Keys to the City: Houston

Keys to the City: Houston

I visit Houston at least four times a year, and it’s become a favorite for many of the same reasons I enjoy Washington D.C., and New Orleans. Like those cities, Houston has a very diverse ethnic culture. One of the reasons for this is the city’s many universities and medical centers, which have attracted educators and doctors from all over the world. In turn, the city has spawned some great restaurants that cater to practically every domestic and foreign cuisine, making Houston one of the nation’s best “food cities.”

Smoking indoors in Houston is widely verboten, but that’s not much of a problem – with average highs above 60° F year-round, smoking cigars outside is comfortable and quite commonplace. Still, I have found one excellent cigar lounge that I frequent (more on that later).

The Houstonian

The Houstonian offers the city’s premier accommodations. Situated on 18 wooded acres in the heart of the city, its location, laid-back elegance, and unrivaled comfort are complemented by a fully-appointed fitness club and one of country’s best spas-perfect if you want to keep in shape and pamper yourself. If you enjoy shopping, the Galleria is minutes away.

The rooms’ wide floor-to-ceiling windows face the woods, so you’ll feel more like you’re staying in the country than in a major city. The cushy beds and furnished baths are among the best, too. With so much to offer, there’s no need to leave the premises until you’re ready to check out. The fitness club alone covers 125,000 square feet, complete with top-of-the-line equipment and a cadre staff of Certified Personal Trainers, and is listed among the country’s top-10 facilities. If you prefer, there’s the indoor track, three pools, a rock climbing wall, boxing ring, full-court gym, or tennis courts. It’s totally mind-blowing! If golf is your game, Redstone Golf Club is just a short drive from the hotel.

Then there’s the Trellis Spa where you and/or your significant other can indulge. Most of the services cater more to women: way too many to list here, but there’s plenty for guys, too, like therapeutic massages, dry and wet steam room, a floating pool, and more.

For dining, The Houstonian’s Olivette specializes in regional American dishes. The Manor House is a beautiful setting for doing lunch, but the most casual place for meals is the Center Court Café in the fitness club or the Gazebo located at the pools.

The Bar at The Houstonian is fully-stocked and very roomy with plenty of comfortable seating. These large, beautifully decorated spaces can be found in just about every part of the hotel.

Icon

For something a little more historic, check out Hotel ICON, a cool boutique hotel with an atmosphere that’s warm, inviting, and relaxed. It also has a great location, right in the heart of downtown where the business, legal, theatre, and sports districts converge.

Originally the Union National Bank Building, the structure was erected in 1911. They kept a lot of early 20th century detail, so you have this eclectic mix of neoclassical architecture and vibrant, contemporary décor. The hotel is very popular with entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and celebrities for its unique design, ambiance and intimacy.

Hotel ICON has spacious, beautifully decorated rooms with big, comfy beds. There’s also a sizable fitness room (open 24 hours), and the Balance Urban Spa, with a full menu of therapeutic services.

For dining and drinking in the hotel, there’s the Line & Lariat restaurant and the L&L Bar. The restaurant menu features traditional, “down home” Texas cuisine prepared with a very novel approach. The fully-stocked L&L Bar serves everything from iced tea to martinis and other cocktails, plus has an extensive wine cellar.

Oxheart

A great vegetable-centric restaurant that only serves dinner. The menu is strictly seasonal, very modern, and prepared with meticulous skill. The Oxheart staff includes an executive chef, a baker, and a Sommelier, all incredibly talented and knowledgeable. All entrées are multi-course, and the menu changes frequently. Another thing I really enjoy is the creativity of the dishes. Some of my favorites are their warm sunflower seed soup, puffed rices and grains; smoked pine nuts; Sofrito of preserved shellfish; Heritage chicken poached with lemongrass and galangal; and young ginger grapefruit with frozen yogurt and mint.

Really delicious and really cool if you want something way out of the ordinary.

UNDERBELLY

“UNDERBELLY. The Story of Houston Food” is one of the most eclectic restaurants in the city. The best way to describe Executive Chef Chris Shepherd’s approach to “Houston Food” would be “New American Creole” with Asian fusion. Their farm-to-table approach favors seasonal produce paired with fresh seafood or meats like goat and grass-fed beef.

The décor is modern Southern, with a mix of woodcuts, chalkboard art, pressed prints, and other pieces recovered from all over Houston. The dining room is spacious, yet comfortable, with high ceilings, heavy walnut tables. I love that the kitchen is open to the dining room, allowing you to see the chefs at work. There’s also a community table where guests can enjoy their meals family-style.

What really impressed me about UNDERBELLY. is their custom-equipped butcher shop. Chris insists that all of his meats be freshly butchered and prepared in-house (see photo).

