Got the midwinter blahs? Or craftily thinking ahead to Valentine’s? Here’s a plan for either situation: check out our annual list of the best new restaurants in the state. I promise you’ll find something to like because, as usual, they’re all over the map, from a splashy Mexican seafood emporium in Houston to a chic French dining room in Fort Worth to the home of the year’s most ballyhooed steak, in Dallas. In Austin you can even have a foie gras pizza, buckwheat crumpets, and goat confit, all in the same place.
One of the best parts of doing the research for the fourteenth edition of this story was checking out the trends. Vegetables are definitely sexy, especially radishes. Salads are everywhere, even perched right on top of the entrée. Tacos and chicharrones are in, ditto biscuits and Southern cooking in general. Sea urchin is showing up in non-Asian restaurants. Heritage-breed pork is hot, and charcuterie is still in style (San Antonio chefs even threw a Charc Week). Pickles of all types are cool, and kimchi has gone mainstream. I kept reading that insects were going to take off, but all I noticed were crickets, and just once (maybe I wasn’t looking very hard).
On to the rules: To make the list, a restaurant must have opened between November 1, 2013, and October 31, 2014, and it must be a first location. There, that’s out of the way. Let’s eat!
No. 1 Caracol
The air crackles at Caracol. You feel the energy as you walk past the hopping terrace and check in with the host. You sense it as a palpable force that caroms from the entry to the kitchen and back, filling every nook and cranny of the restaurant’s spacious white dining rooms, which are decked out in playful aquatic art. This place is happening. At any other restaurant, so much excitement could quickly devolve into chaos. Not here. Even when you’re standing three deep at the bar, things stay under control as the barkeeper gives you reassuring updates: “Four people ahead of you . . . What do you want? . . . Here you go!” And with that, an icy paloma is placed in your waiting hand.
It was just before Christmas 2013 when chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught opened their second interior Mexican restaurant in Houston, after Hugo’s. The enterprise must have seemed like a gamble to the husband-and-wife team. After all, it was a large space at an expensive Galleria-area address far from their familiar neighborhood. But as it turned out, there was no reason to fret. Their reputation and fan base spanned the entire city.
Having enticed Houston with his brand of creative indigenous cuisine at Hugo’s for a dozen years, Ortega, age fifty, here applies the same philosophy to dishes like fat wood-roasted Gulf oysters, which emerge briny-fresh under a mantle of bread crumbs and chipotle butter. He knows how to craft the tart red sauce of a well-chilled campechana so that it will appeal to Houstonians but retain its Mexican bona fides. In Caracol’s busy kitchen, he gets his ducks in a row and onto a plate in the form of duck breast in red pipián, a rich chile-and-pumpkin-seed sauce. He once even modernized Mexico’s legendary monster tamal, the zacahuil; the result was a bowl of tidy banana leaf packets of rustic masa and seafood in a robust red mole. And, wisely, he has given his pastry chef, brother Ruben Ortega, free rein to construct sweets like the exotic chocolate coconut and the flan de olla, cinnamon-coffee custard under a jaunty cap of candied kumquats. Hugo, Tracy, and Ruben long ago won the hearts, minds, and stomachs of Houston diners with Hugo’s. They have done it again, with passion and panache, at Caracol, my choice for restaurant of the year.
Opened December 14, 2013. BBVA Compass Plaza, 2200 Post Oak Blvd, Houston (713-622-9996). L & D 7 days. B Sun. Reservations recommended.
No. 2 Olamaie
By any logic, Olamaie belongs in the South, with places like Husk and Catbird Seat, which are revolutionizing that region’s delicious if sometimes hidebound cooking. But Olamaie’s chefs, Michael Fojtasek, 35, and Grae Nonas, 28, didn’t want to live in the South. They wanted to live in Austin, and that is how Olamaie came to occupy a near-downtown cottage transformed inside to resemble a sleek, contemporary country club. Sometimes the chefs hew to tradition, as with the purloo, a time-honored rice stew featuring lightly browned slices of tender, pink squab breast perched atop exceptionally flavorful Carolina gold rice (they add a little sass with fresh okra and fermented cayenne peppers). But more often they kick tradition to the side of the road and go on a creative binge, as with the smoked wahoo, which they turn into a dynamite dip with the aid of Alabama’s luscious mayo-based white barbecue sauce; it comes gilded with an elegant smoky eggplant puree, further jazzed with a crazy watermelon-radish-and-celery-leaf chowchow. At Olamaie what’s old is new, and how.
Opened August 26, 2014. 1610 San Antonio, Austin (512-474-2796). D Tue–Sat. Reservations recommended.
