Like most people, I’M A PUSHOVER for a new restaurant. As soon as a sign goes up saying “Coming Soon,” I can’t wait to be the first in line. For someone with this attitude, last year was a good year. But it wasn’t, in the words of the song, a very good year. Maybe because the preceding year was so spectacular, what with the debut of two amazing restaurants—Artista, in Houston, and Aurora, in Dallas—it was inevitable that this year’s choices would suffer by comparison. Or maybe I’m getting fussier (nah, not possible). But whatever the reason, I felt that—even at some of the best places—a few things weren’t quite as they should be, with misdemeanors ranging from uneven quality and execution of dishes to seriously ditzy service. And given the prices on many menus these days, I don’t feel like waiting for someone to iron out the wrinkles.
That said, I ate well, not to mention often, while researching this story. If you asked me what stood out, I would say the fish, because not one but two of the top new restaurants—Pesca and 7—focus their considerable talents on seafood. But that’s not to say that meat got short shrift: I’m still dreaming about 17’s celestial veal shank, and Lanny’s peppered elk loin definitely warmed up my winter of discontent.
As in previous years, I included only homegrown restaurants, which ruled out newcomers like Bank Jean-Georges, in Houston, part of New York restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s far-flung empire. To be in the running, a restaurant had to have opened—or acquired a new owner, chef, and name—between November 1, 2003, and November 1, 2004 (although I confess I did let in two slightly older establishments that were not on my radar screen last year. It’s nice being queen; you get to make the rules and then break them). So check out these places. They are where I would like to be eating right now.
1) 17 (Houston)
Do chefs have seasons? If so, then 17’s Jeff Armstrong is a brilliant cold-weather chef. In my book, there is no better spot for robust sauces and long-simmered meats than the dining room of the Sam Houston Hotel. Take the young maestro’s pappardelle with veal shank, the meat and broad ribbons of pasta aswim in a thick, luscious broth—pot roast elevated to stardom. Or his unctuous beef short ribs with a bracing frisèe salad alongside. And his darkly spiced sweet-potato torte, crusty on the outside and pudding-soft within, is a minor masterpiece. Other dishes round out the seasons, like a light, summery tuna tartare topped with a salad of microgreens in a dynamite chile vinaigrette. But the food isn’t the only thing I love here. I like just being in 17, with its glittering crystal lights and sleek chocolate-and-white color scheme set off by froufrou red wallpaper on one side of the room—a friend said she felt like she was in a box of bonbons. That said, I have to tsk-tsk over the uneven service: While some of the waiters anticipate your every need, a few others are affable airheads who seem genuinely surprised that they haven’t given you a glass of water and a menu. But that’s not going to keep me away. I don’t want to miss what Armstrong has planned for the spring. Directions
2) T’afia (Houston)
Monica Pope’s new restaurant perplexes me no end. Why? Because I can’t imagine how such an ardent chef could choose such an austere setting—think trendy juvenile detention hall—to showcase her striking and original cuisine. But this hasn’t deterred her customers, who pack the place nightly to see what triumphs will emerge through those stainless-steel kitchen doors. Maybe it will be fabulous, meaty whole-duck-leg confit with an intense vanilla-sherry glaze. Or perhaps two little toasty-brown Texas quail brilliantly matched with a garlicky pistachio sauce and nutty barley-and-red-rice pilaf. A whirlwind of energy, Pope sells prepared holiday meals from Thanksgiving through New Year’s (by advance order) and hosts a farmers’ market in the restaurant and its parking lot every Saturday. She also champions regional and natural products, so diners can count on finding things as diverse as B3R hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and local artisan chocolates on the menu. And speaking of the menu, let me dyspeptically voice a final, tiny gripe, which is that I find its layout—with one section for starters and entrèes and another section for more entrèes—puzzling. But one thing about T’afia is crystal clear, and that is the passion of Monica Pope. I don’t know how she does it all. Directions
