Doesn’t it seem like this summer has flown by? It feels like it has only been a few weeks since high school graduation, but kids are already back in school.
Maybe it’s the torrid pace of restaurant openings that makes it seem like time is flying by. This summer has already seen new arrivals from high profile chefs like Chris Shepherd and Michael Mina, and this month brings a number of exciting new options. Among the options below are a new concept from one of the local scene’s most successful operators, a potential tourist destination from the city’s oldest brewery, and a new restaurant from the breakout star of two different Netflix food shows. And a French restaurant that needs to rethink its prices, preparations, and lighting, because sometimes this column is also where not to eat (at least until it gets its shit together).
As always, the restaurants are ordered by how quickly I think you should try them, but Katy residents in search of pasta or Woodlands residents who are intrigued by smoked jackfruit may want to sample the selections that are closer to home.
The Classic All Day
This restaurant, the replacement for Benjy’s on Washington Avenue, offers a fresh take on the sort of something-for-everyone menu that used to be a staple of diners. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the week and brunch and dinner on the weekends, The Classic mixes crowd-pleasing favorites like a cheeseburger, roasted chicken, hummus, and a take on steakhouse-style thick-cut bacon with some more adventurous ideas from chefs Mike Potowski and Maria Gonzalez. Consider the Russian-style pelmeni dumplings, which are packed with mushrooms, or the simple-sounding pork and eggs breakfast sandwich, which features an omelet that’s been stuffed with Gruyere cheese before being panko crusted and fried. Even the matzo ball soup hit the mark with the its light texture and rich broth.
All this dining occurs in a room that’s been given a smart, mid-century modern makeover. Add in a range of beverage options, including straightforward three-ingredient cocktails and a well-priced wine list, and it seems clear that owner Benjy Levit (Benjy’s, Local Foods) has another hit on his hands. 5922 Washington Ave. 713-868-1131
Saint Arnold Brewing Company
Speaking of smart design, Saint Arnold’s owner Brock Wagner deserves kudos for his brewery’s new beer garden and restaurant’s “disappearing building” design, which seamlessly transitions from a fully air-conditioned chapel style dining room into a covered patio into an open air play area with a fantastic view of the downtown skyline. But all that design, including six chapels custom painted by local artists, wouldn’t mean a thing if the food isn’t good — thankfully, it is.
Chef Ryan Savoie has prepared a comprehensive menu that covers shareables (wings, housemade charcuterie), sandwiches (the instant classic crawfish roll), heartier entrees (steak, lamb chops), and a full range of pizzas. Look for clever twists on familiar dishes like the chicken fried, pickled fried green tomatoes or shrimp and crab cakes that are topped with salsa verde and shaved egg yolk.
Crowds have been intense, especially on the weekends (even in the heat), so a little patience might be required at peak times. If the wait starts to seem a little long, have another Saint Arnold. Houston’s oldest craft brewery is also its best. 2000 Lyons Ave.; 713-686-9494
Chef Jonny Rhodes has taken the training he received at places like Oxheart and the Inn at Dos Brisas to create a new tasting menu restaurant that takes an elevated approach to the history of soul food. The menu reflects a fresh perspective on the culinary contributions of what Rhodes refers to as “copper colored people.” Currently, the five-course meal begins with a dish called Affirmation of a Stereotype, which feature a watermelon broth and pickled blueberries. Another dish of field peas in a Jamaican-style curry pays homage to Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist who was active during the Harlem Renaissance.
The correlation between Rhodes’ ideas and the flavors he’s serving don’t always seem to mesh; for example, the watermelon is supposed to taste like Kool-Aid (it doesn’t). It also isn’t clear how a course of snapper with “ramp ranch” is supposed to reflect Southern food. Frankly, asking diners to pay for their meals in advance will probably keep a number of people away. Still, the restaurant offers enough good ideas to justify it’s somewhat pricey $79 cost (wine pairings will be available once Indigo receives its liquor license) and a drive to the Lindale Park neighborhood. 517 Berry Rd.
Motorcycle racer-turned-restaurateur Will Gruy (seriously) became so enamored with the pizza al’taglio he experienced when living in Rome that he brought the style to a small shop in the heart of West University Place. Houstonians will probably like it, too, thanks to the crust’s crispy texture and buttery flavor. Being BYOB with no corkage fee helps offset some of the cost, which starts around $4 for a decent-sized slice with most of the personal-sized, rectangular-shaped pies coming in between $13 and $15. While a pepperoni sliced I tried had cheese that barely rated as national chain quality, the fresh mozzarella on a caprese-style pizza with fresh tomatoes and basil tasted to be of much higher quality.
It’s clear that the first time operator is already responding to feedback; a tip screen that offered choices of 18, 20, and 25 percent has been modified to 10, 15, and 18. Hopefully, they’ll relent a little on the all-canned-or-bottled drink selection by providing iced tea (or else people might start to BYO that, too). 6119 Edloe St.
Mona Fresh Italian Food
For his follow up to Cafe Azur, chef Sidney Degaine has created a restaurant devoted to the joys of eating fresh pasta. Located behind a Chick-fil-A in a Katy-area strip center, diners will be struck by the restaurant’s simple, plant-filled design — and the racks of freshly made pasta dough hanging from racks behind the counter.
