What’s up, what’s down? What’s in, what’s out? I got dizzy trying to tease out the trends in the 2008 edition of our annual roundup of the state’s new restaurants. At first I thought I saw a seafood restaurant fad; two good ones opened last year, one in Dallas and one in Houston. Just a coincidence? Two worthy Italian restaurants also popped up, but Italian has become the default cuisine of American restaurants, so nothing significant there. What does seem worth noting is the energy and quality in the classy-comfort-food genre: Three promising newcomers—Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, in Austin; the Porch, in Dallas; and Max’s Wine Dive, in Houston—all fit that description. In fact, I’m tempted to throw this year’s top pick, Fearing’s, in Dallas, into the mix, although that megasaurus has such an eclectic menu that it’s hard to decide on a dominant theme. And why would comfort food be so popular? To steal a quote from a chef I know: “People like what they can pronounce.”
A quick word about the rules: To be included, a restaurant needs to either be new or have a new chef, a new name, and a new idea. Our culinary year of eligibility traditionally ends on November 1 of the last year and begins on November 1 of the year before that, but I am allowing a three-week grace period for the Grill at Leon Springs, an excellent restaurant that opened in San Antonio on October 10, 2006. It was a crime for me to overlook it last year; it would be a sin for me to ignore it this time around. (And I am herewith instituting the Grill at Leon Springs Rule, which will provide a legal basis for consideration of any restaurant opening within 21 days of Where to Eat Now’s official parameters; after all, this is my kitchen.)
Here then are our ten winners and four runners-up. Try ’em while they’re hot.
Photograph by Artie Limmer
1. Fearing’s, Dallas
Cirque du Soleil has nothing on Dean Fearing’s venture at the new Ritz-Carlton. I wouldn’t even blink if a woman descended from the ceiling in a flaming feather dress, singing like a trumpeter swan in the middle of dinner. The drama, ambition, and culinary range of the six-month-old restaurant are Wagnerian, and it was easily the best to open in Texas last year. I like being there. I like lolling on a cushy banquette in the main dining room, amid the acres of tawny onyx and African mahogany paneling. (I’ve peeked into the hotel’s six other dining areas; board presidents and CEO’s would feel right at home in the lavish one with master-of-the-universe-size armchairs.) I feel well cared for by the servers, who know their moves and never take friendliness over the line. And I love the dishes that lean toward simplicity and let their ingredients shine, such as the sashimi-like hamachi with an avocado-wasabi purée and crisp matchsticks of Asian pear. Or the perfectly cooked soy-glazed black cod in a miso-clam broth on jasmine rice. I wholeheartedly endorse that aspect of the menu, but at the same time, I must confess some mixed feelings: I’m not an unalloyed fan of the signature style that has made the affable and talented Mr. Fearing the best-known chef in Texas. If Dean is about anything, it’s complexity, fusion, and big—even monster—flavors. At the beginning of his 21-year reign at Dallas’s Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel, he helped forge the Texas brand of Southwestern cuisine. And even though he eventually branched out into global dishes of all kinds (Moroccan tajines, for instance), he remained famous for applying a Tiffany gloss to the robust flavors of regional American and Mexican classics. But sometimes all that energy and all those ingredients knock me for a loop. I tried but probably won’t order again the flashy mesquite-grilled giant ribeye “mopped” (a favorite Fearing word) with a dauntingly sweet barbecue sauce. I don’t gravitate toward the maple-and-black-peppercorn-“soaked” buffalo tenderloin. I admire anyone with the audacity to chicken-fry a Maine lobster, but I can’t see cloaking its sweet, delicate flesh in a batter crust, no matter how tasty. That said, I’m in the minority; Dean’s many fans are lapping it all up. And, in truth, the menu is so varied that everybody can find something to like. I certainly won’t stop coming here and enjoying the cosseting and pampering. Besides, I might get to see a woman in a flaming feather dress drop from the ceiling.
The Grill at Leon Springs, San Antonio
Photograph by Artie Limmer
2. The Grill at Leon Springs, San Antonio
Who could have guessed that this country burb—known to most as the home of barbecue behemoth Rudy’s—would give birth to one of the state’s best new restaurants? Not me. But when I heard myself oohing over the menu’s perfect lump-crab cakes in crisp panko crusts and aahing over its sautéed shrimp in a sybaritic butter sauce, I thought of the Michelin guidebook phrase “Worth the journey.” The Grill at Leon Springs is a revelation. At first, I sized up the tall, comfy-looking rooms and figured I’d be in and out in less than an hour. Then chef Tomme Johnson’s immaculately presented plates arrived and—holy homemade gnocchi! His take on populist food is great; I loved the crackly-crusted pizza with leeks, house-cured pancetta, and goat cheese. Ditto the spot-on golden fries dusted with sea salt. The kitchen shines with anything sautéed, and the desserts are not to be missed, especially the flaky apple crepia (like a puff-pastry tart) and the tiramisù (below). Given that the Grill’s owners are executive chef Thierry Burkle and general manager Armand Obadia, who also own highly respected L’Etoile, in San Antonio, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Photograph by Artie Limmer
3. Cibo, Austin
Will Packwood has found his voice. the shy chef who was chosen by Food & Wine magazine to be one of its ten rising stars of 2001 has got it right, with a