Halloween has come and gone. Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away. The days are shorter. None of those seasonal changes have anything to do with this monthly list of new restaurants, but any of them could provide a convenient excuse to skip out on cooking for a night.
As always, the following restaurants have all opened in the last month or two and are ordered roughly in the priority with which I recommend you try them. Go forth and eat before your refrigerator is full of leftovers.
Jose Hernandez is back. The well-traveled chef, whose resume include Philippe, Triniti and Etoile, has taken over the kitchen of the former Bistro Alex at the Hotel Sorella in CityCentre and launched what might be the best Italian restaurant west of the Loop. While he's primarily known for French fare, he spent several years in Washington, D.C. cooking Italian food, which is what he's serving at Radio Milano.
Don't miss the various handmade pastas like the vincisgrassi, thin layers of dough filled with veal ragout, or fagotelli, pasta packets stuffed with butternut squash. Appetizers are solid, with the crab ravioli in an amusing, if someone flavorless, huckleberry gelee being a particular highlight. Hernandez has long been known for his pastry wizardry, so save room for dessert.
Erin Smith is also back. The former Plonk! Bistro/Clumsy Butcher chef has emerged at the newly opened JW Marriott hotel downtown. While the lunch menu will mostly appeal to business travelers or area office workers, Smith demonstrates more creativity at dinner.
Main Kitchen is off to a promising start in its bid to be downtown's next destination restaurant.
The menu is divided into a lengthy list of shareable plates that can either function as starters or entrees with four, center of plate main dishes. We split the crudo, glazed carrots and a duck and fig pizza before tackling the porcelet, which is a thick-cut pork chop. The pizza made a particularly strong impression thanks to its crispy, bubbly crust and well balanced sweet, savory and salty flavors.
At $15, cocktails are higher priced than the bars in the area. A bottled Old Fashioned was tasty, but the sticker shock was hard to shake. Despite that, Main Kitchen is off to a promising start in its bid to be downtown's next destination restaurant.
Prohibition Supperclub & Bar
After a brief permitting delay, Prohibition Supperclub & Bar began lunch service on Wednesday. A renovated space sports an Art Deco look, and servers wear period-inspired costumes.
Developed by former Batanga chef Ben McPherson and sous chef Matt Wommack, the menu blends Southern staples and comfort classics that embody the restaurant's goal of offering "nostalgic" fare. Highlights include smoked fried chicken and meatloaf made with a mix of veal, pork and lamb.
The "decadent" aspect of the menu will emerge when Prohibition begins dinner on Thursday with shareable entrees that include Wagyu tri-tip and lobster for two. Beverage director Lainey Collum's drink menu features improved versions of Prohibition's signature barrel aged cocktails as well as a well-chosen selection of beer and wine (pending final receipt of the liquor license next week).
Performances by the Moonlight Dolls burlesque troops in the renovated theater will also begin soon.
The former Haven space has been given life thanks to two Pauls. The first, Paul Miller, owns the popular local mini-chain The Union Kitchen. Former Osteria Mazzantini and Cullen's chef Paul Lewis is the second, and he brings a menu that the restaurant describes as "globally inspired, locally sourced."
Local sourcing isn't just talk — the restaurant has planted a garden that supplies the kitchen with herbs and vegetables. Highlights include surprisingly flaky goat empanadas, Brussels sprouts in Chinese XO sauce and the country plate that features sous chef Matthew Lovelace's housemade charcuterie and pickles.
Lewis brings his English upbringing to the table with fish and chips that have an almost tempura-like batter that keeps the fish moist and crispy. Sadly, both grouper and snapper entrees suffered from too much salt, but pastry chef Kelsey Hawkins's desserts, particularly the Mexican hot chocolate that's poured table side, erased any ill feelings.
Pappas Meat Co.
What does the Pappas family do with a "spare" building in an area of Houston that already had a full complement of the company's restaurants? They use it to launch a new concept, of course.
Located just outside the Loop on I-10 East, Pappas Meat Co is a casual steakhouse in the Saltgrass/Texas Roadhouse mode with a menu that mixes less expensive steaks than those found at the company's high end Pappas Bros. steakhouse with comfort food. Prices run between $20 and $30 for steaks, and most of the other entrees are under $20 (including a side or two).
Starting with the gigantic, doughy rolls is $2 well spent, and the fried green tomatoes arrive crispy with an addictive spicy remoulade. Pot roast benefits from a four-hour braise with a depth of flavor and fork-tender texture. Crab cakes had plenty of meat but suffered from a little too much salt.
