The end of 2017 proved to be a busy time for Houston restaurants. Harvey-related delays pushed back the arrival of several high-profile concepts, all of which seemed to open in the span of a couple of weeks before the end of last year.
For diners who may have been more focused on holiday shopping and family time than tracking new openings, January presents the opportunity to catch up on some intriguing new places they may have otherwise overlooked. Don’t let those pesky New Year’s resolutions about eating healthier stand in the way of a new experience. Go eat!
This month’s roster of restaurants includes an EaDo establishment that has restaurant industry professionals buzzing, a stylish addition to the River Oaks area, two new steakhouses, and the return of a beloved institution. As always, these restaurants are ordered by how important I think it is that you try them, but this month’s roster is so strong that any of the first five or six could have led off weaker months.
Three impressive visits to chef Jason Vaughan and beverage specialist Sean Jensen’s new neighborhood spot have elevated this EaDo establishment into one of my favorite dining destinations. Vaughan’s menu contains lots of familiar choices — grilled chicken, roasted snapper, chicken liver mousse, etc. — but the careful preparation and solid execution elevate them. More offbeat choices like the Nancy Cakes (corn cakes with smoked trout roe), lamb tartare, and a rabbit entree give adventurous diners good choices, too. Sous chef Julia Doran’s breads and desserts round out the menu; don’t miss the fluffy Parmesan cheesecake or sesame churros.
A beverage program that features Jensen’s affection for fortified wines — and cocktails created by veteran bartender Kristine Nguyen (Bad News Bar) — result in excellent pairings, and the enthusiastic service staff all seem legitimately excited to work there. An expertly tuned sound system that’s powered by a reel-to-reel tape player (Talking Heads one night, The Guess Who the next) drives a soundtrack that contributes to the atmosphere without overwhelming the conversation. No wonder it seems like I run into chefs, restaurant owners, and bartenders every time I visit.
2704 Polk St.
This Israeli-by-way-of-New Orleans restaurant defies most steakhouse conventions. Those looking for staples like crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, six different potato preparations, or dark wood paneling will be disappointed, but beef lovers should learn to stop worrying and embrace what Doris does well. That starts with the beef, which is carefully dry-aged in a glass-walled room. An extensive selection of wagyu from America, Australia, and Japan supplements all the usual USDA Prime cuts.
Don’t skip the “Classified Cut,” the restaurant’s name for the spinalis dorsi, the cut that combines the beefy flavor of a ribeye with the texture of a filet. An assortment of vegetable-oriented sides and starters supplement the meat, including a cheese-stuffed roasted beet, a roasted cauliflower with tahini and yogurt.
2815 S. Shepherd Dr.
Maison Pucha Bistro
After a couple visits to this French restaurant, I’m inclined to think that the Pucha brothers — chef Manuel, pastry chef Victor, and mixologist Cristian — can break the curse at 1001 Studewood: the Heights space that’s previously been home to Bedford, Stella Sola, and the short-lived Black & White. Manuel’s skills are on full display with the menu, which blends French classics like lobster bisque, duck confit, and steak frites, with a few nods to the family’s Ecuadorian heritage like shrimp ceviche.
Dessert options like Victor’s signature black and white chocolate souffle, and a well-priced wine list created with assistance from consultant Shepard Ross, help round out the experience. Serving lunch, brunch, and dinner helps Maison Pucha achieve its goal of being a useful neighborhood spot.
1001 Studewood St.
A year-and-a-half after being destroyed by a fire, this Houston institution reopened its doors with a massive new space. While the look is all-new, the familiar recipes are thankfully the same. Cleburne will never be a destination for cutting-edge cuisine, but staples like chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, and roasted turkey are all solid. Side dishes like mashed potatoes and green beans hit their expected marks, too; only a too-chewy piece of roast beef disappointed.
Really, the only downside is that Houstonians have been so excited about Cleburne’s return that the parking lot fills up at peak times. I’ve found that going for a late lunch offers shorter waits and fresh eats.
3606 Bissonnet St.
If Nancy’s Hustle is the restaurant that industry employees have been most excited about, then Emmaline is the place that all of my non-industry friends seem to be buzzing about. And why not? Sam Governale’s elevated neighborhood features a stunning interior; an accessible, Italian-inspired menu from chef Dimitri Voustinas; and a creative, well-priced beverage program that’s a collaboration between Governale and sommelier Lindsay Huntsman.
