How To Spend It in... Houston
Houston is a can-do city, a port city, so it has always welcomed the world – and it will soon be the third-largest city in the US. There is a culture here of optimism and possibility. That spirit drew me back to my hometown after 29 years at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
After the oil boom at the turn of the century there was great wealth generated here, and with that came civic-minded families focused on creating their own cradle of culture. As a result we have outsized arts institutions: The Museum of Fine Arts (Mies van der Rohe’s only museum in the US), The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the Houston Ballet, the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony. This commitment to artistic patronage continues today, and it’s the reason it’s easier to get things done here; in just a few years at the MFAH we’ve put up buildings by Steven Holl Architects and commissioned works by Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson.
The Menil Collection, not far from us, is another treasure. This Renzo Piano-designed museum with its Cy Twombly Gallery, as well as vast collections of abstract expressionist and pop art, is a must see. For a quick bite after a visit, I love Lua Viet Kitchen, just across from the museum, for excellent “Shaking Beef” – seared steak, watercress, jasmine rice and scallion oil.
I spend a lot of my time in the Museum District, but for a green escape I’m drawn to the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. Alongside biking and running trails, the former cistern is now full of art installations. Galleries are another strength here; Hiram Butler is a MoMA alum whose gallery features modern American art by well-known and emerging artists alike. Sicardi Ayers Bacino is devoted to avant-garde modern and contemporary Latin American art, while McClain is very international in focus but with many Texan artists represented as well. The Project Row Houses – a series of shotgun-style houses that have been restored in Houston’s historic Third Ward – are an experimental art and enrichment community centre.
Because of our diverse culture – from Mexican-Americans to people who come here from Central Asia – the cuisine in Houston is fantastically varied. When people think of “Mexican food” they’re often really talking about Tex-Mex. True Mexican food, which I adore, is exquisite and famous for its balance of flavours and moles – the thick, aromatic sauces made of ground up dried chillis and poured like a ragu over fish, fowl or vegetables. Two of my top spots for this are Hugo’s – where the baby pig is outstanding – and Cuchara, which is known for its Oaxacan mole made by female chefs. Ninfa’s is my favourite Tex-Mex joint and then Picos which specialises in regional Mexican cooking, which makes it a great place for experimenting with both cuisines. Outside of Mexican, I’m a huge fan of BCN – as in the Barcelona airport code – where chef Luis Roger, a student of Ferran Adrià, cooks refined Catalan cuisine.
I’m not much of a shopper, with two exceptions: good food and good books. At Phoenicia Specialty Foods in west Houston, you’ll find everything you need to make Middle Eastern and central Asian dishes, from spices and breads to pots and pans. For books, I go to Brazos Bookstore, Houston’s best independent bookseller, where you’ll often find University of Houston and Rice professors leading discussions.
Some say there are two seasons in Houston: wet and dry. For six to nine months the weather is favourable, while in the summer, temperatures and humidity are in competition. From late-September through early-May, everyone is outdoors, exercising in the parks and verdant neighbourhoods. One winter highlight I try not to miss is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at the NRG Stadium. It’s touching to see the young competitors with their livestock – and where else can you eat fried Oreos?
When people come to stay, I often recommend the five-star Post Oak Hotel. I advised its owner, Tilman Fertitta, on the acquisition of works by Frank Stella and Alex Katz. In the Museum District there is Hotel ZaZa, with its spectacular skyline views. Then the Montrose area is home to a new boutique hotel, La Colombe d’Or, which fuses historic architecture with contemporary art.
I’ve always been curious about lives different than my own and so I moved away for a time, but Southern politeness and manners drew me back. The crowd I’m seeing at the MFAH is much more diverse than what I saw at The Met in New York, so it feels like a dynamic time; Houston has really grown into its big city shoes.