Welcome to the second half of 2015, where “Kitchens” are the new restaurants and a plus sign is the trendy way of saying “and.”
Now that it is June and nearly the midpoint of the year, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back and see where the reviewed restaurants stand as compared to each other. (Reviews by Mai Pham and Nicholas Hall haven't been integrated into this list, but we'll have our annual pow-wow when we do our end-of-year look at the best new restaurants.) Like reviews, the rankings are subjective and based entirely my own experiences.
2015 so far is the Year of the Crowd Pleaser—moderate restaurants that do an overall good job in a wide range of traditional or conservative fare. Many have expanded services, offering espresso drinks and pastries in the morning and cocktails late into the evening.
Single-country cuisine rather than multicultural integration seems in vogue as well, whether it be BCN’s extremely traditional take on Spanish, Radio Milano’s take on Italian or Prohibition’s view of coastal Southern cuisine.
This year has marked the evolution of Washington Avenue from a big, partying bar scene into a big restaurant scene. Four of this year's reviews are from new restaurants in that area: Mascalzone, Big Eyed Fish, Urban Eats and Commonwealth.
I’ve always thought that restaurants fall on a normalized bell curve. Very few are stellar. Just as few are awful. Most have something good to offer but often need improvement in at least one area, whether it be food, service or environment.
Here are the rankings so far, along with my own photos from the review visits. In some cases, you'll have to forgive the dim restaurant lighting and phone photos. At the time, I never thought I'd have any more use for them other than as reference when writing the reviews.
In one case, an overall good review wasn't enough to keep pace with the leaps and bounds in cuisine and concepts made by modern counterparts. Frattelini’s old-school take on Italian fare was utterly charming and earned a good review, but stubbornly dated style of food shoved them a bit below below more adventurous places like Weights + Measures and Commonwealth, even though their reviews were mixed.
It is also worth noting that even though Bistro Menil, Big Eyed Fish and Amalfi all ranked and reviewed poorly that I strongly believe all have much to offer if they nailed down the problems noted in the reviews.
Feel free to add your comments below. Do you agree with these rankings? Disagree? What do you think should be reviewed next?
We're looking forward to what kind of dining experiences the rest of this year brings. Hopefully, none will involve bad sushi.
Without a doubt, Akamaru is the worst restaurant I have been to so far this year. After the review came out, a reader noted that the concept itself has been up for sale for about a month. That might explain why the owner seems to have entirely thrown in the towel. The ribs are good but that's not exactly why one visits a sushi restaurant by someone who apparently had years of experience in California before coming to Houston. It just goes to show—dining with a restaurant critic isn't always a good thing. I think I still owe some people shots of whiskey after this one.
A confused identity and mediocre food leaves La Bikina in The Woodlands in the second-to-last spot. It is for families? Is it for party people who want the Scorpion Challenge—a shot of over-distilled tequila with a dead, dry scorpion? Who knows? They didn't during the review visits, but perhaps by now they've settled into the role of a neighborhood restaurant to serve the vast suburban territory they are located in.
Oh, Amalfi. I expected so much from you and you really let me and my guests down. What was up with that smelly foie gras and why is your service so glacial that it took three hours to get through three courses on two separate visits? Why do you have a built-in pizza oven if you're going to serve an oily, tepid-in-the-middle pizza out of it? Why are your cocktails so sweet? There's so much potential here that I just have to think it's sometimes better than this. At least those stellar limoncello shots dampen the pain.
Sweet service pushes Big Eyed Fish higher in the list. A stinky patio and pedestrian Southern food doesn't. We wanted to love Big Eyed Fish and adored the bacon wrapped quail with mushroom bread pudding. We mostly adored the appetizer platter of deviled eggs, slices of Andouille sausage and fried green tomatoes, too, but many other items were just bland. Southern food can and should better and more consistent.
Bistro Menil has reasonable prices and an absolutely killer charcuterie platter. So, what's not to love? Well, the noise levels and teeny-tiny tables, for starters. Add to that giant plates that don't fit, staff that don't seem to understand the offerings and slow, slow service.
Frattelini earned a good, affectionate review for the utter time warp that diners enter when they walk through the front door. Salad tossed table side? Check. Old classics like beef filet with Cognac sauce? Check. If this were 1970, this restaurant would have ranked much higher in the list. It's trippy, fun and admittedly out-of-date.
