Urban Eats Puts New Spins on the Classics That Really Work

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Photos by Troy Fields
The "3 Pig Truffled Mac & Cheese" is a standout dish.

The "3 Pig Truffled Mac & Cheese" at Urban Eats is one of the best versions of the dish in Houston. The secret is a complex cheese sauce that includes Fontina, Gouda, Cheddar, Velveeta and cream cheese. Three kinds of pork join the show and turn it into a hands-down hit: bacon, pancetta (cured bacon that's not also smoked) and honey-glazed ham. There's only a small amount of white truffle oil, which thankfully allows the cheese sauce to shine. That's important, because the radiatori pasta (little ridged hunks of pasta reminiscent of radiators) is the perfect shape for capturing it.

Like a cover song, it's a good remake of a familiar tune. At Urban Eats, updated spins on the familiar are the stock-in-trade.

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Not Everything Sparkles at Tout Suite, but There's Enough to Keep You Coming Back for More

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Photos by Troy Fields
The menu features gems like this brioche burger, topped with golden raisins, caramelized onion and a fried egg.

One of the best things about my day job is that it isn't. Midweek days off are a common occurrence, even if they're usually whittled away by my sneaking back into bed to snuggle with the baby (and his mom) after I drop his sisters off at school. We've been trying to take better advantage of these days off, though, or at least more practical advantage. Sometimes, that means hitting the grocery store at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday; it's as empty as six months into a postapocalyptic TV drama, and we're free to roam about at our leisure.

Lately, we've been trying to do something a little more exciting. We're boring and old now, so that means breakfast. As with that postapocalyptic grocery store, though, 9 a.m. on a Wednesday is a great time to go to a popular restaurant, especially if you have a baby with you.

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Prohibition Supperclub & Bar Evokes a Sense of Creole-style Luxury

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
Seared foie gras, fried quail eggs and mixed wild mushrooms laid atop coarse, buttery yellow grits.

Every time we've visited at lunchtime, there are only a few occupied tables at Prohibition Supperclub & Bar, and that's just criminal. At a time when the rest of the city is fried-chicken-crazy, Houstonians are missing out on one of the best renditions: a smoked fried chicken with a thin, crispy crust laden with "house seasoning" (essentially Creole).

The crust is determined to slide off the chicken, and while that may be a technical flaw, it's not really a bad thing. As it falls off, it releases even more of the smoky chicken aroma. No one is going to complain about the salty, spicy crumbs of goodness landing on sturdy but tender green beans the color of springtime or the perfect mashed potatoes.

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Fratellini Ristorante Italiano Has an Old Soul With Traditional Cooking

Categories: Cafe Reviews

Forget that Fratellini Ristorante Italiano is only six months old. It has an old soul. It's a faithful re-creation of Raoul's Italian Grill, which used to be just a mile down the road at the intersection of Theiss Mail Route and Louetta. A manager at Fratellini says the new place was started by the owner's sons. Like the original, it's dimly lit, located in a modest strip center and features a piano player on Fridays, Saturdays and special occasions.

They're trying to overcome the modest surroundings with a small bar, divided dining area, booths and a lot of artwork on the walls of the retail store variety.

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So-So Food, Great Fun: More Than Making the Best of It at Little Matt's

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
Go for the Comfort Texas burger with guacamole, pickled jalapeño and bacon and the garlic fries (better than the sweet potato fries by far).
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. In this special edition of DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you at Little Matt's, a safe haven for all DEFCON levels.

We're doing something a little bit different this time around. Since the restaurant in question, Little Matt's in West University, caters specifically to kids (and the harried parents who serve as their bleary-eyed entourage), I figured I'd look to an expert for guidance: my daughter, Cecilia. She's 11, and has accompanied me on more eating adventures in her brief decade-plus than I had in my first two. I gave her a few simple instructions on what to look out for (food quality, ambience, overall impression, etc.), armed her with a notepad (digital, granted) and asked her what she thought. Her words are in italics. Since this is a formal review, I'm keeping things between the ditches with my own color commentary. I'll leave you to decide whose opinion bears more weight.

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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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