This year has been a terrific one for restaurant openings in Houston. It continued from late last year, which ended on great note, with the opening just before Christmas of Caracol, the seafood-centric Mexican restaurant from the folks at Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe that quickly became one of the very best and most interesting Mexican restaurants around.
This year has seen a wide range of new restaurants, befitting a city as large, diverse and increasingly restaurant-savvy as Houston. Most of the best have been somewhat casual, as Houston might have less formal or nearly formal dining spaces than any other top restaurant city. Wine lists continued to grow in quality and toward Europe in complexion, as restaurants are finding that these wines often complement their cooking better and diners have correspondingly realized this. Cocktail programs continue to abound at the more well-funded restaurants, providing a pre-dinner enticement for patrons (and another source of revenue for the owners).
Early in the year, proudly locally sourced, Italian-inspired personal cooking (with pizzas) at Coltivare in an intimate setting with cocktails became an immediate hit in the Heights, and it seems to be the perfect neighborhood restaurant for a good percentage of current Heights residents (especially those who crave salt). Also early in the year, Grace’s serving up-market comfort food from one of the city’s favorite restaurateurs, Johnny Carrabba, and located in a well-tested location, struggled to gain traction. Though another neighborhood spot, Punk’s Simple Southern Food, which may have lost a little luster in the past couple months as its service noticeably lags behind the other Cooper-Clark concepts, was an immediate hit with the West U crowd soon after opening, filtering southern staples through current Houston sensibilities and coupling it with an accommodating bar area. Bradley Ogden, who won national attention in the Bay Area and Las Vegas, opened a couple of concepts with his son with a third on the way. Bradley’s Fine Diner, a quickly replicable concept, has turned out to be a very pleasant upscale American-style bistro, even if there are not too many nods to the region and issues with preparing fish properly which were absent at opening. The inexpensive fast-casual chicken restaurant was about the least interesting of the handful of chicken-centric spots to open.
Memorial City, easily accessible from I-10, saw a gorgeous sushi restaurant, Kuu, in a location with equally attractive outposts from Tony Vallone and the Cordua’s, with another one from Bradley Ogden on the way. Yet another Ruggles opened, Ruggles Black at Kirby and the Southwest Freeway. It is a block away from Paul’s Kitchen, which took over the suddenly vacated Haven this summer. With the skilled Paul Lewis at the helm, previously at Osteria Mazzantini, the wide-ranging comfort fare is well-prepared, but maybe too comfortable for what the chef is capable of.
I encountered hits and misses, and restaurants where I had an uneven experience showed promise. Pax Americana is first in line. The setting and atmosphere are terrific, though our food on opening night was disappointing. Opening night; hope for future visits, though. Along with these openings, the Heights and nearby areas continued to become more interesting gastronomically and Chinatown also grew, and many more Houstonians have noticed, unlike a few years ago. Also, a terrific new whisky and wine bar opened downtown, Public Services, from the folks at Oxheart and about a mile or so due west on Washington, the long-delayed Julep, from the Anvil crowd, also provided another very enjoyable stop for brown spirits in a little different vein.
From a busy and fun year in new dining options, here are my picks for the ten best restaurants to open in Houston in 2014, listed alphabetically.
The best Italian restaurant to open in Houston since the high-flying Valentino a few years ago, Amalfi is from Giancarlo Ferrara, who headed the kitchen at Arcodoro for over a decade. Serving the food from his home area, Salerno at the end of the Amalfi Coast, bolstered by considerable restaurant experience, this is well-executed southern Italian fare in a fine dining setting. This is actually something unusual outside of New York, as most of the best Italian, truly Italian restaurants in this country serve cuisine from across Italy or often from a destination in northern or central Italy; even so natives of the Italian south and pioneering Italian restaurateurs like Piero Selvaggio at Valentino (now just in Santa Monica) and Tony May (San Domenico, SD26) in New York. But, it would be for naught if it was not well done, and it is, as attested by the local Italian ex-pats who crowd Amalfi at night since it opened in October. The cooking is properly vibrant and the cuisine will be familiar to most; much of it is the precursor to Italian-American cooking. Though nestled in a strip center like a great many Houston restaurants, the contemporary design makes for an attractive setting for a meal.
