Has there ever been such a year for the opening of significant Houston restaurants?
In my decades of reviewing here, I can’t remember one with the excitement of 2012. I’m speaking in terms of ambition, execution, design and — perhaps most important — a growing sense that our city’s chefs and owners are forging a unique American cuisine here on the Texas Gulf Coast.
What follows is a rundown of the year’s 10 best newcomers, with a few hat tips to others in the sidebar.
1. OXHEART : Daring in its vision and masterful in its execution, tiny Oxheart is the year’s best new restaurant — one that would draw attention in any of the world’s dining capitals. Chef Justin Yu assembles his precisely calibrated dishes with a deep sense of Houston time and place, allowing seasonal produce (some grown just blocks away) to take center stage along with Gulf bycatch or farm-raised meats, often incorporating the Asian touches that are a hallmark in Houston cuisine. Forget the big hunk of protein that tends to dominate local plates: here, the focus is on small courses that make up tasting menus to satisfy the brain as well as the palate. Choose from a four-course, all-vegetable Garden Menu or Seasonal Menu, with meat and fish, for a bargain $49; or a seven-course Tasting Menu for $75.
Among the recent highlights: a burnished sunflower seed soup that’s a voyage of discovery as your spoon travels around the bowl, sampling crisp bits of puffed grains and rice, sweet black tea oil, and nutty pumpkin seeds, with the dark flavor of “burnt onion” ringing like a mysterious bass gong. Can unusual local citrus species consort happily with grated tendrils of carrot and beet? Can crescents of roasted Seminole pumpkin seasoned with curried vadouvan spice and dried hibiscus find happiness with deep-green braised borage and medicinal twinges of rau ram leaf? Here, they can. The warmly casual setting in a turn-of-the-century brick ironworks softens the vaulting ambition of the food; Karen Man’s glorious breads and desserts up the ante; and Justin Vann’s wonderfully eccentric wine and beer list provides even more food for thought. You’ll have to reserve well in advance for this 30-seat local treasure, and it’s worth the trouble. (1302 Nance; 832-830-8592)
2. UCHI HOUSTON: The third restaurant from chef Tyson Cole impresses on every level. No mere clone of Cole’s celebrated Uchi and Uchiko in Austin, the Houston outpost has its own personality, thanks to a smart modern-Japanese-farmhouse remake of the old Felix Mexican restaurant, a talented chef de cuisine in Kaz Edwards and a crack local staff that keeps the restaurant ticking along like a finely engineered Swiss watch. The beautifully balanced Japanese fusion dishes are just as finely engineered, whether they be nigiri sushi with tiny bright jots of unusual condiments or daily specials such as juicy Texas quail nested with charred wax beans, soft-cooked quail egg and scalloped leaves resembling miniature lily pads. Staples from the regular menu (sashimi of flounder with candied quinoa; ethereal kakiage of tempura sweet potato and onion) are just as rewarding, and the beverage list of well-chosen wines, beers and sakes is part of the pleasure. Inside tip: to guarantee a hard-to-get seat, line up outside before the doors open at 5 p.m. and sit at the sushi counter, the best-lit place to appreciate the beauty of the plating. (904 Westheimer; 713-522-4808)
3. UNDERBELLY: Every day’s a party inside the wood-toned, industrial sweep of chef Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly — specifically an ever-changing celebration of what’s local and seasonal in our neck of the Third Coast. In-house whole-animal butchery puts the restaurant in the forefront of national trends. And there’s nothing quite like the cheerful ease with which Shepherd meshes ideas from the city’s vibrant ethnic dining scene on his own menu, without ever making his food seem self-consciously fusion-y or forced. What it lacks in polish it makes up for in life force. Anything from the stellar house-made salumi platters to crisp-fried Gulf bycatch with fish sauce to a simple, eloquent roasted butternut squash can be cause for thanksgiving here. Smart service, the drama of the open kitchen and an intelligent, humanely priced wine list sharpen the experience. (1100 Westheimer; 713-528-9800)
4. THE PASS & PROVISIONS: Two handsome restaurants live under the roof that once sheltered the storied Antone’s grocery and po-boy deli. Created by Houston-born chef Seth Siegel-Gardner and New York import Terrence Gallivan, the convivial Provisions dining room with its sprawling bar is for everyday use; while the Pass, serene and pure with its white napery and its glowing view into the open kitchen, hosts elaborate multicourse tasting dinners that are more of a special occasion. On both ends of the operation, the ambition is palpable. Provisions swings for the progressive-cuisine fences with its finely wrought pizzas, unusual pastas, and quirky meat and vegetable stylings. Among the home runs are ingenious pairings of house-made breads with cheese and condiments; pies sporting taleggio, whisper-thin fingerling potato and pickled onion or guanciale with uni; and gorgeous crowns of Cresta di Gallo pasta filled with hen of the woods mushrooms in a froth of roasted yeast and parmesan. These make the occasional overwrought dud all the more puzzling. But the details delight: from the eager service and the excellent wine and beer list, to the vintage lit-up Antone’s sign and the walls marked with patterns from a recycled basketball court. A lovely patio, a serious cocktail program and the high-flying allure of just-opened the Pass all add to the excitement — and to the hope that the food will smooth out to fulfill its considerable promise. (807 Taft; 713-628-9020)
