When I saw that Backstreet Cafe—the 30-year-old River Oaks mainstay that somehow feels fresher with every passing year—was offering a four-course vegetarian menu for Houston Restaurant Weeks, I knew that it would be my first HRW meal out of the gate. I am by no means a vegetarian. I eat pig eyeballs and beef hearts. But I love vegetables, and I especially love restaurants which pay my beloved greens as much attention as fish or meat.
Backstreet Cafe is one of those restaurants. Vegetable dishes are never given short shrift, as they are at too many other places, but are instead as thoughtfully constructed and composed as any other entree.
This is just one way in which Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega's first restaurant has managed to remain relevant in a city with a notoriously short attention span when it comes to eating out. Backstreet Cafe has kept on top of other trends, too, offering clever gluten-free dishes and a beer list that's as well-composed as its wine list.
While the $35, four-couse vegetable menu was what drew me to Backstreet, it was that beer list which drew my boyfriend. In addition to a "red wine pairing" menu, a "white wine pairing" menu, and a "cocktail pairing" menu for HRW, Backstreet is also offering a three-course "beer pairing" menu at dinner. The dinner itself is $35, while the beer pairing runs an additional $19. For less than $55, you'll receive three full-sized courses and three full pours of beer, so beware the beer dinner if you're a light eater.
Luckily, my boyfriend has the appetite of a starving billy goat, and happily worked his way through a bowl of mussels steamed with vermouth, aperol, lemon, and ginger, which coaxed out similar herbal, bitter, and citrusy notes in the Poperings Hommel Belgian IPA. "This is a tough beer to pair," my boyfriend declared, impressed.
Beverage director Sean Beck—who also handles the same role at Hugo's—is that rare sommelier who enjoys pairing beer as much as wine, and it shows. A lamb hash with another difficult to pair beer, Moylan's Kilt Lifter Scottish Ale, was a huge hit as the main course. Dessert was the coup de grâce, however, partnering No Label Brewing's relatively new Elda M milk stout with a banana-chocolate pound cake, a pair of delicately brûléed bananas on the side enhancing the vague caramel notes in the stout.
I ordered a wine pairing with my four-course meal for an additional $28 and felt the slightest twinge of regret towards the end of my own meal. The courses were enormous. The pours were heavy. And I could not finish any more than a few sips of my last two glasses. I felt terrible leaving them behind, they'd been so graceful with my food.
The vegetarian dinner opened with a dish I want to learn to make at home: piquillo pepper hummus served with roasted beet and sweet potato chips to scoop it all up with. Next was a rich, vibrantly green tomato gazpacho, which came with my favorite of the wine pairings: a 2011 Anselmi "San Vincenzo" white blend from Italy, which contains both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes but has the herbal, refreshing lightness and minerality of a vanilla-laced Albariño or Torrontes—the best of many worlds.
My main course was a cauliflower steak brushed with olive oil and saffron, then roasted until tender and dark. It came with a wonderful arugula salad I could barely finish. I mustered enough energy to take a few bites of my nicely tart-sweet berry cobbler for dessert and was done. HRW menus can be miserly or marathons—the Backstreet Cafe was the latter, and I wished I'd prepared myself better for the race. I would have passed on breakfast and lunch that day had I known exactly how much food and wine were headed down the pike.
But if the point of Houston Restaurant Weeks is for Houston restaurants to put their best feet forward for a few weeks (and raise a significant amount for the Houston Food Bank while they're at it), Backstreet Cafe displayed some impressively fancy footwork by showing its signature versatility with style and grace.
Backstreet Cafe, 1103 S. Shepherd Dr., 713-521-2239, backstreetcafe.net