A recent meal at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro began with an exquisite bite of cold-smoked escolar, the buttery fish sliced sashimi-style and served with a scatter of pink peppercorns and edible flowers so delicate I could hardly bear to eat them.
I vaulted through course after course on chef Austin Simmons’ tasting menu this way—dry-aged Japanese Wagyu beef served with sunchokes prepared two different ways; an inventive foie gras crème brûlee; a savory dessert of miso green tea ice cream accompanying an olive oil–soaked panna cotta. So mesmerized was I by Simmons’s creations I could scarcely believe I’d overlooked his Bistro for so long. It wasn’t just the best meal I’d ever had in The Woodlands; it was one of the best meals I’d had in a year.
Which is one way of saying that The Woodlands’ dining scene has come a long way. Today, not only has the town nurtured home-grown eateries like Schilleci’s and Fielding’s, it’s successfully launched concepts like Black Walnut Café and 1252 Tapas beyond the master-planned community’s borders, in Houston proper. Meanwhile, popular Houston and Dallas restaurants are making a beeline for The Woodlands, which stays hungry for new dining options: Jasper’s, Landry’s, Jerry Built Burgers, and more crowd the downtown restaurant rows along the Waterway and Market Square.
To hear my dining companion, Albert Nurick, talk, however, The Woodlands still has plenty of room for growth. A native Houstonian who also spent 20 years living in Austin, Nurick moved to The Woodlands eight years ago for the same reasons lots of folks do: to raise a family. Though he missed the vibrant dining scenes of his former haunts, he still found enough to love in The Woodlands to create the popular food blog H-Town Chow Down (for his dining recommendations, see sidebar).
“If you’re an adventurous foodie out here—and I think the community out here is fairly sophisticated, they’ve just moved out here for their jobs or their kids—and you want sophisticated food, there’s a lot of options,” says Nurick. He admits, however, that Hubbell & Hudson is by far the most unique. “There’s no one doing anything like this.”
Nurick also admits that appreciation for ethnic cuisine among locals is lacking, even as options such as Américas, Kim Son, and Dimassi’s open to rave reviews. “You can do Tex-Mex here; even bad Tex-Mex does well,” he says. “And Italian does pretty good.” Anything else is a crap shoot.
“When you’re inside the loop,” explains Nurick, “you have a big group of people to draw from who are adventurous enough and who won’t be bringing kids along. Here, if you don’t cater to families to some degree, it’s going to be tough.” Witness the failure of chef-driven restaurants such as Dolce Vita and Tesar’s, which closed almost as quickly as they opened in The Woodlands despite proven, big-name talent in the kitchen. Nurick still can’t believe Dolce Vita chef/owner Marco Wiles refused to offer pepperoni pizza.
Tesar’s loss was Hubbell & Hudson’s gain, however. Austin Simmons was Tesar’s sous chef before taking over the Bistro’s kitchen two years ago and wowing the public with playful, modern dishes. These days, he often serves a dozen chef’s tastings a day to foodies; in the beginning, he wouldn’t have a dozen in a week. This, to Nurick, is a sign that the local dining scene is progressing in the right direction.
Still, he sighs, thinking fondly of Houston’s sprawling Chinatown: “Something we could really use out here is good Asian.”