Every February, I try to tease out the culinary trends of the ten best new restaurants that opened the year before. This time, “local,” “comfort food,” and “affordable” are the words du jour. Happily, under that umbrella there is plenty of variety: Number four is a bistro/chophouse. Number five draws on familiar dishes from many different cultures. Number seven is Tuscan with a Texan accent. And number nine specializes in Mexican street food, a.k.a. Spanish-speaking comfort food. But then–but then–along comes my number one restaurant of the year, and it turns all my conclusions upside down. First, it’s Japanese fusion. Second, it’s off-the-charts creative. Third, it’s not exactly cheap. So what do I make of the paradox? Just this: A harsh economy may send us fleeing to restaurants that are easy to like and gentle on the pocketbook, but there is still a place for imagination and exotic ingredients from faraway lands. Once in a while, everybody needs to be dazzled.
All right, let’s cut to the chase. To be considered for this story, an establishment must have officially opened between November 1, 2009, and November 1, 2010, with a three-week grace period at the front end. A restaurant must be new, and that includes not only those that are new from the ground up but also those that have changed their name and cuisine, moved to a new location, or have an otherwise legitimate claim to newness. I will allow the first Texas location of a major out-of-state operation, but there weren’t any candidates this year. I regretfully decided I cannot include chef’s tables, even if they have their own name. Otherwise I certainly would have written about Fuego, the four-seat venue at Stephan Pyles, in Dallas, offering mesmerizing and delicious examples of molecular gastronomy.
But enough about the rules. It’s time to eat.
Photograph by Jody Horton
1. Uchiko, Austin
How do you know when a restaurant is great? When you pop that first bite into your mouth and instantly think, “That’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life!” And then with the next dish, you say, “No, this is even better!” That happened to me at Uchiko, the offspring of the phenomenally popular, phenomenally creative Japanese venue Uchi. My first nibble was a sushi course: a fastidiously fresh sliver of silver-skinned Japanese bream swiped with excellent olive oil and adorned with a teeny squiggle of Meyer lemon zest, all draped across slightly sweet vinegared rice quite unlike normal, boring sushi rice. It was utterly simple, yet every flavor sang: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and the enigmatic, all-enhancing fifth flavor, umami. Then the second course arrived—a succulent little boned quail sided by a bit of Thai chile–spiked lemon marmalade astride a bed of fragrant vanilla-infused parsnip purée—and I thought my eyes would roll back in my head. For months, the adoring fans of the parent restaurant had been torn. On the one hand, we were tickled to have another venue. On the other, we feared that the restaurant’s dynamic trio—chef-owner Tyson Cole, 40; executive chef Paul Qui, 30; and pastry chef Philip Speer, 33—might spread themselves too thin. But when Uchiko finally opened, in July, the worries vanished like steam from a cup of green tea.
The threesome had pulled it off. The fashionable new place, sheathed in glowing russet bricks and sooty-black charred wood, had its own vibe and its own distinctive, if similar, menu. Uchiko’s offerings were novel, like gyutan, a delicate slice of succulent grilled beef tongue served sushi style on rice with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt and a dab of concentrated sweet fish sauce. They were playful, like the Fall Salad, a black trumpet mushroom and pickled parsnip terrine with dewy baby greens sprouting from its earthy top. They were homey, such as the risotto-like Japanese rice porridge called congee (poshed up with shaved truffles). And they were avant-garde, especially desserts like the deconstructed apple pie à la mode composed of fried-green-apple purée, apple cider foam, brown butter gelato, sugary streusel, and a debonair garnish of crispy dried apple “strings.” After my first three visits, I made a vow to try everything on the menu. But the menu changes constantly, so that could take, well, forever. Seldom has eternity sounded so enticing.
4200 N. Lamar Blvd.
Dinner Sun–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11.
Try this Golden Beet Salad recipe.
Photograph by Kenny Braun
2. Haven, Houston
Can one dish tell you what a chef is up to? Yes, if that dish is Randy Evans’s Texas quail with bodacious jalapeño-sausage stuffing. The 35-year-old is all about “Texas regional cuisine,” as you would expect from a boy who grew up in the East Texas town of Willis. But equally strong is Evans’s Louisiana accent, a legacy of his twelve years at Brennan’s of Houston. His spunky shrimp corn dogs (pictured) show off the Creole/Cajun part of Haven’s menu: The juicy Gulf crustaceans are jacketed in a smooth batter and come sided with a mustardy mayo spiked with Tabasco mash (the heady stuff from the bottom of the pepper barrel). Less immediately apparent is that Haven is also all about local sourcing and environmental responsibility. The sleek if prim dining room was constructed using green building principles, and out back are rainwater cisterns and tidy organic gardens. Like most things here, it’s all as rootsy as can be.
2502 Algerian Way
Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 5–11. Closed Sun.
Photograph by Kenny Braun
3. Branch Water Tavern, Houston
Branch water falls into the trendy “gastropub” category, and it has pub traits galore: brews on tap, dark wood walls, atrocious wallpaper. But it’s the “gastro” part that’s generating the buzz. Thirty-two-year-old chef David Grossman knows how to keep a dish simple but intriguing. He also knows how to make it pretty as a picture. His superb fish cookery yields a seafood stew that’s ready for prime time, featuring pristine chunks of red snapper, still-crisp pink shrimp, broth-plumped PEI mussels