Recently, I've spent quite a bit of time examining bars and restaurants that will open sometime later this year, but CultureMap readers are a demanding lot. While I suspect many people are still working their way through the best new restaurants of 2015, some people still want to know about the newest, freshest options.
Thankfully, I am also one of those people. As much as it would please me to get in another visit to Southern Goods or State of Grace, the time has come to take a look at places that either opened in December and January or recently made significant changes in terms of either the chef in the kitchen or its style of service.
As always, these are ordered roughly in the order in which I think you should try them, but when the choices range from a Gulf Coast-inspired restaurant in The Heights to a NYC-based Halal restaurant and a new option for a sit down French breakfast, everyone is sure to find something that catches their fancy.
Chef Graham Laborde's "love letter to the Gulf Coast" is my current answer to the question "what's your new favorite restaurant." At both lunch and dinner, Bernadine's diverse menu always seems to offer something worth devouring. Meeting a group of friends for dinner? Don't miss the I-10 Tower that serves up a dozen oysters, two massive, ranch-dusted chicharrones, pickled shrimp, smoked fish dip, and marinated crab claws for an eminently reasonable $60. Those looking for something a little lighter should consider the seared Gulf fish over grits, but the 44 Farms ribeye for two in a oyster liquor-green peppercorn sauce makes for a very tempting alternative for heartier appetites. Fried items, whether catfish at dinner or a "peacemaker" po-boy of shrimp and oysters at lunch, are also consistently well-executed.
The prospect of trying black pepper biscuits with honey butter will bring me back to try brunch, as will the opportunity to sample both bar director Leslie Ross's creative cocktails and pastry chef Julia Doran's desserts that are inspired by Junior League recipes from the '50s and '60s. First time visitors should definitely leave room for a strawberry hand pie or an order of calas, aka rice beignets.
The Halal Guys
The NYC import that's known for its rice platters and addictive white sauce has opened to the sort of hype rarely seen in Houston restaurants. As in, the sort of enthusiasm that features officers directing traffic in and out of the parking lot and reports of two hour-long waits in line. While that level of hype probably won't last long, Halal Guys is certainly a welcome addition to the mix of restaurants near Shepherd Square. After all, the food is flavorful, affordable (entrees under $10), and well-executed. The combination of the white sauce and spicy sauce makes scarfing down the entire portion surprisingly easy. Just skip the frozen french fries in favor of the falafel.
Eight Row Flint
Although it is certainly a bar first, taco fanatics should make their way to this new icehouse from Cotlivare/Revival Market owners Agricole Hospitality. The tidy menu features four tacos made with locally-sourced ingredients and three options for dipping chips into (guacamole, salsa and queso). Whether choosing from the rich, fatty, 44 Farms beef cheek or the surprisingly satisfying vegetarian Brussels sprouts, tortillas that are made with the bar's namesack Eight Row Flint heritage corn provide a flavorful shell with a pleasantly chewy texture. Prices are higher than traditional tacos ($4-5 each), but two tacos makes for a satisfying meal.
Finding a parking spot in the lot is pretty much impossible at peak times, but a shuttered post office across the street usually has a space or two available.
The latest restaurant from Clark/Cooper Concepts has opened with considerably less fanfare than last summer's SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, but people are already flocking to this new restaurant and event space in Buffalo Bayou Park. Open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, the restaurant's combination of a casual menu that features salads, sandwich, and light bites with co-owner Grant Cooper's typical flair for dramatic design draws a well-dressed crowd that a friend compared to the one typically found at Tiny Boxwood's. I haven't made it by for brunch yet, but enough other people have to generate a line out the door on weekends.
We enjoyed both a roast brisket sandwich served roast beef style with horseradish sauce and au jus and a Cuban-style pressed sandwich of pork loin and Swiss cheese, as well as sides of roasted beets and Israel couscous. The portion will seem a little skimpy for hearty appetites, but the included side helps justify the cost. A Blizzard-style dessert of vanilla ice cream and crushed candy arrived as an unexpected surprise that's definitely worth leaving a little room for.
