Sometimes I feel like a priest hearing confession. People seem compelled to share with me their sins of gluttony in stunning detail: They ate thirty pounds of crawfish all by themselves. They fell off the wagon for a double-chocolate-caramel-sea-salt-pistachio crème brûlée. This past year I heard more confessions than ever. Why? Because the temptations were greater than ever. Since I began compiling our annual roundup, in 2002, I’ve never seen as many exceptional new restaurants. Austin in particular was on fire.
As for trends, small plates stole the spotlight, but family-style platters are coming on strong. Radishes and turnips are the new brussels sprouts and beets. Chefs are seeking out heritage grains and legumes (Charleston Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas) and championing North African spices like harissa and chermoula. Pickling, fermenting, and canning (or “putting up,” as my grandmother would have said) are bigger than ever. And, finally, let me indulge myself by calling out the most exasperating trend in decades: menu listings that a cryptologist couldn’t decipher. I’ll buy dinner for anyone who can figure this out: “Sunchoke: blue crab, Meyer lemon, arugula.” The dish is offered at a place on this list—and no fair if you’ve eaten it!
To make our roster of the ten best, a restaurant must have opened between November 1, 2014, and November 30, 2015, and it must be a first location. But enough already. A smorgasbord awaits, ranging from Mediterranean snacks to English pub grub to old-time Texas cooking. It’s dinnertime! Eat now, confess later.
The Greek tourism bureau needs to hire Evan Turner. On any given night the restaurateur-sommelier can be found at his new restaurant, Helen, with a wine bottle in one hand and a corkscrew in the other, enthralling guests with his paeans to all things Greek. Seven childhood years in Thessaloniki ultimately led him to open this modern taverna, in a long space with soaring brick walls and splashy turquoise accents. In the kitchen, chef William Wright, 27, both honors and tweaks tradition. That is why you’ll find dolmas wrapped in emerald-hued collard greens instead of grape leaves, and blistered banana peppers oozing Hellenic cheeses bolstered with crumbled cornbread. Mainly you’ll notice that dishes like the smoky eggplant dip melitzanosalata are lighter and brighter than usual. And if you take Turner’s advice on a libation—from the second-largest Greek wine list in the nation—you may be checking the airfare to Athens the next day. Opened July 22, 2015. 2429 Rice Blvd (832-831-7133). L & D Tue–Sun. B Sun.
At five o’clock sharp, the doors of all the cars in Launderette’s parking lot swing open and the occupants sprint for the host stand. By five-thirty there is hardly an empty seat left in the former washateria’s casual, glass-walled dining room. Laughter bounces off said walls and the aqua-blue floor, which calls to mind a mid-century Hollywood swimming pool. “Modern Mediterranean” is a good label for 41-year-old chef-owner Rene Ortiz’s menu, with over-the-top flavors mellowed by creamy cheeses and yogurts. His toasts are a legend in their own time: think crusty bread slathered with French feta, capers, and golden raisins. His cassoulet aces every ingredient: plump cannellini beans, coarse pork sausage redolent of garlic, and duck confit with dewy pink meat. Sharing is encouraged, but it’s hard to give up even a bite of charred octopus on beluga lentils. And once you taste pastry wizard Laura Sawicki’s sticky toffee pudding with candied-ginger ice cream and vanilla-scented cauliflower puree, you won’t be sharing with anyone. Opened February 18, 2015. 2115 Holly (512-382-1599). L & D 7 days. B Sat & Sun.
SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, Houston
The very gainfully employed have made SaltAir’s lively bar a favorite après-work hangout. But once the day’s rumors have been mongered and the gossip parsed (and those crafty cocktails have settled in), chef Brandi Key’s accomplished kitchen is what persuades the well-heeled crowd to stay for dinner. Seafood is, of course, the main attraction, proved by the likes of terrific octopus confit, grilled and finished with a darkly herbal chimichurri. Redfish on the half shell, which is surely the National Dish of Houston, is cooked to flaky tenderness and livened up with aromatic Moroccan spices and a drizzle of lemony, cumin-laden chermoula. Meat is handled as adroitly as fish. A rousing variation on that old warhorse steak tartare comes dusted with porcini powder and paired with pickled mushrooms and a sunchoke puree (whoever thought up that combo deserves a MacArthur genius grant). Charles Clark and Grant Cooper (who own Ibiza, Brasserie 19, Coppa, and more) may just have created their best place yet. Opened July 11, 2015. 3029 Kirby Dr (713-521-3333). D 7 days.
