Sawdust Road just south of the Woodlands is home to dozens of small restaurants. Most are forgettable, but there are a few gems, like Hello Taco, Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, and The Olive Oil.
New on the strip is The Omega Grill, an upscale casual American concept from the people behind The Olive Oil. Taking over the physical space that was a succession of two-letter grills (JP's, PJ's, etc.) the former faux 50’s diner space has been transformed.
The new space is comfortable, contemporary, and inviting.
In the kitchen, Hubbell & Hudson Bistro alum Jason Bielefeldt is creating his take on American comfort food favorites, including pork chops, chicken-fried steaks, hot dogs, and a burger made with 44 Farms beef
Our quick lunch at The Omega Grill was fresh and tasty. The new kitchen is finding its groove, and new menu items are being rolled out on a regular basis
We're excited to return and sample more of Chef Jason's menu.
Omega Grill | 399 Sawdust Road | The Woodlands 77380 | 832-299-6665
Local Pour, the popular River Oaks-area gastro bar, has opened a second location, and it's in the heart of the Woodlands, in the new Hughes Landing waterfront development.
Local Pour is a great fit for the Woodlands; it's an upscale but casual setting, with dozens of beers on tap, a full bar, and an interesting menu, created with the help of notable Houston chef Randy Evans. Did we mention it has a full bar?
On our initial visit, we fought for a parking space in the nearly complete Hughes Landing area. We grabbed a Chef's Table, strategically located right in front of the kitchen. It's a bustling spot with lots of energy; if you're looking for a quiet, intimate evening, sit elsewhere. But it was a perfect vantage point for us to observe the goings-on at this new hotspot.
We were able to sneak peeks at each order leaving the kitchen, and a few items grabbed our attention. Our server Olivia filled us in on what we saw zipping by, and we placed our order. The kitchen was slammed (typical new restaurant jitters) so the order took a bit longer than we'd like, but Olivia did an outstanding job of keeping us informed and well hydrated while we waited. She's a gem.
First up were the tempura shrimp shooters. Four large shrimp, aerobicized into a sleek, linear shape, are battered and fried with a light, puffy tempura breading. They're poked into shot glasses, two with a biting wasabi ponzu sauce, and two with a sweet spicy chili sauce. Flavors were bold; the wasabi ponzu will absolve you of any allergy-related congestion, and probably of a few lesser sins as well. The sweet spicy chili sauce was less startling but very flavorful; the result was a very good appetizer.
After devouring the shrimp, we moved on to the Korean BBQ lollipops. Three medium-sized pork ribs, each with a nice chunk of meat attached, are roasted and glazed in a sweet Korean BBQ sauce. We think Korean BBQ is going to be a big thing in the Woodlands, and Local Pour are riding the front of this trend. Another tasty dish.
Finally it was time for the entree. We selected the LP Burger, a half pound, hand-formed patty with a custom grind of short rib and chuck. It's topped with just enough bleu cheese and caramelized onions, and served on a soft sourdough bun. This is a very good burger; the grind makes for a flavorful patty, and it comes out very juicy. The toppings accent without overwhelming, as is easy to do with bleu cheese. In short, this is a crave worthy burger, and one of the better ones in the Woodlands.
We're fans of Local Pour. They've combined a talented kitchen with a well-stocked bar, and packaged it in an upscale setting. We think it's going to be a big hit in the Woodlands, and look forward to returning again soon.
Local Pour | 1900 Hughes Landing Blvd, The Woodlands, 77380 | 281-419-7687 | localpourhouston.com
We recently got word of a very interesting project taking place nearby in Spring. On the Rox Sports Bar, an established neighborhood bar, was turning over its kitchen to a talented local chef, Jeff Wetzel. Jeff has a broad background in the kitchen, ranging from casual to fine dining to the country club scene. We've eaten his food before, and Jeff is a very capable cook, but we wondered how his cuisine would translate into a bar setting.
Bars are interesting places for food. Great bars often have mediocre food, and bars that specialize in great food are often not very good bars. Also, bar patrons typically don't want the kind of dishes that talented chefs like to create; they're often too fussy and require too much attention to eat. Bar food needs to be easy to eat, satisfying, and based on something familiar.