Weights + Measures is doing many things right, like amazing pizza, perfect bread courtesy of the in-house Slow Dough bakery and thoughtful wine and beer lists. We wanted to really love this kitchy homage to the 70s, but uninspiring cocktails, a burned burger, a curiously bland tuna sandwich and equally bland vegetable omelette marred our visits. In all fairness, the scope of service—breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night—is incredibly ambitious. Despite the issues during the review, it's still worth checking out. Hopefully the problems noted are ironed out by now.
Chef Erin Smith happened to be on vacation during our review visits in the first week of January and it showed. The kitchen didn't seem to be able to execute dishes nearly as well as we'd previously seen without her. With that said, there is no denying the talent and vision. Smith also gets our nod for "Most Gracious Chef." Smith completely owned the problems noted in the review and used it as a learning tool with her staff. Her future—and Main Kitchen's—is still indeed bright and hopeful.
Spare me the nutritional lecture and just give me another one of those butternut squash pizzas! Carping aside, the fish at True Food Kitchen is also quite good and the temperature-controlled wines are another plus. Health-conscious or not, True Food Kitchen is well worth a visit.
Kelly Alsobrook's desserts are a highlight. Similarly, you just about can't order an appetizer that doesn't deserve praise. However, a tough-crusted, cornmeal-coated chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes that managed to be both lumpy and sticky at the same time and a half-dry/half-raw $45 rack of pork didn't help matters one bit. The wine list is in need of a revamp, but the ambitious cocktail program is well worth a look.
Two-story Urban Eats reviewed surprising well despite a somewhat goofy menu that focuses on sliders and fries-with-stuff-on-them. Their 3 Pig Truffled Mac & Cheese is one of the examples in the city of a classic, and one of those sliders—the Fried Green Tomato BLT—is an exercise in balance. The balcony with the outstanding view of downtown Houston from Washington avenue is simply a plus.
Chef Alberto Baffoni is back—in a chain restaurant? Well, yes, but it's a very small chain with only four locations, two of which are in London. Regardless, Baffoni's signature Vitello (veal) tonnato is back for everyone to enjoy, the risotto is proper, the desserts are elegant and the laid back Italian environment makes it easy for everyone.
Chef Pamela Graham's bubbly, welcoming personality makes her soulful Creole food taste even better. The Catfish Trio has both some of the best dirty rice and catfish filets in town. Should you have never tried her Sunday dinner of meltingly tender oxtails—served on good china, no less—you probably need to go to confession.
It's been a good year for Fox Restaurant Concepts in Houston, who are proving that a chain restaurant can still provide great food and attentive service. Woe be it unto you if you fail to make a reservation. You have probably have a 45 minute wait, but it's worth it to taste the tender pastas and the pizza that come with just the right amount of char on the edges.
Chefs Ben McPherson and Matt Wommack seem to be having fun producing coastal Southern cuisine and that spirit makes its way into the genteel front dining room. (The back room is set up as a Grecian dinner theater that showcases performances by burlesque troop The Moonlight Dolls on Friday and Saturday nights.) The gumbo varies a bit but it often reaches lofty heights. The Foie Gras Breakfast on a bed of perfect yellow grits is hands-down one of the finest dishes Houston has to offer.
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"Modern" takes on classic cuisine can be suspect but there is nothing but sincerity in chef Jose Hernandez's food. Radio Milano is one of Houston's newest must-visit restaurants. Enjoy the glorious Cremini Mushroom Cappuccino, silky, moist burrata and salmon with a crust so beautiful and perfect that it practically shatters under your fork.
Interestingly, an internship at famed, envelope-pushing El Bulli set chef Luis Roger on a path that led him back to the pleasures of traditional Spanish cuisine, where the secret revolves entirely around quality ingredients. Many of those ingredients have to be imported directly from Spain, in fact. BCN is a case of "you get what you pay for" and what you're paying for is jamón ibérico de bellota, real truffles, saffron and other pure luxuries.The menu changes depending on whats available, but the poached salt cod with saffron aioli and beet purée in the shape of a romantic red rose are a few of the items to look for.