Underdogs and Juggernauts
If I had to pick one word to describe the mad, exciting rush of restaurant activity that's defined 2012, it would be this: exhilarating. Followed closely by: exhausting. Trying to keep up with every single new restaurant that's flung open its doors in exuberance — welcoming the city's burgeoning food scene with wide-open arms — has been nothing short of both.
And trying to choose a favorite from among the bevy of ground-breaking, inventive, adventurous and unique restaurants that have opened this year would be like trying to choose a favorite child. Each restaurant on the list is different — entirely different — from its counterparts, and that's what makes comparing and contrasting them all so difficult.
But it's also what makes Houston's dining scene the terrifically fun place it's become over the last year. No longer are we content to be known just for Tex-Mex, barbecue and burgers. In addition to our wonderful home-grown cuisines, we are now learning to celebrate our rich ethnic heritage and the keen, modern tastes of chefs determined to throw it all together with their own global influences in a way that can only be described as revolutionary for our city.
Our tastes and expectations are changing as a city. We are growing up, all of us together, and journeying into a new phase of dining. We want to support locally produced foodstuffs but we want a more international interpretation of our Houstonian culture and cuisine. We want our chefs to go away for a while, to learn new skills and hone their ideas, but we want them to come back and show it all off. We want modern techniques and flavors, but we want a casual and approachable dining experience.
And all ten of the restaurants on this list — as disparate as they may be — fit our new expectations and desires to a tee.
Guru Burgers & Crepes: The Underdog
Guru Burgers & Crepes has almost zero obligation to be good. Out here in Sugar Land, two types of restaurants thrive: big chains and tiny ethnic spots. There's very little in between that's noteworthy, but Guru Burgers is aiming to change that with an impressive and thorough devotion to its food and service that's rarely seen even in Houston proper.
That the little family-run place in Sugar Land Town Square is thriving is even more impressive considering how it could easily be quite terrible. Guru Burgers specializes in three items that are almost painfully trendy at the moment: gourmet burgers, craft beer and crepes. And any of these three could quickly go off the rails, but Guru Burgers' commitment to coming up with clever burger combinations and tracking down interesting craft beers from across the country instead makes it a destination much in the same way that burger fanatics make the trek down Westheimer to visit The Burger Guys. And while the crepes are only average right now, the pitch-perfect burgers and sweet, crispy beet chips more than make up for this minor deficit.
L'Olivier: The Phoenix
Along with restaurants like Artisans just down the street and Etoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park, the chic and unfussy L'Olivier represents a renaissance of fine French dining in Houston after years of dormancy. The classics never die; they are simply reborn into former adult bookstores, transforming a once-shabby corner of Montrose into the type of place where you'll see River Oaks matrons rubbing elbows with hipsters who've walked over from their duplexes. And it's chef Olivier Ciesielski who's drawing them in.
Ciesielski, who helmed the kitchen at longtime favorite Tony's for a decade, was a fixture on the society and dining scene for years before his split from owner Tony Vallone. Interestingly, fans of both Ciesielski and Tony's don't seem to have chosen sides (Houstonians are nothing if not good at getting along with each other) and instead now flock to both Ciesielski's old and new restaurants. At his new home along with partner Mary Clarkson, Ciesielski turns out fine-tuned French standards in a cute, modern setting and keeps the menu from stagnating with completely un-French dishes like tropical ceviche with yuzu juice.
La Fisheria: The Swashbuckler
Tackling any other iteration of Mexican food besides Tex-Mex can be tough in a town like Houston. Only Hugo's — and, to a lesser extent, Otilia's — have been able to achieve long-term success in this area. But with the entry of Mexican chef Aquiles Chavez — he of the Jack Sparrow hair and mustache, he of the good-natured braggadocio and room-filling personality — and his quirky Mexican restaurant La Fisheria, that may all have changed.
Chavez makes modern, upscale Mexican food that's heavy on the coastal influences of his home state of Tabasco, in a Heights setting that's vacation-like and relaxing. Whether it intended to or not, the restaurant went the smart route by creating something that's the polar opposite of Hugo's and instead blazes its own boisterous path. La Fisheria's clean, bright ceviches and red snapper tostadas have already become favorites in the warmer months, while the duck-chorizo stew with mussels and a glass of bold Mexican red wine are what I'm craving these days for dinner. Cuchara, an even newer Mexican bistro in Montrose, is similarly taking its own tack with interior Mexican food and between the two places, Houston's Mexican dining scene has never seemed more promising or invigorated.
Local Foods: The Renovator
Although it's a deli in every sense of the word, there is no such thing as a plain, boring roast beef, deli-style sandwich at Local Foods, the Rice Village restaurant from the owners of benjy's. Sure, you'll get spicy horseradish on that roast beef sandwich in the form of a tangy aioli. But you'll also get some of Local Foods' crunchy kale salad for your greens as well as a thick layer of curried cauliflower that elevates the entire sandwich from "quick lunch" to "experience." Ditto the egg salad sandwich, which takes boring boiled eggs and lights them up with the light musk of truffles under the sharp and salty bite of Parmesan cheese on a pretzel bun.
