Houston: A Place That Isn't

My relationship with Houston, where I went to high school and where my parents still live, isn't exactly love-hate. It's more approve-disapprove: calm appraisal instead of burning passion, but occasionally the latter breaks through.

On my latest Approve list:
Washington Avenue, one of a (thankfully) growing number of areas in Houston with serious food-and-style energy and even (gasp) the occasional pedestrian. I had a terrific dinner at Washington Ave's year-old Spanish restaurant Catalan last week: A shot of garlic soup, followed by arborio-dusted squid with a fiercely good jalapeno-lime dressing; lamb sweetbreads with cipollini onions and mint; cockles with chorizo and chili broth; and for dessert, the Big Daddy banana split with jalapeno and habanero ice cream (yes—delicious). Next time I'll check out Max's Wine Dive, new on Washington.

Place Notes, a beautifully photographed new collection of cards, each with a note about a part of Houston that has an actual sense of place. The cards are published by Austin's Charles W. Moore Center for the Study of Place, based in a building designed by namesake Texas architect and "The Place of Houses" author Moore. The opening card in the collection says, "Few would dispute that Houston is a city most emblematic of the spectre of placelessness." Indeed. But the cards are a valiant, even successful, attempt to find "place" in a city that's unclear on the concept, and they cover some of my favorite Houston spots: Project Row Houses, West Alabama Ice House, The Rothko Chapel, Bayou Bend. Next time I'll check out the Aurora Picture Show, a small cinema in a restored 1924 church.

On my Disapprove list:
The insatiable Galleria mall, which has eaten up so much real estate that it now feels like a small city—one where there's no need to ever breathe fresh, un-climate-controlled air or participate in any kind of street life. How about putting in a convertible ceiling, so that in mild weather, we can at least pretend we're in a real metropolis instead of a sanitized capsule? Hard to argue with the post-holiday Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue sales at the Galleria, but all too easy to argue with the hundreds of chain stores and fast-food restaurants—with virtually no original, unique little shops in sight.

On my wait-and-see list:
I'm eager to check out The Grove, a restaurant that opened today in downtown Houston and is overseen by renowned Cafe Annie chef Robert del Grande and former 17 chef Ryan Pera. The restaurant is inside Discovery Green, a soon-to-open (April 1) eco-progressive park in the middle of concrete-addled downtown Houston. Will it deserve a spot in the next edition of Houston Place Notes? We'll see.

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