Food porn doesn’t get any better than the picture-perfect stylings at Juniper. What look like the petals of a mysterious night-blooming flower turn out to be slices of turnip; peek under them to find cured San Daniele ham, for a flavor combination both earthy and ethereal. “Northern Italian” is the rubric for Juniper’s menu, and some dishes hew to tradition, one of the most rewarding being the pappardelle in an oxtail ragù. More often, though, chef-partner Nicholas Yanes and chef Kyle Barker take classic Italian notions and run with them. They turn ricotta into a kind of smoked-cheese porridge and pair it with bacon-y lamb and roasted heirloom carrots. For dessert, they make cannoli out of fragile tubes of crushed pistachios. Located on Austin’s East Side, Juniper avoids most decorative clichés (no canning jars, thank God). The ones they couldn’t resist, like weathered-looking wood, are updated with periwinkle-blue velvet banquettes and lamp shades that are as big and round as hoopskirts. Opened October 10, 2015. 2400 E. Cesar Chavez (512-220-9421). D Tue–Sat. B Sat & Sun.
Cureight, The Woodlands
“There’s something about executing a tasting menu that makes me happier than anything I’ve ever done,” says executive chef Austin Simmons. That’s why the talented 29-year-old is in his element at Cureight, an intimate white-tablecloth dining room that he mans inside Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, in The Woodlands. But though Simmons may adore luxury ingredients—such as the Pacific white sturgeon caviar crowning a heavenly thickened dashi with a pristine Beausoleil oyster in the middle—he still likes to have fun. A now-retired dish called Bread & Butter encouraged guests to make little sandwiches of toasted brioche, smoked duck breast, foie, and cherry jam. Desserts continue the passion for precision, like an elegant icy basil sorbet with fizzy pineapple compote. While it’s true that the location is 45 minutes outside Houston and the rather staid space could use some pizzazz, its bravura $135 eight-course tasting menu makes Cureight decidedly worth the drive. Opened June 18, 2015. 24 Waterway Ave (281-203-5641). D Thur–Sat.
Vox Table, Austin
Chef Joe Anguiano loves to play with his food. To prepare Vox’s astonishing squid-ink cracklings, he makes delicate sheets of said ink and green bean flour, dries and fries them, and voilà: you’ll think you’re eating pork rinds, except that they’re light as a cloud and midnight-black. Kitchen chemistry is just part of the allure at this restaurant in the sprawling Lamar Union complex. Usually the forty-year-old Anguiano’s Spanish- and French-influenced dishes are complex, such as his splendid smoked trout, a still life of thin-sliced chilled fish tarted up with white citrus crème fraîche and green apple matchsticks. Occasionally they’re simple: hanger steak in a winey reduction. But they’re always imaginative, like mashed potatoes made into savory “churros.” The smart gray-and-white dining room is a great place to observe Alamo Drafthouse moviegoers milling around outside. Or reserve a seat at the counter and watch the cooks moving at warp speed inside. Opened April 29, 2015. 1100 S. Lamar Blvd (512-375-4869). D 7 days. B Sat & Sun.
Rapscallion is indeed a melting pot, just as its “American bistro” label suggests. But its true love affair is with the Deep South. That region’s much-ballyhooed culinary scene takes a bow in the Down South Mezze, a meat-and-cheese board with terrific boiled-peanut hummus, a mild three-cheese pimento dip, and benne wafers (soft-crisp sesame-seed crackers that are ideal for transporting assorted charcuterie from the plate to your mouth). Some of 35-year-old chef Nathan Tate’s dishes are a party in a bowl, like the cornmeal-fried catfish filet with littleneck clams, field peas, fermented collards, and smoked-ham-hock dashi. Other offerings stick to the basics, like a superb market steak, which is peppered to a fare-thee-well and comes with a side of roasted bone marrow (slather it on top, if you dare). The enthusiasm that three years ago greeted Oak Cliff restaurant Boulevardier (also owned by brothers Brooks and Bradley Anderson) has expanded to encompass Rapscallion, making the clamorous room—with its white-painted brick walls and whimsical artwork—an instant hit on the crazy lower Greenville strip. Opened July 7, 2015. 2023 Greenville Ave (469-291-5660). D Tue–Sun. B Sat & Sun.
Emmer & Rye, Austin
There’s local and then there’s local. At Emmer & Rye, starry-eyed food fanatics grow exotic mushrooms in raised beds beside the restaurant, grind non-GMO heirloom grains for breads and pastries, and butcher pigs and lambs in the kitchen instead of buying them ready-cut into chops and roasts. They even buy corn from a Oaxacan source to make masa for tamales and tortillas. That’s what comes from being young and utterly convinced that you can do things right. It all sounds very neo-hippie and homey, but rustic touches like shelves of vintage glassware, cookbooks, and sheaves of wheat are counterbalanced by the contemporary glass-walled space. The heart and mind behind the operation belong to 31-year-old Kevin Fink, who spent time at the French Laundry, in California, and Noma, in Denmark. The menu spans the globe, so one time your eye might fall on shakshuka, a Tunisian-inspired stew with leeks, Sea Island Red Peas, and a shimmering poached egg on top; another time you might zero in on pozole with cabbage, cauliflower, and house-made hominy in a fragrant porky broth. Just in case you’re not sated, carts circle the room bearing non-Asian “dim-sum.” If the fluffy almond peach cake is offered, do not decline. Opened November 7, 2015. 51 Rainey (512-366-5530). D Tue–Sun. B Sun.
