In the restaurant world, obscurity is the mother of invention. Something about having no expectations except one’s own seems to start the creative juices. Perhaps that is why some of the best food in Texas these days can be found at two upstart spots in Houston and Dallas, where inventive young chefs have generated the kind of buzz that signals something extraordinary. At Houston’s Daily Review Cafe, in a converted newspaper office not far from downtown, Claire Smith is melding Mediterranean basics and complementary ideas from American and Mexico. At the Green Room in Dallas’ arty Deep Ellum district, Christopher Pyun is refining what he calls alternative cuisine—a simple but classy and intensely flavored spin on modern French cooking.
In business for four and nine months respectively, the two prodigies have more in common than appearances suggest. First is a solid classical education: Smith and Pyun can clarify butter and reduce a sauce with the best of them. Second is an uncanny instinct for combining tastes and textures. Third is a sense of culinary adventure and a willingness to break with the status quo. Many Texas restaurateurs seem mesmerized by Southwestern cuisine, and indeed it remains a vigorous force: Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe and Red Sage fame is set to open a restaurant in Austin at the site of the now-defunct 612 West. But Pyun and Smith see Southwestern cuisine as one influence among many, ranking chiles and cilantro as no more of less important than caviar and couscous. What matters most to them is cooking food they like and making their customers happy.
A first-time visitor to the Daily Review would be hard-pressed to explain its cachet. The environs are hardly auspicious: Anonymous apartment buildings and run-down frame houses