Every February, I try to tease out the culinary trends of the ten best new restaurants that opened the year before. This time, “local,” “comfort food,” and “affordable” are the words du jour. Happily, under that umbrella there is plenty of variety: Number four is a bistro/chophouse. Number five draws on familiar dishes from many different cultures. Number seven is Tuscan with a Texan accent. And number nine specializes in Mexican street food, a.k.a. Spanish-speaking comfort food. But then–but then–along comes my number one restaurant of the year, and it turns all my conclusions upside down. First, it’s Japanese fusion. Second, it’s off-the-charts creative. Third, it’s not exactly cheap. So what do I make of the paradox? Just this: A harsh economy may send us fleeing to restaurants that are easy to like and gentle on the pocketbook, but there is still a place for imagination and exotic ingredients from faraway lands. Once in a while, everybody needs to be dazzled.
All right, let’s cut to the chase. To be considered for this story, an establishment must have officially opened between November 1, 2009, and November 1, 2010, with a three-week grace period at the front end. A restaurant must be new, and that includes not only those that are new from the ground up but also those that have changed their name and cuisine, moved to a new location, or have an otherwise legitimate claim to newness. I will allow the first Texas location of a major out-of-state operation, but there weren’t any candidates this year. I regretfully decided I cannot include chef’s tables, even if they have their own name. Otherwise I certainly would have written about Fuego, the four-seat venue at Stephan Pyles, in Dallas, offering mesmerizing and delicious examples of molecular gastronomy.
But enough about the rules. It’s time to eat.
Photograph by Jody Horton
1. Uchiko, Austin
How do you know when a restaurant is great? When you pop that first bite into your mouth and instantly think, “That’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life!” And then with the next dish, you say, “No, this is even better!” That happened to me at Uchiko, the offspring of the phenomenally popular, phenomenally creative Japanese venue Uchi. My first nibble was a sushi course: a fastidiously fresh sliver of silver-skinned Japanese bream swiped with excellent olive oil and adorned with a teeny squiggle of Meyer lemon zest, all draped across slightly sweet vinegared rice quite unlike normal, boring sushi rice. It was utterly simple, yet every flavor sang: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and the enigmatic, all-enhancing fifth flavor, umami. Then the second course arrived—a succulent little boned quail sided by a bit of Thai chile–spiked lemon marmalade astride a bed of fragrant vanilla-infused parsnip purée—and I thought my eyes would roll back in my head. For months, the adoring fans of the parent restaurant had been torn. On the one hand, we were tickled to have another venue. On the other, we feared that the restaurant’s dynamic trio—chef-owner Tyson Cole, 40; executive chef Paul Qui, 30; and pastry chef Philip Speer, 33—might spread themselves too thin. But when Uchiko finally opened, in July, the worries vanished like steam from a cup of green tea.
The threesome had pulled it off. The fashionable new place, sheathed in glowing russet bricks and sooty-black charred wood, had its own vibe and its own distinctive, if similar, menu. Uchiko’s offerings were novel, like gyutan, a delicate slice of succulent grilled beef tongue served sushi style on rice with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt and a dab of concentrated sweet fish sauce. They were playful, like the Fall Salad, a black trumpet mushroom and pickled parsnip terrine with dewy baby greens sprouting from its earthy top. They were homey, such as the risotto-like Japanese rice porridge called congee (poshed up with shaved truffles). And they were avant-garde, especially desserts like the deconstructed apple pie à la mode composed of fried-green-apple purée, apple cider foam, brown butter gelato, sugary streusel, and a debonair garnish of crispy dried apple “strings.” After my first three visits, I made a vow to try everything on the menu. But the menu changes constantly, so that could take, well, forever. Seldom has eternity sounded so enticing.
4200 N. Lamar Blvd.
Dinner Sun–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11.
Try this Golden Beet Salad recipe.
Photograph by Kenny Braun
2. Haven, Houston
Can one dish tell you what a chef is up to? Yes, if that dish is Randy Evans’s Texas quail with bodacious jalapeño-sausage stuffing. The 35-year-old is all about “Texas regional cuisine,” as you would expect from a boy who grew up in the East Texas town of Willis. But equally strong is Evans’s Louisiana accent, a legacy of his twelve years at Brennan’s of Houston. His spunky shrimp corn dogs (pictured) show off the Creole/Cajun part of Haven’s menu: The juicy Gulf crustaceans are jacketed in a smooth batter and come sided with a mustardy mayo spiked with Tabasco mash (the heady stuff from the bottom of the pepper barrel). Less immediately apparent is that Haven is also all about local sourcing and environmental responsibility. The sleek if prim dining room was constructed using green building principles, and out back are rainwater cisterns and tidy organic gardens. Like most things here, it’s all as rootsy as can be.
2502 Algerian Way
Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 5–11. Closed Sun.
