In the almost four years that I’ve been writing this column, I can’t recall a single month that was so top-heavy for new restaurants. The push to be open by Super Bowl LI spurred some of Houston’s best chefs to create exciting new destinations that should rock to the top of diners' lists of places they want to try.
This month’s list includes a new steakhouse from James Beard award winner Chris Shepherd and an exciting new concept from five-time James Beard award finalist Hugo Ortega, as well as a new brasserie from the city’s best French chef, the return of a beloved Indian restaurant, and Houston’s first hotel lobby bar that should be equally appealing to locals and guests.
If that weren’t enough, I have two new options in Chinatown and, because it already seems to be 2017’s hottest trend, two new poke options, too. As always, these are roughly ordered by how important it is I think you try this, but every restaurant on this list merits attention.
Houstonians have never shown much willingness to support restaurants in hotels, but Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught looked poised to change that with Xochi, their new Oaxacan restaurant inside downtown’s luxurious Marriott Marquis hotel. Drawing on the experiences garnered during both his childhood and frequent visits to the region, Ortega has created a comprehensive menu that utilizes Oaxacan ingredients that he’s specifically importing for Xochi.
Highlights include the tetela, an oversized blue masa tortillas filled with cheese a hoja santa; sopa de piedra, a shrimp soup with a whimsical tableside presentation; and skirt steak barbacoa with masa dumplings. I haven’t had a chance to sample the mole tasting, but that, along with the extensive list of mezcals assembled by beverage director Sean Beck and the innovative desserts created by pastry chef Ruben Ortega, will bring me back soon. 1777 Walker St, Suite A
One Fifth Steak
For the first iteration of One Fifth, James Beard award winner Chris Shepherd presents his version of a steakhouse. As one might expect, Shepherd’s vision blends classic steakhouse elements — wedge salad, raw oysters, beefy ribeyes — with some touches that are uniquely his.
For example, steaks aren’t just listed by cut and weight but also by the ranch that produced the beef. Dishes like uni panna cotta and roasted lamb neck aren’t likely to show up on the menu at more conventional steakhouses. An extensive wine list, well-crafted cocktails, and a selection of desserts round out the offerings.
As at Underbelly, the emphasis is on sharing. Start with a raw seafood tower (either in “big” or “bigger” varieties) then move on to a 30-plus ounce steak. Large parties may opt for a “baller board,” a giant wooden plank filled with the chef’s choice of entrees and sides that will definitely have heads turning when it’s paraded through the dining room. 1658 Westheimer
Brasserie du Parc
Etoile chef-owner Philippe Verpiand keeps things classic as his newly opened restaurant next to Discovery Green. The restaurant’s location features a large indoor-outdoor space with windows that can be opened during nice weather, and a to-go window that offers up freshly made crepes. Anyone who says it reminds them of Paris is certainly exaggerating, but the sidewalk cafe atmosphere feels appropriate for the setting.
Diners who stick around for a sit-down meal will find much to like, including seafood risotto with red bell pepper stew, shrimp salad with crushed avocado and grapefruit, and a full selection of desserts. Beverage director Kimberly Paul offers a number of creative cocktails, including a few that are designed for two, which is perfect for lingering when the windows are open. 1440 Lamar
It took almost a year for Kiran Verma to move to her new home in the Kirby Grove building near Greenway Plaza, but absence for the chef’s fine dining Indian fare has only made its return more satisfying. The new Kiran’s is larger than the original, with a dedicated bar-lounge area that should make it a happy hour destination.
The new location also brings lunch service for the first time; Verma presents a range of soups, salads, sandwiches, and biryani rice dishes that offer Indian flavors in approachable forms. At dinner, signature dishes like tandoori rack of lamb and snapper still deliver big flavors. With dishes like saffron panna cotta available, diners should definitely save room for dessert. 2925 Richmond Ave
The first of Astros owner Jim Crane’s new Italian restaurant has opened in the 500 Crawford building across from Minute Maid Park. Since executive chef Michael Parker divides his time between Potente and Crane’s Floridian golf club, he’s tapped Micah Rideout (Kuu, Tarakaan, Reef) to serve as chef de cuisine and David Berg (Tony’s) as pastry chef. The duo gives Potente a mix of old and new school techniques, as Berg uses the training he acquired in the '80s and '90s in the restaurant’s breads and pastries, while Rideout brings a slightly modernist touch to classic dishes like his melon salad with proscuitto that uses compressed melon and is topped with basil foam.