6100 Westheimer (between Voss and Fountain View), 77057, (713) 532-2201
With the opening of BCN in September, Houston now has a contemporary fine-dining Spanish restaurant that show off some of what had put Spain on the forefront of international gastronomy in the 21st century. Though it has a few modernist touches – the chef interned at El Bulli – the restaurant is much more aptly modern Catalan restaurant with some pan-Iberian influences. Set in an attractive, good-sized two-story house in Montrose, a block from the main drag, BCN, which is the abbreviation of Barcelona’s main airport, provides a contemplative spot to dine in the proper unhurried European fashion. Expectedly of a Spanish restaurant, small plates shine like the picked anchovies, beef tartar, jamon Iberico, of course, clams in a fresh tomato, garlic and onion sauce, and fatty tuna in a pimenton-laced vinaigrette. Even just a visit to the bar can be a very enjoyable experience. The larger plates include a poached cod served with saffron aioli gratin, stewed pork cheeks in a red wine ragout, and a grand lobster stew. Possibly the most expensive restaurant to open this year, but menu prices are cheaper than an airline ticket to Barcelona.
4210 Roseland (a block east of Montrose), 77006, (832) 834-3411
Inviting and unpretentious while remaining stylish and contemporary, just like the namesake museum, the atmosphere at Bistro Menil fits the city very well. In another metropolis – Dallas comes quickly to mind – the feel of the place might likely be annoyingly snotty. Here, it is a comfortable, if often very loud, place to dine for several types of occasions: lunch, brunch, dinner, happy hour, a snack after the museum, etc. The focus seems to be on refined versions of healthy, high quality fare that is interesting and also accessible. Chef Greg Martin mentioned that he wanted the restaurant to be able to aptly serve patrons who visit the museum from all other the world, and that here was no need to be overly ambitious with the offerings. No need for foams. The result is that the menu is rather eclectic, but seemingly well-suited to the wide-range of diners that the restaurant will draw: there are meaty, rich crab cakes; a quiche with a terrific, sturdy, crumbly crust; crepes filled with crab and mushroom; risotto; an excellent charcuterie plate; salads and much more, including many familiar French-inspired items. And, best of all, seemingly everything well-executed, at least that has been my experience thus far.
1513 West Alabama (between Yoakum and Mandell), 77006, (713) 904-3537
The pre-opening missives explained that this new establishment had designs on being the best bakery in the country. Since its summer opening, it has done nothing to believe it is not living up to its very considerable ambitions. A patisserie and boulangerie in the French sense – making pastries and bread – and very much rooted in the French tradition, both efforts have been terrific. The bread has been excellent in several forms and beyond the baguette, and Common Bond’s bread was the highlight of my opening night meal at Pax Americana, as it was for a co-worker who had a much better experience on another night than did I. Their croissants have been even more delectable than the bread. My sister-in-law, trained in Paris as a pastry chef and a former New Yorker, thought their croissants were as good as any croissants she has ever had in US. There is a reason a line forms before the store opens on the weekend. Pricey, especially for the lunchtime sandwiches, which arrive unaccompanied costing around $15 with tax, but, overall, Common Bond is worth every penny and more.
1706 Westheimer (at Dunlavy), 77006, (713) 529-3535
Contemporary Korean food cooked by non-Koreans in a very cool, modern setting, Dosi is somewhat of a surprise. Located almost anonymously in a new modern stand-alone structure on a busy stretch of Shepherd across the streets from both the Houston Wine Merchant and Triniti, the compelling interior comes as a surprise and the deft creations coming from the kitchen, even more so. Dining here can be a lot of fun; the food and service are unpretentious, yet polished; the wait staff is helpful with dishes and concepts. Some highlights include braised then grilled octopus with caramelized scallions, chilies and mushrooms, a Korean-style yam pancake, and the succulent braised lamb collar with garlic and green chiles. And then there is the Bo Ssam, a glorious roasted pork shank. Along with its culinary and design merits, Dosi is also a very good value; the tasting menu at $45 with numerous courses is a steal.
2802 S. Shepherd (between Westheimer and West Alabama), 77098, (713) 521-3674
One of the city’s most popular chefs when he manned the kitchen at seafood-centric Pesce on Kirby during its tenure, Holley’s in Midtown near Brennan’s is Chef Mark Holley’s return to a local kitchen, and the early results at his eponymous dining outpost are quite satisfying. Serving seafood in variety of guises and involving a lot of influences, both regional and international, it all seems to make sense at least when it arrives from the kitchen; preparations are usually delicious. Oddly, one highlight is their Parker House rolls, arriving piping fresh. The restaurant is divided between a more casual bar area, perfect for a cocktail and one of their excellent ceviches or oysters on the half-shell, while the main dining room, though a bit gloomy, but not detracting from the enjoyment of the food, is better for a full menu.