3) George (Dallas)
With its stark, white-on-white decor,George looks like an art gallery, one whose exhibits consist of smartly conceived, beautifully presented food. Chef-owner George Brown calls his menu modern American, but in fact, he lets his imagination roam across a varied culinary landscape. Over several different visits, I had a scrumptious goat’s-milk-Brie soup, a pristine sea bass filet on a crisp, sweet slaw of green mango and red bell pepper, and a beef filet in a spunky ginger-port infusion with roasted root vegetables (though interesting, it was a little discordant; the flavors of the meat and vegetables went in one direction and those of the sauce in another). In the end, I almost missed one of the menu’s best dishes because it didn’t sound particularly edgy or creative: a dessert of Guinness stout cake with ginger-almond ice cream. It was masterful. The cake—moistened by molasses and the rich, dark brew and shot through with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger—set up a sweet and spicy motif echoed by the ice cream and a citrusy garnish of candied kumquats, a work of art if ever I’ve eaten one. Directions
4) Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana (Fort Worth)
Talk about a surprise: The chef-owner of one of the year’s most sophisticated new restaurants has Tex-Mex in his blood. Two years ago young Lanny Lancarte II, scion of the family that owns local legend Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, headed to Hyde Park, New York, to attend the Culinary Institute of America. He returned with a diploma and stars in his eyes to open a charming dining room tucked away inside Joe T.’s (he’ll move to his own space in late spring), where he combines the best of French and Mexican cooking. The dazzling results remind me of Southwestern cuisine when that movement was alive and kicking, twenty years ago. Roasted to a perfect rosy pink, slices of duck breast perched atop risotto studded with diced sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and—aha—nopalitos. Veal stock subtly infused with pasilla chile jazzed up meltingly tender pepper-crusted elk loin. Looks like local legends may run in the family. Directions
5) Shade (Houston)
Shade reminds me of the house on the block where all the kids like to play; everything on its eclectic, globe-trotting menu sounds delicious, and usually is. If the soup sampler is offered, I’m having it, especially if the trio includes the fantastic creamy mushroom with duck confit. And somebody in the kitchen—probably chef and co-owner Claire Smith or chef Jeb Stuart—really knows how to cook fish: The grilled salmon is perfection, even when it cozies up to a cherry-balsamic reduction that’s a tad too strong. Weekends are a treat. I’ll raise myself from the dead any Saturday or Sunday morning for one of Shade’s terrific omelets, especially the smoked salmon with mascarpone, capers, and lemon zest. Occasionally a dish doesn’t come off—a battle raged among the competing flavors of butternut squash, sausage, mustard greens, and smoked mozzarella in a gummy risotto—but a few minutes later, as I lingered over coffee and the world’s best, crispest walnut baklava, I couldn’t wait to come back and play again. Directions
6) Pesca on the River (San Antonio)
Chef Scott Cohen is a fish fanatic—day in and day out he imports, scales, filets, and cooks the freshest denizens of the deep in San Antonio. Suppose I want to sample British Columbia’s Fanny Bay or Maine’s Spiny Creek oysters. No problem. Here they come, with a lively tamarind-chipotle-Tabasco cocktail sauce. Or maybe I’m craving Prince Edward Island mussels. But of course. A special tonight, they are cooked, beautifully, with Spanish chorizo in Portuguese vinho verde. Line-caught fish is the ticket here, like the grilled wild red snapper filets in a vanilla-laced citrus broth with bits of grapefruit and orange. Desserts can be lovely, witness pastry chef Mickey McPhail’s refreshing lemon-ginger crème brûlée with rich cornmeal shortbread cookies. If there is a problem at Pesca, it’s with the service—some of the sweetly bewildered young servers are clearly in over their heads—and it annoys me that the bustling, popular bar dominates the sleek dining room, with its accents of blond wood and limestone. Even so, if I want to go fish in San Antonio, this is where I’ll be. Directions
