Morning, noon, or night, people find something special to eat or drink at Cork Grinders. As day breaks, cups of Katz coffee and custom-made breakfast sandwiches fill the room with their aromas to wake up anyone who walked in still sleeping. By night, the restaurant's team switches out their coffee drinks for wine and locally brewed beer and the room takes on a lounge-like vibe. Much the of the dining action surrounds the panini press, which grills tasty sandwiches such as the Nola with house-made crawfish and the Texan with bacon, cheddar, and barbecue sauce. But the room itself is a draw all on its own, too. With a drink in hand, diners ensconce themselves in cozy seating framed by distressed walls and high ceilings, often listening to musical acts play on the small stage.
Inside the Four Seasons Hotel Houston, executive chef Maurizio Ferrarese draws on his Italian upbringing to create an ingredient-driven menu of locally sourced Italian fare. Ferrarese always puts his guests first, leaving the kitchen to visit tables as much as he can and even inviting guests to make special requests if they want to test his creativity with original dishes. He doesn't mean to downplay the regular items on his menu, saying, "I designed it so that I have a menu full of dishes that I would recommend blindfolded."
Inside the dining room, servers deliver orders of veal and seared tuna with puffed pantelleria capers or house farm greens with Texas Lone Star goat cheese in small-plate form to share with friends or purposely hide from mortal enemies. Main-course options include seasonal risottos, veal osso buco with glazed root vegetables, and the chef's signature housemade braised-beef ravioli with black truffle and corn purée. During Sunday brunch, cooks mix together eggs and fresh vegetables behind omelet stations and replenish the seafood bar's platters of roasted salmon and striped-bass broccolini.
The modern decor contrasts the rustic recipes with its vivid color, red leather accents, and tabletop holograms. Four private dining areas offer different experiences for small gatherings, from the chef's table with views of the kitchen to the cozy wine cellar with a corked floor and a display of 1,250 bottles.
Since opening in 2003, The Tasting Room has morphed from a wine bar to a full-service restaurant with four locations—all while retaining its wine-bar charm and racking up numerous awards and accolades. Diners can select libations from a list that boasts more than 200 wines, pairing them with contemporary dishes whipped up by executive chef Jonathan LeBlanc. TTR offerings run the gamut from small plates of mini grilled sandwiches and classic bruschetta to entrees including creole-spiced quail and Jamaican jerk chicken breast, which diners can savor at windowside tables or on the plant-ensconced patio and garden area.
The eatery doesn't just sate hunger for eclectic classics and thirst for fermented grapes. It also hosts live music, meetings, and events such as 2011's Grapes vs. Grains, which pitted beer against wine in a liquid wrestling match. The owners have their hands in other culinary enterprises, too. There's the Houston Cellar Classic, for example, an annual celebration of food and wine. Also popular is MAX's Wine Dive, a destination for gourmet comfort food best defined by its slogan—"Fried chicken and champagne? ... Why the hell not?"
Surrounded by Winetopia's brick-laden walls, visitors sample a succinct selection of tapas, absorb the notes of live music and karaoke, and explore the flavors of rare wines gathered from around the world. In the dining room, the arched tops of built-in wine cabinets fit snugly into exposed-brick walls, and the chatter of guests clustered around intimate tables syncs with the clinks of wineglasses alighting on a granite-top bar. A menu of small plates romances appetites with everything from light snacks, such as marcona almonds and indian popcorn, to more substantial morsels, including veggie samosas. Plates strewn with various cheeses find companionship in chatty napkins and the sweet notes of fresh fruit or the deep flavor of assorted cold cuts. The rotating selection of more than 200 small-production wines overrides the need for a formal list, so instead sommeliers pilot patrons through vinos imported from New Zealand, South Africa, Oregon, and Argentina. The less traveled can charter entire flights of wine or sign up for a tasting class, or eschew grapey spirits altogether for one of the bar’s 59 domestic or imported beers.
In its first annual festival, Houston Oktoberfest pays homage to the centuries-old German shindig by corralling more than 30 different beers from both local breweries and the Deutschland itself. German beers such as Hofbräu, Spaten, and Warsteiner swirl with crisp, effervescent flavors that pair deliciously with German morsels. Diners can also enjoy local seasonal pours and complement them by nibbling on autumn leaves. As participants mingle and sip, they can also swing their hips to the sounds of 10 different bands throughout the grounds. Louisiana’s Grammy-nominated Pine Leaf Boys headline the fest with a Cajun set complete with a squeezebox, raspy vocals, and fiddle, and Houston’s own The ‘71’s churn out hard-rock anthems such as “Confession.” The strains of traditional German music bounce off the nearby carnival area, which features games and rides for children, adults, and sentient lederhosen.
Named for one of Spain’s most prominent wine regions, Rioja restaurant's extensive wine menu is merely the icing on a cake made of tapas. Voted the best paella in Houston by the Houston International Paella Festival in 2004 and 2005, Rioja enhances traditional hot and cold Spanish tapas with an array of exotic ingredients. Below intricate wrought-iron chandeliers, entrées of seafood paella and grilled baby-lamb chops pair with more than 50 wines. Stuffed piquillo peppers, prime-beef short rib, and white asparagus imported from Navarra pair up with Spanish paprika and sweet pear purée. After questioning servers about Rioja’s homemade chorizo, guests can study flags on the wall emblazoned with the Spanish crest, the silhouette of a bull, and the silhouette of an astronaut drinking a martini inside a black hole.