How would this talented chef tackle this challenge? We went in to find out. Jeff invited us to sample the food from his upcoming menu; he plans to roll out these dishes on April 6.
First up was a starter, and it got my attention immediately. Naughty Bacon Bleu Cheese Chips consist of fresh, hand-cut potato chips, chunks of applewood-smoked bacon, and chives. It's all covered with a creamy bleu cheese sauce, and chunks of fresh bleu cheese. While similar in concept to the signature appetizer at Jasper's the addition of bacon and chives takes this dish to the next level. We were off to an auspicious start.
Next up was the bar staple - buffalo wings. We've sampled dozens of versions of buffalo wings, and few measure up to the original. For us, the flavor of Frank's hot sauce is a Platonic ideal for buffalo wings, and the farther away you get, the more the dish suffers. Jeff puts his twist on the iconic bar dish by smoking the naked wings, combining a handful of chives, and then dressing them with... Frank's hot sauce. That's a tough decision that goes against the instincts of a man who can create great sauces, but it's the right one. We approve.
After these appetizers, it was time to get to the main course(s). Jeff presented his take on the BLT - he calls it the Bloody Mary BLT. It's built on a foundation of in-house baked rosemary bread, dense and slightly crusty. On this tasty base he layers applewood-smoked thick-cut bacon, celery root slaw, and slices of beefsteak tomatoes marinated in Absolute Peppar vodka. The BLT is finished with chive creme fraiche, and a tangy balsamic syrup. This became quickly one of our favorite BLTs; the layers of flavors formed a complexity that typically isn't seen in this lunch staple. The herbal rosemary combines with the smoky, savory bacon, and the blast of acid from the balsamic, reigned in with a touch of sweetness, was masterful.
The sandwich was served with fresh-cut fries, expertly fried. Good fresh-cut fries are tough to make, and apparently Jeff sold his soul at some point, because he has been entrusted with the secret.
Continuing the sandwich theme, we dug into the Puerco Sucio. The formula is simple: Take seared confit pork belly, dress with chipotle aioli. Combine with slices of baked apples and a bit of celery root slaw, and serve on housemade ciabatta. The resulting sandwich is much leaner than the pork belly you find around town, and we found the better meat-to-fat ratio to be a good one. The smoky pork played off the sweet apples and the creamy slaw, and the result was a very good sandwich.
Our final sandwich was a new twist on the humble chicken sandwich. Called Pollo Loco, an adobo-marinated chicken breast is chargrilled, then dressed with havarti and mango radish salsa and presented on ciabatta. Chicken sandwiches can be boring, but this one was not. The mango radish salsa was an inspired choice; again, a complex, layered flavor profile makes for an interesting dish.
Jeff could sense that we were nearing capacity for the tasting -- it was tough not to finish each of the dishes he put in front of us. So he brought out one last item to try, a simple flatbread. On top of the housemade flatbread were slices of pear, melted brie, and a generous helping of arugula, all drizzled with high quality white truffle oil. This was a refreshingly light dish, refreshing yet hearty enough not to leave us craving something else.
We went into Chef Wetzel's tasting with a good degree of skepticism, but this talented chef dispelled it handily. He showed his chops, and delivered elevated version of classic bar food that would be right at home on the lunch menu of a fine restaurant. We look forward to sampling more of his creations in the very near future.
On the Rox Bar | 8905 Louetta Rd., Spring TX 77379 | 281-320-2911
From our opening day visits (as seen in this review) we've been big fans of The Republic Grille. From the award-winning Chicken Fried Steak to the signature Chicken Woodlands to the huge burgers, we've enjoyed all of the well prepared American comfort food that comes out of the kitchen.
But on a recent visit, we realized it was time to try something a bit healthier. Consulting with the experts in the Woodlands Area Foodies Facebook group, the consensus was that the TRG Salad was a must try.
Juicy, flavorful grilled chicken grabbed our attention first, and the mild goat cheese balanced the beautifully seasoned protein. The combination of fruits, nuts and vegetables sealed the deal - mixed greens, strawberries, dried cranberries, grapes, and slightly sweet spiced pecans. We selected their strawberry vinaigrette dressing at the suggestion of our server; it complemented the salad very well.
This is a salad that doesn't make you feel like you're missing out on anything. Highly recommended.
