According to Esquire's roving food guru John Mariani, new restaurants have either a "rakish, comfortable, spectacular" Brooklyn feel, or a soaring space with a "splashy," grown-up dining room.
On Mariani's list of the best new restaurants of 2012, the only Houston eatery that made an appearance was Chris Shepherd's Underbelly, which Mariani writes is "as important as it is delicious" for Shepherd's attempt to reframe the story of Houston food.
One surprising omission from the list is Oxheart, which was named a Top 10 best new restaurant by Bon Appetit.
"Shepherd is a locavorus extremis, so you won't find Maine lobster or Chinook salmon on the menu," Mariani notes. "What you will find are dishes made from the least possible number of perfect ingredients. Nowhere have I had juicier, sweeter heirloom tomatoes, and they're served with rich house-made ricotta and robust slices of earthy wild-boar salami.
"Moist pulled chicken comes with crunchy cabbage and a shot of pungent Vietnamese nuac mam sauce. And his peaches-and-cream fried pie may be the best American dessert I've ever gobbled up."
As for Shepherd's style, Mariani included Underbelly under the latter "splashy" category. While I'd never declare a restaurant with such a considered Texas vibe Brooklyn-ish, I think the other descriptors apply a little better.
One other Houston chef that merited a mention was Ryan Hildebrand, named as one of five chefs to keep your eye on for his "third-coast French cuisine" at Triniti, especially the indulgent foie gras breakfast dish. (Speaking of Triniti, now that's a soaring, dramatic, grown-up dining room if ever I've seen one.)