Where To Eat Now

Want to know the Indian restaurant all of Houston is talking about? The Dallas dining room with “crackling chicken” that’s to die for? The Austin cafe where the elite meet to eat? Just ask me.

I have a recurring dream. In it, I am trapped in a corner while inquisitors with burning eyes bombard me with questions: “Where’s the best chicken-fried steak in Texas?” “Where should I take my wife for our anniversary?” “What’s fun?” “What’s new?” “What’s hot?”

Come to think of it, that’s my real life. Day in and day out, I answer questions like this for somebody, somewhere. This year I decided to write down the answers. What follows is a highly subjective roundup of places I would tell you about if you called me on the phone today—what’s new and fresh,the places people are talking about. But because even I recognize that man cannot live by Chilean sea bass alone, I’ve also included the kinds of homey, traditional spots that we Texans love.

I know I’m going to catch flak for certain choices and omissions, so let me do a little preemptive self-defense. This is not a “bests” list, although some of the restaurants mentioned are terrific (for the crème de la crème, turn to page 150 and check out the starred establishments in our Restaurant Guide). And it’s not a “favorites” list, although you’ll find me eating at many of the featured places. Rather, it is a roll call of restaurants that are on my radar screen at this particular moment in time.

But enough about methodology—you must be hungry. Here’s where you should be eating right now.

Of last year’s newly hatched restaurants, which ones stand out?

The clear winner in Houston is Indika, the love child of chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani. In her imaginative hands, Indian food breaks out of its tired tikka masala-vindaloo box, despite her protest that she’s just doing dishes from her childhood. Try her cashew-cardamom lamb curry or mustard-oil-sautéed potatoes, the latter a minor miracle. First Houston runner-up: Le Mistral, where French-born chef David Denis seldom strays from the classic Gallic repertoire. He’s not exactly breaking new ground here, but there are worse things in life than a masterful French onion soup or satiny scallops in lime beurre blanc. Second Houston runner-up: Bistro Le Cep, yet another gift to Francophiles. Comfy classics like sea bass in velouté sauce and a lightly saffroned bouillabaisse marseillaise populate chef Alfredo Aviles’ menu, while pine paneling, cafe curtains, and several splendidly feathered ceramic roosters create instant country character. The much-anticipated opening of Quattro, the new incarnation of DeVille in the Four Seasons Hotel, had not happened at press time.

In Dallas tiny York Street sparkles with silver and candlelight, reflected in strategically placed mirrors hung on dove-gray walls. Who wouldn’t feel cosseted when the gratis amenities include bowls of almonds and a small glass of fino sherry? The philosophy of Sharon Hage, the multitalented chef who bought the restaurant last year, might well be “Do nothing mundane or predictable.” Sweet-onion ravioli in a dark consommé makes a delicious appetizer. Scallops arrive on brandade, the Provençal dish of salt cod blended with whipped potatoes and garlic. A frittatalike Spanish omelet is enriched with a duck egg. (Where else in Dallas—or Texas, for that matter—will you find anything made with duck eggs ?) The new Mercury, in Plano, reminds me of a deluxe cruise ship, all stainless steel and white and chrome, with soaring spaces and portholes at the mezzanine level. Artwork and flowers add splashes of color. Chef Chris Ward has made only a few changes from the menu of the original Mercury in North Dallas (now renamed the Mercury Grill), so expect to find the likes of his classic fried “crackling chicken” on whipped potatoes with picholine olives, asparagus, and bits of preserved Moroccan lemon—pure (if pricey) comfort food. His glazed black cod with fresh mango and hot mustard sauce is a spicy-sweet triumph. Other worthwhile newcomers on the Dallas restaurant merry-go-round include Ferré, with its modern, caramel-colored room and snappy productions like cappuccino al pomodoro, not a coffee drink but chef Kevin Ascolese’s tomato soup with a foamy milk cap. As for La Duni, I could bask all day in the light that pours into the welcoming little room with its sunrise colors and vases of long-stemmed roses. The pan-Latin food from chef-owners Espartaco and Dunia Borga—including entrées like half a chicken in champagne-and-citrus pan juices as well as various tortas (sandwiches) made with fabulous sliced popovers—is simple but cleverly done.

In Austin Wink is wowing most of the diners who manage to crowd into its small, natty terra-cotta-and-black space. Chef and co-owner Stewart Scruggs (formerly of Brio Vista) is turning out such dishes as soufflé-light Alaskan halibut with a pistachio crust and crisp-skinned duck breast with mashed purple Okinawa sweet potatoes (I only wish the duck had been more tender). Wink’s cloudlike chèvre cheesecake, the inspired creation of pastry chef and co-owner Mark Paul, is my personal nomination for dessert of the year. The abundance of attitude at Kenichi, the Aspen-born sushi bar in Austin’s warehouse district, has put some people off, but I’ve felt comfortable and well provided for by local chef Shane Stark, with all the usual sushi suspects to choose from plus twenty kinds of sake and entrées like squab in a gossamer ginger-miso broth. In Kenichi’s soothing black-and-parchment interior, a feathery branch of faux cherry blossoms stands out like a pink petticoat at a cocktail party.

The antithesis of Fort Worth’s Cowtown image, the intimate and suave Ashton Hotel has given the city’s downtown a touch of class. This boutique hostelry’s restaurant, Café Ashton —all blond wood and walls of honey and vanilla—is tucked away in a corner of the lobby, where at night a pianist plays soft, jazzy pop tunes. Although such culinary details as an assertive tomato- orange chutney show imagination, I got the feeling that chef Diarmuid Murphy hasn’t quite hit his stride; both a filet of Chilean sea bass (with whole-grain-mustard sauce) and a harissa-seasoned chicken breast (with Rösti potato cakes and good wilted spinach) were undercooked (and I like medium-rare fish and slightly underdone fowl). Even so, Café

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