News Flash: The Woodlands has no shortage of high-end steakhouses. It's hard to get excited about yet another one.
Maybe this one will be different.
We'd been hearing lots of buzz about Robard's, the new freestanding steak house that was built as part of the multimillion-dollar expansion of The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center. But we had our concerns - hotels are rarely known for interesting cuisine, typically taking the safer route over the more adventurous.
So on a recent evening, we stopped by Robard's to sample their cuisine. On this visit we purposefully avoided the signature steaks, instead focusing on the intriguing appetizer options.
We ordered a selection of appetizers. Chris Perry, GM of Robard's (and our host) supplemented our choices with the appetizers he thought we should investigate. Here are our impressions.
First up was the beef tartare. Beautifully presented on a large slab of wood, a half-pound of chopped prime filet is garnished with house-pickled vegetables and crostini drizzled with sriracha. The beef was wonderfully lush and rich, with just enough zing from the capers and onions to keep things interesting. This is easily one of the best beef tartare we've tried, measuring up well to our benchmark at Tony's.
Next up was the seafood cocktail flight. Large shrimp, lobster chunks, and lump crab meat are served in a quartet of different preparations, from a fresh take on the traditional cocktail sauce to a guacamolito to two zesty and creamy preparations. This is a great way to sample the kitchen's expertise with seafood - everyone in our party had a favorite, and none of us agreed on which one it was.
Crab cakes are de rigueur at any self-respecting steakhouse, and Robard's did not disappoint. Jumbo lump crab meat is mixed with only enough binder to provide form and stability, then lightly breaded and fried. The crab flavor comes through confidently, and we applaud the result of more crab and less cake.
Now things get really interesting. Candied bacon on french toast with maple syrup. This sounds like an incredible breakfast indulgence, but the inclusion of bits of pungent bleu cheese balanced the sweet/smoky bacon, the gently crisp toast, and the decadent maple syrup. We'd have never considered adding bleu cheese, but it was a masterful stroke.
Finally, the seafood tower. A cornucopia consisting of two cold boiled lobsters, huge boiled shrimp, cold jumbo lump crab meat, lobster claws, and oysters on the half shell, this beautifully presented, towering bounty of the sea is sure to impress any serious seafood lover. We were very pleased with the preparation of each individual component; clearly the kitchen at Robard's knows how to handle fresh shellfish.
We walked away from this tasting anxious to come back and sample the other offerings. If a steakhouse takes this care with the preparation and presentation of its appetizers, we can only imagine how much attention the dry-aged prime steaks must receive.
We'll be back.
Disclaimer: We dined as the guests of Food and Beverage Director Michael Hammes and General Manager Chris Perry. Their generous hospitality didn't lessen the impressiveness of the food that was served.
Robard's | 125 Autumnwood Way | The Woodlands | 281-364-6400 | robardssteakhouse.com
The Woodlands has a reputation for chain restaurants. And while that reputation isn't totally deserved, it does have some merit. For every great independent out here, like Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, Republic Grill, Pallotta's, or Fielding's, there are five restaurants owned and managed from afar.
So we were particularly excited to attend the recent Chingu Preview Popup, hosted by Chef Jay Stone. Jay is an incredibly talented chef, and we've been fans of his cooking ever since he convinced us that peanut butter and jalapeño jam make sense on a burger, at the late, lamented Wicked Whisk food truck.
The event is a preview for the Chingu restaurant concept that Stone has been developing to bring to the Woodlands area. It's being funded via Kickstarter, and I encourage all foodies to support this talented chef. And the pledges represent very good values; anything from $20 worth of food and a t-shirt for $20 to an entire catered meal for a large group.
For this event, Jay prepared several of his Korean-influenced American comfort food dishes that will appear at Chingu. First up was one that has become legendary around here: Korean fried chicken.
Served with sides of Korean vegetables (including a superb kimchi and excellent spicy housemade pickles) this chicken was perfectly prepared; moist, tender and encrusted with a mildly spicy, beautifully crispy breading. Everyone raved about the chicken; it was a real crowd pleaser.
Next up was another dish that we were anticipating with great interest; Jay's spicy short ribs.
Nicely balanced between beefy, tangy, slightly sweet, and moderately spicy, this was perhaps my favorite dish of the night.
