maggi's mind.

This remarkable meal speaks volumes about how well things can turn out when you assemble a team with culinary talent and let them do what they do best.  And we were again amazed (although by now we should expect it) that a restaurateur who's been successful for over four decades can create a new, cutting edge restaurant, and delight an audience that probably wasn't born when he opened his first location.

I've been accused more than once of being a fan of Tony Vallone's, and I cannot dispute this.  Tony is the textbook definition of a master restaurateur:  His restaurants are considered to be among the very best anywhere, and he's been keeping them there for over four decades.

Caffe Bello shows that the master hasn't lost his touch, and that he's assembled a team that can translate the legendary Vallone experience into one that will be embraced by a cutting-edge audience.  I think that sums up Tony's philosophy:

The food will always be changing, but excellence never goes out of style.

Caffe Bello - 322 Westheimer - 713-520-5599 - CaffeBello.com

Caffe Bello on Urbanspoon

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