Driving by on lower Westheimer, you might miss the attractive low-slung new construction on the north side of the street. The differently designed space with a useful patio in front is contemporary, clean-lined and comfortable. That comfort was disturbed a bit when trying to get a cocktail at bar smart-looking bar by the entrance and was greeted with bartender with all the charm of a carnival barker. After I begged off to peruse the drinks menu, I was able to snare the attention of another, more professionally mannered and friendly mixologist who prepared an excellent cocktail. Soon after, it was time to be led to a table with views of outside and the open kitchen, as, nicely, most of the dining room is.
The menu mostly consists of an array of Asian or Asian-inspired dishes, usually small plates or smaller, often from the Philippines and Japan, but much more. The items we ordered in several rounds seemed to span a fair part of the globe: tuna arepas, curry puffs, Santa Barbara uni toast, tuna kinlaw, Ora king salmon, pandesal and pâté, glass noodles, and a mushroom salad featuring a several very flavorful funghi whose roots ranged far from here. Each of the preparations were quite good, exhibiting both very evident technical skills and intelligence in the combinations. Though the kinlaw might not have been as flavorful as the version at the excellent seafooder Reef was not a knock, though the items under the ‘Perfect Bites’ sections were amazingly petite. The average Cracker Barrel customer might spend a week’s worth of dining dollars to get full. The average Cracker Barrel customer would never make it here, of course, but the prices can climb at Aqui if you are not careful. And the wines are a tad pricier and certainly far less well-chosen than you would expect of Houston restaurant of this ambition in 2017. I imagine it will improve, as it grows more to fit the local dining scene. The team at Aqui, led by the lauded Austin-based Paul Qui under his belt, features several members with commendable Houston stops on their resumes – Kata Robata, Uchi and Common Bond – which bode well for the future. And Qui, too, spend some years in Houston before this.
As a Houstonian, myself, and one that has avidly followed and written about the dining scene here for quite a while, I am also a proud graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. But, I am often miffed at all the comparative attention the restaurants in Austin receive. I tend to subscribe to the belief that a friend of mine, a former Houstonian and resident of Austin again for over fifteen years now, who is also a very astute, well-traveled and avid diner told me a few months ago: “whatever type of restaurant exists in Austin, there are one or more restaurants in Houston that are clearly better.” I remarked to the dining companion with whom I visited Aqui that it would certainly be the best new restaurant in Austin, though with such a remarkable year here for restaurant openings, it might just be among the top ten to which she chuckled though readily agreed. That is not meant as much of a knock, Aqui is interesting and engaging newcomer that was serving well-executed and usually delicious preparations throughout the meal. And, I strongly sense, that Aqui is going to just get better, as it becomes more in-tune with Houston and Houston diners.
Whatever my minor caveat, do yourself a favor, and check out Aqui, a very welcome addition to the local dining landscape.
520 Westheimer (between Taft and Montrose), 77006, (713) 360-7834