7) Hector’s on Henderson (Dallas)
This place is like the Frank Sinatra song “My Way,” and not just because agreeable owner Hector Garcia might materialize at the microphone to sing it in the middle of dinner. (Don’t worry—he’s got a nice baritone voice.) Hector’s is idiosyncratic in the best sense of the word. Its intimate feel and weekend entertainment (a low-key piano-and-trombone duo) are vintage supper-clubby. Its look is contemporary but comfy. And many of its offerings (cheddar grits, fried chicken livers with blackstrap-molasses vinaigrette, shoestring sweet potatoes) are down-home Southern. But young chef Todd Erickson (he’s 25 but looks about 15) knows his French techniques, so your grilled, bone-in Cowboy Steak comes with a green-peppercorn jus. And he likes to experiment, so his cream-infused succotash brilliantly substitutes edamame for the usual boring lima beans. Sometimes the experimentation veers off course—soggy pumpkin tempura, for instance—but more often than not, I can hardly wait to see what he’ll do next. Directions
8) 7 (Austin)
If the fish weren’t so interesting and the sauces so great, I might have given up on 7 long ago. The seafood restaurant’s mix-and-match, order-by-weight menu is confusing, the main dining room’s muddy-marine-blue color scheme is a downer, and your bill can mount up before you know what hit you. But chef-owners Sam Dickey and Will Packwood have raised the bar for Austin seafood places so high, offering such a variety of hard-to-find, beautifully prepared fish, that all is forgiven. At how many other restaurants in town can I get a whole roasted branzino—a moist, lean Mediterranean bass—with a choice of savory lemon-thyme beurre blanc, lush almond brown butter, or sprightly green-apple barbecue sauce (to name three of seven)? How many other local restaurants offer royal red shrimp, tasty little crustaceans so tender and sweet they put regular shrimp to shame? Now, if somebody would just tell the kitchen to put spoons in the sauce ramekins, so I don’t turn the tabletop into a Jackson Pollock, I would be back in a flash. Directions
9) El Chile Cafe y Cantina (Austin)
When in doubt, try the special. Unless you will die if you don’t have your enchiladas de mole rojo or your arrachera steak with melted Chihuahua cheese, you’ll thank me for this piece of advice. It’s how I discovered the wonderful beer-steamed salmon sitting atop mashed potatoes zapped with serrano-rosemary butter, all served in an opulent pool of roasted garlic, cumin, and cream (the filet was so cute in its banana-leaf jacket that I didn’t want to undress it). And it’s how I came to try the eye-rollingly delicious chile en nogada, a roasted poblano stuffed with shredded duck confit, almonds, green olives, currants, walnuts, and cilantro and encircled by a walnut cream sauce giddy with wine. I know, I know; El Chile’s regular Mexican dishes are so good it’s hard to pass them by. But the chefs at this cheery bungalow, co-owner Kristine Kittrell and Jeff Martinez, are putting their heart and soul into the daily specials. Humor them. Directions
10) Fireside Pies (Dallas)
Is “classy pizzeria” an oxymoron? Not anymore. Co-owner and chef Nick Badovinus has designed a pizza place that both adults and kids find user-friendly. Fireside Pies offers plenty to entice grown-ups: big, well-dressed salads, decent but not too expensive wines, and a handful of fun cocktails. The pizzas themselves appeal to all ages, and the ingredients are first-rate: Sonoma goat cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chicken-pesto sausage from Dallas deli Kuby’s. The rustic setting, especially the shady terrace, with its fern-filled planters, is both inviting and indestructible, a bonus for those who arrive in SUVs. Finally, the perky, well-informed young servers act as if they’re in a nice restaurant, which they are. My Triple ’Roni pizza featured abundant pepperoni, cheese from Dallas’s Mozzarella Company, a drizzle of truffle oil, and—I’m not kidding—hand-torn fresh basil from Fireside’s rooftop garden. Try finding thatat Mr. Gatti’s. Directions