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The Hits of 2011

Our favorite new Houston restaurants.

5. TQLA

One of my ongoing battles is fighting for TQLA to get the respect it deserves despite its Washington Avenue location. I always wonder whether or not I should even mention it, but someone always makes a point of saying that they'd never go there because of the street it fronts. What a dumb, terrible way to go about making dining decisions. Especially considering that TQLA has no valet, but instead offers a secure — and free! — parking garage for its guests behind the restaurant, as well as a beautiful dining room with curvaceous copper sculptures and stately agave plants that make it as attractive for date nights as it is for happy hours. Chef Tommy Birdwell's new Southwestern/nuevo Tex-Mex menu is just as unexpected, filled with treasures such as blue corn-crusted Gulf oysters and duck tamales in a silky sweet potato masa. It's also the only restaurant in town with a "certified tequilier," so come prepared to broaden your horizons when it comes to TQLA's namesake spirit.

4. Brasserie 19

El Gran Malo makes the list for its house-infused tequilas and modern Gulf Coast Tex-Mex.
Troy Fields
El Gran Malo makes the list for its house-infused tequilas and modern Gulf Coast Tex-Mex.

Location Info

Map

Radical Eats

507 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > Tex-Mex

Region: Montrose

Xuco Xicana

2416 Brazos St.
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Montrose

El Gran Malo

2307 Ella
Houston, TX 77008

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Heights

Mala Sichuan Bistro

9348 Bellaire
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen

2712 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77098

Category: Restaurant > British

Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby

TQLA

4601 Washington Ave.
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Heights

Brasserie 19

1962 W. Gray St.
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > Belgian

Region: River Oaks

Coppa Ristorante Italiano

5555 Washington
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Heights

Philippe

1800 Post Oak Blvd.
Houston, TX 77056

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Galleria

Pondicheri

2800 Kirby Drive, B132
Houston, TX 77098

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby

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I'm all in favor of fat, buttery Gulf Coast oysters — as evidenced by the last two entries on this list — but there's a lot to be said for their briny East and West Coast brethren. You can get some of the country's finest oysters at Brasserie 19, one of the two Clark-Cooper restaurants to make this year's list, but you can get some pretty outstanding local fare, too: a Houston Dairymaids cheese board, for example, or Gulf-caught red snapper with a bright fennel salad. As befitting a brasserie, the portions here are (mostly) heavy and rustic, with an emphasis on French classics that pair well with the beers on the small but well-composed beer list, like a croque madame and frites with a Saison Dupont. Sure, it's pricey — but you'll get a show with your dinner here as you watch the River Oaks parade of wealth on display, and maybe even some bread horns, too.

3. Coppa Ristorante Italiano

The closer to the top of the list, the more flawless the restaurants. In fact, although other diners have reported some unsteady meals there, I've yet to have a bad dish at Clark-Cooper's casual Italian restaurant that replaced Catalan. Chef Brandi Key's low-key, high-impact cooking shines in dishes like pumpkin ravioli garnished with dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and simple brown butter sauce or her of-the-moment duck agnolotti with pine nuts and crispy Brussels sprouts leaves. Add in a fun, lively bar and a patio full of promise for the summer, and Coppa is one of the best new additions to the city's dining scene.

2. Philippe

A stunning dining room. A menu full of well-executed French classics with Texan twists. A wine list to match any price range or palate. A chef who treats every diner and every dish as if they were cherished objects. Yet Philippe is easily the most accessible — both in cost and feel — upscale restaurant to open in Houston in years. There's no need to feel fussed over when all you want to do is bury your face in one of Chef Philippe Schmit's decadent terrines of foie gras or a heavy plate of rich coq au vin. The restaurant manages to strike that delicate balance between graciously elegant and comfortably intimate at the same time, while offering some of the most impeccable French cuisine in the city.

1. Pondicheri

I named Pondicheri my favorite new restaurant of the year all the way back in June — that's how striking the food, the ambience, the craft beer list, the baked goods program and everything else about this Gulf Coast Indian restaurant was and remains. With only a few exceptions, Pondicheri is very near perfection. In the intervening months, Pondicheri has continued to impress with improved service and consistently delicious offerings from breakfast all the way through dinner: a bowl of warm, peanut-topped uppma to start the day and a plate of Gulf shrimp chaat for dinner, and all is right with the world. I have a feeling that — as with Indika, chef/owner Anita Jaisinghani's other restaurant — we'll be singing Pondicheri's praises for many years to come.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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