Photograph by Kenny Braun
3. Branch Water Tavern, Houston
Branch water falls into the trendy “gastropub” category, and it has pub traits galore: brews on tap, dark wood walls, atrocious wallpaper. But it’s the “gastro” part that’s generating the buzz. Thirty-two-year-old chef David Grossman knows how to keep a dish simple but intriguing. He also knows how to make it pretty as a picture. His superb fish cookery yields a seafood stew that’s ready for prime time, featuring pristine chunks of red snapper, still-crisp pink shrimp, broth-plumped PEI mussels (and almost too much salt—yikes). Though seafood hogs half the menu, there are also meaty dishes like robust braised short ribs on the bone with root vegetables (pictured). For dessert, sticky toffee pudding brings the pub theme full circle. That English classic is subtly reinterpreted here as a dark, moist spice cake, with a shot of exotic flavor from the traditional dates; a nutty scoop of pistachio ice cream adds the finishing touch. If this is pub grub, bring it on.
Open Tue & Wed 11–midnight, Thur 11–1 a.m., Fri 11–2 a.m.,
Sat 5–2 a.m., Sun 11–10. Closed Mon.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
4. Nosh Euro Bistro, Dallas
Avner Samuel has flirted with failure more times than Harry Potter has battled Voldemort. With Nosh, however, the quixotic, gifted Dallas chef and restaurateur might just have the lasting commercial hit he deserves. True, five months is a little soon to say, but judging by the crowds, the 55-year-old chef-owner and his executive chef, Jon Stevens, 36, have got a good formula going, one influenced equally by the European bistro and the American chophouse. If you’re in the mood for the former, try the moist yet crisp-edged duck confit, with cauliflower-leek mash on the side. To check out the latter, order the coffee-braised short ribs or the American wagyu burger, accessorized with aged cheddar. Part of Nosh’s success must also be chalked up to its extremely reasonable prices, its hyperfriendly servers—I thought I had wandered into a speed-dating session—and a smart setting of earth tones set off by dark woods. I really hope this one lasts.
4216 Oak Lawn Ave.
Open Mon–Fri 11–11, Sat 5–11, Sun 11–10.
Photograph by Jonathan Saunders
5. Auden’s Kitchen, San Antonio
“Downscale” and “Bruce Auden” in the same sentence? Yep, the maestro of Biga on the Banks, 55, has reined in ambition and prices at his second restaurant, run by 29-year-old head chef Patricia Wenckus. The menu hops around the globe, and the first stop is America, for lemon-pepper-marinated fried chicken encased in a crust so crunchy-good I found myself nibbling tidbits like potato chips. Next stop is Italy, for fabulous crisp pizzas (I love the one with mushrooms, fontina, and citrus-spritzed arugula). The third stop is Auden’s own British Isles, for Scotch eggs in a sassy fried-sausage crust (pictured), with jalapeño-garlic aioli alongside. There are more stops, but I’m out of room, so let me just mention the welcoming, bistrolike space and the fun quotes written across large framed mirrors at the back. My favorite, from George Bernard Shaw, says, “There is no sincerer love than the love of
food.” So true, Mr. Shaw, so true.
700 E. Sonterra Blvd.
Open Mon–Thur 11–9:30, Fri & Sat 11–10:30, Sun 11–9.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
6. Dish, Dallas
On the right as you enter is a classy bar that caters to the surrounding gayborhood, with crystal chandeliers and driving music. On the left is a chic modern dining room with curvy white chairs and black tables. Yet, miraculously, you can talk (as much as in any restaurant these days). More importantly, you can dine surprisingly well on sophisticated comfort food by 37-year-old concept chef Doug Brown and chef de cuisine Gi Kang, 23. A good place to start is the famous crab dip, brimming with chunks of crabmeat in a fluffy mash-up of cream cheese, mascarpone, and Reggiano. You can then move to the brined pork chop (pictured) crowned by sautéed apples and set atop the most heavenly, buttery whipped potatoes in creation. Or you can try the roasted chicken, its crisp caramelized skin moistened by a sybaritic layer of fat and its warm, brothy jus shot through with honey and lemon. This is Sunday dinner with class.
4123 Cedar Springs Rd.
Dinner Sun–Thur 5–11, Fri & Sat 5–1 a.m. Brunch Sun 11–3.
Photograph by Kenny Braun
7. Stella Sola, Houston
The name means “lone star” in Italian, and true to form, Stella Sola delivers Texas-size flavor. The Texas-Tuscan menu is at its robust best with dishes like braised short ribs, cooked till the meat falls in great hunks beside leaves of bracing Swiss chard. Sided by grilled flatbread, the wood-roasted mussels (steamed in Lone Star, of course) are fatties the size of two ordinary mussels. Thirty-seven-year-old Bryan Caswell, the founder of Reef and Houston’s current chef-on-a-roll (he appeared on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef last fall), is the brains behind the operation. Justin Basye, 29, runs things day-to-day and is also responsible for one of Stella Sola’s prime attractions, its charcuterie. His cured meat and salumi plate is a must, especially the gossamer white slices of lardo (cured, peppered pork fat). Sometimes the kitchen gets slammed and sloppy—too much butter and salt, steak cookery off the mark—but the food is never boring.
