Chatter’s Cafe and Bistro (**)

Posted on March 2nd, 2004 in Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Chatter’s Cafe and Bistro

South Heights

Houston, Tx

Located in the old Star Pizza building on South Heights, the new owners have completely revamped the interior, aiming for an inviting “olde worlde” feel. A bar area fills out the area by the hostess stand at the entrance, and the beige-walled dining rooms are separated by a look-through area with antique bicycles and sideboards.

So far our two visits have been a bit uneven; I’m not sure whether to chalk it up to a new restaurant or a restaurant that isn’t destined to be long for this world. The menu is mediterrean-ish, with hummus served with pita points, chicken kebabs and basmati rice, and a variety of sandwiches. The hummus (we’ve had it both times and, truth be told, it was the hummus that brought us back for a second trip) was top-notch: freshly prepared with a wonderful, creamy texture, layered with olive oil and fresh strips of basil, served with warm pita bread. The other dishes there have ranged from bad (a watery tomato basil soup) to okay (the chicken kebabs, but kinda underdone, which is scary for chicken) to pretty good (a walnut chicken salad sandwich and a philly cheesesteak sandwich).

The other factor that puts Chatter’s into the “maybe” pile for me is that it has the hallmarks of a family-owned establishment trying to save here and there on cost. Both times we’ve been there have been too many wait staff for how few patrons there were at the time (although we’ve driven by other times and seen a packed parking lot, so go figure). The waiters and waitresses all seem very inexperienced, not like “career” waitstaff; you can tell when someone is still learning how to balance a tray of food. When I ordered a sandwich and it arrived on a different type of bread than I had expected and I asked, “doesn’t this come on pita bread?”, I got a pretty snippy, “No it doesn’t,” in reply. I’d expect a little smoother of a response from someone who’d been a waiter for a longer period of time, or maybe it’s just that the guy was related to the owner and didn’t really fear for losing his job.

My final “maybe” factor with Chatter’s (and this is really a deciding factor for me on picking out where I’m going to eat), is that the chairs there are NOT PADDED. I guess I have a bony rear, but whenever we think about going back there I cringe because I don’t want to spend 40 minutes or more in discomfort on those murderously hard chairs. Dining out for me is about the entire experience — good food, decent wait staff, not too noisy / clattery, and a comfy, cozy, sit. There are very few restaurants where I’ll put up with uncomfortable chairs just because the food’s good. And if the food’s only mediocre and the chairs are bad? Forget it, location isn’t good enough to draw me in — there are too many good restaurants

Ragazza (**½)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Ragazza

920 Studemont

Houston TX 77007

713 864 3700

We’ve been meaning to try this place since it originally opened as The Rivendell, but the Rivendell closed down so quickly we never got a chance. The new joint, Ragazza, shows the hallmarks of being a vulturous re-incarnation — the strategy is that you let the other guy pour all the money into the fixtures and furnishings and opening the place, then let him spend but not recover enough money to keep the place open, and you then swoop in and set up your own shop at rock-bottom prices without even having to hire a decorator.

The location is a bit odd and may have contributed to the Rivendell’s tough time of it — it’s in the new strip center at the Southeast corner of Montrose and Washington. The neighborhood is definitely going upscale, with the new townhomes and nice apartment houses, but the décor of the restaurant aims a bit too high for a strip center restaurant… even a nice, new, stucco strip center. Even in non-zoned Houston, where eclectic is the name of the game, a stand-alone structure is usually an easier sell than the corner shop at a non-established retail center next to an eyeglass place.

Although the place looked uninviting from the outside (the wood blinds are drawn against the late afternoon sunshine), once inside, Ragazza’s ambiance was very cozy and welcoming on a quiet Thursday evening after work. The ambiance is sort of James Bond ski lodge: pale yellow walls, exposed stone pillars, and really nice cushy half-moon booths for good conversation. As I mentioned, the place definitely aims for upscale: a baby grand piano is just inside the entrance, and waiter was crisply dressed and quite attentive.

