What’s up, what’s down? What’s in, what’s out? I got dizzy trying to tease out the trends in the 2008 edition of our annual roundup of the state’s new restaurants. At first I thought I saw a seafood restaurant fad; two good ones opened last year, one in Dallas and one in Houston. Just a coincidence? Two worthy Italian restaurants also popped up, but Italian has become the default cuisine of American restaurants, so nothing significant there. What does seem worth noting is the energy and quality in the classy-comfort-food genre: Three promising newcomers—Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, in Austin; the Porch, in Dallas; and Max’s Wine Dive, in Houston—all fit that description. In fact, I’m tempted to throw this year’s top pick, Fearing’s, in Dallas, into the mix, although that megasaurus has such an eclectic menu that it’s hard to decide on a dominant theme. And why would comfort food be so popular? To steal a quote from a chef I know: “People like what they can pronounce.”

A quick word about the rules: To be included, a restaurant needs to either be new or have a new chef, a new name, and a new idea. Our culinary year of eligibility traditionally ends on November 1 of the last year and begins on November 1 of the year before that, but I am allowing a three-week grace period for the Grill at Leon Springs, an excellent restaurant that opened in San Antonio on October 10, 2006. It was a crime for me to overlook it last year; it would be a sin for me to ignore it this time around. (And I am herewith instituting the Grill at Leon Springs Rule, which will provide a legal basis for consideration of any restaurant opening within 21 days of Where to Eat Now’s official parameters; after all, this is my kitchen.)

Here then are our ten winners and four runners-up. Try ’em while they’re hot.

Fearing’s, Dallas
Photograph by Artie Limmer

1. Fearing’s, Dallas

Cirque du Soleil has nothing on Dean Fearing’s venture at the new Ritz-Carlton. I wouldn’t even blink if a woman descended from the ceiling in a flaming feather dress, singing like a trumpeter swan in the middle of dinner. The drama, ambition, and culinary range of the six-month-old restaurant are Wagnerian, and it was easily the best to open in Texas last year. I like being there. I like lolling on a cushy banquette in the main dining room, amid the acres of tawny onyx and African mahogany paneling. (I’ve peeked into the hotel’s six other dining areas; board presidents and CEO’s would feel right at home in the lavish one with master-of-the-universe-size armchairs.) I feel well cared for by the servers, who know their moves and never take friendliness over the line. And I love the dishes that lean toward simplicity and let their ingredients shine, such as the sashimi-like hamachi with an avocado-wasabi purée and crisp matchsticks of Asian pear. Or the perfectly cooked soy-glazed black cod in a miso-clam broth on jasmine rice. I wholeheartedly endorse that aspect of the menu, but at the same time, I must confess some mixed feelings: I’m not an unalloyed fan of the signature style that has made the affable and talented Mr. Fearing the best-known chef in Texas. If Dean is about anything, it’s complexity, fusion, and big—even monster—flavors. At the beginning of his 21-year reign at Dallas’s Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel, he helped forge the Texas brand of Southwestern cuisine. And even though he eventually branched out into global dishes of all kinds (Moroccan tajines, for instance), he remained famous for applying a Tiffany gloss to the robust flavors of regional American and Mexican classics. But sometimes all that energy and all those ingredients knock me for a loop. I tried but probably won’t order again the flashy mesquite-grilled giant ribeye “mopped” (a favorite Fearing word) with a dauntingly sweet barbecue sauce. I don’t gravitate toward the maple-and-black-peppercorn-“soaked” buffalo tenderloin. I admire anyone with the audacity to chicken-fry a Maine lobster, but I can’t see cloaking its sweet, delicate flesh in a batter crust, no matter how tasty. That said, I’m in the minority; Dean’s many fans are lapping it all up. And, in truth, the menu is so varied that everybody can find something to like. I certainly won’t stop coming here and enjoying the cosseting and pampering. Besides, I might get to see a woman in a flaming feather dress drop from the ceiling.

