The holiday season has drawn to a close, and, with it, the temporary end of family gatherings built around home cooked meals. In other words, it's time to get back out there and try some new restaurants. Don't worry too much about those New Year's resolutions to save some money and eat healthier. You probably weren't going to stick to them anyway.
On tap this month are places that promise new signs of life on Washington Avenue, a Chicago import that has the city buzzing, a new steakhouse with a twist and the return to action of Houston's most talented sushi chef.
The first of two Houston-area locations for the famous Chicago pizza opened in December, and crowds have been flocking to get their fill of signature pies like the Chicago Fire and Brisket Za. In addition to both thin crust and deep dish pizzas, the restaurant serves a full array of appetizers, salads and sandwiches. Plan to order at least an appetizer or a salad as the pizzas take up to an hour to bake. A solid mix of craft beers also helps to smooth the wait.
Roegels Barbecue Company
Formerly the location of Houston's only outpost of the Dallas-based Baker's Ribs chain, pitmaster Russell Roegels has broken away to serve higher quality barbecue. Inspired by central Texas stallwart Louie Mueller's Barbecue, Roegels serves slow smoked brisket seasoned with a heavy black pepper crust that fairly jiggles with glistening fat. Jalapeno sausage that's made for Roegels and slightly sweet ribs are solid, too. As with nearby restaurant The Brisket House, Roegels offers a high quality experience without a line.
Genesis Steakhouse & Wine Bar
In a city full of places serving prime beef, this newly opened restaurant in Bellaire comes with a twist; it's 100-percent kosher. For Gentiles unfamiliar with the term, it means that everything Genesis serves conforms to Jewish dietary laws: no pork, no shellfish, no mixing milk and meat. The ramifications of this policy, which means Genesis doesn't serve butter for bread, cream for coffee or creamed spinach, might make it less appealing for non-believers, but Houston's Jewish community, particularly its growing Orthodox community, is flocking to check out the newcomer.
As for the experience, both steak and lamb arrived properly medium rare, and the tempura-style onion rings are an excellent side. Service was polite. Those expecting an atmosphere that matches the prices, which are in the Vic & Anthony's/Pappas range of steaks in the $40 to 50 range, will be disappointed by Genesis's austere decor, but that's unlikely to deter the intended clientele, who finally have an upscale restaurant they can eat in while following their religious beliefs.
Big Eyed Fish
After a year-plus build out, this Southern restaurant opened at the end of December serving breakfast (Monday through Friday), brunch (weekends), lunch and dinner. The former Alice's Cafe has been transformed into a comfortable, rustic neighborhood restaurant with wooden floors and funky interior accents. Chef Xavier Martinez serves a menu built around Southern classics like shrimp and grits, turtle soup and chicken pot pie. A half-full dining room on a sleepy Monday night shows the neighborhood is already discovering the space.
The highlight of our dinner was a starter of crab beignets that had a crispy exterior and were full of sweet crab meat. Steak arrived properly medium rare with enough salt to bring out the beefy flavor. Unfortunately, a too bland chicken fried chicken shows that Big Eyed Fish is still working out the kinks, but owner Megan Adams's enthusiasm for her concept suggests the restaurant will be running at full speed quickly.
The El Cantina Superior
Ken Bridge has turned over control of his struggling Tex-Mex restaurant to F.E.E.D. TX (BRC, Liberty Kitchen), and the initial results are promising. Bridge's decor remains, at least until Lee Ellis can get his hands on it, but the menu by Lance Fegen is all-new. The nightly specials won't be ready for another few weeks, but new tacos, enchiladas and combo plates are already available. The cowboy combination plate features a massive "half-size" chicken fried steak topped with chile gravy, cheese and onions and a salsa-verde topped enchilada filled with a spicy, smoked, jalapeno sausage. Gluten-free and vegan options are available, too, which should play well in the Heights. The only downsides consisted of bland fried oysters and a Bloody Maria that should have been spicier.
Like Big Eyed Fish, this month's other new Washington Avenue opening feels like a work in progress. A downstairs market offers a mix of carefully sourced local goods from purveyors like Houston Dairy Maids and Kraftsmen Baking and to-go items like sandwiches. Upstairs, diners will find a full-service bar and restaurant that serves shareable appetizers, salads, French fries with various toppings and sliders. While I didn't encounter any of the problems with dishes being unavailable that restaurateur Shepard Ross noted on Facebook, my friend and I found limited appeal in paying $13 for two small sandwiches or almost $10 for brisket-topped fries.
On the plus side, everything was cooked properly, including juicy roast pork and a pink in the middle beef patty on the Cowboy slider. Also, the space was full on a Tuesday night. With some slight tweaks, it could be a compelling restaurant.
Montrose restaurant Canopy has jumped on the recent trend of giving its bar a separate name and identity that it's calling Woodbar. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Woodbar, located just next door to Canopy, allows the restaurant to expand on its morning coffee and pastry options, adds seating in the Canopy dining room where the bar used to be and provides a forum for talented bartender Deidre Goodhue, formerly of The Pass & Provisions and Valentino, to showcase her talents. From 11 a.m. on, Woodbar serves a variety of small plates, including deviled eggs and mini lobster rolls, that make for either a light meal or a pre-dinner snack. Taken together, the changes bring some new energy to the venerable Montrose restaurant.
The Fish Midtown
After 12 years, the popular Midtown sushi restaurant has a new look and a new menu. Chef Harold Wong, whose resume includes stints at Azuma downtown and Uchi, has remade the menu around shareable plates. While some old favorites like the Millenium roll remain, even favorite starters like gyoza have been tweaked (in this case, with a little heat from kimchi). Can't miss new dishes include yellowtail crudo with tomato and cilantro and the candy crush bacon of pork belly with a whimsical Pop Rocks gelee. The redesign is more of a mixed bag; I heard one nearby diner compare it to an airport lounge, but that sort of quibbling matters less when the food is this creative.
Tea Bar Organics Fusion
As a fan of restaurants with a little swagger, Facebook posts about serving ramen that's better than Tiger Den or Soma will get my attention. If the bowl of noodles at this new restaurant west of the Galleria doesn't quite live up to that standard, it was a satisfying lunch option on a cold day. A Half and Half roll of fried shrimp and soft shell crab was a little strange with a cooked salmon topping (I was expecting raw), but the mishmash flavors and spicy, Thai-style sauce came together. I passed on some of the wilder nigiri options and the Kata-style uni carbonara for another visit, but, with late night hours (12 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends), I have lots of time for another visit.
Admittedly, this 20-year-old, west side staple isn't new, but January does bring a new offering that's appropriately must-try. Uber-talented sushi chef Chris Kinjo, formerly of MF Sushi, will be serving his signature omakase tasting menu Tuesday through Saturday beginning Jan. 13. The move gives Kinjo's fans an opportunity to enjoy his cuisine while he makes progress on opening a new restaurant in the Museum District. At $100, the meal isn't for everyone, but sitting at a sushi counter while Kinjo prepares a meal has to count as one of the very best dining experiences in Houston. Go splurge.