This was our second visit to Via Emilia in The Woodlands; the (Northern) Italian restaurant has undergone a complete transformation as well as more than doubled in size since the last time we were here. The service is prompt, informed, courteous, and on the spot. No longer are the servers hiding away - the managers are on the floor, the environment is inviting and the aroma is intoxicating. And we had only just arrived. We had reservations "but we went anyway" as I like to jokingly say. And as it turned out, making reservations was a good thing, even with the additional seating and larger bar, the restaurant was seated near capacity when we left; not bad for a Saturday night.
Bonfire Grill is a recent addition to the restaurants in Tomball, Texas. Located on Main Street, Bonfire Grill occupies the shell of a 1940s gas station and is nearby the public access area where events like the Annual Tomball German Festival are held.
Previously home to Patsy's Restaurant, the old service station turned restaurant, sports an authentic Wood Fired Pizza Oven imported from Milan. While they do offer pizza, the menu at Bonfire Grill has a wide variety of lunch and dinner options. Their single page, printed menu is enhanced by various chalkboards and other media with special menu items and adult beverage listings.
On this Friday night visit, we were joined by our friends, a couple from the Tomball area. Here's what they had to say about the atmosphere:
"Our first impression of Bonfire Grill was that the interior was well done - it's intimate, but not overly crowded, and the decor is fun. I liked the lighting and the open kitchen concept. One negative - the giant mirror directly across from the toilet is... unflattering. I get it - you want your guests to be able to get a full-view look at themselves before they head back out to their dining mates - but in the meantime, there are just some things that don't need to be scrutinized."
We recently had the opportunity to enjoy the first of two meals at CURRENT, the beautiful restaurant inside The Westin at The Woodlands hotel on The Waterway. Because of the timing of the invitation, Executive Chef Richard Mendoza asked that we return again once the fall menu rolls out. But on this evening, we sat with Chef, learning about his background, how he runs his kitchen, and how he takes the name of the restaurant - CURRENT - fully to heart when applying it to the menus throughout the year.
The concept of CURRENT is simple; to craft menus around the freshest ingredients available as locally as possible for that time of year (or, "currently"). But also one gets a sense of the use of the word in noun form in the flow of the space - from the curves of the interior areas and seating, to the open spaces allowing for free-flowing views across The Waterway and down to the fountains of Waterway Square below.
Chef Richard's background includes training under a Michelin Star Chef, as well as love of fresh seafood as the former owner of a catering and restaurant consulting firm, and as a captain for a commercial fishing company. He, along with his Executive Sous Chef Johana Gomez, have spent a great deal of time researching the types of foods grown here in Texas; developing relationships with farmers and fishing boat captains, and crafting a seasonal menu around high quality products with sustainable harvest practices.
But we suppose you want to know if all of this means the food is any good or you're going to enjoy your experience at CURRENT, right? Well, let's get into that. As we sat and chatted with Chef, we began with a Cheese Flight ($19). This evening's selection was from Pachi Pachi Cheese out of McGregor, Texas, and included a Cafetero (a wonderful white cheese which is hand-rolled in coffee daily), a Boitemello (a smooth, creamy cheese), and a four-chile-spiked Picoso, along with figs, honeycomb, Texas peach jam, and some spicy roasted almonds. You'd think since Chef was sitting right there with us he'd prompt our wine selection, however, our server, Celeste, was more than capable and prepared, recommending the California red blend Sourverain ($9 glass). Honestly it was hard to stop nibbling away at all of it, knowing we had a full meal ahead of us.
By now you're probably also thinking that since we were invited and Chef was sitting with us to begin with, we'd get off-menu, special treatment. But as it turned out, not at all. Once we'd had our questions answered, he retired for the evening leaving his kitchen in the capable hands of his Executive Sous Chef Johana Gomez and their staff (which we didn't realize until we asked for clarification on the cheese flight). For our first course we split a bowl of Sweet Corn Soup ($8) and a Boston Bibb Salad ($13). The soup was made with grilled Texas sweet corn, still holding on to just a hint of its summer sweetness, even at this late September date. Soups and sauces at CURRENT are never made with thickeners, but simmered and reduced in the traditional manner, intensifying their flavors. The salad included some incredibly fresh Bibb lettuce, which, as Chef had explained to us earlier, comes to them still attached to their roots and cut off only when readying for use to keep them fresh. It also had chives, Applewood smoked bacon, baby heirloom tomatoes, bleu cheese, and was delightful with house-made white wine vinaigrette. The soup had a bit of a spicy finish we both really liked, and the dressing on the salad had a nice bite to it.He Said
Between Chef's passion for seafood, and Celeste's encouragement at it being one of her favorite dishes this season, I decided on the Wild Alaskan Halibut ($34), served on a bed of crushed watermelon gazpacho, avocado, lime, and extra virgin olive oil. The trick she said, was to get a little of the halibut, a chunk of watermelon, and a dab of the guac on your fork to allow for all of the flavors to come through. This then produces a rush of flavors and tactile sensations as the hot flakes of fish swim in the cool juices of the watermelon and the guacamole creates sparks as the mixture winds around your tongue. The halibut was excellent in its own right - tender, fresh, and flakey; completely different than what the staff at BoneFish tried to convince me was correct during our last visit at their place. And Celeste was right; the blend of flavors and textures danced on my palate. Overall, it was an excellent dish.
