La Bikina in The Woodlands Can't Decide What Type of Place It Wants to Be

Categories: Cafe Reviews

If there's a "can't-miss" dish at La Bikina, it's the molcajete de queso, in which two stubby sticks of Monterey Jack cheese are breaded in crumbled chicharrón (fried pork rinds) and gently placed atop a tangy tomatillo sauce with onion and cilantro. It's served in a searing molcajete (a footed stone mortar), and the cheese is stirred into the sauce tableside. The pork adds fat and flavor, while the cheese contributes stringy texture and creaminess. A few more of the small, warm corn tortillas served alongside would have been appreciated, but the complimentary tortilla chips are fine, too.

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The Fish Heads are Distinctive, but it's the Sole That Will Warm Your Heart at Spicy Hunan

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The fish is covered with chile-spiced tomato sauce.
'Fish heads are a delicacy all over China," said my dinner companion, Tony. Chinese by descent, Tony devoured about two-thirds of our spicy fish head plate, a Hunan specialty, all by himself. "The eyes -- the slimy parts -- they are the best," he explained as he contentedly ate his way through the dish, slurping and sucking on parts that appeared to be just bone and skin while leaving all the fish flesh, including the plump, silky collar, to me.

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Radio Milano at CityCentre Deserves Your Attention for What It Does Well

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The burrata is a soft ball of housemade cheese with a creamy center shot through with rivulets of syrupy balsamic vinegar.
Not much has changed about the space in Hotel Sorella that used to house Bistro Alex, and that's just fine. With its ceiling of roughly hewn beams cut vertically from tree trunks and its high glass walls, looks were never the issue. In all fairness, Bistro Alex wasn't a bad restaurant except for a tendency to be a bit dull at times.

Radio Milano opened in October of 2014 and specializes in modern Italian cuisine. Chef Jose Hernandez is at the helm, and he's been waiting for quite some time to have a place to call his own. He was supposed to be the executive chef at La Balance in Katy, but a contractual dispute over ownership led to his departure. Before that, he made quite an impression on diners at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, Étoile and Triniti for his masterful desserts.

Like the chef, Radio Milano is poised to make an impression as well, if enough people venture in. At both a weeknight dinner and a weekday lunch, the dining room was nearly empty. While those can be hard time slots for restaurants to fill, Radio Milano deserves to be bustling, if not jam-packed.

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Bistro Menil Has Some Good Food and Significant Service and Style Issues

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The charcuterie plate includes ham, onions, duck, gherkins, pâté, chicken and crostini -- and mustard.
The charcuterie plate at Bistro Menil is such a remarkable deal that guests might do a double take when it arrives at the table. It's a mere 12 bucks for a wealth of meaty, salty and tart delights. There are tender, firm slices of cured ham; onions slowly bronzed in a pan until dark and sweet; creamy duck rillettes; tart gherkins; homespun, chunky pork pâté; elegant slices of chicken ballotine; slightly sweet almond- and fruit-studded crostini; and last but not least, a ramekin of tangy yellow mustard.

Bistro Menil's chef-owner, Greg Martin, was formerly executive chef of Café Express. Make no mistake: Food at Bistro Menil is a big step above fast-casual salads and sandwiches. However, there are many problems that affect Bistro Menil's functionality. Restaurants are made up of several different systems that should work together to create a good guest experience. Details matter.

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At Aji Peruvian Café, Dining Is a Battle Between Expectations and Reality

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The causa limeña is like chicken salad, potato salad and deviled eggs all rolled into one casserole.
Aji Peruvian Café is a bit of a conundrum. Just when you're about to write the place off after a few deeply freezer-burned orders of empanadas, your waiter shows up with a glass of fresh mango juice so utterly brilliant that it takes your breath away. Bright and sunny, yet with a keen edge of turpentine and a lovely black-pepper bite, it's a simple and elemental thing, and completely arresting. Of course, those empanadas were arresting, too, but for far more felonious reasons.

Even setting aside the stale, musty taste of poorly frozen pastry, the empanadas were a grave disappointment. Small, scantily filled and under-seasoned, they felt like highway robbery at their $4-$5 price point. The pot roast filling tasted strongly of grease; the potato casserole version (the most interesting-sounding of the bunch, with its offer of iced Peruvian potatoes mixed with fried pork, peanuts, onions and garlic) was dry and mealy, with only punctuations of red bell pepper to perk it up a bit; ordered out of a sense of obligation, a sort of Peruvian picadillo version fared better on a subsequent visit, absent the freezer burn but still lacking in flavor and with an overly cake-like texture to the pastry. The empanadas make up an entire section of the menu here. I have no idea why.

