What is the best restaurant in Texas right this minute?
I fell in love the first time I ate at Le Rêve. Not with my date, mind you. I was smitten with the little San Antonio restaurant itself—the chic, understated room, the hawklike intensity of its young chef-owner, Andrew Weissman, and the utterly sublime contemporary French food that emerged from its kitchen. I have eaten at Le Rêve many times since that first meal four years ago, and nothing has cooled my ardor. What seduces me? A glorious heap of tempura-light fried sweetbreads cozied up to spinach zapped with truffle oil; the most luxurious foie gras I’ve ever tasted, decadently steeped in cognac for hours, then sautéed in pure duck fat; a trio of tiny, perfect crèmes brûlées—espresso, dark chocolate, and Madagascar vanilla—astonishing in their lightness and capped with crackly panes of burnt sugar. In June 2000 this magazine’s Restaurant Guide gave Le Rêve one star; then, six months later, two stars. This month we award it a third star, elevating it to the rarefied company of Houston’s Cafe Annie. “Le Rêve” means “the Dream,” and it is.

I admit it: I only care about the next new thing. What good restaurants opened last year?
In Dallas, Hotel ZaZa’s Dragonfly finally spread its glossy wings in December. Looking like the inner sanctum of a sultan’s palace, the dining room is swathed in acres of gauzy, glittery crimson fabric and aglow in the light of beaded lamps. The food, by Jeff Moschetti, with input from Dallas über-chef Stephan Pyles, globe-hops from East Asia to North Africa with dishes like a silky filet of black cod in miso broth and a tajine of Moroccan lamb with cinnamon and preserved lemon. Two early visits varied from middling to magnificent; consistency would be nice. The West Village, the hottest shopping-and-noshing area in Dallas at the moment, added several new options last year. Paris Vendôme—a vast brasserie where well-behaved pooches are welcome in the courtyard, just as they are in France—has won me with Gruyère-capped French onion soup and a pretty, caramel-drenched puff-pastry apple galette, prepared under the watchful eyes of Chris Ward and James Johnson. I love the looks of two other new places. The first is Tom Tom Noodle House, where blond-wood walls and a dramatically curving counter bathed in red light pulse to a techno-pop beat. People are waiting in line for Peter Heise’s up-to-the-minute rice and noodle bowls, although some of them are oddly sweet. And at Nikita, Lisa Lawson’s snacky, salady menu, while good enough, isn’t the point. What is? The vibe—a high-camp take on Russia through the ages, with low tables and tall candelabra surrounded by abstract artwork and murals (are those cossack horsemen?), all in a mysterious, smoky basement lounge. Although you can eat upstairs, downstairs is the place to be.

Jefe James Neel at Dallas’ Bistro Latino, a casual, perky pan-Latin and Caribbean spot, is on a roll. Each of his small chile-rubbed salmon filets comes with a short, jaunty stalk of sugarcane jabbed in one corner to create—¡olé!—a salmon chop, bolstered by green papaya slaw. Just out of the starting gate, Hattie’s is coming on strong and helping to put the trendy Bishop Arts District on the culinary map. Lisa Kelley’s knock-’em, sock-’em flavors, showcased in such dishes as blue-cheese-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped figs, are balanced by gentler follow-ups like flourless chocolate cake with orange crème anglaise. Part of the city’s downtown revival, the Metropolitan does the Pottery Barn­yuppie look (oak floors, white slipcovers, tiny candles) to perfection; chef Sara Horowitz is getting attention for a menu that bounces from rolled salmon on pearl couscous to Vietnamese-style lettuce wraps plumped with grilled chicken. The most laid-back of the year’s newcomers, the M Grill and Tap rocks when the TVs are turned on to catch a big ball game (not that often) and acts like a grown-up when they’re not. Cherif Brahmi’s better-than-decent menu of meat loaf, pork chops, filet mignon, and poorboys includes the best molten chocolate cake I’ve had in Dallas.