Like Berg, Parker has had a lengthy career, and his approach is to serve classic, mostly northern Italian fare like truffle risotto, osso bucco, and steaks, but Rideout gets to put his stamp on the menu with dishes like Sicilian BBQ Shrimp, which swaps the classic New Orleans buttery sauce for a red pepper mop sauce. Berg shows excellent technique in a lemon tart with a properly sour tang. While it may not be groundbreaking, Potente gives Da Marco fans a new option for fine dining Italian food, especially when they’re downtown. 1515 Texas Ave
Afandim Uyghur Restaurant
Last year, Houstonians discovered Uyghur cooking at Chinatown’s Uyghur Bistro, and now the city has a second option for the lamb-oriented cuisine at this recently opened restaurant. Dishes like Uyghur pizza (a savory meat pie filled with ground lamb) and Kordak (braised lamb with vegetables) delivered big flavors, and a dish with thick, stir-fried noodles had us fighting over the last few bites. Friendly service and reasonable prices make it approachable even for those who aren’t familiar with the dishes, although liking lamb is probably mandatory. 9126 Bellaire Blvd
Bayou & Bottle
Whatever concerns I had about this new lobby bar and restaurant inside the Four Seasons — most of which stemmed from its premise: an out-of-town chef, in this case Richard Sandoval (40-plus restaurants all over the world), who creates the menus, trains the staff, and leaves it to the hotel to operate — mostly evaporated when I visited on a recent weeknight. A lively crowd defied my expectations of finding it sleepy and mostly empty.
With its wood-paneled walls and leather furniture, Bayou & Bottle is quietly one of the better looking dining rooms to open in Houston recently. Even more than the decor, the food vastly exceeded my expectations.
Paying $12 for a banh mi sounds like a terrible idea until you delight in the over-the-top porky goodness of the fried head cheese that fills the bar’s version of the sandwich. The B&B burger, which utilizes two thin patties in the mode of Hay Merchant’s Cease and Desist burger, keeps things classic with housemade pickles and American cheese.
The whiskey selection may not match Reserve 101’s in terms of depth, but it’s full of tempting choices at fair prices, and trained whiskey steward Olgi Katona can offer suggestions for the list’s hidden gems. A couple of cocktails are made tableside on a cart, which always adds a fun theatrical element to the proceedings. 1300 Lamar St
Sushi chef Jason Liao (Preview Modern Seafood, Aka Sushi) has joined the poke craze with this pop-up-turned-restaurant that’s located inside Rice Village bar Doc Holliday’s. The setup is the same as at other poke restaurants — diners choose their fish (tuna, salmon, scallops, or snow crab), base (white rice or spring mix), toppings, and sauce — but Liao adds a few cheffy twists.
For example, Liao’s signature Salmon Thaiviche gets crunch from peanuts and heat from Thai chili peppers. Similarly, green apple provides acidity and crunchy to hamachi in the Applemachi. At $12 for a large bowl, it’s affordable, too. 5555 Morningside Dr.
South Korea-based fried chicken chain Lims Chicken has opened its first American location in the same Chinatown shopping plaza that’s home to Kim Son and Chez Beignet. The setup is similar to other Korean fried chicken restaurants where dishes like dumplings and rice bowls supplement the offerings, but they’re relatively undistinguished compared to the chicken.
A friend and I preferred the sweet and salty soy-ginger to the regular spicy, which lacked heat. Regardless of the flavor, the chicken arrived crispy and juicy. It probably won’t abate my occasional cravings for Dak & Bop, but Lims is a welcome addition to Chinatown’s ever-evolving mix of dining options. 10603 Bellaire Blvd
North Shore Poke Co
The California-based poke chain is the third dedicated poke restaurant to open in Houston in the past couple of months. This one is located in the Westchase district in the same shopping center as Ramen Jin. I found the small space packed with a young-looking crowd on a recent Saturday afternoon.
I opted for the Pipeline Wave bowl that blends tuna and salmon with a creamy, mayo-based sauce. The fish tasted fresh and had been properly marinated, and the toppings added texture and flavor. Like Lims, it seems to be more solid addition than a legitimate game changer, but it’s worth checking out for people in west Houston who want to see what all the poke hype is about. 11195 Westheimer
Fusion Taco - Heights
The opening of a second location for the food truck-turned-restaurant prompted me to visit Fusion Taco for the first time in at least a couple years. The restaurant remains a reliable source for tacos that utilize globally-inspired fillings like chicken tikka masala and falafel as well as more traditional, Mexican and Tex-Mex inspired flavors. The smoked brisket taco proved to be a pleasant surprise with well-seasoned, properly smoky brisket covered with creamy guacamole. A lunch special of two tacos and a drink for $10.95 keeps prices reasonable, too.
Thankfully, the new location has a full liquor license, which means it can serve margaritas. They’re only $5 during happy (3 pm to 7 pm). 4706 N. Main St