5.COVE COLD BAR: Small, tightly focused restaurants inside larger restaurants was one of the year’s trends — done to dazzling effect at Jean-Philippe Gaston’s seafood-intensive raw and cold bar inside farm-to-table mecca Haven. At a friendly counter that also served as Haven’s bar, diners can watch Gaston assemble such vivid, meticulous dishes as salmon quick-cured with lemon-lime zest, a hint of brown sugar and pinpricks of caperberry salt, then set off with green chile and candied hoja santa leaves that make it puro Houston. Gaston has even sourced a Costa Rican “Rainforest Tilapia” with a crunch pure and shivery enough to change my mind about the species; and he’s doing interesting things with dehydrated local vegetables. It’s not all seafood here (witness a satin-smooth carpaccio of beef heart), but Gaston’s fish and shellfish preparations add to Houston’s growing claim to be a center for the fine art of ceviches, tiraditos and crudos. Bonus: wines and beers from Haven’s well-edited lists. (2502 Algerian Way; 713-581-6101)
6. MF SUSHI Sushi master Chris Kinjo eased into town with no fanfare, hoping to start over again after financial reversals cost him his well-regarded Atlanta mini-empire. Sit at his sleek new Galleria-area sushi bar for a chef’s-choice omakase tasting and you’ll be glad he chose to re-make his fortune here. His style tends to the classic, and his sushi rice alone is near-miraculous: ever so lightly pinched and fluffed instead of pressed, so that each sticky grain barely touches the next. Kinjo is as particular about a simple, perfectly formed piece of nigiri sushi (aji, or horse mackerel, perhaps, touched with fresh ginger and green onion) as he is a composed dish of pearly ika (squid) strips meshed with soft sea urchin and needles of seaweed. Everything, down to the crisped nori encircling lush, cubed tuna belly in his negi toro gunkan, tastes leapingly fresh and alive. With a short but promising list of suitable wines and sakes, this weeks-old restaurant can already be talked about in the same breath as Kata Robata and Uchi Houston. (5887 Westheimer; 832-530-4321)
7. HAWTHORN: Chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio has such talent and Italian discipline as a chef that he has done the near-impossible by turning a conservative, supper-clubby time trip into one of the best restaurants in town. Dark and plush and quiet, with spotlit midcentury abstracts and retro piano stylings, Hawthorn puts out a seasonal menu that’s Italian in spirit and gently American in style. Right now, the best of the winter season finds an accomplished venison saltimbocca on the menu, along with ravishing butternut-squash gnocchi in brown butter and an apple crostata that is one of the finest dessert tarts in town. The house-made pastas can wow, but so can meat dishes like quail or a simple steak tartare. (3200 Kirby; 713-523-3600)
8. ETOILE: Like Chris Kinjo, San Diego’s Philippe Verpiand chose to seek his fortune in the Houston market, and the city is the richer for it. Chef Verpiand brings to the table a simplicity and refinement that’s a rare commodity in the city’s French restaurants. His wife, Monica Bui — who has family connections here — has created a pretty, whitewashed space with subtle antique touches in the Uptown Park setting. Classic ideas such as the torchon of foie gras, coq au vin and a tart of Fourme d’Ambert, the ancient French bleu cheese, hit all the traditional flavor notes with a few modern flourishes and updated textures. It all works together, from the warm welcome to the small, thoughtful wine list to the user-friendly bar for solo diners and those in search of a single, lovely course with a glass of wine. (1101 Uptown Park; 832-668-5808)
9. ALMA CEBICHE BAR: Chef David Guerrero, the talented young Ecuadorian who made a splash at the late Samba Grille, focuses on Peruvian food at his comfortable new restaurant on Houston’s far west side. His typically intense flavors vibrate in intricate dishes that range from the huacatay (black mint) sauce and cream of rocoto red chile — both served with his earthy beef-heart anticuchos — to such cebiches as shrimp in an unusual roasted-tomato leche de tigre, one of the best dishes I ate this year. (Cebiche, by the way, is simply the preferred South American spelling of ceviche.) Just as striking: dried scallop tiradito marinated in chicha morada, the dusky Peruvian purple-corn beverage, its yuzu-shot leche de tigre setting off cucumber and black sesame. Cebiche tasting samplers give diners the option of trying several or all of the nine varieties. But the menu ranges well beyond, to Papas a la Huancaina plated like a South American Nicoise salad; beautifully made and garnished empanadas; and such entrees as linguini with beef heart, queso fresco and green sauce. With each passing year, Houston becomes more of a center for South American food, and Alma adds to the category’s lustre. (1275 Eldridge Parkway. Suite 100; 281-293-0001)
