IT’S SEVEN O’CLOCK. DO YOU KNOW where you want to eat tonight? For the past two years this annual restaurant roundup has aimed to help you answer that burning question. In the 2002 and 2003 editions, my goal was to be all-inclusive, so I covered places of every cuisine, price range, and vintage. But in the end, I found that people were really interested in just one thing: What’s new?
So this time around I focused on ten new Texas restaurants that I think are the most exciting of the year, plus another eleven where—though they’re not in the same league as the top ten—I’m quite happy to dine. How did I decide what to include? I started with a list of several dozen candidates and ate my way through it. What did I look for? Delicious food, of course. Atmosphere counted for a lot too (I perk right up when I feel welcome and comfortable). As for service, honestly, I’m not that fussy—unless I’m kept waiting for the credit-card receipt, which drives me crazy. The final list—admittedly subjective and personal—includes those places that, whatever their cuisine or decor or price range, made me want to go back on my own dime.
But before I get to the winners, let me give you a couple of definitions: “New” means a restaurant that opened between the end of December 2002, when I finished reporting last year’s story, and November 1, 2003, or that acquired a new owner, new chef, and new name during that period (which ruled out a few worthy newcomers, including Austin’s Zoot—you should have changed the name, guys). And “Texas” means homegrown (which eliminated McCormick and Schmick’s in Dallas and Houston and Roaring Fork in Austin).
That said, there’s still plenty to sink your teeth into. Here are my ten favorites, plus a city-by-city look at the runners-up. Put on your best bib and tucker and give them a try.
Remember the scenes in old movies where a luxury liner pulls majestically away from the dock? Anticipation fills the air as the camera pans across fashionable people lining the deck, on the brink of a great adventure. That excitement is what I feel when I step into Artista, the ravishing new restaurant on the second floor of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Maybe it’s the soaring second-story space, all loungey and curvy. Maybe it’s the bird’s-eye view of the streets below and the skyline above. Maybe it’s the white leather chairs with their sexy cutouts. You halfway expect to see Bogie and Bacall, Gable and Lombard, Nick and Nora. Artista conjures a world where exciting things are about to happen, and it doesn’t disappoint.
What label to put on the menu created by chef-proprietor Michael Cordúa (the owner of Churrascos) and chef de cuisine Juan Manuel Flores? “Regional American” will do as well as any, bearing in mind that America is a melting pot that draws from all continents and cultures. Start with a salad of fresh romaine, its leaves edible canoes that hold maple-syrup-sweetened pecans, dabs of goat cheese, and phenomenal puréed-raspberry vinaigrette. Or try the precious taquitos, tiny, paper-thin flour tortillas embracing soft-shelled crawfish splashed with jalapeño mayo and sweet hoisin sauce; they reinterpret and rejuvenate mu-shu pork. Simple potato-leek soup is dolled up with nuggets of Stilton, bacon bits fried in tempura batter, and a dash of port glaze.
Once you get past the appetizers, you enter the intriguing audience-participation part of Artista’s menu. Set up in three columns—entrées, accompaniments, and sauces—it lets you mix and match to your heart’s content. If you’re feeling risk-averse, stick with the recommended combinations, handily listed on the same line. But if you’re in the mood to live dangerously and try, say, roasted jícama or cheese ravioli instead of asparagus with your salmon, go for it. Now you know how chefs feel when faced with all those possibilities.
At too many restaurants, chicken is a throwaway entrée for cheapskates. Not here. You won’t even believe this juicy bird is the same critter, pan-seared and paired with a rosemary-and-crimini-mushroom cream sauce. Fish eaters will love the jerk-spiced tilapia filets, a perfect foil for subtly sweet fresh-pineapple-and-coconut beurre blanc. Pan-roasted veal tenderloin in a sauce of foie gras and morels, accompanied by impossibly light mascarpone mashed potatoes, is decadence defined. If there is a problem at Artista, it’s that you have to restrain yourself from licking the plate. But even if you swear you can’t eat another bite, force yourself to order the flourless chocolate cake with its heady orange-chocolate sauce and dollop of milk chocolate sorbet. It will make you happy you’re alive.
