EVERY YEAR I THINK TO MYSELF, “How could there possibly be room for more new restaurants in Texas?” And every year, a peloton of eager contenders comes hurtling down the road. Last year was no exception—boy, was it no exception.
Knowing that you want to know where to spend your hard-earned mad money, I’ve been eating myself silly for the past few months. That part was fun. But I’ve also been trying to detect the trends. That part was hard. Want proof? My breakdown of cuisines in the top ten includes American eclectic (two), Mediterranean-Italian (two), seafood (two), Japanese fusion (one), French (one), American-Asian-French (one), and steak and chophouse (one). Trends? What trends? Texas gets more diverse all the time.
As in years past, there is one major rule governing whether a restaurant can be considered for this story: New means new. In other words, new owner, new chef, new name. Reopenings don’t count, and neither do second locations if the original started in Texas. The calendar year for candidacy runs from November 1, 2004, to November 1, 2005, eligibility being determined by a restaurant’s own official opening date.
But I have made a big change this time around: I’m allowing first Texas editions of out-of-state restaurants. In the past I’ve resisted this, chauvinistically favoring homegrown independents. But major exports from New York (Bistro Moderne, Nobu, and the Strip House) and California (Noé) opened in Dallas and Houston this past year. I checked them out. I liked them. Much as I hate to admit it, from now on the best restaurants in our big cities are going to come from both inside and outside our borders. Texas has become part of a national and international marketplace. Far from being a reason to mourn, that’s a cause to celebrate.
No two ways about it: Gravitas is the best new restaurant to open in Texas this past year. No wonder it’s the darling of foodophiles and trendy types alike. Designwise, too, it’s up to the nanosecond, with bare brick walls, polished concrete floors, and arty found lighting fixtures softened by warm woods and a busy open kitchen. Executive chef Jason Gould (he’s the guy with the perpetually knitted brow prowling around the dining room) and proprietor Scott Tycer (he’s the guy who cooks at and also owns highly acclaimed Aries, a few miles away) have fashioned an eclectic American menu with Mediterranean touches, filled with lightly tweaked traditional dishes that sound—and are—delicious. I adore calf’s liver, and the pan-fried version here, served with a rich demi-glace and fried shallots, is divine (don’t you dare have it cooked more than medium-rare). Another fine and simple dish is steak frites, a brasserie classic you should order just so you can have the fries—chestnut-colored and crunchy on the outside, golden and cloud-light within. The accompanying steak is no slouch, either. And the fish at Gravitas—oh, my. The pan-fried snapper, with its crisp skin and succulent interior, is just amazing. But it’s not only the big-deal dishes that are excellent here; one of my favorite diversions is the bread service, which consists of chunky rustic bread, a fruity olive oil for dipping, and a little dish of toasted seeds and nuts for double-dipping. Are there problems? Yes, some dishes are oversalted, but never so much that it puts you off. And one last thing: The casual, smiling young servers treat you with such consideration that you feel as if you’re dining in someone’s home. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Every time I walk into Hibiscus, I think Giant. Something about the tall arched ceilings, the oversized leather booths, and the white plastered walls reminds me of Reata, the sprawling Texas ranch in the movie where Rock, Elizabeth, and James did their star turns. Even the food—glorified steak- and chophouse fare—fits the image, though I suspect that personable young chef and co-owner Nick Badovinus might have trouble getting Reata’s cowboys to eat tuna tartare. No problem, though, with the two-fisted veal osso buco served with a long marrowbone that has been split lengthwise and piled high with foie gras and crunchy, lemony gremolata. Good God in heaven, is it rich. And if Badovinus could just get the crew to taste the fabulous dry-Jack-cheese-crusted lemon sole, he’d turn them into piscivores. I’m not so sure about the wild king salmon, though; on one visit the fish filet was so scorched from the grill it looked like it had been branded (kinda tasted like it too). But he would win the guys back with desserts such as the devil’s food cake, sumptuously layered with chocolate-truffle ganache. Like everything else here, it’s as big as all outdoors—and much tastier.
