When I gaze back over the previous year, what dining trends do I see among the ten best new Texas restaurants? Well, to start, it was the year offal went mainstream. If you don’t know offal, just think of it as nose-to-tongue-to-ear-to-belly-to-trotter-to-jowl-to-skin-to-tail-to-knuckle-to-marrowbone-to-cheek-to— oh stop! —eating. Innards are in. Seriously.
Small-plate dining, a.k.a. grazing, is ubiquitous, and local sourcing is the default choice everywhere. I wasn’t surprised to see casual settings on the increase, with more community tables and beer gardens in the mix. But I was taken aback that three restaurants were in the white-tablecloth camp; to paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quip, reports of formal dining’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
As for culinary categories, I’d describe four of my top ten as American melting pot, two as classic French, two as Italian, one as Japanese, and one as Indian. In terms of ingredients, it was the Year of the Pig (see “offal”). Indeed, swine occasionally upstaged cattle on restaurant menus, which is saying something in Texas. Finally, just for the heck of it, I’ll make a prediction for 2012: escargots will make a comeback. I say so because I’ve had amazing escargots three times in recent months. And if offal is in, can snails be far behind?
All right, let’s get down to business. To be considered for this story, a restaurant must have officially opened between November 1, 2010, and November 1, 2011 (though there’s a three-week grace period at the front end). Also eligible are older restaurants that have undergone total makeovers (defined as a new name and a new concept or menu). In years past, I’ve included newcomers from restaurant empires based outside Texas (like those of Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten). But I’m happy to say that homegrown talent filled up all ten slots this time. That’s local dining you can get behind.
Photograph by Ryann Ford
1. Congress, Austin
Some chefs take years to figure out who they are. Not David Bull. Fine dining is in his genes. While others have been busy seeing whether opposites attract—i.e., doing upscale food in get-down settings—Bull has embraced sophistication and complexity from the beginning. They were his muse when he was named one of the ten best new chefs in America by Food & Wine ; that was in 2003, when the classically trained 29-year-old was executive chef at the Driskill Grill, in Austin. They inspired him when he developed Bolla, at the Stoneleigh Hotel, in Dallas. Fourteen months ago, he threw back the curtain on his most refined concept to date: Congress. Tucked into a downtown high-rise and accessorized with icy crystal lights and white-on-white original art, Congress is one tall, sexy blonde. And behind the scenes, interpreting global cuisine with his usual finesse, is Mr. Bull, at the top of his game.
On any given night, Congress offers prix fixe menus of three and seven courses styled to the nines by Bull and chef de cuisine Rebecca Meeker. If I were to be your guide for an evening’s indulgence, I would insist that you start with the salad of voluptuous buffalo-milk burrata. The Sophia Loren of cheeses, burrata might be described as mozzarella ’n’ cream. You can scoop up a bite along with a square of earthy golden beet or swish it around in sweet-tart blood orange agrodolce. The spot-on flavor dynamics in this combination are also at work in the lobster bisque, the soothing soup sparked with a saucy Fresno chile–tomato jam. And Bull’s send-up of a New York deli plate is way too much fun to miss; the tender beef-tongue pastrami, mustard-miso dressing, and delicate curls of fried rye toast are smashing. And while meat is a strength, his ravioli filled with a lush carrot purée and capped by an aromatic lemongrass foam may be the best vegetarian dish in the city. Pastry chef Erica Waksmunski’s desserts—like her Greek yogurt mousse with basil-lime sorbet dolled up with white chocolate–lava salt crunchies—always provide a sweet farewell. 200 Congress Ave, 512-827-2760. Dinner Tue–Thur 6–10, Fri & Sat 6–11. Reservations recommended.
Photograph by Jody Horton
2. Barley Swine, Austin
Quick! In what Texas city is it most likely that a guy who started in a food trailer ends up on Food & Wine ’s list of top new chefs? You know it’s Austin. Chef-owner Bryce Gilmore’s honor, awarded in 2011, is a modern twist on the old success story: locavore boy makes good. Of course, he has graduated to a building now, but it’s so cozy it might as well be a trailer. And charmingly cramped quarters are part of the appeal. The diners seated next to you are likely to ask, “Hey, how were the grilled shrimp?” And you’re likely to tell them that they were really fresh and from the Gulf and came with this delicious citrus-chipotle froth. And then they’re likely to tell you how much they enjoyed the scrambled egg and goat feta, which was whipped into a fabulous milky-cheesy sauce. And so it goes. By the time you offer them a sample of the pumpkin cheesecake and whipped cream tinged with crushed Australian wattle seeds (pictured), you’re saying, “Hey, let’s get together sometime.” 2024 S. Lamar Blvd, 512-394-8150. Dinner Mon–Fri 6–11, Sat 5–11. No reservations taken.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
3. Marquee, Dallas
Ever since he appeared on Top Chef in 2007, Tre Wilcox has been casting about for a place to do things his way. He had some private gigs and then headed up Loft 610, in Plano. Finally, in April 2011, he made his long-anticipated debut in the ritziest neighborhood in Dallas, Highland Park. Almost immediately, Marquee’s smart espresso-and-white dining room became the destination for anniversaries, prom dates, and lunch with the ladies. Now that he’s settled in, Wilcox is on a mission to gradually expand the horizons of his clientele beyond safe, if excellent, dishes like his signature Duck Three Ways (pictured) and perfectly seared venison and bison steaks. How’s it going? So far, so great. The foodies