After having eaten and paid for an entire meal there, however, I have to say that Ragazza has the feel like they swooped in to buy the upscale restaurant space but they’re not ready (or they don’t have the funding to be) a restaurant at the level that they or their prices aim to be. Please keep in mind that while I’ve worked in several restaurants throughout my life, they were places like “Goodall’s Country Restaurant” and “Goofy’s”… I’m no real expert on white linen cuisine, although a four-year stint in consulting and the fact that I do like to eat has turned me in to something of an aficionado of eating out. Engineerboy, however, has some experience with the business side of finer dining, and so my case before you is based on both our perceptions and conversation about the meal.

Our meal consisted of:

Italian bread with dipping sauce

Glass of Pinot Grigio (for me)

Shrimp bisque

Mushroom Ravioli with Grilled Shrimp

Meal total, before tip: $57

Sorry, I should be able to tell you we each ordered a different appetizer and main dish, but we didn’t; how boring is that?!

First off, the service was excellent; they’re definitely hitting the mark in that category. But the rest of the meal is where I feel they don’t live up to what

Nino’s Italian Restaurant (***)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Nino’s Restaurant

2817 West Dallas

Houston, Tx 77019

713 522 5120

 

This year we decided to do the big evening out for New Year’s. Our daughter would be up in Indiana (instead of down here in Houston with us) and so we would be left to our own devices for evening entertainment if we so chose. Lucky for us, our favorite live band was playing at our favorite club and we decided to make a whole evening of it.

Of course, the perfect start to that type of evening has to be the just-right spot to eat. In a place like Houston, there are so many great spots to choose from, even when I limited myself to the spots near the house. I was looking for the exact right combination of ambiance, price, location, and food to fit the evening’s adventures. I knew I was going to go dressy with the outfit but I didn’t want to totally over-kill, money-wise, on dinner: it was just going to be the two of us and neither of us are big enough drinkers to make it worth it to go all-out with the wine-and-after-dinner-ports type feast.

I knew I wanted a known quantity; for a fun evening out I wasn’t interested in breaking new ground. Most important on the list was good food. Next was an intimate ambiance, not too clattery. And of course, not too much of a schlep: close to our house (in the Heights), close to downtown. One of my first thoughts was Vincent’s… we love the rotisserie chicken, it’s so close to the house, and it hit that perfect mid-price point I was looking for. When making the reservation, I switched to Vincent’s next-door brother restaurant, Nino’s, instead — similarly wonderful food (including that famous chicken), but with a more intimate atmosphere.

The New Year’s reservations process was pretty straightforward; we had to give a credit card and confirm on the day. We were also warned to get there on time or risk losing our table and that we’d only have a two-hour window for dinner. All seemed like reasonable rules, given the logistics of the holiday. The staff handled everything smoothly when we arrived: they sat us exactly on time at a great little table in the center of the downstairs floor but nestled near a plant stand so it still felt private. Everything proceeded perfectly from there; our orders were taken precisely and accurately, our drinks brought out fairly quickly, and our appetizers, entrées and desserts perfectly spaced. And the food was fabulous! I had Penne alla Vodka (pasta in a tomato cream sauce with vodka, one of my favorites) and Scott had the Pollo Pasquale (chicken stuffed with sausage and mushrooms, very tasty)!

The very precision of our food delivery, actually, was an amazing feat: going out on New Year’s Eve is pretty much like going out on prom night and Mother’s Day all rolled into one; even a well-oiled restaurant machine can get overwhelmed with large conflagrations of young couples and big family

King Biscuit Restaurant – Mediocre

Posted on November 14th, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy

King Biscuit
1606 White Oak Dr
Houston, TX 77009
Phone: (713) 861-2328

The King Biscuit restaurant is tucked back in an old Houston Heights neighborhood along White Oak bayou. The menu is fairly extensive, including soups, salads, hamburgers, sandwiches, seafood, steaks, pork chops, etc, and the ambience is sort of kitschy-Heights. The building appears to have grown organically from an old gas station, and is tucked into a V in the road. There is almost zero designated parking, so you usually have to park on the streets of the surrounding neighborhood. There is a nice patio with a good view of the bayou, but it is usually infested with hard-core smokers making anything you eat out there taste like you’re licking it out of a used ashtray.

We have not been impressed with the food quality on our last couple of visits, and while the food isn’t terrible, it’s really nothing special. So, given the wide variety of excellent eats in Houston, I think King Biscuit is going to drop out of our restaurant rotation, at least for a while. A few years ago the food was noticeably better, and we hope that the quality starts to improve again, as we like this place and want it to be good.

