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Hungry For H-Town

by Jeff Heilman

My four-day exploration of culinary Houston kicked off with a banquet—for the mind.

Hotel Derek. 2525 West Loop South. Tel: 713-9613000. Guests, many gay, gush (Derek=oil derrick) about this frisky 312-room design hotel just inside the Interstate 610 Loop and close to all the top shops. Outdoor movies by the pool, Southern comforts at Revolve Kitchen + Bar, eclectic artwork, and penthouse suites with private balconies and knockout views are among the reasons to book. www.hotelderek.com

Hotel ZaZa. 5701 Main Street. Tel: 713-526-1991. Flipping “A to Z” for its name, this 315-room Museum District magnet, originally the Warwick from 1926, plays by its own rules. Poolside at ZaZa is among Houston’s hottest outdoor bars; Monarch Restaurant’s terrace is a premier fine-dining outdoor spot; and the Magnificent Seven plus concept suites are lustful playgrounds, as evidenced by my libidinous neighbors. www.hotelzaza.com

Baba Yega Café, 2607 Grant Street. Tel: 713-5220042. Housed in a converted bungalow, this Montrose institution has been bewitching diners since 1975. Favored locally for outdoor dining in front under a century-old oak or out back in the lush garden, it’s one of Houston’s prettiest spots for lunch buffets on Thursdays and Fridays, Saturday breakfast and especially Sunday brunch. Take your pick— and that includes abundant vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-friendly options. www.babayega.com

Etoile Cuisine et Bar Sole Meunière

Etoile Cuisine et Bar Sole Meunière

Beaver’s, 2310 Decatur Street. Tel: 713-864-2328. Regarded as the “Alice Waters of the Third Coast” for her “eat where your food lives” cuisine, German-born Monica Pope has been a luminary of the Houston and national scene since 1992. She has fun at this popular brunch spot, with creations like the Beaver Slam (Maker’s Mark-Grand Marnier battered Texas toast) and Squealin’ Mary (house-made bacon infused vodka with bacon and sugar-salt rim). www.beavershouston.com

Café Annie, 1800 Post Oak Boulevard. Tel: 713-8401111. It’s back to 1981 for Robert Del Grande, as he and wife Mimi, who attracted the guitar-playing Californian to Houston 35 years ago, revive their legendary flagship in style. In celebration of the May 2016 relaunch, the 35th anniversary menu features originals like coffee roasted filet, black bean terrine, and rabbit enchilada. With “continuous cocktails” and other lures, time travel never tasted so good. www.cafeanniehouston.com

Étoile Cuisine et Bar, 1101-11 Uptown Park Blvd. Tel: 832-668-5808. Michelin-trained Master Chef of France Philippe Verpiand saw destiny in Houston, and delivers the goods at this transporting French restaurant. Go for the escargot, mussels, foie gras, and other authentic bites, plus the fall game menu and excellent wines. Verpiand also hosts wine and whiskey dinners, plus personalized experiences in the private dining room/wine cellar. This fall, the couple goes from Uptown to Downtown with Brasserie du Parc, with enticements including 360degree square bar, traditional brasserie fare, and incorporated crêperie with walk-up window. www.etoilecuisine.com

Gloria’s, 2616 Louisiana Street, Suite 101. Tel: 832360-1710. Established by a Salvadorian couple in 1978, this popular Texas chain serves up sizzling Mexican and Latin cuisine, hopping happy hours and live salsa on weekends. For gays who brunch, it’s among the most popular stops on the city’s wideflung Sunday circuit. www.gloriascuisine.com

Helen Greek Food & Wine, 2429 Rice Blvd. Tel: 832-831-7133. Talk about a passion play. Owner and Iron Sommelier Evan Turner took his childhood discovery of Hellenic gastronomy and created this taverna sensation in Rice Village. Preternaturally well-studied and informed, Turner’s devotion informs every delicious bite and pour from his all-Greek wine list. For lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch, or hosted wine event, Helen, Beard-nominated for Best New Restaurant in its first year, commands you. This summer, Turner and his team are slated to launch Arthur Ave Italian American (www.arthuravehou.com) in the Heights, their “red sauce” homage to the Italian immigrant communities of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. www.helengreekfoodandwine.com

Hugo’s, 1600 Westheimer. Tel: 713-524-7744. Maybe next year? With five consecutive James Beard nominations going back to 2012, Hugo Ortega has yet to win, but he and wife Tracy Vaught are acknowledged winners of the Houston scene. Joining their original Backstreet Café in River Oaks, and Caracol in Uptown, Hugo’s is a Montrose magnet for authentic Mexican food, including the amazing Sunday brunch. www.hugosrestaurant.net