The Grill at Leon Springs, San Antonio
Photograph by Artie Limmer

2. The Grill at Leon Springs, San Antonio

Who could have guessed that this country burb—known to most as the home of barbecue behemoth Rudy’s—would give birth to one of the state’s best new restaurants? Not me. But when I heard myself oohing over the menu’s perfect lump-crab cakes in crisp panko crusts and aahing over its sautéed shrimp in a sybaritic butter sauce, I thought of the Michelin guidebook phrase “Worth the journey.” The Grill at Leon Springs is a revelation. At first, I sized up the tall, comfy-looking rooms and figured I’d be in and out in less than an hour. Then chef Tomme Johnson’s immaculately presented plates arrived and—holy homemade gnocchi! His take on populist food is great; I loved the crackly-crusted pizza with leeks, house-cured pancetta, and goat cheese. Ditto the spot-on golden fries dusted with sea salt. The kitchen shines with anything sautéed, and the desserts are not to be missed, especially the flaky apple crepia (like a puff-pastry tart) and the tiramisù (below). Given that the Grill’s owners are executive chef Thierry Burkle and general manager Armand Obadia, who also own highly respected L’Etoile, in San Antonio, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Cibo, Austin
Photograph by Artie Limmer

3. Cibo, Austin

Will Packwood has found his voice. the shy chef who was chosen by Food & Wine magazine to be one of its ten rising stars of 2001 has got it right, with a menu that draws on his Italian roots while giving latitude to his creativity. His risottos and pastas are operatic, especially the paper-thin, butternut-squash-filled agnolotti (think ravioli) sprinkled with the traditional almond cookie crumbles. You can taste the hours of simmering in every bite of dishes like an earthy lamb-and-potato spezzatino (think stew). Packwood is particularly skilled with more-modern dishes, like a delicately sautéed filet of cod or a whole grilled branzino with rosemary sprigs tucked inside. Occasionally he gets too rootsy, as with the musky chestnut honey on a cheese plate, but his choices are always provocative. With its historic stone walls, abstract artwork, and newfound clarity, Cibo should now become the downtown dining destination it was always meant to be.

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin
Photograph by Artie Limmer

4. Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin

There’s a party going on here every night. what with the chatter from the high-ceilinged, roadhouse-style dining room downstairs and the live music in the rustic bar upstairs, the joint is jumping. Chef-owners Lou Lambert and Larry McGuire have given Austinites a solid menu of chow that everybody can pronounce (natural beef porterhouse with red-chile cheese enchiladas) interspersed with dishes the foodies can dissect (seared Hawaiian ahi tuna with fennel-caper chimichurri). The night I took my friend Picky Eater here, we were razzle-dazzled: We adored the platter of cheeses and house-made pâtés (anybody for rabbit-and-cabrito?). We swooned over the lush smoked-tomato bisque served with teeny-weeny grilled cheese sandwiches of jack and chèvre. And we went nuts over the tender hanger steak with fluffy chickpea fries. The kitchen doesn’t always hit the bull’s-eye, but overall, the package is enormously appealing. I’ll happily put up with the noise and the bottom-numbing pine chairs for one of Lamberts’ apple-ginger fried pies.

Dallas Fish Market, Dallas
Photograph by Artie Limmer

5. Dallas Fish Market, Dallas

“Don’t expect anything mundane.” That’s what the frosty, almost clinical black-and-white color scheme whispers as you walk in the door of this downtown seafood house. That’s what the menu repeats emphatically when you open it and see skate, loup de mer, and opah among the familiar Alaskan king crab and Maine lobster. Chef Randy Morgan trolls the oceans for rarities and treats them with respect and imagination. Skate, part of the group that includes rays, took perfectly to a caper–brown butter sauce spritzed with Meyer lemon. Sturgeon, its gleaming white flesh discreetly dressed with a Dijon-thyme cream sauce (below), all but provoked a fork fight. Happily for carnivores, care is also taken with meat, the stupendously tender pork chop being an excellent example. The fishy theme gets a final twist with a signature dessert: tiramisù in the shape of a sushi roll.

