When I gaze back over the previous year, what dining trends do I see among the ten best new Texas restaurants? Well, to start, it was the year offal went mainstream. If you don’t know offal, just think of it as nose-to-tongue-to-ear-to-belly-to-trotter-to-jowl-to-skin-to-tail-to-knuckle-to-marrowbone-to-cheek-to—oh stop!—eating. Innards are in. Seriously.
Small-plate dining, a.k.a. grazing, is ubiquitous, and local sourcing is the default choice everywhere. I wasn’t surprised to see casual settings on the increase, with more community tables and beer gardens in the mix. But I was taken aback that three restaurants were in the white-tablecloth camp; to paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quip, reports of formal dining’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
As for culinary categories, I’d describe four of my top ten as American melting pot, two as classic French, two as Italian, one as Japanese, and one as Indian. In terms of ingredients, it was the Year of the Pig (see “offal”). Indeed, swine occasionally upstaged cattle on restaurant menus, which is saying something in Texas. Finally, just for the heck of it, I’ll make a prediction for 2012: escargots will make a comeback. I say so because I’ve had amazing escargots three times in recent months. And if offal is in, can snails be far behind?
All right, let’s get down to business. To be considered for this story, a restaurant must have officially opened between November 1, 2010, and November 1, 2011 (though there’s a three-week grace period at the front end). Also eligible are older restaurants that have undergone total makeovers (defined as a new name and a new concept or menu). In years past, I’ve included newcomers from restaurant empires based outside Texas (like those of Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten). But I’m happy to say that homegrown talent filled up all ten slots this time. That’s local dining you can get behind.
Photograph by Ryann Ford
1. Congress, Austin
Some chefs take years to figure out who they are. Not David Bull. Fine dining is in his genes. While others have been busy seeing whether opposites attract—i.e., doing upscale food in get-down settings—Bull has embraced sophistication and complexity from the beginning. They were his muse when he was named one of the ten best new chefs in America by Food & Wine; that was in 2003, when the classically trained 29-year-old was executive chef at the Driskill Grill, in Austin. They inspired him when he developed Bolla, at the Stoneleigh Hotel, in Dallas. Fourteen months ago, he threw back the curtain on his most refined concept to date: Congress. Tucked into a downtown high-rise and accessorized with icy crystal lights and white-on-white original art, Congress is one tall, sexy blonde. And behind the scenes, interpreting global cuisine with his usual finesse, is Mr. Bull, at the top of his game.
On any given night, Congress offers prix fixe menus of three and seven courses styled to the nines by Bull and chef de cuisine Rebecca Meeker. If I were to be your guide for an evening’s indulgence, I would insist that you start with the salad of voluptuous buffalo-milk burrata. The Sophia Loren of cheeses, burrata might be described as mozzarella ’n’ cream. You can scoop up a bite along with a square of earthy golden beet or swish it around in sweet-tart blood orange agrodolce. The spot-on flavor dynamics in this combination are also at work in the lobster bisque, the soothing soup sparked with a saucy Fresno chile–tomato jam. And Bull’s send-up of a New York deli plate is way too much fun to miss; the tender beef-tongue pastrami, mustard-miso dressing, and delicate curls of fried rye toast are smashing. And while meat is a strength, his ravioli filled with a lush carrot purée and capped by an aromatic lemongrass foam may be the best vegetarian dish in the city. Pastry chef Erica Waksmunski’s desserts—like her Greek yogurt mousse with basil-lime sorbet dolled up with white chocolate–lava salt crunchies—always provide a sweet farewell. 200 Congress Ave, 512-827-2760. Dinner Tue–Thur 6–10, Fri & Sat 6–11. Reservations recommended.
Photograph by Jody Horton
2. Barley Swine, Austin
Quick! In what Texas city is it most likely that a guy who started in a food trailer ends up on Food & Wine’s list of top new chefs? You know it’s Austin. Chef-owner Bryce Gilmore’s honor, awarded in 2011, is a modern twist on the old success story: locavore boy makes good. Of course, he has graduated to a building now, but it’s so cozy it might as well be a trailer. And charmingly cramped quarters are part of the appeal. The diners seated next to you are likely to ask, “Hey, how were the grilled shrimp?” And you’re likely to tell them that they were really fresh and from the Gulf and came with this delicious citrus-chipotle froth. And then they’re likely to tell you how much they enjoyed the scrambled egg and goat feta, which was whipped into a fabulous milky-cheesy sauce. And so it goes. By the time you offer them a sample of the pumpkin cheesecake and whipped cream tinged with crushed Australian wattle seeds (pictured), you’re saying, “Hey, let’s get together sometime.” 2024 S. Lamar Blvd, 512-394-8150. Dinner Mon–Fri 6–11, Sat 5–11. No reservations taken.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
3. Marquee, Dallas
Ever since he appeared on Top Chef in 2007, Tre Wilcox has been casting about for a place to do things his way. He had some private gigs and then headed up Loft 610, in Plano. Finally, in April 2011, he made his long-anticipated debut in the ritziest neighborhood in Dallas, Highland Park. Almost immediately, Marquee’s smart espresso-and-white dining room became the destination for anniversaries, prom dates, and lunch with the ladies. Now that he’s settled in, Wilcox is on a mission to gradually expand the horizons of his clientele beyond safe, if excellent, dishes like his signature Duck Three Ways (pictured) and perfectly seared venison and bison steaks. How’s it going? So far, so great. The foodies at our table barely got a bite of the coffee-and-chile-rubbed rabbit (with wee chocolate panna cottas and a heap of pumpkin-seed powder) before our, um, bubba friends polished it off. 33 Highland Park Village, Preston Rd at Mockingbird Ln, 214-522-6035. Open Mon–Wed 11–midnight, Thur 11–1 a.m., Fri & Sat 11–2 a.m., Sun 10:30–10. Reservations recommended.
