Not that any year in dining should necessarily be compared to what came before, but the odds of 2018 topping what happened in 2017. After all three of Houston’s James Beard Award-winning chefs opened new establishments last year.
Still, this year didn’t lack for intriguing new options. Concepts from out of town — everything from Nobu and Superica to Rodeo Goat, Flower Child, and International Smoke — made a splash and raised the game for local operators. None of them make the list below, but that’s not a reflection on their quality; it’s merely an acknowledgement that replicating a successful concept isn’t quite as difficult as starting a new one.
If this year had a theme, it has to be reconcepting. Operators start with a space they’re already using, then transform it with a new name, decor, and menu. Justin Yu’s successful transformation of Oxheart into Theodore Rex seems to have inspired a wave of imitators, and the results have been overwhelmingly successful, at least according to this list.
And why wouldn’t it be? Take the lessons learned over a restaurant’s lifespan and use them to freshen things up in a way that causes diners to see it with new eyes. We crave a certain amount of novelty in our collective dining scene, and a new name helps stand out from the crowd.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that the #MeToo movement continues to affect Houston’s culinary world. Eunice, a new concept from New Orleans-based BRG Hospitality, is partially owned by John Besh, who was credibly accused of sexual harassment. I have friends who will never set foot in Eunice, and I respect their decision. Still, I consider it my job to inform CultureMap’s readers about places to dine and let them make their own decisions about which establishments to support.
That aside, 12 seemed like a pretty reasonable number of new restaurants to feature, but that doesn’t mean these are the only good restaurants of the year. Honorable mentions include all of the out of towners listed above, plus Kulture, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Golden Bagels & Coffee, and Wanna Bao, which finally brought first-rate soup dumplings inside the loop. I look forward to dining at all of these establishments in 2019. Now, onto the list of this year’s best new restaurants.
This replacement for Underbelly, at least in spirit, feels far more vital than its predecessor. Shedding some of Underbelly’s self-imposed rules regarding whole animal butchery and local sourcing freed chef-owner Chris Shepherd and chef de cuisine Nick Wong to explore a wider array of dishes and cuisine. That creative collaboration has led to signatures like the crispy rice salad, crispy chicken stuffed with sticky rice, and more. The restaurant serves a particularly compelling brunch, highlighted by the boudin siu mai and the smoked fish delights of the NYC snack plate. Creative cocktails, affordable wine, and first-rate desserts from chef Victoria Dearmond all help make this restaurant one that can be visited again and again.
Austin Simmons, arguably Houston’s most-underrated chef, blends French technique, Asian flavors (his favorite ingredient is kimchi), and lessons learned during travels to both Europe and Asia at this restaurant in The Woodlands. A more personal replacement for Hubbell & Hudson Bistro — Simmons named the restaurant after his daughter — the menu hops from avant garde fare like Korean butter-poached crab with kimchi pancake and hamachi toastada to riffs on classics like lobster Thermidore and a wedge salad loaded with crispy pork belly chunks. Top-notch steaks, including some sourced from Texas akaushi purveyor Heartbrand Ranch, hold their own with any steakhouse.
A tasting menu restaurant in north Houston dedicated to exploring the history of soul food sounds more like the idea for an art project than a restaurant, but chef Jonny Rhodes and his team are doing some serious cooking at this 13-seat tasting menu concept. Dishes such as the Descendents of Igboo (candied yams with marshmallow and smoked pecan butter) and Slum Village (aged potato ashcake with caramelized potato and duck fat creme) simultaneously tell the story of the African American experience and showcase the chef’s talent with various preservation techniques. Part of Rhodes presentations about mass incarceration or the history of the term “mandingo” may make some people uncomfortable, but they’re delivered with such passion and conviction that there's no doubting his sincerity. The restaurant has come a long way since it opened this summer, and it seems as though it will only continue to get better over time.
Calling a restaurant a “Creole brasserie” only goes so far to describe its food. Instead, think of this Greenway Plaza-area spot as a mixture of State of Grace and Brennan’s. With dishes like shrimp etouffee over housemade pasta and roasted duck breast over crispy duck fried rice, chef Drake Leonards delivers a lighter, fresher take on familiar Louisiana dishes. Even familiar tastes like burrata salad and a simple plate of grilled broccolini show a surprising depth of flavor. Add in one of the city’s prettiest dining rooms — a farmhouse inspired design with an almost dream like quality — that makes every meal feel a special occasion, and it’s no wonder this restaurant has consistently drawn crowds.
