Swanky Houston Happy Hour

I recently visited Benjy’s Lounge for an after work happy hour with a few of my lady friends and while I felt the happy hour pricing to be pretty weak the experience was still a pleasant one. I had dined in the restaurant for dinner before but never ventured to the Lounge upstairs. It was a great atmosphere with deep, comfy couches and low lighting. There is an outdoor patio that will be great once this Houston weather cools off… maybe around Christmas. If you are a wine drinker, though, you aren’t going to get any sort of happy hour deal on drinks. The only discounts are on the signature cocktails which are mostly martini-style. Happy hour in the Lounge is from 4-7pm. Appetizers are also discounted, though, at $6 each. We shared a few of these and they were all pretty tasty. As for drinks, I started off with a glass of still wine and then decided that I had better kick it up a notch with some bubbles. The situation just called for it… it usually does, though, right?

First let me tell you quickly about the food and then I’ll finish with the most important part… the wine. Like I said before, we shared several of the specially priced appetizers: chicken pizza with manchego cheese, spinach, lemon zest, pine nuts and a garlic confit; beef arepas with griddled corn and jack cheese cakes and something called voodoo cream; smoked salmon tacos with truffled potatoes and grapefruit crème fraiche. My favorite was the chicken pizza which was cheesy and yummy. The lemon zest added a special something that took it from alright to really good. The tacos were a gift from the kitchen on the house which of course made them taste better. The beef arepas wasn’t really anything to write home about. They were OK. The corn cake underneath was the best part. It tasted like polenta which I always enjoy.

Now let us get down to business. I began the night with a glass of the 2006 J Vineyards Pinot Gris from Sonoma County. This Russian River Valley wine was juicy and clean tasting with flavors of apples, pears and tangerine. My favorite part was the smell of honeysuckle when I lifted the glass to my lips. While this wine was lovely, it wasn’t quite what the doctor ordered so I switched it up a little. Next, I had a glass (or two…) of the Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut which is always a classic, and economical, choice in my opinion. This Washington wine is crisp and clean with just a touch of sweetness. It goes down easy but a single sip packs a lot of punch. The Pinot Gris was $10 a glass and the DSM was $8 a glass.

You can see all of the wines Benjy’s offers on their website. While their wine list overall is not exactly extensive, it is creative. I always like seeing a wine list that coaxes customers out of their comfort zones by offering wines that aren’t totally generic. Hopefully it will get some diners to try something new.

SoVino: Round Two

After the little preview I got while out with Andrew for my birthday, I had to make a second trip to SoVino and see what else it had to offer. The whole experience was fantastic! Both owners (Manfred Jachmich & Elizabeth Abraham) were there mingling with patrons (which I loved) and couldn’t have been any nicer. I think it is great that they are so involved with their business. This time I went with three friends and we had dinner as well as wine.

The food menu is as creative as it is delicious. We started with the Bruschetta and then I had the Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Pistachios. For my entrée I ordered the Mussels which were really good. They had an excellent flavor and I would definitely order them again. They were served over a polenta cake with a mushroom ragout. Mmmm mmm. My friend Catherine ordered the Short Ribs served over Gruyère polenta. Wow. Next time I am there and feel like drinking red wine… watch out! Short ribs all the way! AJ and Lauren split a Pizza and the Shrimp and Grits which was very tasty but really spicy so watch out if you don’t like spicy food! If you do, you’ll love it!

Speaking of wine… let’s get to the good part! First of all, let me say how great our waiter/wine guide was. His name was Jesus and I hope that some day you are lucky enough to have him as your server. We had such a wonderful time talking about the wines we were trying and you could tell he was genuinely interested and excited about the wines that they offer. He had a great knowledge of all of them and even wrote down a few more suggestions for me to try on my own. Since a bottle doesn’t go too terribly far with four people, we were fortunate enough to get to try several of the white wines on their list. We actually started with some sparkles (Catherine called ahead and they had it waiting on ice for us at our table) for a belated birthday toast for me and then also for a congratulatory toast for Lauren and AJ who just got engaged. We had plenty of reasons to celebrate!

