Business trip: Houston
Two of the city's hippest boutique hotels, the 97-room Alden-Houston and the 312-room Hotel Derek, recently announced ownership changes and plans for major revamps. There are rumours that the historic Alden (located downtown) may revert to its original name from 1924, The Sam Houston Hotel. A floor-by-floor renovation is underway at the tall, glassy Derek (on the west side of downtown near the Galleria), so be sure to ask for a renovated room until the project is complete in March.
Despite its meaty name, Oxheart, located in Houston’s downtown warehouse district is drawing big crowds for its unusual vegetable dishes, such as warm sunflower seed soup or hakurei turnip baked in salt, radishes, pecans and beef fat.
Brennan’s of Houston in the midtown area has long been the choice of the city’s movers and shakers out to impress guests with upscale “Texas Creole” dishes, such as fried green tomatoes topped with marinated blue crab claws, lobster fricassee crepes, turtle soup, crab cakes or Harris Ranch steaks. Make sure to ask for the legendary Bananas Foster flambé prepared tableside for dessert.
Some of the best (and most expensive) sushi in town can be found at Uchi, where fresh fish is flown in daily from fish markets around the world. Unusual Japanese mains include combinations such as foie gras, kale, edamame and pumpkin seeds, or Texas quail, yellow beans, Chinese artichokes, curry and quail egg.
Houston’s history as a southern port city has shaped its diverse dining scene, inspiring chef Chris Shepherd to create the popular Underbelly, which offers Creole-tinged dishes with international flair, such as crispy oysters served with kimchi butter and nuoc mam (Vietnamese-style) slaw or Wagyu beef satay served with squash tapioca.
Mingle with Houston’s see-and-be-seen set over at Brasserie 19 in classy River Oaks, where you will enjoy an extensive wine list (which the sommelier presents on an iPad) and modern French cuisine such as Burgundy escargot, steamed mussels, sautéed Dover sole, oysters on the half shell, hand-cut steak tartare and roasted rack of lamb.
Off the clock
Houston’s significant oil wealth has helped fund one of the most vibrant and diverse museum scenes in the US. While there are more than 150 museums or cultural institutions in the Houston area, 19 of the most important are clustered within a one to two square mile residential area called the Museum District on the southwestern edge of downtown. A top stop is the Menil Collection, housed in a beautiful building designed by Renzo Piano, which offers changing exhibitions that range from antiquities to modern and contemporary art. If you need a few minutes or hours to regroup or contemplate your life or your job, stop by the modern, multi-denominational Rothko Chapel, which is featured in National Geographic’s Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations, published in 2009. Download the two-hour hour audio walking tour of the district to your smartphone, and spend an afternoon soaking up the culture of an elegant Houston neighbourhood.
To truly feel like a local (or to simply escape the Texas heat), stroll through Houston’s upscale Galleria mall, the largest in Texas, and the city’s most visited attraction. The mall is anchored by large department stores such as Texas-based Neiman-Marcus, Nordstrom and Macy’s, but also has high-end boutiques from the likes of Chanel, Gucci, Prada and Tiffany & Co.
For an outdoor break when the weather is cooler, take a walk or jog along the trails through Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, which connects downtown to the River Oaks area. Even though you are still in town, you will spot plenty of native species (blue herons, loggerhead turtles, alligators) in this hilly, watery patch of urban parkland. Be sure to make it to the Bayou’s popular Waugh Bridge Bat Observation Deck, where thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats depart each night at dusk to hunt for insects.