Hard to believe it took Agricole Hospitality over four years to open a proper follow up restaurant to Coltivare, but this eclectic EaDo spot has been worth the wait. Chef Paul Lewis, working with Agricole partners Ryan Pera and Vincent Huynh, incorporates an eclectic array of influences into the crowd-pleasing menu. Anchored by flavorful interpretations of classic dishes like chicken and rice and ricotta gnudi, the restaurant also gets playful with throwback dishes like ham dip and blue crab imperial. A well-priced wine list, cocktails by sister concept Miss Carousel, and a comfortable dining room make it easy to linger.
Speaking of reinventions, credit restaurateur Benjy Levit for realizing it was time for a change at the Washington Avenue location of Benjy’s. The new restaurant features a fresh take on a range of staple dishes — everything from matzo ball soup and steak tartare to roast chicken and a solid cheeseburger. A new design helps the room feel lighter and brighter than before, which helps makes the restaurant equally enticing for a casual weeknight dinner or a decadent weekend brunch.
The number of high-quality barbecue joints in Houston has grown so dramatically that serving really good meat is the minimum requirement to be taken seriously. Owners Patrick Feges and Erin Smith achieve that — no surprise, considering they’re trained chefs who’ve worked at some of Houston’s best restaurants — and much more at their counter service spot in the Greenway Plaza food court. Peppery brisket, juicy ribs, and flavorful pulled pork are all first-rate, but its Smith’s vegetable sides like Moroccan-spiced carrots, sweet potato and banana mashers, and sweet and spicy sprouts that really set the menu apart. PB&J chocolate cake ranks among this year’s most outstanding desserts at any restaurant.
The team of chef Bobby Matos and sommelier/general manager Matt Crawford has been a winning one for restaurateur Ford Fry at State of Grace, so it’s no surprise that this Heights restaurant is among this year’s best new arrivals. A comprehensive set of interior renovations completely distinguishes the space from its former life as Hunky Dory, especially the reconfigured bar. Menu highlights include the roasted oysters, the buttery crawfish bread, and the fried chicken, which arrives both juicy and crispy. Crawford’s carefully chosen champagne list makes it a fun place to celebrate special occasions.
Chris Shepherd’s take on a steakhouse during the first version of One Fifth achieved such extraordinary success that it deserved a permanent home. Built in the former Underbelly space, Georgia James (named for the chef’s parents) ups the ante from its predecessor with a more luxurious interior, a substantial room for dry-aging meat, and a large wine cellar. The menu’s been upgraded, too, with more cuts from Texas waguy producer Marble Ranch — including the essential zabuton — and prime beef from 44 Farms, including a 100-day dry-aged long bone ribeye. Staples from One Fifth Steak like uni panna cotta and chicken liver pate have been supplemented with dishes like a decadent wedge salad, and side dishes like lamburger helper and creamed collard greens help tie the whole presentation together.
Inspired by the meals she served her daughter, first-time restaurateur Kelly Barnhart created a restaurant where all of the dishes are gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, and don’t use white sugar. To ensure the dishes are both tasty and beautiful, she recruited blogger Alison Wu — rather than a trained chef — to create the menu. When it all comes together, as it does for dishes like the buckwheat pancakes or the lobster quinoa spaghetti at dinner, even people who eat gluten and dairy won’t realize what they’re “missing.” Obviously, the restaurant comes along at the right time in the culinary zeitgeist, which explains why it seems to be so popular with Houston’s cool moms, but the stylish Montrose cafe welcomes all diners.
Not every restaurant reaches its peak potential when it opens; sometimes they have to evolve a bit to find themselves. Such is the case with Poitín, which started out serving an eclectic menu of globally inspired dishes but has recently refocused on Southern cuisine centered around executive chef Dominick Lee’s roots in New Orleans. While the hummus and pastrami will be missed, their replacements — dishes like collard green risotto, beef cheek with spoonbread, and blue crab with smoked green onion and avocado — have a cohesiveness that their predecessors lacked. A strong front of house team, anchored by beverage director Sarah Cuneo (Anvil, The Pastry War) and wine director Chris Fleischman (Riel, Pax Americana), help ensure the dining experience is as hospitable as Lee’s food is delicious.
At a time when ambitious Japanese concepts from both local operators and out of town seem to be on an upswing, the one that shows the most promise is this casual spot from veteran restaurateur Ken Bridge (Ritual, Lola’s Diner, etc) and chef Billy Kin. With a compelling menu of well-priced raw items, skewers, entrees, and more, Blackbird serves as both a place to get a quick snack and a beer and a for a multi-course meal. Bridge has said before that he considers the space at 1221 W. 11th St. to be a test kitchen for different ideas; let’s hope this one sticks around for awhile.