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. 

UPDATE: Chef Stone has left Vallone's to pursue other opportunities.

Vallone's, the hot new steakhouse project from the team behind Tony's, has named Jay Stone as its Chef de Cuisine.  Vallone's is a collaboration helmed by Tony's executive chef Grant Gordon and Tony's GM Scott Sulma. Tony Vallone, Houston's legendary restaurateur, is rumored to be consulting on the project as well.

(Tony Vallone has a storied history of discovering and nurturing great culinary talent, including top Houston chefs Mark Cox [owner and executive chef of Mark's], Marco Wiles [owner and executive chef of Da Marco] and Olivier Ciesielski [owner and executive chef of L'Olivier], who all perfected their craft under Tony's watchful eye.)

Chef Jay Stone

Chef Stone was formerly executive chef at Spectrum Catering, and was the driving force behind the Wicked Whisk food truck, cited by Houston Mayor Annise Parker as her favorite food truck.

(He also collaborated with Corkscrew BBQ's pitmaster Will Buckman on the groundbreaking Wicked Corkscrew pop-up experimental dinner, the first to combine the techniques and recipes of a classically trained chef with the award-winning meats of one of Texas's top BBQ joints.)

We've been big fans of Jay's innovative cooking since we first got to sample it, and are looking forward to seeing what he'll produce in collaboration with the consummate culinary professionals of the Vallone organization.

Having Jay Stone and Grant Gordon collaborate in the kitchen reminds me of the friendship (and rivalry) between the two great 20th century artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The collaboration and creative tension that can result from having this much culinary talent under one roof promises to make Vallone's one of the city's most exciting kitchens.

There's a certain unique appeal to an upscale beachside resort. The sun, the sand, and the tropical breeze combine to form a relaxing backdrop for doing absolutely nothing... but doing it in style. Here in the Woodlands, we've got plenty of sun, occasional breezes, but no sand to speak of.

But what we do have is the only Tommy Bahama outpost in Texas.

Tommy Bahama is a beach resort lifestyle brand, offering casual clothing, swimwear, accessories, and more. Basically everything you'd need for a quick trip to St. Maarten. They also operate a group of restaurants at a dozen or so of their resort locations, including the prime spot on Market Street overlooking the central park.

Inside the building is the clothing boutique, a busy bar, and a meandering restaurant complete with a shaded patio overlooking dancing water fountains. You'll find an energetic crowd of well dressed locals relaxing, sipping mojitos, and enjoying the resort-style setting.

The scene is definitely upscale and very engaging, but we were skeptical about the food. We'd visited shortly after the restaurant opened, and were distinctly underwhelmed by the offerings. But we'd heard rumors of a new chef running the kitchen, so it was time to reevaluate.

A recent balmy summer evening seemed like the perfect time to find out if the kitchen had upped its game to keep up with the hopping bar. So we donned our favorite tropical resort-wear and headed down to Market Street.

We were greeted by an elegant young hostess who apologized for a half-hour wait. After about ten minutes we were shown to our table. We perused the drink menu, wanting to get fully into the tropical resort spirit. Many of the drinks were enticing, with interesting ingredients that invoked memories of the islands. Looking around, it appeared that the de rigueur libation was indeed the mojito, a favorite of ours.

Our energetic waiter confirmed that the mojitos were not only popular but were very good, so we followed his lead. We placed our dinner order, and watched the sunset through the louvered windows.

In short order our appetizer appeared. We'd sampled this appetizer a while back at a Market Street restaurant tour, and our remembrance was very positive. A generous disk of goat cheese was encrusted with chopped macadamia nuts, drizzled with a soy glaze, and served over a rustic mango salsa.

The appetizer was as good as we remembered - the lush, creamy goat cheese was complemented by the sweetness of the fresh mango, and the soy provided a subtly salty counterpoint. The appetizer was devoured in short order, and it took great restraint not to order another one. But our entrees were on the way.

We were intrigued by the parmesan-encrusted (Tommy Bahama is big on encrusting) chicken. It was thematically served in a seaside diorama complete with a mashed potato beach, green bean rushes, and the casually landed encrusted chicken breast, the slightly spicy red pepper cream sauce lapping gently at the shore.

Doing our best impression of a resortwear-garbed Godzilla, we dug into the dish, and were pleased with the restrained, surprisingly complex flavors. The red pepper cream sauce was a well conceived adjutant to the encrusted chicken, adding just a hit of bite to the moist, tender chicken and the barely crispy toasted parmesan.

Tropical resorts are about indulgence, and we found an old-style indulgence on the daily menu. Steak Diane is something we've not seen on a restaurant menu in years. We were drawn to this classic dish, and wanted to see how Tommy Bahama's kitchen styled their interpretation.

We believe that classics become so for a reason, and disagree with critics who deride a restaurant for not jumping on the food trends of the moment. The nicely marbled strip steak was cooked as requested (medium rare, as we prefer) and topped with the traditional black pepper and garlic. Rather than cooking it in butter, a smoothly buttery/cream sauce featured lump crabmeat was spread over half the steak, giving us just enough of the essence of the sea to suit the tropical setting.

