People are forever cornering me at parties and asking, “What’s your favorite new restaurant?” That question is on my mind especially at this time of year, when we publish our annual roundup of the top new places to dine. Sometimes when asked I hem and haw and can’t make up my mind, because so many recent openings are similar in style and quality. Not this time around. Except for two—a bistro and a brasserie—the choices for 2007 are apples and oranges and pomegranates.
Another oddity of the year is that the restaurants grouped themselves by city. In the three previous years that we’ve published our ten best, the mix has been almost random. But Dallas had exceptional contenders this time, and it nailed the top three slots. Houston came on strong with the next three, and then Dallas jumped in again. Austin claimed the subsequent two places, and San Antonio chimed in with the last. (Five runners-up, including two more from Dallas, by the way, are listed under “The Best of the Rest”)
Now, down to business: To refresh your memory on the rules, the candidates must have opened between November 1, 2005, and October 31, 2006. As always, new means new: new owner, new chef, new name (thus Aries, in Houston, which changed its name to Pic and rejiggered its menu, was not in the running because chef-owner Scott Tycer is still at the helm). Second locations of Texas restaurants are not eligible (so the Austin edition of Dallas-based Taverna doesn’t count). But we do consider the first Texas location of an out-of-town operator (a case in point being the Dallas edition of Craft, recently arrived from New York). In conclusion, let me just observe that competitive eating is a recognized sport. Go forth and see if you agree with my choices.
1. STEPHAN PYLES Dallas
When the chef, who was a founding father of Southwestern cuisine and the creator of much-lauded Star Canyon, opened his eponymous new restaurant a little over a year ago, the ever-snarky food community was abuzz: Would he pull it off or fall on his face? The biggest doubter of all was Stephan Pyles himself, who had been out of the picture—traveling, consulting, and generally living the life of Riley—for five years. It took a few months to smooth out the rough spots, but the answer is clear: Pyles is back. Intellectually, his new place is as stimulating as anything he’s done. He takes the original notion of Southwestern cuisine—Mexican flavors elevated by classical techniques—and sends it on a world cruise, hitting Hispanic ports of call from Spain to Peru. The dish I love, love, love is the tasting of three ceviches, a universe of novel and voluptuous tastes and textures, including silky Honduran tuna with coconut milk, ginger, and basil. It’s fusion cuisine that works. In addition to surf, Pyles does turf quite nicely, as evidenced by his rack of lamb crusted with coriander and sided by a crispy Ecuadoran-potato cake. The menu brims with new dishes and specials, one being grilled halibut bedded on a hash of sweet potato, crisp corn, and pecans. But for longtime fans, Pyles has retained a few favorites from Star Canyon, like the humongous Cowboy Ribeye. Visually, the space knocks me out: The walls are stripped down to their terra-cotta- brick boxers, then jazzed up with arty touches like a gleaming copper screen. This is an exciting restaurant; I can’t wait to go back. 1807 Ross Ave., 214-580-7000. Lunch Mon–Fri 11:30–2. Dinner Mon–Sat 6–10:30. Closed Sun.
2. CRAFT DALLAS Dallas
Craft would like for you to believe that its food is simple. Ha. The publicity shtick from the New York–based restaurant is that young executive chef Kevin Maxey waltzes into the kitchen and juggles some heirloom tomatoes and a free-range chicken, following which a magnificent dish materializes. Only half of that is true: the last half. Craft Dallas is the first venture of Tom Colicchio’s famous flagship outside Manhattan, and at its frequent best, the food is undeniably seductive. Seated on pewter-toned velvet, I have gazed with lust in my heart at a defenseless vegetable, roasted romanesco—a jewel-like green cousin of cauliflower—that has been so transformed with a pesto of minced capers, olive oil, and pine nuts that it transcends mere food. Almost every dish has validated the two other parts of the Craft canon: The kitchen is fanatical about buying the best of everything, and it showcases top local growers. I would even concede that Craft has thrown out the froufrou. But I disagree that it has banished complexity. The day I almost fainted with pleasure over the butter-soft, jammy fig gratin, I asked the smart, young maître d’ how it was prepared. “Well,” he said, “the figs are simmered in Sauternes, then roasted, then covered with a vanilla-bean sabayon and sprinkled with biscotti crumbs before being lightly broiled.” Luscious? Yes. Simple? I don’t think so. In W Dallas– Victory Hotel, 2440 Victory Park Ln., near N. Houston and Olive streets, 214-397-4111. Breakfast & lunch daily 6:30–2:30. Dinner Sun–Thur 5:30–10:30, Fri & Sat 5:30–11.
3. BIJOUX Dallas
Dining at Bijoux is like looking through a jeweler’s loupe, where subtlety is the byword and tiny details loom like mountains. Bijoux is Bach rather than Bartók, Swan Lake instead of Cirque du Soleil. Chef and owner Scott Gottlich’s classic but innovative menu reminds me of the heyday of nouvelle cuisine two decades ago, when precious plates ruled. Take the trio of Caraquet oysters, for instance. These Atlantic beauties have been poached in sake and then arranged (apparently with tweezers) on top of a miniature seaweed salad with teeny, almost tempura-like fried shallot rings on top. The Japanese flavors and techniques meld beautifully. There’s even a culinary joke: Instead of rock salt, the oyster shells are held in place by white clouds of salted meringue. Oh, tee-hee. Even meaty, he-man dishes are refined, like the duo of pink, pan-roasted pork tenderloin and falling-off-the-bone braised pork shank, a study in