No. 3 Gemma
Some chefs yearn to reinvent the wheel. Stephen Rogers, 44, wants to give you the smoothest ride possible. In his hands Gemma has evolved from a halting start into one of Dallas’s most sought-after dining destinations. His New American and Mediterranean menu takes established traditions, applies a bit of a spin, and burnishes them until they shine. Savory pappardelle with braised rabbit, pancetta, and Swiss chard celebrates winter and the glory of long, slow cooking. Nutty barley “fried rice” embraces a duo of duck featuring perfect pink slices of breast drizzled with a green peppercorn sauce and a fantastic confit of leg showcasing skin as crackly as chicharrones. As designed by pastry chef Stephanie Childress, a white chocolate and espresso semifreddo is a study in tones of pale cream and toasty brown, sitting astride a lusty sabayon spiked with stout and bits of fried coconut macaroon. The only problem here is turning the tables. The room is so welcoming, with its tall brick walls and oversized mirrors, that no one wants to leave.
Opened December 26, 2013. 2323 N. Henderson Ave, Dallas (214-370-9426). D Wed–Sun. Reservations recommended.
No. 4 Pax Americana
You will eat your vegetables at Pax Americana, where mounds of dewy lettuces, crunchy young sprouts, and teeny microgreens are scattered with abandon on almost everything but the desserts. Thirty-one-year-old chef Adam Dorris has turned a garnish into a delectable signature at a New American venue that already stands out from the crowd. And speaking of crowds, you can definitely find them here, squeezed into every square inch of the surprisingly formal space—think pristine white woodwork, tufted brown leather banquettes, and tall vases of fresh flowers. The menu of small plates is divided into five categories: Bread, Vegetable, Sea, Land, and Sugar. If you’re merely peckish, try the skillet of soft-cooked eggs tarted up with sesame vinaigrette and kimchi aioli (mopping-up operations are deliciously handled with purple-barley bread from Common Bond bakery). If you’re ravenous, head for the stupendous chunks of Asian-spiced fatty brisket. You won’t be hungry again for at least two days.
Opened August 2, 2014. 4319 Montrose Blvd, Houston (713-239-0228). D Tue–Sun. Reservations recommended.
No. 5 Odd Duck
Fine dining wears a comfort-food guise at Odd Duck. The restaurant seems conflicted, as if it’s trying to hide its complex flavors and artful plating behind quaint mismatched china, chipped paint, and burlap lamp shades. In charge of the kitchen are chefs Sam Hellman-Mass, age 29, and Mark Buley, age 30 (overseen, of course, by jefe Bryce Gilmore, who also cooks at his other restaurant, much-honored Barley Swine, down the street). At first glance, “Roasted Beets” sounds easy-peasy, but the chefs take cubes of the sweet, colorful root vegetable and snuggle them into a lovely fuchsia-hued borscht, adding snowy dabs of crème fraîche and a couple of rakish house-made beet chips. Here “Ceviche” is not the usual Mexican specialty but rather pieces of lightly marinated red snapper decorated with swaths of cumin-scented harissa sauce. It’s tempting to make a meal of small plates at the Duck, but for a full-table treat, order the massive grilled “Porkerhouse Chop.” Tender as a Sunday ham in its savory puddle of mustard-seed sauce, the monster will be delivered to your party standing regally on edge. Expect heads to turn, including yours.
Opened December 9, 2013. 1201 S. Lamar Blvd, Austin (512-433-6521). L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. B Sun. Reservations taken.
No. 6 San Salvaje
The name means “Wild Saint,” with the emphasis on “wild.” This riotously decorated venture from 62-year-old Dallas chef Stephan Pyles takes you on a border-hopping culinary tour of Mexico, South America, Cuba, and beyond. Yet despite the unfamiliar words on the menu, many of the dishes are surprisingly comforting. A case in point? The causa. One of Peru’s best-loved dishes, the causa has a lot in common with potato salad, a fact you realize once you take a bite of the silky whipped spuds with their topping of rocoto chile mayo. Likewise, Brazil’s famous feijoada has meaty similarities to chili, even though it is made with pork cheeks, chicharrones, and cranberry beans cooked with red wine and ham hock broth. Yes, there’s carne asada and enchilada pie for those who are having a bit of culture shock. But when you’re sitting at a table surrounded by tribal masks and Day of the Dead figurines, why would you order anything ordinary?
Opened May 12, 2014. 2100 Ross Ave, Dallas (214-922-9922). L Mon–Fri. D Mon–Sat. Reservations recommended.
No. 7 Knife
Of course you want the 240. It’s the most famous steak in Texas. Meticulously dry-aged in-house for 240 days until it attains an almost truffle-like intensity of flavor, this USDA Prime tomahawk ribeye has few peers. After an initial shortage, plenty are stacking up in Knife’s special meat locker (one 30- to 36-ounce bone-in 240 costs $125 but easily feeds two to four). If you just want a conventional steak, though, no problem. Numerous choices, including Akaushi, abound at 57-year-old chef John Tesar’s modern palace of protein. Non–beef eaters are well taken care of with pig, lamb, foie, and assorted denizens of the deep. Indeed, one of the most amazing pairings you’ll ever have is uni with Knife’s house-made blood sausage, an umami-rich duo that sounds bizarre but is fabulous. The charcuterie board is a tour de force. The ham tasting is revelatory. But the best bargain on the menu may be the whole pig’s head, served deboned and sided by tortillas, ready to be made up into terrific tacos. Among Texas steakhouses, Knife stands alone.
