Houston Press Arts Guide: Dining 2015

“Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.” — Sean Connery, From Russia with Love

We’re fairly sure that a faux pas like the one in this scene from the 1963 James Bond film, after the villain Donald “Red” Grant orders red wine with white fish, won’t happen in Houston. To the rest of the world, Texas might look like cowboy boots and Southern drawls, but we’re a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city with world-class art, entertainment and restaurants. While some venues have specific programs for art-lovers and theater-goers, all of them expressed a willingness to accommodate diners if the server is notified in advance.

History buffs will delight in the knowledge that furniture salvaged from the old Warwick Hotel, a historic Houston institution, found its way to 13 Celsius Wine Bar. Named for the optimal temperature for storing wine, the building retains some of the original character of its 1920s roots, though enhanced with a new 40-foot bar of antiqued white Carrera marble. The small cheese and meat plates, the open-air courtyard (the serendipitous result from a fallen roof ), and Third Ward location (Caroline and Anita) make this a perfect pairing for downtown entertainment.

Art and food go hand in hand at Bistro Menil, an independently owned restaurant on the campus of the Menil Collection that gives off a California wine country vibe. They offer ample complimentary parking, serve continuously from 10 a.m. until 10 p. m., and have an extensive dessert menu. “We are a twelve-minute drive (3.4 miles) via surface streets to the Theater District,” said owner Greg Martin. “Our service is bistro style; we are accustomed to expediting customers when requested.” Be sure to try the eggplant “fries,” crisp duck confit, charcuterie plate, duck rillettes or the “Costa Brava” snapper.

It’s an artsy sort of crowd over at Boheme Café & Wine Bar, which serves bistro-style American and European upscale-casual fare, made all the better with their homemade sangria. Every Thursday, through their affiliation with Fresh Arts’s Cultured Cocktails program, a portion of the proceeds from their happy hour benefits a different nonprofit arts organization. We’re fans of their moody lighting, wraparound patio, hearty pizzas (The Drunken Monkey) and their cocktails inspired by the flavors of the world.

Brennan’s of Houston has been a favorite since 1967, when it opened as a sister restaurant to the world-famous Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. After a devastating fire in 2008, the restaurant was forced to rebuild, but it’s back and better than ever. Don’t miss their tangy and meaty snapping turtle soup, finished with a drizzle of sherry, and their succulent and moist honey roasted duck served on a bed of crawfish fried rice. Brennan’s of Houston offers an evening theater shuttle service called the B-Line that drops off at Wortham Theater Center, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and Jones Hall, but don’t leave until you’ve had the bananas foster, flamed table side with Puerto Rican rum.

Cuchara Mexico City Bistro, with its playful animal icons and murals by artist Cecilia Beaven, has a modern, open aesthetic. Ana Beaven, co-owner along with Charlie McDaniel, says that they sometimes offer a free appetizer or dessert, or a discounted drink, depending on the event. “For example, Mariachi opera goers got a Margarita for $5,” said Beaven. “We expedite all food orders when people go to an art event so they can make it on time and we take phone orders after the event so people can arrive and start eating. It works great because people are usually starving after the performance.” We’re huge fans of their charalitos (deepfried small lake fish), and their tequila concoctions are inspired: the Paloma, Charlie’s devil, Teibolera and The Division Bell.

For formal occasions — think jacket-preferred attire — Da Marco’s Cucina E Vino delivers with its house-made pastas cooked to a pleasant al dente; the restaurant is a mainstay for artisanal Tuscan cuisine. When it’s truffle season, however, Da Marco’s pasta becomes absolutely sublime. Marco Wiles has been known for his extremes in locating just the right truffles, which is good news for us; nothing compares to the simple elegance of sweet, musky truffles, buttery pasta and just a shred of fresh Parmesan.

Wiles’s more casual wine bar and pizzeria, Dolce Vita, has been a staple for the hip Montrose crowd for a while now. With its wood burning oven and authentic Neapolitan pizzas, we did a happy dance when they expanded their hours to include lunch. In one of our reviews of “top ten pizzas,” we ranked Dolce Vita’s acidic but sweet pear and taleggio pizza, drizzled with truffle oil, the “perfect” pizza.

The third restaurant in the Wiles Restaurant Group, Poscol Restaurant and Vinoteca, is evocative of the typical wine bars that can be found on the streets of Venice. Named after Chef Marco’s hometown in Italy, this Italian food-lover’s wine bar serves tapassize portions and fine Italian cheeses; great care is given to the pairing of the menu offerings with fine wines. The best news of all? All three restaurants — Da Marco’s, Dolce Vita and Poscol are conveniently located along the Westheimer corridor, between Dunlavy and Whitney, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Theater District.

Damian’s Cucina Italiana lives up to its tag line, “So Italian you almost need a passport.” Taste the authenticity in the cold antipasto misto plate, spaghetti Bolognese, osso buco (only served on Fridays and Saturdays) and the generous veal chop. They have three complimentary shuttle buses that carry guests to the four top venues. “Through a special promotion with Theatre Under The Stars, you can enjoy a three-course dinner at Damian’s, after which our complimentary shuttle will take you to Hobby Center,” said Johnny B. Mandola, general manager. “Enjoy the show from orchestra seats. Afterwards, our shuttle will bring you right back to Damian’s. Purchases are through the TUTS website.” 

We’re addicted to the snack plates of rustic Italian food at Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino — hot and cold antipasti that’s easy to mix, match and share. Since some of their dishes take longer to prepare, they suggest letting your server know you’re headed to the theater — they can make recommendations for some of their light, fresh pasta dishes that can be ready in five minutes. In addition to their fresh egg pasta made in house, proprietor Lynette Hawkins also serves imported semolina pasta. Her mission to give vegetables a starring role, instead of a supporting role, ensures variety and flavor. Consider ordering a special seasonal dessert; proceeds from the sale help to support Rescued Pets Movement.

From crafted cocktails to sophisticated dining, Sunday brunches to midnight snacks, Houstonians can count on quality food that takes the “culinary arts” to the next level. Bon appétit.