Ordering is simple: pick vegetables, a sauce, and a protein. I adapted a weeknight meal my father used to make by creating a pasta with spinach, mushrooms, and peas in a tomato sauce with a meatball. An employee prepared the dish in front of me. The pasta proved properly al dente, and the flavors came together well. Not bad for about $13. 19355 Katy Freeway
Kau Ba Kitchen
Chef Nikki Tran, whose brief appearances in episodes of Ugly Delicious and Somebody Feed Phil made her a low level viral sensation, has quietly opened her new Houston restaurant in the former Bacchus space on Dunlavy Street. The chef developed Viejun cuisine, which takes the flavors of Viet-Cajun cooking and applies them to traditional Vietnamese ingredients. She’s also offering elevated takes on Vietnamese classics by serving pho with elevated ingredients like free-range chicken or red wine-braised beef.
The results range from pretty ordinary — shrimp and pork dumplings with thickish skins and mildly-seasoned pho — to highly intriguing. Her seafood Viejun, a combination of crab, clams, shrimp, and mussels in a garlic butter sauce, initially arrived with too much orange juice, which made the sauce bitter. When she visited the table to inquire about our impressions, Tran insisted on replacing the dish with a properly made version that balanced buttery richness with pungent garlic. Getting the kitchen crew trained to operate efficiently will be a key goal if the restaurant wants to live up to Tran’s standards and Netflix-fueled reputation. 2502 Dunlavy St.; 713-497-5300
Herb & Beet
The arrival of any independent restaurant in the Spring/Woodlands area is cause for celebration, especially when it’s devoted to fresh, healthy eating. Owners Josh Lorey and E’Leece Miner serve a vegetable-forward mixture of salads, sandwiches, and composed plates at eminently reasonable prices (everything is under $15). Highlight include the avocado beet toast (made with beet hummus), a Southwestern steak salad made with 44 Farms flank steak, and anything with the smoked jackfruit, which will have vegetarians and omnivores alike thinking they’re eating pulled pork.
Beverage options include wine, craft beer, and a selection of housemade lemonades. A bright, clean look from local design firm Gin Design Group (Axelrad, Public Services, etc) helps make the fast casual concept the sort of place people will want to linger. 448 Sawdust Rd. (Spring); 832-663-9671
La Sicilia Italian Bakery & Cafe
Admittedly, I’ve been keeping the pleasures of this Italian bakery in Montrose to myself for at least a couple of months. The filled-to-order cannoli are first rate, and the Italian cookies make for an excellent treat. In the mood for something savory, I finally tried the cafe’s meatballs and found that they match the quality of the sweets with a good texture and a bright tomato sauce. Maybe next time I’ll give the lemon ricotta pancakes a shot. 515 Westheimer Rd.; 713-636-2900
Wagyu Hibachi & Sushi Bar
Tableside service is having a bit of a revival both locally and across the country — consider the duck press at Tony’s or that La Table is able to charge $110 for a whole chicken that’s carved in front of diners — so why not hibachi? Diners get to watch a talented chef slice and dice his way through a meal prepared on a hot griddle, and old tricks like the onion volcano are pretty much perfect for Instagram.
As the name implies, this restaurant also serves akaushi beef, a wagyu hybrid; ours came out a little overcooked, which makes it hard to justify the price premium over the standard offerings. The sushi rolls are and appetizers are, shall we say, good enough. Still, it’s a fun night out, especially in a group. 3239 Southwest Freeway; 281-974-3775
La Villa Saint Tropez
Sometimes I wonder whether or not I’ve been recognized at a new restaurant where I haven’t had occasion to meet the owners, but not at this recently opened French bistro that replaced Cafe Azur at the corner of Montrose and Richmond. No sooner had I walked through the door then I saw a woman look my way, stand up from the table she was sitting at, and dash off to the kitchen.
In this instance, being spotted didn’t seem to improve the dining experience much. A well-executed duck breast (properly medium rare, well-rendered fat) also included a mushy, flavorless side of polenta. An underseasoned octopus salad didn’t help either, but the french fries are excellent, with just the right balance between a crispy exterior and a fluffy interior.
Unfortunately, the negatives outweighed the positives. Expensive cocktails (priced between $13 and $16) led us to stick to beer. Off-putting lighting, weirdly blue on the night I visited, made the space feel more like a club than a restaurant. The space has been a reliable destination for French food for more than 10 years, but Saint Tropez will need to fix its kinks and lower its prices to maintain that tradition. 4315 Montrose Blvd.; 713-524-0070
Honorable Mention: Dinner at Killen’s Barbecue
No one needs to read this column to know that the Pearland barbecue joint still serves excellent smoked meat, but the restaurant’s recently upgraded dinner service deserves more attention. Instead of going through the cafeteria line, diners now opt for full service and tablecloths — the restaurant even accepts reservations on OpenTable.
While it’s still possible to order barbecue, the most-intriguing new items are Tex-Mex dishes like queso (available topped with pulled pork or brisket), fajitas (made with American wagyu from Snake River Farms), and enchiladas in a classic Tex-Mex chili gravy (filled with cheese or brisket). With Ronnie Killen serious enough about Tex-Mex to have created social media pages for a potential new restaurant, now is a good time to revisit the barbecue joint and taste his latest creations. 3613 East Broadway St. (Pearland); 281-485-2272