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The Flavors of Havana at HAVANA HOUSTON

We all know every city has remarkable culinary secrets, only reserved for “the few and the chosen”. We have just found one of them: “Havana Houston”. Owned by Hanoi Simanca and Jesus Cabeza -of course from Cuba-, they have gathered their extensive backgrounds as restaurateurs to develop a true Cuban treasure that tops all of my previous Caribbean discoveries of the past 33 years of tasting some of the best cuisines in the nation.

Cuban restaurants across the country are very casual and rustic, almost as if you were in the island. Unlike most other Cuban restaurants, Havana Houston offers a warm and inviting ambience, a white tablecloth dining experience, accompanied by a violinist and pianist alternating nightly. Starting with the ambience and decoration, this is another world, worked to the smallest detail. Everywhere you turn, there is something to admire and enjoy.

Within the city of Houston, you will come across many great Cuban restaurants. However, Houston’s unquestionable best Cuban flavors are to be found in Memorial, right off Memorial Drive at Dairy Ashford. No one that appreciates Cuban food, and is willing to take the risk of getting addicted, can afford not to visit Havana Houston.

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The kitchen of Havana Houston goes beyond the island’s style: This is what I would call a refined international cuisine with a wide variety of dishes from the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe, all merged together with a fusion from the most popular and authentic dishes and flavors of Cuba.

Let’s start our visit with some great appetizers, such as the Tuna Tartare with Guacamole, a fresh ahi tuna tartare with lemon oil, mint sauce and sesame seed oil, or the Guajiro Sampler Platter, stuffed toston cups with béchamel sauce, ham and cheese; fried maduros, fried yucca in chimichurri sauce, and fritura de Malanga.

The Steamed Mussels in Green Chili Coconut Sauce, seasonal mussels cooked in chili lime coconut sauce, white wine and cilantro, or the Cubano Sampler, composed of ham croquettes, a chicken & cheese empanada, a beef empanada, stuffed plantains with shrimp, and beef stuffed potatoes. The Beef Carpaccio, a thinly sliced beef tenderloin topped with shallots, parsley, balsamic reduction, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, also makes a great choice. Perhaps you may decide to go with the Cheese Plate, an assortment of cheese, grapes, nuts, crostini, and spice quince paste.


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The soups include Split Green Peas Soup, a unique twist with asiago and crema, or the Potato and Leek Soup, silky smooth creamy potato and leek soup topped with Manchego cheese and fresh green onion.

When it comes to the salads, you don’t want to miss the Havana Houston Salad, a spring mix tossed with three radishes, carrots, quinoa, avocado, enoki mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and apple vinaigrette, or the Baked Goat Cheese Salad, combining spinach and baby arugula, goat cheese crostini with pomegranate seeds and balsamic vinaigrette. The Cuban Salad, Lettuce, tomato, avocado, cucumber and lemon vinaigrette make another favorite.

Now let’s move to the meats. The Veal Piccata with Capers Lemon Butter Sauce, is a delicious thin sliced veal filet pan seared in lemon butter sauce, with fricase of fingerling potatoes and french green beans. Another great option is the Fire-grilled Filet Mignon, an 8 ounce Prime Mignon served with scalloped potatoes, broccolini with a port wine reduction sauce, or the Grilled Caribbean Ribeye Steak, a 12-ounce Rib-eye seasoned with Caribbean spices, stuffed potato croquette and sautéed baby carrots, served with green peppercorn sauce.

And of course, you can’t pass up the unique Cuban signature: Ropa Vieja, shredded beef slowly cooked in criolla sauce and red wine, served with green fried plantains, or the Osso Bucco, braised in a red wine and Cuban spices served with crimini barley and baby carrots.

For those who prefer pork or chicken, options include the Oven Roasted Herb Chicken, a roasted airline chicken breast atop a cannellini and sausage stew topped with chorizo broth, or the Chairman’s Reserve Premium Pork Double Bone Tomahawk Chop, an oven roasted double bone pork chop, sautéed fingerling potato, asparagus, and dried figs with a Madeira wine reduction.

Other house specialties, now from the seas, include The Skuna Bay Salmon, a fresh cilantro and tomato curry wild rice, sautéed asparagus with a mango sauce, or the 7 Mares Paella. A Cuban version of this classic saffron rice dish guarantees seafood in every bite; loaded with clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, crab, lobster and fish. You may also consider trying the Varadero Lobster, made from lobster chunks in a creamy béchamel sauce served with mascarpone spinach risotto.

All recipes are original creations of Chef Nelson Duarte. Allow me to stress the clear distinction between a chef and a cook. A cook will put together a dish from a recipe. A chef will create, improvise, and compose a delicious dish from scratch, and make it as unique as you please. And this is what happens at the “Chef Table”. Inside this private room for a small VIP group, you are greeted by the Chef Duarte himself through a private door connecting right into the kitchen. Here your dream dish will become a reality, right out of your own imagination. Anything and everything is possible.

