You could call it a tipping point.Over the past few years it’s become undeniable that something big is happening in the Texas culinary world. To put it plainly, the food scene here is not just hot, it is on fire, burning at a rate that I’ve never seen before. Texas chefs are winning national culinary awards left and right—the James Beard Foundation named two Austin chefs as Best Chef: Southwest, in 2011 and 2012, and seven Texans have been named to Food & Wine’s annual “ten best new chefs” list since 2001. In our cities, excellent new restaurants are opening so fast it’s impossible to keep up with them. Scores of local culinary celebrations are springing up not only to extol the likes of whole-beast cookery but also to benefit hardworking farmers. Meanwhile, national food festival planners, seeing how much fun we’re having, are starting up Texas editions. Television megastars like Anthony Bourdain of Parts Unknown and Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods, not to mention professional gluttons like Adam Richman of Man v. Food, can’t stay away. Every other week, the New York Times seems to run another travel story trumpeting the culinary attractions of our cities.
In short, the country has discovered what we Texans already know: as much as we love our brisket and cheese enchiladas and chicken-fried steaks, they no longer solely define us. Our not-so-humble state has one of the richest, most diverse, and most electrifying food scenes in the country.
This month we are rolling out the thirteenth edition of “Where to Eat Now.” Typically, this annual roundup focuses exclusively on our list of the state’s best new restaurants**. But when we started thinking about this edition, that seemed too narrow a focus. So we branched out. Because man cannot live by food alone, we delved into key liquid assets—craft cocktails, Texas wine, and local beer—to tell you where and what to drink now. Over the past few years, a revolution in meat production has taken place, exemplified by the heritage pork butchery at Houston’s Revival Market, so we also sampled the state’s charcuterie. Because Houston is our most deliciously diverse city, we compiled a list of the quintessential local dishes. And down in San Antonio, we lifted the lid on the pots bubbling away at the Culinary Institute of America, where a Latin-oriented curriculum is transforming what would-be chefs learn in school.
All this tasty activity provides a sumptuous background for the main attraction: the ten best new restaurants in Texas. Grab a table and get ready for a treat. The eating has never been better.
**To be considered for our list of the best new restaurants in Texas, an establishment must have opened between October 2012 and November 2013. (Second locations of existing restaurants are not eligible.) All selected restaurants have been visited multiple times. “New” means either a brand-new restaurant that opened during that time frame or an existing restaurant that had a fresh start in at least two of the following three categories: chef, concept, and name. For instance, Jeffrey’s, in Austin, got a new chef and menu, and was closed for a year for remodeling, but kept its old name. The changes made it eligible for consideration, and it merited an honorable mention this time around.
No. 1 Spoon Bar & Kitchen
A few months after he opened Spoon Bar & Kitchen, at the end of 2012, chef John Tesar said wistfully to me, “When people in Dallas think of seafood restaurants, I want Spoon to be on the list.” He has his wish. Not only is Spoon a hit in Dallas, it’s got a growing fan base in the rest of the state and beyond. In few other places is the bounty of the sea more pristine or prepared with more imagination and care. This is the best new restaurant in Texas.
