December and January are typically a slow time for restaurant openings, but, the imminent arrival of Super Bowl LI means the white hot fall opening season has extended into the beginning of winter. While a number of eagerly anticipated restaurants like Chris Shepherd’s One Fifth and Hugo Ortega’s Xochi have yet to make their debuts, a number of intriguing new restaurants have appeared on the scene.
From a rising star chef getting his first chance to shine to the latest concept from a veteran Chinatown operator and the city’s first dedicated poke restaurant, this month’s newcomers don’t need celebrity status to bolster their claims for attention. As always, these are roughly arranged in the order in which I suggest trying them, but that doesn't mean the restaurants at the bottom aren't worth checking out. Midtown residents in search of a high-quality, inexpensive meal may be way more excited about Maba than they will be about Pinkerton's, and that's okay.
After months of anticipation, Ryan Lachaine has opened his new restaurant in Montrose. The veteran chef, whose work history includes time as a sous chef at both Underbelly and Reef, blends elements of his Canadian upbringing, Ukranian heritage and Houston’s Southern and Asian influences into Riel’s tidy, 15-item menu. While it’s an unlikely sounding mix, Lachaine and his team have crammed a lot of interesting ideas into the food being served at this stylish, 65-seat restaurant.
Diners can cross continents by starting with grouper crudo with Texas citrus then hoping to Eastern Europe for dishes like borscht (an almost-creamy tasting, bisque-style broth) and hangar steak with pierogi. Red snapper with ham brodo and lady creamer peas showed that Lachaine and sous chef E.J. Miller (formerly of Down House and SaltAir Seafood Kitchen) know how to cook fish, even if the brodo turned out a little salty for our taste.
Those looking to splurge can indulge in an intricately plated caviar service ($125) that featured three varieties, all of the traditional accompaniments, and a house-cultured butter that had us licking our fingers. Properly medium rare hanger steak comes with cheese-filled pierogis.
A well-priced wine list, an intriguing mix of cocktails that play off Lachaine’s heritage, and smooth service all mark Riel as a restaurant to watch. As long as Lachaine and his team continue to tweak their execution, Riel will earn the regional and national acclaim that someone with his pedigree deserves.
Riel, 1927 Fairview, 832-831-9109
Pinkerton’s Texas Pit Barbecue
The Heights area can finally claim a piece of Houston’s ongoing barbecue boom thanks to this new arrival from pitmaster Grant Pinkerton. The passionate, now 28-year old made a splash at 2016’s Houston Barbecue Festival with a whole smoked alligator, but his restaurant’s menu is considerably more traditional.
Over two visits, Pinkerton’s brisket had well-rendered fat and a pleasantly smoky flavor, along with a Central Texas-style pepper-heavy rub. Pork ribs are available plain or with a sweet and spicy glaze for an extra $1 per pound. While I would have liked more jalapeno in the cheese rice, brisket-heavy beans and duck jambalaya show that Pinkerton has spent as much time developing his sides as his meat.
Unlike most barbecue joints, Pinkerton’s sports a full liquor license, which means that it’s possible to order a shot of bourbon or wine by the glass (or bottle) in addition to the usual beer choices.
Pinkerton's Texas Pit Barbecue, 1504 Airline Drive, 713-802-2000
Night Market Curry & Grill
After making a brief splash at Ambrosia and then falling over the foodie radar, chef Rikesh Patel has united with Mike Tran (Tiger Den, Mein) for this new curry house. Anyone who’s been to either of Tran’s restaurants will recognize Night Market’s look, which includes a graphic on one wall and simple wooden booths.
Dishes like pork belly curry with plantains and green curry with butter prawns demonstrate both the depth of flavor that comes from cooking dishes “low and slow” as well as a spice level that will have diners reaching for relief from one of the available draft beers.
The grill side of the menu includes dishes like chicken boti, which is marinated in yogurt and spices. Don’t skip the housemade naan, which is perfect for sopping up every last drop of sauce.
Night Market Curry & Grill, 9630 Clarewood Drive Suite A12, 713-492-2835
After earning wide acclaim at its original location in the Second Ward, Kitchen 713 has relocated to a much larger space on Washington Avenue. In addition to being more stylish, the new location brings a switch to table service, an expanded menu, and, most importantly, the opportunity to serve alcohol (as soon as it receives final approval from the TABC).
Chefs James Haywood and Ross Coleman have branched out from the original location’s Southern style to embrace what they’re calling “global soul food” that takes influences from five countries: China, Ethiopia, Italy, Mexico, and Thailand. That means dishes range from grilled wagyu strip steak with XO Bordelaise sauce to Thai ceviche with fish skin chicharron and even spaghetti with meat sauce and Italian sausage.
Regardless of the dish, the chef’s deliver bold flavors and elegant presentations. Being open every day for lunch or brunch and dinner will make it highly useful to its neighborhood.
Kitchen 713, 4601 Washington Ave, Suite 130, 713-842-7114
Beaver’s newly opened second location builds on much of what’s made the Texas comfort food restaurant successful while expanding its offerings in important ways. That starts with the space itself, which includes a main dining room, an adults-only bar called the Beaver Den, and a Cottonwood-style outdoor space that includes a fire pit, games, and a covered patio with TVs — all done in a fun, kitschy, Texas ranch house style.
Turning to the food, favorite dishes like smoky queso, the bad-ass po’boy, and Beaver balls (fried brownie bites) are all present at the new restaurant, but executive chef Arash Kharat has lots of new dishes on the menu. A friend and I fought over the last bites of fried cauliflower in a housemade buffalo sauce that nails the necessary buttery, spicy flavor. That same sauce brings the right level of heat to a whole fried Cornish game hen.