The pretzel buns come from the ovens of local baker Slow Dough Bread Co., and they epitomize most of Local Foods' offerings: They're all-local when possible — whether it's cheese from Pola, produce from Atkinson Farms, seafood from Texas Wild Gulf Shrimp or meat from Black Hill Ranch — or otherwise Texan. The short-and-sweet wine list features only a handful of choices — Duchman, Becker, McPherson and Pedernales among them. Aside from just wine, you can also find local beers on tap from breweries like Buffalo Bayou, Karbach and Southern Star. If you don't drink, try the Houston-made root beer from 8th Wonder Brewery.
It's this innovative commitment to stocking as many all-local products across the board that has endeared Local Foods to me, as well as the fact that it's treated another local piece of history with respect: The Antone's deli which used to house Local Foods has been thoughtfully repurposed into the sort of excellent sandwich shop that I think would do the old Antone's proud. Local Foods is clearly proud of its roots, too; you can still see timeworn inlay tiles bearing Antone's name as you cross the threshold.
Oxheart: The Ingenue
Although the name "Oxheart" can conjure up visions of bloody hunks of meat, of offal in hearty portions or animal entrails scored abbatoir-style, Oxheart itself is anything but dense, dark or heavy. Instead, the ethereal space — which seats only a demure 30-odd people — focuses more on seasonal produce and Gulf seafood than anything else, and employs the light-handed techniques chef Justin Yu learned while working abroad in Belgium and Denmark. There are only three tasting menus available each evening, and good luck walking in any night of the week to find an open seat.
Oxheart is coyly maddening, in the best sort of way. How does a place in which a team of sous chefs methodically plates dishes with tweezers manage to come off as completely and beguilingly carefree? How does a restaurant this young manage to display such an astonishing depth of maturity? And how do Yu and his wife Karen Man manage to transform such simple ingredients as squash or chard into otherworldly works of art? One thing is definitely certain: Houston has certainly never seen anything like it.
The Pass & Provisions: The Rogue
Why would a pair of talented young chefs leave promising careers in New York City to take a chance on Houston? Their friends back in the Big Apple must have surely thought Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan had gone off the reservation when the two best friends moved back to their hometown with nothing more than blind hope of securing their own restaurant one day.
The two men lived in a cramped Heights bungalow with their wives and dogs while they scoured for investors by day and cooked underground pop-up dinners by night, the buzz around the two chefs growing louder every day in 2011 and 2012. But success came with its own issues: The pair's Just August and Pilot Light dinner series were so popular that tickets sold out the day they were announced; they won a MasterMind award from the Houston Press, but the publicity caused their Pilot Light series to get shut down by the health department.
Finally, though, the pair were able to secure a restaurant. But true to their unique path,The Pass & Provisions isn't just a restaurant. It's two restaurants in one: Provisions, the far more casual side of the two-pronged approach, opened back in September. The Pass — which seats only a small, set number of people in one intimate seating per night — just opened a couple of weeks ago (so it's not ready for consideration on this year's list), yet it's already drawing rave reviews. When chef Marcus Samuelsson came to Houston in July, he promised great things from the two young chefs who'd once worked under him at Aquavit and August: "You're going to have a great restaurant in your community," Samuelsson said. So far, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan are proving him right.
Roost: The Upstart
Roost is a restaurant that perfectly captures the current Houston culinary zeitgeist. No longer do our most celebrated chefs labor for years learning and perfecting standards and classics. These days, it's about returning to and exploring your roots as well as your passions — no matter where in the world they came from. It's the era of the young turks, where wandering chefs come home not to play by the rules but to create their own.
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.
At the top of Underbelly's simple one-page menu is a bold statement: "Houston is the new American Creole city of the South," one that residents of New Orleans — long the country's main Creole metropolis — would certainly challenge to the death. But bold has long been the modus operandi of Shepherd, whose restaurant more than lives up to this claim in its diverse menu. From Korean-style braised goat and pleasantly chewy dumplings in a fiery red gojuchang chile sauce to a German schnitzel with its always-present partner, red cabbage, the constantly changing dishes on Underbelly's menu aim to tell the "story of Houston food" one influence and ingredient at a time.
"This is the most laid-back 'upscale' restaurant in Houston," remarked a friend one day over a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed full of Redneck Cheddar, chilled tomato gazpacho with cool wisps of crunchy cucumber and charred Gulf shrimp over creamy grits saturated with homemade pimento cheese. He's right. And perhaps — although he is correct — it's wrong to call Underbelly "upscale." The prices certainly don't reflect the word. But maybe that's for the best — Houston isn't an upscale city. It's down-home, it's relaxed and it takes all comers with wide-open arms, just as Underbelly does.
