Where to Eat Now 2009
Now that I’ve been doing this annual roundup of the tastiest new restaurants in Texas for seven years, patterns have started to emerge. As usual, Dallas had a raft of exciting newcomers. Houston turned out fewer, but they were generally stronger. Austin produced several dining spots that had early promise but proved exasperatingly inconsistent. The big news was San Antonio, a city where historically I have scrounged to find even one interesting, sophisticated new restaurant. San Antone rocked last year, practically re-creating itself along North Side thoroughfares like Loop 1604 and Sonterra Boulevard. Fort Worth, I’m sad to say, did not have a single contender in the top ten, although it would have if the rules had let me count Lambert’s, where I had a spectacular meal.
And speaking of rules, here they are. The current culinary year runs from November 1, 2007, to November 1, 2008, with a three-week grace period. Eligible restaurants must be brand-new or, if in an old location, have a new chef, a new name, and a new concept. Second locations of Texas-based restaurants don’t count, even in a different city (sorry, Lambert’s). However, I will allow the umpteenth location of an out-of-state restaurant making its first Texas appearance.
With the rules out of the way, it’s time for the grand reveal. If you can, please patronize these establishments. The economy has not been kind to restaurants recently, and I’d like for these guys to be around a year from now.
1. Voice, Houston
Photograph by Debora Smail
Chef Michael Kramer is having some serious fun at Voice, the best restaurant to open in Texas last year. Located in the Hotel Icon, in downtown Houston, Voice took over the space previously occupied by the restaurant Bank. With grand structural bones dating from the early twentieth century, when the space was indeed a bank lobby, Voice could have ended up the sort of stodgy dining hall you take that dotty rich aunt who’s thinking of changing her will. But cool details like bold black-and-white fabric panels have injected a welcome modern touch. And Kramer’s French and Mediterranean menu is just right for the space: classic and contemporary at once.
The mushroom soup “cappuccino” was the dish that made a believer out of me—and to think I almost missed it. Tricked out like the frothy coffee drink, most cappuccino soups are, not to put too fine a point on it, a cliché. I saw it on the menu and thought, “Oh, please.” But my friend wanted soup, and the minute it arrived, I was captivated. From the creamy truffle foam to the powdered porcini “cocoa” on top, the illusion was spot-on. And the taste—earthy and seductive—was mushroom to the max.
Appetizers are a strength overall. Kramer’s blessedly airy gnocchi are brushed with beurre blanc, then scattered on the plate with brussels sprout “petals,” shreds of prosciutto di Parma, and chanterelles; Kramer is big on these spread-out, precise arrangements. He’s also conscious of evocative flavors: The gnocchi combo cleverly evokes three elements of a Southern Sunday dinner—ham, potatoes, and greens.
Which comes as no surprise, given that the L.A. native spent eight years at McCrady’s, in Charleston, South Carolina, honing the chops he learned at Spago, in Beverly Hills, and the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas. Slices of organic suckling pig come with a thick, cider-infused applesauce and cubes of butternut squash: the epitome of Southern. Morsels of pink, honey-lacquered roasted duck speak of woodsmoke and other dusky flavors. Alongside is a fig mostarda, a mustard-zapped Italian fruit condiment that is the rage du jour. The combination put me in mind of burning leaves and country cookouts.
And that is what I like so much about Voice: Kramer’s melding of flavors sets off echoes in my head. My Texan/Southern heritage helps, but I imagine he could stir memories no matter where you’re from. And to me, that is one key thing that distinguishes a highly competent chef from a remarkable one. The former feeds the body, the latter also nourishes the soul.
2. Dough Pizzeria Napoletana, San Antonio
Photograph by Melanie Grizzel
Ah, the pizza of the gods. Their crusts are wafers of elemental crispness. The cheeses that swathe them—silky ricotta, sumptuous homemade mozzarella—appear to be the handiwork of angels. Anointed with extra-virgin olive oil and a select lineup of toppings that range from caramelized onions and oak-roasted mushrooms to aromatic Italian ham and sausage and gloriously runny fried eggs, these Neapolitan-style pies are nothing less than transcendent. Wait as your order is seared in a wood-burning oven at 1,000 degrees in ninety seconds flat. You will grab a slice, you will burn your mouth, and it will be worth it. I’m tempted to say that chef-owner Doug Horn and wife Lori do one thing and do it exceedingly well, except that everything at Dough is done exceedingly well: salads (toasted pine nuts and Gorgonzola dressing on Boston lettuce, anyone?); crunchy flatbread sandwiches (prosciutto, mozzarella, and arugula dressed with truffle oil); and—especially—a divine, buttery grilled dessert panino slathered with Nutella. A smart black-and-caramel room in a Loopland shopping strip is your entry to nirvana. Oh, and here’s a tip: Fast the day before. Seriously. Recipe for Prosciutto and Arugula Pizza
3. Au Petit Paris, Houston
Photograph by Erin Trieb
Climb aboard the Wayback Machine: We’re returning to a time when being a professional chef meant cooking the French classics with meticulous care, not trying to one-up Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. At a smart but charming elderly house on a tree-lined Houston street, Dominique Bocquier and Eric LeGros have created un petit coin de Paris. Under the pretext that champagne goes with everything, I ordered an old-fashioned kir royale to start. Next I had a tartelette de poulet rôti, its shell a whisper of pastry, its quichelike filling bursting with moist roasted chicken and sautéed leeks. My main course, beautiful, barely seared Alaskan halibut, was blanketed in a celestial, creamy emulsion of olive oil and lemon juice. And how could I possibly leave without having the house variation on tarte tatin, poached pears on caramelized puff pastry? I couldn’t. If this is living in the past, I say full speed ahead.