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Stick to the Fish and Pizza at True Food Kitchen and You'll Be Fine

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The pink grilled steelhead salmon is paired with red quinoa laced with caramelized onion and crisp, fresh mizuna salad strewn through with cubes of beets in the deepest burgundy.
True Food Kitchen does a good job with fish dishes. Even a carefree gourmand could visit this diet-conscious establishment, order the moist, pink grilled steelhead salmon and be pleased with the experience. It's paired with perfect companions: red quinoa laced with caramelized onion and crisp, fresh mizuna salad strewn throughout with cubes of beets in the deepest burgundy.

The salmon is not the only great fish dish on the menu. The miso cod filet is also good, even if the same could not be said of the unseasoned bok choy that accompanied it or the weak attempt at dashi. The cod was mild, deeply seared on top and included enough brackish miso paste to give it just the right amount of seasoning.

True Food Kitchen did not commit the culinary crime of cooking either fish to dryness. Both were still blissfully tender and moist.

Instead, other offenses are committed here. Some of the dishes served are so, so bland or wrongheaded that diners will struggle to find their redeeming qualities. The individual ingredients are of good quality, but the overall combinations sometimes result in poor mockeries of the classics.

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Main Kitchen Has Much to Recommend It, but the Devil Is in the Details

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The prize in the center of the guajillo short rib tacos is the rich, chopped beef.
The guajillo short rib tacos at Main Kitchen in the JW Marriott hotel are lovely to gaze upon. Pale crumbs of cotija cheese barely hide under a generous sprinkle of delicate cilantro microgreens. Underneath, dark pink and purple hues of pickled onion slivers and cabbage shreds peek out. The prize is deep in the center of the corn tortillas that encase it all: warm, rich, chopped beef.

Unfortunately, the tacos also exemplify how little details really make the difference between a dish that crosses the finish line as a winner and one that stumbles just before the end. The tortillas were barely warm, and the accompanying lime wedges were so dried out that barely a drop of juice could be coaxed from them. Fresh ones were requested, and a squirt of citrus proved to be the crowning touch.

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BCN Taste & Tradition Does Well When It Follows Its Own Best Practices

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
Textures dominate in the bacalao entrée of poached cod topped with saffron aioli and a neatly diced ratatouille alongside.
BCN Taste & Tradition's trio of breaded lamb chops are artfully laid, bone over bone, atop a golden swath of slightly lemony sabayon. A bite through the breading reveals a bit of succulent fat that has been allowed to remain on the outer edge. A second bite seems even meatier when swiped through the sabayon. Propping up the chops are strips of roasted red bell peppers with rounds of zucchini, all of it anchored by a base of thinly sliced potatoes. A flag of rosemary adds a touch of scent and deep-green background color.

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Museum Park Cafe Needs to Take More Chances to Become the Restaurant Patrons Expect

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The roasted heirloom beet salad was delicious and the most memorable item we sampled on our first visit.
Looking at the dinner menu, it feels as if something's missing. The à la carte portion on the stiff, pale gray paper, printed on the left, is shockingly brief, containing all of five starters, three pasta dishes, four mains and four side dishes. To the right, underneath the words "Kitchen Menu," a chef's tasting menu is offered in six courses for $72.

"Is that it?" my dinner companion asked, turning the menu over only to find a blank page. A short menu can be good thing. No need to spend lengthy minutes perusing a congested list of what usually turn out to be average dishes, trying to divine which are the ones worth ordering.

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Moderno Tacos + Tex Mex Needs to Flesh Out Its Dishes to Be Truly Top-Drawer

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The large, tender beef fajitas with charro beans have a nice char.
It might be a fair statement that the merits of a Tex-Mex restaurant can be roughly gauged by the merits of its margarita. For better and for worse, this is certainly true of Moderno Tacos + Tex Mex, a bright, endearingly casual new spot on the western banks of Beltway 8. Bolstered by freshly squeezed lime juice -- the press is proudly displayed behind the bar -- the margaritas here could easily make a short list of the city's best, if they didn't run so perilously close to over-sweet. For a few dollars more, you can opt for a better class of tequila to be shaken into yours; it's nice to see quality offerings such as Tapatio sitting alongside the usual suspects. You might even opt for a nicely woody reposado from Tequila Ocho for a duskier spin on the classic. Perhaps you can persuade the bar to strain yours over fresh ice -- the better to control melting and dilution -- rather than unceremoniously dump the contents of the shaker into your salt-rimmed glass. It's one thing to laud the charming casualness of the gesture, but another entirely to let the drink suffer, even if ever so slightly.

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