By Alice Levitt
7/28/2016 2:45 PM
Not all restaurant week menus are created equal. Here are the good ones.
THERE IS A RIGHT WAY for a restaurant to participate in a restaurant week and there is a wrong way. Offering the same menu as always with no discount? For amateurs. Those who really know how to do it generally succeed by either offering novel menus or deep discounts. The best do both.
Houston Restaurant Weeks kicks off this year on August 1 and continues through September 5. We scoured all of the nearly 200 individual menus (that’s not counting chains that all serve the same dishes) and selected the ones we think are participating in the promotion the most fulfilling and correct way. Our advice? Eat at those other restaurants whenever you want. The places below are doing something truly special this month.
A reminder: Three-course (or more) dinners ring up at $25, $35 or $45, while all lunches and brunches are $20, for two or more courses. And each meal sold benefits the Houston Food Bank, so eat up!
In the ’Burbs: Agave Rio Restaurant & Patio Oasis
How does prosciutto-wrapped quail with shaved Serrano ham and Green Goddess sauce sound? Or crispy and hearth-roasted oysters in salsa verde with lump crab and Mexican truffles? Those are just a couple of starters at the Katy restaurant that recently welcomed Eric Aldis as executive chef. Dishes such as salmon in Topo Chico lime sauce may lean Latin, but that doesn’t mean that dinner can’t end with a bowl of Shipley Do-Nut bread pudding.
The Indulgence: Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar
Some businesses win Restaurant Weeks with a killer discount. For others, it’s all about offering appealing bites not usually on the menu. You will probably save a little money at Amalfi, but the true score comes with the sheer thrill of dishes such as paccheri pasta with duck confit in black truffle cream sauce and tuna tartare marinated in sea salt, orange zest and olive oil, served with a chutney of Roma skinless tomatoes with fresh basil, pepperoncino and shallots. It’ll set you back $45, a pittance for the assured quality.
Lunch Steal: Americas
We’re not going to lie: They had us at “filet mignon for lunch.” In this case, it’s thefilete con hongos. As the name suggests, it’s served with tempura mushrooms, as well as pisco peppercorn sauce and corn-poblano arroz rajas. Usually, that steak retails for $20.95, so you’re already saving money even before you choose to start with black bean soup, or a Caesar or house salad.
Beguiling Brunch: Añejo
Most Restaurant Weeks brunches are two courses. For $20, Añejo provides three, which seamlessly combine breakfast and lunch flavors just as brunch should. A house salad, quesadilla or barbacoa taco gives way to entrées either savory (cochinita pibil Benedict, chilaquiles verde con huevo) or sweet (blueberry-pecan pancakes with whipped cajeta butter). Then there’s still dessert, including mango panna cotta with chile-lime salt or horchata-flavored tres leches cake.
For the Winos: Backstreet Café and Hugo’s
Want to do no choosing beyond the color of your grape? Two of H Town Restaurant Group’s eateries (owned by Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega) have you covered. Backstreet Café’s white wine menu sticks to light bites like sautéed mussels with aperol, vermouth and peaches; scallops in red curry-carrot reduction; and pineapple turnovers with mango cream. There are also red wine, beer and cocktail menus, as well as one aimed at vegetarians. At Hugo’s, there are reds and whites, but also dishes paired with agave-based cocktails. We’re particularly enticed by the Texas goat cheese cake paired with the Rostizado, comprised of tequila, ginger liqueur, orange, lime and a Tajin ice cube.
IMAGE: COURTESY OF BRENNAN’S
Deepest Discount: Brennan’s of Houston
A little math lesson: At least according to a 2015 menu, the Gulf fish koo-be-yahn costs $37. Brennan’s three-course menu costs a total of $35. This is a good thing, especially when combined with a usually $10 cup of turtle soup and the dinner-and-a-show pleasures of Bananas Foster flamed tableside. If you’ve always been curious to see what all the fuss is about, this is the time to take a bite out of Brennan’s.
