Houston is a wonderful city for any gourmand. There are countless choices to indulge your palate, from gourmet food trucks serving elevated street fare, to that local mom-and-pop that’s been turning out reliable comfort dishes for generations, to modern steakhouses. For a whirlwind tour of some of the best food in the city, however, it’s always a treat to sit back and relax with a chef’s tasting menu. And we’ve got the scoop on some of the city’s best.
The tasting menu, or omakase, at Kata Robata is a true thing of beauty. Reserve a seat at the sushi bar with executive chef Manabu Horiuchi. The 2012 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef: Southwest will take you on one of the most memorable culinary rides in Houston. Every omakase menu is tailored to the individual, which means there are no set courses. Horiuchi will continue to ply you with food until you indicate that you’re full. Love sashimi? He may start you with a decadent sashimi appetizer of live hotate (scallop), live uni (sea urchin) or hamachi (yellowtail) belly with foie gras. Or maybe he’ll wow you with a New Zealand wild-caught salmon sashimi that’s torched and then served with quail egg and freshly shaved slivers of Burgundy truffle. Glistening fresh, marbled slices of fatty o-toro (tuna belly) will surely make an appearance, as well as a selection of the finest nigiri sushi available – this could include fresh amaebi (sweet shrimp), housemade freshwater anago (eel), seared o-toro topped with daikon (a mild radish) or grade-A sea urchin. In addition to other creative dishes such as Horiuchi’s uni chawanmushi (a Japanese hot egg custard), new selections created on the fly often enter into the mix, ensuring that every tasting is utterly unique and unforgettable. Insider tip: Visit on Tuesdays and Fridays for the best selections of fresh and exotic fish.
From the moment you step through the heavy, hidden black door at chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan’s fine dining restaurant, it feels as if you’ve entered another world, a place where the kitchen is the playground and the food are the toys. Dishes are whimsical and avant-garde. The much-lauded Eggs and Ham, for example, is a play on the traditional caviar service featuring a huge, 12-inch-diameter chicharrón as the ham, and caviar as the eggs. The tasting menus change seasonally, offering choices that may include decadent ingredients such as freshly shaved truffle. Expect to be constantly surprised and delighted here, not just by the taste and textures of the food itself, but the dishes’ visual imagery — plates can come out bursting with color or pluming with smoke from a liquid nitrogen application. And the best part? The kitchen is open, so you can watch the chefs at work right up until the moment that items are hand-delivered to your table. This tasting menu-only restaurant offers a choice of five- or seven-course menus with wine or cocktail pairings. Insider tip: The spiked milkshake from the cocktail-pairing menu is always delicious, and can be ordered à la carte.
For 40 years, Tony Vallone’s eponymous establishment has served presidents and celebrities, billionaires and socialites. For fine dining in Houston, there is no place better than Tony’s. It should come as no surprise, then, that Tony’s tasting menu is quite spectacular. Whether you opt for the five-, seven- or nine-course menu, it’s like taking an extravagant culinary adventure at the hands of executive chef Grant Gordon, a 2012 James Beard semi-finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Every single dish is provided with a tableside finishing touch: Soups are poured from shiny copper pots, fresh mozzarella gets prepared tableside, whole salt-baked fish is filleted right in front of you, and meat dishes are finished with a drizzle of a specially prepared sauce. The true highlight, however, are the dishes topped with white Alba truffle (or another seasonally available fresh truffle) from Italy. The earth-toned beauties are brought out to the table in a clear glass display case. The lid is lifted so that each person sitting at the table gets a whiff of the delectable truffle aroma before they are quickly shaved onto a plate right in front of you, unleashing even more heavenly scents. Insider tip: End your night on a high note with a signature Tony’s soufflé. Big enough to serve four or more, the legendary treat comes in a variety of flavors from white chocolate to Grand Marnier.
You can certainly visit Triniti and order à la carte, but executive chef Ryan Hildebrand’s forte is his tasting menu. Offered as a petite three-course dinner with wine pairings, or in preparations of five, eight or 15 courses, each plate is not just meticulously planned, but executed with artistic flourishes. The soups are incredible, be it a rich oxtail consommé with foie gras truffle and Wagyu, or an incredibly smooth cauliflower cream. Courses progress like a musical crescendo, ascending from a lovely salad of beets, to a seared scallop, before culminating with heartier meat courses such as a rabbit roulade or tender slice of butter-poached rib eye. Menus change seasonally, ensuring that there is always something new and exciting to savor. For dessert, rising star pastry chef Samantha Mendoza will titillate the palate with exquisite cheesecakes, beignets and other sweet somethings. Insider tip: Book the chef’s table, which is located directly in front of the open kitchen and, after a short discussion, Hildebrand will create a custom menu on the fly just for you.
At Tyson Cole’s Houston outpost of Uchi, the temptation to order everything on the menu is always strong, which is why it’s simpler to just sit back and let Cole, the 2011 James Beard Best Chef: Southwest winner, do the ordering for you. A 10-course compilation of Uchi’s greatest hits (sushi, signature sashimi appetizers and daily specials), the menu is chosen by the kitchen and changes daily. If you’re new to Uchi, the meal serves as an introduction to the restaurant’s unique brand of cuisine — intricate and layered, beautifully conceived and multifaceted, with a lingo all its own. With the hama chili, simple yellowtail sashimi sits plump and pink over a bed of bright orange wedges with ponzu sauce and Thai chili. With the yokai berry, Atlantic salmon is juxtaposed against crispy leaves of dinosaur kale and Asian pear. Insider tip: The most coveted seats in the house — at the sushi bar — are reserved for walk-ins only. If you get there at 5 p.m., you’ll snag a spot with no wait.
Photos Courtesy of Ryan Hildebrand, Mai Pham, Tony’s and Uchi