At what other Texas restaurant is the table butter made from English goat’s milk? Where else is the amuse-bouche an intoxicating truffled egg custard capped with Chantilly cream and served in a brown eggshell? Where else do you feel as if you’ve stepped into an intimate, seductive theater where every detail is calculated to wow you? At Aurora, floor-to-ceiling glass separates the très élégant dining room from the gleaming open kitchen, where chef-owner Avner Samuel presides over a black-jacketed crew. I swooned over his trio of Bellwether Farm’s lamb: morsels of loin and shoulder and a tasty little chop. Ditto a dessert crêpe filled with meringue-lightened whipped cream and surrounded by a sultry passion fruit jus. Eye-popping presentations—imagine a fried waffle-cut-potato basket filled with whipped blue potatoes—suit the extravagant preparations, the most exotic of which has to be warm sea urchin on spinach purée. You can be truffled to death here (truffle oil in a sweet rice pudding!), but you always feel pampered. And, yes, wowed.
Kent Rathbun took considerable ribbing from reviewers, including me, for sticking the label “gourmet backyard cuisine” on Jasper’s, the glossy new restaurant of which he is the proprietor and executive chef (Dallas’s posh Abacus is also his). But, hey, Kent, I never laughed at the food. No, sir. I’m deadly serious when it comes to the crab cakes, almost pure lump crab with a wisp of breading. I am decorum itself when partaking of the heavenly creamed corn—crisp kernels with a tiny dice of colorful peppers. And I sit up straight if presented with golden-brown salmon filets sided by silky mascarpone polenta. It’s obvious that Rathbun and chef Aaron Staudenmaier have a winning formula at Jasper’s. So I wipe that smile off my face as I slide into a seat in the cushy “backyard” room outfitted with teak picnic tables and planters lined with black river rocks—but secretly I’m grinning from ear to ear.
The guy prowling the dining room of Terra Bosco’s in a chef’s jacket with a rolled bandanna tied around his head is owner Richard White, and judging by the smears of red sauce on the jacket, it’s not for show. What White is cooking up at his six-month-old ristorante is some of the best straight-ahead Italian food in Houston. He fell in love with the cuisine when he worked at Nino’s. Now he’s garnering kudos from those who have discovered this pleasant, unprepossessing place a mile west of the Galleria. I felt like shouting, “Bravissimo!” when I tasted the lemon-chive butter sauce beribboning my sautéed red snapper, which was capped by perfect lump crabmeat and lightly grilled oyster mushrooms. The tiramisù, luscious layers of sweetened mascarpone and espresso-soaked homemade sponge cake, made me want to whistle and stomp. Of his name, White says, “Doesn’t sound Italian, does it?” Could have fooled me. 1
The first thing you see when you walk into Uchi is the comfy bar, serene in black and taupe. But look to your right and there’s the dining room, ablaze in swirly crimson wallpaper. That’s this restaurant and sushi bar in a nutshell—Asian fundamentals with surprising twists. Take my favorite dish, hama chile, delicate slices of pristine uncooked yellowtail. Ponzu sauce (soy, red-wine vinegar, orange and lemon juices, and shiso oil) keeps the dish Japanese, and diced Vietnamese chiles add a multicultural edge. Of course, you needn’t limit yourself to the excellent raw fish. You can also indulge in cooked dainties like beautifully broiled Chilean sea bass kasu zuke marinated in sake lees (the remains of the fermented rice used to make Japan’s best-known wine). I have one friend who refuses to order anything but the luxurious Wagyu beef, which he sears himself on a little hot rock and dips in sansho (bud pepper) vinaigrette. The beauty of Uchi is that it accommodates edgy and mainstream appetites with equal ease.
Rouge frustrates me no end. One meal will convince me that it’s the best new restaurant in Houston. Another will be merely good. Mind you, everything from Edelberto Gonçalves’s eclectic, French-leaning kitchen is brimming with imagination and more than competent. But once you’ve had his handkerchief-thin cannelloni, filled with a voluptuous leek fondue and gargantuan lumps of crabmeat, on tomato concassé, you will simply not be satisfied with anything less. Which is why tender but mysteriously dry veal loin is such a letdown, and why you crave more flavor in the lobster bisque, cleverly topped though it is with a cappuccino-style froth of whipped cream and cocoa powder. But then you order his suppions—tiny, perfectly tender calamari stuffed with a fine dice of ratatouille in a lovely, almost citrusy tomato broth—and all is forgiven. I expect to be a regular at Rouge, with its winy walls and red roses. The dishes that hit the mark are too intoxicating to miss.
