CHAMPCAR/CART: Kika's guide to Houston dinning

Restaurants in Houston: Houston's restaurant scene is one of the best in the country. In fact, according to the 1999 Zagat Survey, Houstonians eat out more than residents of any other U.S. city. Award-winning chefs serve up outstanding cuisine...

Restaurants in Houston: Houston's restaurant scene is one of the best in the country. In fact, according to the 1999 Zagat Survey, Houstonians eat out more than residents of any other U.S. city. Award-winning chefs serve up outstanding cuisine all over the city. We encourage you to relish the exciting flavors of Houston's eateries - the ethnic variety of cuisine includes Brazilian, Chinese, Greek, German, English, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, Mexican, South American, Thai, Vietnamese and more. From old-fashioned favorites to cutting-edge culinary concoctions, Houston-area chefs aim to please.

ARCODORO ,(some notable patio destinations) 5000 Westheimer at Post Oak Blvd., Ph 713-621-6888.Price Range $$$ Arcodoro means Arch of Gold. The beauty of Arcodoro doesn't come from the tiles from Positano, the murals painted by owner Efisio Farris's old teacher, or even the Sardinian marble from the quarries where his father worked. The true beauty of Arcodoro comes from the smiles of happy diners. A stunning display of whole fish and antipasti draws you forward as the rustic elegance and Sardinian influences of this Northern Italian jewel sweep you away to the Mediterranean. Breads and pizza from the wood-fired oven. Fashionable crowd frequents the pretty insides and outsides of an eatery filled with Sardinian sunshine. Chef/owner's Efisio Farris's specials are way above par and served by some of the best waiters in town. Both Efisio Farris and Executive Chef Salvatore Gisellu are natives of Sardinia, thus the food is simple and fresh, just like one would find in Italy. The dining room is more formal and features more sophisticated risottos, veal, game and seafood. The Grill features a popular bar, at fresco dinning, a wood-burning pizza. Crowds also convene at the bar, where they also enjoy over 14 selections of grappa, as well as two signature drinks - the Fruitini, a vodka-infused fruit drink, and the Grapparita®, Arcodoro's own version of the Italian margarita. "In Texas, every Italian restaurant sells margaritas, but I didn't think it was part of us," he explains. "I thought, maybe I could come up with something competitive with the margarita, it would create a new niche of authenticity." Private dining room available, including cigar room with humidor. Reservations recommended.

LA COLOMBE D'OR , (Best Restaurant to Impress a Date) 3410 Montrose Ph 713-524-7999 Price Range: $$$$-$$$$ Cuisine: BEST IN TOWN. In Montrose, this posh restaurant is housed in a small luxury hotel that was once the home of Exxon founder Walter Fondren. Start out at the intimate bar, then move on to the elegant and sumptuous dining room, where you'll experience not only first-class classical French cuisine but service to match. If the evening is going well, and you're feeling lucky, upstairs rooms with names like Renoir and Cezanne go for $195 to $575 per night. Of course, you could go all the way, and for $10,000 on Friday night rent the Grand Salon de la Comtesse, an elaborately decorated large salon with hand-carved wood paneling dating from the early part of the 18th century. Since it's large enough for 300 guests, it might be a bit grandiose for two, but it would make one hell of a dance floor. Historic happening: Before WWI, the salon was the site of the "Last Great Ball of European Royalty," which included an impressive list of guests including Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas, Enrico Caruso, and Auguste Rodin. Monday-Friday 11:30 am-2 PM and Sunday-Thursday 6-10 PM, Friday and Saturday 6-11 PM. Reservations helpful. Major credit cards.

LA TOUR D'ARGENT : 2011 Ella Blvd. Ph 713-864-9864 Price Range: $$$$-$$$$ Cuisine: ITALIAN AND FRENCH. Tucked away near the Brookhollow area, this unrelentingly romantic restaurant will take your breath away with its fairy tale rusticity and classic French menu. For more than a decade this northwest Houston restaurant has served flawless French cuisine in a log cabin-a confident, idiosyncratic mix that is typically Houstonian. Everything, especially the wine list, is the type of thing you'd find in an upscale Continental hotel. The lamb is highly recommended. Monday-Friday 11:30 am-2 PM, Monday-Thursday 6-10 PM, Friday and Saturday 6-11 PM. Reservations necessary. Major credit cards.

