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Where to eat in Houston right now: 9 best restaurants serving up something new

Where to eat in Houston: 9 best restaurants serving up something new

One Fifth Gulf Coast pork, chicken and shrimp jambalaya
Pork, chicken, and shrimp jambalaya at One Fifth Gulf Coast. Photo by Julie Soefer
Annie Cafe bar interior
The Annie features a stunning, oval-shaped bar. Photo by Jenn Duncan
Rosalie Italian Soul pepperoni pizza
Come for the pizza, stay for the cannoli at Rosalie. Photo by Julie Soefer
One Fifth Gulf Coast pork, chicken and shrimp jambalaya
Annie Cafe bar interior
Rosalie Italian Soul pepperoni pizza

Everything old is new again. Not to be cliche, but that old saying really feels true at this particular moment in the arc of Houston restaurants. 

This month's list of new restaurants to try features six establishments that are both old and new. Either they're existing establishments with new menus and designs or they're rebranded and updated takes on previous concepts. Some of these efforts are more successful than others, of course, but all are designed to induce diners into giving consideration to a place they might have otherwise overlooked. 

Restaurant revivals aren't the only new options to choose from. A California-based Top Chef Masters winner has channeled his great grandmother's spirit at downtown's buzziest new hotel, and a Chinatown veteran has opened the capstone concept of his ambitious, four-year project to transform a shopping center into a destination for cuisines from four different Asian countries. 

As always, these restaurants are in the order I think you should try them based on my experiences dining there. Please enjoy.

One Fifth Gulf Coast 
After boldly exploring Mediterranean cuisine for One Fifth’s third iteration, Chris Shepherd’s decision to focus on the Gulf Coast for “four-fifths” seemed a little, well, obvious. After all, both Shepherd and Underbelly Hospitality culinary director Nick Fine are Brennan’s alums; they could practically shuck oysters and make snapper pontchartrain in their sleep.

Thankfully, One Fifth Gulf Coast exceeds expectations thanks to its high-low mix of cuisine. Get down and dirty with fried popcorn shrimp, “gas station snacks” that are usually fried boudain balls or similar, or the wildly over the top Captain’s Platter, a literal boat laden with seafood that’s One Fifth’s version of Georgia James’ baller board. Diners may also skip the fryer entirely by opting for stone crab claws, jambalaya for two, or the delicate, surprisingly flavorful wood-roasted flounder almondine.

Creative cocktails and pastry director Victoria Dearmond’s down home desserts — don’t miss the coconut cake — help round out the experience. 1658 Westheimer Rd.

Rosalie Italian Soul 
For his first Texas restaurant, star chef Chris Cosentino channels his great-grandmother’s spirit. The restaurant’s design takes cues from her kitchen in ’70s-era Providence, Rhode Island, while the menu offers an updated take on Italian-American fare.

Executive chef Sasha Grumman, who worked for Cosentino at Cockscomb in San Francisco, leads the kitchen. Highlights from a recent visit include the local vegetable frito misto with whipped ricotta, classic pepperoni pizza with a pleasantly chewy crust, and blue crab manicotti that get an extra shot of briny ocean flavor from lobster sauce Americane.

Pastry chef Valerie Trasatti’s confections, including delicate, orange-flavored cannoli, make leaving room for dessert mandatory. 400 Dallas St.

The Annie Cafe 
Cafe Annie has changed before — it relocated from its original home on Westheimer to Post Oak and San Felipe then to its current home in BLVD Place — but the changes at the 38-year-old go far beyond its flip-flopped name. Working with chef Robert Del Grande, new owner Ben Berg (B&B Butchers, B.B. Lemon, etc) and operating partner Sam Governale (Emmaline) have injected the restaurant with a lighter, brighter interior and a younger sensibility demonstrated with new plating designed to be Instagram worthy.

Berg relocated the stairs to create the space for second floor bathrooms and the space’s massive, oval-shaped bar. The patio has also been reworked to allow diners to watch the street scene pass by on Post Oak.

Some of Del Grande’s signature dishes remain (coffee-crusted filet, wood-grilled rabbit, tortilla soup), but the new items follow Del Grande’s core philosophy of preparing great ingredients in a way that enhances them. Scottish salmon comes with a savory black lentil stew, and the familiar long bone ribeye arrives in an eye-catching presentation: sliced on the bone and topped with pickled onions, cilantro, and cotjia cheese. Daily specials, ranging from fried seafood on Monday to prime rib on Thursday, help keep things fresh and offer more affordable alternatives to the entrees. 1800 Post Oak Blvd.

Benjy’s 
Admittedly, the 20-year old restaurant isn’t new, but a smart redesign by Aaron Rambo (Local Foods, The Classic) and a new menu of shareable dishes that features contributions from chef Seth Siegel-Gardner (The Pass & Provisions) have provided this Rice Village staple with some much needed new energy.

