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 |


Robard's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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.

Last night the chef took his formidable talent and a section of his kitchen staff inside the loop for a pop-up dinner. The location was a stunning historic Museum District home, recently renovated by Pasternak Custom Homes, and offered for sale by John Daugherty Realtors.
For the event the meticulously restored interior of the home was converted into an intimate bistro. In attendance were members of the print, broadcast, and on-line media, all anxious to sample what was ahead.
As the culinary team prepared the eight-course tasting menu, craft cocktails were passed, accompanied by a surprising appetizer: A quick-fried morsel of battered and breaded foie gras, cooked to the point of liquidity. This burst of liquid flavor was a playful tease of what was to come.

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 out was another seafood course, this time uni, bacon and lobster, accented with a touch of miso and charred grapefruit. The smoky richness of the proteins were offset by the zing of the citrus, and the result was something we'd gladly devour again.
Continuing the seafood theme, Chef Austin presented his superb charred octopus, enhanced with saffron, blood orange, fennel, imberico and coriander. This stunning dish brings together many distinct flavors into a harmonious whole - it is easily the best octopus dish I've ever experienced.
Chef Austin comes ashore to present foie gras served two ways: A seared slice and as a bruleed pate. The lush fattiness of the foie was balanced by cranberry, honeycrisp apple, hints of citrus, macadamia nuts, and cress. I noticed more than one guest licking the inside of the small dish that held the pate.

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. 

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

With the whirlwind departure of Chef John Tesar from his self-named restaurant in the Woodlands, we were concerned that the kitchen might be losing its mojo.  After all, John Tesar, the bad boy chef depicted in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, had to be the heart and soul of the place. His sudden departure left us wondering what would become of Tesar's, and of a spectacular hamburger, the Magic.

We decided to find out.  We visited for lunch with a foodie friend, and looked for changes.

And we found them.

The first thing we noticed were subtle changes in the bar / informal dining room.  New linens provided a crisp yet relaxed feel.  Gone were the signs with John Tesar's cartoon likeness, something we always thought was slightly cheesy.

The service was as prompt and professional as always.  We've dined here a half-dozen times, and our server remembered us and our preferences.  The entire vibe of the restaurant was significantly more relaxed and upbeat than before.

Our server suggested that we try a new appetizer, and we took her advice.  What appeared was a lovely tuna tartare, expertly presented over a bed of crushed ice.

The dish combined coarsely chopped tuna, a bit of wasabi-tapiko roe and roasted cashews.  It was served over a mango puree dusted with sesame seeds.  The result was outstanding; the tropical sweetness of the mango balanced the Asian tang of the wasabi, and the cashews provided a crunchy, smoky counterpoint to the aquatic flavor of the tender, fresh tuna.  The roe snapped delightfully on the tongue, adding a small surprise that made us smile.

Next was the main course - the Magic burger, a cheeseburger we consider to be among Houston's very best.  Would the departure of John Tesar ruin this work of beefy art?

We were greeted by this beautifully arranged creation, flanked by the assortment of pickles and the addictive cherry tomatoes marinated with aged balsamic vinegar.  These accouterments had lost none of their zing.  But it was time to sample the burger.

We've tried the Magic on several occasion, but it appears that the new talent in the kitchen has taken this already superlative burger to new heights.  There's something slightly different about the beef; the flavor was even more sublime, and the ooze factor was slighly higher, and perfectly balanced with the melty cheese.

Our curiosity was now piqued; who is the talent behind this even-better burger and the wonderful new appetizer?

The answer comes in two parts.  With the departure of Chef Tesar, two of his sous chefs have been promoted to Co-Executive Chefs.  "Co-Executive Chefs"?  At first this seemed odd to us, but after talking with the chefs, it makes perfect sense.

Helming the kitchen are the new Dynamic Duo - Chef Austin Simmons (left) and Chef Jeramie Robison Jeremy Robinson.  They've been working at Tesar's since it opened.  Both have a strong background working with some of the best in the business, having spent time in the kitchens of John Tesar and Wolfgang Puck.  Each has a slightly different specialty; Chef Simmons focuses on the meat dishes, and Chef Robison's passion is with the fish.

This arrangement is eminently suited to Tesar's.  On one hand, it's a modern steak house, with a wonderful selection of steaks and superlative hamburgers.  On the other, it's a contemporary seafood restaurant, featuring fish from the Gulf Coast and those flown in from around the world.  While it is certainly possible to be a creative genius who can execute both meat and fish dishes, the Simmons/Robison approach has great merit.  These two talented chefs can bounce ideas off of each other, and while each can focus on his particular area of focus, both can contribute ideas to the other side of the menu.

Talking with these two chefs was a delight.  Unlike some executive chefs who believe that they're God's gift to cooking (we won't mention any names) these young men are focused on delighting their patrons, and enjoy the fact that they can practice an art that "they are pretty good at".

If our meal was any indication, "pretty good" doesn't come close to describing their talent.

We walked in concerned that Tesar's would go down hill with the departure of John Tesar.  Now we're confident that Austin Simmons and Jeromy Robison will take this restaurant to even greater heights.  There are now two more young chefs to watch in the Houston area.