Dinner at Spoon, with its companionable front-room bar, is likely to start dramatically, when your waiter delivers a glass-covered dish bearing a tidy rectangle of fantastic smoked-sturgeon headcheese, with horseradish crème fraîche, a dab of chive gel, and black sturgeon caviar. When the lid is lifted, a puff of smoke—a.k.a. Texas perfume—wafts your way. And this is just the amuse-bouche, people! The crudos, which must not be skipped, have some of the menu’s most exciting and unexpected combinations of flavors. Filmy ribbons of cuttlefish are brilliantly tossed with pink peppercorns, jalapeño oil, and yuzu. Wild-caught king salmon, on a striking black platter, is set off by trout roe and rosy roasted beets for an emphatic, rootsy taste profile. But the most seductive starter is the live diver scallop lavished with brown butter, gently warmed in a seafood dashi broth, and crowned with a small fortune in Perigord truffles. This was the most amazing thing I’ve eaten in years, if not decades. It may cause you to swoon, but try to maintain your composure long enough to get to the entrées. You wouldn’t want to miss the shimmering arctic char with its crisp, heavenly skin and garnish of pickled hon shimeji mushrooms and lotus root, or the classic skate wing with capers and Maine mussels, or the filet of swordfish underscored by a grass-green parsley purée and basking in a sassy vinaigrette of tomatoes and picholine olives. Desserts, from pastry chef David Collier, keep pace with the seafood, one of the most fun being the deconstructed s’mores, a tour de force involving chocolate panna cotta and toasty brûléed marshmallow cream.
If you can, snag one of the three-sided, sea foam–blue booths or a counter seat, where you can watch your order being cooked and meticulously plated. The mood is not really formal, but the service is too smart to be called casual. Spoon keeps things comfortable in spite of its high-style menu. Opened November 7, 2012. 8220 Westchester Dr (214-368-8220). L Tue–Fri. D Tue–Sun. $$$
No. 2 Casa Rubia
Inspired by the tidal wave of creativity pouring out of Spain over the past decade, chef Omar Flores has taken that country’s abundance of ingredients and ideas and given them a radical yet reverential twist. The results are electrifying, with flavors so complex that you find yourself pausing mid-bite to ponder what is going on. One such dish is his crispy fried artichokes topped with thin-sliced salt-cured tuna. You grab a leaf and swish it in a big, luscious dollop of yellow saffron aioli, dragging along leaves of parsley and mint. In another of my favorites, a square of black cod luxuriates in an emulsion of butter touched with chervil, the sauce pooling deliciously in the bowl. A paella variant involving noodles, cooked in a potent reduction of tomatoes and Spanish chorizo, has a wonderfully charred flavor. Couples intent on a tête-à-tête will find many obliging nooks in the spare, dark room, while the two communal tables provide inviting spots for solo diners. Do not fail to notice the leg of jamón ibérico sitting proudly on the kitchen counter, just as its porky brethren do in restaurants and markets all over Spain. Casa Rubia Opened November 18, 2013. 3011 Gulden Ln, Ste 116 (469-513-6349). D Mon–Sat. $$–$$$
No. 3 Osteria Mazzantini
No chef needs a reason to open an Italian restaurant, but John Sheely has a good excuse: he’s Italian on his mother’s side. This fact gives his newest venture, six-month-old Osteria Mazzantini, a homey vibe, despite the fact that the swellegant modern space in the Galleria area is as different as it could possibly be from the small, cozy rooms of his popular, long-established Mockingbird Bistro. The menu at Mazzantini draws from sources old and new. One of them is a trove of family recipes that he remembers from visiting his aunts in Galveston four decades ago. Wisely, he has given some of these old favorites strategic makeovers—the pasta filled with calf brains, ricotta, and spinach, for instance, has been updated into ravioli with veal sweetbreads, pine nuts, and kale. Focusing on the present, he offers several takes on crudo, notably a platter of thinly sliced raw scallops spangled with ground pink peppercorns and Meyer lemon zest. Of course, for every light dish there are two lavish ones. USDA Prime strip loin steak gets the Italian treatment with a side of cipollini. A substantial veal shank is snuggled up to a fantastic Parmesan-strewn risotto and accented with lemony gremolata. The man obviously knows that in these parts, nothing succeeds like excess. Opened September 2, 2013. 2200 Post Oak Blvd (713-993-9898). L Sun–Fri. D 7 days. $$$–$$$$
