The past month has been an incredible one for Houston restaurants, as several eagerly anticipated, high profile concepts finally made their debuts. Big names like Randy Rucker, Brandi Key and Chris Kinjo all revealed their latest creations to the city's diners, and, in each case, the early results are very promising.
Several eagerly anticipated, high profile concepts finally made their debut.
Of course, a few off-the-radar options also demanded attention, which makes the last 31 days one of the most dynamic periods of new openings in recent memory. With surprises as close as the Galleria area and as far away as Richmond demanding attention.
Realistically, most Houstonians will be allocating their dining budgets to establishments that are participating in Houston Restaurant Weeks, and I'm certainly not going to discourage anyone from doing good while eating well. Still, for those who have to chase the newest openings, consider the list below.
As always, the restaurants are roughly ordered by the priority with which I think you should try them, but all of this month's options merit strong consideration.
SaltAir Seafood Kitchen
The fifth restaurant from Clark/Cooper Concepts (Ibiza, Brasserie 19, Coppa Osteria, Punk's Simple Southern Food) has elevated the quality of the dining options on Kirby and, according to my colleague Shelby Hodge, already emerged as this summer's hottest see-and-be-seen destination. While the boldface names have gravitated to the space for its air of "relaxed elegance," those who consider food their first priority will find a lot to like here, too.
Chef Brandi Key has delivered her most ambitious menu to date, with a mix of cold seafood options that can be shared, center of plate items that can be savored and innovative vegetables dishes that could be a meal on their own. The hamachi crudo and expertly fried calamari are particular highlights. Knowledgeable, efficient service and Clark/Cooper's celebrated low-margin wine markups round out the experience.
If a packed dining room at 7 pm on a Wednesday is any indication, Randy Rucker's new "neighborhood joint" is a definite hit. Diners may find the tidy menu's dozen or so items that mix shareable starters and more substantial mains reminiscent of Roost, but don't get too attached to any individual dish. Visits two weeks apart had almost completely different menus, with the only constants being a couple of starters (including the essential roasted corn).
In general, smoked or cured seafood remains one of Rucker's strong suits; if there's one on the menu, order it. Larger entrees like whole roasted fish and big steaks encourage group dining, as does the restaurant's policy of only accepting reservations for parties of six or more. A short, well-executed cocktail menu and several wine choices under $50 per bottle add to Bramble's appeal.
Helen Greek Food & Wine
Five-plus years in the making, sommelier Evan Turner has finally realized his dream of opening a modern Green restaurant in Houston. While staples like gyro and dolemades are present and accounted for, Turner and chef William Wright have collaborated to give them a bit of twist by making the gyro with pork shoulder, instead of the familiar beef and lamb, and using collard greens instead of grape leaves for the signature starter.
Elsewhere, the menu blends Texas proteins like snapper and rabbit with Greek cheeses and olive oils to deliver familiar flavors with new twists. Helen's 100-plus list of Greek wines reflects Turner's passion for them and offers diners the chance to try something new. Just save room for the baklava sundae served in an iconic Greek diner cup.
Fielding's Local Kitchen + Bar
The second concept from restaurateur Cary Attar and chef Edel Goncalves joins the popular Fielding's Wood Grill in delivering inner-Loop style dining to the Creekside neighborhood in The Woodlands. Whereas Wood Grill is distinctly casual with a menu built around burgers, Local is a slightly more upscale affair. The dough for all the pizzas and pastas are made in-house. Starters reflect a diverse array of influences, from tandoori-spiced chicken drumettes to Mediteranean-style grilled octopus.
In addition to the pastas, entree options include wood-grilled meats and seafood dishes prepared on a plancha. My salmon arrived properly medium rare with flavorful sides of sticky black rice and a black bean puree. Even a classic like grilled cheese benefits from fresh-baked brioche bread and roasted tomatoes.
On the beverage side, the 100-plus bottle list features a bevy of selections under $50 and only a few trophies over $100. Cocktails, which are mostly priced at $12, feature fresh juice as well as a variety of house-made syrups, infusions and shrubs. As at Wood Grill, the 26 taps feature a range of both Texas and national craft selections. Given their track record of success, Attar and Goncalves look to have another hit on their hands — one that might even merit driving to from points south.