Houston has also been fertile ground for openings. My fantasy meal at the Riviera Grill—in the ultrasleek, newly remodeled Sam Houston Hotel—includes a room at the inn for a postprandial nap (or whatever). Until chef John Sheely arranges this amenity, I’ll rely on the Grill’s roasted sweetbreads with red-onion marmalade to send me to dreamland. At cutting-edge Mexico City­style restaurant Hugo’s, Hugo Ortega is feeding the multitudes with inventive variations on regional Mexican dishes: rabbit gorditas, miraculously ungreasy cabrito (served with a mound of spunky, oniony nopal salad), and seductive almond-crusted coconut tarts made by his pastry-chef brother, Ruben Ortega, all in a tall, torchère-lit space. Speaking of soaring spaces, let us not forget glam queen Trevisio, looking like a flashback to the mad-money nineties. The view and the mood are best at night, when the sky outside is as deep a blue as the shimmering water wall at the restaurant’s entrance. Alan Ashkinaze’s mod-Italian menu has created at least one instant classic, sea scallops perched on warm asparagus atop a mellow little tomato compote, all drizzled with Parmesan vinaigrette.

Exit De Ville, enter Quattro: Walking into the main restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Houston’s after its $3 mil, head-to-toe makeover was like discovering that Carole Lombard had miraculously morphed into Gwyneth Paltrow. Tim Keating’s food now has a contemporary American-Italian bent, and his fabulous asparagus risotto, sparked with lemon and capers, is a legend in its own time. On those days when I can’t bear to dress up for dinner, I go straight to Laurier, where whatever I’m wearing looks fine against walls painted in Crayola-bright red, blue, and yellow. Hooray for chef Gary Fuller’s smart but not overworked creations, like a crab cake with a toasty exterior and moist interior on a puddle of tomato beurre blanc. Retrofitted from its days as the restaurant Quasimodo, the Mockingbird Bistro still sports the odd gargoyle poised gleefully overhead. The lusty, moderately priced Mediterranean and American fare—irresistibly fatty beef short ribs, fluffy batter-fried oysters, roasted-beet-and-walnut salad—guarantees that I’ll be back to explore John Sheely’s menu (yes, he’s been a busy boy this year).

In my book, nibbling beats gorging any day. That’s why in San Antonio, my new love is Saffron. Warmed by its russet and terra-cotta colors, I snack on Tito Aybar’s multinational tapas, which include ptés, a great lamb-and-Spanish-chorizo mini-cassoulet, and serrano ham with cool melon and tangerine slices. Hip newcomer Azuca sways to a Central and South American beat under blown-glass light fixtures that look like a flock of wayward balloons. The thinnest of plantain strips make a fitting crust for chef Rene Fernandez’s nicely turned out salmon filet moistened with cilantro crab butter. Just down the street, China Latina isn’t Latin at all but pan-Asian. Its pale lettuce-green interior and towering wall of smooth black river rocks lowers my blood pressure, while a plate of jewel-like sushi and an order of chef Luis Amaya’s Triple Delight (chicken, shrimp, and beef with vegetables in a mellow brown sauce) soothe my savage appetite. And now, the million-dollar question: Will shabby-chic little Club Cohiba be the restaurant that finally sticks at the cool Havana Riverwalk Inn? I wouldn’t be surprised. At night, you can actually talk over the jazzy background music while picking at Beau Smith’s tapas, like lemony shrimp sprinkled with cilantro or mushrooms sautéed with sherry and toasted garlic.

Some restaurants spend a fortune and never get a handle on their customer base. In Austin, Lambert’s had the city’s schizo zeitgeist nailed from day one. That’s why the wine comes in tumblers (“Hey, we’re just folks”) but the fare is global and sophisticated (“We’re going to impress the pants off you”). Sure enough, chef-owner Lou Lambert’s menu knocks me out, especially his snowy poached halibut filet in tomato-garlic broth on a pillow of polenta. Frisky order-at-the-counter newcomer Noodle-ism has “chain prototype” written all over it—and that’s a compliment. The slick looks (red parasols and black-granite tabletops) and Jeff Liu’s savvy menu (permutations of pasta and noodles from Sicily to Shanghai) could make a go of it anywhere. When I drop by for lunch, which is often, I like to have the Malaysian coconut-milk seafood ramen in a hot-and-sour broth fuel-injected with lemongrass.

