IT'S SEVEN O'CLOCK. DO YOU KNOW where you want to eat tonight? For the past two years this annual restaurant roundup has aimed to help you answer that burning question. In the 2002 and 2003 editions, my goal was to be all-inclusive, so I covered places of every cuisine, price range, and vintage. But in the end, I found that people were really interested in just one thing: What's new?
So this time around I focused on ten new Texas restaurants that I think are the most exciting of the year, plus another eleven where—though they're not in the same league as the top ten—I'm quite happy to dine. How did I decide what to include? I started with a list of several dozen candidates and ate my way through it. What did I look for? Delicious food, of course. Atmosphere counted for a lot too (I perk right up when I feel welcome and comfortable). As for service, honestly, I'm not that fussy—unless I'm kept waiting for the credit-card receipt, which drives me crazy. The final list—admittedly subjective and personal—includes those places that, whatever their cuisine or decor or price range, made me want to go back on my own dime.
But before I get to the winners, let me give you a couple of definitions: "New" means a restaurant that opened between the end of December 2002, when I finished reporting last year's story, and November 1, 2003, or that acquired a new owner, new chef, and new name during that period (which ruled out a few worthy newcomers, including Austin's Zoot—you should have changed the name, guys). And "Texas" means homegrown (which eliminated McCormick and Schmick's in Dallas and Houston and Roaring Fork in Austin).
That said, there's still plenty to sink your teeth into. Here are my ten favorites, plus a city-by-city look at the runners-up. Put on your best bib and tucker and give them a try.
Remember the scenes in old movies where a luxury liner pulls majestically away from the dock? Anticipation fills the air as the camera pans across fashionable people lining the deck, on the brink of a great adventure. That excitement is what I feel when I step into Artista, the ravishing new restaurant on the second floor of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Maybe it's the soaring second-story space, all loungey and curvy. Maybe it's the bird's-eye view of the streets below and the skyline above. Maybe it's the white leather chairs with their sexy cutouts. You halfway expect to see Bogie and Bacall, Gable and Lombard, Nick and Nora. Artista conjures a world where exciting things are about to happen, and it doesn't disappoint.
What label to put on the menu created by chef-proprietor Michael Cordúa (the owner of Churrascos) and chef de cuisine Juan Manuel Flores? "Regional American" will do as well as any, bearing in mind that America is a melting pot that draws from all continents and cultures. Start with a salad of fresh romaine, its leaves edible canoes that hold maple-syrup-sweetened pecans, dabs of goat cheese, and phenomenal puréed-raspberry vinaigrette. Or try the precious taquitos, tiny, paper-thin flour tortillas embracing soft-shelled crawfish splashed with jalapeño mayo and sweet hoisin sauce; they reinterpret and rejuvenate mu-shu pork. Simple potato-leek soup is dolled up with nuggets of Stilton, bacon bits fried in tempura batter, and a dash of port glaze.
Once you get past the appetizers, you enter the intriguing audience-participation part of Artista's menu. Set up in three columns—entrées, accompaniments, and sauces—it lets you mix and match to your heart's content. If you're feeling risk-averse, stick with the recommended combinations, handily listed on the same line. But if you're in the mood to live dangerously and try, say, roasted jícama or cheese ravioli instead of asparagus with your salmon, go for it. Now you know how chefs feel when faced with all those possibilities.
At too many restaurants, chicken is a throwaway entrée for cheapskates. Not here. You won't even believe this juicy bird is the same critter, pan-seared and paired with a rosemary-and-crimini-mushroom cream sauce. Fish eaters will love the jerk-spiced tilapia filets, a perfect foil for subtly sweet fresh-pineapple-and-coconut beurre blanc. Pan-roasted veal tenderloin in a sauce of foie gras and morels, accompanied by impossibly light mascarpone mashed potatoes, is decadence defined. If there is a problem at Artista, it's that you have to restrain yourself from licking the plate. But even if you swear you can't eat another bite, force yourself to order the flourless chocolate cake with its heady orange-chocolate sauce and dollop of milk chocolate sorbet. It will make you happy you're alive.
At what other Texas restaurant is the table butter made from English goat's milk? Where else is the amuse-bouche an intoxicating truffled egg custard capped with Chantilly cream and served in a brown eggshell? Where else do you feel as if you've stepped into an intimate, seductive theater where every detail is calculated to wow you? At Aurora, floor-to-ceiling glass separates the très élégant dining room from the gleaming open kitchen, where chef-owner Avner Samuel presides over a black-jacketed crew. I swooned over his trio of Bellwether Farm's lamb: morsels of loin and shoulder and a tasty little chop. Ditto a dessert crêpe filled with meringue-lightened whipped cream and surrounded by a sultry passion fruit jus. Eye-popping presentations—imagine a fried waffle-cut-potato basket filled with whipped blue potatoes—suit the extravagant preparations, the most exotic of which has to be warm sea urchin on spinach purée. You can be truffled to death here (truffle oil in a sweet rice pudding!), but you always feel pampered. And, yes, wowed.
Kent Rathbun took considerable ribbing from reviewers, including me, for sticking the label "gourmet backyard cuisine" on Jasper's, the glossy new restaurant of which he is the proprietor and executive chef (Dallas's posh Abacus is also his). But, hey, Kent, I never laughed at the food. No, sir.