Best Binge: Ciao Bello
The standard Restaurant Weeks dinner menu includes an appetizer, entrée and dessert. Ciao Bello, though, goes above and beyond with four courses for $35. A lot of food? Sure, but starting with local sweet corn agnolotti, then progressing to heirloom cauliflower soup, snapper in walnut brown butter with wild mushrooms and finishing with limoncello pie may be worth a little bit of gut busting.
For the Globe Trotter: Dolce Ultra Lounge & Bistro
Eclectic chef Javani King’s latest project is in Cypress, but even inner loopers may not be able to resist the $35 menu of dishes that take inspiration from all over the world. Take, for example, the shrimp in Middle Eastern kataifi pastry, served with pineapple-mango pico, honey-Sriracha glaze and micro cilantro. Short rib meatballs are served over a pandan cornbread cake with goat cheese fondue and peach-soy glaze. Plantain gnocchi is topped with cilantro chimichurri and braised oxtail. This is a bill of fare that will bore absolutely no one.
Power to the Pop-Up: Henke & Pillot
What does a lounge and bar best known for flatbreads and steak nights do to stand out come Restaurant Weeks? How about a monthlong Vietnamese pop-up? Nomadic chefCuc Lam is preparing a $35 menu of her signature Viet-fusion dishes. It starts off light with a choice of salad, soup or shrimp-and-crab “rocket rolls” before getting serious with clay pot chicken thighs, spicy ribeye called “Tiger Cry” or lemongrass-pepper shrimp, each listed with suggestions for either a “lighter” or “bolder” cocktail pairing. Desserts include Vietnamese coffee panna cotta.
Teach a Man to Fish: Main Course Cooking School
It’s a neat novelty that this Northside school is participating in Restaurant Weeks at all. Even more enticing: Each night of the week brings a three-course, $45 lesson in creating dishes from a different cuisine. We’re most excited about Thursday Brazilian churrascaria nights. Besides grilling up beef and shrimp with chimichurri, a hearts of palm salad and the all-important caramelized pineapple, teachers are leading students in the preparation of pão de queijo. Such a skill could save us hundreds of dollars annually in cheese bread expenses.
Downscale Dressed for the Occasion: Midtown BBQ
It’s hard to argue that Midtown BBQ is Houston’s best new source for a traditional platter of smoked meat. But there’s nothing predictable about the offerings on the casual eatery’s plated Restaurant Weeks entrées. Pitmaster Brett Jackson’s laudable beef rib is tarted up in the form of a short rib served with smoked tomato-and-feta mashed potatoes and a smoky beef demi-glace. Smoked chicken is served in rosemary-Gorgonzola sauced pasta, while smoked pork belly ribs are paired with green chile corn pudding.
Smart Tex-Mex: Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen
The Woodway location just suffered a fire, but should be open by Restaurant Weeks, along with the Eldridge spot. This is fortunate because chef-owner Sylvia Casares, known for her cooking classes, has conceived something of a Tex-Mex education for those who order from her $35 menu. Each entrée is a tasting of sorts; there are enchilada flights—choose either North of the Border or South of the Border varieties—as well as a mixed grill or quartet of tacos filled with mesquite-grilled meats.
Most Fun Discount Dinner: White Oak Kitchen
As a new price point this year, $25 Restaurant Weeks dinner menus are few and far between. White Oak Kitchen has one and stacks it with international surprises, from Korean calamari and edamame hummus with za’atar-dusted chips to start, to entrées including pistachio-crusted salmon with ancho chiles or shrimp pad Thai. Desserts are unabashedly fun—s’mores bread pudding with Mexican vanilla ice cream, anyone?
Best Bang for Your Buck: Alamo Drafthouse
Not only does this $25 dinner menu offer three family-friendly courses, with dishes such as Killer Croc Nuggets (actually fried alligator bites), hatch chile mac-n-cheese and a 7-ounce cheeseburger topped with pastrami and sauerkraut, it comes with a free movie ticket for a return visit to either Alamo Drafthouse, in Vintage Park or in Katy on Mason Road. That’s an extra $10 worth of value, which we suggest spending on one of Alamo’s adult milkshakes on your next grownup movie night.