FOGO DE CHAO RODIZIO GRILL : (Churrascaria - carnivorous joy) Briargrove 5851 Westheimer (Fountainview) Houston, TX, 77056 Ph.713- 334-7400. The highlight at this Briargrove branch of the Brazilian chain is the 'full rodizio': Grilled meat, fish and fowl supplemented by a 40-foot salad bar; authentically clad gauchos heft skewers of sausage, beef brisket, bacon-wrapped turkey breast and slow-roasted tenderloin, and many diners are also acquiring a taste for the wicked little caipirinha cocktails. Simple, comfortable elegance, the good service, the selection of food which was quite delicious if a bit much to eat (all you can eat). The cheese bread (pao de queijo) is marvelous. The bill, however, was not. Very pricey; well worth it for a special treat.

SPINDLETOP* - (Great View) 1200 Louisiana Ph 713-654-1234. For more than 25 years The Spindletop restaurant has reigned as downtown Houston's only revolving roof-top restaurant. Perched atop the Hyatt Regency Houston, 35 stories up, the restaurant makes it's 360-degree revolution every 45 minutes. Windows encircle the restaurant, while its dining area rotates to provide an ever-changing view, enhanced with names of significant landmarks on the glass to help you stay oriented. Recently renovated, Spindletop serves a contemporary New American menu, with Pacific Rim influences. The courteous staff goes the extra mile to make sure you enjoy the excellent cuisine and the spectacular view. Recommended appetizers include the Smoked Salmon Spire, which is made up of crispy wontons layered with jalapeño-lime goat cheese, Norwegian smoked salmon, marinated onions and capers. The Tropical Isle Seafood Bisque is another great way to start off your meal in the sky. For the main course, try the outstanding potato-crusted sea bass or the complex Chicken Iyu. As the sun sets over the city, savor the view over delicious desserts, coffees and after-dinner drinks. Open for dinner only from 6 to 11 p.m. Cocktails from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Spindletop is located Dress Code: Dressy or Business Casual (*They have Andretti Wine )

BRENNER'S ,(sheer carnivorous joy) 10911 Katy Freeway near Wilcrest, Ph.713-465-2901. Price Range: $$$. This modest, old-style dining room, with waitresses who recite the menu and everything served a la carte, set the mold for Houston steakhouses way back when. Lorraine Brenner is now retired and no longer cooks, but the new owners are maintaining status quo.. So what if the two-mile radius around the Galleria teems with shiny spit-polished steakhouses! Way out west, inside a 1950's-vintage structure that looks more like somebody's home than business, they're still grilling steaks that can be cut with a butter knife. Sought out by folks who remember the good old days (when a man was a man, and Roquefort wasn't bleu cheese), patrons retro around to the feeder road to get fed now same as then.A personal touch: The veteran waitstaff still recites the evening's menu for each table by heart, and the dinner salads remain firmly wedded to the lettuce-and-tomato tradition. BRENNAN'S OF HOUSTON - 3300 Smith St. Ph. 713-522-9711 Price Range: $$$$-$$$$ Cuisine: BEST IN TOWN . Having its patio adjacent to a bus line hasn't bothered any of the mothers and daughters who gather at this genteel downtown spot for lunch. (Sometimes four generations can be found at one shaded table, sipping the celebrated turtle soup.) The brunches are a long-standing tradition with the right families, too. Neat mixture of nouvelle, Texas Creole and healthy dishes. Jackets required at dinner (and they'd just as soon men wore coats and ties at all times). Monday-Friday 11:30 am-2 PM, dinner 5:45-10 PM. Weekend brunch Saturday 11 am-1:30 PM, Sunday 10 am-2 PM. Reservations strongly advised. Major credit cards. Call ahead to make sure you won't be seated next to somebody's birthday party. Stress that love's in bloom, and a cozy corner inside or out might just help you pluck a rose. Order the turtle soup - it's said to have aphrodisiac qualities. If chef Carl Walker is alerted ahead of time, your dinner will be delivered with the poetry of Cyrano. Enter the courtyard at your own risk. If you weren't in love before lunch (or dinner), you will be by the time the waiter serves coffee and brandy. Great romance needs a great setting, and this is it, folks.

CAFE ANNIE : 1728 Post Oak Blvd. Ph. 713-840-1111: Price Range: $$$$-$$$$ Cuisine: BEST IN TOWN. Chef and owner Robert Del Grande has received national attention for his creative Southwestern cuisine. Items such as wood-grilled shrimp with avocado relish and limes; beef tenderloin enchiladas with fragrant green mole; and mussel soup with cilantro and serrano chiles provide a variety of delectable flavors. Mexican hot chocolate pots de creme or a slice of Texas pecan pie are a great way to round out the meal. Lunch is served Monday-Friday 11 am-2 PM. Dinner is Monday-Friday 6-10 PM. Saturday dinner is 6-10:30 PM. Major credit cards. Reservations required.

