After 2015's breakneck pace, this year has been a slow one for new restaurants so far, which is why this column took a month off. While this column will always include interesting establishments from across the Houston-area, readers have told me they prefer it to focus on high quality, inner Loop options. It seemed better to wait for a few more of them to arrive rather than include some marginal options that weren't quite as interesting.
Thankfully, things picked up considerably in April. Suddenly, long-delayed plans came to fruition. Houston has finally joined the national trend by adding its first food hall. River Oaks District finally has its first real restaurant, Galveston has an exciting seafood spot, and Midtown has a new late night spot.
As always, these are roughly ordered by how important I think it is for you try them, but they all have something to offer. Go eat.
Toulouse Cafe & Bar
After months of anticipation, River Oaks District’s first restaurant opened last month with local chef Philippe Schmit at the helm. Given its prime location, classic bistro design, and Schmit’s history at high profile restaurants like Philippe and Bistro Moderne, no one should be surprised that see-and-be-seen types have been filling the place since day one.
Despite dining on a packed Friday night, we found Schmit’s food in fine form, particularly the signature mussels mariniere seasoned with a heavy dose of shallots and a classic steak tartare that benefited from the tang of capers. Schmit's bouillabaisse has an almost Thai-style broth that gets a little sweetness from coconut milk and is brimming with well-cooked fish and shellfish.
Unfortunately, the understaffed service team fell apart under the crush of so many diners; the lowest point occurred when a server knocked over a glass of water, tossed three napkins at us to mop it up, and then disappeared while the soggy napkins cluttered our table. The situation has likely improved over the last few weeks, but be aware that going at peak times may be problematic.
This food hall from Prohibition owners Ahn Mai and Lian Pham represents the most significant new restaurant to arrive downtown since the OKRA-fueled bar boom began in late 2012. The four food vendors — ramen shop Samurai Noodle, barbecue joint El Burro and the Bull, Greek restaurant Myth Kafe, and beloved crepe stand Melange Creperie — offer a diverse range of high quality dining options that are sure to suit almost any group. The beverage selection offers more than 50 craft beers (a mix of local and national breweries) as well as wines on tap.
Best of all, Conservatory is open late: until 2 am on Thursday and 3 am on Friday and Saturday. Being able to get a crepe or a bowl of ramen after a night bar-hopping or attending a concert has major appeal. That I found the space full of Dynamo fans during one visit indicates people are already discovering it, which bodes well for its future success.
Hubcap Grill owner Ricky Craig has opened his New Orleans-inspired restaurant in Galveston, and it’s just the sort of upscale casual restaurant the island needs. Located in a historic space on the eastern edge of The Strand, the room has a throwback look of simple wooden tables and mid-century modern lighting fixtures.
We sampled several items, and dishes ranging from head-on shrimp and grits to smoked fish onion dip to a fried seafood platter and a massive smoked beef rib served with grilled shrimp all landed. In particular, the onion dip, which seems like a throwaway item, had a good balance of smoke, creaminess and bright onion flavor that balanced out the saltiness of the housemade potato chips.
The only issue is that Craig unexpectedly parted ways with executive chef Allen Duhon last week. If the owner can keep the kitchen going while he finds Duhon’s replacement, Harborside could emerge as a legitimate dining destination for a city that has only a few noteworthy spots.
Stoked Tacos & Tequila
Houston certainly has plenty of tacos options, but we always have room for one more, as long as it’s good (just ask the crowds flooding Eight Row Flint). Based on a couple of visits, Stoked, located in the former Cook & Collins space in Midtown, seems poised to join those ranks. The space has been given a surfer meets day of the dead makeover, with lots of bright colors and a fun, relaxed vibe.
Chef Adam Puskorius has a little fun with the menu, which mixes traditional meats like chicken and pastor with red fish, pork belly and a vegetarian-friendly cheese option, although the absence of a basic beef fajita option is a little strange. Beyond the tacos, the roasted red mole chicken wings and “the bag,” a Frito pie with smoked brisket, both deliver big flavors at reasonable prices.
To cater to Midtown’s crowds, the restaurant serves food until midnight six days per week. That, and cocktails created by Spare Key’s Chris Frankel (including the Stoked Rita made with mezcal) ensure area residents will find a lot to like when they visit.
Any mention of Oxheart immediately conjures images of carefully plated vegetable dishes, but the cooks who have passed through its kitchens are a talented bunch with a diverse set of skills. Which means it should come as no surprise that Willet Feng, one of Oxheart’s former sous chefs, is making a splash with a hamburger and hot dog stand in the same Greenway Plaza food court that’s already home to The Rice Box and Greenway Coffee.
The basic Kuma burger starts with an 80/20 chuck patty that’s cooked on a griddle to ensure plenty of browning and crispy edges. From there, choose a cheese, any of several housemade condiments (sambal mayo or scallion aioli, for example) and vegetable toppings before it gets tucked into a slightly sweet Sheila Partin bun. The beef and turkey hot dogs benefit from the same condiments, as well as a kimchi relish.
