Let's be honest. Keeping up with the pace of Houston's restaurant openings has been even harder than usual this year. Just as people started returning to dining rooms post-Harvey, the Astros dramatic run to a World Series victory sent them flocking to Minute Maid Park, sports bars, or staying home to follow every twist and turn — i.e., not dining in restaurants.
I get it. I've been root, root, rooting for the Astros since my third grade teacher (hi, Mrs. Marsters!) let us skip class to watch Mike Scott throw scuffed-up split finger fastballs past the Mets, but the time has come to get back to normal — while wearing world championship gear, natch.
Once people start to catch up, they'll discover that the quality of this fall's new restaurants has been very good, which is reflected in the overall excellence of the establishments in this month's column. They include two new projects from former Food & Wine Best New Chefs, a new barbecue spot from one of the city's most well known restaurant families, and, to stay on trend, new poke options.
As always, these restaurants are ranked by how quickly I think you should try them, but this month's list offers something for just about everybody.
Historically, Houstonians have never embraced hotel restaurants in the way diners in other cities do. Frankly, when the local choices are so compelling, why would anyone bother with paying a high price for a valet and trudging through the lobby to dine on just okay food?
Oxbow 7 is different. First, it doesn’t feel like a hotel restaurant, because patrons enter directly from the street and valet is free. More importantly, it doesn’t taste like a hotel restaurant. Executive chef Bryan Cawell (Reef, etc.) has created a menu that’s inspired by his memories of growing up in Louisiana and Texas, blended with the culinary chops that made him a Food & Wine Best New Chef and two times James Beard Best Chef Southwest finalist.
At dinner, suggested dishes include the East Texas caviar (ghost pepper caviar with andouille sausage and potato chips), Cast Net Bun Rieu (crab broth with a cake of raw crab and tomato), and the boudin-stuffed quail. Caswell’s buck shot gumbo offers a thinner, lighter broth than most around town; he told me it’s a regional variation that’s true to his upbringing, which I respect, but found less compelling than the other dishes.
Regardless of the specific dishes, well-crafted cocktails and an ambitious wine list offer plenty of choices for pairings. Just leave room for dessert; sous chef Sarah Schnitzer puts her pastry talents to good use.
1121 Walker Street; 713-487-6137
Speaking of F&W BNCs, Justin Yu recently opened this restaurant that replaced Oxheart in downtown’s Warehouse District. The chef’s counter and tasting menu have been replaced with a la carte options and a four-seat bar that’s reserved for walk-in diners. Reservations can still be tough to secure, but those seats, along with a couple of tables, offer diners the chance to treat the restaurant like the casual neighborhood bistro it aspires to be.
What hasn’t changed is the commitment Yu and chef de cuisine Jason White have for sourcing the highest quality local ingredients they can, which is why the tomatoes in the tomato toast — grown at The Inn at Dos Brisas — taste so fresh and vibrant even though it’s fall. Also, the service, led by general manager Diana Kendrick and sommelier Bridget Paliwoda, remains as friendly and knowledgeable as ever.
Over two visits, I’ve found the food is still finding its footing. Vegetable dishes like pumpkin and squash with curry or the crispy potatoes pave that’s cooked with a bit of chicken fat offer a depth of flavor and complexity that exceeds weaker dishes like a more bland piece of grouper in green tomato sauce or chewy slices of Texas wagyu beef and matches the expectations diners will have given Yu's James Beard Award and other accolades.
Oxheart was a groundbreaking restaurant that earned national praise for its ambitious cuisine and remains a place I miss. T Rex isn’t revolutionary — that’s sort of the point of the transformation — but it will have to grow a bit if it wants to earn the same sort of acclaim that its predecessor did.
1302 Nance Street; 832-830-8592
Pappas Delta Blues Smokehouse
After generations of serving mildly seasoned, lightly smoked barbecue, the Pappas family has jumped on the Central Texas trend with this new restaurant in Webster that mixes Texas barbecue with Southern comfort food, USDA Prime steaks, and a first rate selection of cocktails and whiskey. The concept owes a certain debt to both Killen’s STQ and Beaver’s Westheimer — especially when it comes to versions of STQ signatures like crispy pork belly bites and a Prime chicken fried steak — but the quality of the execution stands on its own.
After two visits, I think the barbecue coming out of the Oyler rotisserie smokers, especially the pork ribs, chicken, and two kinds of housemade sausage, holds its own with the best in the Houston area. The brisket, however, is a bit of a work in progress; it can’t match the texture of smoke flavor of other barbecue joints that use USDA Prime beef. For diners who aren’t interested in barbecue, the restaurant’s fried quail in Nashville-sauce hot sauce, deviled eggs with smoked pork belly, and classic Southern fried chicken make the restaurant destination-worthy.
19901 Gulf Freeway Webster; 281-332-0024
When chefs Mike Tran (Tiger Den, Mein, Ohn Korean Eatery) and Rikesh Patel opened Night Market at the end of last year, they envisioned mixed Thai, Indian, and Japanese curries on the same menu, but the genre-bending concept only confused diners. After closing for a bit, the restaurant reopened as a more traditional Thai restaurant that’s more focused and more approachable than the original.
That result is that classic Thai dishes like pad Thai, papaya salad, and basil chicken are well-executed, but Night Market really distinguishes itself with its more adventurous fare like duck curry, shrimp curry, and peppery housemade sausage. In particular, diners who have spent the last year lamenting the loss of the laab and papaya salad at Foreign Correspondents should make their way to Chinatown post-haste.
9630 Clarewood Drive; 713-492-2835
Kukuri Japanese Cuisine
After a disappointing first visit, I returned to this Washington Avenue upscale sushi spot at the restaurant's invitation for a full omakase with chef Shimao Ishikawa. Over the course of a couple hours, the chef utilized a variety of fish to display the precise techniques and balanced flavors that surely helped Jewel Bako, his prior posting in New York City, maintain its Michelin star. Highlights like a piece of decadent chu-toro and a tasting of three different kinds of uni made up for some of the lower points like a bland piece of steamed cod. It may not feature the theatrics that make omakase at MF Sushi so much fun, but those looking for a classic tasting experience will surely leave satisfied.
Service should be improved, too, thanks to new general manager Emeka Ihedigbo, whose resume includes several restaurants in New York as well as a brief stint at Uchi. Kukuri wants to be Houston’s most traditional sushi palace, but it helps to have someone like Ihedigbo to ensure its service standards and beverage program are in line with the best the city has to offer.
1902 Washington Avenue; 346-234-4060
After years operating first as a cart and then as a stand at the Conservatory food hall, Sean Carroll’s crepes finally have found the brick-and-mortar home they deserve at the new Heights Mercantile shopping center. Located just off Heights Boulevard next to Cloud 10 Creamery, Melange has utilized its additional space to expand the menu with salads and sandwiches.
If Carroll’s crepe makers haven’t quite mastered the trademark patter that made standing in line for a crepe tolerable in the old days, at least they produce the same thin, crispy, street-style crepes that have always been essential eating. I haven’t tried the salads or sandwiches yet, but they’re available for people looking for more substantial options. I say just eat a second crepe.
711 Heights Boulevard; 713-393-7578
Almost every poke shop in Houston operates in the same manner: choose fish, toppings, and sauce that are all assembled to order. But that’s not the way things work at Laki Fish, Mike Tran’s new poke shop that’s located in Chinatown's Dun Huang Plaza next to his ramen restaurant Tiger Den.
Following the model of restaurants in Hawaii, Laki Fish’s offerings are already marinated, which gives the offerings a depth of flavor that isn’t present at other poke restaurants. Want tuna? Choose from either classic shoyu or spicy mayo — not tuna with one of six different sauces. Salmon choices consist of a ceviche-style citrus marinade, spicy wasabi, or spicy mayo. Shrimp are marinated in spicy garlic tarragon mayo. Match those with creative salad choices like edamame, cucumber kimchi, or even quinoa.