MAXIM'S , 3755 Richmond Ave. at Timmons,Ph. 713-877-8899. Price Range: $$-$$$. Fine ArchiDigest elegance pairs with a traditional Creole-Continental kitchen. This is a good choice when you wish to approach the evening with a bit of subtlety. Wearing your dancing shoes? There's a live combo on the weekend that plays Sinatra standards. The first time Houston dressed up to go out to dinner, Maxim's was the destination. The late Camille Bermann taught us there's fine wine after beer and that fish doesn't have to be fried to be edible. We put on high heels for him, and perfume. His son, Ronnie Bermann, orchestrates the concert of Continental cuisine today. Only thing that's changed is, no coat and tie required. But, somehow, you still feel you should.

MARK'S - American Cuisine - 1658 Westheimer, Ph.713- 523-3800 . If ever there was a "temple of cuisine," this cutting-edge American restaurant located in a former church must be it. There are stars painted above the former altar, and the bar runs where the communion rail used to be. Here, in this Montrose church-turned-restaurant, an unsolemn congregation of convivialists meets nightly to enjoy the culinary inspirations of chef-owner Mark Cox. Cox, a former chef at Tony's, has paid his dues. Now, at the peak of his career, he has his own restaurant and enough experience to know what to do with it. Cox is the rare chef who has attained an equilibrium in which imagination, enthusiasm and skill all work together in a perfect balance. American food is Cox's genre, and his dishes are bold statements. A stunning appetizer of air-cured venison and raw, thin-sliced buffalo steak drizzled with olive oil is an ingenious American answer to Italy's bresaola and carpaccio. Seafood entrées the night we visited included such rarities as ivory salmon (which lacks pigment), black sea bass from Virginia and gulf soft-shell crabs, each served with a vibrant sauce and spectacular garnish. An excellent wine list includes top wines by the glass, so diners can get different wines without sacrificing quality. Complaints include a flat salad dressing here and there and some misleading menu descriptions, but nobody's perfect.

ALDO'S ,(eating near a fireplace) 219 Westheimer near Bagby, Ph.713-523-2536. Price Range: $$$ This lower-Westheimer Italian restaurant revels in in-your-face, over-the-top luxury: expensive foods and wines, served in a simple and tasteful setting. Owner/chef Aldo Elsharif roams the dining room, schmoozing guests and devising customized meals. The sweet taste of excess does not come cheaply. However, portions are large, and you may creatively split dishes.

OSTERIA D'ALDO : 301 Main, Ph. 713-224-2536 - In a city proud of Texas-size portions, the waitstaff at Osteria d'Aldo still feels obliged to explain to patrons that the serving sizes are like Italian tapas -- we prefer to call them civilized. And with such manageable portions, one can do a multicourse Italian meal just as the good Lord intended. Heads Up, Wine Connoisseurs With more than 100 wines by the glass, you'll find the perfect sip to pair with this streamlined menu. The 500-bottle list spans the globe, from trophy California to a highly sought-after European collection. Start with perhaps a white bean soup, a shrimp bisque or maybe a nice bruschetta. Follow up with a pasta (maybe you'll be extra lucky and roasted duck ravioli will be available) and then move on to an entrée -- the veal with foie gras, truffle oil and frisée is wonderful, but then we've never eaten anything here that wasn't. Good desserts, an excellent wine list and the decor of a Renaissance palace wine cellar all add to the experience: Italian dining at its most authentic.

BISTRO VINO ,(some notable patio destinations ) (eating near a fireplace) 819 Alabama just off Montrose, Ph.713-526-5500. Price Range:$$-$$$. Almost too romantic for its own good, this Montrose home re-do has all the extras, including gleaming silver, fresh flowers, stiff napery and piano, as well as a traditional Continental menu. A perfect spot for a late-night Irish coffee É in front of the fireplace. We wonder why the owners don't play tango music outside - the ambiance seems perfect for love orchestrated at a fever pitch. Once a charming private home in Montrose, the spirit of romance is almost ectoplasmic here. One wonders if the former residents might have been the happiest couple in Houston. In its reincarnation, the mood of love lingers. Lots of weddings are held on the patio. Lots of couples, who are not to the wedding stage yet, talk it over by the fireplace.