The only thing that Café Modern (see “Pat’s Pick,” page 146) absolutely had to do was provide a recharging station for visitors to Fort Worth’s stupendous new Modern Art Museum. Instead, the curvy, swooping space has surpassed that goal and kept on going. Art lovers are queuing up for chef Mathew Freistadt’s grilled salmon gilded with citrus butter—not to mention crème brûlée with a white-chocolate truffle tucked inside. The day that a steakhouse fails in Fort Worth is the day that hell freezes over. So no one should be surprised that the Silver Fox is jammed with carnivorous scenesters who demand no more, or less, than U.S. Prime steaks, plus Asif Raza’s veal chops, crab cakes, and the like. Finally, finally, after a two-year absence, restaurateur Grady Spears is back on the map with his new baby, the Chisholm Club. Chef Brian Olenjack is cooking Western dishes that are reminiscent of those Spears himself cooked when he was at Reata (crusty, tender chicken-fried venison) and has added new ones (lush sweetbreads with a punchy pico de gallo). But the earlier cowboy shtick has thankfully been toned down: Those gleaming black chaps on the wall? They’re steel, not cowhide. (In Texas, we call that sculpture, son.) And for the record, Reata reopened last year where the old Caravan of Dreams used to be, on three floors improbably capped by a geodesic dome. Somebody please tell me: Is it a restaurant or a lavish cowboy theme park with an upscale steakhouse attached?

I fantasize about chefs the way other people fantasize about Halle Barry or Brad Pitt. Who are the famous names in Texas?
The members of the fabled Texas Mafia—Robert Del Grande, of Houston’s Cafe Annie, Dean Fearing, of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, and Dallas’ Stephan Pyles, who left Star Canyon in 2000 and is currently planning to open his own place within a year—are still the names to conjure with. But a new generation is stepping up to the plate. In Dallas, Kent Rathbun, of Abacus, is a master of complexity who offers Asian, Mediterranean, and contemporary American motifs in dishes like roasted duck with rice-paper pancakes and blackberry hoisin sauce and grilled venison with a huckleberry demi-glace. The phrase “I don’t know how he does it all” must have been invented for Chris Ward, the city’s poster boy for overachievement. The hard-traveling chef cum guru for the M Crowd restaurant group can be seen at—take your pick—the Mercury Grill (purveyor of Mediterranean and New American food in a sleek New York­ish setting, below); its younger sibling, the Mercury (soon to be retooled as a steakhouse with a Central American accent); Paris Vendôme; and Citizen (an Asian restaurant and sushi bar). As we all know, the words “famous chef” and “self-effacing” are not often found in the same sentence, but there’s no other way to describe Sharon Hage. At tiny, gleaming York Street, she works her magic on the likes of humble oxtail (braised in a sprightly tamarind broth) and gives makeovers to nerdy vegetables like salsify, radishes, and cauliflower, turning them into something rich and strange.

Two of Houston’s big-name chefs, Tim Keating and John Sheely, had babies this year— respectively, Quattro and the Riviera Grill. At swank, mahogany-paneled Cafe Annie, young executive chef Ben Berryhill is coming into his own, producing the most highly evolved Southwestern cuisine in the state, like cocoa-rubbed roast chicken with barbecue-seasoned sweet potatoes and caramelized pumpkin seeds. Saints and sinners alike worship at Mark’s, the New American culinary shrine that Mark Cox has created in the dazzlingly deconsecrated sanctuary of an old church. Personally, I am seeking forgiveness for stealing bites of a friend’s roasted chicken breast and truffle-oil-spiked grits on my last visit, when I had a perfectly delicious molasses-and-bourbon-glazed pork tenderloin on my own plate.

In San Antonio, besides catching a glimpse of Andrew Weissman at Le Rêve, chef groupies should breeze into Biga on the Banks to see what Bruce Auden is up to. His modern, expansive glass-walled space on the river wows me every time, though occasionally the complex global menu (Hunan barbecued salmon, “Close-to-Bouillabaisse” fish stew, achiote-spiced Texas lamb) exhausts as much as it exhilarates.

Even before George W. Bush gave spare, art-filled Jeffrey’s in Austin the presidential seal of approval, David Garrido was firmly entrenched in the who’s who of chefdom. His decision to switch from Southwestern to Mediterranean- and Asian-tinged dishes—hooray!—is the breath of fresh air the restaurant has needed. On the other hand, Jeff Blank will probably never completely abandon the happy marriage of Southwestern cuisine and game that is his trademark at Hudson’s on the Bend. But somehow—out in the country, in the breezy old limestone ranch house surrounded by herb gardens—the whole thing works, especially the crackly, crunchy trout with mango-habanero aioli.

In Fort Worth, go hang out at the Chisholm Club. Sooner or later, good-looking Grady Spears, who’s the same lovable, overgrown kid he’s always been, will drop by to say hi.

