Food for Thought

Houston gets two new Restaurant Rows: Where are you going?

Houston gets two new Restaurant Rows: Where are you going?

News_Restaurant Row
Westheimer Road, around Montrose Boulevard, may soon be the new Restaurant Row in town.
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Ava's spicy coppa salad with aromatic Taleggio cheese, dried mission figs and fennel Photo by Marene Gustin
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Ava, with urban décor designed by SDG partner Candice Schiller who describes it as “modern take on a traditional European space” Photo by Marene Gustin
News_Taste of Texans_Robert Del Grande
Celebrity chef Robert Del Grande has created an eclectic menu at Ava. Photo by Michelle Watson/LastNightPics.com
News_Restaurant Row
News_Marene_Ava_salad
News_Marene_Ava
News_Taste of Texans_Robert Del Grande

There are a few truths in life: You can never be too thin, too rich or have too many pairs of shoes. Or in my case, too many pairs of fancy cowboy boots.

But can you have too many new restaurants? Particularly if they are all opening within spitting distance of each other?

The National Restaurant Association’s just released 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast is projecting Texas sales of $36.6 billion this year. That’s a healthy 3.9 percent increase over 2010. And it places Texas second only to California in restaurant sales volume.

“We definitely think that will apply to Houston,” says Mike Shine, president of Texas Food Group — a restaurant consulting company — and current president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

“We’ve seen some bounce back over the holidays,” he adds.

Shine says the greater Houston area has more than 9,000 restaurants, and as some have gone under, an equal amount open.

“It just looks like more are closing,” Shine says. “You don’t see a dot.com close but you see a restaurant with a closed sign on it.”

So things are looking up for the industry here. But, in what is looking to be a good year, we have what seems like an awful lot of high-profile restaurants slated to open in 2011, and a heck of a lot of them are in the same neighborhood.

Westheimer Road, around Montrose Boulevard, may soon be the new Restaurant Row in town with the hotly anticipated openings of Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly in the old Chances spot (next door to the soon-to-open Anvil sister Hay Merchant beer bar), the Bill Floyd/Bryan Caswell/Robb Walsh vintage El Real Tex-Mex in the old Tower Theatre across the street, then just catty-corner, is Austin über hip Tyson Cole’s anticipated reimagining of the long-shuttered Felix spot into something like his hot capitol eateries Uchi and Uchiko.

Ah, but as they say in the late-night cable commercials, there’s more.

Just a stone’s throw away from that intersection, at the West Ave multi-use complex on Westheimer Road and Kirby Drive, we’ve already got a new Eddie V’s Prime Seafood and Schiller-Del Grande’s Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar. And SDG is about to open Alto Pizzeria upstairs from Ava’s. Apparently Ava and Alto have some kind of weird Italian/French love affair going on. Although I’m pretty sure they’re not real people.

Oh, and Pondicheri, from Indika’s chef/owner Anita Jaisinghani, is also going in at West Ave soon.

If you’re keeping score, that’s seven new hot spots for dining, er, eight if you count the temporary Tony Mandola’s Miracle Kitchen in the old Fin’s spot on Westheimer.

Which leads me to wonder, is there such a thing as critical mass when it comes to cuisine?

“Well, there certainly can be,” laughs GHRA’s Shine. “But that area is very active for dining, with a high income base. They’re taking a risk, but they are making decisions based on what their customers wanted.”

So maybe my little slice of the ‘hood will be this year’s new Washington Ave. Restaurant Row.

And if Ava is any indication, they all may fare well.

Ava opened Feb. 7. It’s an elongated 6,500-square-foot space with a cool, urban décor designed by SDG partner Candice Schiller, who describes it as “modern take on a traditional European space.”

I like the ocean-hued palette and the wall of windows facing Kirby Drive, but I like the food even better. Celebrity chef Robert Del Grande has created an eclectic menu that runs along Italian lines with a few Spanish and French touches and a dash of Texas thrown in for good measure. Makes you wonder how he keeps coming up with all these divine dishes.

“I go to sleep at night, wake up screaming and then write it down,” Del Grande says with his typical dry poetic wit.

Seriously, he adds that however creative a recipe idea is it still comes down to how it tastes.

“It’s like when an eclectic composer tells you the music is actually much better than it sounds,” says the chef/musician. “It’s not. It sounds and it tastes like what it is, no matter how much genius goes into the creation.”

What tastes good at Ava is the spicy coppa salad with aromatic Taleggio cheese, dried mission figs and fennel. And the delicate white anchovies paired with hot chorizo and green olives. (Side Note: What the heck do they do to canned anchovies that make them taste nothing like these? Seriously?)

And the rigatoni with Bolognese sauce ripe with spicy beef is a welcome pasta dish on a cold day. There’s also lamb T-bones, seared ahi tuna, a burger (of course) and a wonderfully priced petite filet mignon ($17) on the lunch menu.

Of course there’s plenty of whiskey, but you shouldn’t pass on the citrusy house margaritas.

I like Ava. And I like the fact that there are now five fine restaurants within walking distance of where I live. And that doesn’t even include all the gourmet food trucks hanging around here lately.

Houston Ballet managing director Cecil C. Conner, Jr. recently lamented to me that the only thing he missed after moving here from New York City was being able to stroll down the street and check the menus in restaurant windows before deciding where to dine.

With this plethora of new places, a lot of Inner Loopers will now be able to do exactly that.

So take that, Big Apple. When it comes to cuisine, we are no longer a car centric culture.