Make no mistake: I'm a die hard Houstonian and love everything about this town. For good reasons, three Houston neighborhoods made it to CNN Money's Best Places to Live, Forbes named Houston one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and so on and so on. That said, once in a while I still get the itch to get out of town without getting on a plane.
Fortunately, there are a number of great destination restaurants within driving distance of Houston that can make you feel like you're in a whole other world.
Thanh Phuong, Pearland (30 minutes from Houston. Entrees range from $8 to $16)
Thanh Phuong’s menu has been stagnant in the 15 years it has been opened until 2011 when the Nguyen family took over. Owner Vu Nguyen shrugged off his friends’ advice to not put game meat on the menu. He ignored them when they laughed at his recipes for venison, rabbit, quail, boar, eel, mutton and alligator — and rightly so.
Thanh Phuong is now one of the most unique restaurants around and deserves all the attention it has gotten. The prices are slightly above your usual dine-and-dash Vietnamese place, but a steal for the type of food and service you receive.
He ignored them when they laughed at his recipes for venison, rabbit, quail, boar, eel, mutton and alligator, and rightly so.
Start with Nem Nướng Cuốn, spring rolls stuffed with grilled juicy pork paste (the texture is similar to a smoother version of sausage patties) instead of the usual shrimp or tofu. Other standouts include flash fried quail smothered in coconut sauce, shaking alligator tossed in garlic butter and grilled rabbit with fermented bean curd sauce (Vietnamese version of stinky blue cheese). Even if you decide to go the traditional route, standards like pho and fried rice will still wow your palette.
The Inn at Dos Brisas, Washington (One hour and 15 minutes from Houston. Dinner is usually a six course meal for $85 per person.)
The first two times I attempted to go to The Inn at Dos Brisas, I was politely but firmly denied not by a person, but through intercom. Located on a beautiful stretch of land (313 acres of it, to be exact), Dos Brisas’ restaurant seats just over 25 people (thus the necessity to make reservations at last 24 hours ahead of time). Lesson learned, I called ahead a couple of weeks later and snagged myself and my date a table.
The westbound hour-and-15-minute drive is beautiful. Leaving the Houston skyline behind, you feel like you're in a Monet painting as you drive past hay bales and cows.
When we arrived, the intercom confirmed our reservations and the gates swung open. Executive chef Zachary Ludwig, with past experiences at Bouley and Gilt, steers the helm at the only restaurant in Texas with a five star rating from the Forbes Travel Guide. Farm to table, or rather, garden to spoon, is practiced here as Ludwig gathers his produce from the greenhouse behind the restaurant. Like California celebrity chef David Kinch, Ludwig believes one should never leave a restaurant feeling like their arteries have been clogged.
Each dish is low in fat content and follows a clean-cooking approach. Although the menu changes daily, one thing that stays consistent is the careful flavor balance Ludwig maintains as he practices southern French cooking method using American ingredients. If you can spare the time and money, reserve one of the Inn's nine haciendas, complete with your own private hot tub, outdoor shower and sun room.
La Balance, Katy (30 minutes from Houston. Entrees range from $17 to $29)
La Balance’s executive chef Jason Brandon had some large shoes to fill when Jose Hernandez left in December of last year. Hardly intimidated, Brandon, who used to work at Michael Mina in Las Vegas, took over with confidence.
I was bored when I did a quick skim through the menu, but on second look I was hooked. A classic like escargot swimming in butter is made new with dashes of pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur. The figs and proscuitto salad is a common combination made unique with the drizzles of 25-year-aged balsamic. The small version of the lobster salad, dotted with avocados, hard boiled eggs and radishes, is decadent enough to be an entree. The pastry case filled with macarons and tarts can hold you over while you wait for your souffle.
Located in a strip mall, La Balance may look unassuming with its casual French bistro atmosphere, but the impeccable service, level of tableware and cuisine say otherwise. The dinner left such a great impression that I went back for brunch the week after, where the eggs with venison sausage did not disappoint. The frittata was beautifully plated, and my date’s eggs were perfectly poached atop his benedicts.
Although La Balance temporarily stopped its Sunday brunch service, it started a Saturday brunch menu this month.
Chez Nous, Humble (20 minutes from Houston. Entrees range from $28 to $40)
There has been a surge of classic and new French restaurants in Houston in the last few years: L’Olivier, E’Toile, Sale Sucre and Artisans to name a few. Perhaps they are the reason Chez Nous seem to have been put to the wayside. Sure, the insides aren’t as new and shiny as the new kids in town, but the old-school charm is possibly the best part (second to the food, of course) about Chez Nous.
Housed in an old Pentecostal church in Humble, Chez Nous is nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood.
The wine list here is surprisingly affordable, with favorites like the Bandol Domaine Dupuy de Lome, and if you’re not a wine person, the martinis are stiff and expertly made.
Housed in an old Pentecostal church in Humble, Chez Nous is nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. I'd recommend starting the meal with foie gras paired with a glass of Sauternes (of course) and homemade duck prosciutto. Executive chef Stacy Crowe-Simonson’s diver scallops in smoked bacon risotto melts in your mouth, and it would be a mistake to not end the meal with the Grand Marnier souffle.
Crowe-Simonson, who trained at Chateau des Reynats, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Perigeux, doesn’t believe in reinventing the cooking wheel. Her passion for using fresh ingredients in traditional dishes drives her to gather produce directly from farms where she hand picks the ingredients.
Preview, Sugar Land (30 minutes from Houston. Entrees range from $16 to $19)
Although not yet opened, inner and outer Loopers alike anxiously await Jason Laio’s new Sugar Land restaurant, Preview. In interviews, Laio comes across as a bit grumpy and dare we say . . . precocious? He certainly knows what he doesn’t want the restaurant to be: Same old sushi menu (can you say California roll?), high volume, or traditional.
So what does he want? If Laio’s work at his previous restaurants (Austin’s Umi Sushi Bar and Nanami Sushi Bar) is any indication of what’s to come, Preview will be a huge success.
Preview will have a weekly menu which changes to favor seasonal seafood and produce. There won’t be the traditional course set of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Instead, Laio will offer a small-plate, a-la-carte concept so that diners can try a variety of dishes. I'm most excited about the olive oil poached salmon from Ora King, which are raised naturally and sustainably grown in New Zealand. The chicken fried tuna with black truffle salt also sounds like a promising dish, with coconut creme and toasted almonds.
Number 13, Galveston (50 minutes from Houston. Entrees range from $15 to $55)
Galveston has always held a place near and dear to my heart. The not-so-clear waters may get a bad rep, but we Houstonians are lucky to have a place within driving distance to go to when you need to feel far away. For Valentine’s day, I decided to go for the quintessential historical Galveston experience: An overnight stay at Hotel Galvez and dinner at Gaidos.
I had been reading about Number 13 recently so even though it didn’t fit into my theme of historical Galveston destinations, we decided to go for a nightcap. Boy, was I kicking myself for not having dinner there! The cocktail menu was creative without losing touch with reality, and I was drooling over other people’s steaks.
I made it a point to go back for lunch the next day and was not disappointed. The Manhattan style conch chowder was savory without being overly salty and the mac and cheese pavé could give the fried mac and cheese at Reef a run for its money. I stole probably more bites than I should have of my date’s tender 28-day dry age strip steak, and my lemon and thyme basted grouper was firm and tasted freshly caught.
In a land where sub-par restaurants are treated as first-rate eateries simply due to lack of choice, Number 13 can stand up to restaurants in major metropolitan cities.
If you’re tired of staying in Houston, take a road trip and try one of these restaurants which I dare say, might be even better than what we have inside the Loop.