Next up is the old Korean favorite, poutine. OK, poutine is Canadian, not Korean, but Jay puts a distinctively Eastern spin on this north-of-the-border cult favorite.
Poutine is rarely spicy, but this version is, and it adds a new dimension to the dish. Normally we don't think of poutine as an entree, but this one was hearty and filling.
Being a pop-up event at a venue without a liquor license, several enterprising foodies improvised. Growlers of craft beer were brought over from the new local favorite Hop Scholar, and the beer nerds present seemed very pleased with the pairing.
Other foodies brought bottles of wine, and very stylish disposable aperitif glasses. We are in the Woodlands, after all.
Want to check out this unique and delicious Korean-influenced comfort food? Right now, you can't. But if you support Jay Stone's Kickstarter project, you'll help him open up Chingu as a venue where this food can be devoured on a daily basis.
C'mon, foodies. You say you want more non-chain, chef-driven restaurants. It's time to put up, or shut up.
We were excited to hear about new restaurant projects from Johnny Carrabba, a scion of the famed Mandola restaurant family, and founder of one of Houston's great Italian spots, Carrabba's.
So on a recent weeknight, we met friends before a concert for a meal at Mia's Table, the new fast casual comfort food concept from Carrabba. Mia's is named after his daughter, a charming tradition that continues with his other new spot, Grace's, named after his grandmother.
Mia's is a casual, inviting space, reminiscent of an older (but meticulously maintained) Hill Country home. Patrons order at the counter, and are presented with an eclectic menu of Texas comfort food: Sandwiches, tacos, burgers, and an assortment of fried entrees, from chicken to chicken-fried steak to fried shrimp and snapper. We ordered at the counter from a helpful and friendly teenaged staff member, and were off to find our seats.
The sprawling dining room was filled with families and small groups enjoying an early dinner; the organizer of our gathering had reserved a semi-private space in the rear, away from the hustle and bustle. The room had a distinct energy; patrons were enjoying their meals, laughing, and seemed to be in a boisterous mood. Mia's is not the spot for a quiet, intimate dinner, but it's a great place to hang out with friends and family.
Our food arrived shortly.
No one will be surprised that we had to sample Mia's cheeseburger, an interesting architectural diversion from this classic American staple. The de rigeur beef patty, slightly melted cheese, and fresh veggies were placed on a distinctly oval bun - the two patties were essentially side-by-side, instead of stacked. This is an unusual arrangement, and resulted in a lot more bun than we prefer; we were essentially eating two smallish burgers instead of one big one. The patty was cooked medium well and was slightly dry; the veggies were fresh, and the bun had a nice texture but very little flavor.
All in all, a solid burger, but not one we'd go out of our way to order again.
Next up was the Chicken Fried Chicken, a generous chicken breast breaded in the style of a chicken fried steak (the more traditional Southern Fried Chicken is also available) and topped with cream gravy seasoned with bits of jalapeño.
This dish was a winner - moist, juicy, well-breaded chicken, with a nice peppery kick, accented by just enough cream gravy and a mild jalapeño burn. Balance was the word that came to mind with the chicken; good balance between the meat and the crust, good balance between the fresh chicken flavor, the creamy gravy, and the spicy counterpoints.
Sides were a mixed bag. Mashed potatoes were very good; creamy, smooth, with just enough pepper to be interesting. Green beans were uninspired, limp, and lacking in flavor.
All in all, Mia's is a nice addition to the Kirby restaurant scene. It's a great spot for families and groups looking for a quick bit of Texas-style comfort food in an upscale but casual setting.
We'll be back.
Mia's Kitchen | 3131 Argonne Street | Houston, Texas 77098 | 713-522-6427 | miastable.com
Starting a restaurant is a risky venture. Even proven concepts from established operators carry a great deal of risk. 60% of all restaurants fail in the first five years. So getting investors can be tricky, and restaurateurs often give up a great deal of control to the money guys in order to gain financing.
So what is a talented young chef with a vision to do? If it's 2014, and the chef is Jay Stone (of Wicked Whisk, Vallone's, and Jasper's fame) you take your idea to Kickstarter, the on-line marketplace that funds hot new ideas.
