Even in a month when only one of CultureMap's 17 most anticipated new restaurants of summer 2015 opened, the city's restaurateurs still produced a bumper crop of new options to try. That slowdown offers diners the opportunity to try some of these new bars and restaurants before the deluge of high profile spots becomes totally overwhelming. The rest of the summer is going to be super busy.
Of course, most people will spend August exploring deals for Houston Restaurant Weeks, which means everyone will get even further behind. Thus, the time to act is now. Otherwise, you'd have to cook. What's the fun in that?
After being a little bit inner Loop-centric in recent months, July's edition of Where to Eat Now contains options in both Sugar Land and The Woodlands. How's that for geographic diversity?
Without further ado, here's this month's list of new restaurants to try. As always, these are presented in roughly the order in which I think you should try them.
Chef Austin Simmons's tasting menu restaurant within Hubbell & Hudson may be a little behind schedule, but Cureight officially opened in June. Just as The Pass is hidden behind Provisions, Cureight can be found tucked away in the back of the Woodlands restaurant in a 24-seat, private dining room that looks into the kitchen.
The restaurant's eight-course tasting menu will vary seasonally. For now, Simmons opens with four strong seafood courses: an amuse bouche of hamachi with coconut milk, scallop in apple dashi, an interpretation of the French Laundry classic oysters and pearls and uni carbonara with caviar and king crab. Taking on Thomas Keller is a gutsy move, but the combination of creamy oysters and salty caviar works well. Dry-aged Texas akaushi beef finishes the savory offerings, which give way to intricately plated, well-balanced desserts from pastry chef Nguyet Nguyen for the final two courses.
It would be unreasonable to discuss Cureight without considering where it stands in relation to Houston's two other tasting menu restaurants. Briefly, Simmons's menu is more protein forward than Oxheart and less elaborate than The Pass. At $135 per person, it is also more expensive than either of those restaurants (wine pairings are additional). Still, those with an affinity for adventurous dining will find enough about Cureight compelling to justify the drive from points south. If Simmons keeps Cureight's menu interesting, he will have established The Woodlands' first true destination restaurant.
True to its name, this new restaurant from Tiger Den chef/owner Mike Tran serves a variety of noodle-related dishes. As noted back in May, Mein's decor is a Chinese-style companion to Tiger Den's art deco motif. It's an expansive, inviting space that a perfect spot for a large group to gather and attack the menu.
Dishes are divided into sections consisting of shareable starters (sized small and medium), noodle dishes, rice dishes and noodle soups. Of the starters, don't miss the roasted charsiu pork in a sweet glazed that's balanced with spicy mustard. Both the curry duck noodle soup and house wonton soup delivered strong flavors that made the broth good from first sip to last spoonful. Korean-style black bean noodles (jjajangmyun) and squid ink fried rice are also standouts. Skip the batterless fried chicken. BYOB for now, but check with the restaurant to confirm whether it's received its liquor license.
The Ginger Mule Tonics & Meals
For their fourth Sugar Land restaurant, Robert White and Victor Litwinenko have created an intimate space with an equal focus on craft cocktails and comfort food. The menu has been divided into sections where groups of dishes are available for one price. Highlights include the sweet and smoky barbecue pork shanks and the retro-fun potato sticks. All of the house cocktails are priced at $10 or less, which is a welcome respite from the recent trend towards $12 to $15 drinks.
The Rice Box
The food truck that brought General Tso's chicken to the streets has added a permanent home in the Greenway Plaza food court. The design mimics the truck's bright red paint and includes a few counter seats for those patrons who don't have to rush back to the office. The menu features some important new additions in the form of The Rice Box's first ever beef dish (pepper steak), curry chicken and egg noodles instead of rice. The familiar favorites are there, too, of course, but some of the recipes have been tweaked. Orange chicken that actually takes like oranges (instead of cornstarch and self-loathing at other restaurants) is a particularly satisfying revision. Be prepared for a bit of a wait; office workers are flocking to the newcomer.
Beckrew Wine House
Admittedly, this wine bar that took over the Tasting Room space in Upper Kirby isn't new, but people are still discovering the cozy space created by childhood friends Chris David and Paul Choi who wanted an entrepreneurial companion to their day jobs in the energy industry. David, Choi and general manager William Fuller let their passion for wine dictate selections, which run the gamut from $35 to over $1,000 per bottle but are concentrated in the $50 to $100 sweet spot. With its mix of table, bar and lounge seating, Beckrew's atmosphere has a bit of a clubhouse, neighborhood vibe.
