Saturday, July 31, 2010

Haute Cuisine on Lake Conroe - Chez Roux

Conventional wisdom in the Houston dining scene says that the farther you get outside the Loop, the harder it is to find great restaurants.  Heck, some foodies won't go OTL (Outside the Loop) at all for dinner, claiming that it's a wasteland with nothing but chain restaurants serving reheated generic food.

So you can imagine our surprise when we discovered that one of the world's greatest chefs was opening a restaurant on Lake Conroe.  Located at the La Torretta resort, Chez Roux is the creation of Chef Albert Roux, the founder of Le Gavroche, England's first Michelin-starred restaurant, located in London.  Le Gavroche went on to be the first restaurant in the UK to hold the coveted three Michelin stars.

From our Texas perspective, it is tough to understand the influence of Albert Roux.  He and his brother Michel are regarded as the godfathers of modern restaurant cuisine in the UK.  They put England on the culinary map by raising standards across the nation, opened several ground-breaking Michelin-starred restaurants, had a TV series, wrote several books, and mentored many of England's top chefs, including Gordon Ramsey.

The best analogy I can provide would be to wander into a lakeside watering hole, and discover that Eric Clapton was the guitarist in the house band.  To say you'd be pleasantly surprised is an understatement.

This culinary superstar picked Lake Conroe as the location for his first and only restaurant in the United States, and we were thrilled to be invited out to meet Chef Roux and sample his cuisine.  The kitchen at Chez Roux is normally staffed by several of Chef Roux's alumni from his establishments across the pond, including Chef Matthew Gray, who earned his own Michelin star at the famed Inverlochy Castle Hotel in Scotland.  But today Chef Gray was on a much-deserved vacation, and the master was at the helm.

We were escorted to our table by Garrett Donovan, the restaurant director, who gave us a bit of background about Chez Roux and who would serve as our host for the evening.  We were seated at a lovely table with a spectacular view across Lake Conroe of the sunset, and before us was an array of wine glasses and fresh flutes of champagne - House of Albert Roux Grand Cru, Blanc de Blanc.

The champagne was slightly dry and very light, and a wonderful welcome to this French outpost.  We found ourselves leaving the hot Texas summer behind, and stepping into Albert Roux's world.

When Chef Roux strolled up to our table, we were immediately charmed by his warm countenance and his quick wit.  The chef may be 74, but he has the fire in his eyes of a much younger man.  You could tell he was exactly where he loved being, at the helm of his restaurant, overseeing the kitchen and making sure that every dish met his exacting standards.

The chef suggested a six-course tasting with wine pairings.  Not being foolish, we left ourselves in the capable hands of Chef Roux.  

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hubcap Grill - Second Time's the Charm

Ever since they opened we'd heard great buzz about the Hubcap Grill, Ricky Craig's tiny burger joint nestled next door to the Alden Hotel downtown.  We visited shortly after they opened, but we were underwhelmed by the burger... it was good, but we weren't blown away.

Our foodie friends assured us that this was an anomaly, and we recently revisited to find out for sure.  A rainy Wednesday proved to be a great day to visit, because for once they weren't packed to the gills.

The Hubcap Grill truly is a tiny place.  Only a handful of tables exist inside, there are a few more on the now-covered outside patio.  We've seen the lines at lunch; savvy downtown burger lovers have turned this place into an institution.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Something Different in the Woodlands: Caffe di Fiore

The Woodlands area is becoming a respectable culinary destination, but we're often frustrated by the lack of independent restaurants in the Woodlands proper.  Bucking this trend is Caffe di Fiore, a small storefront cafe located at the far West end of Woodlands Parkway, and area that is badly in need of interesting places to eat.

We parked, and entered the establishment, and were seated promptly.  Our visit was during a World Cup match, and the restaurant was filled with patrons dining while watching the match on the flat panel TVs.  We're not huge fans of soccer, but we got caught up in the excitement; the enthusiasm of the crowd was infectious.

We browsed the menu, and were surprised and pleased by the eclectic offerings.  Part Italian, part Mediterranean, part Mexican, and part new-age Californian, the menu was filled with the sort of light dishes that seemed well suited for a hot Texas summer afternoon.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Video Review: Jax Burgers

We'd been hearing good things about a new burger place that opened south of the Woodlands on 2920.  Called Jax Burgers, it's not associated with the longtime Houston favorite Jax Grill.

We drove over, and discovered a clean restaurant in a strip center.  Parking was easy, and we walked in and ordered.

The look is very polished and slick, the first thing that came to mind was Five Guys.  Jax is owned by Melissa and John Recio, and it's a family operation.  (The name Jax comes a combination of their sons' names, Jake and Max.)  Eric Recio was manning the counter, and keeping things running smoothly.

But the real question - how are the burgers?