Senior editor Patricia Sharpe on crème brûlée, eating out, and the best new restaurant in the state.
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texasmonthly.com: This year, the focus of your feature shifted from “best” to “best new” restaurants. How did this alter your research and selection process? Was it easier for you?
Patricia Sharpe: The first two years that we did this story—with a little tidbit on 80 to 90 restaurants of all types and ages—the workload almost killed me. So I was immensely happy when Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith and I agreed that we would just focus on the new ones. Obviously, there was much less visiting, since I had only around forty to check. But, of course, I left a lot of the eating till the last minute and so ended up doing a marathon at the end anyway.
texasmonthly.com: How did you come up with your initial list of restaurants?
PS: Coming up with the initial list is the easy part, because the local reviewers do the screening in the course of checking out restaurants to put in their "Small, new, or offbeat" entries. I am in constant touch with them. We e-mail and talk about almost every new place of note that opens. I have to say that we also depend heavily on press releases from the restaurants. With major cities as large as those in Texas, it is simply impossible to get word-of-mouth information on everything that opens up.
texasmonthly.com: The restaurants on the list were from Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, with one from Fort Worth on the runners-up list. Was this by design? Did any restaurants from smaller cities even make the initial list?
PS: I considered restaurants from all over the state—we have reviewers in fifteen urban areas. But they were not crazy about any in the smaller cities and towns. I even drove out to West Texas to check one myself, but it did not make the cut. (That was a big waste of three days!)
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend on the road for this story?
PS: I spent a cumulative total of several weeks in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. All the parking valets and desk clerks at our regular hotels got to know me. They'd say, "Oh, you're back again, Ms. Sharpe. Nice to see you!" A couple of times I was in Dallas or Houston at the beginning and again at the end of the same week, with just a day in Austin to water my houseplants and do laundry.
texasmonthly.com: All of the restaurants on your list sound great. What made Artista beat out the number two spot, Aurora?
PS: Artista and Aurora are entirely different in size and tone and mood. The food is wonderful at both, but I was more comfortable at Artista, ultimately, and that was what made me choose it. Aurora is very small, with a lot of individual attention to each diner. This can make you feel very special, but it can also make you feel that you're being watched all the time (which you are!). Artista, because it's bigger, is slightly more hands-off. The service is just as good, but more at a distance. My choice is personal and idiosyncratic—somebody else who enjoys being the center of attention would choose Aurora over Artista.
texasmonthly.com: Do you ever tire of eating out? How many reviews did you do in one day?
PS: I don't get tired of eating out—I get tired of taking notes. I'm not one of those reviewers who can remember everything—I have to write it down at the time, either under the tablecloth or discreetly on a little notebook that I carry with me. Then when I get back to the hotel, I immediately transcribe my notes and write my impressions. That's why I never have wine when I'm working; if I drink anything, I find that I make a muddle of the notes. The other thing that is a drag is driving. I hate Dallas and Houston traffic—it scares me to death—and I have to drive at night a lot. I generally try to do three reviews a day when I'm out of town, just to maximize my time and save money.
texasmonthly.com: What is the one dish you see on every menu right now?
PS: Every restaurant has a salad with greens, candied nuts, and a blue-vein cheese. Nut- and seed-crusted chops and fish filets are still ubiquitous. Mashed potatoes (usually with roasted garlic) are popular. Naturally, steaks are on every menu—nobody is worried in the slightest about mad cow (and that includes me). Lamb chops run steaks a close second.
texasmonthly.com: What is the new dessert?
PS: Crème brûlée and molten chocolate cake are everywhere. Every decade has favorite vanilla and chocolate desserts. In the seventies and eighties, they were cheesecake and chocolate mousse. In the nineties, it was crème brûlée and tiramisu. Now I see tiramisu disappearing and being replaced by those individual molten chocolate cakes. Another popular new vanilla dessert is tres leches cake, but it's still way behind crème brûlée.
texasmonthly.com: What food trends do you see on the horizon?
PS: Nothing that impresses me very much. I have seen the same so-called "new" trends forecast for years: more regional food, fusion cuisine, tricked-up homestyle cooking. But in my opinion, there's nothing on the horizon right now that matches the true innovation of Southwest cuisine (the rage in the mid-eighties) or Pacific Rim (nineties). I do see certain ingredients having their fifteen minutes of fame: Pomegranate juice is trendy. Wasabi is showing up in all types of condiments and sauces, not just on sushi platters. I've even seen chateaubriand a couple of times recently, and that hasn't been on menus in twenty years. Foods go in and out of style, just like clothes.