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Where to eat in Houston right now: 9 stupendous new restaurants to start summer off right

Where to eat in Houston right now: 9 stupendous new restaurants

Hamsa salatim
Start with salatin at Hamsa. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Uchiko smores dessert
S'mores at Uchiko are seared tableside with binchotan charcoal. Courtesy of Uchiko
Lees Den food spread
Lees Den is serving one of Houston's best steak deals. Photo by Jenn Duncan
Goode Co Fish Camp gulf snapper crudo
Swap campechana for crudo at Goode Co. Fish Camp. Photo by Paula Murphy
Cafe Louie spread
Find pastries and more at Cafe Louie. Photo by Becca Wright
Hamsa salatim
Uchiko smores dessert
Lees Den food spread
Goode Co Fish Camp gulf snapper crudo
Cafe Louie spread

Houston dining obsessives worked themselves into a minor frenzy about a week ago when an Instagram user trolled Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook about a grilled cheese sandwich.

Put that on the list of sentences I never would have guessed I’d write, but here we are.

Those looking for thoughts on new restaurants can skip the rest of what follows. As for the new restaurants, this month’s crop is a great group of places that ranges from Uchi’s smoky sister concept to a lovely new sushi restaurant and a compelling new seafood spot in The Woodlands. As always, they’re based on actual visits to the restaurant and in the order I think people should try them.

Pointless grilling
Back to the aforementioned IG user: This individual, whose account I will not be linking to, asserted that Cook calling a grilled cheese sandwich “stupendous” in an Instagram post reflected that Houston restaurants aren’t being held to a high enough standard by members of the media. Furthermore, he (isn’t it always a he?) asserted that lack of standards is why this city’s restaurants don’t win James Beard Awards and other forms of national recognition.

I wouldn’t be referencing this exchange at all if I hadn’t started getting messages from people in the restaurant business who thought the guy made a valid point, even if it was, by their own acknowledgement, poorly argued, badly worded, and ultimately deleted. 

To which I say, no, he f***ing doesn’t. Any assertion to the contrary is just the bad old days of the Houston inferiority complex resurfacing (an idea I’m mostly stealing from local writer Craig Hlavaty). This city and its businesses do not need external validation as proof that they’re doing good work.

The Blood Bros. are changing the range of influences that define "Texas barbecue" in delicious and exciting ways, and that will remain true whether or not pitmaster Quy Hoang wins Best Chef: Texas. The waitstaff at Hugo’s will make any meal feel like a special occasion with their friendly demeanor and thorough knowledge of the menu whether or not the restaurant ever wins Outstanding Hospitality. Chris Williams is a shining example of leadership through a time of crisis — by keeping his staff employed, starting a non-profit to feed Houstonians in need, and partnering with one of the city’s most gifted chefs on a new restaurant — whether or not he wins Outstanding Restaurateur.

Yes, it’s nice to be recognized. Alba Huerta began the process that led to Julep’s win for Outstanding Bar Program more than 10 years ago. She, and the staff who make the place go day-in and day-out, deserve their moment in the sun. But don’t assert that it’s somehow less worthy if it hadn’t won.

One other point: the notion that it’s up to any single individual to hold godlike powers over the fate of restaurants is absurd. All-powerful critics only exist in the movie Ratatouille. As one example, consider Cook’s epic takedown of Steak 48, a zero star review that did absolutely nothing to its status as one of the city’s busiest, most profitable restaurants. Conversely, even positive recognition doesn’t always result in success; consider that five of the 12 places on my list of the best new restaurants for 2018 have closed.   

The lesson, as always, is simple. Don’t read the comments.

Now, on to Houston’s best new restaurants for the summer.

Uchiko 
Uchi’s sister concept has made quite a splash since it opened last month on Post Oak Blvd. Chef de cuisine Sean King uses his wood-burning hearth to add fiery touches to dishes such as dry-aged duck with hoisin sauce and charred cabbage, four-times-seared Texas wagyu coulotte (served with some of the best french fries in the city), and binchotan-seared albacore tuna nigiri. Other highlights include the inventive toro nuta, a dish that combines of bluefin tuna, blueberries, and pistachio; the koviche, which uses sweet lobster meat as the basis for a ceviche-style presentation with grapefruit and crispy sunchoke chips; and the S'mores dessert, which is seared tableside to achieve the proper melty, caramelized flavors. Compelling cocktails, polished service, and an elegant dining room all contribute to an experience that will feel familiar to Uchi fans but offers enough differences to draw in new visitors, too.

Hamsa
The owners of Doris Metropolitan have another hit on their hands with this modern Israeli restaurant in Rice Village. Meals should be begin with salatin, a collection of small vegetable plates that ranges from a smoky baba ganoush to spicy harissa carrots and creamy labneh that are paired with pita prepared in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. More pita is required for the rich, creamy hummus that’s also an essential part of the experience. Vegetarians will lean towards the crispy falafel, cauliflower cous cous, and oyster mushroom skewer, while those with carnivorous habits should consider beef tartare, arak mussels, and the lamb spare ribs that are served in a tagine. Regardless of the dishes ordered, cocktails that incorporate Middle Eastern flavors and a wine list full of smart, affordable choices offer plenty of pairing possibilities.