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The wine list includes the best options from the top producers in the world. Now, let’s be clear, a perfect dining experience must end with a magnificent dessert and a cappuccino or an espresso. Under the creations of Argentinian pastry chef,Claudio Fotti, you are guaranteed to seal your lunch or dinner like royalty.

The desserts alone are an invitation to keep you coming back. Options include the Yuca Buñuelos, a traditional Cuban dessert made from yuca in sweet syrup, or the Grand Marnier Double Chocolate Cake, a soft and amazing chocolate cake lovers fantasy. The Crème brûlée, traditionally a French dessert, is another favorite. Now imagine this one: Hazelnut & Mocha Cake, milk chocolate covered dome of hazelnut mocha cake mix adorned with gold leaf edible garnish. A true delight!

New York Style Cheesecake with Guayaba Sauce, made famous in New York for its creaminess is a favorite. The Mango Mousse with Raspberry Sauce, is a mango mousse custard square cupped shaped and filled with raspberry sauce. Finally, the Hand Crafted Gelatos, made fresh weekly at Havana Houston, are creamy and rich Italian style gelatos with flavors such as Vanilla, Mango, Rum Raisin, Lemon or Whisky.

Havana Houston offers live music nightly but exclusively on Thursday’s they offer a “Cuban night” where you can enjoy the owner’s signature 15-year-old recipe for Mojitos and have the opportunity to dance authentic cuban salsa at the patio.

Sundays the restaurant is closed, but they are ready to open it to host your private event. Additionally, they offer catering and even their chef is available to come to your home to make your private party an occasion to remember.

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The patio offers the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors in the midst of a gorgeous decoration. Now is the perfect time of the year to enjoy it.

I thought I would never say this in a review, but a visit to the restroom is a must you can’t afford to miss. This is an experience of its own. On a final note, the complimentary valet is always a major plus.

Ready to be spoiled at Houston’s top Cuban adventure? Join me at Havana Houston! 5 Estrellas.

HOUSTON’S PRESIDENTIAL MANOR HOUSE

Arriving at The Houstonian is unlike any other experience in our city. The moment you drive in thorugh the access road, you know you are in for a presidential experience.

The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa was built in 1979 and opened in early 1980. The developer’s vision was to create an urban campus where governmental and business leaders could come together in a healthy, tranquil environment. They chose a thinly developed, wooded enclave on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in an area just west of Memorial Park as the ideal site for their executive retreat facility.
Among the assets acquired was an estate home, designed by John Staub, built for a local oilman by the name of Lawrence Reed, on property near residences owned by Albert and Ernest Fay. Given the home’s charm, craftsmanship and history, it would remain and operate as The Manor House restaurant.  Staub’s attention to detail, including wide plank flooring imported from Brazil, is still a part of the home. Today, the Houstonian Campus is a 27-acre refuge located west of Memorial Park, just a few miles away from Houston’s central business district. The Campus is home to a 289-room luxury hotel and conference center, a 175,000 square-foot, first-class health club serving hotel guests and private club members, a relaxing 17,000 square-foot spa, and a 142,000 square-foot Class-A office building.

This wooden oasis, packed with history and luxury, is well worth an article of its own. However, today we are only focusing on the hotel’s predecessor, the historic Manor House. This gorgeous cottage-style home has seen its share of celebrities, dignitaries, and even a president. For the past 30 years, it has been a where-the-elite-meet destination; a private, Houstonian Members dining club by day, and a private-function venue for nights and weekends. Since it was renovated and launched as the Manor House restaurant thirty-one years ago, in 1986, it has essentially held members-only status.

For over two years now, the Houstonian has made the Manor House restaurant open to the public in celebration of the historical treasure’s 30th anniversary, just a little over a year ago. This shift allows anyone appreciative of the finest dining experiences, the opportunity to delight in a menu and a level of service second to none. The beautiful restaurant is open for lunch, as well as for private receptions and parties in the evenings and on weekends. Executive Chef Neal Cox, who oversees all culinary operations at the Houstonian, including the Manor House, calls the menu “Gulf Coast Creole” built on traditional French technique. “For the most part, when people walk into the Manor House there’s a degree of presentation and taste that is quite classical,” said Cox, who has been with the Houstonian for six years, and whose résumé includes work at some of the most prestigious retaurants in town: Churrascos, Américas, Trevisio and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. “We’ve made a market for ourselves for people looking for that.”