4. Bolla, Dallas
Photograph by Kevin Marple
Bolla is like an off-Broadway play that somehow ended up in a Broadway theater—the drama is cerebral and cutting-edge, while the stage set is vast and showy, with thronelike pearlized leather chairs and gauzy gold curtains. Chef David Bull’s contemporary Italian menu melds the two opposites by combining top-notch, even rare ingredients in original ways. His fantastic espresso-rubbed Colorado rack of lamb comes not with boring whipped potatoes but instead on a silky celery-root purée with Barolo-tinged cipolline. His luxurious thin-sliced Wagyu beef strip loin has an unexpectedly apt house-made steak sauce starring kalamata olives and raisins. Even a simple amuse-bouche of black-truffle custard gets a sprinkle of teensy, sweet diced apples and a pinch of dehydrated foie gras powder (who even knew there was such a thing?). It’s obvious that Bull—who was a Food & Wine “best new chef” pick in 2003—is out to dazzle his audience. More often than not, he does just that. Recipe for Seared Sea Scallops With Spinach-Speck Salad, Brown Butter, and Pine Nut Crema.
5. Dali Wine Bar and Restaurant, Dallas
Photograph by Kevin Marple
Nights are best here. Gaze out through the plate-glass windows at everything that makes a city a city: skyscrapers splayed against the blackened sky, contrails of red and white lights from cars speeding by, the subliminally felt presence of glass, steel, and concrete. Then turn inward, to the small, contemporary dining room, filled with happy winebibbers enjoying carefully selected, well-priced bottles and chef Joel Harloff’s smart, un-froufrou food. Oblivious to the odd lack of Daliesque elements in the decor, they’re concentrating on pan-seared quail on goat-cheese polenta with a tart jalapeño relish (called a “jam”—how surreal). Or they’re having the lamb duo: a juicy rack and a somewhat less impressive lamb sirloin accompanied by an assertive Gorgonzola dolce–laced risotto. By meal’s end, they’re sipping a cordial and relishing a slice of mascarpone cheesecake with the lush texture of crushed velvet. Every city should have such an urbane place.
6. Parkside, Austin
Photograph by Caleb Bennett
The kid’s all right. Shawn Cirkiel looks as if he’s 18, but he’s got the chops and the imagination of the seasoned pro he is (for the record, he’s 33). Twelve months ago, he opened Parkside on Austin’s boozy east Sixth Street, leading devoted followers to wonder if he’d lost his mind. But, my friends, you should brave the hordes of hormone-fueled twentysomethings and give Parkside a try. Go for the sophisticated raw bar, featuring the likes of bluepoint oysters on the half-shell and fluke with toasted almonds, chives, and lemon zest. Go for the sautéed flounder in brown butter with salty capers and sweet currants. Drop by for the satiny scallops with nibbles of orange and tufts of wild mushrooms. About the only reasons I wouldn’t want to return are the terminally dismal lighting and the industrial-chic setting—too much industrial, not enough chic. But wait, I hear the espresso fudge brownie and hazelnut malt calling.
7. Textile, Houston
Photograph by Debora Smail
Minimalist yet snug, with soft beige and tan fabrics stretched on boxy light fixtures and old brick walls painted a whiter shade of pale, Scott Tycer’s obscure new 28-seat place in the slightly seedy Heights neighborhood already has his fan base vying for weekend reservations. The payoff for your persistence might well start with a brilliant amuse-bouche of fennel soup bolstered by a sublime nugget of sturgeon at the bottom of the cup and a dab of crème fraîche on top. The meal might then proceed to starters such as a delicate bacon tart with a twee basted quail egg, wilted bitter greens, and dabs of balsamic vinegar. For an entrée, braised veal breast with a truffled hollandaise should do quite nicely. This is a subtle evolution of the edgy, laser-point French-American cooking that landed Tycer on Food & Wine’s list of best new chefs back in 2003. See where he’s going with it now.