Da Marco Italian Restaurant – Highly Recommend

Posted on August 2nd, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Da Marco
1520 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX
(713) 807-8857

It’s easy to miss Da Marco: the small converted house is set off the street right at the most harrowing narrow-laned portion of the Westheimer curve; the sign is well-lit but competes for eye attention with the nearby tattoo and body piercing joints. Those eclectic surroundings, sprinkled with top-notch food choices is, of course, a major part of the appeal to this section of Houston. This gracious Italian eatery fits right in.

Last night was our first trip to Da Marco; we wanted an upscale (but not outrageous) dinner treat before heading over to the SkyBar. The entrance to the restaurant leads you into a tiny 3′ curtained area, and from there the hostess escorts you another three feet to the small bar. Jacketed waiters efficiently weave through the small non-smoking dining room — the feeling is intimate but not overly cramped. The place was very well candle-lit, although a bit too warm in the bar area because of the open wood-burning bread oven just behind the well-roasted bartender. The families and couples dining there on this visit (a Friday night) were a comfortably mixed bunch: everything from middle aged couples in jeans and tennies, to younger couples in suits and evening dresses, to at least two very authentic-looking garrulous Italian families.

Our white-linened table was nicely placed near a back wall and our waiter was affable and knowledgeable. The wine list was all Italian, with only a few selections available by the glass. The menu was structured in a traditional three-course format: antipasti, pasta, and entrée. The off-menu selections were presented via a chalkboard and included an oxtail pasta selection as well as main courses of rabbit and in-house aged angus beef. Our meal for two included:

antipasto
Frisée with pears, candied walnuts, and some type of wonderfully soft ripe cheese
 
 

antipasto
Giant sea scallops with orange segments (two bites into which Scott proclaims, “this might be my new favorite restaurant”)

pasta
An unbelievably good sweet corn ravioli with huge bits of fresh lobster meat
 
 

pasta
Mouth-watering porcini risotto with fresh hunks of ripe parmesan

entrée
Very tender pork tenderloin with figs in a sweet balsamic reduction, accompanied by a very tasty cheese polenta
entrée
Fabulously tender duck in a sweet glaze, accompanied by mashed sweet potatoes and wonderfully grilled brussel sprouts

Total meal cost: $140 before gratuity

Alas, we skipped any dessert / coffee course, as we were full and ready to move onto the remainder of our evening’s entertainment. But Da Marco’s definitely delivered what we were looking for. The food was unbelievably good, the waitstaff attentive (the steady stream of fresh bread and ripe olive oil was quite evil), and the ambiance and people-watching were perfect: not too clattery, nicely candle-lit, and a fun mix of patrons. And, as a big bonus for us, it was all smoke-free. There was a separate dining room completely enclosed by French doors — it could

Phoenicia Deli – Highest Recommendation

Posted on July 5th, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by The Donkeys

Phoenicia Deli
12116 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX
(281) 558-0416

The Phoenicia Deli, located out on the west side on Westheimer between Kirkwood and Dairy Ashford, has

some of the best food we have ever eaten. I’m specifically talking about the

Chicken Shawarma. For the uninitiated, a Chicken Shawarma starts out with many chicken breasts, rubbed in various heavenly spices, then piled up and slow roasted on a turning spit. The outer crispy parts of the chicken breasts are then shaved off, so every bite of chicken is crispy and wonderful. These bits of chicken-y goodness are then wrapped in a large homemade flatbread with this AMAZING garlic sauce. The sauce (we originally mis-indentified it as mayonnaise, and that’s the texture that it has) is actually (based on some research) some sort of heavenly marriage of garlic and olive oil. It is POTENT and oh-so-good.

The deli serves the chicken shawarma with tomatoes and potatoes (the potatoes are kept under the spit of chicken, absorbing all the wonderful juices), but we ALWAYS order it “sauce only” — (no tomatoes or potatoes). It is simply heaven on earth, I can’t even get across how wonderful this food is!!
Phoenicia’s prices are reasonable (about $20 for a lunch for two), they also offer hard-to-find middle eastern and armenian food items in their deli section toward the back of the shop, and the newly-redecorated decor is quite inviting. The staff is pretty friendly (we see the same folks there most of the time we go).