Okay, we know what’s new and who’s hot. What else do you love?
In Dallas, I could eat at Suze every day, wedged in at one of the little tables in the dusty-rose dining room feasting on the Middle Eastern plate—a medley of lush, sesame-oil-laced hummus, hushpuppy-like fried falafel, and feta-spiked artichoke dip—or chef Gilbert Garza’s paper-thin pappardelle in an intense veal bolognese sauce (a dish that made the cover of the September 2002 Bon Appétit). The original Mercury Grill, always sophisticated, still beguiles me. I wear pearls and a skinny black dress, order chef Delfino Lujano’s arugula-and-shaved-Parmesan salad with beef carpaccio, and feel like Audrey Hepburn in Charade. The polar opposite of this experience is braving Deep Ellum’s raffish young nighttime hordes to dine at the Green Room, with its puckish putti painted on yellow walls. Marc Cassel’s dishes, like pork tenderloin with a lively cayenne-apple glaze, never bore me. Then it’s on to Ciudad D.F., a thoroughly modern hacienda, for Joanne Bondy’s smart, tradition-tweaking renditions of classic Mexican dishes, like crisp empanadas made with masa instead of pastry and filled with ancho-seasoned tenderloin tips (a lusty cascabel-chile salsa at the ready). After painting the town red, I would totter in for brunch the next morning at warm, welcoming La Duni, a classy South American cafe owned by husband and wife Espartaco and Dunia Borga. All is made right by a bracing cup of café con leche, a plate of Venezuelan-style arepas (little tuffets of fluffy white-corn masa fried to a golden brown), and the sun streaming through the skylight.

The restaurant jungle culls out losers the way a tiger runs down a lollygagging antelope. That Monica Pope’s Boulevard Bistrot, in Houston, is thriving after almost nine years is a tribute to this comfy, casual space with its tiled floor and jazzy menu that offers riffs on classics, like beef ribs “Stroganoff” with red-wine broth, asparagus tagliatelle, and a token teaspoon of sour cream. A hop, skip, and a jump from the Bistrot, Aries rose to the city’s top ranks in only two and a half years. I feel like hugging myself and chef Scott Tycer when I sit down to his moist, couscous-filled chicken breast in pesto broth or the city’s best-named dessert, Evil Chocolate Overlord, a dark fantasy of creamy mousse and chocolate spikes. Every foodie in town has trekked to Indika to sample Anita Jaisinghani’s ground-breaking neo-Indian entrées like lamb curry with sautéed okra; but how many know that she’s also a pastry chef, and that her desserts, such as warm cardamom shortbread cookies and cotton-candy-light bread pudding with toasted cashews and swirls of chocolate, are beyond fabulous? La Vista’s chef-owner, Greg Gordon, does the gourmet-on-a-budget thing better than almost anyone. I get a kick out of his slangy menu (“Big Fat Chicken”), BYOB policy, and rustic, robust Mediterranean and American dishes like earthy venison ragoût and beef tenderloin with a cherry-apricot port-wine sauce. Over at three-year-old Da Marco, Marco Wiles is performing culinary prestidigitation, Italian style, in the kitchen of this revamped brick cottage. Sitting in the sunburst-yellow dining room, I regress to childhood at the slightest whiff of his sophisticated comfort food, like meltingly tender nine-hour-roasted veal breast. His sweet, almond-shingled panna cotta—”cooked cream”—is a new twist on an oft-mistreated dessert.

Recently promoted to executive chef at Silo, in San Antonio, Gus Ortiz has made a seamless transition. In his salad of mixed lettuces, a super sherry vinaigrette sings close harmony with jammy figs; his chocolate soufflé cake is so light he must have injected it with air—for my money, this is one of the best-executed menus in the city. Take a deep breath, plunge into the stream of camera-toting River Walkers, and make your way to Boudro’s. I’ll park myself in its cavelike interior or, on a cool day, snuggle up on the terrace under a thoughtfully provided Mexican blanket if I can just have more of chef Nelson Gonzales’ sweet grilled baby lobster tails with tender, tomatoey crêpes. If I had a great aunt who was revising her will, I would take her to L’Etoile. It is quiet and eminently civilized (especially now that it’s had a bit of a redo), and chef Thierry Burkle does traditional French with finesse. His redfish Véronique, in a grape-studded white wine­ butter sauce, is a marvel. One of the nicest meals I’ve had in San Antonio was at stately Las Canarias, in La Mansión del Rio Hotel. I’ll cease all griping about the killer straight-backed Spanish chairs if Scott Cohen plies me with his squash blossom soup (dark as night with bits of Mexican corn-ear fungus) or scallops atop a lovely port wine­grapefruit reduction (amazingly, at once unctuous and bracing).

