EVERY YEAR I THINK TO MYSELF, “How could there possibly be room for more new restaurants in Texas?” And every year, a peloton of eager contenders comes hurtling down the road. Last year was no exception—boy, was it no exception.
Knowing that you want to know where to spend your hard-earned mad money, I’ve been eating myself silly for the past few months. That part was fun. But I’ve also been trying to detect the trends. That part was hard. Want proof? My breakdown of cuisines in the top ten includes American eclectic (two), Mediterranean-Italian (two), seafood (two), Japanese fusion (one), French (one), American-Asian-French (one), and steak and chophouse (one). Trends? What trends? Texas gets more diverse all the time.
As in years past, there is one major rule governing whether a restaurant can be considered for this story: New means new. In other words, new owner, new chef, new name. Reopenings don’t count, and neither do second locations if the original started in Texas. The calendar year for candidacy runs from November 1, 2004, to November 1, 2005, eligibility being determined by a restaurant’s own official opening date.
But I have made a big change this time around: I’m allowing first Texas editions of out-of-state restaurants. In the past I’ve resisted this, chauvinistically favoring homegrown independents. But major exports from New York (Bistro Moderne, Nobu, and the Strip House) and California (Noé) opened in Dallas and Houston this past year. I checked them out. I liked them. Much as I hate to admit it, from now on the best restaurants in our big cities are going to come from both inside and outside our borders. Texas has become part of a national and international marketplace. Far from being a reason to mourn, that’s a cause to celebrate.
No two ways about it: Gravitas is the best new restaurant to open in Texas this past year. No wonder it’s the darling of foodophiles and trendy types alike. Designwise, too, it’s up to the nanosecond, with bare brick walls, polished concrete floors, and arty found lighting fixtures softened by warm woods and a busy open kitchen. Executive chef Jason Gould (he’s the guy with the perpetually knitted brow prowling around the dining room) and proprietor Scott Tycer (he’s the guy who cooks at and also owns highly acclaimed Aries, a few miles away) have fashioned an eclectic American menu with Mediterranean touches, filled with lightly tweaked traditional dishes that sound—and are—delicious. I adore calf’s liver, and the pan-fried version here, served with a rich demi-glace and fried shallots, is divine (don’t you dare have it cooked more than medium-rare). Another fine and simple dish is steak frites, a brasserie classic you should order just so you can have the fries—chestnut-colored and crunchy on the outside, golden and cloud-light within. The accompanying steak is no slouch, either. And the fish at Gravitas—oh, my. The pan-fried snapper, with its crisp skin and succulent interior, is just amazing. But it’s not only the big-deal dishes that are excellent here; one of my favorite diversions is the bread service, which consists of chunky rustic bread, a fruity olive oil for dipping, and a little dish of toasted seeds and nuts for double-dipping. Are there problems? Yes, some dishes are oversalted, but never so much that it puts you off. And one last thing: The casual, smiling young servers treat you with such consideration that you feel as if you’re dining in someone’s home. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Every time I walk into Hibiscus, I think Giant. Something about the tall arched ceilings, the oversized leather booths, and the white plastered walls reminds me of Reata, the sprawling Texas ranch in the movie where Rock, Elizabeth, and James did their star turns. Even the food—glorified steak- and chophouse fare—fits the image, though I suspect that personable young chef and co-owner Nick Badovinus might have trouble getting Reata’s cowboys to eat tuna tartare. No problem, though, with the two-fisted veal osso buco served with a long marrowbone that has been split lengthwise and piled high with foie gras and crunchy, lemony gremolata. Good God in heaven, is it rich. And if Badovinus could just get the crew to taste the fabulous dry-Jack-cheese-crusted lemon sole, he’d turn them into piscivores. I’m not so sure about the wild king salmon, though; on one visit the fish filet was so scorched from the grill it looked like it had been branded (kinda tasted like it too). But he would win the guys back with desserts such as the devil’s food cake, sumptuously layered with chocolate-truffle ganache. Like everything else here, it’s as big as all outdoors—and much tastier.
3. BISTRO MODERNE
Softly glowing lamps, curvy chairs clad in dark chocolate leather with white piping—Bistro Moderne looks good enough to eat. And, no surprise, the food, contemporary French bistro fare, is absolutely good enough to eat. Do you like salade niçoise, quiche, hanger steak, and mussels? You’ll be in clover. And should you feel like something more serious, you can branch out with an order-in-advance salmon filet in a red-wine sauce showcasing cabernet from the well-regarded Texas vineyard Llano Estacado. One of the nicest appetizers is the Bistro’s grilled calamari, tender little squids stuffed with minced root vegetables in a sweet-tart red-pepper vinaigrette. Equally mainstream, the roasted poulet basquaise comes in a mild Espelette-chile jus made with the famed French Basque Country pepper. (I will carp a bit, though, because while the dark meat was succulent, the breast proved dry.) When able chef Philippe Schmit goes beyond bistro fare, like a Japanese-style tuna and salmon tartare, he does it right (the pickled ginger is homemade) and throws in a French touch to boot (a piece of buttered, toasted baguette). By the way, the affable, French-born Schmit is photogenic enough to be on the Food Network. Seems like everything’s charming here.
4. GO FISH
Talk about games of chance: Opening a restaurant is one