Market Square Park was invented for days like this, when downtown workers and dwellers can take advantage of a sunny 75-degree February weather with a walk or a nosh in the park.
Or they can head across the street to the new ERA Restaurant, an ambitious pizza and sandwich shop on Congress next to Les Givral's Kahve and the new Convey. There's no sign on the building yet, but on walking in the space is surprisingly large and airy, with white tablecloths and flowers adding a touch of relaxed refinement.
The name, which stands for Entertainment Restaurant Air, refers to the master plan to eventually make ERA a three-story, multi-use structure, with the restaurant on the ground floor, a second floor entertainment space with a stage for live music, and a rooftop bar for drinking while drinking in the downtown views. With the upper floors currently under construction, I can only imagine what the entertainment will entail, but I'm already slightly giddy with the prospect of a downtown rooftop bar space.
Getting back to the "restaurant" part of the equation, the menu includes salads and soups, but we stuck with the specialties: pizza and sandwiches, plus an appetizer of gnocchi with shrimp (narrowly selected over the fried artichoke hearts served with marinara).
The creamy gnocchi would have been a well-made, classic take — the pasta pillowy and light, with a tomato basil sauce that begged for more bread to dip into it — but the unexpected slivers of fresh jalapenos added an addictive mellow spiciness.
The pizzas measure about eight inches, enough to perfectly suit one, but have more heft and a thicker, doughier crust than the similarly sized pizzettas from Caffe Bello. Flavors range from the traditional (Margherita Ville) to the cross-cultural (the Asian-inspired Tai-Thai, the Caribbean flavors of Castro) to the deliciously unorthodox, like the 809 with olive oil, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, brie, pistachios, hearts of palm, prosciutto and figs or the Nova with parmesan sauce, mozzarella, salmon, cream cheese, hearts of palm, red onions and capers.
We ordered the Chupacabra, flavored with cream sauce, fresh spinach, mozzarella, garlic shrimp and herbed goat cheese. The sharp goat cheese led, but the snap of the shrimp and other creamy, mild flavors made for a really excellent pizza, with much more flavor than your average pizza bianca.
Next was the Gonzo, with marinara, gorgonzola, pepperoncini, prosciutto and thyme. I wasn't a big fan of the marinara (it seemed too sweet) but the peppers and the thyme were a weirdly good flavor combo. With every pizza selling for $8.32, the premium ingredients (like whole milk mozzarella, not to mention shrimp and prosciutto) and gourmet combos make a great value.
It's not hard to see the lineage from Pink's Pizza (where the proprietors apparently worked before) but these pizzas are more restrained, focused and I think overall better. I can safely call it the best pizza downtown.
Our sandwich — the chimichurri, with pulled pork, capers, avocado and the namesake sauce — was also excellent, with a buttery, fluffy baguette roll from French Riviera and juicy pork, although the ingredient combo did lend itself to a little bit of sliminess. My one dislike with the plantain chips that come with the sandwich — they seemed overly thick and bland. Next time I'm upgrading to the sweet potato or regular fries.
With bottles of Mexican coke at the counter, lesser-known Dalí prints on the walls, a retro map of Houston on the menu and Cut Copy playing in the background, it's obvious that the guys in charge thought about every detail and did exactly what they wanted. It doesn't all make sense together, but it doesn't have to, because it works.