Just because a restaurant didn’t make the top ten doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Here are six worthy runners-up in three cities.
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• In Dallas, newcomer Salum has been drawing crowds to its serene white interior (you feel as if you’ve been dropped into a vat of whipped cream—in a good way, of course). Chef and owner Abraham Salum is offering an eclectic Mediterranean menu, from which I’ve quite enjoyed an excellent pan-roasted sea bass filet (with a mellow pistachio-and-whole-grain-mustard crust) and a truffle-and-Dijon-coated rack of lamb. The restaurant is becoming known for its fried Tuscan custard, a homey dessert that is basically firm slices of said custard crunchily deep-fried and dusted with sugar. Chefs just want to have fun.
• When the stars are aligned, Tutto is hard to top. Chef Joseph Gutierrez’s Italian dishes—such as his pork loin with figs and ginger—are major flavor bombs. And they’re seductive, like his bianco e nere: scoops of vanilla bean–infused ice cream earthily laced with bits of white and black truffles (yes, the fungus). If there’s a problem with the Dallas restaurant, it’s that the cooking is sometimes imprecise and the complex combinations can be muddled. But on a good day, Tutto shines. 1
• Good interior Mexican restaurants are hardly a peso a dozen, which is why Cafe San Miguel is such a treat. Dallasites who want to go beyond Tex-Mex can order enchiladas with three sauces: a piquant guajillo chile, a deeply chocolate mole, and a nutty if slightly bland pumpkin seed. Some of the simplest things are the best, like beautiful prepared-to-order guacamole. But only half the guests will get to enjoy the restaurant’s most beguiling design feature—the ladies’ room, a symphony in pink with red rose petals painted floor to ceiling. Sorry, guys.
• The antithesis of serene, Fuse is doing the fusion thing. My best experiences with the Asian-European-American menu have been at dinner, when I like to slide into one of the green-and-black suede-cloth booths, fall into a coma listening to the Dallas restaurant’s incessant trance music, and chow down on some good roasted Chinese-five-spice Muscovy duck. Presented on brioche, chef Blaine Staniford’s creation comes with figs and sweet, citrusy satsuma slices. Fuse’s look is lofty and arty, with rough concrete pillars along one wall and a golden Buddha in the corner.
• To mangle H. L. Mencken, no restaurant ever went broke underestimating Texans’ appetite for steaks. “Rich” is the word at the Strip House in Houston, directed by chef John Schenk. (The New York import takes its name from both its provender and its pictures of scantily clad movie stars and burlesque cuties.) What do I mean by “rich”? Just this: foie gras pressed into a square the size of a cinder block and spinach cooked not only in cream, butter, and Parmesan but also accented with truffle oil and truffle butter. Will somebody please call 911?
• The Eclipse Cafe is casting a distinctive shadow on San Antonio’s northwest side. With its inviting American-Mediterranean menu and bright, airy neighborhood setting, the latest venture of chef Louis Halfant (of Luna Blue, now closed) has taken off. Though not everything works, I was happy with my thick, creamy pan-seared sea bass filet basking in a (much too sweet) broth shot through with fresh ginger. And I would be back in a flash for the cafe’s crisp cracker bread shingled with seeds and crushed pecans. Hooray for the little things.
1 Update January 2007: The restaurant Tutto is closed.