3201 Louisiana (at Elgin), 77006, (713) 491-2222
As with Common Bond, but possibly more so, Killen’s Barbecue is a restaurant that has lived up to and even exceeded the considerable hype it received before opening its doors in February. Lines form outside of those doors most days as Killen’s has become a sensation for its barbecue, mainly its brisket and beef ribs – the latter once seemingly found only at the forgettable Pappas BBQ and maybe Gabby’s – though Killen’s pork ribs and sausage aren’t too shabby either. A slice of brisket arrives nearly completely encrusted in a black, brine-y layer that is delicious and a nice contrast to the moist, tender beef underneath. My first bite of Killen’s brisket might have been the best piece of brisket I have ever had. The rest was quite tasty, too, though a just touch drier than I would have liked. But, this is brisket to compete against any in the state, and, thankfully, the press is doing it justice. Another area of kudos for Killen’s is that their sides are also very good – the best outside of Goode Co. – which is something that is nearly entirely at the other top barbecue joints.
3613 East Broadway (a few blocks east of Main), Pearland, 77581, (281) 485-2272
Lillo & Ella
Set the former home of El Gran Malo near the Timbergrove neighborhood and long-serving establishments like Cavatore, this second restaurant from Kevin Naderi of Roost provides a bright and casual outlet for vibrant, accessible cooking incorporating intelligently composed Asian flavors, ingredients and dishes. It is the enjoyable fusion cooking that works and in many of its creations, flavors and sensations that should be familiar to much of the local dining public. Having endured more than a few poor renditions of Chinese fusion in the 1990s when traveling and every Hyatt seemingly had a take on Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois sans Puck’s insight and considerable skill, I was initially skeptical of Lillo and Ella, but it all seems to work. Excellent salads, skewers, Thai flavors and rifts on familiar Chinese dishes that are lighter and tastier than the originals at wallet-friendly price points make this an easily enjoyable visit for lunch or dinner.
Lillo & Ella
2307 Ella (between TC Jester and 610), 77008, (281) 888-5335
Museum Park Cafe
Though it is already lost its executive chef a few months after opening, this attractive modern addition to the Museum District has shown enough to warrant inclusion among the best newcomers. With a focused menu of just five starters and eight entrées including three pastas – plus a tasting menu of a half-dozen dishes – the intent is let the quality of the ingredients shine, though bolstered by intelligently designed and well-executed dishes. The preparations are mostly familiar, but usually a twist or two. Two examples are Clams Casino served with thick strands of pasta, and Day Boat Scallops served with pork belly lentils, slow roasted carrot and mustard. Chris Leung of Cloud 10 Creamery in the Rice Village handles desserts and has some fun with creations like pumpkin mousse with gingersnap ice cream, golden raisins and balsamic vinegar, a handful of choices are available each night.
Museum Park Café
1801 Binz (at Chenevert), 77004, (713) 520-0108
Regal Seafood House & Lounge
A sibling of E-Tao in the Galleria and a similar concept in Toronto, home to a very large and affluent Chinese community, Regal sits in a stand-alone on a feeder in Stafford, directly across the freeway from the former Texas Instruments facility. Maybe not an inauspicious setting, but one where you might not expect to find the best Chinese restaurant in the area. At least moniker that is what a fair number of Chinese nationals believe and they pack the restaurant on a nightly basis for Cantonese and Honk Kong-style cuisine, mostly seafood, plus one of the better versions of Peking duck in the city. The duck is even cut in front of you. Dim sum items are also served, and though these might not quite reach level of Fung’s Kitchen further north on the freeway, these can be quite tasty, and even has well-crafted versions of Shanghai’s soup dumplings (xiao long bao). The interior includes a cozy bar area off the entrance – the “Lounge” in the name – banquettes complementary the necessary large round tables and shiny white marble-like walls. Somewhat modern. Muted. Pleasant. This is not your typical Chinatown restaurant, it’s nicer and service is better, if not overly polished, especially if you don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Without those language skills or a dining companion in the know, the menu can be a little interesting to navigate, but with the quality of the cooking, it will like be a very enjoyable journey.
Regal Seafood House & Lounge
12350 Southwest Freeway (between Airport and Kirkwoord), Stafford, 77477, (281) 494-8888