Kharat’s presence also means that Beaver’s now serves respectable, Central Texas-style barbecue in the form of brisket, ribs, sausage, and pulled pork, along with well-executed sides like Mexican street corn and dirty rice laced with brisket and sausage.
Beaver's Westheimer, 6025 Westheimer, 713-714-4111
Maba Pan-Asian Diner
Don’t let the words “pan-Asian diner” conjure images of a hybrid, soulless fusion menu; Maba is a winner. Chef-owner Wayne Nguyen has been working in the restaurant industry with his wife Tammy’s family (she asked me not to tell you they own Chinatown’s legendary Sinh Sinh, so don’t tell her I said anything), but he steps out on his own at this new arrival in Midtown. No traces of former occupants like Anju and The Good Life exist in the space, which has been given a clean, bright makeover.
Nguyen offers a lighter, fresher take on familiar Asian flavors at Maba. For example, a familiar dish like General Tso’s chicken gets reconfigured as a grilled item with crispy skin instead of being fried; it works out pretty well, although I would have liked a little more spicy heat in the sauce. Maba’s pork belly taco comes wrapped in a housemade scallion pancake, which is an idea that’s so smart and simple I can’t believe I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Best of all, it’s affordable; almost every entree is $14 or less.
Maba Pan-Asian Diner, 510 Gray, Suite D, 832-834-6157
Adair Kitchen owners Nick Adair and Katie Adair Barnhart have already made a splash with their upscale comfort food restaurant Eloise Nichols; now, along with Eloise Nichols executive chef Joseph Stayshich, they’ve turned their attention to this casual cafe in River Oaks that serves coffee, juice, breakfast, and lunch. A drive-thru is about the only trace of the building’s former purpose as a title office; it now features doors that let the breeze in on nice days and a sprawling patio that looks out onto Westheimer.
While some juices tend to be overly sweet, Bebidas uses ingredients like ginger, lemon, and jalapeno to add a welcome hit of spice. Avocado toast has become a bit of a cliche, but the combination of crunchy bread, creamy avocado, and a few toppings still tastes delicious. I haven’t had a chance to try the assorted breakfast tacos and sandwiches, but the charming space and friendly service make it easy to contemplate repeat visits.
Bebidas, 2602 Edloe, 713-554-0023
A name is about the only thing the new Grotto at the George R. Brown Convention Center has with its corporate siblings. The difference is clear as soon as diners enter the restaurant; the Italian-style decor with its colorful mural has been replaced with a modern, almost industrial look of exposed brick with metal shelves and a glass wall that allows diners to look into the kitchen.
While a few pizzas and pastas remain, chef Sean Hochstein brings his experience at North to an all-new menu of mostly shareable plates that, at the very least, takes some inspiration from the Galleria-area hotspot. Highlights include crispy arancini, pulled chicken that’s served in a jar with grilled bread and spicy calabrian chili sauce, and butternut squash tortellini. Splitting three or four between two people would make for a solid lunch, or start with a couple and supplement with one of the crispy, flatbread style pizzas.
Invited by the restaurant to sample the dishes, I took my mother, who has been a fan of the concept since Tony Vallone opened the first Grotto in Highland Village in the early '90s. While she confirmed that the new direction is, quite literally, not my father’s Grotto, she found the new menu likeable enough to plan a return visit. That ability to win over old fans and earn new ones should serve the new Grotto well long after the Super Bowl crowds fade.
Grotto Downtown, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, Suite A, 713-658-0752
Houston’s first dedicated poke restaurant has arrived, sort of. After a five-day soft opening, the restaurant announced that it has closed for a few days but has not revealed exactly when it will reopen (Update: The restaurant reopened January 12). That’s too bad, because I found a lot to like about the raw fish salads Ono Poke serves.
Eventually, I’ll understand the different sauces and toppings well enough to confidently order from the Chipotle-style build you own side of the menu, but, for now, I prefer to stick to the recommended combinations like the namesake Ono Poke, which combines tuna and salmon with a sweet and tart "Ono Sauce," onions, cucumbers, green onions, sesame seeds, nori strips, and Japanese Furikake spice. Reasonable prices (a bowl costs about what a complex sushi roll might) and the space’s clean, inviting decor should help the restaurant win fans as people visit to discover why poke is sweeping the country.
Ono Poke, 607 Richmond Avenue, 832-831-9453
Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar
Rarely does this column venture out to Katy, but, when Front Burner Restaurants, the Dallas-based company behind Twin Peaks and Velvet Taco, brings its family-friendly, scratch kitchen concept to the suburbs, I feel compelled to head west. A group of friends and I found the restaurant packed on a recent weeknight, and our meal demonstrates why the place has already become so popular.
Let’s just agree to ignore that the restaurant bills itself as farm-to-table — the presence of fried green tomatoes in January suggests those farms probably aren’t local — and focus on the food, which vastly exceeded my expectations. Goat cheese fondue had a pleasant tang (billed as local, but I suspect it probably isn’t), and wood-grilled salmon arrived at the requested medium temperature. The namesake dessert is a good version of classic sticky toffee pudding.
Best of all, the bar serves a number of whiskey-based cocktails that actually pack a boozy punch. By avoiding drinks like the guava gimlet (too much guava, not enough gimlet) that sound like they’ll be sweet and sticking with simpler combinations, it’s possible to drink well here, too.
Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar, 23139 Grand Circle Boulevard, Katy, 832-430-2253