This summer's breakneck pace of restaurant openings has continued into August. New arrivals in River Oaks District, Rice Village, and downtown — many from out of town — may have diners feeling a little dazed by all the new options.
Even for an alleged professional, it can be hard to keep up. Actually going to all of these places to experience them takes a certain amount of time. Of course, doing so is a necessary component of being able to provide an accurate assessment of what people can expect when they make their own visits. Also, what's the fun in writing about restaurants without visiting them?
As always, these are roughly ordered by how quickly I think people should visit them, but this month's crop of restaurants is so solid that each choice is a good one. Don't dawdle, because the new openings will continue fast and furious into the fall. Next month's list will include the latest version of One Fifth as well as late-summer stragglers like Rosie Cannonball, Savoir, and Candente.
First, let’s be clear about one thing. Despite the word “bar” in its name and the extensive whiskey selection, Loch is definitely a restaurant first, with a dramatic dining room, live music in the evenings, and late-night service (daily until 1 am). The menu offers a full range of East Coast style seafood, including a lobster roll, fish and chips, and some of the best crab cakes in Houston, along with an extensive raw bar.
Highlights include any oyster preparation (raw, roasted, or fried) as well as the fish and chips and yellowfin tuna poke. Skip the fried chicken; it’s plenty juicy but not as flavorful as the version at La Lucha. Given the menu’s overall strengths, that’s a relative quibble. 4444 Westheimer Rd., Ste. G110.
Bravery Chef Hall: BOH Pasta & Pizza, Cherry Block Craft Butcher & Kitchen, and Kokoro
This food hall’s five restaurants offer enough compelling choices that each could be its own entry in this article, but my strategy over a couple of visits has been to sample a dish or two from the different concepts. In that spirit, plan a progressive dinner through this exciting new addition to Market Square.
At BOH, chef Ben McPherson’s Italian restaurant, that means a slice of two of his Roman style pizza that features a light, crispy crust or a bowl of his pasta carbonara made with local eggs and crispy guanciale. Chicken fried steak skewers — made with bavette steak and served with a classic red-eye gravy — and the Gulf and Ranch — a ribeye cap stuffed with shrimp andouille sausage — are just two of the beefy delights at Cherry Block, a casual, affordable steakhouse from Black Hill Meats owner Felix Florez and chef Jess DeSham Timmons.
As satisfying as the dishes at both of those establishments are, Kokoro has become my early favorite. Uchi veterans Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee lead the kitchen, which serves sushi (sashimi, nigiri, and maki) as well as a small menu of yakitori skewers and side dishes like chicken fat fried rice. The precisely cut nigiri, using sustainable fish sourced locally as well as from Japan (who knew Mexican chu-toro could be so delicious) already arrived seasoned with a little soy or a bright citrus element, which means diners shouldn’t be dredging them through a brown slurry of soy sauce and wasabi.
I’ll consider the other two restaurants, Atlas Diner and Vietnamese concept The Blind Goat, in next month’s column. 409 Travis St.
Also owned by Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group, this restaurant offers a more upscale environment and global menu than sister concept Loch Bar. Overall, the stylish restaurant has a lively atmosphere, at least it did on the busy Saturday night I visited for dinner.
It would be easy just to make a meal of starters like the grilled octopus, wagyu-stuffed grape leaves, and watermelon feta salad, but that would mean skipping the fresh fish selections that are the menu’s biggest draw. Whether that’s Ora King salmon cooked to a delicate medium and served with a white bean puree or pan-seared branzino with capers, fish preparations are balanced to enhance the natural flavors rather than overwhelming them. Meat eaters should consider the lamb chops or bone-in bison short rib.
Regardless of whether one chooses land or sea, sommelier Evan Turner always seems to have the right vintage to pair with a dish — as long as it's one of the Greek wines he champions. 4444 Westheimer Rd., Ste. G130.
From its hometown of Washington, D.C., this salad concept has conquered parts of both the East and West coasts with its eclectic menu of creative combinations. It arrives in Rice Village (its first Texas location) with a reputation for inspiring such cultish devotion that the company is worth more than $1 billion.
