After shaking off this year's early doldrums, May and the beginning of June have continued to bring worthy new options for Houston diners. In this admittedly tardy list of new dining options, let's revisit some recent arrivals and a few places that may have been overlooked. That will allow some of June's most recent openings (Cane Rosso, Steak 48, Ritual, etc) a little more time to bloom before they're officially added to this list.
Besides, who could ask for anything more when the options include the revival of one of Houston's most acclaimed restaurant names, a new Texas comfort food destination in west Houston, and a trendy doughnut shop in the Heights? As always, these are loosely ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but they're all merit attention for various reasons.
State Fare Kitchen & Bar
This restaurant, which replaces Pour Society at Gateway Memorial City and is the first concept from former F.E.E.D. TX partner Lee Ellis's newly launched Cherry Pie Hospitality, offers a contemporary take on classic Texas comfort food. That means classics like chili and fried catfish occupy the same menu as chips and queso, roasted oysters, and steaks. While simple dishes can be boring in the wrong hands, Jim Mills's meticulous recipes and precise techniques ensure that every dish delivers. For example, the "Fulton St. style" shrimp cocktail utilizes a tomato sauce that avoids beings either too sweet or spicy, which lets the shrimp and avocado shine (diced jalapeno comes on the side for those who want more heat). Similarly, the Hicksburger's combination of a beef patty topped with pastrami, grilled onions, gruyere, and chicken fried french fries could be a gooey mess of muddled flavored, but all the elements — smoky pastrami, crunchy fries, salty cheese, etc — come together to achieve a truly satisfying bite.
Cocktails by Laurie Harvey (ex-Triniti) and an extensive craft beer selection ensure plenty of options for drinkers. Design changes are still coming, but the food merits an immediate visit.
What's in a name? It's a question diners might want to ask chef Robert Del Grande, who chose to celebrate his 35 years in Houston by reviving the Cafe Annie moniker for his Galleria-area restaurant — not that anyone will miss calling it "RDG + Bar Annie." The old-new name has also brought the return of some of the dishes that earned Del Grande a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 1992. Southwestern cuisine may not be fashionable anymore, but Del Grande's use of Texas ingredients and classic cooking techniques remains as vital as ever.
Consider the rabbit enchiladas in a rich red mole sauce or the black bean terrine that pairs the creamy beans with a little salty tang from goat cheese as two examples of dishes that Del Grande developed in the '80s but still deliver flavors that will appeal to contemporary tastes. The signature coffee roasted filet is back, too, as a 22-ounce shared portion. At $120, it's definitely a splurge, but one that's worth considering for anyone who wants to taste what all the fuss was about — and why one of Houston's most celebrated chefs seems so reinvigorated today.
In what might be the ultimate act of restaurant chutzpah, Blacksmith owners David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto have opened a coffee shop that serves doughnuts less than a mile from a Shipley's and honey butter chicken biscuits less than a mile from a Whataburger. But of course, these are no ordinary donuts and biscuits. Morningstar partner Carlos Ballon spent two months in Alabama to train with people Buehrer describs as "doughnut Jedis," i.e., Cambodians who moved to America to escape the Khmer Rouge and found prosperity in fried dough. That dedication to the craft of doughnut making gets combined with a Houston twist on flavors like pineapple fritters, a honey-glazed doughnut (honey sourced from the Heights), and homemade sprinkles for the strawberry frosting. While Blacksmith's food has taken a Southern direction, Morningstar is more Southeast Asian, offering a selection of rice bowls that provide a heartier, healthier alternative to doughnuts — even that honey butter chicken biscuit gets a sambal glaze. On the beverage side, a full lineup of matcha drinks supplements the espresso-based offerings and provides people who don't want to consume dairy (whether for dietary or health reasons) with a choice that's designed for them.
One word of warning. While Morningstar's flavors are incredibly vibrant, these doughnuts have a chewy texture that is decidedly different from the light-as-air variety people are used to from places like Shipley's and Krispy Kreme. It's a deliberate choice, but it's not for everyone. On the other hand, kolaches made with brisket smoked by Southern Goods sous chef Patrick Feges are on my shortlist for 2016's dish of the year.
Saks Fifth Avenue's move to a stylish new store within the Galleria has also brought an elegant new home for the store's restaurant. Landmark Hospitality (Hearsay Gastro Lounge, The Republic Smokehouse & Saloon) hired former Max's Wine Dive chef Stefon Rishel to give the restaurant a new focus on locally-sourced, seasonal cuisine. To be sure, the stereotypical ladies who lunch will find staples like salads (Caesar, kale, and Cobb included) as well as healthy options like grilled salmon and roasted chicken. Those with heartier appetites should look towards the lamb T-bone or the saffron risotto with large, Gulf Coast shrimp.