Cafe Louie 
Don’t let the casual menu at this East End cafe deceive you. Brother-and-sister chefs Angelo and Lucianna "Louie" Emiliani have put a lot of thought and technique into the breakfast and lunch fare they’re serving.

Mornings feature Louie’s pastries — such as a croissant that manages to maintain its crispy layers despite Houston’s humidity and a decadent cinnamon roll — alongside savory items from Angelo such as the McLouie (a sausage and egg sandwich on a house made gougere) and a twist on bagels and lox that uses the restaurant’s milk bread and farm raised, sustainable redfish. Lunch features dishes such as the grilled cheese sandwich referenced above — made with cheeses sourced from Houston Dairymaids and paired with a tomato soup made from local produce — and Mediterranean-inspired smashed cucumber salad. A full range of coffee, tea, juices, craft beer, and natural wine hint at the place’s culinary ambitious that will be more fully revealed when dinner service begins in the coming weeks.

Aiko
Japanese for “love child,” Aiko’s name hints at its roots as an ideal combination of chefs Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee’s two other restaurants: Kokoro Sushi at Bravery Chef Hall and Heights hand roll favorite Handies Douzo. Diners may order a la carte, but the three omakase offerings — priced at $35, $55, and $95 — offer value by combining different crudos, hand rolls, and pieces of nigiri. As at their other concepts, the nigiri arrives fully dressed (no need to dredge through soy sauce), and the hand rolls feature extremely crispy nori wrappers. Bites like the wagyu tartare with caviar and quail egg or the chutoro nigiri will delight sushi lovers, but those looking for cooked items like tempura or gyoza to supplement their meals will not find them on Aiko’s menu.

Lees Den
This wine bar above Local Foods Market gives new life to the space that was once Benjy’s lounge. An eclectic wine list with retail-style pricing offers customers tons of value, and the staff knows the selections well enough to guide people to a choice that will suit their tastes. Chef Maria Gonzalez’s menu includes snackable fare like popcorn (kicked up with Korean red pepper salt, cookie chunks, and more), yellowfin tuna crudo, and house made milk bread with butter and trout roe (a concept familiar to anyone who’s had Nancy Cakes at Nancy’s Hustle). The entrees are equally compelling, especially the $25 steak dish that pairs Texas wagyu sirloin with creamy potato puree and a red wine reduction. At a time of rising prices, it might be one of the best red meat deals in the city. Hopefully, the concept catches on enough to expand its hours beyond the three nights per week it’s currently open.

Goode Co. Fish Camp
Goode Co. Seafood has always been the shining star in the Goode Co. universe, so it’s no surprise that its new seafood restaurant in The Woodlands is off to a strong start. Staples like fried shrimp match the company’s reputation, but delving into the dishes that are new for this concept brings considerable rewards. Instead of campechana and a po ‘boy, try the Gulf crudo with aji amarillo and avocado or the wood-roasted catch of the day with charred tomato and okra. Gulf Coast-inspired decor gives the place a lived-in feel, and a wide range of cocktails offer plenty of refreshment. 

Heights & Co.
This patio bar concept from Savoir proprietor Brian Doke and chef Eric Johnson demonstrates the power of simplicity. They’ve created a compelling hang out by serving good versions of popular cocktails like the Ranchwater and gin and tonic alongside familiar fare like Caesar salad, queso, and thick, juicy burger. Don’t miss Johnson’s classic take on pork schnitzel in which the crispy breaded cutlet gets paired with spaetzle; think of it as an alternative to chicken fried steak.

Passerella
I don’t spend enough time in Cypress to call this new Italian spot from the owner of The Union Kitchen the best restaurant in the area, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other people start doing so. The new restaurant covers a broad range of both regional Italian dishes and Italian-American fare, roaming from classics like frito misto and meatballs with polenta to Caesar salad and mozzarella-stuffed chicken involtini. No one’s going to say that fettuccine Alfredo with shrimp and crab is a dish anyone would find in Italy, but it’s undeniably delicious and an ideal fit for a welcoming, family-friendly restaurant. Choosing one dessert from the many available choices will prove difficult, but the strawberry cassata cake channels warm memories of meals at Tony Vallone’s more casual restaurants.

GJ Tavern
A new name, a new chef, and a new menu provide an opportunity to reassess Chris Shepherd’s downtown eatery. Although it initially struggled to find its footing, chef Tim Reading (Caracol, Ixim) has given the Tavern an identity it lacked previously. Now, the menu is built around the sort of classic fare that someone might want to eat once or twice a week. Highlights include house made cavatelli pasta with duck confit and crispy duck cracklings, roasted brick chicken with cabbage and asparagus slaw, and a throwback mushroom Swiss burger that gets a kick from horseradish sauce. Well-executed cocktails and a tidy wine list provide compelling choices to those who prefer to sit at the bar and snack on items like roasted almonds and marinated olives.