"Don't worry if you don't know much about wine," Manager Mike Kurth told the Houston Press just after the restaurant's grand opening in 2010. "I'll find you something you like." Drawing from a palette of more than 170 wines, Cork Soakers' bottle-handlers exude a casual confidence in dispatching potions to pair with a menu of artisanal meats and cheeses. As they consider the flavor notes of herbed Da Vinci gouda, chévre goat cheese, and smoked duck breast, the wait staff never cross over from savviness into snobbery: as Kurth notes, "Anyone who says they know everything about wine is lying. You can always learn more."
While continuing to build their knowledge base, the Cork Soakers team marinates in an atmosphere of full-on wine culture: cork-covered tabletops and menus, wine-barrel light fixtures, and a giant grapevine slowly entrapping the kitchen staff. At the center of the rustic space, a big table carved from a single mighty tree trunk holds a scrumptious brunch spread every Sunday. In fine weather, diners can take their beverages and bites out to the expansive patio.
Visitors to the Dionsio Winery Wine Festival sample the award-winning rich reds, crisp whites, and sweet fruit wines from a local winery, all while strolling through the streets of historic East Downtown Houston. Local restaurants and venders whip up delectable dinners and food pairings, while merchants such as Dos Hermanas Beaded Jewelry peddle memorable keepsakes and handmade jewelry. Energetic classic rock outfit Thermal Fusion fills the air with a catchy live soundtrack, as staff fill commemorative wine glasses with endless samples of Dionisio's delicious wines. With food, wine, and tunes provided by Houston-based bands and businesses, the fest is a better way to celebrate the local culture than nibbling sandwichs into the shape of the Astro's stadium.
With its fantasy-furnishing fusion of bohemian and baroque decor, Absolve Wine Lounge cossets diners within an elegant dining environment. Sink into a plush velvet armchair and rest your feet on a thick oriental rug while the rustic glow of ornate candelabras to survey the extensive menu with magic-carpet levels of ease. Diners can immerse tongues in the Absolve cheese experience with three cheese choices from a lineup including cambozola, manchego, raspberry bellavitano, roquefort, and more ($16). Prove the old adage that misery loves company almost as much as hunger loves meatballs with the Italian Stallion panini, stuffed with spiced meat spheres and mushrooms ($8), or simplify eats with a bacon pita burger, with beef, bacon, and cheddar jack sandwiched between two slices of crisp pita spread with homemade honey dijon ($8). End an evening on a syrupy note with a sumptuous slice of New York–style cheesecake ($6).
The aromas of succulent small dishes waft through the air as corks pop from wine and champagne bottles inside Cha's modish lounge, whose edibles and atmosphere earned the title of Best Wine Bar 2010 from the Houston Press. Pungent cheeses, olives, honey, and nuts ($15) ferry their cargo of harmonious flavors into mouth harbors. Cool crème fraiche and tarragon mustard engage in salty conversation with passing capers as each secretly hopes for a slow dance with smoked salmon ($10). Groups of four daintily tear at the seams of a blanca flatbread pizza with white-truffle oil and fresh mozzarella, or breathe in the smoky perfume of the barbecue-duck flatbread. The chef ties up leisurely meals with two portions of the dessert of the moment. Though not included in this Groupon, guests are encouraged to heighten their dining experience with jewel-colored libations from an extensive list available by the glass ($9+) and bottle ($30+).
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?"