Reef, Houston
Photograph by Artie Limmer

6. Reef, Houston

In a city awash in chain seafood restaurants, Reef is a pearl. Chef/co-owner Bryan Caswell can thrill you with dishes like bronzed tripletail in a lilting barigoule (a broth with tender artichoke hearts) or moist, crispy red snapper sided by sweet-and-sour chard (dark leafy greens are a specialty here). His unexpected creations have been a hit from the day Reef opened; on a typical Saturday night at seven o’clock, the line of cars at the valet stand stretches for nearly a block. Inside the spacious, glass-walled room (a former Pontiac dealership), pale aquas conjure a blue lagoon, and a strikingly patterned back wall suggests shifting sands. At times the kitchen stumbles—one tripletail preparation went stodgy with a too-stout citrus beurre blanc, and the fried mac and cheese was heavy and bland—but appetizers like elegant shrimp spring rolls always right the ship.

Max’s Wine Dive, Houston
Photograph by Artie Limmer

7. Max’s Wine Dive, Houston

With “dive” in the name, you know the food’s not prissy. With “wine” in the name, you know it’s not prole. At cacophonous, brick-walled Max’s, duded-up comfort food in chic surroundings fills the restaurant every night. The Kobe beef burger is juicy and the fried chicken hearty, but the dish that says it all may be the Texas Haute Dog, which consists of a grass-fed-beef frankfurter crowned with St. Arnold beer–braised sauerkraut or spicy venison chili. While the plush banquettes are reserved for larger parties, singles and twosomes can squeeze in at the forty-foot-long counter and watch the action in the stainless-steel kitchen. Some customers fretted when chef Michael Dei Maggi took over the food operations in October, but he plans to keep the favorites coming while offering his own seasonal variations. One thing that’s not likely to change is the Big Ass Brownie. It’s perfect for anyone seeking a wee-hours sugar fix (local chefs have been known to make a beeline for it around midnight).

North, Austin
Photograph by Artie Limmer

8. North, Austin

Yes, it’s part of a scottsdale, Arizona–based chain. And yes, it’s in the Domain, the Dallas-oid shopping center that has somehow taken root in my beloved, onward-through-the-fog Austin. But I’ll just have to buck up. Good food is good food, and North has it. Consider chef Peter Lindquist’s grilled and sautéed whole artichokes, smoky and subtle, sided by a tart aioli dip. They make a perfect opener for braised short ribs with Parmesan polenta, a dish with stupendous depth of flavor. My favorite choice from among the thin, crisp pizzas is the one with figs, goat cheese, and prosciutto. If I’m not having a pizza, I like a pasta such as strozzapreti, loosely rolled ribbons tossed with mushrooms, fresh spinach, and Parmesan cream. Sometimes, though, it’s fun to stop in for nothing more than some wine and the sight of people shopping till they drop. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.

Aló, Dallas
Photograph by Artie Limmer

9. Aló, Dallas

Take a smidge of peru and a dash of mexico, toss, and you get alo. This casual spot, smartly dressed in apple green and chestnut brown, is the second concept from Espartaco and Dunia Borga, the husband-and-wife chefs who masterminded the popular La Duni Latin Kitchen & Baking Studio. With Aló, they’re delving further into their South American roots, but not so far that norteamericanos will feel lost. Only the names stump you; the flavors are easy. Chef Julia Lopez’s fantastic tuna tiraditos reminded me of sashimi doused with a puckery sauce of lime juice and Worcestershire. The causas (below) turned out to be tall, tartly seasoned mashed-potato cakes topped with nibbles of seafood (grilled shrimp, smoked salmon, crisp calamari). If there is sometimes a flub, like an overly soy-sauced saltado, or stir-fry, you can take solace in owner–pastry chef Dunia’s lovely French- and Mexican-accented desserts.

The Porch, Dallas
Photograph by Artie Limmer

10. The Porch, Dallas

This is crazy: There is an hour wait for a butcher-block table in the sprawling room and people are saying, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” And what are they waiting for? Not the ne plus ultra of refined dining but comfort food with an upscale twist. Chef Scott Freeman is employing the trusty value-added formula that has worked so well at nearby Fireside Pies, another of Consilient Restaurants’ hugely successful dining establishments. Want to start with some pâté? It’s made with chicken livers and foie gras. In the mood for a cheeseburger? You get a choice of aged cheddar, Gruyère, Point Reyes blue, or Port Salut. The farmers’ market cobbler uses seasonal fresh fruit. You get the idea. You could call it home cooking for yuppies. Or a cash cow. Or just plain fun. All are true.

