Like most people, I’M A PUSHOVER for a new restaurant. As soon as a sign goes up saying “Coming Soon,” I can’t wait to be the first in line. For someone with this attitude, last year was a good year. But it wasn’t, in the words of the song, a very good year. Maybe because the preceding year was so spectacular, what with the debut of two amazing restaurants—Artista, in Houston, and Aurora, in Dallas—it was inevitable that this year’s choices would suffer by comparison. Or maybe I’m getting fussier (nah, not possible). But whatever the reason, I felt that—even at some of the best places—a few things weren’t quite as they should be, with misdemeanors ranging from uneven quality and execution of dishes to seriously ditzy service. And given the prices on many menus these days, I don’t feel like waiting for someone to iron out the wrinkles.
That said, I ate well, not to mention often, while researching this story. If you asked me what stood out, I would say the fish, because not one but two of the top new restaurants—Pesca and 7—focus their considerable talents on seafood. But that’s not to say that meat got short shrift: I’m still dreaming about 17’s celestial veal shank, and Lanny’s peppered elk loin definitely warmed up my winter of discontent.
As in previous years, I included only homegrown restaurants, which ruled out newcomers like Bank Jean-Georges, in Houston, part of New York restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s far-flung empire. To be in the running, a restaurant had to have opened—or acquired a new owner, chef, and name—between November 1, 2003, and November 1, 2004 (although I confess I did let in two slightly older establishments that were not on my radar screen last year. It’s nice being queen; you get to make the rules and then break them). So check out these places. They are where I would like to be eating right now.
1) 17 (Houston)
Do chefs have seasons? If so, then 17’s Jeff Armstrong is a brilliant cold-weather chef. In my book, there is no better spot for robust sauces and long-simmered meats than the dining room of the Sam Houston Hotel. Take the young maestro’s pappardelle with veal shank, the meat and broad ribbons of pasta aswim in a thick, luscious broth—pot roast elevated to stardom. Or his unctuous beef short ribs with a bracing frisèe salad alongside. And his darkly spiced sweet-potato torte, crusty on the outside and pudding-soft within, is a minor masterpiece. Other dishes round out the seasons, like a light, summery tuna tartare topped with a salad of microgreens in a dynamite chile vinaigrette. But the food isn’t the only thing I love here. I like just being in 17, with its glittering crystal lights and sleek chocolate-and-white color scheme set off by froufrou red wallpaper on one side of the room—a friend said she felt like she was in a box of bonbons. That said, I have to tsk-tsk over the uneven service: While some of the waiters anticipate your every need, a few others are affable airheads who seem genuinely surprised that they haven’t given you a glass of water and a menu. But that’s not going to keep me away. I don’t want to miss what Armstrong has planned for the spring. Directions
2) T’afia (Houston)
Monica Pope’s new restaurant perplexes me no end. Why? Because I can’t imagine how such an ardent chef could choose such an austere setting—think trendy juvenile detention hall—to showcase her striking and original cuisine. But this hasn’t deterred her customers, who pack the place nightly to see what triumphs will emerge through those stainless-steel kitchen doors. Maybe it will be fabulous, meaty whole-duck-leg confit with an intense vanilla-sherry glaze. Or perhaps two little toasty-brown Texas quail brilliantly matched with a garlicky pistachio sauce and nutty barley-and-red-rice pilaf. A whirlwind of energy, Pope sells prepared holiday meals from Thanksgiving through New Year’s (by advance order) and hosts a farmers’ market in the restaurant and its parking lot every Saturday. She also champions regional and natural products, so diners can count on finding things as diverse as B3R hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and local artisan chocolates on the menu. And speaking of the menu, let me dyspeptically voice a final, tiny gripe, which is that I find its layout—with one section for starters and entrèes and another section for more entrèes—puzzling. But one thing about T’afia is crystal clear, and that is the passion of Monica Pope. I don’t know how she does it all. Directions
3) George (Dallas)
With its stark, white-on-white decor, George looks like an art gallery, one whose exhibits consist of smartly conceived, beautifully presented food. Chef-owner George Brown calls his menu modern American, but in fact, he lets his imagination roam across a varied culinary landscape. Over several different visits, I had a scrumptious goat’s-milk-Brie soup, a pristine sea bass filet on a crisp, sweet slaw of green mango and red bell pepper, and a beef filet in a spunky ginger-port infusion with roasted root vegetables (though interesting, it was a little discordant; the flavors of the meat and vegetables went in one direction and those of the sauce in another). In the end, I almost missed one of the menu’s best dishes because it didn’t sound particularly edgy or creative: a dessert of Guinness stout cake with ginger-almond ice cream. It was masterful. The cake—moistened by molasses and the rich, dark brew and shot through with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger—set up a sweet and spicy motif echoed by the ice cream and a citrusy garnish of candied kumquats, a work of art if ever I’ve eaten one. Directions
4) Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana (Fort Worth)
Talk about a surprise: The chef-owner of one of the year’s most sophisticated new restaurants has Tex-Mex in his blood. Two years ago young Lanny Lancarte II, scion of the family that owns local legend Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, headed to Hyde Park, New York, to attend the Culinary Institute