What is the best restaurant in Texas right this minute?
I fell in love the first time I ate at Le Rêve . Not with my date, mind you. I was smitten with the little San Antonio restaurant itself—the chic, understated room, the hawklike intensity of its young chef-owner, Andrew Weissman, and the utterly sublime contemporary French food that emerged from its kitchen. I have eaten at Le Rêve many times since that first meal four years ago, and nothing has cooled my ardor. What seduces me? A glorious heap of tempura-light fried sweetbreads cozied up to spinach zapped with truffle oil; the most luxurious foie gras I've ever tasted, decadently steeped in cognac for hours, then sautéed in pure duck fat; a trio of tiny, perfect crèmes brûlées—espresso, dark chocolate, and Madagascar vanilla—astonishing in their lightness and capped with crackly panes of burnt sugar. In June 2000 this magazine's Restaurant Guide gave Le Rêve one star; then, six months later, two stars. This month we award it a third star, elevating it to the rarefied company of Houston's Cafe Annie. "Le Rêve" means "the Dream," and it is.
I admit it: I only care about the next new thing. What good restaurants opened last year?
In Dallas, Hotel ZaZa's Dragonfly finally spread its glossy wings in December. Looking like the inner sanctum of a sultan's palace, the dining room is swathed in acres of gauzy, glittery crimson fabric and aglow in the light of beaded lamps. The food, by Jeff Moschetti, with input from Dallas über-chef Stephan Pyles, globe-hops from East Asia to North Africa with dishes like a silky filet of black cod in miso broth and a tajine of Moroccan lamb with cinnamon and preserved lemon. Two early visits varied from middling to magnificent; consistency would be nice. The West Village, the hottest shopping-and-noshing area in Dallas at the moment, added several new options last year. Paris Vendôme—a vast brasserie where well-behaved pooches are welcome in the courtyard, just as they are in France—has won me with Gruyère-capped French onion soup and a pretty, caramel-drenched puff-pastry apple galette, prepared under the watchful eyes of Chris Ward and James Johnson. I love the looks of two other new places. The first is Tom Tom Noodle House, where blond-wood walls and a dramatically curving counter bathed in red light pulse to a techno-pop beat. People are waiting in line for Peter Heise's up-to-the-minute rice and noodle bowls, although some of them are oddly sweet. And at Nikita, Lisa Lawson's snacky, salady menu, while good enough, isn't the point. What is? The vibe—a high-camp take on Russia through the ages, with low tables and tall candelabra surrounded by abstract artwork and murals (are those cossack horsemen?), all in a mysterious, smoky basement lounge. Although you can eat upstairs, downstairs is the place to be.
Jefe James Neel at Dallas' Bistro Latino, a casual, perky pan-Latin and Caribbean spot, is on a roll. Each of his small chile-rubbed salmon filets comes with a short, jaunty stalk of sugarcane jabbed in one corner to create —¡olé!—a salmon chop, bolstered by green papaya slaw. Just out of the starting gate, Hattie's is coming on strong and helping to put the trendy Bishop Arts District on the culinary map. Lisa Kelley's knock-'em, sock-'em flavors, showcased in such dishes as blue-cheese-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped figs, are balanced by gentler follow-ups like flourless chocolate cake with orange crème anglaise. Part of the city's downtown revival, the Metropolitan does the Pottery Barnyuppie look (oak floors, white slipcovers, tiny candles) to perfection; chef Sara Horowitz is getting attention for a menu that bounces from rolled salmon on pearl couscous to Vietnamese-style lettuce wraps plumped with grilled chicken. The most laid-back of the year's newcomers, the M Grill and Tap rocks when the TVs are turned on to catch a big ball game (not that often) and acts like a grown-up when they're not. Cherif Brahmi's better-than-decent menu of meat loaf, pork chops, filet mignon, and poorboys includes the best molten chocolate cake I've had in Dallas.
Houston has also been fertile ground for openings. My fantasy meal at the Riviera Grill —in the ultrasleek, newly remodeled Sam Houston Hotel—includes a room at the inn for a postprandial nap (or whatever). Until chef John Sheely arranges this amenity, I'll rely on the Grill's roasted sweetbreads with red-onion marmalade to send me to dreamland. At cutting-edge Mexico Citystyle restaurant Hugo's, Hugo Ortega is feeding the multitudes with inventive variations on regional Mexican dishes: rabbit gorditas, miraculously ungreasy cabrito (served with a mound of spunky, oniony nopal salad), and seductive almond-crusted coconut tarts made by his pastry-chef brother, Ruben Ortega, all in a tall, torchère-lit space. Speaking of soaring spaces, let us not forget glam queen Trevisio, looking like a flashback to the mad-money nineties. The view and the mood are best at night, when the sky outside is as deep a blue as the shimmering water wall at the restaurant's entrance. Alan Ashkinaze's mod-Italian menu has created at least one instant classic, sea scallops perched on warm asparagus atop a mellow little tomato compote, all drizzled with Parmesan vinaigrette.
Exit De Ville, enter Quattro: Walking into the main restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Houston's after its $3 mil, head-to-toe makeover was like discovering that Carole Lombard had miraculously morphed into Gwyneth Paltrow. Tim Keating's food now has a contemporary American-Italian bent, and his fabulous asparagus risotto, sparked with lemon and capers, is a legend in its own time. On those days when I can't bear to dress up for dinner, I go straight to Laurier, where whatever I'm wearing looks fine against walls painted in Crayola-bright red, blue, and yellow. Hooray for chef Gary Fuller's smart but not overworked creations, like a crab cake with a toasty exterior and moist interior on a puddle of tomato beurre blanc. Retrofitted from its days as the restaurant Quasimodo, the Mockingbird Bistro still sports the odd gargoyle poised gleefully overhead. The lusty, moderately priced