We tasted and tippled at the most talked-about hot spots, and called on the classics, to see just what’s cooking now in what has become the nation’s most dynamic and highly touted food town. After trying the trendy dishes—ramen or Brussels sprouts, anyone?—and checking in with our favorite veteran chefs, here’s our must-try menu of what’s new and what’s next from Houston’s coolest kitchens. Pull up a seat, grab a plate and dig in—and, by all means, save room for dessert!
10 HOTTEST RESTAURANTS RIGHT NOW*
If anyone wondered whether a modernized brasserie—the decor is white-on-white, and the wine list comes on an iPad—would catch on, Brasserie 19 (1962 W. Gray St., 713.524.1919) has resoundingly answered the question: Oui! A River Oaks crowd piles in for classics like steak frites, and a selection of raw oysters from the nation’s most fruitful waters.
Baroque-decorated yet casual Corner Table (2736 Virginia St., 713.568.9196) has bowed to the delight of the River Oaks set. Chef Bruce Molzan of Ruggles fame turns out dishes ranging from ’80s kitsch—a pastry dome tops the butternut squash soup—to inspired “paleo,” as in the paella made from cauliflower “rice.” Bonus: There are also four bar concepts scattered about the premises.
Etoile Cuisine et Bar (1101 Uptown Park Blvd., 832.668.5808) has joined a crop of great new Frenchies. Chef Philippe Verpiand goes French country, offering his A-list regulars comfort foods such as cassoulet a la Toulouse and ecargots bourguignonne awash in neon-green chopped herbs, in a soft-hued dining room with wooden walls distressed to look antique.
In a city floating in queso thanks to the sway of Tex-Mex, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s (1600 Westheimer Rd., 713.524.7744) offers a classy alternative: authentic Mexican. Although his restaurant opened in 2002—with a spinoff heading to the Galleria area—Ortega proves he can keep up with his buzzy neighbor chefs on Lower Westheimer, having just fielded his second James Beard nomination. The chef, who also has Backstreet Cafe, turns out a menu ranging from bright ceviches to a rich and complex beef tenderloin with mole.
Both the chef and the space at brasserie-esque hot spot L’Olivier (240 Westheimer Rd., 713.360.6313) have interesting pasts. Olivier Ciesielski spent more than a decade as executive chef at Tony’s, and the building—renovated to be a part-mod, part-baroque dining room separated from a chic bar by a glassed-in wine cupboard—was once an adult video store. There’s still lust in the air, but now it’s mostly for the menu of freshened-up staples such as steamed mussels with garlic, Italian sausage and tomatoes.
No resto in the current roar has been more lauded than Oxheart (1302 Nance St., 832.830.8592), and chef Justin Yu has become a celeb on his own terms. His restaurant is aggressively casual, with a lived-in decor and a website that insists you “come as you are.” While guests may have sartorial options, they don’t have such liberty when it comes to what they eat—tasting menus only. Luckily, giving up freedom tastes good: Veggie-heavy “progressive” dishes are apt to include a beet salad with lemon-blossom vinegar, quinoa and almonds.
The Pass & Provisions
The Pass & Provisions (807 Taft St., 713.628.9020)—part casual noshing with pizzas and sophisticated cheese boards, and part tasting-menu-only fine dining with each course paired with either a fine wine or a clever cocktail—is the brainchild of chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. Provisions, the more casual, with an accent wall paneled in wooden slats from an old high-school basketball court, touts an internationally sourced beer list. And The Pass in an adjoining room—with stark white walls and plush velvet dining chairs—offers complex, whimsical fare such as its nori bucatini, a pasta spiral of veggie-green with orange uni and clouds of tofu foam.
Triniti (2815 Shepherd Dr., 713.527.9090) continues keeping pace with the Upper Kirby/Montrose restaurant boom it helped launch. The industrial-esque spot—hardwood floors and an open kitchen stretch out under soaring ceilings and constellations of cool light fixtures—has added a Sunday brunch; imagine a pretty crowd swilling versions of Bloody Marys made with tequila and whiskey. But it’s still chef Ryan Hildebrand’s artful, locally driven lunch and dinner items—fresh asparagus comes with local mushrooms and a truffled egg yolk vinaigrette—that keep Triniti holy among foodies.
Business is so good for Austin sushi-star import Uchi (904 Westheimer Rd., 713.522.4808) chef-owner Tyson Cole says that, as his ATX flagship turns 10, he’ll expand to Dallas. Little wonder. Warmly comforting yet edgy-cool standouts include the hamachi nabe, with yellowtail and a raw farm egg meant to be stirred into hot flavorful rice at the table.
James Beard nominee Chris Shepherd’s year-old, sleekly rustic Underbelly (1100 Westheimer Rd., 713.528.9800), is an edible homage to Houston, highlighting not only its love of hearty meat with an in-house butcher, and its earthly bounty with a savvy selection of heirloom produce—but also its ethnic diversity, as the city’s Asian and Latin influences are evident. Consider such delicacies as house-cured sausages with tomatoes and pickled blackberries, and what may be the signature favorite, spicy Korean braised goat with doughy dumplings.
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