At tiny Ten, high tech (iPads for ordering) meets low tech (handcrafted soup bowls that look a thousand years old). Ten means “heaven” in Japanese, which is what you’ll think when you slurp your first mouthful of toothsome curly ramen noodles and long-simmered pork-and-chicken broth. You can keep it simple with the standard add-ins (including the lightly grilled pork-belly cutlet known as chashu, plus bamboo slices, mustard greens, scallions, and pickled ginger). But at the very least you should also swirl in a soft-cooked onsen egg. Fifty-year-old chef-owner Teiichi Sakurai, whom everyone calls Teiich (“Teach”), wanted to show Americans what ramen shops are like in Tokyo: basically utilitarian stands to efficiently feed the blue- and white-collar alike. That’s why he has severely limited the space and the choices (three, along with a daily special). Ten has no seats, just a counter that accommodates about a dozen diners, although you’re welcome to carry your bowl outside to eat. This is fast food on a celestial level. Opened March 31, 2015. 1818 Sylvan Ave (972-803-4400). L & D 7 days.
Horseshoe Hill Cafe, Fort Worth
This is the kind of food that Big Tex—the 55-foot-tall cowboy who looms benevolently over the State Fair of Texas—would eat if he were a real person. Classic Texas dishes are done right here, from golden, extravagantly battered chicken-fried steaks to sizzling, scandalously fat-ribboned aged ribeyes. Beef dominates the menu, of course (there are even light, fluffy calf fries, for those who have never had the pleasure). But roasted chicken also has a featured role, ably supported by terrific green-chile grits. Mustard-spiked deviled eggs come dolled up with crumbles of bacon and sriracha salsa. The man in charge is the affable Grady Spears, 47, and if he’s not busy, he will greet you and deliver your food. He has been bouncing around West Texas and Fort Worth for more than twenty years, but with this modest little spot in the Stockyards Historic District, he’s found his niche. Opened July 23, 2015. 204 W. Exchange Ave (817-882-6405). L & D Wed–Sat.
Affordable Spanish dishes—seafood paella, bold jamón croquettes, a ham-and-manchego sandwich—are adapted for an eager Austin audience, which is happily filling Bullfight’s streamlined quarters every night.
It’s fun to have a hipster izakaya (Japanese sake-drinking and nibbling establishment) in central Austin. The able kitchen of Fukumoto also dispenses yakitori and tempura and makes its own tofu.
Italic has brought Italian dining options both formal (scallops with saffron-butter risotto) and casual (prosciutto pizza with salsa verde) to a big, slick mid-century office building downtown.
As easy-breezy as the Texas Gulf Coast, Mongers Market + Kitchen is peddling fresh seafood like a leggy fried soft-shell crab on a salad of sliced apples and red onions.
The residents of tony Highland Park have taken a shine to Madrina’s cross-cultural French and Mexican menu, fastidiously chowing down on fried wild mushrooms in poblano cream sided by wonderful house-made tortillas.
Who knew that batter-fried chicken feet could be so delish? If you’re not keen on eating avian ankles, order the terrific charcuterie board and have a cocktail or a house-brewed beer at Small Brewpub’s open warehouse space.
At the remodeled thirties-era house occupied by Cannon Chinese Kitchen, the flamboyant flower-and-dragon wallpaper gets as many compliments as the Cantonese steamed halibut punched up with ginger and scallions.
Amid comfy blue-plaid chairs, Hunky Dory serves English pub fare, as well as steaks, chops, and fish (try the commendable cured meats and cheeses).
The back room at modern Japanese restaurant Izakaya Midtown wins “best mural” for its wild wall of cartoons featuring crashing waves and octopus tentacles; actually, you can find that last item, grilled, with yuzu kosho vinaigrette, on the menu.
At Oporto Fooding House & Wine, pretty decorative tiles and cushioned settees lend a Mediterranean mood, the better to enjoy spunky pão com tomate (Portuguese tomato bread).
Despite Rebelle’s glitzy Las Vegas look, the food at this upscale dining room in the St. Anthony Hotel exceeds expectations with char-grilled octopus brightened by basil pistou and veal carpaccio with salmon roe sided by hot-pink pickled quail eggs.
Apis’s earnest owners have a hive mentality, in the best way; at their pleasant, decidedly unrustic country quarters, just a half hour’s drive from Austin, they’re raising bees and offering cocktails like the Apiary, with honeycomb-infused Texas bourbon, and dishes like root-crusted sea bass in a warm, sweet-salty carrot nage with “popcorn foam.”