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Since March 2017, Cox is offering a new lunch-only menu. It includes classics such as the Lemon Sole Meuniere with jumbo lump crab served with haricots verts and almond popcorn rice, steak tartare with Yukon potato chips and Mache salad, Cobb salad, Southwest Caesar salad with roasted corn, black beans and toasted pepitas, and smoked salmon eggs Benedict. But Cox also has injected the spring menu with flavorful new dishes including the Gulf Snapper with Pontchartrain sauce and a griddled Johnnycake, filet Oscar with jumbo lump crab, asparagus and Bearnaise sauce, and a veal short rib with fava bean risotto. He also has added crawfish bisque, asparagus salad with lardons, and baby kale salad with farro, spring vegetables and heirloom tomatoes.
It’s a menu as rich as the history of Manor House itself. The 1955 structure was designed by Staub as a residence for Texas oilman Lawrence Reed. In 1971, the parcel of land, including the home, was sold to Tom Fatjo for the construction of the Houstonian. In 1982, it was redesigned as the hotel’s presidential suite, and used by a number of celebrities and dignitaries (the King of Spain; Jack Nicholson’s pad while he was filming “Terms of Endearment”. George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush later used it as a residence while Bush was director of the CIA. As president, Bush returned to the Manor House for the 16th G7 summit, held in Houston in 1990 and attended by United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand (economic treaties were signed in the Botanical Room).

Since 1986, when it became the Houstonian Club’s private venue, it has been the site of sumptuous weddings and other special occasion events.
But when the hotel began plotting how to mark the Manor House’s upcoming anniversary, the decision to open it to the public – so that more Houstonians could experience it as members have – seemed appropriate.

“We knew it would be a great change for the whole property. To open it to all Houstonians in its 30th year means more guests dine and more guests experience the history here,” said Steve Fronterhouse, hotel general manager.

“Guests can now experience the Staub rooms with their Peruvian mahogany floors, rich textiles and English manor décor. It’s a stately, dignified spread but entirely welcoming, complete with a menu designed to remind people that graceful dining exists amid our fast, casual restaurant realm.”

“We want people to know that there’s still a place dedicated to this type of food,” Cox said. “We’re staying true to the roots of Manor House and what we’ve always done – creating memories.”

 

 

OUR DINING EXPERIENCE

A few weeks ago, I was enjoying lunch with a friend at one of Uptown-Galleria’s finest restaurants, when some “men in black” styled individuals walked in, and scouted the venue. They stood in the restaurant for a good twenty minutes, silently observing the two only tables occupied at the time. It felt like an FBI operation was underway. Suddenly, president George Bush, and his wife Barbara, were rolled in by another team of Secret Service agents. Sitting just two tables away from one of the most respected presidents in modern history, filled the room with an overwhelming sense of solemnity. And I just couldn’t help it stopping by their table on my way out and shaking hands with both him and Barbara. Of course, in a matter of seconds I was surrounded by half a dozen agents that were sitting at the next table, but that didn’t stop me from seizing the moment. What a memorable lunch that was! From this point forward, visiting that restaurant will never be the same.

Now, try to imagine dining at The Manor House, which had become the Bushes’ second home while Mr. Bush was the leader of the free world! Emotions aside, now let’s talk about what brought us to The Manor House in the first place: its reputation as one of Houston’s greatest cuisines.

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Of course, a fine-dining experience starts with fine service, and when it comes to that, The Manor House is bound to offer “presidential” attention to meet your highest expectations.
We started the adventure with the Gulf Coast Seafood Gumbo, – a tasty seafood soup – and a Pastrami Spiced Tuna, accompanied by a well-seasoned variety of pickled garden vegetables, olive salad, and muffuletta croutons. Both dishes share an obvious touch of Chef Cox’s personality.

The Grilled Peaches, Spinach, Sazerac Bacon Dressing, Candied Pecans, and Local Goat Cheese was an amazing option from the variety of salads offered; fresh, savory and very pleasing to the eye, and the cheese was an almost artistic touch to the colorful combination of flavors.
For entrees, we tried the Blackened Redfish Bienville, Gulf Shrimp, Crab, served with Baguette and Chicory; a fresh and fascinating sampler from the seas.
My absolute favorite: the Steak Diane with Bourbon Mushroom Ragout, Onion Confit and Yukon Potato. The steak was as tender as I have seldom tasted in Houston, cooked to perfection, and seasoned to highlight the natural flavors of the meat.

Of course, the signature dessert was the seal on the experience: the Banana Pudding, made with Vanilla Wafers, and topped with Caramel and Vanilla Ice Cream, made a great choice. However, the Hazelnut Chocolate Brownie Crisp, with Nutella Swirled Ice Cream, Fudge Sauce and Toasted Pecans, was the killer. Just this one dessert, on its own, was worth the visit.
Now unexpectedly open to the general public, The Manor House is a mandatory culinary stop to all who appreciates fine cuisine, especially while being under the enchantment of one of the most historical restaurants Houston can offer.