In Austin, the race is on among a phalanx of newbies that have raised the bar when it comes to fine dining. Wink may be small, but Stewart Scruggs’s talent is large. Witness a recent triumph: his golden roasted chick- en breast on glorious white-polenta mush. Equally impressive are the skills of pastry chef and co-owner Mark Paul, for whose crisp, lemon-curd-filled meringue cups I would happily walk on nails. Who cares if you have to be shoehorned into Wink’s tiny, latte-colored room? The place is exciting. So is another little gem, Jean Luc’s Bistro, which is so much prettier now that they’ve covered the ugly concrete beams and painted the whole space eggshell white. Shawn Cirkiel’s silky butternut-squash-and-wild-sage soup and great, hammy duck confit with lentils in a candied-grapefruit veal jus have erased the memory of some early flubs. I also find myself cheering for quirky Starlite, with its bizarre amalgam of stripped-wood walls, crystal chandeliers, and June Cleaver wallpaper. When chef Joshua Hines is on—beautifully simple chicken breast suffused with the scent of rosemary, sweet-potato gnocchi in nutmeg cream sauce topped with morsels of duck confit—he’s on. When I’m not up to deconstructing the work of an ambitious young kitchen god, I fall back on old friends like the 34th Street Cafe. In its arty but comfy setting, I can hunker down with a book and demolish, unbothered, chef Julio Dominguez’s roasted poblano stuffed with sprightly ground lamb and golden raisins on guajillo chile sauce. Or I go to Mars—not the red planet but the scarlet restaurant. Somehow, its tiny kitchen manages to send forth a dizzying array of Asian cuisines; I’m especially fond of chef John Bullington’s generously varied Indian and Middle Eastern sampler platters. A regular stopover on my neurotic quest for culinary nirvana, urbane Louie’s 106 looks more imposing than it feels. I’ve had Frank Bellino’s grand pile of mussels in white-wine broth and his luscious rotisserie chicken with sautéed spinach more times than I can count. For those days when the old bank account is perilously low, I head out to El Mesón for Marisela Godinez’s homey quesadillas of huitlacoche or slow-cooked cochinita pibil; this colorful, unadorned plywood building on a bare industrial strip is the best new interior-Mexican restaurant in Austin.

Quite the place for Fort Worth socialites bearing birthday gifts, Angeluna seems a bit of a misfit out where the West begins. The tall white walls and heavenly artwork (one picture a mere pair of angel’s wings) match the high ambitions of chef Clark McDaniel’s kitchen, which produces dishes of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern persuasion, like meaty Moroccan lamb shanks with apricots and pine nuts on preserved-lemon couscous. But when it comes to Fort Worth’s patented cowboy chic, few do it better than Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. This spot in the Stockyards historic district doesn’t look prefab (the saddles on display are worn, the pressed-tin ceiling is original), and Tim Love’s menu explores Southwestern motifs without beating them to death. I’ll order the near-perfect lobster cakes with black bean­corn salsa and cilantro-orange beurre blanc anytime they’re offered.

I’m in the mood for love and escargots à la bourguignonne. Send me to your favorite romantic French bistro.
In Dallas, that would be Lavendou, a far north outpost tricked out in yellow-and-blue Provençal print fabrics and pine armoires. Chef Jean-Marie Cadot’s rotisserie duck with cassis sauce and his crème brûlée are as classic as they come. In Houston, francophiles can head to Café Rabelais (a nook that could have been lifted from Paris’ Latin Quarter, its walls the color of old parchment). Best bets: Mack Rogers’ monster mussels in a creamy white-wine sauce or a salad with country ham and oodles of blue cheese. In San Antonio, Bistro Vatel has a lock on the genre, with a scattering of copper pans and art posters gracing simple concrete-block walls painted buttercup yellow. An unevenly cooked filet of Atlantic salmon was more than made up for by chef Damien Watel’s fabulous creamy veal sweetbreads with truffled crème fraîche sauce. Like salmon swimming upstream, lovers of French food brave the boozy college rabble on Austin’s East Sixth Street to make their way to Chez Nous for chef Eric Pelegrin’s rosy duck breast and crisp sautéed shrimp in vanilla beurre blanc. The bistro’s lace curtains and the tattered shade on the bar lamp haven’t changed in ages—thank goodness.