Dining options in the Galleria will only keep getting better with the arrival of Yauatcha and the rumored addition of Nobu. With Rishel at the helm, 51Fifteen is poised to keep pace with these well-funded out-of-towners and even capture some new fans.
In Houston's ever-expanding barbecue boom, this Midtown newcomer gives diners another high-quality option to choose from. Pitmaster Brett Jackson, who trained at the iconic Louie Mueller Barbecue, serves a menu that starts with the Texas trinity (beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage) while adding chicken, turkey, and pulled pork. Sides are in the hands of Eric Aldis (Corner Table) who brings a chef's touch to sides like the four cheese mac and cheese, sauteed mushrooms, and green chili corn casserole. While most barbecue joints are primarily lunch-only, Midtown is both open for dinner and offers a full bar with cocktails.
It may not be a Houston version of Austin's well-regarded Freedmen's Bar yet — that restaurant's menu is more innovative — but the range of offerings and a promising selection of housemade pickles are a good start.
Former Tony's maître d’ Jason Howard has set off on his own with this neighborhood restaurant in Cypress's Towne Lake development. The room's elegant decor gives it an upscale feel, and a variety of seating areas (a lengthy bar, more formal dining room, and an expansive patio) make it flexible enough to accommodate a casual lunch or a more formal date night. The menu is centered around a wood-burning oven, which means both pizzas and roasted meats get a good char and a whiff of smoke. An appealing mix of cocktails and a well-priced wine list add to the inside the Loop-style ambiance.
Jaxton's is still in its soft opening, but the restaurant is off to a strong start. A friend and I enjoyed the mussels in saffron creme, although we thought the mussels themselves were a little too large to eat comfortably, as well as the aglio olio pasta with large sauteed shrimp. Salmon rarely earns raves, but our entree arrived properly medium. Crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites are must order.
Let's start with something that should be obvious: the reported three-hour wait to get into Hopdoddy was purely an opening day phenomenon fed, in part, by its being on a day when most people were off from work or school. Yes, some sort of wait will be required (except maybe during the week from approximately 2 pm to 5 pm), but it likely won't be more than an hour. All that begs the obvious question: with so many great burgers in Houston, why put up with a wait?
Simply put, Hopdoddy serves good burgers made from high quality beef on freshly baked buns with interesting toppings. The thin-cut fries, surprisingly good queso, and full bar round out the experience. That Hopdoddy does all these things while still keeping both its burgers and cocktails under $10 makes it even more appealing. Colloquially, I've seen enough chatter on social media about messed up orders and lengthy waits for food to advise caution, but the restaurant's track record of success in other markets suggest they'll get their opening hiccups worked out quickly.
Located within downtown's newly renovated Whitehall Houston hotel, this restaurant blends Mexican and Southern influences for a comfort-oriented menu that aims to appeal to both guests and downtown office workers alike. The restaurant occupies a large space on the hotel's second floor and offers diners seating at the bar, in a lounge or in the dining room. Unfortunately, it was mostly empty during my visit, but enough of the dishes are appealing that it deserves to be busier.
A whole fried snapper offers both an eye-catching visual and, more importantly, delivers a dish that complements the fish's firm, meaty flesh with crispy skin and well-executed sides. I admired chef Silvia Covarubbias's whimsical mac and cheese-stuffed fried chicken breast, but the gooey filling didn't work well with the chicken — definitely two great tastes that don't taste great together.
Admittedly, I'm a bit behind on this healthy eating concept that opened near the Galleria in February, but H.S. Green deserves some attention. After all, the restaurant's mix of salads, wraps, and thin crust pizzas are perfect for those looking to eat a little lighter now that summer has arrived. H.S. Green has also jumped on the trendy cold-pressed juice bandwagon with accessible combinations like carrot, apple, and ginger or watermelon, lime, and mint. Guacamame may offend Tex-Mex purists, but the addition of edamame to guacamole gives it a pleasant vegetal flavor that won't replace the original but does offer a welcome riff on the classic.
A new chef has brought a new perspective to the Midtown restaurant and lounge that stopped serving food in February and revived it in April. Chef Rob Frias (formerly of Nara) has replaced the former menu that mostly featured Thai flavors with Japanese and Korean dishes that can be served quickly for people who are fueling up before a night at the nearby bars. Nigiri sushi keeps things pretty classic, but the namesake Tarakaan roll's mixture of tempura lobster and tenderloin shows that the food has a decidedly fusion bent. Similarly, the pork belly bao and aka ebi fried prawns offer clever twists on familiar dishes. The dining room, with its red accents and giant buddha statue, still makes any meal feel festive.