3. BISTRO MODERNE
Softly glowing lamps, curvy chairs clad in dark chocolate leather with white piping—Bistro Moderne looks good enough to eat. And, no surprise, the food, contemporary French bistro fare, is absolutely good enough to eat. Do you like salade niçoise, quiche, hanger steak, and mussels? You’ll be in clover. And should you feel like something more serious, you can branch out with an order-in-advance salmon filet in a red-wine sauce showcasing cabernet from the well-regarded Texas vineyard Llano Estacado. One of the nicest appetizers is the Bistro’s grilled calamari, tender little squids stuffed with minced root vegetables in a sweet-tart red-pepper vinaigrette. Equally mainstream, the roasted poulet basquaise comes in a mild Espelette-chile jus made with the famed French Basque Country pepper. (I will carp a bit, though, because while the dark meat was succulent, the breast proved dry.) When able chef Philippe Schmit goes beyond bistro fare, like a Japanese-style tuna and salmon tartare, he does it right (the pickled ginger is homemade) and throws in a French touch to boot (a piece of buttered, toasted baguette). By the way, the affable, French-born Schmit is photogenic enough to be on the Food Network. Seems like everything’s charming here.
4. GO FISH
Talk about games of chance: Opening a restaurant is one of the biggest. But after bad luck with two previous Dallas ventures, talented Chris Svalesen has beaten the jinx. Go Fish is one of the best showcases for seafood in the city, with a menu ranging from sushi to king salmon. It occupies an agreeable space in Addison jazzed up with warm woods and fun art. I am absolutely mad for Svalesen’s Green Soup, a Mexican bouillabaisse enriched with puréed poblano and cilantro: Filled with near-perfect fish and seafood, it rivals—no, it outshines—the saffron-scented French original (excuse me while I request an unlisted phone number). I also have nothing but good things to say about the seared ahi tuna in a sweet but tangy tamarind-ginger sauce, with jumbo tempura shrimp riding shotgun. Yes, some dishes, like several of the desserts, are lackluster, but then I think of those oysters—Rockefeller with a featherlight, lemony hollandaise and Bienville under béchamel richly blended with shallots and mushrooms—and I can’t wait to go back.
5. THE SANDBAR
Seven tables covered in white butcher paper. A stainless-steel countertop with matching stools. Exposed lightbulbs in galvanized-metal fixtures. The latest, all-seafood venture of San Antonio chef Andrew Weissman couldn’t be more low-tech. To start, you might choose half a dozen Fanny Bay oysters or some of the impeccably fresh ocean critters that are offered daily as sashimi. Weissman himself, clad in a T-shirt and fisherman’s boots, is likely to be behind the bar shucking those oysters and slicing that fish. (That is, unless he’s finally found a replacement so he won’t have to work here by day and run his other place, elegant Le Rêve, by night.) After you wolf down a few mollusks, try some lobster bisque—not the typical gloppy mouthful of whipping cream but a thin, rich, amber brew infused with the flavor of sherry and simmered lobster shell. Then move on to crab salad—big, lovely lumps dabbed with a sriracha-spiked remoulade. The purity of the ingredients leaves you feeling totally righteous, so you can justify finishing with a square of Weissman’s zesty Key lime tart. Once you have it, no other will do.
I can hear the muttering now: Nobu? Is the woman out of her freaking mind? This is a road-show edition, not the original Broadway play, you say. And besides that, it’s crazy expensive. All of which I grant you. But—still—some of the most beautiful, pristine, and sensational flavors that I’ve experienced in Texas have emerged from this kitchen. Now in ten cities and growing, the Nobu empire was founded in New York in 1994 by Japanese-born Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. What do I like? The yellowtail sashimi with a paper-thin slice of jalapeño, a mini-bouquet of cilantro, and a citrusy yuzu soy sauce. It made my eyes roll back. And I am mesmerized by the Kobe-style washu beef rubbed with garlic, seared with a splash of ultrahot sesame oil, and presented in a yuzu-soy-laced broth—the complex tastes are miraculous. I still hear you grumbling that the space looks like a movie set, not a serious restaurant. So what? The monolithic wall of black rocks is soothing. The stylized birch trees make me smile. Yes, I’ll admit that some things, like the tempura, are very ordinary. But you don’t come here for tempura; you come for Nobu’s original creations. Choose those and you can have a swell time. And pay off the bill over the next six months.
