After a torrid spring, the pace of new restaurants has slowed a bit. That’s good news for diners still trying to catch up on high-profile post-Super Bowl arrivals like Star Fish, Yauatcha and Field & Tides, but it also means this column is a bit tardy.
If the quantity of new spots is down a bit, the quality is still good. Imports from out of town continue to make a splash both inside and outside the loop, but locally-owned concepts from both veteran chefs and rising stars also show solid potential to become new favorites.
As always, this list’s order corresponds to how quickly I think you should try them, but they’re all worth exploring.
This stylish new restaurant that serves both steak and sushi has the potential to draw see-and-be-seen types away from the hotspots in River Oaks District. With locations in Scottsdale, Chicago, and San Francisco, Roka Akor brings an acclaimed pedigree to its new space at 2929 Wesleyan, where the understated, elegant design provides a luxurious environment for both lunch and dinner.
A friend and I left a recent meal impressed by the restaurant’s ability to serve both well-prepared sushi and meats from the massive robata grill that’s visible throughout the dining room. Highlights from the raw section included screamingly fresh Hokkaido uni, sweet, succulent king crab, and tuna tartare.
While the restaurant offers domestic wagyu from Snake River Farms, those looking to indulge will want to consider Japanese beef from one of three prefectures. We opted for Miyazaki beef based on the chef’s suggestion that it had more texture (i.e., less of that melt-in-your-mouth quality associated with ultra-fatty beef) than the other choices. Priced at $35 per ounce, the presentation in a basket with a smoky piece of charcoal enhances the experience, but it’s the deeply beefy flavor that justifies the price. 2929 Weslayan
85°C Bakery Cafe
Fresh off the arrival of Los Angeles-based Sichuan restaurant Chengdu Taste, another California transplant is drawing crowds to Chinatown. With a diverse selection of sweet and savory breads, pastries, and espresso-based coffee drinks, 85C has a something-for-everyone appeal. No wonder the Houston location is the company’s 1,000th worldwide.
First time visitors should start with signature items like the marble taro loaf (a sweet roll filled with taro paste), the classic egg custard tart, and the sea salt coffee. Just don’t call it “the Starbucks of Taiwan;” 85C’s pastries are much too delicious to be lumped in with the offerings from Seattle’s most popular export. 9750 Bellaire
A month or so after assuming control of the former Creek Group spot, chef John Sheely has puts his spin on the Montrose cafe’s look and food. The interior has been cleaned up and the patio renovated. More importantly, a new menu offers the sort of classic bistro cuisine that earned Sheely legions of fans at Mockingbird Bistro.
During brunch, a friend and I split a starter of smoked salmon served with marble rye, cream cheese, chopped onion, and capers. Chicken biscuits offered plenty of comfort, and my wings and waffle delivered both the proper level of sweetness from the waffle and a little spice from the wings’ Sriracha-honey glaze.
Friendly, attentive service, even in the face of a full restaurant, helped make the experience one I’ll aim to repeat soon. 1601 W Main
Tarka Indian Kitchen
Despite all of the new restaurants opening in the Heights, the area lacked an Indian restaurant. Thankfully, this Austin-based fast casual concept has given the neighborhood a steady supply of veggie samosas, chicken tikka masala, and lamb vindaloo. The menu is affordable (nothing costs more than $10), and the dishes arrive quickly.
Of course the sauces don’t have the depth of Hillcroft’s best restaurants, but the flavors and execution are solid. A family-friend environment and an appealing selection of wine and craft beer should ensure Tarka becomes a neighborhood favorite. 721 W 19th
The town of Dickinson doesn’t usually generate a blip of the foodie radar, but the suburb also probably hasn’t ever seen a restaurant quite like Marais, which fills the gap for special occasion dining that last year’s closure of Cullen’s left for Clear Lake and other points south. The expansive restaurant features a casual bar downstairs, an outdoor beer garden, and a luxuriously-appointed main dining room.
