Then the city’s brashest development, the oddly and pretentiously-named River Oaks District that's not in River Oaks and filled with the French, Italian and other very upscale retailers like Sir Paul’s famous designer daughter and found also along moneyed ways of Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, or Milan's Quadrilatero d’Oro. Unfortunately, the developers chose not-so-well-regarded out-of-town chains for restaurants. None of the four dining headliners are anywhere near the best-in-class in Houston in their respective cuisines. At least a couple of them are providing stops for well-heeled thirty- or forty-somethings singles at night and another for the ladies who lunch during the day. The French gelato place and the Austin-based hamburger joint are more satisfying.
I’m probably quibbling too much, there were some very good places to open, even if it was not a banner year like 2015, when even quality spots like La Table that opened at the end of last year just missed the cut. Here are my top ten newcomers for 2016, listed alphabetically.
To note per each of the entries below, to give a good idea of actual expense, after the restaurant name is: 1) average total dinner cost per person, 2) "entrees: " price, and 3) average entree price. The average prices reflect a typical dinner, which might be an appetizer, side or dessert in addition to the entrée – or a suitable number of small plates – a couple of drinks, tax and a 20% tip.
Brasserie 1895 – $60, entrées: $10 to $35, $20 – 607 S. Friendswood Drive, Friendswood, 77546, (832) 385-2278 – I don’t believe that I had ever eaten meal in Friendswood before visiting Brasserie 1895, from Chef Kris Jakob, a longtime instructor – and lead instructor, in fact – at the Culinary Institute LeNôtre and the ‘Kris’ in its Kris Bistro, which had garnered a fair amount of critical praise. Opening a restaurant in Friendswood was a chance for him to work very close to home while providing a nice dining alternative – a chef-driven restaurant – for the burgeoning area that is both interesting and accessible. In doing this, he wanted to take advantage of his wide-ranging culinary background and time spent cooking in Belgian. Assisted by his mentor, who happens to be a Belgian master chef, true to its name, Brasserie 1895 is actually a brasserie in a broad sense. Serving the hearty, well-crafted food and having an emphasis on quality beer in the Parisian brasserie tradition, the kitchen offers echoes enjoyable Belgium – which has a magical beer tradition well-suited for the restaurant’s ethos – while also providing tastes around the world. The beer selection might be more impressive, but there are enough well-chosen wines to satisfy most palates. Serving a globally menu influenced can be difficult in many restaurants, but Jakob’s and the kitchen’s skills seems to make this a natural. This is my new restaurant of the year.
Café Azur – $110, entrées: $22 to $44, $32 – 4315 Montrose (south of Richmond), 77006, (713) 524-0070 – Brasserie Max & Julie closes, but the city does not lose another French spot, as Café Azur quickly opened soon after, headed by chef-owner Sidney Degaine, who decamped from Brazil to Montrose. True to its name, the setting is lighter, brighter (and bluer) than its previous tenant, while the approachable menu takes culinary inspiration from southeastern France with regional classics like bouillabaisse, salade Niçoise and ratatouille, with some nods across the Maritime Alps to Italy including sauce-heavy pasta preparations, plus pan-Gallic favorites like mussels marinière and duck confit. The amendable offerings include old school ideas like steak tartare and filets Rossini, where the decadent foie gras is not limited, appearing elsewhere, even in a fun French foie gras taco as a starter. Presentation and technique are expectedly French, a good thing.
The Conservatory – $30, entrées: $8 to $18, $12 – 1010 Prairie (at Fannin), 77002, (832) 919-8382 – Not one restaurant but five counter-service ones, plus a beer counter and a coffee stand, that’s situated in a subterranean hall just below the street near the rail lines of Main Street. It is a cool concept – really cool, actually, especially since it’s in the heart of downtown with late night hours – and nicely different than anything else around, especially with its mix of dining options: El Burro and the Bull (Tex-Mex, mostly) whose chief who spent time with Austin pit legend Aaron Franklin, critic favorite Melange Creperie (crepes, as you might guess), Myth Café (Greek) and Seattle-tested Samauri Noodle (ramen); plus, the well-regarded Southside Espresso and a beer stand featuring forty-plus taps of locally produced beer. It’s the sum of the parts and uniqueness of the foods, which can be quite satisfying, that help make this one of the top newcomers of the year.
Killen’s STQ – $130, entrées: $18 to $80, $46 – 2231 S Voss (at Del Monte), 77057, (713) 586-0223 – After long last, Ronnie Killen has got a place in the big city, so his many fans here won’t have to make the trek south to Pearland to enjoy his fare. The obscure STQ moniker stands for “steaks and ‘cue.” The menu is that of a steakhouse, but there is smoke found among the preparations, something that Killen has utilized to very well-deserved national acclaim. The steaks here are grilled over coals, something nicely different from the typical steakhouse, which utilizes an extremely hot broiler, and there are choices among wet-aged, dry-aged and Texas Wagyu steaks. Pastas, chicken and a dozen of his satiating sides fill out the rest of his savory offerings. Occupying the 60-seat or so space that was Bramble, one of last year’s top newcomers that closed in the summer, this is another very welcome addition to the dining scene between the Briargrove neighborhood and the eastern edges of moneyed Memorial, and a restaurant that might be Killen’s most ambitious.
