Typically, when I speak with CultureMap readers in public, they want to know what new restaurants they should try. I, of course, refer them to this column or make a couple of suggestions about places I've visited recently that will make the next month's list. I'm rarely surprised by these conversations, but, recently, one reader told me something I don't think I've ever heard before.
"You're too nice," she said. "You never say anything bad about restaurants."
First of all, that is objectively not true, but I'll concede that it's rare. Reporting on new restaurants is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. New places tend to put their best foot forward, and this column's nature as a list of restaurants to try weeds out the true clunkers.
However, I do also use this column as a way to inform readers about restaurants that may be of interest to them, and I try to offer highs and lows in my assessments. In that spirit, this month's list includes thoughts on two Montrose newcomers that should, at best, be approached skeptically — if not avoided altogether, at least until they get things together. Hopefully, these entries serve as a reminder that I don't always play nice.
Don't let those two clunkers distract from the overall excellence of the restaurants on this list. The pre-Super Bowl opening boom is in full swing, and most of these newcomers are worthy of your attention. As always, they're ordered roughly in the order I would try them, which means this month's top slot is pretty obvious.
Now that the New York burger chain has opened its first Houston-area location in The Galleria, the time has come to cut through the hype and assess whether people should eat there. While it’s easy to adopt a Whataburger or bust mentality, Shake Shack quickly demonstrates why it has become a global phenomenon.
The restaurant serves an excellent, diner-style, thin patty burger where the cripsy edges on the patty, the vegetables, the potato bun, the gooey cheese, and the signature ShackSauce all combine to deliver layers of flavor and texture. The SmokeShake adds crispy bacon for more texture and gets a little spice from chopped cherry peppers. Even the ChickenShack gives Chick-fil-A a run for its money.
A single-patty ShackBurger only costs $5.29, and a double (necessary at dinner for a more substantial meal) costs $8.09. That means two people can eat for about $25, even with a beer or a shake. Finally, here’s my parking pro tip: Enter the orange lot from West Alabama. Take the elevator in Zone N to the first floor. You’ll enter The Galleria very close to Shake Shack’s entrance without having to hassle with the Westheimer traffic.
I encountered some skepticism from two friends when I suggested trying this new neighborhood spot in the Near Northside from former Commonwealth chef Michael Sanguinetti, but they thanked me for suggesting it while it's still flying a little under the radar. Located next to Gerado’s on Patton Street, the Edison splits seating between an outdoor patio and a tidy dining room — giving it a little of the indoor-outdoor vibe that’s made places like Cottonwood and Wooster’s Garden so successful.
Sanguinetti’s menu offers a few bar food staples like a surprisingly juicy lamb burger, but for the most part consists of solidly executed dishes with broad appeal. Fried quail arrived hot and crispy, a braised pork shank fell apart to the park, and a smoked beef rib came with housemade flour tortillas.
Best of all, the prices are eminently reasonable. Most menu items are between $10 and $15, and the beef rib, easily enough to split, only cost $29. House cocktails are similarly reasonable, including an $8 Old Fashioned made with Buffalo Trace bourbon. Taken together, The Edison is one of this year’s most pleasant surprises, and I look forward to going back soon.
Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors
For their second restaurant, Adair Kitchen owners Nick Adair and Katie Adair Barnhart have teamed up with chef Joseph Stayshich (Benjy’s, Karbach Brewing) to open this new restaurant that’s adjacent to River Oaks District. The attractive dining room, which is dominated by a long wood-paneled bar, testifies to the more ambitious nature of this restaurant than its Tanglewood sibling.
Thankfully, Stayshich’s menu matches the decor by delivering big flavors and elegant presentations. Korean-style fried chicken and crispy rock shrimp reappear from the Karbach menu, but overall the dishes show a broad range. Obligatory raw items like tuna tartare and Thai crab and butternut squash salad incorporate local ingredients, and sides like coffee-roasted beets offering an appealing twist on a familiar dish. Well-executed cocktails and an affordable wine list only add to its appeal as a restaurant equally capable of providing casual weeknight dinners or serving as an appealing date night option.
Relish Restaurant & Bar
Speaking of restaurateurs who have stepped up, the husband and wife duo of Addie D’Agostino and executive chef Dustin Teague took a big step forward with this new restaurant that opened in the former site of The Bird & The Bear. In terms of design, the elegant space provides an appropriately stylish setting for the River Oaks crowd that will be the restaurant’s core customers.
At lunch, a mix of casual salads and sandwiches offers a range of tempting options. Credit to chef Teague for making his fried chicken sandwich with flavorful chicken thigh instead of bland chicken breast. Dinner starts at the end of the month; if the expertly grilled lamb chops and crispy chicken I sampled during a private preview dinner are any indication of what the kitchen will be able to execute for a full house, Relish will be a reliable neighborhood staple for years to come.
The latter half of 2016 has been good for dining in Montrose, as new additions like Snooze, Good Dog, The Pit Room, and Cane Rosso have made Houston’s best dining neighborhood even better. Located in the former home of Brasserie Max & Julie, Cafe Azur gives the neighborhood another welcome addition with its lighter take on French fare.
Instead of serving classics like beef Bourguignon or duck a l’orange, chef Sidney Degiane takes his inspiration from France’s southern coast. Dishes like the “perfect egg,” a runny poached egg surrounded by ultra-airy whipped potatoes, lobster ravioli, and expertly prepared steamed mussels deliver big flavors without being heavy. While one visit during a busy Friday night suffered from service and execution problems — the worst being cold duck confit — a visit on a less frenetic Tuesday showed that the kitchen can execute when it isn’t overwhelmed.
If Hugo’s and Caracol are to Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega’s H-Town Restaurant Group what A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are to the Star Wars movie franchise — universally beloved classics that achieve a high standard of overall excellence — then Trevisio was more like The Phantom Menace, best ignored with an elaborate plan like Machete Order, which for a restaurant, means it’s consigned to event duty for weddings and bar mitzvahs and never taken seriously as a place to eat a normal meal. Thankfully, the Texas Medical Center and H-Town have combined to give the space new life as Third Coast.
Chef Jon Buchanan remains, but he’s swapped the Italian menu for a broad array of dishes that utilize more locally-sourced ingredients and draw inspiration from the food he likes to eat when he’s off the clock. Dishes like roasted oysters, a braised lamb shank, and tuna poke may be relatively common, but Third Coast’s well-executed versions make it an appealing lunch or dinner destination for people who work in the Medical Center. In addition, the remodel by local architecture firm Gensler gives the space a much needed bar area that makes it a solid happy hour destination.
These changes, along with an appealing wine list by sommelier David Cook, might even be enough to bump Third Coast to The Force Awakens status: i.e., a highly promising newcomer that demands repeat viewings (or visits).
La Calle Tacos & Tortas
Although many bars as have opened up near Market Square since the end of 2012, new dining options, especially ones that are open late, have been relatively few. Conservatory has been a welcome addition, but tacos, a fundamental late night food group, have been lacking.
Thankfully, La Calle has arrived to fill this gap. Modeled after a Mexico City street stand (as its name implies), the restaurant offers its various meats (asada, barbacoa, pastor, etc) paired with diners’ choice of wrapper (corn tortillas, flour tortillas, tortas, etc). At about $10 for five corn tortillas or one massive torta, prices are a little higher than one would find at a taco truck, but the convenience and quality justify the expense. Best of all, La Calle is open until 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights, which makes it the perfect way to take the edge off a night spent bar hopping.
Cooking Girl emerged as one of last year’s most pleasant surprises — a welcoming, authentic, Szechuan-style restaurant on the busy corner that includes Boheme, Cuchara, and Max’s Wine Dive. Now, the owners of Cooking Girl have expanded to River Oaks with Pepper Twins, which is located on West Gray in former NAM: Noodles and More space. True to its neighborhood, the decor looks better than Cooking Girl’s bare bones aesthetic.
A friend and I found familiar dishes like the Pepper Twins chicken (fried chicken with Sichuan peppercorns) to match Cooking Girl’s vibrant flavors. Unfortunately, a decision to splurge on a pricey stir-fried lobster missed the mark; most of the meat was overcooked and chewy. Still, more good, Bellaire Blvd-style Chinese restaurants coming inside the loop is a good thing, and I’ll be back for the familiar dishes.
The venerable Rice Village neighborhood restaurant has a brand new, two-story building. While classic dishes like lemon pasta and Tuscan chicken remain, chef Sue Nowamooz has also introduced new items that include tacos and other items that build on Hungry’s reputation for serving well-executed comfort food. Popular bartender Linda Salinas is overseeing the beverage program, and she’s adding a take on froze that’s perfect for sipping on the new restaurant’s expansive patio.
To celebrate the opening, Hungry's is serving a HRW-style, three-course, $25 "Heart of Gold" menu that includes a $4 donation to the Houston Food Bank. For those who haven't been to the restaurant since the move, it's a good way to be reintroduced to some of the restaurant's most popular items while doing some good for people in need.
Although it has a considerably lower profile than Shake Shack, this East Coast import offers a welcome taste of Philadelphia. Looking for guidance, I asked a Philly native to join me for lunch. Although the restaurant was out of its signature roast pork on the day of our visit, my friend heartily approved of the cheesesteak and chicken parm sandwiches we tried, proclaiming that the bread reminded her of home. Adding roasted long peppers gave the cheesesteak a welcome jolt of spice. The chicken parm was fine, but I’ll stick to the versions at Good Dog and Pi Pizza.
Jimmy Chew Asian Kitchen
Located in the former home of Poscol on Westheimer, this Asian-inspired restaurant offers an appealing menu that mixes Vietnamese (bo luc lac, vermicelli bowls, pho), Chinese-American (General Tso’s chicken, egg rolls, dumplings), and American comfort food (burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs). Given its late night hours and stylish decor, I hope Jimmy Chew might mark the return of a Hollywood Vietnamese-style hangout.
Unfortunately, my two visits have been pretty lackluster. The restaurant’s General Tso’s chicken arrived crispy but bland, and the Bo Luc Lac was overcooked. Even on a Saturday night close to midnight, the space was almost entirely free of customers, which really hurts the atmosphere. Also, it’s hard to feel good about indulging in a lobster from the restaurant’s tank when the water is so cloudy I couldn’t see through it.
Yucatan Taco Stand
Ever get the feeling that you caught a restaurant at a bad time? That’s the sense that I had at this newly opened Tex-Mex spot in Montrose. Although the restaurant has locations in The Woodlands, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City that suggest it should be successful, Sunday brunch was clearly the wrong time to stop by.
The location is trying to capture some of the Berryhill Sunday funday vibe by pumping dance music over the stereo, but that only works when the crowd is equally lively. Instead, the scattered group of diners mostly seemed more interested in the football games on the flatscreen TVs than what was on the plate (or in each other).
The kitchen served an appropriately crispy tempura fish taco, but it was buried under so much cabbage that it was impossible to eat without spilling the contents onto the plate. The less said about the thin, bland tortilla soup, the better. Maybe dinner offers more promise, but this feels like a restaurant that’s not ready for demanding inner loop diners.