I need to be surrounded by famous (or at least cool) people. Where’s the scene?
Any restaurant with a famous chef has built-in buzz. But there are plenty more. In Dallas, if you’re looking for players in both meanings of the word, try no-frills Bob’s Steak and Chop House, the original on Lemmon Avenue, where jocks hold up the bar and suits claim the tables. For wattage, go to Steel, a self-styled Indochine and Japanese dining venue where stylish women hug each other, men in black leather Armani jackets hug each other, and members of the sports-oisie exchange high fives in the sultry sake lounge. Oh, you want to eat? Have some sushi or one of chef Duwy Vouang’s excellent Asian-fusion dishes. Elsewhere on the scene circuit, the whole West Village is hot—the club crawlers outside Nikita could be mistaken for a mob of American Idol hopefuls.

La Griglia, in Houston, has long been a home away from home for politicians of all stripes, especially at lunch; ritzy River Oaks types convene at dinner to feast on smart Italian fare. Most restaurants in the hopping Midtown area have a following, especially the sushi bar Fish, where the parking valets practically demand that you make an appointment. New-kid-on-the-block Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse has, for now, taken the lead in the steakhouse sweepstakes; you need a crowbar to pry open a space in the bronze-toned, paneled bar and dining room. And whatever you might think about P. F. Chang’s American-oriented Chinese food, there’s electricity in the air at its well-polished, spacious Highland Village location, where young wheeler-dealers, rap music producers, and those in search of, shall we say, a date for the night all put in an appearance.

When the young and the restless of San Antonio aren’t rushing the bar or spilling out onto the patio at Reggiano’s, they’re in the airy, blond-wood dining room eating Mediterranean-accented food like Errol Graham’s bravura combo of shrimp and sausage on polenta. Throngs of artier types have made it impossible for me to squeeze into Rosario’s flashy, throbbing Latin digs at night, so I join the lunch bunch if I want to have Lisa Wong’s pozole, thick with hominy and chunks of pork. In Zinc‘s chummy side room, surrounded by sofas and bookshelves, pretty people size one another up and dine well on pizzas and panini (like yummy roasted-lamb sandwiches with peach chutney) made by Nelson Gonzales, who is also the chef at Boudro’s.

When Michael Caine and Robert Duvall were in Austin, they ate at the downtown location of Eddie V’s. So do thundering herds of lobbyists, legislators, and UT coaches. I can see why they like the slick, wood-paneled space and Steve Warner’s sprawling, imaginative menu of seafood and chops. Many of the same folks turn out to mill around the bar at chic Vespaio, swilling Pinot Grigio while waiting up to two hours for a table—and once you’ve tasted Alan Lazarus’ Chianti-braised short ribs, little hunks of burning love, you’ll understand why. The total opposite of chic, Las Manitas Mexican cafe also gets the boldface types: Ann Richards, Karl Rove, Sandra Cisneros, Dan Rather, and Edward James Olmos, especially on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, vegetarian tamal days.

If you had to pick just one place for sushi in each of the big cities, what would it be?
Dallasites who are maniacal about the raw stuff head north to Sushi Sake, a simple but attractive little spot in a Richardson shopping center (come on, it’s not that far), for reverently cut, impeccably fresh yellowtail, sea bass, and toro (the prized “fatty tuna”). Houston’s woodsy, lodgelike Azuma purveys pristine sushi, but as much as I love fish, I’m also taken with its vastly entertaining specialty: Hot Rock Beef, a sear-it-yourself exercise involving a heated portobello-size stone and strips of either Angus or Kobe steak. Cooking them is more fun than roasting marshmallows on a coat hanger. In San Antonio, some lunatic is sure to invent sushi fajitas any day now, but until that happens I’ll have my raw seafood at Sushi Zushi, a silly name for a serious joint. I like the zippy new downtown location, with its beautiful photographs of old Japanese cooking implements. In Austin, I follow the city’s sushi addicts to rustic, convivial Musashino, where if you’re lucky you can get a seat at the knickknack-cluttered bar and watch the chefs. When I’m being especially good to myself, I order the sashimi deluxe bowl, a glistening still life of ruby, pink, and pearl.

