The number of new restaurants in Houston slowed a bit in May, but the city's fervid dining scene still continues to produce a crop of intriguing newcomers. Even in a time when the most high-profile new openings were probably the arrival of South African restaurant Peli Peli to the Galleria and the latest El Tiempo, the last month or so has produced some places that are worth your time.
While this month's list is admittedly burger-heavy (not that anyone's complaining), it also features a new Italian option for Rice Village, an upscale tasting menu destination in Kemah and a restaurant in The Woodlands that's serving destination-worthy croissants.
Let's get to it. As always, these are listed in roughly the order I think you should try them, but use your intelligence guided by your experience to determine which are best for you.
Grafitti's at Union Street
The Washington Avenue restaurant boom of 2015 continues at this recently-opened spot that features half-pound burgers and massive portions of comfort classics like chicken fried steak. Despite cooking the burgers to medium-well, the thick patties hold up and are still juicy. Both the housemade fried pickles chips and chicken fried steak are excellent. The retro-decor has an undeniable charm, and the fast-casual service model works well in this environment. I'll be back to sample one of the classic cocktails from the full bar and a jar of banana pudding.
Former Arturo's Uptown Italiano general manager Shanon Scott has set off on his own at this new Rice Village restaurant that has replaced Bistro des Amis. Scott has redesigned the space to open up some additional seating and added a bar for his regulars from Arturo's and Arcodoro to gather over a glass of wine and linger over SportsCenter. Sud Italia's menu focuses on seafood dishes from regions like Sicily, Bascillica and Calabria, with a highlight being a whole Branzino that's fileted tableside. Don't miss the bruschetta, which benefits from a savory layer of cannellini bean puree. The biggest problem is a lack of parking during the day; you'll have to find a spot on the street during lunch.
Admittedly, the idea of a tasting menu restaurant across from T-Bone Tom's in Kemah sounds a little ridiculous, but a friend and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Eculent. While the notion of a restaurant with a dedicated "food lab" conjures images of foams and weird gels, chef David Skinner's cuisine is pleasantly straightforward and ingredient-driven. The meal starts with a tour of the food lab where Skinner demonstrates how he uses tools like a dehydrator and centrifuge to preserve and enhance flavors. If the courses mostly deal in familiar flavors, the room has a theatrical element with lights, sounds and smells that change during the meal. Price is a drawback: at $110 for the "1845" menu and $135 for the "coast to coast," Eculent exceeds similar experiences at Oxheart and The Pass. Still, adventurous diners are advised to make the drive and discover the unexpected.
Bollo Woodfired Pizza
The former Sorrel Urban Bistro has been reborn as Bollo Woodfired Pizza. For owner Ray Salti, the new concept is a high-end evolution of his successful local chain Pepperoni's, but it also blends Sorrel's ethos by using organic and non-GMO ingredients. A basic margherita pie had a good level of char and a clean, fresh taste that wouldn't be out of place at Pizaro's, but they are definitely personal-sized. In addition to pizzas, Bollo features a succinct list of pastas and snacks, like fried calamari, meatballs and lobster ravioli.
River Oaks gets a casual steakhouse in the former home of 60 Degrees Mastercrafted. The space has been given a makeover with new paint and the addition of an outdoor bar. Like 60 Degrees, Harwood Grill serves a menu that focuses on locally-raised akaushi beef, but the two restaurants differ in their approach. Whereas 60 Degrees cut steaks to order and sold them by the ounce, Harwood serves fixed portions at a lower price point. Pappadelle pasta topped with braised short rib and chicken fried akaushi steak offers slightly less traditional ways to sample the high quality beef. Diners can even take steaks home to-go.
The Burger Joint
Get a preview of the restaurant that will open next month in the former home of Little Big's by sampling the wares of its companion food truck. Chef Matthew Pak has already established a good reputation based on his work creating the food for popular trucks Koagie Hots and the Golden Grill, and this burger concept will only enhance his reputation as a chef to watch. At its core, The Burger Joint is built around a thin patty made from 44 Farms beef. The result is a flavorful, juicy burger that works well with both simple toppings and more ambitious combinations like a Mexican version topped with ham, queso fresco, jalapenos and avocado. One perk of the thin patty is that it leaves room for bacon-topped fries. Wouldn't want that burger to feel too virtuous, right?
Levure Bakery & Patisserie
Diners in The Woodlands are rejoicing over this latest addition that brings authentic French pastries, breads and breakfast items to the Creekside shopping center. If the croissants aren't as sky-high and airy as Common Bond, they're still comfortably the best version within 20 miles of its location that I've encountered. Although my visit only allowed time for pastries, friends in the area assure me that egg dishes are well-executed, and that the cafe is already becoming a brunch destination. Just be aware that it does have one thing in Common Bond — the demand has been strong enough that sell outs happen early.
Bovine & Barley
After two visits, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of Main Street's most recent arrival. On the one hand, my first taste of the signature Bovine burger, a beefy half-pounder topped with bacon and cheddar, is one of the better burgers I've had in a while: nicely griddled bun, medium rare and dripping with juices. On the other, for a place with over 40 taps, Bovine & Barley doesn't do enough to feature its beer selection. The choices are only listed on two screens that hang over the dining room and prices aren't displayed, which led to a little sticker shock at a $8 pint of Yellow Rose. Still, the room looks great and a busy happy hour crowd indicates the downtown crowd likes it.
Benjy's Rice Village
The popular restaurant isn't new, but it has two new chefs in the kitchen, Geoff Hunt and Spencer Serette, who have replaced Benjy's lunch menu with brunch every day. That's right — no more waiting until the weekend for the sublime joy of eating French toast and sipping a mimosa in the afternoon. Highlights include smoked salmon toast that ups the standard for avocado toast with a little protein and pork enchiladas in chayote-sour cream sauce.
Ula's Mexican Restaurant
The Fort Bend County Tex-Mex restaurant joins a crowded field on Washington Ave, where it will have to hold its own against Lupe Tortilla, Cyclone Anaya's, Molina's and El Tiempo. If it's going to survive in Coppa's former home, Ula's will need to step things up a bit. While the prices are a little cheaper and the service is friendly, the food was a decidedly mixed bag. Individually prepared nachos are a solid take on the classic snack, but the carne asada that appeared in two separate dishes were mushy and overcooked. The gigantic Texas burrito was fun in a college food sort of way, but the mishmashed flavors are hard to enjoy.