I optioned for the 1855 New York Strip Steak ($46), served with a red bliss potato puree, watercress herb salad and chive oil. Not only was the steak cooked perfectly to order (medium rare), but I so prefer any cut of beef which can be prepared in such a simple, unfussy manner such as this was. Some cracked black pepper, some sea salt, and grilled. I'm not a fan of multiple-ingredient marinades or seasoning presses for steaks you find in so many steakhouses. Point is - this one was fabulous, and the chive oil over the potato puree and in the watercress herb salad was a great accompaniment.
Here are just a few of the excuses we gave each other for having more than one dessert: they were seasonal (and therefore not available later), they were shareable, they were unique, they were made in-house, they were photogenic... Really though? They just sounded amazing. He ordered the Candied Bacon Sundae ($8), made with housemade candied bacon, toffee-toasted almond ice cream and caramel sauce. I ordered the Cherry Whoopie Pie ($8), a double chocolate cake filled with fresh cherry buttercream.
It seemed like I could pick anything on the menu and it would be fantastic and well, if I was a fan of sweets, the toffee-toasted almond ice cream with caramel sauce likely would have been the perfect dessert. So why pick such a sweet dessert? Great question and the only answer that comes to mind was... "I wonder if it's really bacon"? Yes, it was bacon and couldn't have been any sweeter if it had been made from pure sugar. But then again, I'm infamous for not having the sweeter tooth among the two of us.She Said
The Cherry Whoopie Pies were actually smaller than I expected, and not nearly as sweet; a pleasant finding on both counts. Also accompanying them were two cherry meringues, and a white & milk chocolate, hand-rolled straw which would have stirred and melted wonderfully into some coffee had I not turned it down when offered. After the first bite, I wished I'd saved more room for dessert - then I could have maybe had some coffee to better savor these.
CURRENT appears to still be a hidden gem along The Waterway. Though we were there on a Friday night at the peak of dinner hour, the dining room had plenty of open seating. In our opinion, we think there is a certain stigma that goes along with being the restaurant inside a hotel - that it's there simply for offering bland, overpriced room service meals for weary travelers, and breakfast buffets in the morning. But around here, hotels in The Woodlands area which have restaurants are really stepping up their game, and we certainly feel CURRENT is leading the pack. There are of course other fine dining options at area hotels nearby as well; Robard's at The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center and Johnny's Italian Steakhouse inside the Holiday Inn & Suites spring readily to mind.
But you don't have to take our word for it. Stop in and give CURRENT a try for yourself! As we compared our notes and looked back over our photos these past few days, we found ourselves coming to a thoughtful conclusion - this just might be the first review this year where we have not one remotely negative thing to report on. In summation, our dinner at CURRENT in The Westin Hotel is the best overall dining experience we've had this year; and we can't wait to return.
CURRENT offers breakfast, lunch and lunch specials, dinner, an extensive wine list with more than 60 selections (plus a Captains list upon request), desserts, cordials, and of course cocktails from the adjacent SideBar.
Other Steak and Seafood Restaurants
We recently had the opportunity to dine with a couple of foodie friends at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in Shenandoah. "Where?" You might find yourself asking. Well, through no fault of their own, Johnny's Italian Steakhouse has had a little difficulty letting the world know where exactly they are. We've talked with a number of businesses in the City of Shenandoah over the years, and it seems getting your sign approved is one of the most difficult of many bureaucratic challenges to overcome when opening a restaurant in Shenandoah, Texas. But soon everyone will be in on the best kept secret we're revealing here - which is there's a swanky new steakhouse in town, and you really ought to give it a try before everyone and their cousin is causing the wait times to run long.
We were recently invited to dine at Morton's Grille on The Woodlands Waterway, and having not been in quite some time, were happy to take them up on the invitation. Though we did have a reservation, we arrived a the same time as other guests and seemed to be greeted as warmly as they were - by the general manager as it turns out - Joseph Effert welcomed us along with the hostess. If you've never been to Morton's Grille, it's slightly more laid-back than it's more... dare we say, stuffy big brother, Morton's Steakhouse. Morton's Grille has a sleek and modern feel to it; think stainless steel and black vs. deep oak and rich burgundy.
A small number of restaurants in The Woodlands offer intimate, tailored wine dinners, and Nick's Fish Dive & Oyster Bar on The Waterway offers an excellent food and wine pairing. The talented team of Executive chef Aaron Nelson, and General Manager/house sommelier Mark Hawkins are able to create excellent menus combining Aaron's culinary skills with Mark's wine knowledge resulting in a meal you won't soon forget. Yes, Mark and Aaron are back and the food, wines, and experience is even better than before.First Course
Like many of our readers, we've been to Market Street in The Woodlands a number of times and often stop in at one of the local eateries while we are there. Among the choices is Berryhill Baja Grill & Cantina which offers Baja-style Mexican fast food. Over the years, the food quality seemed to remain pretty consistent but our most recent visit did not meet our expectations. Berryhill is definitely not Tex-Mex and generally has a softer taste profile similar to authentic-Mexican food although the dishes are far from authentic. The staff was upbeat, prompt and friendly yet, that's not why were there. That being said, the food at Berryhill could be more exciting and maybe we would find it to be if it weren't for all of the great Tex-Mex restaurants in The Woodlands.