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.
Aqui – $120, entrées: $20 to $38, $24 – Driving by on lower Westheimer, you might miss the attractive low-slung newish construction on the north side of the street that houses Aqui whose menu mostly consists of an array of Asian or Asian-inspired dishes, usually small plates or smaller, a number from the Philippines and Japan, but much more. The quaintness of most of the dishes makes sense to order in several rounds and seem to span a fair part of the globe: tuna arepas, curry puffs, uni toast, tuna kinlaw, Ora king salmon, the Filipino roll pandesal with pâté, glass noodles, and a mushroom salad featuring a several very flavorful funghi whose roots ranged far from here. Each of these preparations were quite well-done during a recent visit, exhibiting both very evident technical skills and intelligence in the combinations, though the items under the ‘Perfect Bites’ sections might give a new definition to 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 many lower-BMI customers are also wallet-wary, and the prices can climb at Aqui if you are not careful with some of these precious dishes. 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, features several members with commendable Houston stops on their resumes – Kata Robata, Uchi and Common Bond, for example – which bode well for the future, and Qui, too. 520 Westheimer (between Taft and Montrose), 77006, (713) 360-7834
Field & Tides – $100, entrées: $19 to $48, $30 – Places like readily-attractive-for-lunch-and-dinner Field & Tides are why the Heights has become much more of a dining destination. Set in the quaint house – maybe too quaint given its immediate popularity – that had previously housed Bistro Zelko, Field & Tides is like a locally attuned bistro providing a comfortable and accessible Gulf Coast-centric menu with noticeable Southern and Mexican accents that nicely sourced and executed. Items like a pan-seared Gulf snapper with buerre blanc and a double cut pork chop bolstered by a Creole mustard demi-glace that’s served with coastal Carolina-inflected hoppin’ John join bucatini pasta with mussels and Mexican chorizo, and tempura-style mushrooms that comes with succotash might be casually upscale as the restaurant describes itself but, with quality of the preparations, a stop here usually makes for a very rewarding meal. Suitable wine, beer and cocktails complement, and the patio can be quite a pleasant place when the weather cooperates. 705 E. 11th Street (just west of Studewood), 77008, (713) 861-6143
Kukuri – $150 ($170, omakase), nigiri sushi: $9 to $25 – This necessarily pricey upscale sushi restaurant is easily missed along Washington Avenue not far from downtown, sitting unobtrusively amidst Tacodeli and Platypus Brewing. This traditionally focused sushi and sashimi purveyor is from Japanese chef Shimao Ishikawa who had recently squired at the longtime Michelin-starred sushi spot in Manhattan, Jewel Bako who seemingly snuck into town to open this during the summer. You can choose from multiple options sushi and sashimi and other options from a wide variety served à la carte or leave it up to the skilled Ishikawa by choosing the (very expensive) fixed-price lengthy omakase dinner. The fare is impressive, which is why it gets a nod here, both noticeable for the quality of the seafood and, maybe less noticeably, the long-honed technique. Much of the seafood is flown in from Japan but there is more, with other flavorful foreign and domestic sea creatures whose names might not be familiar even in English like threeline grunt, golden threadfin bream, and golden snapper, which were all on a recent menu. Blond wood counters and tops meld with the industrial setting that can make for a suitable, subtle setting. 1902 Washington (between Houston Avenue and Sawyer), 77007, (346) 234-4060
Maison Pucha Bistro – $110, entrées: $22to $45, $32 – Not far south from Field & Tides on Studewood, this French outpost from Manuel Pucha, the former executive chef at La Table, and his brothers, veterans of the New York restaurant trade, offers a menu of classic French restaurant preparations along with a few items and flavors from their coastal Ecuadoran home. Like all local French-themed establishments here, the dishes aren’t very recent – steak frites, bouillabaisse, duck confit, coq au vin – but can shine in execution along with attractive presentations. Dishes like the impeccably plump, moist filet of Trout Almondine in brown butter, especially so, and even a straightforward assemblage of top-flight charcuterie and cheese. The wines are sufficient, if not yet terribly interesting, and the bartenders quite adept in their mixology even as they were getting used to the newness of the place. The setting is quite stylish, contemporary, and welcoming, not to mention busy since the doors opened, and the staff noticeably earnest and hard-working, helping give the impression that this restaurant will only get better as time goes on. 1001 Studewood (south of 11 Street), 77008, (713) 637-4976