Opened May 15, 2014. Highland Dallas Hotel, 5300 E. Mockingbird Ln, Dallas (214-443-9339). B, L & D 7 days. Reservations recommended.
No. 8 Coltivare
This rustic Italian restaurant opened to such anticipation that you would have thought the people in line were waiting to get into a Beyoncé concert. A year later, customers know the drill: get on the list, order a drink from friendly bartender and co-owner Morgan Weber, and wander around the garden inspecting the baby lettuces and herbs. The chef here is 42-year-old Ryan Pera, and besides his stupendous black-pepper-and-pecorino spaghetti, you must try his startlingly orange ’nduja. Spunky with Harlingen chiles, the soft sausage is lush with fat from heritage pigs raised on Weber’s family farm. Pizza is always good to share; try the house-made pepperoni with local greens. And should you make it as far as an entrée, a great choice is the fragrant roasted whole fish. After that you may be stuffed to the gills, so come back another time. You know the drill.
Opened January 16, 2014. 3320 White Oak Dr, Houston (713-637-4095). D Mon & Wed–Sun. Reservations not taken.
No. 9 Starfish
Just walking into the dining room at Starfish is fun. Clear acrylic jellyfish lights dangle from the ceiling; piscine portraits adorn century-old brick walls. The star here is indeed fish, a category that includes critters with fins, shells, and tangly legs. An excellent appetizer is the octopus, an edible still life of tender tentacles, bold turnips, and shy slices of sweet pear, all bumped up with dabs of dusky smoked cream and a sultry tonkatsu sauce. Continue to go with the flow and order the grouper with wild mushrooms and cured parsnips, the fish moist under its own crisped skin and a sage pan jus. Landlubbers needn’t worry; they’re well served by a gravy-rich duck pot pie with bits of confited fowl, carrots, and potatoes. It comes in a small iron skillet that has been cleverly shingled with pâte brisée. The chef here is 28-year-old Diego Fernandez, whose dad, Rene, is the chef and owner of Azuca, next door. Like father, indeed.
Opened June 29, 2014. 709 S. Alamo, San Antonio (210-375-4423). L & D Mon–Sat. Reservations recommended.
No. 10 Le Cep
Let’s play a guessing game. I’ll say the words “small, new, refined French restaurant,” and you tell me where it is. If you answered Fort Worth, congratulations. You’ve obviously been following the fortunes of Le Cep. Located in Cowtown’s burgeoning cultural district, the unlikely dining venue is the brainchild of Sandra and David Avila, a couple who had dreamed of starting a European-style restaurant long before David’s job brought him to Texas, in 2013. Now, thanks to the Avilas’ passion, Fort Worthians are settling into Le Cep’s gracious, contemporary dining room to feast on dishes like a perfect poached egg sitting atop port-infused chopped porcini sprinkled with bacon crumbles, a rosy breast of duck in a heavenly thyme-spiked jus, and the magnifique Louis XV, a regal chocolate and hazelnut dessert that 46-year-old Sandra—who is the chef—learned to make when she was studying at a school founded by rock star chef Alain Ducasse. But perhaps the greatest novelty of dining here is that the chef is actually in the kitchen, as opposed to on TV or off at some posh gala. At Le Cep, everything is personally prepared by Sandra and her tight-knit crew. Revolutionary!
Opened October 30, 2014. 3324 W. 7th, Fort Worth (817-900-2468). D Tue–Sat. Reservations required.
La V: This beautifully appointed venue is where you take the boss for dinner. The menu is French but approachable, and the 1,200-plus-label wine cellar has few peers.
Blind Butcher: A rusticated early-twentieth-century space, dark as midnight, draws the young of heart and artery. Who else could eat poutine, charcuterie boards, and bacon caramel popcorn?
Oso: Denizens of oh-so-far-north Dallas are slurping up surprisingly fancy fare, like pappardelle and oxtails with charred beet salsa, at this unpretentious neighborhood restaurant.
Clay Pigeon: Gilt-framed mirrors lend class to a brick-walled former gas station where the kitchen sends forth the likes of grilled duck breast on potato-kale hash topped with a teeny fresh salad of flat-leaf parsley.
Righteous Foods: Fine dining has married healthy eating! Sit at a bare pine table amid colorful spice jars and feast on farro topped by a lean, perfectly cooked flank steak and baby shiitakes.
BCN Taste & Tradition: The lovely cream-hued cottage sports a few original Mirós, but customers go for new takes on Spanish classics, like Iberian ham with foie gras and a fried egg and branzino with almonds and pistachios.
Cured: Take a tip from the well-stocked meat locker up front and try the sausage, ham, and charcuterie in this great 110-year-old building. The kitchen also does a mean gumbo with okra and smoked andouille.