Dinner Tue–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11, Sun 5–9. Brunch Sun 11–3. Closed Mon.
Photograph by Rebecca Fondren
8. El Arbol, Austin
When the restaurant opened last February, its massive oak tree and multitiered decks got all the attention; now that the kitchen has matured, the massive, round wood-fired grill is the big draw. A South American menu courtesy of chef Chad Dolezal, 32, incorporates Spanish and Italian influences as well, balancing the familiar with the ever so slightly exotic. A splendidly cooked Texas wagyu flatiron steak has a delicious char; it’s so good you shouldn’t spoil it with the too-acidic chimichurri sauce that comes alongside. On the other hand, a good dredging in the brick-red tomatoey salmorra sauce only brings out the flavor of perfectly tender grilled octopus (pictured). For pure pleasure, you’ve got two amazing entrée choices: The first is braised pork belly brûlée with a fruity quince compote, cozied up to a risotto-and-sweet-potato toss. The second is short ribs, their unctuousness made irresistible by the addition of a poached egg. After polishing off either dish, the only possible reaction is “Lord, take me now.”
Dinner Tue–Sun 5–10:30. Closed Mon.
Photograph by Jody Horton
9. La Gloria Icehouse, San Antonio
Caterer Johnny Hernandez didn’t have to scale back fancy-schmancy ideas to open La Gloria; he embraced “the street foods of Mexico” from the get-go. That’s why regulars are queueing up at the counter for his excellent ceviches, like the cucumber-and-serrano-sparked shrimp Nayarit. That’s why twentysomethings are celebrating birthdays in the fun, art-filled space, devouring savory tacos al pastor (pictured) and bite-size sopes (round masa tarts topped with the likes of shredded beef and spicy chicken). That’s why Mexico-philes are chowing down on interior treats like the banana leaf–wrapped tamales del día (a recent favorite was ground beef cooked with tomato and spiked with nibbles of apricots and pecans). Hernandez, 42, made many trips to Mexico to see what ordinary people ate and came back convinced that San Antonians would lap up novelties like tlayudas (baked-tortilla Mexican “pizzas”) and molcajetes (volcanic-stone mortars filled with bubbling stews). Boy, was he right.
Pearl Brewery Complex, 100 E. Grayson
Open Sun–Thur 10–11, Fri 11–midnight, Sat 9–midnight.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
10. Brownstone, Fort Worth
In 2007 Dallasite Casey Thompson astounded viewers of Top Chef by not throwing tantrums or slandering her fellow contestants. Subsequently she moved to California, but now the 33-year-old is on native soil again, showcasing her Texas heritage and a cupboard of local ingredients at Brownstone. Brunch has some of the best dishes on the menu, starting with the stone-ground pepperjack cheese grits. Sourced from Homestead Heritage Gristmill, these are the Peter Paul Rubens of grits: plump and voluptuous. The fire-baked biscuits touch my Southern heart too, as do the light, crunchy-edged venison sausage patties. Dinner entrées can be a little inconsistent, with highs (a terrific Atlantic cod filet with a snappy South American aji amarillo sauce) countered by lows (chicken breast stuffed with a blah, overprocessed forcemeat). But triumphs like the savory, flaky-crusted chicken “potpies” (actually turnovers) prove that Thompson has got what it takes.
Lunch Fri only 11–2:30. Dinner Sun, Tue, & Wed 5–10, Thur 5–11, Fri & Sat 5–midnight. Brunch Sun 11–2:30. Closed Mon.
Foreign & Domestic Food & Drink: Chef-owners Ned and Jodi Elliott are advocates of nose-to-tail eating, and the two thirtysomethings have produced some dishes that are amazing (tender, smoky grilled octopus), some that are good (venison heart tartare with bits of crispy pig’s ear), and some that fall on their experimental face (chocolate-dipped bacon). But the little restaurant, with its bright cushions and plywood booths, is never less than interesting.
306 E. 53rd
Dinner Tue–Thur 5–9:30, Fri & Sat 5–10:30. Closed Sun & Mon.
Latin Bites Café: Several South American restaurants popped up around Texas last year, and Latin Bites was among the best. In a small older building in a gentrifying neighborhood near downtown Houston, 29-year-old chef Roberto Castre showcases diverse elements of his native Peruvian cuisine, from the somewhat exotic, such as tiramisu made with a mousse of lúcuma fruit, to the familiar, like crusty empanadas filled with shredded tenderloin.
Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri & Sat 11–10. Closed Sun.
Zelko Bistro: Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, which would be 30-year-old chef-partner Jamie Zelko’s light-filled bungalow with its dark woodwork and moss-green walls. Its strengths run to lusty spaghetti bolognese and a homey fried chicken breast with Cap’n Crunch in the breading.
705 E. 11th
Open Tue–Sat 11–10, Sun 10–9. Closed Mon.