GREAT CARUSO - (Singing waiters) 10001 Westheimer Ph 713-780-4900: Price Range: $$$-$$$ This way-out west Westheimer extravaganza looks like a Victorian music hall, complete with singing waiters."Perky entertainment" is the main draw at this West Side dinner theater, which puts on a "fun show"; while some praise the pre-performance Continental meal, the consensus is the "exquisite" neo-Victorian ambiance and music have to make up for dining that rates just "fair." The whole turn-of-the-century experience is great fun, the giant Baked Alaska especially so.Open at 6 every evening, closing time depends on that evening's reservations. Reservations required. Major credit cards

GROTTO* - 6401 Woodway near Voss, PH 713-782-3663.Price Range: $$. First place ribbon to the Grotto for Best Entertainment for the Eyes While Eating Clam Linguini. Or, eating any selection among the favorites on the menu. The painted walls are characterized with vibrancy. and depict a dinner party comprised of some real odd ducks. Tables are spaced nicely far apart for conversation to flow, but not overflow.The yuppie drinking crowd that packs the waiting area after work certainly seems to like the atmosphere of the posh Italian restaurant. Attentive waiters do not neglect the outsiders, and service is consistently first class. It's hard to go wrong with a bellini, one of the excellent pastas or grilled meats and a wickedly caloric dessert. If calamari steak is available, give it a try-the kitchen knows how to pamper it with olive oil, lemon, herbs and a gentle undercooking (*They have Andretti Wine )

MINGALONE ITALIAN BAR & GRILL* , 540 Texas in Bayou Place, 713-223-0088. Price Range: $$$.Buona sera Roma, Texas style. When not in Rome, do as friends, Houstonians and countrymen are doing - drop in on Antonio Mingalone to break bread, eat carpaccio, sip grappa and partake of the many saucy specialties inspired by southern Italian cooking. Reminiscent of a restaurant in New York City's pre-war "Little Italy," Maggiano's specializes in lavish portions of old world recipes. The large and varied menu of classic southern Italian fare features a delicious selection of homemade pastas, signature salads, prime steaks, fresh fish and Provimi veal. Maggiano's serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and offers carry-out. Valet parking is also available. (*They have Andretti Wine )

TONY'S - 1801 Post Oak Blvd. Ph.713-622-6778 Price Range: $$$$-$$$$ Cuisine: BEST IN TOWN . Located on the fashionable Post Oak Boulevard, this is the restaurant to see and be seen in. Tony's has built its reputation on catering to guests' every need, even before they know it. The cuisine is European influenced, served in an atmosphere of refined elegance. One class act. With the kind of strong, long-legged beauty that carried Marlene Dietrich around on stage until she was 100-something, there's a sense Tony's will kick the high tambourine long into the next century. If Nature continues to cultivate the rich, the famous, the beautiful, so will society's flower garden find their sun here. P.S. The cuisine is always better than merely delicious. Coat and tie required. Dinner only, Monday-Thursday 6-11 PM, Friday and Saturday 6 PM-midnight. Reservations strongly recommended. Major credit cards

KANEYAMA - (Best Japanese) 9527 Westheimer, Ph 713-784-5168 . The difficult truth is this: Most native Japanese never, ever have a chance to dine in a truly great Japanese restaurant, of the sort one finds in Kyoto and a few other locations in Japan. The classic kai-seki-ryori dinner is an aesthetic experience that even the most decorated of Michelin three-star restaurants cannot equal. A proper tea ceremony dinner cannot be reproduced in the United States because the fresh local ingredients are not available, the setting is not available, and the chefs are not available. That said, this is where the local community of Japanese expatriates goes for some down-home chow. There's "nothing fishy about the popularity" of this "authentic" Japanese on Westheimer as everything is "always fresh" and "tastes great"; "friendly service" and a "homey" atmosphere help keep it one of the "best values in town".

LA RESERVE - Four Riverway (Galleria, in the Omni Houston hotel near Woodway) Ph. 713/871-8177 Around TownFrench/BelgianPrice Category: Very Expensive. Regularly at the top of Houston's Zagat survey, this restaurant serves wonderful contemporary continental and French cuisine in a tasteful dining room decorated with elaborate floral arrangements and myriad plants and trees. Caviar pie is a luxurious specialty, as are the regional seafood and game offerings. Ask about the grand menu, which offers the best specialties and includes wine.Did someone say souffle? La Reserve is one of the few places still serving dessert souffles, like their lemon or Grand Marnier. Main courses $19-$37; fixed-price dinner $50-$70. Open: Mon-Thurs 6:30-10pm; Fri-Sat 6-10:30pm. Reservations recommended. Credit Cards: AE, CB, DC, DISC, ER, MC, V.

