As a testament to how syrupy-slow the building, planning and permitting process can be for restaurants in Houston, three -- yes, three -- of the restaurants we were excited about for 2011 are making a repeat appearance on this year's list of restaurants we're excited about for 2012.
One could hope it's a trend that won't continue into next year, but...have you met Houston? Even the best laid plans of mice, men and restaurateurs here are often derailed by chefs, contractors, banks and the City itself. So let's focus on the positive instead. These are the restaurants that have us all on tenterhooks for 2012.
Underbelly and Hay Merchant
Last year, this restaurant and attached bar were simply being referred to as "what Chances will eventually become." Little did we know that the divey old lesbian bar would be transformed into what Bon Appetit recently called one of the five most anticipated restaurants of the next year. Wrote Andrew Knowlton of Underbelly: "How serious is chef Chris Shepherd's new meat restaurant? In-house charcuterie, on-premises butcher shop, and fresh cuts of goat, lamb, veal, and--of course--pork from his own herds." We're equally excited about Hay Merchant, the craft beer bar that will share a kitchen with Shepherd's restaurant, and will feature Kevin Floyd's rotating selection of the country's best beers as well as an old partnership: Shepherd's old sous chef at Catalan, Antoine Ware, will be back to man the Hay Merchant side of things, with bar bites that I can imagine will blow every other bar's food completely out of the water.
The revamped restaurant in the old Felix location at Montrose and Westheimer is finally taking shape, and a recent three-day hiring fair means it won't be long until James Beard award-winning chef Tyson Cole's nationally recognized sushi bar will finally have the Houston location that we've long desired. Along with restaurants such as Underbelly and coffee shops such as Blacksmith and Southside Espresso, it's set to deliver a delicious sucker punch to the re-gentrifying Lower Westheimer.
Whatever Randy Rucker and Chris Leung have up their sleeves for Restaurant conāt, you know it won't be boring. The word isn't even in these young chefs' vocabularies, as amply showcased by a recent dinner in which the pair collaborated with Kata Robata's chef Manabu Horiuchi to serve carefully de-toxified fugu (or poisonous blowfish, seen above) to their guests. The duo's original "Restaurant Connate" project planned as a companion to Bootsie's in Tomball, has been revamped for Houston proper, in an old house in the Museum District off Caroline, although an opening date has yet to be decided.
Technically, Triniti will be open after a very long wait on Christmas Eve, December 24. But with only seven days left in the year at that point, we're still putting Chef Ryan Hildebrand's high-concept restaurant at 2815 S. Shepherd on our short list of restaurants we can't wait to try in 2012. The "progressive American" menu will feature much of the same cooking Hildebrand was famed for when he was sous chef at the now-closed Textile, as well as tasting menus in the same vein.
After months of scouting for a perfect space, "The Justins" -- Chef Justin Yu and beverage specialist Justin Vann -- have finally found it in the soon-to-be-vacated Latin Bites space on Nance. Oxheart plans to move into the tiny spot this February, serving three different tasting menus each night with an emphasis on fresh, local produce (Yu is notable for his vegetable treatments showcasing skills he learned while working at vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu), a dessert program from Yu's pastry chef wife Karen Man and unique beverage pairings from Vann.
Former Tony's chef Olivier Ciesielski is finally opening a home of his own in a small Montrose space at 240 Westheimer that once housed a lowly convenience store, near other Lower Westheimer stars like Feast and Melange Creperie. This concentrated wealth of restaurants is recognized on its website: "L'Olivier Restaurant & Bar promises to be a shining star in an already star studded Houston restaurant landscape in the Montrose district." In keeping with the area, L'Olivier also plans to keep prices reasonable -- and we'll always look forward to another restaurant offering good food and accessible pricing.
If French stronghold Le Mistral on Eldridge is simply too far of a drive to make, Artisans is the restaurant for you. The Denis brothers -- Sylvain and David -- are teaming up with fellow French chef Jacques Fox to create a modern French version of the West Houston favorite in Midtown. The brothers recently told CultureMap they hope to offer "a tightly-focused and frequently changing menu with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients," tentatively described as "French eclectic." The "Texas twist" promised on some dishes echoes fellow French chef Philippe Schmit's tactic at his own Philippe, which has been an unqualified hit since it opened earlier this year.
Like Triniti, this restaurant actually has a 2011 opening date. But it's still too soon to see what will ultimately become of Chef Kevin Naderi's homespun farm-to-table restaurant on Fairview, which took over the old Latina Cafe spot. We're especially fond of the restaurant's slogan -- "Food and drink among friends" -- and the fact that it's BYOB for now. Bring your own beer and wine while you still can and give Houston's newest locavore spot a test drive before the masses descend upon it.
Blacksmith and Southside Espresso
David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto are currently best known for running coffee geek headquarters Greenway Coffee in a subterranean Greenway Plaza food court, but they're coming into the light when they open Blacksmith in Montrose. Mary's -- the old, long-vacant gay bar that once served as a focal point for Houston's gay community -- will house the coffee shop when it opens this spring. Adding to the buzz will be Southside Espresso just down the street, which will share an adjoining wall with the new Uchi. Local roaster Sean Marshall of Fusion Beans promises "a craft coffee bar that presents the roasting and barista style of the third coast." Very promising indeed.
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Georgia's Farm to Market
While downtown already has one brand-spanking-new grocery store in Phoenicia, there's still plenty of room for specialty food store Georgia's Farm to Market. Where Phoenicia specializes in Middle Eastern groceries and treats such as freshly-baked pita bread, Georgia's deals almost exclusively in local produce and organic groceries. Like Phoenicia, it already has a wildly popular West Houston location, which we hope ensures an audience for its downtown location at 420 Main. The store will also offer a full-service cafe open seven days a week and a vast wine cellar featuring Texas craft beer and wines alongside more specialized bottles: both sustainable/biodynamic and organic wines will be prominently featured.