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Houston's Biggest Restaurant Openings: The spots that are changing the way the city eats

Houston's Biggest Restaurant Openings: The spots that changed the city

Oxheart Restaurant diners Justin Yu
Justin Yu's meticulous food has earned a lot of praise, but the spirit of hospitality pervades dining at Oxheart. Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau
3016, Ballet Barre dinner, April 2013, Underbelly, crowd, venue
The biggest opening of the last five has to be Underbelly, which brought home Houston's first James Beard Award in 22 years. Photo by © Fulton Davenport/PWL Studio
Brasserie 19 Houston exterior day
No restaurant has captured the attention of Houston's social scene like Brasserie 19. Google Plus
Mala Sichuan Bistro dish with red peppers
Get the signature lip-tingle at Mala Sichuan. Mala Sichuan Bistro
Provisions of The Pass & Provisions
One roof. Two restaurants. Both great. The Pass & Provisions. Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Oxheart Restaurant diners Justin Yu
3016, Ballet Barre dinner, April 2013, Underbelly, crowd, venue
Brasserie 19 Houston exterior day
Mala Sichuan Bistro dish with red peppers
Provisions of The Pass & Provisions

With CultureMap celebrating its fifth anniversary, we're taking a look back at some of the biggest food stories of the last five years. Today's column examines Houston's most significant restaurant openings during that span.

The last five years have been a dynamic one for Houston restaurants. Finally, the city has captured nationwide attention as a new generation of chefs, both homegrown and transplanted, have begun to utilize local meat, seafood and produce in dishes inspired by the city's many culinary traditions. While it's hard to compare the current wave to the period 30 years ago when Robert Del Grande and others made Houston a culinary hotspot for Southwestern cuisine, few would deny that it's a great time to dine in Houston.

Read on to see CultureMap's picks for the restaurants that have helped Houston stand proudly on the national stage. Hopefully, despite the immense challenges that cause even high-profile restaurants to close, they're still around for our 10th anniversary.

Honorable Mention: The rise of Houston barbecue. 
For too long, Houstonians in search of smoky, fatty, Central-Texas style barbecue had to travel to Austin. Saucy East Texas barbecue had its champions with places like Williams Smokehouse, Thelma's Bar B Que and Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que, but Houston was a virtual barbecue wasteland for far too long. That all changed in 2010 with the opening of Gatlin's BBQ in the Heights.

 Houston was a virtual barbecue wasteland for far too long. That all changed in 2010 with the opening of Gatlin's in The Heights. 

Suddenly, barbecue fans had a consistent source of spicy sausage, ribs that didn't fall apart at first bite and fatty brisket. Since then, The Brisket House, CorkScrew BBQ, Brooks' Place and Killen's Barbecue have all raised the game.

Who needs to drive to Luling or Lockhart? 

Honorable Mention: The class of 2014.
The biggest problem with taking a look back is that it's unclear how to measure what's happening now. The last year has been a dynamic one for Houston restaurants with several high quality openings that could earn a spot on a list of "The best Houston restaurants to open between 2009 and 2014" once we've had a better chance to assess their role.

Will Caracol help Hugo Ortega finally kick down the door and win a James Beard Award? Will Coltivare emerge as a staple of new Southern cuisine like Husk in Charleston or Empire State South in Atlanta? Will Common Bond realize chef Roy Shvartzapel's goal of becoming the best bakery in America? Will Killen's Barbecue dethrone Franklin Barbecue as the best in Texas? Will Pax Americana usher in a new wave of reasonably priced, ambitious neighborhood restaurants?

If the answers to those questions are yes, Houston will be an even better place to dine than it already is. 

Brasserie 19
Since it opened in 2011, Clark/Cooper Concepts River Oaks restaurant has emerged as Houston's top see and be seen spot. Socialites flock there, jockeying for a prime position sitting in front of the restaurant's famous windows that overlook the never-ending parade of luxury automobiles that flood its valet stand. Long time general manager Shawn Virene presides over the madness, soothing egos and ensuring that every important guest is properly coddled.

Credit also goes to Clark/Cooper's famous, barely over retail wine pricing; Brasserie makes a point of selling the city's least expensive bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. While the food isn't very adventurous, it is consistent, with reliable salads, fresh oysters and steak frites always available. 

Mala Sichuan
Whether you call it the colloquial Chinatown or the more accurate Asia Town, the stretch of restaurants on Bellaire Blvd from Fondren to Dairy Ashford (roughly) has been one of Houston's most dynamic restaurant rows, luring adventurous diners from across the city for seafood, dim sum and specialties unavailable anywhere else.

Mala sets itself apart in a few simple ways: A clearly written English menu that ensures diners understand what they're ordering; a well-priced, carefully curated wine list by former Oxheart sommelier Justin Vann; and rigorously authentic Sichuan cuisine that leaves diners lips pulsing with the signature mala tingle. Dishes like roasted prawns, red oil dumplings and four joy lionhead meatballs have become instant classics.

Finally, it has become the one restaurant where I always seem to spot members of Houston's restaurant industry — people who are constantly around food want to eat at this restaurant. Could there be any compliment higher than that? 

The Pass & Provisions
That the dual concept restaurant from chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner manages to fulfill both its missions, casual neighborhood spot for pizza and cocktails (roughly) and conceptual, multi-course tasting menus, would probably be reason enough to include it on this list. Amazingly, it also continues to get better.

Earlier this year, The Pass added a full second menu that is both vegan and gluten-free, meaning it's accessible to diners with a wide variety of food allergies or dietary preferences. A recent meal at Provisions featured a gigantic, super crispy soft shell crab with a sweet-spicy Thai sauce that's as good a preparation of that protein as I can ever recall having.

Try Provisions for brunch. It can be less crowded, and the homemade kolaches, biscuits and bagels show the same clever attention to detail that makes dining at this restaurant so much fun.  

Yes, Justin Yu's 31-seat restaurant in the Warehouse District has innovative food that takes high quality local ingredients and filters them through a variety of influences, including Ubuntu, a Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in California, and a variety of stages across Europe that he and wife Karen Man documented on a highly readable blog. And yes, Man's breads and pastries add another layer of excellent technique to match the savory cuisine.

 What I don't often hear people mention when they discuss Oxheart is the overall sense of hospitality that pervades the restaurant. 

Still, what I don't often hear people mention when they discuss Oxheart is the overall sense of hospitality that pervades the restaurant. The staff is well aware of how far in advance people make their reservations, and they're passionately committed to delivering the best evening possible.

While the stripped down space with its bar seating, record player and wide open view of the kitchen may not be for everyone, I've never personally dined there with anyone who wasn't delighted by the experience. 

By taking home Houston's first James Beard Award in 22 years, Chris Shepherd cemented his status as a bona fide celebrity chef and the face of Houston food. His restaurant Underbelly that tells "the story of Houston food" by bringing together the city's culinary cultures and locally-sourced ingredients with elevated techniques has become the face of the city's culinary scene for educated diners from around the world.

Even though he maintains a fairly rigorous travel schedule, Shepherd is still an almost constant presence at Underbelly (if he's not cheering for the Texans at Hay Merchant during away games). A new generation of sous chefs has emerged, and they're eager to protect the restaurant's reputation.

Meanwhile, Underbelly's ethos has spread throughout the Clumsy Butcher group, which means that the bar food at Hay Merchant (Korean-inspired gochujang wings, Japanese pork cutlet) and the cafe fare at Blacksmith (red eye gravy on the biscuit) all reflect Shepherd's culinary perspective.