CAFE PIQUET (Best Cuban Restaurant) 5711 Bissonnet, Ph. 713-664-1031. Waiters with white shirts and black mustaches, wonderful photos and memorabilia of Cuba, and an air of quiet sophistication make Cafe Piquet the No. 1 choice for Cuban dining in Houston. The buttery black beans and gooey sweet bronze plantains are perfect, and the Cuban sandwiches are first-rate, but don't miss the hearty daily specials like picadillo, a ground-beef casserole, or ropas viejas, a slow-cooked meat dish whose name literally means "old clothes." You'll see well-dressed Cuban businesspeople here at lunchtime, Cuban families at dinner, and some beautiful Latina women who look like they stepped right off the set of a Spanish-language soap opera late at night. This is a wonderful place to stop by for a strong Cuban coffee and a slice of tres leches, the white cake that's soaked with sweetened condensed milk and goes with espresso the way peanut butter goes with jelly.

STAR PIZZA (Best Pizzeria ) 2111 Norfolk, Ph.713-523-0800; or STAR PIZZA II, 140 South Heights Boulevard, Ph.713-869-1241 . Americans spent more money last year on pizzas than they did on computers and software combined, or so says an industry trade group. At any rate, pizza is one subject about which nearly every American can be counted on to have an opinion. Why Star Pizza? It is not a chain, a "concept" or theme restaurant. The only reason to go there is the pizza. The two Star Pizza restaurants belong to their original founders, Hank and Marilyn Zwirek, who opened for business at the Norfolk location in 1976. Local ownership is a plus. Consistency is a plus. A Star Pizza in 2000 tastes like it did 24 years ago. Then, being courageous enough to offer a garlicky deep-dish spinach pizza in a whole wheat crust -- when no one this side of a Berkeley anarchist women's commune had seen such a concoction -- was a plus. Star Pizza has been cranking out pies in this funky old house since 1976. Because of its reliability and popularity, guess you could call it the "boutique pizza parlor of the decade." Star stays pretty packed, so be prepared for some noisy diversion. But wouldn't a quiet pizza joint be rather odd?

CHURRASCOS , (sheer carnivorous joy) 9788 Bissonnet, Ph.713-541-2100 and 2055 Westheimer,Ph.713-527-8300.Price Range:$$-$$$ . Even if the namesake churrascos tenderloin weren't so good, people would come to Michael Cordua's South American steakhouses for the fabulous plantain chips and chimi churri sauce that is served at the start of every meal. Miraculously, more of that garlicky chimi churri finds its way onto the meat as a rich baste.Starters and salads are big, bold and tropical, like sweet plaintain turnovers filled with queso fresco on guava creme fraiche, or tangy, South American-style ceviche with hearts of palm, avocado and capers. The ensalada Churrascos is artistic and perfectly assembled, with crisp whole romaine leaves, fresh vegetables and a thick, creamy garlic dressing.

DUCKS AND COMPANY* - (Lots of people staying at the HYATT HOTEL)1200 Louisiana Street ,Houston, TX 77002 Ph. 713 654 1234. One of downtown Houston's most popular restaurants, Ducks and Company is the perfect place for a business lunch or romantic dinner. Famous for rotisserie-roasted game, fresh seafood, aged steaks and homemade potato chips, Ducks and Company is conveniently located in the Lobby of the hotel. At night, candlelit tables and charming, cozy décor make this restaurant a perfect place to escape and relax. Cuisine: New American; Rotisserie-Roasted Game and Seafood. Dress Code: Business Casual/Casual. Opening hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday - 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Dinner: Monday through Thursday - 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.(*The y have Andretti Wine )

AMERICAS - 1800 Post Oak Boulevard, #164 - Houston, 77056 - Ph (713) 961-1492 . The dramatic decor of Americas, with several levels of seating providing a whimsical treehouse effect, merely whets the appetite for the award-winning Central and South American treats offered by Americas founder Michael Cordua. His first place, Churrasco's, is still a Houston favorite with several locations devoted to the simple grilled fare-primarily beef-of South America. At Americas, Cordua has added a little more variety to the menu. In addition to the world-famous Churrasco steak-so moist and tender, you don't really need a steak knife-and the sinfully simple Tres Leches cake, Americas serves up such signature dishes as corn-encrusted snapper and pork tenderloin stuffed with corn and cheese pudding.

Ciao & see in Houston - ;-) Kika a la CART

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