Note: An earlier version of this article accidentally listed Coppa Ristorante Italiano among the top 10 new restaurants. While we love Coppa, it was on last year's list of top 10 restaurants and is therefore, obviously, excluded from this year's list. We apologize for the error.
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. I rank things at least twice a week on Eating...Our Words. But I simply couldn't rank the 10 best new restaurants of 2012.
Each restaurant on the list below 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 10 of the restaurants on this list -- as disparate as they may be -- fit our new expectations and desires to a tee. The only caveat: A restaurant must have been open for at least three months to qualify for a spot. (And there's already a whole slate of restaurants shaping up to make next year's list...)
Coppa Ristorante Italiano: The Gamechanger
Charles Clark and Grant Cooper have big plans for Coppa, beyond simply the flagship location on Washington Avenue. The team plan to take the concept -- and chef Brandi Key's excellent, modern Italian food -- citywide. And possibly even statewide, if all goes well. "It's a concept we think we could take to Dallas and Austin," Clark told CultureMap's Sarah Rufca back in June. And aside from proving that Washington Avenue is capable of sustaining interesting, dynamic restaurants even as the club scene fades away, Coppa has proven something else too.
Coppa -- one of Houston's most anticipated new restaurants, rebranded into something wholly new after the departure of larger-than-life chef Chris Shepherd and the closure of Catalan -- was handed over to a female executive chef. Key's done so well in her role that the second location in Houston is set to open in Rice Village in 2013. This movement marks the first time in recent memory that an all-male restaurant group has thrown everything behind a woman-run kitchen. Typically, if a female chef wants to expand her base of operations, she is the owner/operator and must do the lion's share of the work herself. And female chefs the world over will tell you that securing funding from investors for a restaurant of their own is tough enough -- as tough as talking an existing restaurant into hiring a female chef. Key and Coppa have proven that the best person to fill Chris Shepherd's shoes was, in fact, a woman.
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 only seats 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 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 only seats 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 businesses 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 Standardbearer
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 every other restaurant, neighborhood or otherwise.
At first glance, a place that only offers 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 leaving Catalan, the dining public couldn't wait for chef Chris Shepherd 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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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 that's short and sweet yet wide-ranging in its array of cuisines: From Korean-style braised goat and pleasantly chewy dumplings in a fiery red gojuchang chili 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 like Underbelly does.