Consider the “Summer BBQ Salad” that combines blackened chicken thighs with watermelon, raw corn, shredded cabbage, shredded kale, green goddess ranch, and more. The blend of flavors — peppery chicken, sweet watermelon, etc. — and textures — creamy dressing, crunch carrots, chewy kale — means that each bite offers something a little different. The ability to build a custom salad ensures that people get just what they want. Expect even more of a frenzy when a second location opens in Montrose next month. 2551 Amherst St.
The Gypsy Poet
This intimate Midtown restaurant serves Neapolitan (described on the menu as “artisan-style") pizzas from a wood-burning oven along with a couple of salads and a very tasty tiramisu. The dough ferments for 48 hours (72 on Tuesdays), which gives the baked crust a light texture and pleasant chew. With toppings like pepperoni and honey, portobello mushrooms with bacon, and a classic Margherita, diners should find a sufficient range of options, and the 13-inch diameter means two people with small appetites could conceivably split a pie — although that’s not as much fun as ordering one per person and having some leftovers.
Note that the owners also use the space as a performance venue. Impromptu jam sessions can bust out at any moment. 2404 Austin St.
From the bones of Spaghetti Warehouse comes this Italian-inspired restaurant. With its open kitchen, eclectic decor, and scratch-made menu of pizzas, pastas, and entrees, the restaurant seems more like North Italia than its humble, red sauce predecessor.
Chef Jaime Salazar, formerly of Brasserie 19, presents a menu full of upscale touches that include angel hair pasta with truffle cream sauce, Australian lamb chops, and seared scallops with romesco. Highlights from a lunch visit included crispy, gooey fried mozzarella; a nicely al dente seafood risotto loaded with shrimp and other shellfish; and juicy roasted chicken.
Being located in the Marq*E Entertainment Center may prove to be at odds with becoming a successful upscale-casual concept, but Warehouse 72 looks to have the right pieces in place to achieve success. 7620 Katy Fwy., Ste. 305.
Raffi Nasr has brought a taste of Lebanon to Briargrove with this newly-opened fast casual restaurant. The menu offers a crowd-pleasing array of dishes, from hummus and falafel to pita sandwiches, and bowls made with rotisserie chicken or akaushi beef from Heartbrand Ranch. Quality beef is Nasr’s only goo sourcing decision: his pita comes from Phoenicia, his baklava crumble comes from Suzie’s Pastry Shoppe, and next door neighbor Michael’s Cookie Jar bakes his tahini blondie. Friendly service and a family-friendly atmosphere should help it appeal to the young professionals who make their homes in the neighborhood. 1920 Fountain View Dr.
Don’t confuse this California-based sandwich’s shop position on the list with an assessment that it is of low quality, because that’s certainly not the case. Each sandwich presents an interesting combination of flavor and textures that transcends what’s typically found at lesser chain shops. For example, the Peruvian steak sandwich comes topped with Oaxacan cheese, herb aioli, and vegetables that give it both heft and crunch (adding avocado for creaminess is good, too). Similarly, a simple-sounding turkey and avocado sandwich gets a spicy boost from chili aioli and jalapeño relish.
In addition to creative combination, the restaurant offers a stylish interior and a family-friendly atmosphere. With locations in downtown and Uptown Park slated to open before the end of the year, lots more Houstonians will get to decide whether or not Mendocino suits their palates. 5510 Morningside Dr.
Bellaire Food Street has already emerged as a popular dining destination in Chinatown, and this Japanese chain is one of the reasons why. All of the dishes arrive on a sizzling iron plate. Diners stir the ingredients together to cook the protein, rice, and vegetables.
I tried the kimchi beef with rice and corn. The beef cooks quickly, and the flavors work well together. The kimchi’s sour tang balances out the corn’s sweetness, and the rice gets a little crunch as it cooks. More quick and convenient than a culinary revelation, Pepper Lunch makes a solid addition to the area’s dining options. 9393 Bellaire Blvd., Ste. C.