Show me the cheese. Honestly, I could eat about a dozen cheese courses at Local. The most recent one I tried boasted a heady blue-veined goat cheese, a luxurious triple-cream cow’s-milk variety, and a lush, Brie-like sheep’s-milk cheese. And the accompaniments—oh, my: roasted pears in a brown-sugar “sauce” plus a sweet conserve of raisins and pistachios in a balsamic vinegar reduction. That Local’s two owners—manager-host Alice Cottrell and chef Tracy Miller—go to such trouble for a cheese plate helps explain why they’ve amassed a following in Deep Ellum’s funky music-and-tattoo district. On the restaurant’s sophisticated but down-home menu you’ll find everything from lamb chops with a Madeira glaze to a (slightly dry) pork chop served with fabulously flavorful braised mixed greens studded with yellow raisins and pine nuts. And did I mention the candle at the entrance that greets you with an all-but-edible scent called Birthday Cake? You’re hooked before you even sit down.
Vic and Anthony’s
The year 2003 will be remembered in Houston as the year restaurant mogul Tilman Fertitta vacuumed up three of the city’s most fashionable outposts—Pesce, La Griglia, and Grotto—into his burgeoning empire. Not only that, the mastermind of Landry’s and Joe’s Crab Shack opened his very own steakhouse, Vic and Anthony’s. Clearly, a message was being sent: The man can do class as well as mass. When I first heard about V&A’s I thought, “Surf and turf—bor-ing.” So imagine my surprise when I had not only a fine time but very good food. Chef Carlos Rodriguez’s nine-ounce filet mignon was pure velvet (as well it should have been for $26). The russet-hued lobster bisque bristled with flavor and tender, meaty chunks of lobster. Lump crabmeat was strewn about like popcorn on everything except the crème brûlée. True, the overwrought decor doesn’t so much whisper “money” as shout it, but that doesn’t bother me. After all, we are in Texas.
Luna Blue Café
One restaurant in the Alamo City sent me over the moon last year: Luna Blue. The Mediterranean menu is classic rather than cutting-edge, but little grace notes elevate the ordinary. Chef Louis Halfant’s spry apple-cider vinaigrette, for example, subtly transformed a mound of crisp frisée, walnuts, and slivers of sweet golden apple into something delightfully unexpected. Usually a snooze, chicken breast was amazingly moist, a lovely blank canvas for sultanas and pearl onions on warm cornbread pudding. Even the occasional sin—such as stringy crabmeat described as “lump”—doesn’t seem quite so grave when you can focus instead on the entrée it adorns, snapper Oscar lavished with a rich, tarragon-touched béarnaise. Now that this hospitable, terra-cotta-pink dining room has gotten my attention, I’ll be stopping at U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 instead of flying by at seventy miles an hour. 2
You know the look: Budget Revival—a long narrow room with exposed brick walls, low lights, and abstract artwork. It’s the look of a restaurant owned by young people who don’t have a ton of money and think that the food comes first anyway. Seven months ago chef Timothy Byres, his wife, Brianne, and their manager-partner, Carl Strelecki, opened Standard 2706 in the heart of the Deep Ellum night-crawler neighborhood. Byres’ “shrimp pancake,” a crêpe filled with shredded scallions, pungent slivers of ginger, and crisp-tender shrimp, came with a gilding of celestial champagne cream. Crackly-skinned, meaty roast chicken was flanked by airy sweet-potato-and-parsnip croquettes that threatened to outshine it. A pair of quail were so juicy and intriguingly spiced that I ended up gnawing their little leg bones like an animal. It’s clear that no one at Standard is cutting corners on the food; they have their priorities straight. 3
THE BEST OF THE REST