The third outpost of this rapidly growing, seafood-oriented, neighborhood restaurant recently opened in the former Rice Village home of Ruggles Cafe. While the decor features the same coastal accents and white subway tiles that connect it with its siblings, executive chef Lance Fegen has made a couple of tweaks to set it apart. First, Little Liberty is open for breakfast every day starting at 8 am to serve coffee, pastries, and more substantial entrees like whole grain waffles and fried egg sandwiches. At lunch and dinner, the most significant new additions are a build your own poke salad (choose fish, sauce and toppings) and New York-style pizzas.
Little Liberty's poke gives diners the option of starting with tuna or salmon then choosing from rice or vegetables. Definitely spend the extra $1 each for avocado and seaweed. As for the pizza, the crust on my meat pie arrived with good chew and a decent char.
Speaking of pizza, this Heights gelato shop recently fulfilled the second half of its name by adding authentic Chicago-style pizza to its menu. Gelazzi owner and Chicago native Louie Comella is sourcing all of key ingredients from iconic pizzeria Connie's. The ensures the dough, sauce, and meat toppings, all taste as if they were made near the shores of Lake Michigan. The iconic pizzeria ships everything to Houston where Comella and his staff assemble the pies and bake them fresh to order. The result delivers the signature buttery crust that makes Chicago deep dish so popular.
Bellaire has a winning new option for casual Italian fare thanks to the arrival of this recently opened restaurant. No trace of the former Daniel Wong's Kitchen can be found in the restaurant's Italian art deco look, which now features a community tables in the bar area and a wood-burning oven. Appropriate crispy Neapolitan-style pizza arrived with good char on the crust and a generous portion of prosciutto. Both our orders of fettuccine and risotto arrived nicely al dente, but the pasta's lamb bolognese could have used a little less salt. Winning service and a reasonably priced wine list will bring me back, and Bellaire residents will appreciate the addition of a spot that's casual enough for a weeknight dinner and elegant enough for date night.
Now that the Galleria-area French restaurant has successfully turned its upstairs dining room into the fine dining restaurant La Table Chateau, New York City-based Invest Hospitality has begun its transformation of the space's downstairs bar into a bakery (Macarons) and casual restaurant (Marche) that's now open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The combination of the bakery and the restaurant gives diners new reasons to visit the space, especially in the morning, when freshly baked pastries and egg dishes beckon. In particular, the selection of savory kouglofs (including a very Texan corn and jalapeno) and a breakfast burrito that features slow roasted pork carnitas are not to be missed.
The Durham House
Although it only opened in October, this Washington Avenue replacement for Woodrows Heights (formerly the Mardi Gras Grill) has a new direction under recently hired chef Mike McElroy (ex-D&T Drive Inn, Prohibition, The Rollin' Kitchen). The chef has brought the flair for Southern cuisine he developed at restaurants in both Houston and New Orleans to the restaurant and the results are promising. At a recent visit for lunch with friends, we savored the chef's liver-tinged housemade boudain as well as a pork face terrine that came as part of a charcuterie plate. A sweetbread po-boy featured expertly fried specimens, but the real star was another po-boy featuring thinly sliced, smoked New York strip.
I haven't made it in for brunch or dinner yet, but dishes like an open faced kolache and smoked squab have me intrigued enough to ensure my next visit will be soon.
I had high hopes for this successor to the well-regarded Korean restaurant Dosi, but my first visit to the Midtown restaurant went poorly. Even for a Wednesday night, the restaurant was weirdly empty, with only one or two other tables occupied the entire time my friends and I were there. That meant the service was both overly attentive in the sense that the service kept checking back for our opinions on the dishes and aloof in the sense that he also didn't seem to know much about the dishes on the menu. Rice dumplings could have used a sear to give them some texture, and an order of chicken wings featured weirdly oversized pieces. The concept could be a welcome addition to the part of Midtown that's already home to three Japanese restaurants in Izakaya, The Fish, and Gyu-Kaku, but it doesn't feel quite ready for primetime.