Kickstarter is a successful online phenomenon that's funded everything from the Pebble smart watch to the new Veronica Mars move. If you've got a great idea and you can present it well, Kickstarter is a good way to raise capital.
Chef Stone brings serious talent to the table. His cuisine has always drawn both popular and critical acclaim. Ever since we first sampled his cooking at the Wicked Whisk food truck, we were unabashed fans.
Houston mayor Annise Parker called Jay's Wicked Whisk her favorite food truck, and it's one that we miss very much. At a recent wine dinner at Jasper's, Chef Stone's dishes were the hits of the evening, and the popup events he's hosted with Will Buckman at Corkscrew BBQ all sell out within hours of being announced.
Chef Stone has the skills. We believe that the concept of New American comfort food with a Korean twist is one that will resonate well with Texans. So what is Chingu? In his words:
"Chingu has been my brainchild for quite some time and has evolved as I grew as a professional cook. After hosting pop-up dinners, food truck stops and collaborating with other local industry folk it came to me that this is what cooking is all about. Having fun, doing what you love and meeting great people along the way. Chingu means "Friend" in the Korean language and it represents my project perfectly.
"The Korean inspired fare will touch on American and Southern classics and be approachable by a wide audience. Korean Fried Chicken and Biscuits, Braised Beef Cheeks with Gochujang Mashed Potatoes and several varieties of In-House Fermented Kimchi will be menu staples. "Redefining Comfort Food" as I like to say."
Chef Stone has a clever strategy for his physical facility: He plans to start with a food truck, keeping his costs low and his location flexible. He'll then transition to a brick-and-mortar building when the time is right.
We're excited about Chingu, and urge our followers to support this exciting project. You can get onboard for as little as $5, but check out the larger pledges. They include generous rewards, up to a catered lunch or dinner for 15 guests at a bargain price.
The restaurant scene in the Woodlands is growing and thriving. New places open each month, but none have intrigued us as much as the Republic Grille, a new concept debuting in the Panther Creek Village Center in the Woodlands.
The Republic Grill | 281-719-5895 | 4775 W Panther Creek Dr | The Woodlands | TheRepublicGrille.com
We're unabashed fans of the food Chef Austin Simmons creates at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. From his incredibly creative seafood presentations to his world-class burgers, we've not seen a misstep from this talented young chef.
While the media was socializing, the culinary team had converted the beautiful residential kitchen into a line worthy of four-star restaurant. Homebuilders brag about commercial-grade kitchens, but Pasternak Custom Homes truly delivered.
The hungry mob was seated, and Chef Austin presented his first course, escolar served with jalapeño marmalade, and a ponzu bouillabaisse. As CultureMap's Eric Sandler quipped, "Just like mom used to make".
Next the chef introduced a beef course, but not just any beef - A5 grade Japanese Wagyu. It was topped with shaved perigord truffles, and accented with artichoke, anise and peppercorn. The beef was superbly tender and indulgently marbled, and the earthy truffles elevated the savory beefy flavor to even greater heights.
A unique cheese course appeared next. After the bold, strong Wagyu, Chef Austin juxtaposed a light, airy goat cheese puree, accented with hyperlocal Woodlands honey, winter truffle, almond, lavender, and cranberry.
Desert was served shortly thereafter. A deconstructed pallet of yuzu, green tea, miso, shoo, sable, and cilantro. At the chef's instruction we combined these wildly individual flavors into a coherent whole. It was hard work. Hard, delicious work.
Finally the chef presented petite petit-fours. They were not your typical cookies; flavors of pink peppercorn, soy, caramel and dark chocolate were blended and perfused, and the result demonstrates the formidable chops of Katrina Autem, the pastry chef.
Chef Austin's culinary team did a superlative job delivering eight courses of innovative, technique-driven cuisine in a residential kitchen they'd never worked in before. The evening progressed flawlessly, a tribute to the hard work of Executive Sous Chef Lance Criswell, Pastry Chef Katrina Autem, Sommelier Tanya Hinson, and the rest of the Hubbell & Hudson team.
Of course, now that the chef's formidable skills have been put on display in the heart of Houston, we predict that a table at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro will get even tougher to snare. Make your reservations early, folks.
Our thanks to Hubbell & Hudson, Pasternak Custom Homes, and John Daugherty Realtors for making this event possible.