Houston’s summer heat makes venturing outside unpleasant. When people leave their air-conditioned cocoons, they want the potential sweatiness to be justified by whatever it is they left the house to experience.
Thankfully, an eclectic crop of new (and new-ish) restaurants have sprung up to accommodate people’s cravings. This month’s list includes two CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Best New Restaurant nominees, this year’s most in demand see-and-be-seen spot, and Chris Shepherd’s first venture outside of Montrose.
Before diving into the restaurants, one caveat to consider: staffing challenges mean most restaurants aren’t operating with as many people as they would like. Sometimes that results in food taking a little longer to arrive or refills not being served as promptly as they might otherwise. Please be patient with employees and appreciative of the services they’re able to provide. A little empathy goes a long way.
As always, these are roughly ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but all of the entries on the list have something to offer. Write-ups are based on actual experiences dining at the listed restaurants (sometimes more than once). They’re less formal reviews than a guide of what to expect along with some suggestions for what to order and what to avoid.
Georgia James Tavern
Chris Shepherd’s newest establishment provides a more casual, bar-forward spin on his upscale Montrose steakhouse. The long, narrow dining room — certainly his best looking project to date — has been given an art deco makeover that fits its luxurious environment on the first floor of downtown’s Market Square Tower high-rise.
Under the direction of chef de cuisine Matt “Tally” Coburn (he’s from Tallahassee, Florida), the Tavern keeps some of the Georgia James staples like a wagyu ribeye that’s seared on cast iron (ensuring first rate crust) and the signature slab salad that's among Houston’s very best takes on a classic wedge, but the restaurant also offers affordable options that can be enjoyed more frequently, such as a club sandwich and roast chicken. The Underbelly Hospitality team contributes flavorful cocktails, a well-priced wine list of both traditional and offbeat choices, and scaled down versions of Georgia James’ crowd pleasing desserts.
A recent dinner demonstrated that, yes, a cast iron-seared, medium rare, wagyu ribeye remains a very delicious way to satisfy a steak craving, but hearth roasted Gulf fish and a lightly dressed spinach salad proved that a diner doesn't need to break the bank to have a good meal here. As Houstonians discover the restaurant, expect them to start asking for a Georgia James Tavern in their neighborhoods, too.
If a full house on weekday night is any indication of a restaurant’s popularity, Clark Cooper Concepts has a major hit on its hands with this stylish new bistro. Recently opened in the former Punk’s space next to Coppa Osteria, Gratify’s seafood forward menu focuses on well executed versions of classic fare such as shrimp cocktail, crab cakes, and oysters Rockefeller. Other highlights from a recent visit included tuna crudo and steak au poivre (with extra au poivre sauce for dipping the crispy, Belgian-style frites, as suggested by co-owner Grant Cooper).
Polished service is as de rigueur at any Clark Cooper establishment as the company’s consumer friendly markups. No wonder West U. residents (and fans of the company’s River Oaks restaurant Brasserie 19) have made it one of the city’s most coveted reservations.
Of all the new tasting menu concepts to spring up over the past year or so, none are more fun than chef Brandon’s Silva 20-seat restaurant in Spring Branch. The dining room pulses to a soundtrack personally selected by the chef/DJ, and the room is adorned with various knickknacks from his hobbies and interests. When they're not dancing in their seats, diners may turn their attention to Silva and his team as they carefully plate and serve each dish.
But of course, the food is the real star of the nine-course, $115 per person menu (plus tax, service fee, optional wine pairings, and supplements such as caviar and truffles). Silva draws heavily upon his Mexican heritage, his travels to Spain, and his time at restaurants like Uchi to create an experience that showcases each dishes' ingredients, some of which are harvested from an on-site urban farm. Whether it’s a delicate mussel in an edible “shell,” scallop crudo, or Gulf fish steamed in hoja santa leaves, Degust shows a deft touch that lets its ingredients shine.