Siegel-Gardner fans still mourning the loss of Provisions will recognize the chef’s touches on dishes ranging from oven-roasted carrots with salsa verde and sea urchin carbonara to a Texas twist on tortellini in brodo — smoked bone broth with dumplings filled with brisket from Blood Bros. BBQ. French toast stuffed with red beans and topped with miso caramel makes for a decadent dessert option, but the savory beet cake with whipped goat cheese just didn’t register as dessert for me.

Essentially, this transformation is what restaurateur Benjy Levit could have done with Benjy’s on Washington; instead of a full rebrand, as Levit did when he created The Classic, Benjy’s in Rice Village keeps its old name but may otherwise be unrecognizable to long time fans wondering what happened to their crunchy chicken plate (sorry not sorry). Staying relevant in a world where even six month-old restaurants struggle for attention can’t be easy, but diners who had written off Benjy’s previously (*raises hand*) would be well-served by a return visit. 2424 Dunstan Rd.

Eugene’s Gulf Coast Cuisine
Speaking of restaurants that aren’t quite new, Eugene’s may have a new name and a new location in the former Mockingbird Bistro space, but owner Kyle Teas has essentially imported the menu and most of the staff from Danton’s, his popular Creole restaurant that closed at the end of 2018.

That’s good news for people who missed signatures like crab Danton, oysters Montrose, and shrimp Kyle. All of those are more, think pecan-crusted snapper and seafood courtboullion, are present and accounted for.

Teas’ wife, Clare Teas, and sister-in-law, Christa Yates, have decorated the 70-seat oyster bar with vintage family photographs. Antique mirrors from the Teas family help make the 80-seat main dining room feel larger and more open. 1985 Welch St.

Toukei Izakaya
Mike Tran has gone all out for the sixth and final restaurant he’s opened in a Chinatown shopping center. Toukei attempts to transport diners to Japan with vintage Japanese signage, wooden booths, and an open kitchen that shows off the cooks working the grill.

The menu covers a broad spectrum of izakaya favorites, roughly divided among hot and cold appetizers, sashimi, yakitori skewers, ramen, and larger entrees. Even across two visits, it would be impossible to sample them all, but soy duck breast, chicken thigh with green onion, and crispy chicken skin are all worth ordering. As these visits occurred shortly after opening, we detected some issues with both seasoning and cooking, but Tran’s track record suggests they’ll be resolved quickly (if they haven’t been already).

Toukei is as much bar as restaurant, and lots of attention has been lavished on the drinks. A tap dedicated to highballs made with Suntory whisky serves as the starting point for the beverage options, but the selections also include sake, shochu, spirits, and an extensive selection of Japanese whisky. The truly rare stuff — such as Hibiki 21 and Mars Komagatake non-chill filtered — is only available by the bottle, which would mean a group would need to commit a whole evening to finishing it off. Plan accordingly. 9630 Clarewood Dr.

Gen Korean BBQ 
Jinya Ramen franchisee Jim Wang has brought this California-based Korean barbecue restaurant to the former Holley’s location in Midtown. Unlike most Korean barbecue restaurants that offer a la carte pricing, Gen’s all-you-can-eat (in two hours) model means diners may choose from a wide selection of meats for just $17 at lunch and $25 at dinner. The low price does come with some trade offs — specifically, the bowls of banchan are pretty small (although they will be refilled) and diners are mostly on their own to cook the various cuts of beef, pork, and chicken — but the overall value is very high.

Whereas a recent dinner at Bori cost about $200 for 3 people, a meal at Gen, even with a beer or two, would be half that. So load up on classics like bulgogi, marinated short rib, and thinly sliced brisket, bring friends who are willing to help with the cooking, and enjoy one of the least expensive beef feasts inside the Loop. 3201 Louisiana St.

Studewood Cantine 
Occupying the former Los Cucos location near the corner of 11th and Studewood, this restaurant fulfills its role as a neighborhood Tex-Mex spot with enough TVs to make it a game day destination. Chile con queso delivers the right, gooey texture; my combination plate of a chicken flauta, a green chile enchilada, and a beef taco al carbon satisfied all the usual Tex-Mex cravings for an eminently reasonable $13. Sometimes, that’s good enough. 1111 Studewood St.

Ginza Japanese Restaurant 
The Briargrove staple has a new look and a new menu courtesy of Harold Wong, an Uchi alum who has spent the past few years leading The Fish in Midtown. Wong took over Ginza this summer, bringing his fresh perspective on contemporary, Japanese-inspired cuisine. Featured dishes include: tuna “nachos” with raw tuna on wonton chips topped with avocado, pico, and tobiko; hamachi with tomato, candied jalapeño, and yuzu soy; and a wagyu beef patty melt.

It may cause sushi purists to twitch, but Wong isn’t claiming to offer Houston’s most authentic Japanese experience — just a fun, flavorful one. That makes it an excellent fit for a neighborhood full of young families who might enjoy a sushi dinner without all the fuss and, critically, at a lower price than some of its Inner Loop competitors. 5868 San Felipe St.