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