Typically, summer can be a slow time for new restaurants, but this year has been an exception to the trend. From a celebrity chef's first Houston restaurant to a new Heights restaurant that's regularly on a two-hour wait, this month offers lots of exciting new choices.
More importantly, this month's list has some geographic diversity with two restaurants in Katy and one in The Woodlands. Expect the trend to continue as more operators seek to expand their reach to as many diners as possible.
As always, these restaurants are ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but those who really have a craving for veal parmesan or beef randang might find the bottom of the list more appealing than the top.
In previous articles, I’ve described Ayesha Curry and Michael Mina’s new restaurant as “devoted to global barbecue,” but that word can be misleading for Texans, who are more likely to associate “barbecue” with three meat plates of brisket, ribs, and sausage that are served with potato salad and coleslaw. Needless to say, none of those things, other than ribs, are served at International Smoke. Instead of associating International Smoke with “barbecue,” it’s probably more useful to think of it as a sophisticated, chef-driven concept that, instead of focusing on a specific cuisine, demonstrates the various ways live fire cooking makes food delicious.
Under the direction of E.J. Miller (SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, Riel), International Smoke really sets itself apart with its seafood preparations. From panko-crusted roasted oysters and sweet Gulf shrimp to a solid take on redfish on the half shell and chickpea-crusted fried snapper, fish lovers will find a lot to like on the menu. Of the meat preparations, shaking beef in lettuce wraps, Hawaiian-influenced “instant bacon” — a riff on the David Chang pork belly bao — and chili-spiced Sinaloa chicken all deliver big flavors.
The closest the restaurant comes to serving Texas barbecue are St. Louis-style ribs; most Texans will probably find them too sweet and too tender to be worth ordering. Spend that money on one of the innovative cocktails instead. The Rockets fan who trashed the restaurant's Yelp page may be disappointed to read this, but International Smoke is a place to watch — even if it isn’t a barbecue joint. 800 Sorella Ct. #940; 713-714-0126
Speaking of lively, this new Mexican restaurant in the Heights has been more or less packed since day one. With a stylish interior, an extensive cocktail program, and food that, like sister concept Edison & Patton, exceeds expectations, it’s easy to understand why.
Although I haven’t been able to dive as deeply into the menu as I would like, staples like guacamole, quesadillas, and tacos al carbon are all well-prepared. In particular, Calle Onze’s housemade flour and corn tortillas stand out for their texture and flavor. Similarly, the house margarita delivers plenty of tequila bite with just enough tart lime juice.
Really, the only problem is that the restaurant has been so popular that multiple friends have been quoted two hour waits at peak times. Hopefully, lunch and brunch service will arrive soon to give diners more opportunities to visit. 222 W. 11th St.; 832-767-1417
La Vista 101
The name may be the same (mostly), but Greg Gordon’s new restaurant in Lazybrook/Timbergrove bears little resemblance to the one he operated in Briargrove for almost 20 years. That starts with the look, which has turned a former Pizza Hut into a stylish, contemporary space that’s significantly more attractive than the old location, but, more importantly, the food coming out of the kitchen is very different, too.
In collaboration with executive chef J.D. Woodward (Southern Goods) and general manager Jeb Stuart (Coltivare), the new La Vista has a menu that’s built around the beneficial flavors imparted by flames and smoke. Those dishes include grilled octopus with hummus and housemade flatbread, deviled eggs with smoked yolk, spaghetti carbonara made with housemade guanciale (smoked and cured pork jowl), and a grilled filet served with a decadent bone marrow butter.
