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