Houston's white-hot restaurant scene showed no signs of cooling down, as several eagerly anticipated new restaurants made their debuts. Read on to learn about a River Oaks hotspot, an innovative twist on Thai cuisine and one sushi restaurant that needs some tweaks to earn your dollars.
As always, these are ordered roughly based on how important it is I think you try them, but they all have something to offer. Well, except one. Keep reading to find out why.
State of Grace
Atlanta chef Ford Fry's Houston restaurant is a sort of homecoming for the Lamar High School grad, but the success of his eight other restaurants isn't what's made this River Oaks spot the fall's most talked about opening. Credit for that goes to Elizabeth Ingram's stunning design that recalls an upscale Hill Country hunting lodge and executive chef Bobby Matos's menu, which blends elements from restaurants Fry patronized as a child like Felix and Hofbrau with more contemporary influences and an ambitious housemade pasta program.
The restaurant also features an extensive raw bar with a dozen oyster selections as well as staples like shrimp cocktail and seafood towers.
Bringing so many influences together could get messy, but State of Grace is off to a strong start. Appetizers like lobster hush puppies, deviled crab on the half shell and beef tartare (topped with fried oysters) all provide creative twists on classic dishes while still letting the core ingredients shine through.
The menu's Tex-Mex options, a cheese enchilada and queso flameado served with bacon fat tortillas, hold their own against any restaurants dedicated to the cuisine. Twice-fried chicken may not have brought Long Point levels of heat, but that's to be expected.
Crowds at dinner can be intense, but lunch, served Monday through Friday, is more relaxed. One can also seek some refuge by opting to sit in the Oyster Room, which is one of the prettiest spaces to open this year. Best of all, four types of oysters are $1 each every day from 3 pm to 5 pm.
The second of Treadsack's three fall openings is chef PJ Stoops' restaurant that takes its inspiration from the food he learned to love when he lived northern Thailand. As the psychedelic mural makes clear, Foreign Correspondents is unlike any other Thai restaurant in Houston.
Those differences start with ingredients; the restaurant has partnered with local farmer Sameth Nget to grow vegetables for its use. Overall, dishes are flavorful but without the tongue-searing spiciness that's sometimes associated with the cuisine.
Familiar dishes like green papaya salad and pork curry already hold their own with any Thai restaurant in Houston, but it's dishes like steamed sticky rice with mackerel and stir fried pumpkin with pork that demonstrate what Stoops means by "farm to table Thai."
Similarly, the beverage program, which consists of Leslie Ross' cocktails and Travis Hinkle's Riesling-oriented wine list, is a far cry from the overly sweet Thai teas one might be used to. That's OK.
Houston has needed a restaurant this quirky and ambitious for a while, and from a culinary perspective, there may not be a more exciting new restaurant to dine at right now.
Houston needs another steakhouse like a loch im kopf, as my father used to say, but Bistecca brings a few twists to genre with its Italian perspective. With its white walls and colorful accents, the restaurant has a bright, Mediterranean feel that's a stark contrast to the dark wood and leather everything at classic American joints.
Similarly, the menu benefits from the presence of well-regarded chef Alberto Baffoni, whose handmade pastas, carefully prepared risotto and paper thin octopus carpaccio are all standouts. Tartare fans will want to sample Bistecca's tableside version, which adds a little theater while still delivering on the beefy deliciousness that makes the dish a classic.
We split a 36-ounce cut of the signature Bistecca Fiorentina porterhouse. It arrived sliced and properly medium rare. The CAB prime beef even delivered good value at $79 for a steak that fed three people. I'll be back for some of the protein-oriented small plates and to sample the lunch service that began this week.
Already considered one of the Houston-area's best barbecue joints when it was a couple of trailers in a parking lot, CorkScrew BBQ has only improved with its new, brick and mortar location in Old Towne Spring. Beyond the obvious benefits of having an air conditioned dining room, the new location has allowed pitmaster Will Buckman to increase his daily production.
Whereas sellouts happened as early as 2 pm at the old location, CorkScrew now has meat as late as 6 pm — at least during the week (check Twitter before going late). Thankfully, that increase hasn't resulted in diminished quality; Buckman's moist, peppery brisket and meaty pork ribs are as good as ever. Even co-owner Nichole Buckman's signature cobbler has made a successful transition.
The Burger Joint
The long-awaited brick and mortar version of the recently launched food truck has finally opened its doors. Owner Shawn Bermudez (Stone's Throw, Royal Oak, etc) has improved the former Little Big's space by reconfiguring the dining room to allow for 24 beer taps, rebuilt and leveled the patio and added TVs. While the structural improvements are certainly welcome, it's chef Matthew Pak's menu, which is built around a classic thin patty burger made with 44 Farms beef, that will be the principle draw.