It doesn’t always work — a riff on a caprese salad with melted mozzarella has been 86’ed from the menu — but overall the collaboration is off to a strong start. If the dining room were just a little quieter (lively instead of deafening), it would be easier to enjoy the food, cocktails, and Stuart’s eclectic, well-priced wine list. Quibbles aside, La Vista offers a lot for diners to enjoy, and those offerings will be even more compelling now that lunch service has begun (brunch is coming, too). 1805 W. 18th St.; 713-787-9899
Tea & Victory
Despite its self-described role as a “board game cafe,” this establishment in Lazybrook/Timbergrove focuses at least as much on its food and beverage offerings as it does on gaming. An all-scratch kitchen turns out a spot on version of fish and chips (made with a Eureka Heights Buckle Bunny batter), as well as first-rate chicken nuggets and chicken tikka masala. Alternatively, chow down on a fried bologna sandwich or snack on a bowl of gummy bears and worms.
On the beverage side, a wide selection of brewed teas gets backed by locally-roasted Boomtown Coffee, 14 rotating taps of locally-brewed craft beer, sodas, and even a few carefully chosen wines selected by consultant Shepard Ross. For those who want to game, the extensive selection of titles — everything from classics like Clue and Monopoly to Settlers of Catan and even Netrunner (the game that played a key role in a minor plot on this season of Billions) — are backed by a dedicated staff of guides who can recommend what to play and explain the rules. 2030 E. T.C. Jester Blvd.; 832-831-2483
When a sushi chef with a pedigree that includes Morimoto and Roka Akor opens a new restaurant, it’s automatically worth paying attention. That the restaurant is located in Katy’s bustling LaCenterra development adds another layer of intrigue.
Diners who have been to Roka Akor will recognize chef Mike Lim’s plating style in the elaborate sashimi platters with touches like edible flowers and LED illumination. Foie gras comes in a cloture with a puff of applewood smoke and tweezers to serve the decadent nuggets. Crispy chicharron comes stuffed with uni and toro. Sure, patrons could opt for more conventional maki and nigiri (they’re solid), but what’s the fun in that?
Inner Loopers have enough good choices that don’t need to make the drive, but Tobiuo’s offerings are a welcome addition to anyone who lives west of Highway 6. 23501 Cinco Ranch Blvd. Suite H130; 281-394-7156
This Malaysian restaurant is one of the first arrivals in the Katy Asiantown development that will eventually include new locations of the H Mart grocery store, Mala Sichuan, and others. Diners will find carefully prepared, highly flavorful versions of dishes like roti canai, satay skewers, and beef randang. Friendly service and reasonable prices offset quibbles like a ho-hum beer selection. Frankly, if the other restaurants in the development are this solid, I’m going to be driving to the Grand Parkway more often. 23119 Colonial Parkway Katy; 832-913-6382
After months of anticipation, this sister concept to Montrose staple Romano’s has finally opened in Briargrove. Whereas Romano’s is a no-nonsense pizza joint with a few pasta dishes, Eatalia offers a full menu of Italian-American classics with a full bar and wine list.
Classic dishes like fried calamari, spaghetti and meatballs, and veal parmesan offer plenty of comfort, even if the prices seem a little higher than one would expect for this sort of fare. Essentially, it’s the opposite of the sort of hyper-regional, focused Italian restaurants that are the rage nationally. That relegates Eatalia to solid neighborhood joint rather than must-visit destination, but, judging by the number of people who were greeting people at other tables as they sat down, that will suit this affluent area just fine. 1936 Fountain View Dr.; 832-649-4357
Honorable mention: Robard’s Steakhouse
With a comprehensive remodel and an all-new menu from chef David Morris, formerly of the celebrated Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, this restaurant isn’t new, but it might as well be. Any steakhouse can sear a steak to a proper medium rare, but they don’t all serve non-steak dishes as delicious as Robard’s Greek-inspired lamb rack scottadito or as artfully plated as the beef tartare. Slightly overcooked giant prawns and wagyu nigiri with too much rice for the thin pieces of meat show a couple of kinks that need working out, but overall the kitchen is operating in fine form.
Robard’s gets the details right, too, with linen napkins, expensive ceramics, and elegant glassware. The Woodlands has lots of steakhouses, and Robard’s has just raised the bar for all of them. Then again, maybe the restaurant sending a driver to ferry me north from Montrose made me more favorably disposed to the food. 2301 North Millbend Dr.; 281-364-6400