Mediterranean dishes are everywhere, but I long for pure Italian. Where should I go?
At Dallas’ Mi Piaci, I was won over by the world’s most conscientious waiter, who nearly died when he noticed a few microscopic specks of red sauce on my menu. “Totally unacceptable,” he could be heard muttering as he scurried off to fetch a clean one. When he delivered chef Tim Penn’s arugula salad (with huge shavings of Parmesan and a beautiful lemon dressing) and exemplary house-made fusilli (with mushrooms and fresh herbs), he was prouder than a doting daddy with a new baby. Houston has brilliant Da Marco , but it also has the vast Mandola, Butera, and Carrabba clan, which made cannelloni a household word there while the rest of Texas was still eating spaghetti out of a can. Of the dynasty’s many trattorias and ristorantes (including Vincent’s and the two original Carrabba’s), Damian’s is the acknowledged padrino, bustling with waiters groaning under vast trays of fat, veal-stuffed tortellini in rich Alfredo sauce or crisp, marinated chicken breasts bombed with fresh rosemary and garlic. In Napoleon Palacios’ kitchen, nuovo is a no-no. In San Antonio, despite the occasional cementlike cannoli, Massimo rules. Massimo Pallotelli’s orgy-worthy antipasti spread, homemade pastas, and insanely rich mushroom risotto are all on my perennial wish list. In Austin, I can’t possibly narrow the selection to just one, so besides Vespaio , with its muscular, vibrant flavors, I choose Emmett and Lisa Fox’s spare, clean-lined Asti for white pizza kissed with truffle oil and La Traviata‘s gregarious, limestone-walled downtown digs for Marion Gillcrist’s irresistible spaghetti in eight-hour-simmered ragù bolognese.

I crave adventure but can’t afford a plane ticket to Timbuktu. What’s unexpected and a little exotic?
Homesick Venezuelans and Colombians in Dallas are hanging out at Zaguán World Bakery and Café, sniffing the fragrant baked goods and ordering the lunch-type foods that emerge from Miguel Cristancho’s blue-tiled kitchen. I’m in a cozy corner having a cachapa (a sweet, sticky Venezuelan corn turnover) washed down with coffee so strong it could take the porcelain off a bathtub. Along with the rest of Houston’s chowhound cognoscenti, I have recently discovered A Taste of Portugal, chef-owner Jorge Fife’s sociable, informal little enclave where a Portuguese customer taught me how to eat a six-inch grilled sardine: Hold the critter in your hands like an ear of corn, grasp the flesh in your teeth and pull, flip, and repeat, and—ta-da!—a whistle-clean skeleton. Of several interesting dishes I tried, the best were the homey, grilled piri-piri-chile chicken, from the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, and aromatic saffron-scented rice. Ensconced in shiny, pin-neat new quarters, San Antonio’s Go Hyang Jib Korean B-B-Q House so far exceeds the typical Asian noodlery and grill that on weekends you need a reservation to get your share of goodies like Frisbee-size vegetable-studded “pancakes” with sesame-soy sprinkling sauce. In Austin, tiny, unpretentious Ararat—aglow in candlelight and covered from floor to ceiling with well-worn Turkish rugs—exudes Middle Eastern mystery. Dendu Lama’s hummus is lemony, the dolmas are fat, and even grilled vegetables seem sultry when splashed with rosemary tahini.

I want to take my friends from Rhode Island out for Texas barbecue without driving fifty miles. Which city joints stand out?
Attention, fellow Neanderthals: Even after more than forty years, no place in Dallas quite measures up to ancient, no-frills, smoke-varnished Sonny Bryan’s, for both its legendary brisket and its inch-thick onion rings. When in Houston, I usually hit one of Goode Company‘s two vastly popular locations, even though I feel like mooing while shuffling through the head-’em-up, move-’em-out cafeteria lines. But the real Houston adventure is Thelma’s, a humble little red house tucked into a seriously dilapidated neighborhood near downtown; a smokier, juicier, messier pile of brisket is not to be found anywhere. In San Antonio, I like to gnaw my way along a lamb rib or two (beef and pork ribs also available) at the freshened-up Southtown outpost of Bob’s Smokehouse. After a year in business in Austin, John Mueller’s is starting to get that smoky, lived-in barbecue feel. I love it that when you order brisket, they toss in a gratis smidgen of naughty burnt ends and crackly fat. By now, most folks in Fort Worth have voted with their feet and made the Railhead a regular stop. I question the purity of a barbecue joint that has television sets tuned to ball games and sells its own T-shirts, but I can’t argue with the Railhead’s meat. The ribs rule.