We definitely got the night started off right with the Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rosé which is a sparkling wine made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes. This rosy French treat was crisp with light flavors of strawberries and cream. It was fruit forward but not too sweet. Overall, it was very enjoyable. After we were done toasting, we moved on to still white wine. We began with the 2006 Alexana Pinot Gris by Revana Family Vineyards. This is a fairly new winery and this was their first Pinot Gris and it was lovely. It had flavors of citrus and honey with just the slightest hint of creaminess. I think it was lacking a little in structure but it was still good. They have a vineyard in Napa where they produce Cabernet Sauvignon but this was a project out of Willamette Valley, Oregon which is known for great Pinots. Interestingly enough, the owner of the winery, Dr. Revana, is a local cardiologist here in Houston. Next we tried the 2007 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. I really enjoyed this wine because it was drier and sharper which I prefer. It definitely had some grassy flavors going on and Lauren made the comment that it smelled like Christmas trees while Catherine said it tasted like cactus. I plan on trying this one again at home. Jesus was kind enough to bring out a few little tastes for me so I could sample a few other wines. One I honestly can’t say that I was crazy about but I am really glad that I tried it because it was by far one of the most different wines I have ever tasted. It was a 2007 Colomé Torrantes from Salta, Argentina. It had a soapy, bitter taste (think arugula) and the most interesting part was that the flavors hit the roof of my mouth and not my tongue. I thought I was going crazy but he said that he thought the same thing and Catherine agreed with me as well. I had just never tasted a wine like that in my life. He said that he did not like it the first time he tried it but it has grown on him and now he quite enjoys it. I would try a glass again just for research purposes but I don’t believe I’ll be buying a bottle any time soon to drink at home. He also gave me a little taste of the 2007 Graffigna Pinot Grigio which he said is currently one of their best sellers. It is from San Juan, Argentina and I can see why it is popular. While there really isn’t anything extraordinary about this wine, it was very crisp and clean and tasted like you were biting into a fresh green apple. It is a perfect summer wine. When they brought out our dessert (Cranberry Bread Pudding and S’Mores… yum and yummier) they also brought out a dessert wine for us and it was really good. We had the Two Hands, Brilliant Disguise Moscato Sparkling 2007 from Barossa Valley, Australia. Dessert wines are still fairly uncharted territory for me so I was glad to have the recommendation. So far I have no complaints!

SoVino has quickly become one of my favorite Houston wine bars and/or dinner spots. The atmosphere is right up my alley and you can’t beat the food and wine selections. While the wine list isn’t huge, I believe they are going for quality over quantity as every wine I have tried there has given me something to write about and I can’t say that for a lot of places. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and I can not imagine going there and not having a fabulous time. I will definitely be back soon!

Voice & SoVino… So Wonderful

If my birthday celebration was any indication of how this year is going to turn out, I think 26 is going to be pretty great. After a night spent with family and friends on Friday, Andrew and I had Saturday night to ourselves and it was such a treat. Ever since Voice opened in April at Hotel Icon in downtown Houston, I’ve been itching to try it. I’ve also wanted to try SoVino for a while now and I was so pleased with both places!

Mandee & Andrew At SoVino

Mandee & Andrew At SoVino

Walking into Voice, the decor and design of the resaurant are immediately impressive. It’s very cool and classy but fun at the same time with black and white cowhide barstools, velvet patterned drapes hanging from the very high ceiling and ornate gold trim everywhere. Leather chairs made for comfortable dining but we were seated at a table for two and it was so long that it felt like we were a mile away from each other. That was the only part of dinner that I didn’t love. It made it difficult to share things, which we always do, and even to have a conversation. The one thing that made up for the lack of gab was the awesome music they had playing in the background. Everything from the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson made dinner a lot more entertaining. Enough about the atmosphere, let’s get to the good stuff. Food and wine!