The restaurant's increased capacity has allowed Pak to expand his offerings both in terms of the variety of burgers and new non-burger items like hot dogs, salads and sandwiches. In particular, the BBQ burger, which ups a bacon cheeseburger with Pak's barbecue sauce and an onion ring, and the Big Frank, a fried, footlong hot dog topped with pulled pork and cole slaw, are particularly compelling. Shakes blend soft serve ice cream with housemade syrups, including a chocolate that uses ganache as its base.
Best of all, it's open until midnight during the week and 4 am on Friday and Saturday, which adds to the late night offerings already provided by neighbors like Theo's, BB's Cafe and Pepperoni's.
Lee's Fried Chicken and Donuts
The latest concept from F.E.E.D. TX (Liberty Kitchen, BRC) jumps on the national trend of offering two favorite treats under one roof: donuts and fried chicken. Lee's donuts are excellent, with a light texture and a not too sweet glaze; if it's available, the blueberry cake donut is must-order. Kolaches benefit from hearty sausage links but the dough has an unexpected, bread-like texture and flavor.
As for the chicken, the three-day process of brining and soaking in buttermilk results in very juicy meat with a crispy crust, and the pieces are large — that helps when a four piece and two sides costs $15. Seasoning tends towards Southern salt and pepper, which is a little bland to my palate.
Optional dipping sauces help somewhat, but I'm still waiting for one of these new-school joints to try to mimic a Frenchy's-style Cajun spicy option. Still, it's hard not to like a restaurant that features a neon likeness of co-owner Lee Ellis, and Lee's already shows signs of improvement.
The Tuck Room
Located within the newly opened iPic Theater, The Tuck Room is the first restaurant to open at River Oaks District. Part of iPic's appeal are the black clad "ninja" servers who deliver finger food to the "premium plus" seats, but The Tuck Room provides diners with a legitimate before or after movie option. At a recent preview event, the room buzzed as people sipped cocktails and watched sports on one of the TVs.
Created by James Beard Award winner Sherry Yard, The Tuck Room's menu offers a variety of sandwiches, small plates and entrees. I had the opportunity to sample a juicy snapper with crispy skin, sweet corn croquettes and Spanish-style papas bravas (meatballs and roasted potatoes).
While some restaurants try to fancy up their lobster rolls, The Tuck Room keeps things simple with a toasted, buttery Slow Dough bun and just enough mayo to hold the lobster together. Several restaurants will open at River Oaks District over the next six months, but The Tuck Room gets things off to a solid start.
It was only this summer that Delicious Concepts owner Ken Bridge hired former Dosi chef Jordan Asher to transform Witchcraft from a craft beer and burger joint into a small plates and cocktails restaurant, but it didn't last. Witchcraft has shuttered, and Asher has moved on.
In its place, Bridge has opened the Republic Diner. Between this and his plans to transform The El Cantina into a brewpub, perhaps Bridge should consider renaming his company Delicious Re-concepts, but I digress.
Those who miss Dosi may want to consider Republic Diner, because it also serves Korean-style small plates and a large selection of soju. Perhaps I should have known better than to visit on its first day, but my experience at Republic was a mixed bag. I enjoyed the pan-seared dumplings filled with a mixture of beef and pork, but both a seafood pancake and Korean fried chicken would have been better if they had been crispier to give them a little texture.
Thankfully, the prices are reasonable, and the lunch menu looks good. I'll certainly give it another shot soon.
Oka Japanese Cuisine
Although this column is explicitly dedicated to restaurants people should try, I'm going to divert from that briefly to warn you about a restaurant you probably shouldn't try — at least not yet. Oka, the sushi restaurant that replaced Osteria Mazzantini, needs to get its pricing and its portions more in line with other sushi restaurants if it expects to outlast its predecessor.
For $18, I expected more than six tiny slices of octopus in the takoashi crudo. Perhaps something other than high rent in the BBVA Compass building justifies $4 for a piece of ordinary salmon nigiri or $21 for the "fresh roll" that features salmon and crab wrapped in cucumber.
All of this is too bad, because the only solid sushi option in the immediate area is Uptown Sushi. Certainly, the area has sufficient demand to support a high quality option or two. Oka's sister restaurants, Cafe Jade and Qin Dynasty, have found an audience with upscale versions of Chinese-American food, so hopefully the owners can readjust and find their footing quickly.
New lunch options: Bramble, Izakaya, Tarakaan and The Del
A few new restaurants have recently added lunch service and are worth strong consideration by people looking for new options. At Bramble, chef Randy Rucker offers a slightly simplified version of his Southern-inspired menu with dishes like roast chicken, seared Gulf fish and a burger. Next door, The Del's classic American fare includes a fried fish sandwich, salads and a meatball sub.
Turning to Midtown, Japanese pub Izakaya offers a choice of entree and two sides for $12.99 along with rice and noodle bowls. Now open Monday through Friday, lunch at Tarakaan features a mix of starters from the dinner menu as well as rice and noodle bowls.