By any measure, 2015 has been a good year for restaurants in Houston. It seems as through two or three new restaurants opened every month that clamored for attention. Those restaurants produced some great, memorable dishes.
Whether we're talking about carpetbagger oysters at B&B Butchers, roasted carrot pizza at Weights + Measures, beef belly burnt ends at Southern Goods, lobster hush puppies at State of Grace or even The Burger Joint's basic burger, diners in Houston had plenty of high quality new options to try — and then argue about how they compared to the established classics.
Before praising those restaurants (and others) for their successes in 2015, let's take a page from Eater critic Robert Sietsema and look at a few dishes that were memorable for the wrong reasons. Whether the problem is one of conception or execution, sometimes a plate of food comes up short. In other words, they're the worst dishes of 2015.
Grilled shrimp and green papaya salad, Thai style at Izakaya
After three visits, I'm still not sure what to make of the Azuma Group's Midtown craft cocktail and small plates spot. On the one hand, the drinks and raw dishes have lots of appeal. On the other, dishes like the the grilled shrimp failed both in terms of conception and execution. Serving shrimp head on is good, but asking diners to pull the heads off and drip the juices onto the chopped salad results in a mess. Similarly, serving this dish, which consists of two, large shrimp, to more than two people without providing cutlery on the table results in questions about how to split the whole thing up — are we supposed to saw it in half with chopsticks? Thankfully, it seems like this dish has been retired from the current menu, but I still have trouble recommending anything other than the raw dishes.
Three meat plate at Drew's BBQ
Houston is the middle of a full-fledged barbecue boom, and diners are the happy beneficiary of both newcomers like Jackson St BBQ and Pappas Charlies Barbeque as well as established favorites like Killen's, Gatlin's and CorkScrew. All that high quality 'cue makes Drew's BBQ, which opened this September, so confusing. The restaurant is out of step with the current trend towards smokier, highly-seasoned Central Texas-style barbecue. The ribs are mushy, the brisket doesn't have any smoke flavor and the sauce is cloyingly sweet. Hopefully the places improves, but, for now, it serves as a reminder that a pitmaster's transition from competitions to a restaurant isn't always smooth.
Octopus crudo at Oka Sushi
Octopus is at its best when its prepared in a way that emphasizes its meaty texture without being chewy; that's why grilled versions have been on just about every seafood menu recently. Raw octopus can work, too, as in the thinly sliced crudo at Bistecca. However, the dish still has to justify its existence in terms of both value and flavor. The six thin, flavorless slices Oka served would have been bad enough on their own; charging $18 is just offensive.
Bagel at Toasted
Although certain aspects of this Garden Oaks newcomer demonstrate promise, the basic bagel needs more contrast between its outer crust and chewy interior to hold its own with established bagel shops. In current guise, Toasted's bagel just tastes like a big, bready sphere, and that's not good eats.
Fried chicken at Lee's Fried Chicken and Donuts
When a restaurant names itself after a specific dish, the implicit promise is that its version of that dish will be excellent. Sadly, the fried chicken served at Lee's Fried Chicken and Donuts doesn't measure up. The individual pieces are juicy, which is good, but they're also strangely flavorless. On the plus side, the donuts are excellent.
Coconut crepes at Foreign Correspondents
I've had several good dishes at the Treadsack Group's ambitious, farm-to-table Thai restaurant, but the coconut crepes on the brunch menu weren't one of them. Instead of being light and crispy, they were thick and gummy. A drizzle of sauce added sweetness, but even that was pretty one note. Oh well, even the best restaurants misfire sometimes.
Soft shell crab at Akamaru
My initial joy at finding an off-the-radar sushi spot in the heart of Montrose quickly faded on a second visit with friends. The sole waiter struggled to keep up with basic tasks like refilling water and tea, and the kitchen seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of serving more than a couple of diners at a time. The pudgy, bland soft shell crabs — not the crispy, meaty Gulf coast versions but another, unfamiliar species — stand out as one of many poor dishes the restaurant served that night. That it closed only a couple of months later came as no surprise.
Pimento cheese at Pour Society
Overall, chefs Greg Lowry and Matthew Lovelace are doing admirable work at this Southern-influenced gastropub in the Gateway Memorial City complex, but the house charcuterie plate missed. Specifically, the pimento cheese had an unappealing, runny texture and lacked the signature zip that comes from the peppers. Thankfully, the item seems to have disappeared from the restaurant's menu.
Meatloaf Muffins at Bovine & Barley
Meatloaf is always going to be a problematic dish in a restaurant, because it invokes too many childhood memories, good and bad. To succeed, a chef needs to elevate or update the classic in some way. Bland and chewy, Bovine & Barley's muffins don't bring enough to the table. Diners should stick to the burgers and the appealing (if pricey) craft beer selection instead.
What were your worst dishes of the year? Let us know in the comments.