Food selections are limited but focused on delivering quality ingredients at affordable prices. In addition to a signature selection of flavored honeys, the personal-sized pizzas are a highlight. Try the meat-loaded tres carnes.
The Dallas import that blends Torchy's non-traditional tacos with Fusion Taco's global perspective has landed on Washington Ave. Friendly service, late night hours and lots of seating should make Velvet Taco a destination, but taco purists will probably object to the sheer quantity of ingredients stuffed into each tortilla. I'll be back for another crispy chicken tikka and am eager to try both the rotisserie chicken and one of the breakfast options. Fully loaded tots (two kinds of cheese and a fried egg) are practically a meal on their own.
Similar to Beckrew, this new patio bar on Washington Avenue offers a bit of a clubhouse vibe and serves as a refuge for people in their 30's looking for a place to hang out away from places pitched to a younger demographic. Lots of TV hang from the ceilings and long tables encourage groups to gather. The menu consists of classic bar food like fried pork spare ribs, burgers and wings. I particularly enjoyed the deep fried pork tamales, but salads are available for those seeking healthier fare. Weekly food specials like a steak night on Wednesday add to the appeal.
Del Frisco's Grille
The casual, neighborhood-oriented offshoot of the popular steakhouse has opened its second Houston-area location at the new Hughes Landing development in The Woodlands. While the menu will be familiar to anyone who's visited the Upper Kirby location — the Shake Shack style two-patty burger and signature cheesesteak eggrolls are both present and accounted for — the new location offers a couple of significant upgrades. First, the location sits on Lake Woodlands and features an expansive patio with a view of the water. Second, the space itself is larger and better structure with more separation between the expanded bar area and the dining room.
Nationally, the company has vowed to improve the concept's disappointing earnings, but Woodlands residents seem to have embraced the newcomer. Credit the something for everyone menu and polished service for the initial success. The biggest downside is parking; those who don't want to partake of the free valet will have to walk a bit from a nearby garage.
Lawless Spirits & Kitchen
This month's third bar with food is the replacement for the shuttered State Bar & Lounge in the Rice Lofts. Almost a year in the making, the space has been transformed into a bright, stylish room with lots of lounge-style seating. The remodel gives lawless an upscale feel that should make a desirable destination for after work happy hours and pre night on the town revelry. I didn't detect any of the problems with cold food that bloggers Coco Dijon reported on their visit; indeed, both the brisket pot stickers and Korean tacos served as a flavorful, if slightly messy, happy hour snack.
The biggest problem is that all that stylish decor comes at a price; a pint of Lone Pint Yellow Rose is an eye-popping $9, and the cocktails are all $10 to $13. I'll be seeking less expensive options elsewhere, but the well-dressed crowd that populated the space during my visit didn't seem to mind.
Pho Binh Noodle and Grill
Typically, this column serves as an invitation to try new restaurants, but I'm going to break with tradition to discuss the new Pho Binh that opened in the space formerly occupied by Sale Sucre in the Heights. For fans across the city, the name Pho Binh stands for the city's best pho, but all locations are not created equal. Different family members own different locations, and the recipes they use vary considerably. Thus it is that Daniel Nguyen, brother to the owner of the original Pho Binh trailer and uncle to the brothers who own Pho Binh by Night, serves a menu that's different than the other restaurants.
The actual pho retains much of the Pho Binh signature spice mix and is something I'd happily go back for — even if the typical side of bone marrow had been marked out on the menu. Unfortunately, we found the non-pho offerings to be pretty disappointing. Spring rolls lacked the typical mint or cilantro and shaking beef had such an odd texture that my friend refused to eat it. I walked in hoping that even an inferior Pho Binh might still be the best Vietnamese food in the area, but it seems like the restaurant needs to refine its recipes.
Honorable Mention: Melange Creperie
Melange isn't new, but the popular crepe shop has a new location. "Buffalo" Sean Carroll's deal to bring his crepe stand to the site of the Eatsie Boys Cafe may have fallen through, but, as of this week, diners can find Carroll at H-E-B's Montrose Market Monday through Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday brunch will begin soon, as will lunch once Carroll hires and trains an additional crepe maker. Look for Melange's familiar stand by the frozen foods. The menu features the two familiar staples, ham and egg and banana nutella, along with two rotating specials. Do the crepes taste better when the wait for one doesn't require sweating? Signs point to yes.