It's always fun to be one of the first among your friends and peers to get to try the new place first, and we were excited to get that chance this time around when Bar Louie sent out the call for test subjects to their soft opening. While on the one hand, you want to sit back and be all judgmental about any apparent flaws, on the other it's kind of awe-inspiring to look around and in between the swirling energy of servers, bartenders, bussers and diners to realize the 1,001 things that had to go right to get to opening day. All things considered, I'd rather launch a website than open a restaurant.
That being said, we had a mostly-smooth, pleasant experience, having arrived twenty minutes into what was reported to be the last hour of their second day. We were greeted at the door by a threesome, including a hostess and two servers. As this was the test run, we were given a brief explanation about the mystery envelope we were handed and then lead to a roomy, rounded booth along the north western wall by our server, Adrienne. She seemed completely at ease with the environment and the menu, offering us a cocktail and choice of one of the 20 beers on tap. The mystery envelope included three items from the menu from which we could choose to order one, two or all of; our fates included an appetizer, Boneless Wings; an Italian Beef Flatbread; (we substituted for the Verde Chicken Flatbread) and a "Large Plate" of Macaroni & Cheese. Technically we weren't supposed to change anything that we ordered, but we just didn't think the boneless wings and mac 'n cheese would be enough for a dinner that was already several hours beyond our usual suppertime (our fault, not theirs), and honestly the beef flatbread just didn't sound appealing to us; so we asked if we could please have the verde chicken instead.
Our server obliged, and we requested all of the above. She also suggested the Sailor's Mojito for me, which she claimed was awesome and her favorite, then asked what types of beer he liked, ultimately recommending a Shiner Bock. She left to place our orders at the bar and in the kitchen, and we took in the freshly designed interior while we waited. Amanda, the Service Manager we spoke with at the end of the evening, let us know the design of this location was quite a bit different than previous ones; not only did they want to fit in with the neighborhood, but the patio here in The Woodlands is much larger and more lounge-like than what they have generally been able to do in other cities. The result is a clean, modern feel without going too far into either extreme - the type of club Stefon would recommend, or a Denny's-esque diner.
We tried to not feel just a little (okay, really) disappointed when we heard the server at the table next to us asking one of the guests how they wanted their Louie Burger cooked, and explaining everything that came with their Chop Chop salad, but again, luck of the draw.
The 14 ounce Shiner ($3.75) was on the table within about five minutes, but the mojito would not arrive for some time. Shortly before our food arrived (about 10 minutes later), Adrienne came back and apologized for the delay of the Mojito ($9.50), explaining it was her bad, as she'd had not put the ticket correctly. A runner brought our food to the table right around the 12 minute mark; not a bad turn-around at all.
The Boneless Wings are accompanied by a few fresh celery and carrot sticks ($10) have five sauce options (Buffalo, barbecue, Szechuan, en fuego [she said it was crazy-hot] and un-sauced with a side of ranch) so in the interest of research, we requested un-sauced with sides of each of the sauces. Not unlike Goldilocks and her porridge, we felt the Buffalo was too vinegary, the barbecue was too… just barbecue, but the Szechuan was just right, with some kick to it and a more complex blend of sweetness and peanuts. Bone in or out, however, we'd recommend getting them tossed in the sauce, rather than dry, to give the chicken a better chance to absorb the flavors and moisture, they just aren't really made for dipping.
The Verde Chicken Italian Flatbread ($11) was easily a large enough appetizer for three or possibly four, coming in around at 12+ inches long and easily four inches wide. The chicken was tender and flavorful, all of the veggies where uniformly chopped and fresh (though not exactly uniformly scattered) and the thin bread or crust evenly cooked and definitely not soggy. The Baked Mac & Cheese ($10), which Adrienne had assured us was "awesome," left us disappointed after her build-up. It wasn't bad, and it wasn't exactly bland, either. It just didn't blow us away - or really even wow us. And it certainly didn't strike us as a $10 entrée; it is available with chicken for $4 more but at $14...? The blend of sharp cheddar, American and cream cheeses with a sprinkling of Parmesan weren't as rich and creamy as we'd hoped and actually had a more washed-out flavor; and the pasta wasn't exactly al dente.
Our opinion is this upscale-casual bar will most likely be a crowd pleaser and will likely give Crush Wine Bar some much-needed competition. We see Baker Street Pub and The Goose's acre as being as being little too similar to each other and welcome the diversity that Bar Louie offers to The Woodlands Nightlife scene. The full menu is diverse enough with salads, seafood, burgers and finger foods that just about anyone will find something they want, and seemingly at a higher quality standard than your typical "bar food." Our sole complaint regardless of how many days any bar or restaurant has been in business was the absence of prices from the drink menu, despite their presence on the wine list. Why does it have to be a mystery? You're there, you're going to drink, just be upfront about it – no need to hide the fact that mixed cocktails are going to be spendy compared to soft drinks as that is expected. Amanda noted that Adrienne should have said most cocktails are about $9 when we ordered, but still, we don't fault her for this business practice. When we spoke with her, Adrienne said she had 6 years experience at Red Robin so it might have been just a learning curve on her part.
Amanda also informed us a live music calendar will be forthcoming, and pointed out the kitchen will regularly be open all the way until last call each night... both of these being excellent methods to bring in guests after a movie or a show at The Pavilion. Its closest-to-an-entrance proximity to both the Waterway parking garage and its own 24 Waterway garage isn't going to hurt, either.
Bar Louie isn't necessarily a new concept – with its generally relaxed atmosphere, simple and straightforward menu and extensive bar, we would liken it to a upscale TGIFriday's, Chili's or even Bennigan's – it does bring a new energy and vibe to the Town Center area of The Woodlands. For those members of the population that fall into the 21 – 36-ish, DINK, Yuppie or single crowd, Bar Louie is that comfortable, easy-going alternative to the area's wine bars, upscale dining and family-oriented establishments (though they do offer a kids menu for the 10 and under set).
Next week (April 9 – 13, 2012) Bar Louie is going for the big opening, offering to pick up your tab for your first martini and appetizer when you place your meal and beverage order (limit one free martini and one free appetizer per person with additional purchases required) and already offer Louie's Crew which will get you free foods and other discounts throughout the year delivered to your inbox or mobile phone. Look for them to be open their regular hours of 11:00 AM to 2:00 AM, seven days a week beginning Monday, April 9, 2012.
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