The hours are a bit limiting; they close at 7 on Saturdays, I believe, and they’re closed on Sundays. But it’s worth it — we’ll plan entire weekends around being able to get to Phoenicia on a Saturday for Shawormas. Give them a try!!

Ming’s Cafe – very ordinary

Posted on June 1st, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy

Ming’s Cafe
2703 Montrose Blvd, Houston, TX 77006
Phone: (713) 529-7888

We stopped by this kitschy little joint for dinner on the way home from work today. The atmosphere was Montrose-quirky, the menu was surprisingly deep for such a small place, and the fried dumpling appetizers were quite delish. However, our main dishes were extraordinarily ordinary. We may give them another try, as it wasn’t horrible, but with the huge selection of very good Chinese food in Houston, why?

Cafe Red Onion – Highly Recommended

Posted on May 3rd, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy

Three Houston locations:

3910 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098
(713) 807-1161

12440 Northwest Fwy, Houston, TX 77092
(713) 957-0957

1111 Eldridge Pkwy # 100, Houston, TX 77077
(281) 293-7500

http://www.caferedonion.com

We eat here a couple of times a month, and are constantly amazed at the combination of great food, good prices, pleasant ambiance, and excellent service. The menu has a Latin (Mexican-Honduran, actually) American theme, but the dishes are all sort of non-traditional and Americanized (in a good way). I am not a fan of food that is fancy and/or complicated solely for the sake of being fancy and/or complicated. The food here is neither overly fancy, complicated, nor trendy, but it *is* interesting, unexpected, and delicious.

For example, both of us have the same favorite dish here, which is Mayan Chicken. The chicken is a boneless breast that is coated in tortilla crumbs then fried, and is served over queso with black beans (I get the rice instead), fried plantains, and mango salsa. At around $10, this is one amazingly delicious bargain.

In fact, you can eat at Red Onion for around the same cost as a generic Chilis/Bennigans/TGIFridays, but you get food that is orders-of-magnitude more interesting, well-prepared, and delicious. The ambiance is nice, friendly, and casual. My one trivial complaint is that when the place is hopping (as it usually is at mealtimes) it can get a little clattery, noise-wise, and the tables are just a touch too close together for my tastes. That’s really just nit-picking, however, as the food, prices, and service *more* than make up for any cosmetic blemishes.

Do yourself a favor and check out Red Onion. Tell them that the guy who always eats three bowls of pineapple salsa sent you.

Bibas (One’s a Meal) – Highly Recommended

Posted on May 2nd, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy

607 W Gray St, Houston, TX 77019

Phone: (713) 523-8432

First of all, I do not know the meaning(s) of the name(s) of this restaurant. Second of all, what I do know is that they have really good food at really good prices. The menu is typical Greek diner, and includes everything from gyros to calzones to pizza to hamburgers. My personal favorite meal starts with the tzatziki appetizer (served with delicious crunchy breadsticks for dipping) followed by the cheeseburger and fries.

Most of the times we’ve been there we’ve been waited on by John, the owner/waiter/resident comedian. If he waits your table be ready for repartee, wisecracks, asides, innuendos, and great service. The other waitstaff have all been very friendly and efficient, and the patrons are usually laid-back regulars. There’s ample outdoor seating, and inside are some huge, 6-person booths.

And if that’s not enough, it’s open 24 hours a day. Do yourself a favor and visit this deservedly legendary Houston institution.

Shanghai River Restaurant – Highly Recommended

Posted on April 6th, 2003 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy

Shanghai River Restaurant
(713) 528-5528
2407 Westheimer, 2 blocks east of Kirby

http://www.shanghairiverrestaurant.com

Houston has an overwhelming selection of Chinese restaurants, and many of them are good. A few of them are excellent, and Shanghai River is one of them. From the outside, this restaurant is the unassuming-looking inhabitant of one end of a standard strip center. But once you get inside, you find that the decor is sumptuous and well-maintained, the tables have white tablecloths and cloth napkins, the service borders on perfect, and the food is excellent.

Try the mu shu pork appetizer and the honey walnuts…both fabulous. We recently had the wonton soup, shrimp with asparagus, Four Delicacies (scallops, shrimp, beef, chicken with chili peppers and peanuts), and shrimp and chicken with cashews, and all of the dishes were virtually perfect. Also, for the quality of the food and the ambiance, the prices are right in line.

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