Cocktails, including the signature frozen margarita made famous at Pappasito's and a couple developed exclusively for the concept, are reasonably priced at under $10 and maintain a good balance of sweet and tart. It's probably not a destination for inner-Loopers, but the one-hour wait for a table at 8 p.m. on a Saturday indicates it's already a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
The Chicken Ranch
Fried chicken has emerged as fall's hottest food trend, and the Heights get a second take on the Southern classic with this concept from former Goro & Gun owner Joshua Martinez and his business partner Paul Sedillo. After three days of soft opening over two weekends, it will open full time on Friday.
The menu will look, shall we say, very familiar to anyone who's been to The Bird House, but I suppose there are only so many ways to sell chicken and sides.
Thankfully, Martinez has successfully dialed in the seasoning on his fried chicken; it's got the right balance of salt and pepper while still arriving with both a crispy skin and a juicy interior. Sides are still a bit of a work in progress; well-executed mashed potatoes and okra and tomatoes were offset by too salty collard greens and slightly gritty bechamel in the mac and cheese.
Martinez's trademark flair for wings remains intact. In terms of both price and design, the menu will look, shall we say, very familiar to anyone who's been to The Bird House, but I suppose there are only so many ways to sell chicken and sides.
Once the liquor license arrives, a mix of sparking wine and craft beer should help make the ranch a viable dinner destination.
This replacement for Brian O'Neill's brings authentic Irish atmosphere, courtesy of two immigrant owners, and an authentic selection of Irish whiskey to Rice Village. Farmers market regulars will recognize chef Ara Malekian thanks to his distinctive Fu Manchu mustache and black cowboy hat. He created the bar's menu of upgraded pub grub.
While his status as a caterer means relatively few people have had the chance to try his cuisine, options like confit chicken wings and a burger topped with braised short ribs will find an audience. While bars won't ever be known for dessert, the pecan pie has a properly flaky crust and avoids being overly sweet.
Cooler temps make the patio a pleasant place to spend an evening.
Mexican food without chile gravy or enchiladas? It's happening at this spot in the Energy Corridor. California native Andrew Carlisle spent years cooking in New Orleans before moving to Houston after Hurricane Katrina. He's making the move from hotels and catering to owning a restaurant.
The menu focuses on seafood, as in beer battered shrimp, a variety of ceviches and, of course, fish tacos. With their chile mole sauce and ancho rub, Verde's ribs are one of the stronger entrees I sampled. Tender carnitas were a pleasant surprise. Skip the prime rib and shrimp and grits; the menu's strengths lie elsewhere.
This casual counter service spot in Town & Country applies the Chipotle model to a variety of Tex-Mex dishes. Walk up to the line, select and an entree and watch as the staff assembles, say, chicken enchiladas wrapped in a wheat tortilla topped with salsa verde. Everything, including the tortillas, is made fresh daily in house.
Prices are surprisingly reasonable, too. A half-pound of real deal outside skirt steak fajitas costs $14.
Owner Chris Smith spent years in the Pappas organization, and he definitely has his eye on fine-tuning the concept to spread it around Houston. If Hugo Caliente can execute as consistently as it did on my visit, that won't be a problem.
Pondicheri Bake Lab + Shop
Admittedly, the newly opened Pondicheri Bake Lab expands an existing restaurant rather than introduces a new one, but who can say no to more sweet and savory baked goods from celebrated chef/owner Anita Jaisinghani? The upstairs space features more than just cookies and brownies though; find cooking equipment, a relocated and expanded juice bar, ingredients for cooking (curries, etc) and takeaway items.
Seating is limited, but the selection is rapidly expanding. Paying $7 for a slice of (chai spiced) pumpkin pie has never tasted so good.
Honorable mention: Kipper Club Test Kitchen
A converted soul food restaurant in a gas station strip center might be an unlikely place for the owners of Down House and D&T Drive Inn to push Houston's culinary scene forward, but that's where owner Chris Cusack and chef Benjy Mason have launched the Kipper Club Test Kitchen.
Under the direction of chef Graham Laborde, the Kipper Club presents a series of pop-up dinners that give up and coming chefs a chance to showcase their skills, out of town chefs the chance to introduce themselves to Houstonians and established Houston chefs the chance for unusual collaborations.
With eight dinners coming over the next six weeks, almost anyone with an interest in trying something new should be able to find something that appeals to him or her. If I had to pick one, I'd probably go for the Gulf Coast x SE Asia dinner that brings together Reef chef de cuisine Ryan Lachaine with PJ Stoops of the upcoming Foreign Correspondents and area farmer Sameth Nget.
But then there's Richard Knight and Triniti pastry chef Samantha Mendoza serving brunch and Foreign & Domestic chef Ned Elliot offering his feast of the seven fishes. Oh well, guess I'm going to do more than one.