At least, those were the choices on the day I visited; the format allows them to change. The flavors work well with the fish, and the sauces don’t upset the texture. Hopefully, more of the new poke shops follow Laki’s lead.
9889 Bellaire Boulevard Suite D-228; 832-623-6510
Kura Revolving Sushi Bar
Just as there is a time for going to a steakhouse and a time for steak night at a bar, so too is there a time for an elaborate omakase sushi feast that’s distributed piece by piece from the chef’s hand and a time for sushi that comes on a conveyor belt that snakes through the dining room. Considering the sushi plates cost $2.25 each and most include two pieces, it’s easy to forgive that half the time the fish fell off the rice as soon as I picked it up. Everything tasted okay, and we feasted for about $70, including drinks, tax, and tip.
Those who want a specific piece that’s not on the conveyor belt can order it from a touch screen; it also displays animations for every five plates consumed and delivers a silly "prize" from a plastic ball after 15 plates.
11161 Westheimer Road; 832-767-5208
From Common Bond to Flo Paris to Levure Bakery, French bakery-cafes have quietly been popping up around the Houston area. Now, the Rice Village/Medical Center area has one to call its own. Owned by French natives Martial and Thuy Demonet, Eclair Paris offers a full selection of breads and pastries as well as breakfast items, sandwiches, and salads.
A friend and I thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast of French toast with housemade brioche and a plate of bacon and eggs. Croissants had the right crispy texture, but a thin glaze of either honey or sugar made them a little sweet. A chocolate-filled eclair, however, exceeded expectations. Dinner service begins soon; I'll be back to try it.
2278 W Holcombe Boulevard; 832-623-7753
Eclair isn't the only cafe on this month's list. Merchant has been a valuable addition to the Galleria area. Of course, diners will find a full range of brewed and espresso beverages, but it’s the food options that set Merchant apart. While it offers sandwiches and salads, the heart of the menu is a selection of sweet and savory crepes. My turkey and fig had a good balance of sweet and smoky flavors that went well with the crepe’s slightly crispy texture.
Those who just want an afternoon snack will enjoy the first-rate chocolate chip cookies and apple pie bars.
1707 Post Oak Boulevard; 713-393-7113
The poke trend that’s sweeping Houston hasn’t quite made it to the Heights (yet), but it has come close thanks to this NYC-based restaurant. Alongside the familiar options like tuna and salmon, Pokeworks offers chicken and tofu as protein options for the seafood-adverse. For those who hate forks and chopsticks, the restaurant also offers poke burritos that are wrapped in seaweed. As gimmicks go, it’s a pretty good one, adding a little crunch and saltiness that aren’t present in bowl form. Colorful decor and a very friendly staff help explain why this restaurant has been growing so quickly.
213 Heights Boulevard; 832-271-7392
Cloud 10 Creamery
Melange Creperie isn’t the only new arrival at Heights Mercantile. The complex also features the second location of this award-winning ice cream shop. Unlike the Rice Village original, the new location features two dippers so that all of chef Chris Leung’s seasonal flavors are available all the time. Sundaes, ice cream bars, and Houston’s best banana split are all present, too.
711 Heights Boulevard; 713-485-5106
Honorable Mention: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse
Admittedly, Del Frisco’s isn’t new, but the refreshed interior, a new menu featuring dry aged steaks, and the return of longtime general manager Arthur Mooradian have the Galleria steakhouse in fighting trim and ready to meet the challenges that newcomers like Steak 48 and the eagerly-anticipated Mastro's are prepared to throw its way. Of course, the restaurant nails classics like a bone-in ribeye and wedge salad, but dishes like salmon, pork belly, and grilled octopus give it appeal beyond those who are seeking a hunk of Prime beef prepared properly medium rare. While California cabernets will always be the biggest movers on the wine list, sommelier Emily Tolbert has plenty of suggestions for those seeking something a little more offbeat.
5061 Westheimer Road; 713-355-2600