This year has been a banner one for Houston restaurants. Establishments like Coltivare, Killen's Barbecue, Common Bond and Pax Americana have collectively raised the game for the city's restaurant scene as a whole. Fall openings like Museum Park Cafe, Main Kitchen, Radio Milano and Prohibition show immense promise.
All that goodness leaves diners with a problem.
Unfortunately, with too many familiar dishes and too little to distinguish them from other concepts, these restaurants come up short.
With so many new restaurants to choose from, how does one decide where to go? After all, sometimes people dawdle and miss out on a place like MF Sushi that they might have really enjoyed had they only taken the time to visit before it disappeared (at least in its relevant incarnation with Chris Kinjo present).
While I will eventually answer that question with some sort of list of 2014's best new restaurants, I want to offer an alternative perspective.
Here are six restaurants that have been a disappointment. I had high hopes for each of them because they represent new efforts from some of Houston's most experienced operators with the potential to bring something fresh to the city's dining scene. Unfortunately, with too many familiar dishes and too little to distinguish them from other concepts, these restaurants come up short.
It isn't necessarily that they serve bad food or have terrible service. Rather, with so many choices, diners are better served by focusing on restaurants that offer more distinctive, better executed cuisine.
Dishonorable Mention: The El Cantina and Fish & the Knife
These two restaurants both appeared on my initial draft of this list, but circumstances knocked them off. The El has been rescued by F.E.E.D. TX of Liberty Kitchen and BRC fame, which is going to overhaul the menu of the struggling Tex-Mex restaurant. Fish & the Knife's mix of Creole and Japanese food in a high style space with an adjacent nightclub is the very definition of a muddled concept, but it closed at the end of November.
Bradley's Fine Diner/Funky Chicken
"They're starving for great places to eat there," celebrity chef Bradley Ogden told Eater Vegas about Houston in 2012. Maybe so, but the two time James Beard Award winner's concepts haven't done much to satiate that hunger. The chef has plans to open 200 Funky Chickens, but it's hard to imagine who will eat there.
Funky Chicken's fried chicken is fine in a better than fast food or Boston Market kind of way, but locally grown concepts like Frenchy's, The Bird House and The Chicken Ranch are better. Roast chicken and recently added ribs were mostly limp and flavorless when I made a recent return visit to Funky Chicken.
As for BFD, the restaurant's initial promise displayed with ingredients like domestic caviar, frogs legs and American-raised Kobe beef quickly gave way to more generic comfort food like fish and chips and pot roast. Curiously, the recently opened California location features dishes like beef tartare, roasted bone marrow and smoked trout crepe that are absent from the Houston menu. Treating your Texan customers like second class citizens with a dumbed down menu isn't very fine. At all.
When Philippe Schmit departed his namesake restaurant, the owners realized changes had to be made. After all, Garfield minus Garfield may be a funny Internet meme, but Philippe minus Philippe just felt sad. Enter Table, a restaurant under the direction of Philippe's chef de cuisine Manuel Pucha that brings a bit of a global twist to standard comfort fare.
It's all reasonably well executed but feels better suited to tourists and business travelers than anyone who lives in the city. After all, how many roasted chickens and braised short ribs does anyone really need?
This third concept from Johnny Carrabba works just fine as a neighborhood restaurant for the River Oaks set. However, diners who don't recognize friends at two or more other tables are advised to eat elsewhere.
The wide ranging menu means that the kitchen turns out adequate fare that isn't excellent in any area. Why settle for a substandard, $19 version of General Tso's chicken when there's a perfectly solid version around the corner at Shanghai River? Or seafood campechana when Goode Co Seafood is a straight shot down Kirby?
In one of the more surprising moves of 2014, chef Bruce Molzan abruptly departed from River Oaks restaurant Corner Table for a new venture at the former Nosh Bistro space on Kirby. The chef, who made Ruggles Grille a leading Houston restaurant in the '80s and '90s, reinvented himself around the Paleo diet.
Ruggles Black mixes dishes compatible with the Paleo lifestyle and some Asian flourishes from Molzan's business partner, Nosh owner Neera Patidar. Still, individual tacos in the $10 range and mains in the mid-$30s need to incredible to justify the premium price, but Ruggles is plagued by uneven execution. Count this as more see-and-be-seen society spot than dining destination.
Punk's Simple Southern Food
Generally, I avoid complaints about high prices; after all, one person's too expensive is another person's reasonable splurge. While there isn't anything bad about the food at Punk's Simple Southern Food — chef Brandi Key and her team are certainly adept with a fryer — I find it hard to justify paying $21 for either chicken fried steak, five small pieces of fried chicken (even with mashed potatoes and a biscuit) or meatloaf.
Higher than average prices for food at other Clark/Cooper restaurants like Coppa or Brasserie 19 are offset by the deals on wine, but comfort food doesn't put me in a wine drinking mood. Perhaps even more surprising is that Clark/Cooper's typical flair for interior design has come up short; the mismatched chairs and light up "SOUTHERN" sign make the space feel as though it would be a good fit to be an Epcot Center restaurant if they added "The American South" as a country instead of England or Germany.
What do you think of this list? Sound off in the Comments Section below.