I’m not sure what surprised me most on my recent trip to the Bayou City: that there’s a whole new museum devoted solely to drawing; that there’s a plan to move a mound of earth over the top of a busy road so people can better enjoy a park; or that a tomato placed in front of me turned out to be anything but a tomato.
Houston often projects a stodgy image, given its oil-driven wealth, but I’ve always found the city lively and fun, bursting with surprises. Let’s start with a couple of its new hotels. We settled in at C. Baldwin before it even had its new sign out. Named for Charlotte Baldwin Allen, a pioneering Houston businesswoman, the Hilton Curio Collection hotel, forged from a former DoubleTree, has elevated walkways to nearby office buildings that make it perfect for business travel.
I’d call the rooms comfy contemporary, with midcentury accent furnishings and plenty of electric and USB outlets. Floor-to-ceiling windows showcase neighboring skyscrapers. C. Baldwin’s Italian restaurant Rosalie (the chef is Chris Cosentino) and Paloma nail salon are due to open this fall.
We also couldn’t resist spending a night at the highly fancy Post Oak Hotel out near the Galleria. It spares no haute detail: massive, chandeliered lobby with check-in desk in front of windows showcasing the pool; cutting-edge spa featuring high-dollar, tech-infused treatments you won’t find anywhere else in Texas; dark-wood bar and Mastro’s upscale steakhouse; large, amenity-filled rooms with lots of marble and, again, dark wood. Oh, and you can shop for a Bentley or Rolls Royce right there on property.
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I didn’t have the wallet for a Rolls, but I did drop by to see what’s new at the Galleria, which has expanded again. I could probably spend an entire weekend there shopping for clothing (like fun dresses at the new Maje store) and gadgets (there’s a Samsung store, a Microsoft store and an Apple store). New restaurants include the delightful Fig & Olive, where you can munch creative crostini and lift a glass on the Rosé Terrace once the weather cools down. I enjoyed mine indoors.
Also in the realm of shopping: On Richmond Avenue not far from the Galleria, Hamilton Shirts has been making bespoke shirts for men for more than 130 years, but it recently started offering them for women as well. I’ve never worn button-up shirts much, because they’ve never fit right. Guess what? When a little measuring is done and, for example, sleeves are made shorter for short arms, the resulting garment looks great. A custom-fitted shirt costs more ($275), but it’s a worthy splurge, especially if you’re not shaped like a ready-to-wear sample.
Houston’s art world has a few surprises, too. The new Menil Drawing Institute, a sleek building that really doesn’t seem to have been discovered yet, is dedicated entirely to drawings. (It's currently showing the work of French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu.) Also, go by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to see the new gardens and amphitheater, and if you have kids, to let them play in the fountains. Jasper Johns and post-impressionists are on tap for fall in the galleries.
Another thing Houston’s known for is paving paradise, so it’s interesting to watch it do the opposite: In the 1,500-acre Memorial Park, known as one of the best places in the city to run, plans are afoot to create a 100-acre prairie mound atop Memorial Drive, which shoots through the park and tends to keep people on one side or the other of the green space. Tunnels through the mound will keep rush hour moving along Memorial Drive, but people (and wildlife, for that matter) will be able to cross the mound and explore the park. It’s supposed to be done by 2022.
Time to talk about the non-tomato tomato, presented on a plate littered with dirt. This Mad Tomato, for such is its menu name, was among the “new tapas” at MAD, the latest restaurant by the people who brought Houston BCN, the Barcelona-themed restaurant. At MAD (for Madrid, of course), you can certainly get a paella, but it’s going to creative, with wood-roasted rice and, perhaps, duck confit.
The Mad Tomato’s dirt turned out to be crumbled pumpernickel, and the tomato itself was gel-filled parmesan mousse with pesto. An amuse-bouche touted as cava turned out to be a piquant gazpacho, and a dessert in the shape of a lemon broke apart to reveal strawberry mousse and compote. Surprises, surprises. Reserve six weeks in advance for MAD, even to get a chair at the bar. It’s the new super-hot spot.
Nearby in the same River Oaks District complex we found the fish and other seafood at the new Ouzo Bay to be surprisingly fresh, even for a city so close to the water. My husband said his branzino was the freshest, best prepared one he’d ever had, and my octopus was incredibly tender. Our appetizer of grape leaves — it is a Greek restaurant, after all — was also satisfying, with meat packed in along with the usual rice.
New in The Heights neighborhood in North Houston, fried chicken and oysters are the favorites at La Lucha, where I especially loved Parmesan-garlic roasted oysters, feather-light shrimp dumplings and an appetizer of figs with goat cheese.
We found surprising Louisiana food inside an office building on Buffalo Speedway at a restaurant called Eunice, a reference to the home of chef Drake Leonard. Towers of seafood from the raw bar are matched by delicious plates such as a crunchy fried quail and panko-breaded, tender roasted oysters.
Rice Village has new restaurants, too, including the first Texas outpost of Los Angeles-based Mendocino Farms. Austin’s expected to get one soon, by the way. Hearty, locally sourced sandwiches with house-pickled vegetables and salads with house-made dressings are its claim to fame. There’s a big, airy room to enjoy them in, too.
One caveat: Houston’s roads are chock full of construction. Listen to your Waze and avoid roads that are closed or down to one lane. That situation, of course, is neither new or surprising.