No. 4 CBD Provisions
There is a down-the-rabbit-hole aspect to CBD Provisions. If you step from the arty, modern Joule Hotel lobby into this cleverly designed dining room, you may think you’ve wandered into a secret chamber that was boarded up decades ago and only recently rediscovered. Dish-towel napkins, old buff-brick walls, and reclaimed-wood floors speak to farmhouse aesthetics. They also reinforce the “Texas brasserie” menu, executed with flair by 33-year-old executive chef Michael Sindoni, who observes the first rule of restaurants: Know thy audience. Sindoni’s food is grounded in Southwestern classics, like a fantastic take on menudo fashioned from a combo of homemade chorizo and astonishingly unfunky minced braised tripe. The red chili and cornbread (above) would pass muster at a tailgate party. Sindoni also keeps it local with the likes of crispy-skinned Gulf snapper and roasted fennel. But that doesn’t mean he can’t throw in some exotic touches, such as an out-of-the-ordinary tabbouleh of quinoa and farro. During the fall and winter, he baked persimmons (think sweet potatoes crossed with mangos) and paired them with pan-roasted Bandera quail. The approachable menu, coupled with a great cocktail program in the adjoining bar, has Dallas diners doing the unheard-of: going downtown for dinner. Opened October 10, 2013. 1530 Main (214-261-4500). B, L & D 7 days. $$$
No. 5 Arro
“Gargantuan” hardly begins to describe the amphibians that have selflessly given their all to fill the platters of buttery, supersized fried frogs’ legs at Arro. Open eight months, this airy, sun-drenched downtown Austin restaurant has been beguiling longtime Francophiles and novices alike with its modern interpretations of French bistro classics. Some dishes have just enough of an American accent to make the locals feel at home, like pepper-crusted antelope medallions on a spectacular bed of sautéed vegetables, farro, and exquisite wild mushrooms. Others are Gallic all the way, such as the mussels sided by herb-sprinkled frites, which will take you back to the sidewalk cafe you discovered in Montmartre when you were young and foolish. Chef-owners Drew and Mary Catherine Curren, of 24 Diner and Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, can’t be making that much money on Arro’s incredibly priced $25 three-course prix-fixe dinner. But they undoubtedly know that like all bargains, it’s a gateway drug that leads to the serious stuff. Once you’re hooked, you’ll be back. Again, and again, and again. Opened July 20, 2013. 601 W. 6th (512-992-2776). D 7 days. $$–$$$
No. 6 The Pass
The show begins when the massive steel door rolls open and you enter the stark dining room. Directly ahead, visible from floor to ceiling, is the busy, brightly lit kitchen. You sit down at a white-draped table, select either the five- or eight-course tasting menu, and wait. In a few minutes, a line cook—or maybe even one of the two chef-owners, Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan—steps forward with a platter in hand, and you’re off on a magic carpet ride. “BEEF: Tar Tar / Yolk / Marrow Brioche” is chopped ribeye (above) sided by marrow bones filled with finely ground seasonings and dehydrated capers and capped with adorable mushrooms—oh, wait, they’re teeny brioche buns. Pierce the tartare to find a golden slow-cooked egg yolk hidden inside. “BRANDADE: Potatoes / Smoked Trout / Licorice” is a take on France’s traditional whipped salt cod and potatoes. Only here the cod turns out to be the most incredibly delicious smoked trout, and the everyday spuds have become multicolored potato balls. The whole thing sits on a creamy fish froth scented with licorice. Two hours later, when a jack-o’-lantern arrives on your table enveloped in clouds of dry ice and filled with frozen beet, carrot, and apple crisps, you don’t even bat an eye. You just accept the novelty of liquid nitrogen–frozen pumpkin seed ice cream, buttery sponge cake filled with brandied gel, and pumpkin seed brittle. The Pass’ second seasonal menu was less dramatic than its inaugural offerings, but with new dishes appearing frequently, change is a constant. The Pass Opened November 27, 2012. 807 Taft (713-628-9020). D Tue–Sat. $$$