We ordered by the glass since I was in the mood for white and he wanted red. They could have offered a few more options by the glass but overall their wine list looked pretty impressive and was very well priced. I would say it was definitely one of the best value wine lists I have seen in Houston. I thoroughly enjoyed my 2006 Van Duzer Pinot Gris from Willamette Valley, Oregon. It was light, crisp and refreshing which is exactly what I wanted and expected. It was structured and balanced with a clean finish. It would go well with at least half the menu which made ordering dinner especially easy. I started off with the Mushroom Soup Cappuccino which was heavenly. Crimini mushroom soup topped with truffle foam and porcini powder. It almost plays with your mind a little when it first arrives in front of you in a coffee cup because it truly does look so much like a cappuccino. I then had the Maytag Blue Cheese Salad which was good but nothing to write home about. Andrew ordered the Asparagus Salad and they looked almost identical while they sounded completely different on the menu. For my entrée I had the special which was a Tazmanian Trout which looked and tasted like salmon. It was very good but I would order something else next time. Andrew started with the Composition Of Local Heirloom Tomatoes with goat cheese, black mission figs and arugula… very tasty but exactly what you would expect. I like that all of the ingredients are local. His entrée was to die for! He ordered the Venison Sous Vide with a sour cherry sauce. My mouth is watering just typing about it right now. It was so tender he didn’t even need a steak knife. It also paired beautifully with his Australian wine, a 2005 Loose End GSM (Grenache, Shiraz and Merlot) from Barossa Valley. It was fantastic and definitely a wine I plan on seeking out to enjoy at home. Perhaps the most exciting part of this meal were the Truffled Parmesan French Fries. Yes I said Truffled Parmesan French Fries. Little bites of HEAVEN is what those were! It was just silly how good they were. I would say they were better than dessert which is true blasphemy for a sweet-eater like me. Speaking of sweets… I can’t really complain. While it looked like they had several yummy choices, our waiter decided to order for us which we were ok with. Normally I wouldn’t have been but I think I may have been a little bit high on truffled french fries and my judgement was impaired. Before my delectable Study in Chocolate came out (and Andrew’s Warm Chocolate Cake) we had a champagne toast to celebrate my birthday. Like I always say, you can’t properly celebrate without some bubbles. We each had a glass of Leon Palais Brut Blanc de Blancs from Champagne, France and it was perfect. It was, in my opinion, everything a good glass of bubbles should be. It wasn’t too sweet, it had a gorgeous single line of bubbles coming straight up the middle of the flute and it went down easy. It was so good that it left me wanting more… which led us to SoVino.

Birthday Wine

I am actually headed back to SoVino this weekend because I didn’t get enough of it on my first trip. The atmosphere was fantastic. Here we were able to sit next to each other which was nice since we were so far apart at dinner. The lighting was dim and romantic, the music was good and the company was better. I decided to stick with bubbles and enjoyed two marvelous glasses of Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. I actually liked the Leon Palais better but would be happy to order this again as well. Andrew drank the 2003 Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa which of course inspired me to go on some sort of rant about Oberon, the King of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s about as intellectual as I got that night. My brain was too overwhelmed with delicious food and wine to think about anything else. It was all in all perhaps the best birthday I have had to date and I am so excited to see where this year takes me!



Pretty Pink Bubbles

I remember the first time I ever ordered Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine at a bar and was absolutely stunned when the bartender brought me a champagne flute and a hot pink can. What the heck??  Wine in a can? Ewwwww. The precious pink can quickly won me over just because it was so darn cute with it’sSofia Minis peppy pink color and swirly white writing. While I thought the can clever and cute, I didn’t expect much from the wine. However, it was actually really good! I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the best I’ve ever had or anything, but definitely tasty. It was a bit heavier than I prefer my sparkling wines but the flavor and bouquet were very unique. The fragrance is almost like a perfume and the flavors are bright – think melon, lemon and honeysuckle. This wine was created for Sofia Coppola by her father, Francis Ford Coppola as a wedding gift so you could say it was created with love.

I had actually almost forgotten about these little bubbly babies (as my juice usually pours from a glass container) until yesterday when I was at a surprise party being thrown to congratulate a friend. A friend of mine brought several 4-packs of Sofia Minis (this is what the cans are called) and they were absolutely adorable in the silver ice bucket. They come with little straws attached to them… perfect for saving lip gloss! So cute for a party or any time you need bubbles on the go (maybe poolside). Everyone oohed and ahhed and got such a kick out of them so if you’re planning on entertaining any time soon, the Sofia Minis might be worth considering. If cans aren’t really your thing, you can also purchase Sophia Blanc de Blancs in a bottle that is so lovely and comes wrapped in pink cellophane. The presentation of these wines is half the fun. Whichever you choose, bottle or can, it will definitely make a flirty and feminine statement. If you are in Houston, you should be able to find these wines at Spec’s. I actually found a bottle at Fountainview Liquors in the Galleria area for $17.99 which is a good price. I believe the suggested retail is around $19.

Sofia Blanc de BlancsThis wine is made from a blend of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat grapes grown in Monterey County where they enjoy a long and cool growing season. This allows the wines to develop that crisp acidity that we all enjoy so much from our bubbles. There is one Sofia wine left for me to try and that is the Sofia Pinot Noir Rosé. It’s on my list! I’ll let you know what I think once I have a little taste. Until then, sparkle on my friends!