Where else did I eat well last year? In AUSTIN, my first choice for coddling a wealthy relative who is thinking of changing her will is the Mansion at Judges’ Hill; a sublime torchon of barely poached foie gras in a setting of Old World elegance should do the trick. Lots of restaurants try the fancy-schmancy home-cooking routine, but Moonshine makes it work; its limestone rooms and snug patio are just right for eating venison meatloaf or molasses-and-chile-cured pork chops. In DALLAS, The Drálion—a total piece of work with lush burgundy velvet curtains and giant candelabra that evoke both The Phantom of the Opera4 and the Forbidden City—has added sushi to its roster of Pacific Rim dishes; my miso-and-sake-marinated Chilean sea bass was fine indeed. Packed from the start, Iris’ sleek earth-tone dining room showcases artists’ takes on the word “iris” (gossamer flowers, a mesmerizing eye); a well-coiffed crowd chows down on an eclectic choice of dishes like rack of lamb with mint-apricot chutney and Medjool dates. At coolly modern Naan, a Korean restaurant in Plano, you can chill out with sushi or warm up with entrées like yook kai jang, a salty, spicy, elemental broth filled with noodles, bean sprouts, and slices of flank steak. Nandina means “heavenly bamboo,” and I thought the souplike Thai green curry with shrimp was heavenly too at this self-styled “Asian tapas” restaurant with pale celadon walls and a black-granite sushi bar. I advise cherry-picking from the offerings at sultry Rouge, with its intriguing Spanish menu; avoid the tragically overcooked mariscada (seafood stew), but consider having seconds of the divine saffron cream sauce that accompanies the petite shrimp-stuffed red peppers. FORT WORTH saw the opening of Zolon; although its name sounds extraterrestrial, this regional American bistro has its feet firmly on the ground with a fashionably contemporary-retro decor and a something-for-everyone menu that ranges from burgers on homemade buns to roasted-pumpkin-and-pear soup.5 In HOUSTON, you will not depart hungry from Cava Bistro‘s simulated subterranean wine cellar; here dishes like a chicken napoleon—unruly layers of grilled fowl, purple potato slices, leeks, mushrooms, and more in an herbed, cream-laced demiglace—are packed with Mediterranean flavors. The name of the Ephesus Anatolian Grill baffled me until I read up on the ancient region of Anatolia and the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, both part of Turkey; happily, to enjoy Turkish fare like patlican kebab—tasty grilled eggplant and seasoned minced lamb—the only thing you need to read is the menu.6 In SAN ANTONIO, I give credit for the year’s smartest marketing idea to casual Ciao Lavanderia, where the appetizers, pastas, and all but two pizzas are $6 and the entrées $12; the cooking may be short on finesse but the results—in dishes like lusty polenta with portobellos and goat cheese—are long on flavor.
ARTISTA Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, Houston 713-278-4782
AURORA 4216 Oak Lawn Avenue, Dallas 214-528-9400
CAVA BISTRO 301 Main, Houston 713-223-4068
CIAO LAVANDERIA 226 E. Olmos Drive, San Antonio 210-822-3990
THE DRÁLION – Closed
EPHESUS ANATOLIAN GRILL – Closed
IRIS 5405 W. Lovers Lane, Dallas 214-352-2727
JASPER’S 7161 Bishop Road, Plano 469-229-9111
LOCAL 2936 Elm, Dallas 214-752-7500
LUNA BLUE CAFÉ – closed
MANSION AT JUDGES’ HILL 1900 Rio Grande, Austin 512-495-1800
MOONSHINE 303 Red River, Austin 512-236-9599
NAAN 7161 Bishop Road, Plano 972-943-9288
NANDINA 5631 Alta Avenue, Dallas 214-826-6300
ROUGE 5027 W. Lovers Lane, Dallas 214-350-6600
ROUGE 812 Westheimer Road, Houston 713-520-7955
STANDARD – closed
TERRA BOSCO’S – closed
UCHI 801 S. Lamar Boulevard, Austin 512-916-4808
VIC AND ANTHONY’S 1510 Texas Avenue, Houston 713-228-1111
ZOLON – Closed
1 Update January 2007: Terra Bosco’s, Houston, is closed.
2 Update January 2007: Luna Blue Café, San Antonio, is closed.
3 Update January 2007: Standard 2706, Dallas, is closed.
4 Update January 2007: The Drálion, Dallas, is closed.
5 Update January 2007: Zolon, Fort Worth, is closed.
6 Update January 2007: Ephesus Anatolian Grill, Houston, is closed.