Openings & Closings

A reader alerted us via Twitter to the fact that the Lemon Tree (207 West Gray) had closed its doors sometime in the past week. We went by to check it out and it is, indeed, closed. A call to Lemon Tree's original location on Whittington revealed that the owner of the property wanted to open a different restaurant in the West Gray spot, so Lemon Tree had to make like a tree and leave.

In happier news, two long-awaited downtown restaurants are finally set to open their doors. Samba Grille (530 Texas) had its soft opening earlier this week, which was met with rave reviews from the folks who enjoyed the free meat. The churrascaria serves a la carte items at lunch and then goes wall-to-wall with skewers of beef, lamb, shrimp and many other meats at dinner. Most surprising is the wine list, which features South American wines we'd never heard of before including a stunning Brazilian pinot noir.

Just down the street, Niko Niko's new location in Market Square is all set to open up tomorrow during the day-long celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony in the revamped park along Travis and Preston. Don't expect a full restaurant a la the original Niko Niko's on Montrose. Instead, the Market Square version will feature a "kiosk" with a smaller version of the standard Greek menu along with coffee and breakfast items for the morning commuters and dog walkers.

In River Oaks, the latest incarnation of Américas is getting closer to completing its long build-out of the space next to Barnes & Noble. No hard opening date has been given yet, but what has been released is news about some of the new menu items that will be featured in the glamorous space. The cuisine is being designed by Michael Cordúa to more prominently feature South American ingredients like yucca, corn, squash, beans, fish and chocolate. (We can certainly get behind that last ingredient.) To that end, new menu items include a flight of Ecuadorian ceviches and plantain-crusted shrimp taquitos.

In chef news, Chef Taka Sekiyuchi -- the talented young chef at Sushi Raku (3201 Louisiana) -- has sadly had to leave Houston and return to Japan following a family illness. In his place, the restaurant has hired a new executive chef, Adison Lee. Lee originally hails from Tokyo but got his start cooking in New York restaurants Osaka and Nobu. Lee later opened the London outpost of Nobu and ran the kitchen there for two years before returning to the States. He plans to add some new items to the menu at Raku as well as personally shop for fish himself at local markets.

This past week, the Chronicle interviewed Antonio Gianola and Bryan Caswell about some exciting new adventures for both of them. Gianola, the popular sommelier at Catalan, will be leaving the restaurant in September and will be opening a wine-forward restaurant with a tightly focused food selection. And Caswell, as has been reported nearly everywhere in Houston, will be competing on The Next Iron Chef when the show starts up on the Food Network this October. The winner of the competition will go on to become an Iron Chef alongside big names Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and -- my favorite -- Masaharu Morimoto. May the best chef win.

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