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Weekender: Bright Delights, Big City

Rediscovering Houston

Pondicheri Cafe offers inventive spins on Indian breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes. (Photo by Will Van Overbeek)

By Lori Moffatt

Sharing the spotlight of such international travel destinations as Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Singapore, Houston ranked #7 in a January New York Times list of “46 Places To Go in 2013.” Echoing a July Forbes magazine story that called Houston “the coolest place to live in America,” the NY Times editors praised the city’s numerous museums and other cultural attractions, and also noted its lively and diverse restaurant scene.

The city’s growing appeal to vacation travelers comes as no surprise to me, as Houston is one of my favorite go-to cities whenever I crave a weekend of museum-hopping, shopping, and intriguing dining options. Another plus: It’s easy to find hotel deals on the weekend. Since Houston is still better known as an industry-and-energy player than as a destination for leisure travel, room rates often drop after the CEOs wrap up Friday meetings.

Intrigued by rave reviews of the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new state-of-the-art paleontology wing, I cleared my calendar for a weekend adventure.

Thanks to a girlfriends’ getaway earlier in the year, I knew that the Hotel Derek—a modern, 4-star hotel at the bustling corner of Loop 610 and Westheimer—made a good home base for exploration. Armed with a list of places we wanted to see and restaurants we hoped to try, my husband and I rolled into town and quickly realized we’d need more than a few days simply to accommodate the new culinary experiences we dreamed of having. 

And fittingly, our first stop was lunch. Surrounded by rustic barn wood and red- brick walls at Sparrow Bar+Cookshop, chef and reluctant celebrity Monica Pope’s new restaurant in the Midtown neighborhood, we snacked on chickpea fries and earthy mushroom dumplings while a Houston friend regaled us with more things to see and do. Overhead, chandeliers made of perforated pizza pans cast pinpoints of light onto the table as I tried to keep up. “Have you been to Boheme?” he asked. “They have a wine bar and great burgers! Or Lucille’s? That’s upscale Southern comfort food in the Museum District. And what about 13 Celsius, right around the corner? It’s a fun wine bar in a former dry cleaner!”

Chef, cookbook author,  and sustainable-eating champion Monica Pope recently opened  Sparrow Bar+Cookshop at the site  of her former restaurant t’afia. Across the table, my spouse’s satisfied expression suggested he had never eaten a scallop quite so delicious. I sampled a nibble and agreed: Simply prepared with a tasty flourish of vanilla-bean aioli, the scallops evoked the sea with each bite.

That afternoon, we had plans to tour the nearby Saint Arnold Brewery, which helped ignite Texas’ passion for craft beer when it opened in Houston in 1994. A few years ago, the brewery moved from its original digs in northwest Houston to a spacious building that once housed the Houston Independent School District’s food-storage facility. Downstairs, 25 enormous, stainless-steel fermenting tanks (the largest holds more than 7,000 gallons) brew the company’s year-round and specialty beers. And upstairs, where giant freezers once held vast aluminum trays of soy meatloaf and chicken nuggets, the space somehow resembles a Munich biergarten during Oktoberfest, with hundreds of Saint Arnold fans seated at long tables quaffing beer from six-ounce glasses, playing backgammon, and enjoying happy-hour picnics. “The regulars know to bring camp chairs in case all the tables fill up,” says Lennie Ambrose, the brewery’s special-events coordinator. “And we make our own root beer, so there’s even something here for the kids.”

Since I was not the designated driver, I can reveal that the extra-hoppy Elissa IPA (named for Galveston’s three-masted 1877 Tall Ship) hits the spot on a warm afternoon, but if you’d like to keep your wits about you, it’s perhaps best not to follow it with the double IPA called Saint Arnold Endeavor. I spent the evening exploring the Heights neighborhood with friends, resisting the urge to dance on tables.

The next morning, breakfast found us at a fast-casual restaurant called Pondicheri Cafe, the second Houston restaurant concept by James Beard-nominated chef Anita Jaisinghani, who turns Indian food on its ear at her popular upscale restaurant Indika. “I had always wanted to open a restaurant where the food was more casual and affordable,” says Anita. “I’m not trying to make it super-traditional, but it is authentic. We have ingredients here in Houston that you’d never find in India; why would we not want to use them?”

After mugs of stout Indian coffee sweetened with jaggery syrup (an unrefined sugar that tastes a bit like molasses), my husband tucked into an omelet made with spinach, mustard greens, and the Indian fresh cheese called paneer while I made my way through a “Morning Thali.” This picture-perfect sampler platter comes with fresh fruit, house-made yogurt, a carrot flatbread called a paratha topped with a fried egg, and half-cup servings of potato curry, beef keema, and stoneground grits dressed up with peas, mustard seeds, cauliflower, and peanuts.

Saffron-colored curtains both divide the space and temper noise, and vibrant tangerine walls imbue a lively energy. By the time we finished our meal and took a stroll through the world of high fashion at the adjacent Tootsie’s flagship store, we were ready to explore the world of dinosaurs at the nearby Museum of Natural Science.

Surrounded by dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, it’s easy to feel small and to ponder your place in the universe

The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new Morian Hall of Paleontology allows visitors to walk beneath the ferocious jaws of Tyrannosaurus rex and other creatures. (Photos by Will Van Overbeek)

In the summer of 2012, the museum unveiled its new football-field-size Morian Hall of Paleontology, which features more than 30 dinosaur specimens, including an all-bone T. Rex skeleton said to have  the best-preserved hands and feet of any T. Rex skeleton ever found. A Quetzalcoatlus soars on 35-foot-wide wings, a Stegosaurus balances on its tiny feet like a Jurassic ballerina, and Deinonychus (the carnivorous “kickboxing dinosaur”) inspires chills.  But the museum’s timeline delves much earlier than the Jurassic period, when the first dinosaurs emerged. The hall begins with a series of beautiful fossils from the pre-Cambrian age, then quickly immerses visitors in the world of trilobites, sea scorpions, the “tentacle terrors” related to today’s squid and octopi known as nautiloids, and delicate Devonian-era seed-fern fossils. 

There’s more of a Texas focus than I expected; an entire section of the hall is devoted to findings at the Craddock Ranch near Seymour, where paleontologists have found some of the finest intact Dimetrodon fossils in the world. (The reptile resembled a crocodile with a curved sail on its back.)

Surrounded by all manner of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures—many posed as if engaged in battle or courtship—it’s easy to feel small and to ponder your place in the universe. 

Curator and paleontologist Robert Bakker, who served as a consultant for the first few Jurassic Park movies, made a special effort to illustrate the vagaries of science. “We wanted to show people that science is not all known,” says Bakker’s colleague, Associate Curator David Temple. “For example, what was the purpose of the proportionately tiny arms of the T. Rex? There are at least five theories, ranging from grooming and clutching prey to courtship. Science is based on an attempt to isolate a single variable, but the truth is that the arms probably had many different functions. The beauty of science is that knowledge is never constant. There is always something new to discover.”

The same could be said of Houston.

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