No. 7 Sway
There are plenty of Thai restaurants in Austin where culinary purity and penny-wise prices prevail. Sway is not one of them. With a dining room defined by massive communal tables, this hip newcomer plays fast and loose with tradition. It sends forth from its busy open kitchen a stream of dishes inspired by the famously controversial modern Thai cooking of Sydney, Australia. How to sum up Sway? Hard to do, but its flavors are boisterous, with a predilection for sweet, sour, and spicy. The starter of choice is prawn miange (above), four heart-shaped betel leaves piled with chilled prawns and moistened with a sinus-clearing blend of tamarind, palm sugar, lime, grapefruit, toasted coconut and cashew, chiles, and fish sauce. Going in a different, Chinese-inspired direction, “Salt + Pepper” dishes include tender blue prawns accented with fermented black beans and roasted Thai chiles. Desserts are unforgettable, like the affogato and the haunting jasmine tea panna cotta with coconut-lychee sorbet. Although the founding team, chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki, left last August to start another restaurant, talented Alexis Chong has stepped into the lead position without missing a beat. Opened December 9, 2012. 1417 S. 1st (512-326-1999). L & D 7 days. $$–$$$
No. 8 Qui
Paul Qui’s restaurant is his playhouse—you never know what’s going to come out of his kitchen, but you can count on it being thoughtful, delicious, and a lot of fun. Having won both Top Chef’s season nine and the James Beard Foundation’s 2012 award for Best Chef: Southwest, Qui is having a blast with his first brick-and-mortar place. On a counter near the open kitchen sits a row of ceramic mugs with animal tails for handles, as well as an assortment of rubber stamps for customers to fool around with. The kitchen gets in on the whimsy from the first bite, a crisp nori-cracker amuse-bouche anointed with house-made Cabot Creamery cheddar cheese mousse squirted from a can. Following that, an eclectic menu with strong Asian influences takes you from the pitch-perfect Ode to Michel Bras (an exquisite still life of local farm vegetables in a silken, pale-green garlic dashi) to ribbon pasta tinted midnight-black with squid ink and swirled with minced oysters and smoked trout roe. The evening ends with fun too, whether you choose cheese ice cream sandwiches drizzled with goat’s-milk cajeta or Halo Halo, a Filipino fruit-and-nut snow cone honoring the chef’s birthplace. Qui Opened June 20, 2013. 1600 E. 6th (512-436-9626). D Mon–Sat. $$$
No. 9 The Granary ‘Cue & Brew
In Texas no one has ever gone broke overestimating the public’s lust for meat, smoke, and beer. Certainly not the Rattray brothers, Alex and Tim, who have combined their talents in a wildly popular brewery, barbecue joint, and restaurant located in a historic house near downtown San Antonio. But while the enterprise’s success as a smoke shack is no surprise, visitors are amazed that the pitmaster turns into a fine-dining chef at night. Even so, smoke remains a constant. It lazes around in the crazy-good combination of pork- and beef-fat drippings and butter you slather on the homemade Texas toast. It sneaks into the pieces of mackerel that cling to the compressed cubes of gingery fried rice. It pumps up rosy-hued duck that has been paired with a brash but brilliant purée of turnips and dates. Smoke is everywhere at the Granary, except, happily, in the buttermilk chess pie, which has quite possibly Texas’s best crust. The Granary ‘Cue & Brew Opened November 14, 2012. 602 Avenue A (210-228-0124). L & D Tue–Sat. $$–$$$
No. 10 Little Lilly