With dishes like steak, osso bucco, and Creole-style seafood, the restaurant’s food skews classic, but everything was prepared well. We particularly enjoyed a seafood cocktail that combined crab with avocado and mango and creme brulee topped with luxardo cherries. 2015 FM 517
No dish has become trendier in 2017 than poke. Every month seems to bring a new restaurant or two devoted to the dish, which is essentially a raw fish salad served over rice. Think of it as a deconstructed sushi roll with a wider array of toppings. Diners choose their proteins and toppings along a Chipotle-style line.
While most of the restaurants are serving fairly similar fare — I have yet to hear from someone who passionately argues for the superiority of, say, Ono Poke over Pokeology or vice versa — SeaSide has a few elements that make it stand out, courtesy of chefs Tai Nguyen and Vuthy "Tee" Srey, who bring experiences from Uchi and MF Sushi, respectively, to the menu.
For example, the salmon ponzu bowl gets a little welcome pop of acidity from orange slices, and the spicy tuna gets its heat from Korean gochujang, instead of Sriracha or red chile sauce. While I would like to taste a little more vinegar in the rice, overall the bowls are satisfying, well-constructed, and affordable. All of which make SeaSide a welcome addition to EaDo’s rapidly expanding mix of dining options. 2118 Lamar
“You won’t find a menu that’s groundbreaking, but it’s well-executed with a European and French bent,” Houston Press food editor Gwendolyn Knapp wrote about Alice Blue. That observation helped clarify my own feelings about the up-and-down meal I had at this Heights newcomer that replaced Shade on 19th Street. Classic European-inspired fare would be a nice alternative to the Southern style cuisine that dominates the Heights, but simple dishes require exact execution to meet their potential.
Unfortunately, a bland bowl of bouillabaisse and an under-seasoned plate of pasta demonstrated that the kitchen still needs some reps to match the menu’s promise. Still, the cocktail menu and interesting, well-priced wine list hint at the restaurant Alice Blue could become, and the restaurant has enough talent on hand in both the front and back of the house that I’m eager to make another visit. 250 W 19th
Downtown’s underground food hall may not be new, but the space has undergone enough changes recently that it merits a fresh visit from anyone who stopped by in awhile. El Burro & the Bull (barbecue) and Melange Creperie remain, but Samurai Ramen and Myth Kafe (Greek) have been replaced by Moku Bar, which serves poke and tempura, Arte Pizzeria, which features pies created by pastry chef Kelsey Hawkins (Paul’s Kitchen, Pour Society), Mars Bakery, which focuses on kolaches and hot dogs, and a wine bar called Noble Rot.
Of the new options, I enjoyed Arte the most; Hawkins’ personal-sized pies and range of toppings help it pair well with Conservatory’s extensive tap wall. Adding crispy fried shrimp and vegetables to the usual poke offerings makes Moku compelling, too. Of course, Conservatory’s late hours make it a solid choice for either post Astros game snacks or a stop on a downtown bar crawl. 1010 Prairie
The California import recently arrived in Spring Branch (not Chinatown), giving the neighborhood another option for Korean favorites like jajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce) and fried chicken wings. Each dish delivered solid flavors, particularly the crispy, slightly spicy wings. Prices are reasonable, too; the noodles cost $8 and the wings were only $6.
Unfortunately when I visited a couple weeks after opening, the glass-walled kitchen still wasn’t serving the full menu, which means I’ll need a return visit to assess favorites like the seafood pancake and dumplings. 9355 Long Point
New locations of established restaurants
Many Houston favorites are growing. While none are different enough from their siblings to justify a full write up, they are all welcome additions to their respective neighborhoods.
Snooze, the Denver-based restaurant that serves brunch every day, recently added a location in Town & Country; outposts in Katy and the Heights are both slated to arrive before the end of the year. Sichuan favorite Pepper Twins added an outpost at 59 and Kirby to its River Oaks and Montrose locations. The Halal Guys has brought its rice plates and signature white sauce to Westchase.