In the past, we'd dismissed Tommy Bahama as being strong on scene and weak in the kitchen. If this visit was any indication, we had severely underestimated the establishment's talented chefs. We're looking forward to a return to Tommy Bahama to explore the rest of the menu.

Tommy Bahama | 9595 Six Pines Road | The Woodlands | 281-292-8669

Tommy Bahama's Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

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

We've been keeping up with a new project opening downtown, and were excited to be invited for the Friends and Family preview.  Called Samba Grille, it's a Brazilian restaurant offering rodizio service, and it's located in the center of the Theater District in the Bayou Place center.

Walking in, we were immediately taken by the swank surroundings.  The Texas Avenue location is sleek and sophisticated, yet the warm Latin vibe makes it very inviting.  A well-equipped bar hugs the back wall of the room, and the tables and booths are placed in a multi-level arrangement, adding to the sense of intimacy and romance.  This is without a doubt a romantic restaurant - we expect it to be a very popular date destination.

(The only negative about the intimate, romantic setting is that natural light photos with the iPhone 4 didn't come out well.  Thus there aren't any food photos in this article. The paparazzi should find this frustrating, too.)

Lead by partners Nathan Ketcham and Estella Erdmann, the team behind Samba Grille is a strong one.  Chef Cesar Rodriguez is at the helm in the kitchen, and his experience with the Vallone organization has translated into the kind of smooth consistency that you rarely see in a new establishment.  Sommelier Marc Borel, previously with 13 Celsius, brings his studied approach to a carefully edited wine list, and he's fully up to the challenge of suggesting pairings with the broad rodizio and composed offerings coming out of Chef Rodriguez's kitchen.

Marc Borel, Nathan Ketcham, Estella Erdmann, Cesar Rodriguez
Photo credit: Chuck Cook / @Bitspitter

Let's look at what the kitchen brought forth.  (And remember, Samba hasn't even had its soft opening - the kitchen is just sorting things out at this point.)

First out was a Caesar salad, and it was a very auspicious start.  The romaine lettuce was deftly coated with a tart, briny Caesar dressing, sharp with plenty of bite and anchovy flavor.  Large, thin shavings of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese completed the salad.  It was one of the best Caesar's we've had in Houston.

Next up was the vegetable plate, an artistically composed arrangement of flash-fried yucca, sauteed Peppadew peppers, sweet plantains, and thin green beans.  The careful handling exhibited by these veggies was impressive; the yucca was crispy on the outside yet fluffy and tender within; the Peppadews were sweetly spicy and not overpowering.  The plantains were rich and flavorful, and we dabbed a bit of the house chimmi-churri sauce on top.  The green beans were al dente and had a nice snap.

But the centerpiece of a rodizio is the meat, and Samba rolled out an impressive variety.  The presentation is dramatic - servers circulate with large swords impaling the savory chunks of meat and seafood, slicing off a portion as requested.  The servers displayed an uncanny ability to deliver the precise degree of doneness I requested, and seemed to magically appear just as I'd finished the previous portion.

The bacon-wrapped filet was a walnut-sized nugget of bacon-wrapped beef, deliciously smoky and peppery. The dark, earthy-sweet flavor of the bacon infused the filet, making for a very satisfying start.

Next up was the house-special sirloin.  This was a standout among the very good offerings - a rich, robust, beefy swagger, sliced very thin, yet were still juicy and tender.  We came back for seconds (and thirds) on this one.

Broiled shrimp came out next.  The large shrimp were nicely firm and cooked to just the right point; the delicate buttery herbal baste completed the preparation.

Large, baseball-sized chunks of filet mignon came out next.  Cooked to a beautiful medium rare, the flavor was gentle and delicate, a skillful counterpoint to the bold flavors of many of the other beef servings.

A real surprise were the bacon-wrapped chicken breasts.  A sweetly tangy apple flavor infused the chicken (no doubt the result of some slow, careful brining) and offset the peppery bacon.  Another dish we could have eaten all night.

Another surprise were the pork ribs, atypical for rodizio service.  Gently grilled, the dense, chewy pork provided a textural contrast to the tender, silky beef.

Speaking of silky, our final offering of flank steak was very unusual.  Prepared on the rare side of medium rare, it was almost supernaturally tender and luscious.  This cut of beef was even richer than the filet, and had a smooth mouthfeel that was totally unexpected.  We suspect some very artful grillwork here.

There were other rodizio offerings, but at this point were were simply too full to sample them.  I blame multiple samples of the sirloin; it was something we kept eating more of.

Samba's grand opening is auspiciously scheduled for Brazil's Independence Day, September 7.  Considering how well things were running during this sneak preview,  I have a feeling that it's going to be an event to remember.  We'll see you there.

(For another early look at Samba Grille, check out Phaedra Cook's article on Houston Food Adventures.)

Samba Grille - 530 Texas Avenue - www.SambaGrilleHouston.com

Samba Grille 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.

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