This bar-forward concept from Kata Robata owners the Azuma Group is the latest entrant in Midtown's new wave of more grown up bars and restaurants (Oporto Fooding House & Wine, Fluff Bake Bar, Spare Key, etc). The menu, a collaboration between co-executive chef Jean-Philippe Gaston and Kata Robata's Manabu Horiuchi, offers a range of shareable raw and cooked items that blend the traditional pub fare served at izakayas in Japan with a global perspective that reflects Gaston's stints at a range of restaurants that includes both Reef and Cove Cold Bar.
A visit during the restaurant's second week of service revealed that it still needs some fine-tuning. Of the nine dishes my party of three sampled, we most enjoyed the chicken fried steak, which features a surprisingly creamy tofu-mushroom gravy, and grilled octopus. On the other hand, Peruvian ceviche, which should be a Gaston strong suit, tasted fishy and went mostly untouched.
On the plus side, Izakaya's cocktail menu, which was developed by consultants Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt, lives up to its promise of delivering presentations and flavors that are different than any other bar or restaurant in Houston I've tried. All that comes at a cost, of course; nine plates and six drinks (two per person) rang up at about $150 plus tip.
Now that his eagerly anticipated new restaurant in the Museum District has opened, sushi master Chris Kinjo is back where he belongs. The new space by MC2 Architects, which earned a James Beard award nomination for its work at Triniti, puts Kinjo and his sushi chefs on stage. With the fish cases integrated into the sushi counter instead of sitting on top of it, diners can watch every knife cut that goes into preparing each dish of their meal. Of course, the nigiri, which on my visit included two kinds of uni, is impeccably fresh.
Thankfully, MF's prepared dishes, including light, crispy shrimp tempura and a barely seared tuna tataki salad, deliver, too. While I enjoyed the cocktail I sampled, in the future I'll probably just allocate that money to a beer or two and spend the savings on more sushi — after all, that's what makes MF one of the best sushi experiences in Houston.
Brick & Mortar Kitchen
Speaking of suburban restaurants that are worth the drive for inner-Loopers, consider this new restaurant that's bringing serious culinary chops to Richmond. Located at Gallery Furniture's new outpost on the Grand Parkway and operated by owner Jim McIngvale's daughter Laura McIngvale Brown and her husband Phil Brown, who also own Austin's Vince Young Steakhouse, Brick & Mortar features a focus on Texas ingredients and more adventurous fare than the chain restaurants that populate the growing suburb.
Highlight from chef Eric Johnson's menu includes the charred carrot salad, fried quail entree and a massive, juicy pork chop. For those bringing a group, a $150 order of porchetta easily feeds six. Those looking to really indulge should ask sommelier Lexey Johnson to bust out one of the bottles on her list of eight "Incredibles" — highlighted by a $4,250 bottle of cult-favorite Screaming Eagle.
For a city of its size, Houston has always been a little light on French restaurants, and our absence of a casual cafe is particularly — wait for it — "Gaul"-ing. Enter Flo Paris, which opened recently on Westheimer between Chimney Rock and Fountain View, aims to fill the gap. Owners Florelle and and Rabih Salibi bring over 20 years of experience operating restaurants in Paris to Flo, and the restaurant aims to be as authentic as if it were operating on the Champs-Élysées.
Everything, from breads to pastries to sandwich meats, is made from scratch, and that freshness comes through in the taste of items like the roast beef sandwich and thyme croissant. Save room for dessert or miss the indulgence of a mousse cake that French cowboy Philippe Schmit rates as "3-star Michelin."
The Moonshiners Southern Table and Bar
The latest concept from the Salt N Pepper Group (Beer Market Co) opened downtown next to Prohibition. The retro look features reclaimed wood and antique distilling equipment. True to its name, the cocktail menu features drinks made with various infused moonshines. Try the Porch Sipper, which mixes the un-aged bourbon with sweet tea.
While we enjoyed our cocktails, the food seems to be a work in progress. My burger arrived properly medium rare, but both the fries and mac and cheese were strangely bland. Still, the group's track record of success with both Beer Market and affiliated concept Crisp suggests they'll work the kinks out quickly and give downtown another worthwhile lunch and dinner option.
Houston Restaurant Weeks
With over 200 restaurants participating in this year's edition of Houston Restaurant Weeks, diners have a wide range of choices. From August 1 until September 7, choose from $20 lunch, $25 brunch and $35 and $45 dinner options that all include a corresponding donation to the Houston Food Bank.
HRW veterans like Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, the Cordua restaurants and Tony's are all back, but the event also features over 40 first-timers. Some of my top picks from the newcomers include Peska Seafood Culture, B&B Butchers and Karbach Brewery.