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.
Pinot's Palette combines wine and art to create an enjoyable night out with friends or a date. The painting sessions encourage adults' inner artists whether they have any painting experience or not, encouraging light-hearted conversation, fun, and good cheer while painting and sipping BYOB beverages. Each session's painting of the night may feature anything from landscapes and wine-inspired art to known classics such as Van Gogh's Starry Night, and each painter tackles from their own artistic angle under the guidance of an experienced instructor. At the end of the night, painters can take their painting home with them and ring a "Gong of Awesomeness" on their way out to signify a good time.
"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.
Chef Marco Wiles is practically synonymous with Houston’s Italian dining scene. No other chef has done more to bolster the city’s standing as a gourmet destination for that nation’s cuisine, though he does claim the distinct advantage of having grown up in a small Italian town. Vinoteca Poscol, Wiles’s third and latest venture, is named after a street in that town and ostensibly modeled after a neighborhood-style Venetian wine bar. The chef’s affection for his native land is apparent everywhere in the restaurant, from the focus on Italian varietals to the gondola oars set in place of traditional silverware. In keeping with his reputation for thoughtful, creative pairings, Wiles has crafted each small plate with a selection of fine wine in mind. Whether you opt for the butternut-squash risotto with chicken livers, the spicy prosciutto cotto for your selection of house-cured salumi, or a board of regional cheeses, your server can help you select a wine that complements the dish’s flavors and textures.
A tiny island off the eastern shores of Spain, Ibiza lies at the intersection of Mediterranean cultures. This makes it an altogether proper namesake for Houston’s Ibiza, where chef Charles Clark has created a seasonal menu that reflects a confluence of Spanish, French, and Greek traditions. The Spanish influences are perhaps the most immediately noticeable, thanks to the wide variety of tapas customarily served before dinner. With offerings such as crispy pork belly, duck empanadas, and pan-fried oysters, it’s tempting to make these a main course in their own right. But then there’s the fish, which chef Clark has delivered twice daily and cooks in its own pan jus, and the lamb shank, which he braises for six full hours before serving. Thanks to the restaurant’s open kitchen, guests can stare unblinkingly at him and his team while they work.