Underdogs and Juggernauts

The 10 best new restaurants of 2012.

In Kevin Naderi's case, that includes his own Persian heritage, the Southern farm-to-table aesthetic he embraced under Chef Randy Evans at Haven, Japanese flavors and ingredients picked up alongside Chef Robert Gadsby when he was still at Soma, and the Mediterranean and Thai influences so prevalent throughout Houston itself. When I describe Roost to people, it requires a complex description. But I'm okay with that — good restaurants are often complex things.

"It's a neighborhood bistro, kind of," I start off by explaining. "It's sort of farm-to-table — whatever that really means anymore — but it also has a lot of Japanese and Middle Eastern and Thai influences. And really good craft beer. And it's super-casual." Usually, at least one of these things is enough to convince someone to give Roost a shot, although the restaurant certainly hasn't been without steady business since opening in mid-December of last year. I like to think it's this combination effect that is such a draw. So many of our restaurants no longer neatly fit into "French" or "New American" or even "fusion" boxes. We are simply living in a post-fusion world.

Triniti: The Aesthete

Named for the "culinary trinity" of savory, sweet and spirits, chef Ryan Hildebrand's Triniti gives equal attention to all three menu components. Emphasizing beverages and desserts as much as the main courses is an unusual move, although it's one that pays off in this starkly contemporary space — but Triniti is so much more than that.

Triniti is sort of the Avengers of Houston restaurants, with players assembled from some of the city's best dining rooms and kitchens. Familiar waiters from Voice, a manager from Reef, a sommelier from Vic & Anthony's, chefs with pedigrees from restaurants such as The Barbed Rose, bistro moderne, Aries, Voice and Textile, all of them under executive chef Ryan Hildebrand's steady leadership. It's a dream team of talent in both the kitchen and the front of the house, which has the potential to be an ego-driven mess. Instead, they function as a thoughtful, confident team — something which is conveyed in even the smallest touches here, from the Riedel glasses and Laguiole knives to the soundtrack of MGMT, Cold War Kids, Passion Pit and M83 that encourages a fun atmosphere despite the upscale food.

The problem is what to call Triniti, though. Just as with Roost or Underbelly or Oxheart, there's no neat term for what Hildebrand and his team are serving here. At Triniti, you can see the bone structure of New American cuisine in its elegant, expressive sauce work and transformed comfort food, like a foie gras "breakfast" with crispy bacon, a delicate quail egg and fig syrup served alongside a torchon. Yet Triniti is not New American. In that "contemporary" vein, it incorporates newer techniques and — more importantly — local ingredients that give the restaurant a sense of place: a Railean rum-based cocktail or greens from Wood Duck Farms are here not as garnish but as an overall attitude toward the cuisine. For now, I'm happy with calling it simply exquisite.

Uchi: The Standard-bearer

Uchi is just one of the transformative restaurants that have opened along Lower Westheimer in the past year, alongside places such as L'Olivier, El Real Tex-Mex Cafe and The Hay Merchant. It makes sense, then, that Uchi should completely alter the expectations that people have for a "neighborhood restaurant." But that's exactly what Uchi aims to be. It's high-end and accessible all at once, a neighborhood restaurant that raises the bar for food and service.

At first glance, a place that offers only one service a day — dinner, which the full kitchen staff starts preparing at 7 a.m. every day — and often requires reservations for that meal would seem inaccessible. A place that offers dishes with names like "walu walu" or ingredients such as rosemary smoke, espresso fish caramel or sanbaizu doesn't immediately ring true as an after-work stop-off or a place to grab a quick bite to eat.

So you may be surprised to find how inexpensive Uchi actually is. It's still a significant meal — especially for those who, as Director of Culinary Operations Phillip Speer puts it, want to "blow it up, try everything and get the whole experience" — but it's also the kind of place where you'll find that you would feel comfortable stopping in for a $3 sake and $6 spicy tuna roll during its daily happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. You can absolutely do so, too; dropping by and finding a table is easier than you'd expect — just as it should be at your friendly, neighborhood Japanese farmhouse cuisine restaurant.

Underbelly: The Juggernaut

Underbelly was destined to be unstoppable from the very beginning: After chef Chris Shepherd left Catalan, the dining public couldn't wait for him to open a restaurant of his very own. The wait all but killed Time, which named Underbelly to its list of places to eat before the Armageddon hits...before the restaurant was even open. And less than 12 months later, Underbelly is the hottest ticket in town — despite playing to mixed reviews from diners.

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