Below are my top picks for this year listed alphabetically. I’ll probably stray to others, too, as there are many appealing HRW menus.
Bistro Menil – New American – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – Two courses are offered lunch beginning with its excellent crab cake that’s paired with a caper and cornichon mayonnaise or the duck confit-topped salad also with pear and spiced pecans, and then one of three three desserts: a lemon tart, a Basque cheesecake, and the favorite crème brûlée. Dinner has three courses that might commence on a blistering evening with the Watermelon and Cucumber Salad then a choice from trio of entrées like Grilled Shrimp Skewer with pineapple and salsa verde or Crispy Duck Confit and after, those desserts. I’ve had good luck during HRW here in the past.
Brennan’s – Creole – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – Lunch is the most interesting, with three course for $25 that can include the turtle soup, a sandwich, salad or a pulled pork Benedict and dessert that might be Creole Bread Pudding. And during lunchtime, martinis are just a quarter. These are about two-thirds the size of what’s typical and the supposed limit is just three, but it’s really not a bad deal and something to keep in mind when there’s not much to do in the afternoon. Dinner is nearly as enticing.
Carrabba’s (Kirby and Voss locations) – Italian-American – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $39 – Houston’s favorite and best Italian-American outposts – the two original ones owned and run by the Johnny Carrabba and mom – are an especially fine value for HRW lunch for its robustly flavored, familiar fare. The three courses should start with fried calamari spiced with pepperoncini then on to its terrific House Salad and a choice between a couple rich pasta preparations or the Salmon Arugula Salad that’s tossed in a honey balsamic vinaigrette with Mandarin oranges wedges.
Da Gama – Indian – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $39 – There are three courses at night for just $39 that can be centered on Peanut Chicken Tikka, Gulf shrimp in a tangy Goan-style tamarind sauce, or a Portuguese coconut Kashmiri chili curry, any of which might make this breezily modern and always-adept Indian even more tempting. Lunch is just two courses, a savory or salad and sweets, and maybe even more of a no-brainer if you can make to the Heights earlier in the day.
Etoile – French – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – There are three courses for both lunch and dinner at this tenured French favorite enjoyed for its traditional fare in Uptown, with Maine lobster bisque and beef tartare for both meals. At lunch, the mains are a small filet of sole with capers in brown butter, Coq au Vin with chicken thighs, and French-styled ravioli and risotto preparations. Dinner has more and richer choices, starting with a salad centered by warmed goat cheese en croute, escargot de bourgogne, then on to roasted duck breast or braised beef short ribs. Clafoutis aux nectarines and a couple of other Gallic desserts with almonds provide a sweet finish for each menu.
Georgia James – Steak – Dinner, $55 – Three courses at this stylish and somewhat different steakhouse set in a sterile plaza near Buffalo Bayou can begin with its signature Slab Salad highlighted with the deep yellow English Shropshire blue cheese then onto the Hanger Steak that might still be a true onglet steak and finally from a choice from a trio of desserts including a weather-appropriate Pineapple Vacherin.
Hamsa – Middle Eastern – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – There’s several cooling dips to start for either meal in this bright stylish space in the Village. The terrific baba ganoush should be one from the salatim, an Israeli array of dips and salads, and there are also a choice of larger portions of hummus including one with ground lamb. Dinner is four courses with vegetarian-centered second a skewer for the third – chicken thighs, tenderloin, shrimp or King Oyster mushrooms – and then one from a trio of desserts. Lunch is a lighter, but with three courses and that’s one of the desserts, too.
Hugo’s – Mexican – Dinner, $55 – Dessert should always be on mind at Hugo’s and its siblings, with also-acclaimed sibling Ruben Ortega in charge of the postres. Tarta De Fruta, Tres Leches de Horchata, and Pastel de Chocolate are the HRW dessert choices this year. And you’ve got three appealing courses before that highlighted by a tuna tostada with chipotle mayonnaise, the Filete Oaxaqueño, an eight-ounce petite filet served with mole pasilla, and Pescado a la Veracruzana featuring a seared catch of the day.
Indianola – New American – Dinner, $39, Brunch, $25 – Led by executive chef Paul Lewis, likely one of the city’s most underrated toques, the HRW menu this at attractive EaDo spot is an appealing array of locally and seasonally attuned preparations: Mexican-style corn tempered with Tajin, Cotija and lime crema; roasted cherry tomatoes with a miso- and lemon-accented ricotta; Veracruz Grilled Shrimp; Summer Squash Tagliatelle with smoked eggplant in a lemon-butter sauce; then a take on tres leches or Jiffy Pop Baked Alaska for a fun finish.
Lucille’s – Southern – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $39 – Three courses for under forty bucks for a dinner at this comfy Museum District stalwart is a certainly an enticement. Gumbo Z'Herbs or Fried Green Tomatoes served with a spicy aioli and goat cheese can start before main plate pleasers like its fried chicken, Shrimp and Grits, or Catfish and Grits, with the fish blackened or fried; and Lemon Icebox Pie, Croissant Bread Pudding or tiramisu to finish. Lunch is two courses: one of the starters and then those Shrimp and Grits or a couple hearty sandwiches.
