Hats off to two Houston restaurants that made a very important list: the annual roundup of best new restaurants in Texas, issued by Texas Monthly magazine.
This 2016 list is the 16th annual edition, which food editor Pat Sharpe calls "a year of change." Her 10 choices range from Southern to Japanese to French to Italian. "Texas diners continue to eat very well indeed," she says.
To make the list, restaurants must have opened between December 1, 2015, and December 1, 2016, and must be the first Texas location. No spin-offs.
Houston boasts two list-making restaurants: Ritual, the casual Texas-Southern spot in the Heights with ever-changing chefs; and Asian restaurant Pepper Twins.
Coming in at No. 6, Ritual emerges as a winner "despite all odds," with an "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach" that works. Best dish: red beans and rice with Texas Gouda risotto and house-smoked kielbasa sausages, topped with molasses-glazed baby carrots, with a round of cornbread on the side.
Pepper Twins is No. 8, thanks to owner Yunan Yang's success at bringing "the clear, intense flavors of Bellaire Boulevard" to the heart of the city. The two peppers include Chinese chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, which deliver a double dose of heat, best experienced in the dish called Mountain City Noodle, with bok choy and peanuts.
Three Houston restaurants — Italian-American restaurant Arthur Ave, Gulf Coast seafood spot Bernadine's, and French fine dining temple La Table — make the list as honorable mentions.
The No. 1 slot goes to Stephan Pyles' Flora Street Cafe, his fine-dining restaurant in Dallas' Arts District. She calls it "a glittering jewel box of a space," that honors Pyles' West Texas roots while embracing complex modernist cuisine. Dishes that caught Sharpe's eye include the ribeye and the pozole with citrus-marinated black cod. "The meeting ground between high style and homespun has reached its peak," she says.
The other Dallas restaurants that make her list are Sprezza, the Italian trattoria from chef Julian Barsotti, which is No. 3; Montlake Cut, the new seafood restaurant from chef Nick Badovinus, which is No. 5; and Top Knot, the eatery on top of Uchi Dallas, which is No. 7.
Her favorites at Sprezza, which she describes as "rustic, spicy, and comforting," include house-made fior di latte mozzarella and lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce. After an actual visit to Italy, Barsotti realized that, even if he couldn't replicate the food, he could "be true to its spirit."
She calls Montlake Cut "a place where white tablecloths peacefully coexist with nautical tchotchkes galore." From the menu's changing roster of raw offerings that include oysters, ceviches, and crudos, yellowtail in a ponzu-dashi broth is a standout. Cooked favorites include Parmesan-crusted sole with lemon and capers and a New York strip with garlic butter.
Uchi sibling Top Knot "is that place where you go for drinks after work" and end up staying for dinner. Recommended dishes include fried yuca chips and yogurt dip, scallop crudo with blood orange slices, and an A5 strip loin steak, whose $60 price for four ounces doesn't faze her. Then again, she has an expense account.
Austin's lineup includes three eateries: Otoko, the sushi spot from Yoshi Okai; Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro; and Italian steakhouse Red Ash Italia.
Otoko nabs the No. 2 position on the list, not a surprise, as she proclaims it has the best fish in Austin, along with a dramatic interior and engaging music. She singles out the mini-salad of fried shiitakes and jellyfish, and the duck. Two menus include a chef's choice with 20 bite-size courses that cost $150-$200 a person. Oh, to have an expense account.
At L’Oca d’Oro, No. 9 on the list, is inventive Italian from chef Fiore Tedesco, who cooked at Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern. Sharpe likes his innovative treatment of lasagna, with crisped pasta sheets enclosing cheese and mushrooms, and the update he does on Milanese, which she dubs an "Italian chicken-fried steak."
Downtown steakhouse Red Ash Italia squeaks in at No. 10, thanks to the Italian accent that chef-owner John Carver adds. Noteworthy dishes include pappardelle with wild-boar Bolognese, red snapper Livornese, and his signature dish: a "heavily mushroomed" bruschetta with roasted bistecca drippings. "The resemblance to Texas toast is neither coincidental nor unwelcome," Sharpe says.
San Antonio contributes one restaurant, Signature, which ranks near the top at No. 4. It represents the return of chef-owner Andrew Weissman, whose previous restaurant Le Rêve was among the most accomplished French restaurants in Texas. Signature is "his most luxurious effort yet," with a lodge-like interior, elaborate presentations, and sublime sauces. Highlighted dishes include butter-poached lobster and sweetbreads with a wine-and-mushroom reduction.
Despite a bustling dining scene in Fort Worth, the only Tarrant County restaurant that shows up is Press Cafe, the buzzy spot at the Clearfork river trailhead, which gets an honorable mention for its grilled salmon with broccolini and Brussels sprouts.
Be sure to check out the list for more appetizing details.