I don’t include this little tidbit in the toast I’m making to the newly engaged couple, but my soon-to-be-married friends aren’t the only reason I find myself in this minimalist, exposed-brick dining room in central Houston. I’ve also made the trip because of a long-standing craving to discover big, bold Texas. But when Monica Pope, owner and executive chef of T’afia, arrives at our table brandishing brown-rice-and-nut croquettes and chickpea fries with sesame-coriander salt, the happy couple swears – perhaps to pre-empt my cracks of “Where’s the beef?” – that this lean woman sporting the army green “Silence of the Yams” T-shirt is the hottest chef in town.
“I’ve been cooking in Houston for nearly 20 years,” Pope says later, putting down an avocado sashimi plate with spicy almond-sambal sauce. “More and more, I find that people here are looking for healthy, vegan, celiac-friendly food – real food.” The one-time Top Chef Masters contestant with the warbly voice and grey spike of bangs has won every local plaudit imaginable for her Mediterranean-influenced cuisine, which is driven by reasonable portions of local and regional produce and well-raised meats. “I just want food to be better. And now it seems like we’re getting there.”
America’s fourth largest city has long been notorious for its, er, sprawling largesse. For three consecutive years in the early 2000s, Men’s Fitness magazine ranked it the country’s unhealthiest city. But in 2010, the urban theorist Joel Kotkin praised Houston in Forbes as a model place for its inner-city revival and expansion of museums and recreational areas, like the Discovery Green, a LEED-certified park in the heart of downtown. And just last year, the hip business and innovation magazine Fast Company named “often misperceived” Houston its City of the Year, declaring it an energetic nexus of “reinvention, innovation, and cultivation.”
Outdoor activities form a significant part of the new Houston, where folks often complain that the city is full of parking lots instead of parks. The 2008 opening of the Discovery Green was a huge reversal, sprouting as it does on the site of two former parking lots. This month, the 12-acre green space hosts the finish for USA Track and Field’s Olympic Trials Marathon, with the top three male and female marathoners gaining entry to the London 2012 Summer Games. It’s also where I meet landscape architect Kevin Shanley, of local firm SWA Group, over cans of organic sweet tea amid solar panels, reflecting pools and a farmers’ market. “Houstonians are waking up,” says Shanley, a native San Franciscan in a floppy black-mesh cowboy hat and tortoise-shell eyeglasses. The best proof is his firm’s ongoing transformation of the land along the Buffalo Bayou, a waterway that wends its way through downtown, from a one-time urban dumping space into a clean and inviting recreational area.
To see what Shanley is talking about, I lace up my running shoes and head to the Buffalo Bayou Park. I’m not alone; I nod to fellow runners, cyclists and rollerbladers. Canopied by indigenous box elder, green ash and cypress trees as well as freeway overpasses, the grass-lined section of the path I’m treading makes me feel like I’m in a lush oasis yet still connected to the energy of the city. I cross over the waterway via the handsome new Rosemont pedestrian bridge, a slithering span of concrete and galvanized steel designed by Shanley and his partners to accommodate everyone but cars, and head back toward the downtown skyline along the Allen Parkway, the finishing kick of the marathon trial.
“There are very wealthy oilmen here who are out running every day,” Staci Davis tells me as we sip organic Earl Grey tea at her Radical Eats café just east of Houston’s artsy Heights neighbourhood. “And I’m doing Tex-Mex-style cuisine with vegan ingredients because Houstonians are always going to love eating,” says the chef, sporting cargo shorts and a pink bejewelled bandana. “It’s what we do.” Of course, I think as I tuck into a Louisiana-inspired muffuletta sandwich with seitan deli slices, New Orleans olive salad, gourmet vegan cheese and vegetables on local bread. And I don’t refuse when Davis brings out seconds of her famous tamales that arrive with a disclaimer: “You can’t be a chef and not exercise; otherwise you’ll be a fat chef.”
That motto is on my mind as I leave the Buffalo Bayou trail on my second run of the weekend. Re-entering the city streets, I pass the Houston Ballet Center for Dance, the new downtown headquarters and training facility for the city’s award-winning ballet company. The sleek design, by architecture firm Gensler, is striking; the double-height dance studios, framed by the building’s black-granite facade and visible from street level, seem nothing more than windows onto the pursuit of physical excellence. There’s an open-air skybridge that the dancers cross to reach the Wortham Theater Center across the street. As Gensler managing principal Jim Furr explains it, these views represent “an outward-facing billboard for dance, where people on the street and driving by in their cars can see art happening.”
Though it might not be the Texas I’d expected, after a couple of days in Houston, I’m really enjoying the active feel of the place. But I’m still craving a taste of stereotypical Houston, so with my hosts I head out to Beaver’s Ice House, a laid-back barbecue joint in a repurposed “ice house” that’s co-owned by Monica Pope and helmed by Beaver’s executive chef Jonathan Jones. I scan the menu, eager to sink my teeth into some beef shoulder or lamb ribs or smoked sausage. And then I see it: a barbecue tofu plate with the menu tagline “Just don’t tell JJ it’s vegan!”
I can’t resist prolonging the health buzz I’m riding, and when my plate of two-hour-smoked, extra-firm tofu arrives, slathered in a tangy barbecue sauce and draped with sesame seeds, grilled mushrooms and pearl onions, I make sure my napkin’s in place. I grip my fork and knife and dig in. After all, when in Houston… ®
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There’s no excuse not to keep active at the Four Seasons Hotel Houston. Located a mere 2.5 kilometres from Buffalo Bayou Park, the property provides easy access to a jogging trail that loops around the green space. Or book a personal trainer at the Four Seasons Health Club and finish your workout with the gym’s complimentary fruit and juices.
01 T’afia’s award-winning cuisine includes some surprising local fare, like zucchini carpaccio and south Texas antelope.
Photo: Keith Davis Young
02 Radical Eats dishes out all things veg – from its famous tamales to vegan shepherd’s pie.
Photo: Keith Davis Young
03 For a close-up of the LEED-certified Discovery Green, take in a free concert or go for a run along the park’s paths.
Photo: Keith Davis Young
04 Forgot your running shoes? With three Fleet Feet Sports locations, you can always pick up a new pair.
Photo: Asics America Corp.
05 View the city from a different angle by paddling the restored Buffalo Bayou waterway.
Photo: Arie Moghaddam
06 Need an art fix? See a ballet or opera at the Wortham Theater Center.
07 For a Texan post-performance snack, head to Beaver’s Ice House and order a plateful of house-smoked meats.
Photo: Keith Davis Young
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