By any measure, 2014 was a banner year for Houston restaurants. Underbelly chef/owner Chris Shepherd took home the city's first James Beard Award in over 20 years, the city played host to one of the world's best restaurants for three memorable days and, perhaps most importantly, the city's booming economy produced a number of high quality newcomers that raised the collective bar for all future arrivals.
Having already dealt with this year's biggest disappointments, the time has come to consider their opposite — restaurants that opened to high expectations and exceeded them.
Making people happy and establishing a business that looks primed for future success is tricky, and those who've succeeded at the task (at least from the perspective of their first year of operations) deserve a little recognition. This list is alphabetical. The entries are sufficiently different that I'm not sure how to rank them against each other. (In a separate list, I'll consider some of the off-the-radar places that opened quietly but succeeded in capturing people's attention.)
Before diving into the list, I want to include a couple of honorable mentions. Based on my meal there, Spanish restaurant BCN probably deserves a spot on the list, but I dined with the restaurant's publicist and have heard too many mixed things from people whose opinions I trust to feel confident about including it without a return visit. Similarly, Museum Park Cafe would have had a spot on the list, but the sudden departure of executive chef Justin Basye means I need another meal to assess the kitchen under Jason White.
Bernie's Burger Bus
Before it opened, Bernie's chef/owner Justin Turner said his food, which was already considered to be among the best Houston food trucks, would be even better when served on a plate. He was right. No more French fries steaming in a paper bag or burgers going soggy from toppings while finding a place to eat it. The brick and mortar version features all of the staples of the food truck as well as some new additions like lobster rolls on the weekends. Sadly, the Bellaire crowd didn't embrace Turner's boozy milkshakes, which have been removed from the menu, but his relentless desire to tweak the menu means there's always something new to try.
Why wouldn't Houston's best regarded museum have a companion restaurant that's worthy of its collection? And what took so long? Credit chef Greg Martin for filling the city's collective need for eggplant fries, creative pizzas and solid entrees. Thankfully, the restaurant does more than cater to weekend visitors; Montrose has embraced it as well, as the packed crowds can attest. Beverage director Sean Essex's focus on cask wines and draft beer means interesting choices and fresh options abound. The only downside is the dining room can be noisy, but the restaurant has taken steps to address the issue. When the weather is nice, diners can always take items to go and eat on the Menil's sprawling lawn.
Yes, Caracol technically opened in December 2013, but most Houstonians didn't discover chef Hugo Ortega's Mexican coastal cuisine until 2014. As the follow-up to Hugo's, diners had sky high expectations for the three-time James Beard Award finalist, but, of course, Ortega exceeded them with a creative menu of ceviches, seafood entrees and the instant classic roasted oysters with chipotle butter. Caracol emerged as a bona fide hot spot that's routinely packed for lunch, brunch and dinner. In addition, Ortega played host to the Roca brothers from celebrated Spanish resetaurant El Cellar de Can Roca by helping them source ingredients and prepare for their epic, three-day pop-up in Houston.
Coltivare Pizza & Garden
As the long-awaited follow up to Revival Market, the bar was set high for the Italian-inspired resetaurant from Morgan Weber and chef Ryan Pera, but diners have flocked to sample dishes from the innovative menu that utilizes an ever-changing mix of seasonal ingredients. As in a salad made with pickled butternut squash that Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd called "the best salad in town." Even on days I've dined there and Pera wasn't present, the kitchen still executes at a high level — a testament to proper training and discipline in the kitchen. What's even more exciting is that the restaurant's massive garden will be even more productive in 2015, which means the cuisine should only get better. Yes, waiting for a table because they don't take reservations is annoying; I like to go either late (after 9) or early during the weekend to avoid the crowds. It's my pick for the best new restaurant of the year.
Perhaps no statement has been more thoroughly parsed than Common Bond chef/owner Roy Shvartzapel's stated intention to make his Montrose restaurant "the best bakery in America." Whether Common Bond has met that goal or not — I suspect even Shvartzapel would concede he's not there yet — is there any serious debate that Common Bond isn't already the best bakery in Houston? And, no, it doesn't bother me that they don't sell birthday cakes or some of the other standards at other bakeries, because what they do produce is so consistently excellent. Certainly, the croissants are head and shoulders above any others produced in the city, and even a seasonal special like panettone redefines how people view that dish.
Speaking of lofty aspirations, Ronnie Killen set his sights on Austin's acclaimed Franklin Barbecue as the benchmark for his own barbecue enterprise. While President Obama has yet to pay Killen's a visit, as he did Franklin during a recent trip to Austin, it's safe to say that the Pearland restaurant has raised the stakes for every other barbecue joint in the Houston area. First, while a lot of good barbecue comes from trailers, it's kind of nice to eat in a proper dining room with air conditioning and plenty of seating. More importantly, Killen brings his chef's pedigree to the menu, which means that every dish, even the sides are desserts, are top notch. Although it would be easy to serve brisket and beef ribs to the diners who line up six days a week, Killen continues to innovate by offering non-barbecue daily specials like prime rib, fried chicken and chicken fried steak. With plans in the works to add a dedicated to-go window, the restaurant's popularity should continue to grow.
Downtown's newly opened JW Marriott hotel needed a restaurant worthy of its luxurious setting. At Main Kitchen, chef Erin Smith blends the skills she showed at Houston spots like Plonk! Bistro and Blacksmith with the fine dining experience she gained working for legendary chef Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York to create a well-executed, crowd pleasing menu of upscale bistro fare. Built around an array of shareable items, the dinner menu is where Smith shows her creativity. Vegetable dishes like glazed carrots, creamed chard and roasted eggplant are flavorful, hearty dishes that could be combined for a light meal or serve as accompaniments to the a few main entrees. Duck and fig pizza, with a crust that balances chewiness and crispiness, is can't miss, and talented pastry chef Sharon Gofreed brings an Uchi pedigree to the sweets. While the prices match the fancy setting ($15 cocktails?!?), it's nice to an upscale dining option downtown that isn't a steakhouse.
Coming off the success of both Glass Wall and Brooklyn Athletic Club, diners were eager to see what Shepard Ross's next project would be. Anyone who had eaten at either Stella Sola or Revival Market knew that Adam Dorris is talented. Pax Americana, the restaurant from Ross and Dorris in the lightly remodeled former Thai Sticks space on Montrose, is, like Coltivare and Roost, part of a new breed of upscale neighborhood restaurants with seasonally-driven menus that use some of the highest quality ingredients in the city. Thanks to inventive cuisine that draws from all parts of Houston's culinary landscape, Pax has been a smash hit with packed houses (and sometimes deafening noise) as the happy result. Hopefully things stabilize enough for Dorris to unleash brunch and a menu of neighboring bar bites for Zimm's, which itself has been transformed into an intimate space for really solid cocktails.
Chef Jose Hernandez is out to prove that an independent restaurant can thrive at chain-loving CityCentre. Diners familiar with Hernandez's work at Philippe, La Balance and Etoile know the man is fluent in French cuisine, but, at Radio Milano, he shows he's equally adept at Italian cooking. Impossibly thin pastas, hearty mains and, of course, heavenly desserts make this restaurant a legitimate destination for inner-Loopers and west side residents. A late-night tapas style menu makes it a satisfying post-movie option. The space may be in a hotel, but it feels far away from the CityCentre crowds, as long as you're willing to tip the valet instead of fighting for a parking spot.