What does innovation mean to you? To us, it covers plenty of ground: technology, technique, creative approaches or just doing a little something extra. From cocktail classes to iPad wine lists, here are our picks for Houston's most innovative bars and restaurants. Notice an establishment doing something innovative that we missed? Let us know where to find it in the comments.
Essential oils are big in the holistic community for health reasons, but Eleven XI hopes to elevate them in the restaurant industry with its innovative presentations. On a recent visit, we were served cold seafood - oysters on the half shell and boiled shrimp - surrounded by a fog scented with lemon essential oil created with a small amount of liquid nitrogen and hot water. The smell and dramatic scene helped make it an experience instead of just a meal.
What to order: The cold seafood tower is fun, but there's also a dessert presented with a lavender-scented fog if you're looking for something sweet and soothing.
607 W. Gray St.; 713-529-5881
Not only do they serve tasty drinks, fresh-baked cookies, panini and housemade beef jerky in one of Downtown's most beautiful buildings, they do it all for charity. Houston's first (and one of the nation's first) nonprofit bar is bucking the traditional model for fundraising, and it's been working out very well for patrons and charities alike. That's an innovation we can all get behind.
Study up: Guests vote for the charity off a unique ballot that changes monthly. Research your options before you go to make the most informed decision.
924 Congress St.; 713-237-8828
Selling booze to folks is one thing, educating them about it is another. Luckily for Houstonians, these two bars - Pastry War (310 Main St.; 713-226-7770) with its focus on agave-based spirits, and Camerata (1834 Westheimer Rd.; 713-522-8466) for wine - are doing both. Cocktail classes as well as semi-monthly tastings of agave spirits have just been announced at The Pastry War while Camerata is branching out to offer introductory wine classes every Sunday this month. Expand your palate and your mind.
Plan ahead: The only way to procure tickets for The Pastry War's classes are in person. Head to its sister bar Anvil or The Pastry War before the class and make sure you act fast - they'll sell out.
The Pass (of The Pass & Provisions)
The whole concept of The Pass & Provisions is innovative - one side is for casual dining, the other for a tasting-menu only, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. While The Pass offers some of the most exciting conceptual dishes in the city, it also does it in a playful, fun way - both in service and presentation.
Vegetarians rejoice: The Pass has been known to adapt their menu for veggie-only folks. Give them plenty of notice and expect to be wowed.
807 Taft St.; 713-628-9020
There are plenty of vegetarian options in town, but none quite like the ones at Oxheart. This nationally acclaimed seasonal-tasting-menu-only restaurant is elevating humble ingredients like radishes, okra, turnips and bok choy to levels unseen, and Houston is all the better for it.
Other options: There are three tastings to choose from nightly. If you want to experience their unique take on vegetables, but also enjoy meat, go all out and try the full tasting menu for $79.
1302 Nance St.; 832-830-8592
Ramen in itself is trendy, though not particularly innovative, but the way in which you order it at Tiger Den is. The Chinatown restaurant keeps their waitstaff supplied with iPads, which ideally cuts down on ordering snafus and makes the whole experience more efficient.
Know before you go: Just because the ordering system is efficient doesn't mean there won't be a wait. The ramen obsessed have taken over and aren't afraid to stand in line. Off hours are your best bet.
9889 Bellaire Blvd.; 832-804-7755
Just the ice cream shop itself is innovative, with housemade flavors like almond and pandan, milk chocolate and black sesame and lime and ceylon cinnamon. But Cloud 10 takes it a step further (just as the name suggests) by offering full tasting menus of avant-garde dessert dishes.
Call ahead: Tastings can be scheduled for groups of two to eight during regular business hours, but must be reserved at least seven days in advance.
5216 Morningside Dr.; 713-434-6129
We couldn't leave off two of our favorite restaurants that utilize an iPad for their wine lists. Both the massive and Texas-proud steakhouse (10505 Katy Fwy.; 713-932-6901) and the sceney French restaurant (1962 West Gray St.; 713-524-1919) use them to keep the lists updated in real time, easily accessible and fun to browse.
All the details: Brasserie 19's iPad wine list is updated immediately - keeping track of inventory with each bottle ordered, as it is ordered. It saves thousands of dollars in printing costs, and allows additional details to be included like photos of the bottles, tasting notes, maps of the wineries and any pertinent scores. They'll also soon have their oyster selections available via iPad - complete with salinity, size, location and fun facts about the farms where they were harvested.