Given the wealth that surrounds the Village, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that there are some excellent wine lists here: Café Rabelais, El Meson and Helen Greek that focus on France, Spain, and Greece, respectively. Then there are Coppa and Gratify, which offer nice prices, too, in stark contrast to their food. Something else a little unexpected: several worthwhile Middle Eastern outlets here – Hamsa and Badolina Bakery, Istanbul Grill, and Pasha – offering tastes of Israel and Turkey. Maybe it’s the 106,000 people employed at the nearby Medical Center, and the few thousand folks at Rice University, that helps explain some of it.
To note, some old standbys don’t seem to serve the quality of fare than these once did, and not all of the glittery and pricey newcomers are worthy of a visit, so this list is shorter than it probably should be.
Badolina Bakery – Café / Bakery – Just for breakfast and lunch, well, until 5:00, there are savory items like quiches, focaccias and a few Middle Eastern items like shakshuka in addition to European pastries, plus commendable breads and cakes to go.
Coppa – Italian – An interpretation of Italian food that is not authentic but contemporary and satisfying, nonetheless, well-suited for the neighborhood. Pricey for what it is, though, as all of the former Clark Cooper Concepts restaurants are, you can get a good plate of pasta and a decent pizza in an attractive and often lively setting here.
Hamsa – Middle Eastern – The most stylish place for the cooking of the Levant in Houston now, this builds on the success and popularity of the owners’ excellent Badolina Bakery next door. Serving what it describes as “modern Israeli cuisine,” the food will be largely familiar to most Houston diners, but in a more wide-ranging fashion and plated more attractively. A decent array of wines, too.
Helen Greek – Greek – Contemporary Greek fare in a vibrant, thin space tucked in among its neighboring businesses on Rice Boulevard that screams cool bistro. With the wine, it’s all Greek to everyone here, and only Greek, but it will help you learn that Greek wine belongs on the world stage.
Istanbul Grill – Turkish – Interesting, well-prepared Turkish food in a pleasant, informal setting, often lively atmosphere, and noticeably friendly and eager service. Many of their traditional Anatolian items are baked in a brick oven that is evident in the somewhat open kitchen, including the distinctive Turkish pizzas that can provide a filling meal for $12-$17. The kabob platters are a great value here, easily worth the $16.50 tariff for the beef and lamb doner kabob and $18 for the lash shish kabob. The portions are generous and served with a large amount of moist rice and grilled tomatoes and bell peppers. Fresh and warm house-made thin pide bread nicely complements every table. Beer and wine, too.
Lees Den – American – Even with a limited menu and even more limited opening times, this restaurant-within-a-restaurant can be a quirky, tuned-in spot for dinner or just shareable small plates and wine. Thursday through Saturday from 4:00 to 10:00 and reservations are necessary.
Navy Blue – Seafood – The most impressive restaurant to open in 2022, both for food and design, and easily the best one in the neighborhood, the menu is actually quite approachable. Not much decipherable necessary. It ranges from oysters and clams (and caviar) to start with crab cakes, a mussel bisque en croute, fresh pasta preparations and fish. There is a swordfish steak served in a green peppercorn sauce, and an entire Dover sole is fileted tableside. With that and the lobster, you’ve got options; almondine, Oscar and Provençal for the former. A French accent is found in other items, too, a good thing, plus there are a couple of nods to our area with a blackened red snapper and a different-tasting take on seafood gumbo. This is a must-visit for seafood lovers, at least those with some means.
Pasha – Turkish – A homey, somewhat dowdy, option like Istanbul Grill, but homier, serving traditional Turkish food that might appeal to fans of Middle Eastern cooking as it does for Turkish ex-pats. On University across from the Rice campus.
Here a couple of restaurants that I can’t recommend for the food these days, but wine aficionados might want to visit:
El Meson – Cuban / Spanish / Tex-Mex – One of the best wine lists in the city is to found at this casual long-timer on University Boulevard in the Rice Village serving Cuban, Spanish and Tex-Mex fare. There is diversity on the wine menu, too, but the big heart is Spain with enticements from Vega Sicilia in some breadth and depth, La Alta Rioja and Lopez de Heredia and many others, all nicely priced. Excellent by-the-glass program that can be had by quarter-liter carafes, also, filled with neat stuff from Spain like Muga’s Rioja rosé, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Torres in Penedes, plus even a Finger Lakes Riesling.
Café Rabelais – French – This humble, quaint and a bit kitschy French spot is a paradise from lovers of the wines from France in much of its glory. Seemingly all Gaul is represented here, Jura, Savoie, Rhône, Alsace, and Corsica along with Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, with those more interesting than elsewhere if not the grandest of labels. There are more big bottles here, too, not just magnums but also 3-liters and up. Nicely, there are a number of bottles under $30.
A doner (gyro) sandwich at Istanbul Grill