Photograph by Debora Smail
4. Coppa, Houston
What happens when a famous chef leaves? The luckless soul who replaces him can never measure up. So when Chris Shepherd departed Catalan, the restaurant’s owners swallowed hard and decided it was pointless to pursue the Spanish theme. Enter chef Brandi Key, who quickly rolled out a totally new concept. Smart. If her octopus carpaccio is any indication, she was born to cook classic Italian. The eight-legged critter is sliced paper-thin, drizzled with citrus vinaigrette, and scattered with crushed green olives. Her delectably charred pizza crust comes piled with the likes of pork, Fresno chiles, and quail eggs. It’s near impossible to tear yourself away from the pastas—like the spaghetti carbonara, rich with salami and Parmesan cream—but you won’t be sorry you ordered the lemony redfish baked in parchment. There’s much to be said for turning over a new leaf. 5555 Washington Ave, 713-426-4260. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 5–11, Sun 5–9. Reservations recommended.
Photograph by Debora Smail
5. Philippe, Houston
Philippe is schizophrenic—not the chef, mind you, but his eponymous restaurant. The velvet-and-snakeskin Texotrash vibe of the downstairs bar gives way to an utterly refined dining room upstairs. Thus it comes as no surprise that Monsieur Schmit’s culinary personality has two sides: the old-world professional and the self-styled French cowboy. The former is responsible for garlic butter–swathed escargots, fat and sassy on a bed of fennel purée. The latter gets credit for the aptly named Margarita tuna tartare, jazzed with tequila and Cointreau. Nothing is routine. Even duck à l’orange gets a makeover and a new tagline, My Darling Clementine, signaling that the passé orange glaze has been replaced with a sparkling clementine-cognac sauce. Ever the genial host, Philippe regularly makes the rounds, dispensing Gallic charm and Texas hospitality in equal measure. 1800 Post Oak Blvd, 713-439-1000. Open Mon–Thur 11–3 & 5:30–10:30, Fri 11–3 & 5:30–11:30, Sat 5–11:30. Reservations recommended.
Photograph by Jody Horton
6. The Monterey, San Antonio
Watch for this word: Southtown. It’s the scruffy restaurant and retail strip on the east edge of San Antonio’s stately King William Historic District, and it’s getting ready to explode. The Monterey, with its plant-filled beer garden and red-wallpapered diner, is a harbinger of the coming change. Depending on what strikes their fancy, chef Quealy Watson and sous chef Robert Cain might do an heirloom-tomato gazpacho with truffle oil and a schmear of smoky baba ganouj. Or they could go for the gusto with grilled cheese sandwiches or the Mexican street-fair favorite grilled corn in a cup, which they doll up with lime-kissed yogurt, cotija cheese, and popcorn. Small plates dominate the menu, though there are entrées, like a flatiron steak with kimchi butter. But there’s more variety—and fun—when you share. Besides, if you get the grilled octopus and country ham with a foamy Kaffir-lime white curry, your friends are going to be stealing bites anyway. 1127 S. St. Mary’s, 210-745-2581. Dinner Tue–Sat 5–midnight, Sun 10–2.
