OWNING A RESTAURANT for 40 years is no walk in the park, even when it’s in an idyllic, forested setting along White Oak Bayou. It takes creativity, stamina, true devotion to service staff and guests, and the flexibility to evolve with the trends. “And maybe just a touch of magic,” says Donnette Hansen, founder and owner of the Rainbow Lodge.
Magical is just how her rustic hunting lodge feels during the holiday season. Tucked away on an acre of lush grounds with a rock-lined creek on the banks of the bayou, the entire lodge sparkles. With three stone fireplaces glowing and tables set with fresh greenery, flickering candles and red roses, it’s one of the coziest dining rooms in the city—especially during this time of year. Year-round, it’s also a popular spot for proposals, weddings and private parties. On a nice day, you can’t beat the sunny deck perched high above the herb gardens, fig trees and citrus grove.
The interiors, featuring Hansen’s collection of hunting trophies and antique fishing collectibles, have an old-world feel, but the elevated American menu—spotlighting game, seafood and regional Gulf Coast favorites—is modern and ever-changing. “Menus are driven by the seasons, our garden and local ranchers, fisherman and farmers,” says Montana-born and Texas-raised Hansen. The quality has peaked under executive chef Mark Schmidt, who blends influences from his upbringing in England with German and Texas twists.
Some of the dishes, like the smoked duck gumbo with andouille sausage and wild rice pilaf, have been on the menu for 30 years. “I’ve [also] added newcomers such as Southern fried Texas quail bites over organic cheddar cheese grits and bourbon bacon gravy,” says Schmidt. Hansen adds: “Constant refinement is critical. You can’t rest on your laurels, and after 40 years, you certainly don’t want to become stale.” The restaurant even has its own beehives that nurture crops and produce honey featured on the menu seasonally.
Robust dishes like tender grilled North American elk chop, which tastes similar to beef but has richer, wilder notes, burst with layers of complexity. Schmidt amps up this dish with root vegetable enchiladas blanketed in charred-tomato ancho mole and a sprinkle of queso fresco. He also shows admirable restraint with precisely cooked, delicately seasoned red snapper served on a bed of fresh wilted spinach with roasted cherry tomatoes that pop with each bite. No fusion or confusion—each dish displays a rustic elegance.
Rainbow Lodge is the best place to get your wild game on in Houston. “A must for the first-time guest who likes game is the Taste of the Wild starter with venison medallions, duck sausage, and bison steak alongside sauces and garnishes,” says Schmidt. Order the South Texas antelope loin with smoked whole grain mustard, jalapeno bacon-studded cheddar grits and Brussels sprouts. Prepare for a dance of savory, spicy, salty and tangy flavor sensations.
Creative carnivores and traditional beef lovers have lots of options, but be assured that the Lodge is not all about game and meat. A lovely salad of young greens flaunts roasted pears, Gorgonzola and cherries, while Parisian-style gnocchi is a vegetarian’s dream, balanced with butternut squash, garden-fresh dandelion, Calabrian chilies and goat cheese. Sweet steamed lobster further augments a decadent mélange of corn risotto with buttered-melted leeks. And comfort food doesn’t get much better than the juicy pan-roasted pheasant, fragrant with the season’s apples, grilled radicchio and baked Gruyere-bacon spaetzle.
Beverage Director Marc Borel has revitalized the award-winning wine list to appeal to both the classic California wine drinker and the contemporary global oenophile while incorporating organically and biodynamically farmed selections. He offers seasonal cocktails and 20 high-end wines by the glass via the Coravin
The Friday lunch burger made from game trimmings, the Sunday mimosa specials, a $15 three-course business lunch and happy hour at the casual bar are all approachable options. Special occasion or not, there’s no place like Rainbow Lodge, a legendary destination that will transport you to a warm Jackson Hole hunting lodge. After 40 years, it just keeps getting better.
2011 Ella Blvd., 713.861.8666
PRICES Appetizers, $9-$17; entrees, $22-$49; desserts, $8-$14
HOURS Tue.-Fri., 11:30am-10pm; Sat., 6-10pm; Sun., 10:30am-3pm, 5-9pm
Veteran restaurateur Donnette Hansen welcomes guests into her historic log cabin set on an acre of grounds for elevated American fare, which spotlights captivating takes on wild game and seafood for lunch, dinner, bar bites and a lavish Sunday brunch.
Six different house martinis, a thoughtful global wine list and inventive herb-infused cocktails including specialty brunch concoctions—like the beautiful hibiscus margarita—appeal to a wide range of tastes.