Lone Star Brews
The top 10 Texas beers of 2012.
Taking a look back just four years to former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh's list of Top 10 Texas beers from 2008 shows what a difference a few years make. While Walsh's list holds some very solid selections, like Pale Moon and Live Oak Pilz — as well as one carry-over to this list — the sheer diversity and depth of what is available now highlight the slim pickings on that list. Need further proof? His No. 1 pick, Elissa, isn't even the second-best IPA that Saint Arnold brewed this year.
Honorable Mention: Deep Ellum Darkest Hour
The beer that put Deep Ellum on our radar late last year also happens to share its name with a completely awesome metal band — a band with a Houstonian as a member, no less. We've been waiting for the re-release of this seasonal for ten months. The last batch lasted about a week in Houston and with good reason: It rocks.
10. Saint Arnold Divine Reserve No. 12
This year's Divine Reserve release gets props for a couple of reasons. Much like DR 11 (which has been re-released as Endeavour), Divine Reserve was enjoyable for the casual beer drinker yet complex enough to satisfy the beer nerds. It's also enjoyable fresh — something we simply don't feel DR 9 and DR 10 can claim — as well as being suitable for aging.
9. Austin Beerworks Peacemaker
As we remember it, a handful of ABW's year-round brews could have made this list, but since Austin Beerworks pulled out of Houston, we can't really remember what they taste like. A friend was nice enough to bring back a stash of our favorite, Peacemaker, recently. Drinking the white can was kind of like hooking up with our ex: It turns out she was as awesome as we remember, but the whole experience kind of just stirs up bad memories, so we just stopped halfway through and cried ourselves to sleep.
8. Live Oak Hef
Texas's strong German heritage isn't quite dead yet, especially if Live Oak has something to say about it. This is the old standby. The only carry-over mentioned in Walsh's original article, Live Oak Hef isn't just one of the best beers in Texas, it's arguably one of the best Hefeweizens in the entire country. If you don't like this, you don't like beer.
7. Jester King Le Petit Prince
It seems Jester King may have started to really get a grasp on its wild yeast and souring bacteria flavor profiles. We've seen some great stuff in their last three or four releases. We all know Jester King brews great beer, but things have been a bit uneven the past ten to 12 months, and — if we are being honest — we aren't quite over the death of Black Metal. If Le Petit Prince is any indication, Jester King is headed in a good direction.
6. Lakewood Temptress
This beer shot onto the scene with a bang recently and considering we can't get The Temptress here in Houston just yet, we still hear a lot of buzz about it. Velvety and smooth as silk, it reminds us of our very first Southern Star Buried Hatchet. This one is bound for bottles very soon, so you should see it at bottle shares soon, we imagine. Or just have someone from Dallas ship you some; it's worth it.
5. 512 Pecan Porter
The once and future king of Texas craft beer — first one to explain that reference in the comments wins a cookie. It's rare to find a beer drinker who doesn't enjoy Pecan Porter. If you do come across one, it's more likely they've simply never had it. Famous for offering myriad one-off variants of their beers, 512 produces a bourbon barrel-aged double pecan porter that is not to be missed.
4. Peticolas Velvet Hammer
Royal Scandal is the beer that earned fledgling brewery Peticolas its gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival this year, but we can't get past our love affair with Velvet Hammer. There is nothing quite like it in Texas right now. Plus, everyone loves a good phallic reference. Look out for big things from these guys in 2013.
3. Karbach Bourbon Barrel-Aged Hellfighter
The first keg we had of this beer was a muddled mess, so its turnaround in later kegs is a drastic improvement. Subsequent pints of Barrel-Aged Hellfighter were far more composed, and despite our qualms over Karbach's style issues — this beer isn't a Porter by most definitions — it's hard to deny this is a fantastic barrel-aged beer.
2. Southern Star Buried Hatchet
One might think the four-year-old brewery in Conroe — you can find an early mention of it in the Robb Walsh article above — is resting on its laurels, but that's not the case. Instead of rolling out seven or eight new beers a year, the brewery has been content to slowly add seasonals and to release its popular Pro-Am series yearly. When you make a beer as good as Buried Hatchet, you don't have to get wild. On that note, look for Southern Star to unleash some crazy in 2013...you've been warned.
1. Jester King Beer Geek Rodeo
Jester King made waves early in its existence by collaborating with gypsy brewing legend Mikkel Borg Bjergsø in 2011 to produce Drink'in the Sunbelt. For their second stint with Mikkeller, the guys out in Austin produced three variations of this Imperial Oatmeal Stout with coffee and pepper notes: Beer Geek Rodeo, Weasel Rodeo (brewed with Kopi Luwak) and Whiskey Barrel Rodeo, which — you guessed it — is a whiskey-aged variation. The "original" version is our favorite, as there is really no need to mess with a beer this good.
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