Photograph by Brian Birzer
7. Contigo, Austin
When I see a concrete slab, picnic tables, and shade trees, my expectations are pretty basic. I’m looking for burgers, fries, and beer. And Contigo has them. The burger patty is Angus, cooked to order and served on a handmade challah bun. The fries are pencil-thin, crispy-crackly on the outside and feather-soft on the inside. The beer is your choice from some two dozen imported and craft varieties. But Contigo is about much more than the basics. Chef Andrew Wiseheart takes the comfort-food idiom to a new level with rich rabbit stew full of biscuitlike sage dumplings. His PEI mussels come cooked in white wine with a spiky hit of capers and shishito peppers. And his crisp-skinned local chicken breast in bordelaise sauce is so flavorful you’d swear it was dark meat. What Wiseheart and co-owner Ben Edgerton have created with Contigo is remarkable: an exciting menu in a setting as welcoming as a Texas beer garden. 2027 Anchor Ln, 512-614-2260. Dinner 7 days 5–midnight. Brunch Sun 10:30–2:30.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
8. Lucia, Dallas
I wondered if Lucia had space to rent the minute I saw the rustic farm tables, homey cushions, and shelves crowded with jars of homemade preserves. Few restaurants have more charm. Fewer still have the combined talents of owners David and Jennifer Uygur, chef and manager, respectively. Together they have created a monster hit with Lucia, an Italian osteria whose 32 seats are often booked two months in advance. Once you get in, explore David’s considerable skill with charcuterie, on excellent display in the nduja, a spreadable Calabrian-style pork sausage spiked with orange zest and dried chiles. Or try his compelling seared cotechino sausage, shot through with nutmeg and black pepper. In fact, I find I prefer his starters to his secondi, although the moist rabbit on Parmesan polenta almost changed my mind. Speaking of which, my mind is made up about the exquisite hazelnut semifreddo sided by rich sanguinaccio dolce (pictured), a lovely traditional chocolate and blood—yes, blood—pudding. It’s one of my favorite desserts of the year. 408 W. Eighth, 214-948-4998. Dinner Tue–Sat 5:30–10. Reservations required.
Photograph by Debora Smail
9. Pondicheri, Houston
Having mastered high-class fusion at her flagship, Indika, Anita Jaisinghani is now doing the food of her heart. She calls it street food, but that only scratches the surface of the morning-to-night menu. People show up almost before first light, laptops in tow, to dig into frankies (India-style wraps) and flaky tarts. Did I mention she’s a trained pastry chef? But I like to wait until something substantial comes out of the kitchen, like pav bhaji; it’s a glorious porridgelike mush of potatoes, cauliflower, peas, and corn sautéed with a spicy masala. In the evenings, when table service is offered, I gravitate toward entrées like salmon tikka, an exceptionally moist filet dusted with green-mango powder and brightened with nutty kalonji seeds. But, truly, I could throw a dart at the menu and be happy. Or I might just hang out with a cup of strong coffee; the room, with its soaring ceilings, gargantuan glass doors, and benches covered in vivid fabrics, is a pleasure all by itself. 2800 Kirby Dr, 713-522-2022. Open 7 days 7:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
Photograph by Kevin Marple
10. Shinjuku Station, Fort Worth
Small is beautiful at this ten-month-old venue on trendy Magnolia Avenue. The appeal of the long, narrow, brick-walled room is summed up in the Japanese word “izakaya,” which translates roughly as a place to drink sake and have a few nibbles. A perfect happy hour here would start, in fact, with a round of Shimizu-no-mai sake and an order of scallop and tuna tartare—pristine chopped seafood and minty shiso leaf on crunchy slices of lotus root. Executive chef Jarry Ho created the nacholike dish as a special, and customers demanded it receive a permanent booking. Similarly, the fantastic garlicky hamachi-and-salmon roll with a pert yuzu-soy sauce caters to American tastes. But the kitchen can also do traditional: witness the delicate tempura and the red-miso soup with teeny enoki mushrooms. The sweet shrimp sushi is worth ordering just to see the whole fried shrimp heads that accompany the presentation. Talk about fierce. 711 W. Magnolia Ave, 817-923-2695. Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri 11–10, Sat 5–10.
Step off a dog-eared commercial street in Oak Cliff into the boldly styled dining room of Mesa Veracruz Coastal Cuisine, where Raul and Olga Reyes honor interior-of-Mexico cuisine with big, strapping dishes like braised oxtail in hoja santa sauce and twenty-ingredient Mole de Mama Cata.
Former Top Chef contestant Tiffany Derry reigns in high style at Private Social, where she turns out small plates (like Thai mussels in coconut-curry broth) and large (her fried chicken is legendary).
At Revolver Taco Lounge, a bustling kitchen proves itself as adept with cutting-edge dishes (thin-sliced hamachi spritzed with lime) as traditional ones (red-chile mole with endless depths of flavor), all in a surprisingly slick setting.
At a glitzy venue like Feast you’d expect to find foie gras with kiwi-grape chutney on the menu; what you wouldn’t expect is chef Stefan Bowers’s equal fondness for comforting dishes like purple-hull peas with a brisket-enriched “zippy broth.”
Everything old is new again at sweet Restaurant Gwendolyn, the domain of intense young chef-owner Michael Sohocki. The riverside restaurant’s concise menu utilizes pre-1849 techniques and equipment to produce a wonderful briochelike milk bread and tender shredded rabbit on polenta soufflé.