The menu rounds out with Feng’s surprisingly authentic bowl of Texas chili, a choice of french fries or lotus root chips, and a selection of milkshakes.
Fajitas A Go Go
Houston’s dining scene may consist of more than just burgers, Tex-Mex, and steaks, but we still like to eat all of those things, which means it’s no surprise that a new restaurant wants to provide a version of fajitas that’s capable of being delivered. Located near Rice Village, Fajitas A Go Go unites Washington, DC, restaurateur Jeff Black with Tacos a Go Go founder Sharon Haynes. While Black has found success in DC, he’s a native Houstonian whose extensive resume includes a lengthy stint in the Pappas organization.
The restaurant’s beef fajitas use sirloin rather than skirt steak and are simply seasoned with salt and pepper rather than the more common citrus-heavy marinade. Cooked over wood, the restaurant’s fajitas have a strong beef flavor that gets a little tartness from pico de gallo, a wisp of smokiness from the wood, and creaminess from guacamole — truly a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Tortillas are made in house, with the thick corn version being particularly compelling compared to standard versions that can be thin and somewhat flavorless.
Non-beef eaters can feast on buttery grilled shrimp, rotisserie chicken, and grilled vegetables like asparagus and mushrooms. No, it probably won’t replace El Tiempo or Pappasito’s in the hearts and minds of Houstonians, but the flavors and techniques (meat that’s cooked medium rare!) are compelling enough that it should earn fans. Limited deliveries start this month; expect to find this food at West U pool parties all summer.
Kenny & Ziggy’s
Admittedly, this restaurant is well-established, but a new location of the beloved deli has opened in the Kroger shopping center at Buffalo Speedway and Westpark, which is good news for anyone who likes dining at the original but hates Galleria-area traffic. At only 110 seats, it has a more intimate feeling than the original that recalls the classic New York delis that serve as its inspiration.
Thankfully, the menu is almost entirely intact. The only items missing are from the hard core end of the Eastern European Jewish canon: short rib (flanken) dishes, meatballs, gefilte fish and the like. Both my corned beef sandwich and round potato knish tasted exactly the same as they do at the original, and that’s a good thing. Of course, successfully replicating Kenny & Ziggy’s means that the restaurant’s fans in every suburb in the Houston area, as well as those who reside in Austin and Dallas, will be clamoring for their own outpost. Better start building.
Mikoto Ramen and Sushi Bar
The Energy Corridor is already home to a diverse array of international restaurants, but it lacks a dedicated ramen shop (Ramen Jin in Westchase comes close), which makes this new arrival at Dairy Ashford and I-10 so welcome. The look — lots of wood on the walls with communal tables in the center and booths along the wall — makes Mikoto feel like a clone of Jinya Ramen, but offering sushi sets its apart.
Trying to sample broadly, I ordered a spicy tuna handroll, shrimp tempura, and spicy tonkotsu ramen. The sushi roll overflowed with fresh tasting fish, and the tempura arrived light and crispy. The ramen had a spicy kick from black sesame paste and overflowed with toppings, but the broth seemed thinner than what’s served at places like Jinya and Tiger Den. Combined with the thin noodles, it made the soup less satisfying than it should have been. Still, the flavor combinations are solid, and it feels like a positive new addition to the area — if not quite a destination for Houston’s community of ramen obsessives.
This new restaurant in the recently opened Westin hotel in The Woodlands aims to deliver a high quality option that could compete with Hubbell & Hudson Bistro for the best restaurant in the Waterway. The stylish dining room certainly lives up to the name’s promise, as does the promise of locally-sourced ingredients. As prepared by chef de cuisine Nathan Friend during a media tasting, the ideas behind dishes like crab cakes, Caesar salad topped with a poached egg, and gazpacho feel a little dated, but the execution is solid. The crab cake is a signature item, full of lump meat with just the lightest hint of breading to hold it together.
For all the talk about Gulf seafood and Texas cheese, the sourcing thing broke down at dessert when Friend served California strawberries at a time when farmers markets are full of locally grown berries. Until both the execution and the ideas become as current as the rhetoric, Hubbell & Hudson’s status in The Woodlands is secure.
With the tagline of “Discover Fresh,” it’s pretty clear that HUSA, the bar and restaurant group behind Baker St. and Local Pour, has taken aim directly at healthy eating concepts like True Food Kitchen. Certain aspects of the menu like the vegetable toasts, flatbreads, and kale salad are very much on trend; however, like most cover acts, the new version doesn’t quite live up to the original.
Take that beet and ricotta toast, for example.The dish could be a fun alternative to a standard beet salad if the restaurant cut the slices of bread a little thicker and toasted them a little longer to get some crunch. Cider-glazed brussels sprouts sound like a good idea, but they arrived mushy and overcooked. On the plus side, the roast beef sandwich provided both a decent portion and good flavors.
If the restaurant can work out the kinks, it will be a nice addition to La Centerra. If not, it will go the way of other failed HUSA concepts like the meatball-centric City Oven.