The restaurant has been so popular that a valet almost refused to take my car one night; he had run out of room to park cars and wasn’t sure what to do (he eventually relented). Those crowds might explain why the kitchen’s execution has been inconsistent across my three visits. On one night, the seafood in the cioppino is all well-prepared, and the lobster and squid ink tagliarini emerges as a favorite. At lunch, the lamb ragu in the pappardelle pasta is salty, and the French dip-style “Sammy” is bland.
The restaurant has enough potential — the roasted oysters with caviar truly deliver a terrific rush of texture and flavor — that I’m willing to be patient while it finds itself. I just don’t love it as much as I want to.
3210 West Dallas St.
Chef Jose Hernandez returns to French cuisine at this restaurant inside downtown’s newly opened Hotel Alessandra. That’s good news for inner loop diners who may remember his pastry wizardry at Triniti but never made it to CityCentre for his sophisticated Italian food at Radio Milano.
At dinner, Lucienne offers diners the choice of a four- or six-course tasting menu ($55 or $75) with optional wine pairings. With at least four choices for each course, diners will find something to suit almost any taste. Highlights include a crepe filled with a cauliflower puree, the lamb tartare, and lobster with fennel bread pudding. Of course, the chef’s desserts are always excellent, especially the thin apple tart and pistachio vacherin.
Even though entering the too-bright dining room requires both an elevator ride and a short walk through the lobby, the food is good enough to shake the feeling of dining in a hotel. Francophiles will rejoice, but, as someone who’s never been wild about French cuisine, Lucienne doesn’t offer enough compelling choices to pick it over other new downtown arrivals like Oxbow 7, Potente, and Xochi.
1070 Dallas St.
Tilman Fertitta told the Chronicle that “there’s not another restaurant in Houston” like his new steakhouse, and I have to agree. The restaurant channels Vegas with its luxurious interior, live music, burbling waterfall, a high energy crowd that practically mandates shouting to be heard. It’s a very different experience than more traditional steakhouses like Pappas Bros. or even B&B Butchers, but the success of Steak 48 suggests that Houstonians don’t mind mixing a nightlife atmosphere with their filet mignon.
I spent enough time expounding on the deficiencies of my meal at Mastro’s last month that I don’t want to rehash all of them here — hopefully, they’ve tightened things up over time. Briefly, my suggestions are: skip the sushi, check that your steak is cooked properly immediately upon receiving it (ours were cold in the middle), and definitely order the butter cake for dessert.
1650 W. Loop South
This restaurant’s appeal is pretty straightforward; it offers all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue for $26 per person ($17 at lunch). Feel free to double down on galbi or feast on bulgogi; all of the classic cuts are solid. Chadolbagi (thinly sliced beef brisket) offered a slightly different take on a cut that Texans know well, but the meat’s rich, fatty flavor still comes through.
The staff doesn’t provide much guidance in using the tabletop grills, so just be sure at least one person in the group has some ability to look at the meats to know when they’re done. Also, the non-grill items in the steam tables up front weren’t very compelling. Still, those with carnivorous habits should give it a shot.
8338 W. Sam Houston Pkwy
Mala Sichuan Bistro and the rapidly expanding number of Pepper Twins locations demonstrate that inner loopers enjoy the signature mala tingle of Sichuan cuisine. Now, Midtown residents and bar-goers have their own destination for staples like mapo tofu, spicy dumplings, and kung pao chicken. Fried fish proved to be a pleasant surprise, but too chewy thrice-cooked pork demonstrated the restaurant still has some kinks to work out.
917 Winbern St.
This new bakery is, admittedly, not a restaurant, but what this California import lacks in seating it makes up for in pure deliciousness. The cakes I’ve tried all have a texture that lands in the proverbial sweet spot (see what I did there?) between fluffy and dense. Frosting is sweet, but not too sweet. And, at $6.50 for a generous slice, the prices are reasonable.
2563 Amherst St.
Honorable mention: Relish Restaurant & Bar
At the suggestion of a couple of friends, I decided to check in on this River Oaks neighborhood restaurant that opened in the fall of 2016. Visits for a quick weekday breakfast, a more leisurely Saturday brunch, and a casual dinner all demonstrate the various ways Relish serves its customers well. Chef-owner Dustin Teague shows his creativity especially well at dinner, with starters like a lightly smoked beef carpaccio and entrees like cavatelli pasta in a meaty ragu. Well-executed cocktails, consistently appealing pastries, and friendly service all make it a place I’ll be returning to frequently.
2810 Westheimer Rd.