MAD – Spanish – Dinner, $39, Brunch, $25 – The four courses at dinner highlight gastronomic Spain, at least the dishes of the capital, Catalonia and the Basque region with refined versions of traditional items along with some modernist twists. There are four choices for the savory stages and three for dessert. These can be a croqueta or steak tartare at first; tuna tartare or duck salad with fruit and Manchego next; rack of lamb or sauteed shrimp with olive oil and garlic for the entrée; and then on to churros or a brownie version of Basque cheesecake. Always an added attraction here is the city’s most entrancing restaurant bathroom, if a bathroom can be that.
Maison Pucha – French – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – Its French bistro theme strays during lunch but the HRW menu is tempting: gazpacho, watermelon salad with goat cheese and mint, Thai chicken salad, and a hefty sixteen-ounce pork shank done osso buco-style and with a Dijon mustard sauce and Cheddar grits. Rainbow trout does receive the Almondine treatment at both lunch and dinner. In the evening there’s also coq au vin with drumsticks and desserts: crepes a l'orange, crème brûlée á la cardamom, or possibly the fruit salad after the pork dish.
Musaafer – Indian – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – I had a memorable meal here for HRW last year in what might be the top Indian establishment in the area, certainly the grandest and most beautiful. There’s no dramatic, molecular gastronomy-tricked dessert this year, not even at dinner, and the offerings are a little less generous – a $4 upcharge even for naan or accompanying rice, for example – but the food should be delicious and with a number of crowd-pleasers: chicken seekh kabobs, butter chicken, palak paneer, and Goan fish curry then also a lychee ceviche, char-grilled chicken tikka and laal maas with smoked goat in the evening.
Ostia – California Italian – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – A couple of courses are served for the HRW lunch; maybe Caesar Salad or a summery bruschetta then Bucatini Carbonara or a well-turned out white pizza. At dinner, there’s also desserts and heartier main dishes including a version of the famed Barbuto roast chicken. It’s all in a nicely contemporary, breezy setting in the heart of Montrose on Dunlavy.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse (Downtown) – Steak – Dinner, $55 – Arguably the city’s best steakhouse has long done a terrific job for Houston Restaurant Weeks: the offerings, the quality, the value for that quality, service, and setting. The key attraction on the HRW menu is a dry-aged 10-ounce New York strip steak that can be prefaced with a well-crafted Caesar or gumbo featuring turtle and splashed with sherry and then all finished with an excellent key lime pie or New York cheesecake. Though not included in the HRW deal, the remarkably expansive wine list can provide any number of great options to pair with the steak.
Picos – Mexican – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $39 – The menus are fine values and with more choices before an upcharge than about any other HRW participant. For dinner, the entrée highlights are chicken breast stewed in a Oaxacan black mole, Carne asada a la tampiqueña, and Pork Shank Carnitas-style. That’s prefaced with a salad, tostada with ceviche or beetroot carpaccio, and finished with one from a quartet of rich desserts. There are two courses for lunch, which can be hearty. You can start with Nachos Jorge that’s topped with cochinita pibil – listed in 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late by the Roadfood couple about a dozen years ago – or a refreshing tostada with ceviche and finish with its excellent spinach enchiladas, tacos al carbon or four other options.
PS-21 – French – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – For lunch at Philippe Schmit’s comforting contemporary French bistro, you can get steak frites with a grilled New York strip in a whiskey-peppercorn sauce along with their excellent fries – you’ve got to request accompanying mayonnaise, though – or the Bouchon plate that is a mushroom risotto, a vegetarian croque monsieur bite, and a petite Caesar salad. It’s not-so-weather-appropriate, but the onion soup tempered with sherry might be tough to pass on as a first course. In a similar vein, at dinner, there’s a take on the hefty old school hachis parmentier, braised beef layered with truffle oil whipped potato. Also, a bouillabaisse then a trio of desserts including a classic crêpe suzette.
The Lymbar – Pan-Latin – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $39 – A surprising four courses are served for lunch at this playful pan-Latin with strong Middle Eastern notes that’s set in the mixed-use Ion in Midtown. It starts with a choice among empanadas – go with the spinach and cheese or beef kofta – then a salad then an entrée that can be hummus, pasta with chicken, tacos or fried chicken bits and finally a sweet finish that can be the Cordúa-famous tres leches. I imagine the portions will be on the smaller side for all this, but it’s a way to sample a range of the kitchen, at the very least. Dinner is just three courses, but also has a ceviche as a starter and a version of the renowned churrasco over bearnaise sauce and pickled onions.
Wild Oats – Texan – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $39 – Three courses for both lunch and dinner with latter just $39 and that can include what is the city’s chicken fried steak – featuring a Wagyu sirloin – shrimp and grits with summertime grilled cork or flank steak fajitas.
Xochi – Mexican – Lunch, $25, Dinner, $55 – Hugo Ortega and team’s excellent Oaxacan-themed outpost downtown across from Discovery Green has a welcome eight savory options at lunch like roasted duck tacos and shrimp sautéed with chile de ajo and then choice among desserts, a sorbet with fresh fruit, a coconut chocolate tres leches and a horchata mousse cake. For dinner, there are four courses, a starter to share, another appetizer and a little heftier mains, plus an array of more elaborate desserts.
The chicken fried steak at Wild Oats