Nobie’s – $110, entrées: $18 to $48, $28 – 2048 Colquitt (just east of Shepherd), 77098, (346) 319-5919 – Just opened to the public in December, this eclectic spot is a cool, eclectic, chef-driven spot featuring local and regional ingredients, of course, but with global influences, including a number of dishes from restaurants in Chicago, or riffs on them. The accessible, if often refined cooking includes giant smoke-kissed ribeye named after a consumer of legendarily sized chops, Fred Flinstone, meant for sharing, a date dish inspired by Chicago's acclaimed Avec, a mild, yet very flavorful house-made chicken liver mousse featuring the flavors of an Old Fashioned cocktail, a terrific, an entire fried chicken (or more) nicely presented, excellent rich chocolates and more. Even the fresh pastas can draw raves. The setting is an old house that was occupied by Au Petit Paris for a decade and seems perfectly appropriate for the seemingly, personal, fun fare, except for the horrific lack of parking. Good acoustics and vintage speakers (speaker technology has not changed much in a quite a while) supply a steady stream of late 1960s and 1970s guitar-heavy rock over the airwaves from old school vinyl. An enthusiastic bar staff can provide an enjoyable cocktail starter or finish, too, after you've enjoyed the well-edited wine list for the meal.
Pepper Twins – $45, entrées: $15 to $20, $14 – 1915 W Gray (just west of Dunlavy), 77019, (346) 204-5644 – From the folks behind the popular Montrose Sichuan spot Cooking Girl, this Sichuan is a little more upscale, comfortable and utilizes even better ingredients, many organic; the chicken is antibiotic-free and humanely raised from Springer Mountain Farms, the pork is from heritage Berkshire stock. There is even lamb preparations among the nearly fifty items, many feature chiles or Sichuan peppercorns, as you should expect. This is an improvement all around to Cooking Girl – as enjoyable as Cooking Girl is – and brings the total of Inner Loop restaurants providing authentic Chinese cooking to three, which is great (all Sichuan, seemingly China’s favorite regional cuisine). Service here is Chinese style: the dishes come to the table with no fuss and nearly everything is meant to be shared. Popular since its opening in September, Chinese nationals and those who just enjoy top-notch Sichuan fare quickly found the sliver of the strip center space that had housed Nam on W. Gray just west of Dunlavy.
Pi Pizza – $35, entrées: $12 to $22, $17 – 181 Heights (south of I-10), 77007, (832) 767-2433 – I have to admit, that Houston’s not a great pizza town, but it got better with the transition of this popular food truck to a cheery brick-and-mortar spot on Heights Boulevard south of I-10 that housed the similarly casual, if unexciting Funky Chicken. The emphasis is on the soft-crusted broadly New York-style pies that feature a nontraditional complement of good-quality toppings and a long list of combinations that can be quite tasty. Hipsterish in vibe and service, it is nonetheless friendly, and there are beers (and a few wines) and fun cocktails. Pizza is good.
The Pit Room – $35, entrées: $8 to $20, $15 – 1201 Richmond (between Montrose and Graustark), 77006, (281) 888-1929 – Montrose and the Inner Loop gets another barbecue joint, and this one actually makes it worth drive to Montrose for barbecue. The Pit Room is quite proficient with the proudly Texas ‘cue, and should be getting better as they fully adjust to servicing their large lunchtime crowds and avoid ribs drying out a touch, which was the only demerit. Though tad less moist that ideal, both the pork and beef ribs exhibited nice flavor during a busy lunch and, most importantly for Texas barbecue, the brisket was very good. Interesting sides and influences are also welcome additions to the burgeoning local smoked meat landscape.
Ritual – $120, entrées: $17 to $55, $34 – 602 Studewood (at White Oak), 77007, (832) 203-5180 – Having found its footing a few months and a few chefs in, Ritual provides another engaging and eclectic option for Heights residents that is easily accessible for those well beyond with its convenient location just north of I-10 at the popular intersection of Studewood and White Oak. Comfortable and not terribly polished in a good way, the quite hearty, meat-centric fare includes in-house dry-aging program providing intensely flavored steaks aged for up to forty-five days. The oft-caloric compositions can be complemented by functional list of wines, and an array of hop-centric domestic craft beers that are displayed on a big rustic-looking board in the dining, part of a dark, rough wood design motif.
Surya – $60, entrées: $12 to $32, $19 – 700 Durham (north of Washington), 77007, (713) 864-6667 – As Washington Avenue becomes less filled with drunken youngish revelers after dark, its dining scene is becoming much more interesting, and since the fall has included a more-upscale-than-most Indian restaurant from a chef-owner who had success in Los Angeles in the first decade of the millennium, and whose cooking stops included Mumbai, Delhi and Mangalore. The early offerings are mostly the familiar ones, often from northern India, like chicken tikka masala, sag paneer (though featuring greens other than spinach), and lamb korma done more proficiently and more attractively, and seemingly a little lighter, than many other places, and there is the belief that the kitchen will become more adventurous in the future. A French-heavy wine list can make for some interesting pairings for the fare going forward, according to the chef-owner: Cahors, right bank Bordeaux, and white Burgundys. Still a work-in-progress, including the setting, which is fairly bare-bones now, this makes the list for its potential in the months to come.
Some especially tasty fare at Brasserie 1895 that even included spot-on polenta, something that other restaurants can fumble, especially Italian-American ones.