Sparkling Spanish Cava at a Spectacular Price

1+1=3 Cava Brut1+1=3 is how U Mes U Fan Tresa Spanish winery, labels all of their bottles. Their non-vintage cava brut is definitely worthy of some space in your refrigerator. It’s crisp and clear and tastes clean and only slightly sweet. It is spectacular alone but since it doesn’t have an overwhelming fruitiness it is the perfect partner for OJ on Sunday Funday (mimosas=yummy happiness). Non-vintage only means that the grapes used to make this wine weren’t all grown and harvested in the same year. This is common for sparkling wines. Sometimes you will see them marked as NV. Cava can sometimes be a bit harder to find due to the overwhelming popularity of it’s bubbly French cousin, champagne. The difference between the two is primarily geographical as they are both made using the same method. Italian Prosecco is made a little differently creating a fruitier final product. If you are in Houston, one place that I know carries this wine (they actually recommended it to me once) is a wine bar/store called Cova. It is located near Rice Village on Kirby. There is another location on Washington but I am not sure that they carry it. You should be able to pick up a bottle for less than $15. Enjoy the bubbles!

Sommelier: suh-mah-‘yAy
A wine steward; specializes in all aspects of wine service

I can’t really say fairly that they are the best in Houston because I haven’t met ALL of them but they are by far the best I have come across in this city. Recently, I was lucky enough to enjoy a celebratory dinner at Catalanoff of Washington. It was actually our one year anniversary and the exact spot of our first date. We absolutely will not be waiting another full year before returning. I think our first visit was just too blurred by visions of romance to even notice how wonderful the setting was. We noticed this time. Our waiter was amazing but in addition to his fantastic service we had not one but two sommeliers working with us to make sure we had the perfect wine to go with our meal as well as dessert. They didn’t shy away from any question (and I always have plenty) and they actually took what we said to heart. They recommended wines based on what they believed we would truly enjoy, not just the most expensive on the list (and we didn’t give them a limit). I find that truly impressive. Everything we drank that night was recommended by them.

Being a celebration, we had to start with a few bubbles. You can’t celebrate properly without them in my opinion. We had a delicious half bottle of Guy Larmandier Cramant Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut from Vertus ($31). It was wonderfully crisp and clean and refreshing. It had enough pop in every sip to make a little go a long way and it wasn’t overly sweet for a pre-dinner toast. Everything about it was perfect for that occasion and it definitely created a buzz of excitement for what was to come.

During our dinner we enjoyed an absolutely breathtaking Spanish Tempranillo Vino de la Tierra de Zamora – Vinas del Cinit Vino de la Tierra de Zamora “Cenit” ($49). This was one of the very best red wines I have ever tasted… sexy and complex. It was so smooth but had enough substance to give every sip a value all it’s own. We ate a variety of foods with this wine and it went well with almost anything which makes it even more of a gem. Everything from foie gras to pork belly to rabbit pie… I understand that this must sound like a crazy menu but believe me when I tell you it was one of the absolute best meals I have had in ages. We do the “small plates” which make for a tapas style dinner. I always enjoy this the most because you get to taste so many different wonderful things. To do that and find a wine that you enjoy with every dish is challenging. Definitely a must try!

For my favorite part of every meal, dessert, we really branched out and let the sommelier talk us into a dessert wine which I have always shied away from. I learned a very valuable lesson this night. I told him that I was worried about having “too much sweet” with the sweet wine along with a sweet dessert. He quickly told me that the trick is to get a wine sweeter than your food. I called him crazy but told him to bring it on. Wow. He was right! I thought sweet + sweeter would = disaster/sugar coma but I was wrong! It was a wonderful combination! It really helped bring out the flavors in the food and the sweet of one almost helped counter the sweet of the other. I don’t know how it works… nor do I care as long as it’s as delicious as that was. Yum. The wine we enjoyed was a Sauternes but I am ashamed to admit I do not remember the exact one. I was on sensory overload at this point as I often am after such an outstanding culinary experience. The dessert was a peach tart with foie gras sliced across the top. Yeah it just doesn’t get any better than that.

If you are ever in Houston and enjoy having someone who knows what they are talking about take you by the hand and guide you through an overwhelmingly wonderful wine list then you should visit Catalan immediately.

Bon Apetit & Happy Sipping!