The Best of the Rest

Located near the trendy Bishop Arts District, Kavala recalls the days when eager young cooks and entrepreneurs turned old gas stations and fast-food joints (in this case a Dairy Queen) into quirky personal restaurants. Kavala’s Mediterranean menu emphasizes several Middle Eastern dishes; the handmade dolmades with fluffy herbed rice are a special treat. Chef Kelly Hightower’s souvlaki, offered with either marinated chicken or lamb, comes skewered and sided by herbed new potatoes. Lesson: It doesn’t always cost a mint to open the restaurant of your dreams.

Burgers get tender loving care at artist“>Dutch’s, where local celebrity chef Grady Spears and Austin chef-restaurateur Lou Lambert joined forces to create this frequently packed hangout near the TCU campus. The fresh-ground-meat patties come piled high with everything from mushrooms and blue cheese to grilled onions and chili. The mini–bundt cakes almost have to be ordered in advance, they’re so popular.

Elevating a once scruffy (all right, still scruffy) stretch of lower Westheimer, So Vino Wine Bar & Bistro has compiled a nicely done, highly accurate greatest-hits menu of the past decade. Longtime Houston restaurateur Manfred Jachmich and co-founder Elizabeth Abraham offer the requisite short ribs (decadently braised in Shiraz and served on Gruyère polenta) and a pretty roasted-beet salad with pistachios and goat cheese. Also of note: shrimp and grits and a fantastic New York–style cheesecake. Within a five-minute drive of the Houston museums, Brasserie Max & Julie has turned an old house into a reasonable and welcome facsimile of a casual French restaurant. The typical wine-simmered dishes like coq au vin and boeuf à la bourguignonne lead the menu, bolstered by a classic steak entrecôte with a proper béarnaise and thin, crisp fries in a paper cone.



Cibo, 918 Congress Ave., 512-478-3663. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–10:30. Closed Sun.

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, 401 W. Second, 512-494-1500. Lunch Mon–Fri 11–2. Dinner 7 days 5:30–11. Brunch Sat & Sun 11–3.

North, Domain shopping center, 11506 Century Oaks Terrace; 512-339-4400. Open Sun–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11.


Aló, 4447 N. Central Expy. (U.S. 75), 214-520-9711. Open Mon–Thur 11–9:30, Fri & Sat 11–10:30. Brunch Sat & Sun 9–3.

Dallas Fish Market, 1501 Main, 214-744-3474. Lunch Mon–Fri 11–2. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11. Closed Sun.

Fearing’s, Ritz-Carlton hotel, 2121 McKinney Ave.; 214-922-4848. Breakfast 7 days 6:30–11. Lunch Mon–Fri 11:30–2:30, Sat 11–3. Dinner Sun–Thur 6–10:30, Fri & Sat 6–11. Brunch Sun 11–4.

Kavala, 1417 W. Davis, 214-942-8100. Open 7 days 11–10. The Porch, 2912 N. Henderson Ave., 214-828-2916. Lunch 7 days 11–5. Dinner Sun–Wed 5–11, Thur–Sat 5–midnight.

Fort Worth

Dutch’s, 3009 S. University Dr., 817-927-5522. Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri & Sat 11–10, Sun 11–3.


Brasserie Max & Julie, 4315 Montrose Blvd., 713-524-0070. Lunch Tue–Sat 11–2:30. Dinner Mon–Wed 5:30–10, Thur–Sat 5:30–11. Closed Sun.

Max’s Wine Dive, 4720 Washington Ave., 713-880-8737. Open Tue & Wed 4–midnight, Thur & Fri 4– 2 a.m., Sat 11–2 a.m., Sun 11–midnight. Closed Mon.

Reef, 2600 Travis, 713-526-8282. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 5–11. Closed Sun.

So Vino Wine Bar & Bistro, 507 Westheimer Rd., 713-524-1000. Dinner Mon–Wed 5–10, Thur–Sat 5–11. Closed Sun.

San Antonio

The Grill at Leon Springs, 24116 I-10W, at Boerne Stage Rd. exit; 210-698-8797. Lunch Sun 11–3. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11, Sun 5–9:30.