7. ENOTECA VESPAIO
I love to eat at a bar. This fixation started decades ago with fountain Cokes and chicken-salad sandwiches at Woolworth’s, which helps explain why I’m inexorably drawn to the curvaceous dark-wood counter at Enoteca Vespaio, Austin’s newest wine bar, Italian cafe, deli, and imported foods shop. I perch there at lunch and order the best meatball sandwich in the city—five near-puffy orbs of ground pork on a tender house-made roll gilded with a piquant tomato sauce. For Sunday brunch, a friend and I have strong coffee and fantastically light frittatas redolent of Parmesan, pancetta, and sweet sautéed onions. At dinner I might actually sit at one of the little tables in the tall, rustic-modern room and order a special like the lush veal stew with caramelized brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes (though I have to say that the broth was pretty oily). About the only time I’m not happy as a clam is if I’m having the overpriced $15 linguine with its miserly assortment of seafood, though the spicy, tomatoey arrabbiata sauce is just fine. But the flubs are rare. Executive chef and co-owner Alan Lazarus—he of big-deal next-door sibling Vespaio—has another winner on his hands.
Fino is Spanish and Italian for “fine.” It’s also a type of dry Spanish sherry. This makes it a perfect name for the attractive Mediterranean restaurant that is the second venture of Austin restaurateurs Emmett and Lisa Fox, owners of Asti Trattoria. Want something distinctly Middle Eastern? Try chef Tristan White’s appetizer platter of soft, warm pita bread, smoky baba ganouj, tart tzatziki sauce, and house-made hummus. For something that combines a couple of cuisines, order the deep-flavored roast quail clad in a grape-leaf tunic and gilded with a spunky balsamic dressing. France is deliciously represented by the crumb-dusted fried goat cheese in a honey drizzle with jammy pickled onions. Greece inspires a well-stocked Greek salad. And Spain is the source of the cured Basque olives and toasted Marcona almonds that make such compulsively edible snacks. Spain is also, alas, the source of the consistency-challenged seafood paella. But far more things work than not here, so relax in the stylishly spare dining room or cozy up under a heat lamp on the second-story patio and order another glass of fino.
It’s a wine store. No, it’s a restaurant. Wrong, it’s a wine shop. Wait, it’s … . Oh, be quiet. It’s both. And a very smart idea. Owner Monsterville Horton IV has created a multipurpose wining and dining space where you can sashay in and buy a bottle at retail price, then grab a table across the room and enjoy your wine with dinner for a mere $10 corkage fee. Chef Eric Lawhon ably mans the kitchen, and the results are almost always satisfying, especially if the gregarious Horton is on hand to guide your wine choice. But even teetotalers can dine well here on cheese plates or the likes of tuna sashimi sided by a snow-pea-sprouts salad spritzed with lemongrass-infused oil. Or they can get serious with lovely New Zealand lamb chops sided by a chunky, creamy Gorgonzola-cauliflower flan. Or go Spanish with a tortilla española. And a real bonus: The dishes come in appetizer or regular portions. If there is a weak point at Cova, it’s occasional bad timing in the arrival of dishes; also, while the youngsters waiting tables are as friendly as pups, some are about as clueless. But when the prices are so moderate (no entrée costs more than $20) and the open, casually spiffy space so pleasant, you can afford to be lenient.
For some chefs, creativity comes and goes. For Robert Gadsby, it’s a way of life. He’s the culinary guru who opened the first Noé in Los Angeles in October 2003, and there is nothing mundane at his restaurants. Even Noé’s dining room—with its Gustav Klimt–like geometric paintings and formal furniture washed in a mysterious blue light—resembles no other. Gadsby’s style could be called Asian-inflected French and American (he has lived in Japan, France, and Italy, as well as Texas), and when his creations work, they work. Roast shoulder of lamb is butter-tender, topped with a spicy oriental-black-bean sauce and sided by gingery puréed sweet potatoes. And his flash-fried veal sweetbreads, accompanied by truffle jus, are perfect. But sometimes only part of a dish comes off, as in his signature gingered-butternut-squash-and-lobster soup with “almond cloud and hazelnut veil.” The brew is a creamy, flavorful squash bisque with lovely chunks of fresh lobster. The problem is that both the soup and the whipped-cream “cloud” are dessert-sweet, and the ground-nut “veil” is extraneous. And a few things are just bizarre, like his panna cotta appetizer with foie gras and white chocolate. But an evening at Noé is always stimulating. You might not adore every detail, but you won’t be bored.