8. Tei-An, Dallas
Photograph by Kevin Marple
At Tei-An, greatness has been thrust upon the humble soba. Restaurateur and chef Teiichi “Teech” Sakurai has dedicated himself to explaining the nutty-flavored, nubby-textured buckwheat noodles—a mainstay of Japanese culinary culture—to Americans. While soba are not sacred, of course, he and many of his countrymen hold them in near-spiritual regard. Settle into the beautifully restrained, gallerylike dining room, a temple of taupe, and let a smiling waitress be your guide. Start your journey with endlessly replenished hot buckwheat tea, to foster serenity. Then have chilled soba in a salad braced with brisk mizuna leaves in a rice-wine vinaigrette. Graduate to soba in a piping-hot bonito-flake broth with a poached egg swirled in. The variations are endless. Should you finally have your fill, change pace with sushi, tempura, grilled beef, or duck. Teech ministers to nonbelievers too.
9. Charlie Palmer at the Joule, Dallas
Photograph by Samuel Solomon
You will feel as if you’ve stumbled into a box of chocolates, what with the cocoa-colored woodwork, caramel walls, lush butterscotch-hued chairs, and cognac screens. It’s all quite tasty, and so’s the food. You should start with the miniature lobster corn dog with mustard crème fraîche; it’s as silly and fun as it sounds. Then go straight for the big guns and have executive chef Scott Romano’s dry-aged New York strip with cabernet reduction, accompanied by an outrageously seductive bone-marrow flan. Piscivores will take to dishes like butterflied rainbow trout (stuffed with a wild mushroom–potato hash and bathed in balsamic brown butter) or kampachi sashimi. The menu emphasizes surf and turf, but thankfully there are some offbeat offerings that give it a contemporary edge (quinoa with currants and herbs, to name one). Renowned chef-turned-restaurateur Charlie Palmer (of Manhattan’s Aureole, among others) is the force behind this little gem at the Joule hotel, which is the only out-of-state entry on my top ten list this year. Welcome to Texas, Mr. Palmer. Recipe for Miniature Lobster Corn Dog
10. Oloroso, San Antonio
Photograph by Sarah Sudhoff
I ran into a chef from another restaurant having a party at Oloroso—now, that’s a vote of confidence. I’d celebrate here too, maybe just a casual, low-key TGIF with friends who I know would enjoy the restaurant’s Mediterranean menu and its setting, a simple, revamped bungalow with dark wood floors and brandy-colored walls. I would definitely call ahead to be sure the kitchen had my favorite appetizer: fresh figs wrapped in pancetta. The twosome comes with a slab of great, funky blue cheese and a tiny, tartly dressed frisée-and-arugula salad. There’s no question that I’d order chef/co-owner Josh Cross’s duck breast for an entrée; pink and succulent, it’s gilded with a discreet swipe of thyme jus and comes with corn simmered in duck stock and some braised Swiss chard on the side. Since it would be my party, I’d have what I wanted for dessert, namely the sweet-tart huckleberry crisp with a toasty butter-sugar topping. Come to think of it, Friday’s too far off. What about TGIT?. Recipe for Seared Diver Scallops With Wild Mushrooms and Rutabaga Purée.
• Executive chef Josh Watkins, formerly of the Driskill Hotel, rules THE CARILLON, a hard-to-find conference-center dining room on the University of Texas campus. His food far, far surpasses the stuffy setting. Try delish crab cakes (with a dollop of avocado mousse) and Berkshire pork tenderloin on cannellini beans with smoked tomatoes.
• On a good night, OLIVIA’s kitchen—under chef/co-owner James Holmes and chef de cuisine Morgan Angelone—can be as arresting as the chic, airy building
it occupies. Check out the salad of beets with creamy-tart goat cheese and the tuna carpaccio appetizer.
• The dining room is as comfy as a fifties den, and the menu includes homey dishes like crunchy fried chicken. But NEIGHBORHOOD SERVICES chef and co-owner Nick Badovinus can’t resist classing things up with the likes of a cider-brined pork porterhouse with a white-bean ragoût.
• Arancini are the hush puppies of Italy, and no place in Dallas does them better than NONNA, where the fluffy rice balls come stuffed with veal-and-pancetta ragù. This small, softly lit, not overdressed Italian cafe headed by chef/co-owner Julian Barsotti also does an excellent halibut filet, baked in the wood-fired oven.
• Judging by the sex and size of the crowds at RISE NO 1, Dallas women have been soufflé-deprived for years. Chef Cherif Brahmi’s menu features the delicacies, both savory and sweet, and for variety throws in French bistro classics such as salade niçoise, all in a très charmant Provençal setting.
• The next best thing to dining alfresco is eating at THE GROVE, with its acres of glass and parklike site. Executive chef Ryan Pera’s skin-on salmon, sided by a cider-vinegar sauce, is perfection, though die-hard Texans will go for the grilled skirt steak with a sassy tomatillo sauce.