At this intimate venue near the Galleria, chef Niki Vongthong (Uchi, Aqui) and her team serve a 12-course, $175 menu of Japanese-inspired fare. Those who’ve had similar experiences will recognize the progression, which begins with oysters and ceviche before moving on to different pieces of nigiri that culminate in toro and wagyu beef, but Hidden puts its spin on the genre with housemade sauces and condiments that enhance the flavor of each fish. Precise technique and close interaction with the chefs make this a memorable experience for sushi lovers.
Reservations open at midnight two weeks before each service, which makes them difficult to obtain. People with flexible schedules should follow the restaurant on Instagram for notice of last minute cancellations.
Homestead Kitchen & Bar
This recently opened restaurant in The Heights serves breakfast all day alongside a lunch and dinner menu of what might be called Texas comfort food — an eclectic mix of dishes that draws upon Southern, Cajun-Creole, and Tex-Mex elements. Breakfast options range from familiar American fare such as Benedicts, pancakes, and chicken and waffles to items inspired by chef Fernanda Alamilla’s upbringing in Mexico such as a hurache, chilaquiles, and entomatadas. A full bar offers plenty of cocktails for a relaxing start to the morning.
That so many diverse elements work well together makes a certain amount of sense; after all, Houstonians are more likely to reach for a breakfast taco to start their morning than a bagel. The recent introduction of dinner service that offers enchiladas and fajitas alongside chicken fried steak and blackened redfish should only enhance the restaurant’s crowd-pleasing appeal.
Ixím and Margeaux’s Oyster Bar at Bravery Chef Hall
Bravery Chef Hall’s reputation as a dining destination is already well established — as the James Beard semifinalist nomination for Christine Ha’s The Blind Goat demonstrates — and these two recent arrivals that replaced Cherry Block and Atlas Diner, respectively, should draw similar attention.
At Ixím, chef Tim Redding and sous chef Rebecca Aguirre take the lessons they learned while working for Hugo Ortega at Caracol and apply them to their own take on regional Mexican cuisine. For example, the the fideo de marisco comes loaded with octopus, shrimp, fish, and lobster. The chefs also deliver flavorful ceviches and a satisfying plate of lamb and pork meatballs that get a little kick chipotles.
Margeaux’s offers a range of Gulf and East Coast oysters on the half shell alongside roasted oysters, raw and cooked seafood dishes, and even a couple of sandwiches. Most importantly, the restaurant is committed to serving the most affordable grilled king crab legs in Houston, which is a more than sufficient reason to visit.
Agnes Cafe & Provisions
Recently opened in the former Tropicales space, this all-day cafe brings Mediterranean-inspired fare to the Boulevard Oaks/Rice Village area. Operated by Becks Prime president Molly Voorhees and real estate executive/passionate home cook Carolyn Dorros, Agnes offers a comfortable dining room for those who choose to stay alongside a well-stocked selection of prepared items and hostess gifts for those who prefer to grab and go.
A lunchtime visit brought the opportunity to sample dishes such as roasted red pepper and tomato soup, a well-spiced steak kebab with saffron rice, and a juicy lamb kofta burger that gets some extra punch from garlic tahini sauce. The recently-introduced dinner menu offers a more refined experience with entrees such as redfish on the half shell and filet mignon with duck fat potatoes — both of which may be paired with wine, beer, or cocktails.
Badolina Bakery & Cafe
The bread service at Doris Metropolitan has always been one of the highlights at the Israeli-inspired steakhouse. Now, pastry chef Michal Michaeli has a dedicated venue for sweets, pastries, breads, and more. Although the setup is more oriented for to-go than dine-in, customers will find ready-to-eat sweet and savory items such as croissants and a fluffy quiche topped with root vegetables. Don’t miss the bakery’s bourekas, a savory puff pastry filled with spinach and cheese, which are incredibly popular in Israel but rare to find in Houston. On Fridays, Badolina offers a babka made with laminated dough that’s a major upgrade in texture and flavor from more traditional versions.