Some of the dishes I recommend are the Korean Braised Goat & Dumplings; Grilled Shrimp with Texas Grapefruit, vegetables, barrel-aged Fish Sauce and Lime; and the Crispy Farmer's Market Vegetables in Caramelized Fish Sauce. It’s one of the most unusual and delicious menus you’ll find anywhere.

Indika

Wherever I travel I’m always looking for great Indian food, and while Houston has a number of fine Indian restaurants, my favorite is Indika, which does great Indian fusion that’s extremely savory, but not over the top. Indika serves lunch, dinner and a Sunday brunch. Indika also has an excellent wine selection and a Sommelier.

Proprietor Anita Jaisinghani is from Northern India and has put together a really amazing menu. Some of my favorites are the Tandoori Chicken Chaat, Seared Foie Gras, and Slow Cooked Lamb Shank made with garlic, ginger & tomato masala, and mustard potatoes. If you’re in the mood for trying a little of everything, they also put together a nice tasting menu.

Anita is a world class pastry chef too, so don’t leave without trying one of the desserts. The Pumpkin Flan is to die for.

Indika has a sister restaurant, Pondicheri, that I also recommend for traditional South Indian home style and street food with a flair.

Taqueria Laredo

No trip to Houston would be complete without Tex-Mex, and for me, Taqueria Laredo has THE best tacos in Houston. They do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the prices are more than reasonable. It’s basically a fast-food setup, where you stand in line and order from behind a glass case, but the food is as good as the better high-priced Mexican restaurants. Everything is made-to-order, just tell them what you want. I also recommend the nopales and barbacoa; the huevos con chili verde is great for breakfast.

Anvil Bar & Refuge

The Anvil Bar & Refuge is famous for its cocktails and intimate atmosphere. It's located in a circa late 1950's Bridgestone-Firestone tire store that was completely re-fabricated-only the original brick walls, sky-high ceilings and ductwork remain.

Recycled natural materials define the décor, and impart an atmosphere of days-gone-bye. The concept is elegant simplicity with a sense of history, a place right out of those old movies where the bartenders were true professionals who took pride in their work.

That’s certainly reflected in their cocktails, which feature fresh ingredients like house-made bitters, sodas, infusions, and liqueurs made with locally-sourced ingredients. You might want to try their most popular cocktail, a “Pliny's Tonic” made with dry Gin, lime, cucumber, mint, and Habanero tincture, or their “First Growth” martini made with dry Gin, pineapple, Elderflower liqueur, and sage.

Anvil also has about a dozen rare craft beers on tap that they change regularly.

Besides the perfect martini and other traditional cocktails, Anvil offers well-made bar fare like homemade soups, sandwiches, and a nice selection of cheeses.

Downing Street Pub & Cigar Lounge

As I mentioned earlier, Houston is not exactly an indoor-smoke-friendly city. But the Downing Street Pub & Cigar Lounge is the best place and only place in town where you can legally relax with a good cigar.

The bar has over 100 Single Malt Scotches. Members of the “10 Club” gain access to 200 additional whiskeys from Scotland, Ireland, America, and other countries. The wine cellar is just as impressive. You’ll also find a wide selection of beers on tap, as well as soups, sandwiches, salads and more.

The 400 square-foot humidor stocks almost all of the major premium handmade brands (including my own, I’m happy to say), and the staff is very good at helping you pair drinks and cigars. Lockers are also available for regulars who prefer to bring their own cigars. A state-of-the-art filtration system keeps the smoke to a minimum.

If you’re looking for a great place to have a business lunch, drinks and cigars after golf, or a special date night, make sure Downing Street Pub is on your Houston itinerary.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the USA, there’s so much to do there I’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to wining and dining. For an extended stay, Houston also has historic districts, theatre, great museums like the Art Car Museum and the American Cowboy Museum and, of course, the Space Center. Use the places I mentioned in this month’s column as a guide to get you started; you can’t miss with any of them. If you’re the adventurous type, I’m sure you’ll discover even more great Houston highlights on your own.

Rocky

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Rocky Patel

Born in New Delhi, India in 1961, Rakesh " "Rocky" " Patel, began his professional career as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, where he was introduced to cigars on the back lots of Hollywood studios. One of the original founding members of L.A.'s famed Grand Havana Club, he sold his firm and spent five years in Honduras working and learning the cigar trade, including field and barn work. From his first Indian Tabac cigars in the 1990's to his current Rocky Patel Cigars releases, Rocky has insisted on using only the highest quality tobaccos, and the proof is in the numerous accolades and high scores his cigars have received. Often heralded as " "the hardest working man in the cigar business," " Rocky logs more than 300 days on the road a year - an extension of his enthusiasm for his award-winning cigars and his commitment to his customers.