As Houston diners have become more sophisticated, so have their tastes. Just 30 years ago, sushi was regarded as adventurous and the vast majority of available oysters were the big, nonspecific ones from the Gulf.
Thanks to the educational efforts of organizations like Southern Foodways Alliance and Texas Foodways, appellation oysters (oysters with specific characteristics that come from identifiable reefs) from the Gulf are now highly sought-after. Houston’s hunger for raw seafood doesn’t stop there, though. We also are aware of — and want access to — other selections from the world’s vast oceans.
When it comes to raw seafood, Houston has never before had it so good. Here are ten restaurants (and one bar) that go way beyond just oysters on the half shell.
Honorable Mention: Julep
Julep is a Southern-focused bar, yet still has one of the finest seafood towers in Houston. It comes in two sizes. The full size is suitable for a group of four, and the demi is more than adequate for two very hungry people. Included are oysters, lobster, king crab legs, crab "fingers,” baby bay scallops, smoked redfish and pimiento cheese dips, crackers, and pickled shrimp. On Mondays, oysters are $1 each. The type of oyster offered changes based on what’s available, but a recent selection was Deep Cove from Prince Edward Island.
10. Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, 4224 San Felipe
This River Oaks restaurant lives up to the “oysterette” in the name, and brings in both Gulf and East Coast appellation oysters. Other raw delights include Hawaiian-style salmon poke dressed in soy and sesame as well as a daily sushi, sashimi or roll special. The seafood tower of Gulf oysters, jumbo shrimp, littleneck clams, half a lobster, poke and more is called Fort Nonsense and costs $97. Royal Oestra caviar service is also available. In the Heights, also check out Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar for other raw seafood selections.
9. Reef, 2600 Travis
Reef helped champion the return of Gulf appellation oysters. A recent selection include oysters from Jean Lafitte and Crocket reefs off the Texas coast and from Sister Lake in Louisiana. When it comes to Reef's raw-bar offerings, though, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The shrimp shooters in Bloody Mary mix are good and spicy. There is a selection of composed raw dishes as well, such as snapper carpaccio in grapefruit agro dolce (Italian sweet and sour sauce) served alongside garlic bruschetta. The seafood tower is only $49 — one of the best raw seafood values in Houston.
8. Caracol, 2200 Post Oak, #160
Chef Hugo Ortega’s Caracol focuses on the flavorful seafood traditions from the Mexican coast and features several raw seafood items. The ceviche de Caracol, or conch ceviche, is the restaurant's namesake offering and is enhanced with fresh pineapple, ginger and red jalapeño. Other selections include a variety of other ceviches, Gulf oysters on the half shell with salsa bruja, cured snapper crudo and aguachile, or Gulf shrimp cured in lime juice and accented with cucumber and spicy Serrano chile.
7. L’Olivier, 240 Westheimer
Chef Oliver Ciesielski’s namesake restaurant has prominently featured a raw bar since the day it opened. It’s rare to see langoustine from New Zealand, but L’Olivier offers these, as well as sea urchin, king crab legs, a daily oyster feature and scallop crudo. The grand execution of the wealth of seafood is the Le Bar A Huîtres, which features 12 mussels, 12 oysters, half of a lobster and a king crab leg for $85. Caviar service is also available.
6. Bernadine’s, 1801 North Shepherd
The Southern focus at Bernadine’s includes showcasing some of the best seafood available from the Gulf Coast. The raw-bar selections change daily and might feature red snapper ceviche nestled on top of tissue-thin slices of green tomato and a selection of appellation oysters harvested up and down the coast from Texas to Florida. The I-10 platter includes oysters; marinated blue crab claws; pickled shrimp; smoked fish dip; the restaurant's big, signature planks of chicharrones; pickles; and even some Edwards Surryano ham. For $14, a supplement of East Coast oysters can be added to the $70 platter.
5. Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith
Just because it’s a venerable institution doesn’t mean Brennan’s of Houston doesn’t notice what’s going on around it. The restaurant recently instituted its own raw seafood tower. It comes in two sizes. The Petite Tower is perfect for three people to nosh on before dinner, while the Grand Tower makes a good appetizer for four or five. Included are Creole-style blue crab ravigote; big, Cajun-spice shrimp; skewered chunks of lobster meat; West Indies crab claws; smoked catfish dip; and, of course, oysters on the half shell. People with smaller groups or appetites should look to the menu for smaller raw dishes, such as Creole yellowfin tuna crudo with pickled vegetables and "Crab Boil" peanut vinaigrette.
4. Izakaya, 318 Gray
Chef Jean-Philippe Gaston heads up this casual Japanese pub by The Azuma Group, the same company behind the acclaimed Kata Robata. (Kata’s chef, Manabu Horiuchi, also helps guide the menu.) Beautifully plated, complex dishes such as the Vuelve A La Vida, with scallop, shrimp, octopus, red onions and avocado seasoned with garlic yuzu hot sauce and sea salt, owe much of their evolution to Gaston’s time at now-closed Cove raw bar. That is just one expression of his talent for creating raw dishes with complex flavor. The hamachi crudo, with tomato powder, shimeji mushroom and micro cilantro, is accented with crunchy, tiny and addictive baby sardines. On any given day, other types of seafood carpaccios and fish sashimis appear, depending on what is fresh and available. A raw-bar tasting menu is now available as well. Call the restaurant for pricing, details and reservations.
3. SaltAir, 3029 Kirby
Chef Brandi Key is mindful of sourcing from “the little guys,” as well as from bigger companies like Louisiana Seafood and Honolulu Fish. SaltAir’s assortment of raw offerings includes a shellfish platter with cold boiled shrimp and lobster, crab salad, and raw oysters, and an enhanced version of the platter that adds tuna poke, seasonal crab legs and daily ceviche with accoutrements. Key reaches to Houston’s cultural melting pot for inspiration as well, which results in creative fare like the Vietnamese crab salad with radishes, herbs, white soy and ginger vinaigrette. An ever-changing selection of tartars and crudos are also well worth a look.
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2. State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer
Nationally known chef Ford Fry’s restaurant includes a veritable temple to the glories of raw seafood. The big, semicircular Oyster Room will have diners eagerly gazing at mountains of oysters just waiting to be shucked on demand, as well as stacks of pink- and red-shelled king crab legs. Each stack of oysters is carefully labeled with the appellation and includes seldom-seen varieties like Mon Louie from Alabama and Naked Cowboy from Long Island Sound. It is well worth planning to arrive for happy hour, when select oysters are only $1 each. A whole lobster with lemon mayonnaise is $35, and lobster meat also comes on both the Small Stack seafood assortment or the huge State of Grace tower.
1. Peska Seafood Culture, 1700 Post Oak
Raw seafood is practically Peska’s reason for being. When diners walk in the door, there’s a whole case full of fresh fish, clams, huge shrimp and more to gaze upon. Just before diners are ready to order, their server will present them with a bowl full of the fresh selections and go over the details of each. The raw-bar menu includes beautifully restrained crudos, like madai enhanced with, but not overburdened by, habanero, ginger, garlic, thinly sliced scallion, lime zest and spherized soy sauce “caviar.” Our favorite, though, was the powerful Peruano ceviche, in which lush mahi mahi and thin slices of octopus are married in a bath of leche de tigre with small cubes of sweet potato, mild aji amarillo pepper and the salted South American puffed corn called cancha serrana. Those are just a few of the more than a dozen raw bar offerings, which also includes oysters, sashimis and stunning sea urchin served in the shell. When several raw bar items are ordered at once, chef Omar Pereny will even build a stunning tower out of them for diners.