Indika, 516 Westheimer Road. Tel: 713-5242170. Like it hot? Since 2002, Chef-Owner Anita Jaisinghani has kept heat-seeking Houstonians happy at this nationally ranked magnet. Marrying Indian staples with local ingredients, there are temperature settings for all palates, from the refreshing corn and mint chaat to the firestarters like the lamb chops in fiery vindaloo sauce. www.indikausa.com

Pax Americana. 4319 Montrose Blvd. Tel: 713239-0228. Inspired by the post-WWII era of peaceful cultural exchange between America and other great nations, this relaxing Montrose retreat from the pioneering Zimmerman restaurant family is for locally sourced, artfully presented ribeye, pork, snapper, shrimp, and other Modern American dishes. paxamericanahtx.com

State of Grace. 3258 Westheimer Road. Tel: 832942-5080. After conquering Atlanta, Houston-born celebrity chef Ford Fry came home in a state of homage. The result, housed in a refurbished circa-1950’s laundromat and nail salon, is a state of bliss for lovers of oysters, seafood, and Texas originals accented with European and Southeast Asian flavors. Add the vintage ambiance, inventive cocktails, long bar, and six-seat chef counter, and it’s another Fry bullseye. www.stateofgracetx.com

Steak 48. 4444 Westheimer. One of eight new-tomarket restaurants in the ultra-luxe River Oaks District, this multi-dimensional steakhouse enters Houston’s competitive meat market with Executive Chef Jeff Taylor at the helm. Veteran of Houston’s Del Frisco’s Grille and Sullivan’s Steak House, Taylor is executing the vision of the Mastro steakhouse family, renowned for their concepts in California and Arizona. Other highlights include fresh seafood and raw bar, classic cocktails and extensive wine list, and dynamic private spaces for the power set. www.steak48.com

State of Grace oysters

State of Grace oysters

The Pass & Provisions. 807 Taft Street. Tel: 713-6289020. Montrose is also mad about this one-kitchen, dual-restaurant concept, featuring white tablecloth The Pass and casual Provisions under one roof. Bon Appetit named it one of America’s best new restaurants when co-chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, James Beard–nominated this year, made their debut in 2013. The sublime tasting menu is reason alone to go. www.passandprovisions.com

Underbelly. 1100 Westheimer Road. Tel: 713528-9800. Since graduating from the Art Institute of Houston’s culinary school in 1996, native Nebraskan Chris Shepherd has determinedly evolved into a leading culinary ambassador for the city. Speaking for Houston’s immigrant population on the plate, he updates classic American Creole by uniting diverse cultural influences with locally sourced ingredients at this top-ranked restaurant, which includes an adjacent craft beer bar and coffee shop. www.underbellyhouston.com

Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show. Tel: 832-6671000. Houston’s “Mardi Gras, Super Bowl and running of the bulls in one” is a three-week extravaganza featuring world-class rodeo, country music, live animals, and much more. Big Daddy’s Sausage and Sweet Cheeks Fried Treats exemplify the high-caloric food porn in the carnival grounds; there’s Western wear, art, and collectibles galore for sale; and grassroots LGBT group Out at the Rodeo (www.outattherodeo.com) is looking to grow its presence after making its inaugural outing this year. www.rodeohouston.com

Last Concert Café, 1403 Nance Street. Tel: 713226-8563. With a lusty history including speakeasy, bordello, and gay bar, this Houston landmark from 1949, now owned by Houston personality Dawn Fudge, is a Warehouse District destination for TexMex cuisine, happy hour (5P .M. to midnight on Mondays, which is also karaoke night), live music (including the open jam circle on Sundays), and outdoor dance parties. www.lastconcert.com

Menil Collection. 1533 Sul Ross St. Tel: 713-5259400. Done in signature Menil grey, Renzo Piano’s portico-wrapped masterpiece houses rotating Picassos, Warhols, and other treasures from the late Dominque and John de Menil. Their original 10,000 pieces, assembled from the 1940’s to late 1970’s, transformed cultural Houston. Fronted by a generous lawn, The Menil stands invitingly amid old-growth oaks and vintage bungalows in a 30acre “neighborhood of art” that includes the Rothko Chapel, Cy Twombly Gallery and Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. Across the street, Bistro Menil is an artful complement for European-inspired fare, wine, and afternoon tea. www.menil.org

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