Keep an eye on these two.

Tesar's on Urbanspoon

Texas may not have been the most likely place for an east coast kid who grew up in the Hamptons to settle but that’s exactly what he’s doing. Chef John Tesar announced today he would open Tesar’s Modern Steak & Sustainable Seafood this August in the Woodlands.

The chef says his roots are submerged deeply in the ocean he grew up near and always will be: "I identify with the sea there so completely and it’s companionship with our modern steak concept though I look forward to opening my first eponymous restaurant in Texas. Texas and Texans have been kind to me. I lived in Dallas for three years and loved it. Came back to New York for less than three months and found I missed it," said Tesar.

Tesar, a 2009 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef: Southwest has seen crowds gather for his fare and his commitment to sustainable food sources when he revamped the menu and restaurant into three distinct dining areas at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.

Nationally lauded restaurant critic, John Mariani wrote Chef Tesar brought "New York edge to Texas swagger," when he named the Mansion Restaurant one of Esquire’s Ten Best New Restaurants of 2008.

Since his early 20's Chef Tesar has created his own restaurants and reinvented others for some of the best chefs, hotels and resorts from New York, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and Dallas. "I’ve been asked many times to brand my name, but timing is everything, and this is the time. Tesar's will be a special place," Tesar commented.

Fresh from his success in Dallas, Tesar looked to investors who believed in modern gastronomy for his next adventure. "Planning this concept has been intense," Tesar says. "Plenty of investors showed interest, but I needed to find the dedicated 'sustainable' backers. We take from flora and fauna without regard to maintenance; even poisoning it with the chemicals we use to make 'earth-foods' grow. But, people care more about what they eat now and my customers are desirous of the locavore and sustainable movement," states Chef Tesar.

Tesar’s Modern Steak & Sustainable Seafood will parlay the chef’s talents with a varied menu loaded with organically grown, "green" selections using side-by-side comparisons of grass and grain-fed beef and earth-easy seafood.

"Modern Steak is not only tastier it’s healthier." opines Tesar. "I’m currently engaging ranchers who practice these newer, cleaner modern ways of raising and aging cattle. My entire menu will be 100 percent sustainable created with a zero-waste food ethics in mind. This will also include our hamburgers served at our outside burger bar."

Tesar’s will have multiple options and price points for diners including a bar lounge menu, raw bar, chef’s room and main dining room with whole fish choices. "Whole fish will be a principal part of our menu. It’s an amazing way to taste the true flavor of the sea and the quality of finfish," informs Tesar.

McCarble and Tesar say they hope this to be the first of many restaurants. "Diners are searching for modern thoughtful cuisine everywhere, and the demand is high," states Tesar.

Bolivar's landmark Stingaree restaurant has reopened after being seriously damaged by Hurricane Ike. For Bolivar residents it's a sign that the area is moving back toward normalcy. For the rest of us it means that some of the best seafood on the Gulf Coast is available again, including the signature Oysters Jubilee.

Read more in The Houston Chronicle.

Many of our friends who live ITL (Inside The Loop, a Houston term for the part of town inside I-610) maintain that there's nothing OTL (Outside the Loop) worth the drive. In our experience, they couldn't be more wrong.

We'd been hearing good buzz about a small cafe that had opened in a strip center at the far northwest corner of the Woodlands, and finally got a chance to check 'em out last night.

Eden Cafe is a small family owned establishment that serves a wide variety of cuisine. They're serious about variety: They have daily specials that are based on a specific cuisine. Tex-Mex Tuesdays, Italian Wednesdays, Comfort Food Thursdays, and Seafood Fridays (the day we visited.)

I ordered one of the specials - blackened tilapia. It was a beautiful tilapia filet expertly prepared, tender, moist, and nicely spicy. The sides were ver good as well: A mild Greek salad with plenty of feta, and a scoop of sweet potato casserole, rich, earthy, and loaded with nuts.

We also sampled their chicken-fried chicken, which was superb. Very moist, hand-breaded with a light, crispy breading, it was accompanied by a grilled squash/zucchini side that was delicious.

Another winner was the Pasta Marsala. A large serving of penne pasta with plenty of grilled chicken, mushrooms, squash, and a rich marsala wine sauce.

Prices are surprisingly modest. There's nothing on the menu over $13.

The restaurant was packed on Friday night, but the service was still friendly and professional. The owner, Ulises Larramendi, was greeting guests (many of whom were obviously regulars) and making sure things were flowing smoothly.

Browsing the menu, we discovered that Eden Cafe also has a full breakfast menu on Friday and Saturday ('till 3pm on Saturday.) They're closed Sunday and Monday.

Eden Cafe is a winner. It's a comfortable, casual cafe that serves very well-executed food. It's a worn phrase, but there's really something for everyone.

For those coming from ITL, it's a bit of a hike, but we think it's worth it. There are hundreds of small, family run cafes in Houston, but we've yet to find one that offers such a wide variety of food that is so expertly prepared.

We'll be back.

Eden Cafe: 33418 Egypt Lane, Suite 16, Magnolia, 77354, 832-934-2800,

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