Thanks to the 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, many people think of the quintessential sushi chef as a quiet purist who doles out morsels to a cadre of awestruck devotees. Not at Little Lilly, where affable Jesus Garcia, age 25, chats up customers while slicing and serving some of Fort Worth’s freshest fish. At the small brick storefront with a black sushi counter, blond wood chairs, and beckoning ceramic cats, he welcomes all comers. Sushi adepts appreciate the likes of his Little Lilly Nigiri Sampler. Depending on what’s freshest that day, the wafers of pristine seafood may range from white shrimp (with a sprinkle of roe on top) to firm, pink farmed king salmon from New Zealand to dark-amber-hued Santa Barbara sea urchin. Pieces are carefully brushed with the chef’s homemade nikiri, or glaze, and perched on tuffets of California-grown Nozomi short-grain rice. If the customer is game, the fearsome raw shrimp head that garnishes the nigiri sampler is whisked away, flash-fried, and returned to the counter as one very crispy critter. One bite at a time, Garcia is amassing a raw-fish fan club, but he’s just as happy if he can convince a teenager to try a roll without cream cheese or kewpie mayonnaise. Opened October 5, 2012. 6100 Camp Bowie Blvd (817-989-8886). L & D 7 days. $$
Barlata, a mod place with splashy graphic art, doles out reasonably priced tapas, including excellent papas bravas (Spanish fries) and morcilla sausage on white beans with a generous splat of aioli for dipping. . . . If ever there were a place where man could live on pizza alone, it would be at Bufalina, which produces impeccable pies with thin, puffy-edged crusts lavished with toppings like prosciutto piccante, shards of Parmesan, and fresh arugula. . . . With a completely new look and (mostly) new ownership, headed by Larry McGuire, beloved bistro Jeffrey’s has shape-shifted into a luxe destination for those moments when only a dry-aged Niman Ranch porterhouse or a wood-roasted lobster thermidor with Thai chile drawn butter and Mornay sauce will do.
Belly & Trumpet’s mishmash of accessories (white-leather banquette, crystal chandeliers) does not detract from its delicious dishes, like a whole crispy-skinned Cornish hen with foie gras and raisin compote, courtesy of chef Brian Zenner. . . . Mural-size blackboards feature changing original art at Lark on the Park, a restaurant whose chefs, Dennis Kelley and Melody Bishop, exceed expectations with starters like beef carpaccio with fresh ginger and sesame oil and entrées such as braised lamb shank with Israeli couscous scattered with pine nuts and feta. . . . Nationally known Dallas chef Stephan Pyles has pulled out all the stops at sprawling Stampede 66. Waltz across Texas with reimagined classics like his “Sonofabitch 2014” stew, a fabulous veal-based version of the original, and popovers with pimento cheese, a tribute to Dallas culinary maven Helen Corbitt.
At Cove Cold Bar, a small but lofty room attached to Haven, chef Jean-Philippe Gaston is sending forth some of Houston’s most ravishing raw fish, giving his own twist to crudo with dishes like his Borneo-inspired hinava, slices of blue marlin attractively ruched and then accented with jalapeño, yuzu juice, and brown sugar. . . . Philippe Verpiand, chef-owner of country-French Etoile, has graced Houston with its best duck leg confit yet, a tender and rich dish bolstered by a sumptuous demi-glace. . . . Saltillo-based Carlos Abedrop has re-created his famous Mexican steakhouse, La Casa del Caballo, featuring an over-the-top red-and-black color scheme, beautifully char-crusted steaks, and fine shrimp cocktails drenched in red sauce, just as they are in the owner’s home country.
The folks from the Monterey have a new baby, Barbaro, a civilized outpost in a historic building that draws customers for cocktails and unpredictable pizzas (taleggio, hash browns, kale, and honey). . . .Vivid fresh-fruit cups are definitely on offer at the Frutería, a casual dining spot from chef Johnny Hernandez, but so are more-substantial entrées, like a seared yellowfin-tuna sandwich with avocado cream and gorditas stuffed to the gills with roasted poblano strips. . . . At Minnie’s Tavern & Rye House, in the crazily tilting old Liberty Bar building, chef Andrew Weissman is doing brasserie fare both fancy (such as a sybaritic torchon of foie gras with sour cherries) and plain (like buttery chicken-liver mousse with a dapper parsley salad).