• “Too much is never enough” is the decorative mantra at sexy COCO CHOCOLATE LOUNGE AND BISTRO. Slink in for a French bistro entrée (from chef Pedreaux Cuellar) like mussels and pommes frites, stay for the decadent house dessert: crème brûlée enrobed in chocolate mousse.
• Get a crowd together, the better to enjoy TRE TRATTORIA’s hearty, family-size entrées, like wild boar ragù. But couples can also dine well on chef-owner Jason Dady’s thin-crusted pizzas. Everyone enjoys the urbane-rustic setting.
• All snap and polish, big, bustling WILDFISH SEAFOOD GRILLE feels like an oceangoing steakhouse. Top choices from Steve Warner’s menu include sea bass in a light soy-sherry broth and jumbo scallops sautéed with citrus and brown butter.
• THE CARILLON, AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center, hotel side, 1900 University Ave, 512-404-3655. Breakfast 7 days 7—10. Dinner Wed—Sat 5:30—10. (Lunch open only to University of Texas faculty and staff and members of the Campus Club.)
• OLIVIA, 2043 S. Lamar Blvd, 512-804-2700. Dinner Mon—Thur 5—10, Fri & Sat 5—11, Sun 5—9. Brunch Sun 10:30—2:30.
• PARKSIDE, 301 E. Sixth, 512-474-9898. Dinner Sun—Wed 5—midnight, Thur—Sat 5—2 a.m.
• BOLLA, Stoneleigh Hotel, 2927 Maple Ave, 214-871-7111. Breakfast 7 days 7—10:30. Lunch Mon—Fri 11—2:30. Dinner Sun—Thur 6—10, Fri & Sat 6—11. Brunch Sat & Sun 11—2:30.
• CHARLIE PALMER AT THE JOULE, Joule hotel, 1530 Main, 214-261-4600. Breakfast 7 days 6:30—10. Lunch 7 days 11:30—2 (bar menu 7 days 2—5:30). Dinner Sun—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—10:30.
• DALI WINE BAR AND RESTAURANT, One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh, Ste. 102, 469-385-9360. Lunch Mon—Fri 11:30—2:30. Dinner 7 days 5—10:30. Small plates offered Mon—Sat 10:30—midnight. Reservations recommended.
• NEIGHBORHOOD SERVICES, 5027 W. Lovers Ln, 214-350-5027. Dinner Mon—Thur 6—10, Fri & Sat 6—11. Closed Sun. NONNA, 4115 Lomo Alto Dr, 214-521-1800. Dinner Mon—Sat 5:30—10. Closed Sun.
• RISE NO 1, Inwood Village, Ste. 220, 5360 W. Lovers Ln, 214-366-9900. Open Mon—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11, Sun 11—9.
• TEI-AN, One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh, Ste. 110, 214-220-2828. Lunch Mon—Fri 11:30—2. Dinner Mon—Sat 5:30—10:30. Closed Sun.
• AU PETIT PARIS, 2048 Colquitt, 713-524-7070. Dinner Mon—Wed 5:30—9:30, Thur—Sat 5:30—10. Closed Sun. Reservations recommended.
• THE GROVE, 1611 Lamar, 713-337-7314. Open Sun—Wed 11—10, Thur—Sat 11—11.
• TEXTILE, 611 W. 22nd, 832-209-7177. Dinner Tue—Sat 6—11 (last seating at 9:30). Closed Sun & Mon. Reservations required.
• VOICE, Hotel Icon, 220 Main, 832-667-4470. Breakfast Mon—Fri 7—10:30, Sat & Sun 7—noon. Lunch Mon—Fri 11:30—2:30. Dinner Mon—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—11 (bar menu Sun noon—10).
• COCO CHOCOLATE LOUNGE AND BISTRO, 18402 U.S. 281, at Loop 1604, northeast corner, 210-491-4480. Open Mon—Thur 4—midnight, Fri & Sat 4—1 a.m., Sun 3—10.
• DOUGH PIZZERIA NAPOLETANA, Blanco Junction shopping center, 6989 Blanco Rd, at Loop 410, southwest corner, 210-979-6565. Lunch Tue—Sat 11:30—2:30. Dinner Tue—Sat 5:30 “until the fresh mozzarella runs out” (usually around 10). Closed Sun & Mon.
• OLOROSO, 1024 S. Alamo, 210-223-3600. Dinner Tue—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—11. Closed Sun & Mon.
• TRE TRATTORIA, 4003 Broadway, 210-805-0333. Open Mon—Sat 11—11. Closed Sun. Call ahead to get on waiting list.
• WILDFISH SEAFOOD GRILLE, 1834 NW Loop 1604, 210-493-1600. Dinner Mon—Thur 5—11, Fri & Sat 5—midnight, Sun 5—10.