Here, Eat This

The Top 10 Houston Dishes of 2016

Caramelized cheese souffle with parmesan foam by Manuel Pucha at La Table.
Caramelized cheese souffle with parmesan foam by Manuel Pucha at La Table. Photo by Mai Pham
Last year was another great year for food in Houston. In between its being profiled as one of "America’s Best Food Cities" by Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post and being named “The Next Global Food Mecca” by celebrity chef David Chang in GQ, our city’s chefs competed in numerous food competitions (e.g. the Truffle Chef Competition, “Go Wagyu Beef Throw Down, Cochon 555, The Great Banh Mi Cookoff, Lucky Rice Competition and more), participated in countless pop-up events, embraced Anthony Bourdain for a segment of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” and basically made it a joy to dine in the Bayou City.

Here’s a sampling of some of the outstanding cuisine from this year:

10. Caramelized cheese soufflé at La Table
Soufflé has been all the rage this past year, popping up on menus all over the city. The caramelized cheese soufflé at La Table, however, is in a class of its own, so light and airy it appears to be levitating on a cloud of Parmesan foam. Chef Manuel Pucha once confided that the preparation process takes close to two hours to complete. If that’s the price of perfection, it’s worth it: The delicate, delectable chef d'œuvre is at once a work of art as it is a melt-in-your-mouth illustration of exemplary French gastronomy. 
click to enlarge Beets, Hoja Santa, Brown Butter by chef Brandon Silva - PHOTO BY JOHN TRAN
Beets, Hoja Santa, Brown Butter by chef Brandon Silva
Photo by John Tran

9. Beets, Hoja Santa, Brown Butter at Thyme & Place Pop-Up Dinner
It’s not every chef who gets an invitation from famed chef René Redzepi to hang out at Noma, but that’s what happened to Brandon Silva when he went to Copenhagen for a month, eating and staging his way through the city at places like Bror and Relæ. It was at his fall Copenhagen-themed Thyme & Place pop-up dinner — which he held in collaboration with chef Ben McPherson and Houston’s newest Master Sommelier, David Keck — that he blew me away with a dish made of golden beet ribbons. Simply plated in a small golden mound, the beet had been shaved into noodle-like strands that were dehydrated, then rehydrated in a steamer with pickled beet juice. The technique gave the beet strands a delightfully unexpected dried-fruit leatheriness while still managing to retain a slight crunch. Chopped cashews and a creamy hoja santa cheese softened the dish’s bright acidity, while a sauce of beer reduction, whey and brown butter provided the finishing touch, adding a hint of muskiness that tied the entire composition together. Brilliant.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MAI PHAM
Photo by Mai Pham

8. White asparagus velouté at Charivari

It’s easy to forget what a great chef Johan Schuster is, seeing that his restaurant is tucked away in a strip mall on one of the sleepier streets in Midtown. But when you taste his food, there’s no denying that he’s one of Houston’s finest classically trained European chefs. That’s why something as simple as a white asparagus velouté still sticks in my mind as one of the best things I’ve tasted all year. A dish that requires a deft touch, it glided like silk on the tongue, was seasoned impeccably and kind of just made me swoon. It was garnished with edible flowers, shaved white and green asparagus stalks and caviar, and I lapped up every last drop like the cat that got the cream.
click to enlarge French foie gras taco by Sidney Degaine at Cafe Azur. - PHOTO BY MAI PHAM
French foie gras taco by Sidney Degaine at Cafe Azur.
Photo by Mai Pham
7. French foie gras taco at Café Azur
Yes, the bouillabaisse is excellent at the charming new Café Azur in Montrose and so is the octopus, but the thing that gave me that kind of close-your-eyes-it’s-so-good-moment was when chef Sidney Degaine turned me on to his Texas-meets-French creation of a taco filled with shredded duck confit, chunks of just-seared foie gras, sautéed duxelles and apricot chutney.  
click to enlarge Butter poached Alaskan king crab and summer squash by Lance Gillum of Uchi Houston. - PHOTO BY MAI PHAM
Butter poached Alaskan king crab and summer squash by Lance Gillum of Uchi Houston.
Photo by Mai Pham
6. Butter poached lobster and squash at Uchi
With Uchi’s expansion into multiple markets, one of the things it had to learn to do was to adapt itself to each of the local scenes that it was serving. In Houston, that’s what chef Tyson Cole did in 2016 with the introduction of some localized changes to the core menu and the introduction of a new chef de cuisine, Lance Gillum. One of Gillum’s first dishes? An unforgettable Alaskan king crab creation wherein the crab had been poached in crab butter to yield lusciously plump morsels of deliciousness. Crisp bites of perfectly cooked summer squash, and a light dressing of Lindera Farm wildflower vinegar, made for a beautifully composed dish.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham