The new restaurants
- The most attention-grabbing development might have been the emergence of a quartet of set-course-only menu restaurants with very high prices for the area, $115 to $225 before drinks: March, Hidden Omakase, ReNeiki, and Degust. March, from the folks at Goodnight Hospitality (Rosie Cannonball, Montrose Cheese & Wine) and Degust in Spring Branch, both with a recent influences on the plate from Spain, were each named among the top twenty new restaurants by Esquire last month.
- A couple better Italians: Alba, Concura. OK, maybe one, as Alba is the revision at the Hotel Granduca from the excellent Ristorante Cavour with the estimable Chef Maurizio Ferrarese still at the helm. Inspired by the rich cuisine of the Langhe – the home of the most-prized white truffles, Barolo and Barberesco, etc. – it might have claims to being the best Italian restaurant in the state. Concura serves mostly the food of the Italian region of the Marche, something new for Houston, and most diners.
- New places from top local restaurateurs: Urbe from Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, Georgia James Tavern and Red Sauce Italian from Chris Shepherd – that will become Pastore when in moves in the spring of 2022 – along with couple more on the way from and team in 2022; Mark Cox and Carmelo Mauro, formerly of the long-lived Mark’s and Carmelo’s, respectively, are involved in an upscale Mexican place, Maize, in the latter’s former space; and the Berg group opened another place with Trattoria Sofia.
- One of the big changes from Chris Shepherd is the shuttering of the excellent and widely interesting UB Preserv, the successor to the ground-breaking Underbelly, at the end of this year. Its chef, Nick Wong, will move to Georgia James Tavern making that much more worth a visit.
- Big new food halls offering a wide range of cuisines and gustatory fun: Railway Heights and The Post Market, both are worth visiting and can be a lot of fun. It’s not going to be the best food, except for maybe Golfstrømmen and The Butcher’s Burger both in the Post Market, nor it is necessarily a great value – relatively small portions are typical – and presentation is secondary in counter-service spots without much emphasis on the service, but all caveats asides, these two offer an enjoyably diverse array of cuisines and dishes done well or well-enough for repeated trips.
- The East End including EaDo offers more dining and imbibing options, with J-Bar-M Barbecue, now the city’s grandest spot for smoked meats, the cocktail bar Nightshift, and Roostar adding a location on Navigation.
- Downtown has even places to spend that expense account on Prime steaks with the addition of the Latin American-inspired Toro Toro in the Four Seasons that replaced the long-running Italian concept there, Quattro, and the relocation from Westheimer of The Palm, which is under the Landry’s corporate umbrella. Now the city center boasts seven high-end steakhouses: Pappas Bros., Vic & Anthony, Guard and Grace, Morton’s, Shula’s, Toro Toro and The Palm, which might be dumbed down somewhat as Landry’s positions each of its broad array of upscale steakhouses.
- The restaurant scene in the greater Heights continues to grow, including a few spots where you can be parted a fair amount for an evening meal. Led by the terrific Squable, the neighborhood’s dining landscape has returned to pre-pandemic levels prior to the pandemic’s demise. Piper’s Barbecue, presciently named by J.C. Reid in the Chronicle as one of the city’s best ‘cue joint, and Ume that opened in late 2020, Da Gama, Fegen’s, Chivos, Studewood Grille, Studewood Cantina, the Italian-themed Trattoria Sofia from the Berg group, and a location of the fun, counter-service TJ Birria’s y Mas, with successful and acclaimed Austin-bred Loro en route. And, the nearly revitalized commercial farmers market on Airline is just beyond the Heights borders. Assertive foreign flavors might be muted and some of the concepts needed some fine-tuning out of the gate, but the Heights has certainly gotten better for dining and imbibing. There is certainly a well-heeled appetite for it there.
- The MFAH got a couple of worthwhile new spots, the modern French Le Jardinier and the cafeteria-like casual Italian Cafe Leonelli from acclaimed New York chef Jonathan Benno. Both are location in the new Kinder building, and both can be worth a destination by themselves, especially Le Jardinier, one of the best restaurants in the city.
- Though it has been turning into a haven for out-of-town restaurant chains in recent years, unfortunately, the Rice Village welcomed a terrific new retail bakery, Bādolina Bakery & Cafe, from the folks from the Doris Metropolitan steakhouse. Led by its executive pastry chef Michal Micheali, it turns out something a little different, done very well: "modern Middle Eastern and Israeli baked goods, sweet and savory pastries, along with specialty sourdoughs, croissants, babkas and more."
- The demise of the beer bar with The Ginger Man – America’s first contemporary beer bar – and The Hay Merchant, the city’s most serious spot for hops shuttering along with the famed Falling Rock Tap House in Denver. The last was the best beer bar in the entire Mountain Region and a requisite stop for beer tourists during the GABF, run by a trio of brothers from Houston and alums of The Ginger Man, The Red Lion on Main Street, and The Mucky Duck. Sad but true.
At the restaurants
- Straightforward preparations, high prices. Gratify, Tonight & Tomorrow, The Nash, Georgia James Tavern, Studewood Grille and the steakhouse Gatsby’s were examples of this. Many folks here have a lot of money; the markets have soared during the pandemic and seemingly a lot of Houstonians will pay a pretty penny for a version of comfort food, sometimes middling, if nicely presented in a pleasant setting. In fairness, a couple of these have to appeal to a wide array of hotel guests, and many business travelers look for the familiar when on the road, from the likes of Dubuque and usually elsewhere, too. The Four Seasons, as always with this hotel chain, took a different and better tack with its very appealing Latin American-influenced steak-centric Toro Toro.
- Service has gotten even worse. Houston has always been behind the other top handful of restaurant cities in terms of the level of service. It has gotten worse, understandably so, during the pandemic.
- Q codes for menus. It saves the restaurants with time and expense to update menus. It’s mostly a hassle for customers, especially with some gaps in cell phone service, as sometimes happens at The Post Market, home to vendors mostly utilizing Q codes, and when those online menus are not updated.
On the menus
- Wine become more so pink and orange. Somewhat more natural, too.
- Caviar is found much more often. There is plenty of money in Houston, even more so these days.
- The spicy chicken sandwich craze continues, with new restaurants arriving here specializing in these, a popularity due to the recent-years press for Nashville’s hot chicken and subsequent craze for Popeye’s chicken sandwich that was introduced a couple of years ago (which the newcomers actually rarely equal). It’s been a boon for those who like the common, unnaturally hefty Chernobyl Farms-style chicken breasts battered with plenty of a cayenne pepper-heavy rub, enough to induce a runny nose if not completely obscure the invariable dullness of the plentiful white meat.
It’s been an interesting year.
One of the attractively presented dishes at Le Jardinier.