10. CUCHARA : This self-styled “Mexico City bistro” illustrates how an intelligent, deeply felt package of design, beverage program and unusual menu can trump occasional wobbles in the kitchen. So smart are the Mexican-themed cocktails; so complex the varied salsas; so quietly soulful the successful dishes that it’s easy to overlook the occasional blip of temperature or execution. Cuchara is all about the promise of such rarefied homestyle fare as resonant green chile mole de puerco; brunch-time chilaquiles racy with red chile and layered textures; or empanadas filled with huitlacoche, the prized corn fungus that’s as eloquent as the truffle in its way. Consumed in an airy, crisp industrial space, beneath the antic Diego-Rivera-meets-Matt-Groening murals by Mexico City artist Cecilia Beaven (sister of co-owner Ana Beaven) such fare tastes even better — and makes me eager to see how this restaurant will develop as it finds its footing. (214 Fairview; 713-942-0000)
Keep an eye open for exciting new fare in the near future
Best trend of the year: Regional Indian restaurants. Houston’s vital South Asian dining scene is growing more specialized, less one-menu-fits-all. Two intriguing openings toward the end of the year exemplified this welcome development.
Maharaja Bhog, which styles itself a “Premium Veg Thali” restaurant, specializes in the vegetarian cuisine of Gujarat and Rajasthan states, served as a riotous constellation of dishes arrayed in shiny silver bowls on shiny silver platters. The flatbreads, curries, pickles, appetizers and salads involved can be ordered spicy (for the connoisseur) or mild (for the neophyte), and the menu changes daily. A tab of $15.95 buys all you can eat from circulating servers. The fun (and the flavor thrills) are built in.
Biryani Pot, recently opened on Westheimer, specializes in Hyderabadi cuisine from south-central India. Curiously, it’s not that city’s specialty of biryani that’s the biggest attraction here; rather it’s the rich, complex and varied curries. For a sample of what makes this restaurant so interesting, try the mutton (here, it refers to goat) curry with gongura leaves; or the Hyderabadi Murg Masala, a chicken curry with a ground-onion-and-sesame base touched with peanut. FYI: “Spicy” here is pleasantly but not lethally eye-watering.
Maharaja Bhog: 8338 Southwest Freeway, 713-771-2464
Biryani Pot: 6509 Westheimer, 713-278-8085
Beertastic: The Hay Merchant, the pace-setting craft-beer pub from the Anvil brain trust, has turned out to be a role model for the city’s rapidly expanding array of restaurants devoted to the appreciation of microbrews. Under beer guru Kevin Floyd, the state-of-the-art tap system delivers a spectacular array of brews in prime condition. And the kitchen, under chef Antoine Ware, takes advantage of adjoining Underbelly’s in-house butcher to offer food that’s several cuts above regulation pub fare.
(1100 Westheimer, 713-528-9805)
Restaurants to watch: La Fisheria, the chic and casual coastal Mexican spot by TV chef Aquiles Chavez, attracts a crowd of well-heeled Mexican nationals for interesting (if uneven) contemporary seafood dishes. Costa Brava Bistro, in the heart of old Bellaire, has brought relaxed fine dining in a Spanish/French mode to a part of town that craved it. L’Olivier, the French restaurant from former Tony’s chef Olivier Ciesielski, had an unexpectedly bumpy start, but Ciesielski’s talents and the striking physical plant make it a good bet for improvement.
Two restaurants that would very likely have made the best new restaurants list hit snags when their chefs departed, but Jonathan Jones of ceviche mecca Concepción and German Mosquera of the vegetarian-and-vegan-friendly Roots Bistro both landed on their feet at hotel restaurants. Look for Jones’ spirited dishes at Monarch in the Hotel ZaZa; and for Mosquera’s interesting cuisine at La Colombe d’Or.
La Macro, a friendly little taqueria on the near northside, shows signs of becoming an inexpensive Houston classic. And the brand-new Eatsie Boys Cafe, the brick-and-mortar edition of the wildly popular food truck of the same name, is already setting Houston on its ear with its inspired matzo-ball pho, frisky ice cream flavors and towering sandwiches.
La Fisheria: 4705 Inker, 713-802-1712
Costa Brava Bistro: 5115 Bellaire Blvd., 713-839-1005
L’Olivier: 240 Westheimer, 713-360-6313
Hotel ZaZa: 5701 Main, 713-526-1991
La Colombe d’Or: 3410 Montrose, 713-942-1073
Eatsie Boys Cafe: 4100 Montrose, firstname.lastname@example.org