Nancy's Hustle – $75, entrées: $16 to $32, $22 – This fun, and quite delicious new spot seems well-suited for the still-gentrifying EaDo with its casual and quickly boisterous and nicely casual set-up in a new strip center in an older part of town coupled with a serious kitchen and an expertly chosen array of wine, cocktails and even beers to complement the evening. The mostly shareable and fun menu made for dining in stages includes around ten medium-sized plates, a half-dozen larger ones along with a handful sides, but a few desserts. There is a salad some vegetables, several protein-centered preparations with flavors ranging from the Mediterranean on either side of the Bosphorus to stateside, all of which are enticing. You should certainly start with something that might seem a little odd, that’s described on the menu as, “Nancy cakes with whipped butter & smoked trout roe” that features three puffy pancake-like items, and a name that is a play on Johnnycakes, with the cakes themselves are lighter, airier and certainly more flavorful than the typical Johnnycake. This lightness is the result of a sourdough starter for the breads and pastas, which are all made in house. The piles of the smoked roe and whipped butter both proved quite complementary, and for a very enjoyable dish. Chicken liver mousse is also served well by the house-made bread, and quite tasty, as are the crisp croquettes and cool-weather-ready raclette. Larger items can be hanger steak, rabbit leg confit and loin, roasted red snapper and, not incidentally, a version of the famed Chicago-tested burger that’s a favorite of Alinea’s Grant Achatz. Given Nancy’s Hustle’s quick start, it might even be more fun in the future, even if it does slow down. 2704 Polk (about seven blocks south of 59), 77003, (346) 571-7931
One Fifth Romance Languages – $120, entrées: $16 to $75, $35 – When I initially read about this second stop on Chris Shepherd and company’s journey, a combination of French, Italian and Spanish, I was a little concerned. These cuisines are rather distinct, and then there are the regional and local cuisines in each land, especially those in Italy. The neighbors France and Italy often work well together in some dishes; risotto and stuffed pastas are found on French menus more so these days, at least in this county. Spanish and Italian quite less so. But, I figured if anyone in town could pull it off, at least with a likely array of delicious creations if not complete coherence on the menu, it would be Shepherd. In practice, it makes much more sense that I believed that it could, and the dishes ordered on a recent visit, indeed, each delicious. The starters are mostly Spanish complemented by French items like terrines and seafood items like the brasserie-inspired classic cold seafood tower bolstered by those delightful Spanish canned seafood items. There is a pasta section (misnamed as secondo rather than primo, no matter) that’s properly Italian, of course, then the entrées are mostly French and Spanish along with a giant, great American steak richly bolstered by foie gras and truffles that is meant for several. The desserts feature a number of Italian names, but are modern American restaurant creations, and made by a skilled pastry chef, Victoria Dearmond in this case. Professional service, properly crafted cocktails, and yet another enticing, very appropriate, and nicely priced list from wine director Matthew Pridgen makes everything even better. 1658 Westheimer (just east of Dunlavy), 77006, (713) 955-1024
One Fifth Steak – $150, entrées: $30 to $80, $40 – Located in what was long the ungainly building that housed Mark’s – and now its successor listed above – Shepherd and the folks from Underbelly offered a slightly different take on the expected chop house that managed to please both those attracted to the city’s more interesting fine-dining spots along with those who consider a nice meal out a visit to a steakhouse. One Fifth Steak was the first concept for the space that has been announced as a nearly five-year project that will offer a new cuisine each year. Opening just in time for the Super Bowl with tens of thousands of heavyset, well-heeled steak-lovers from around the county – and the restaurant able to open just in time for the pre-game festivities – the steakhouse concept to start was apparently a no-brainer. It closed in the summer as planned, but was such a success, it will be revived in 2018 as Georgia James in the current Underbelly space. Though the expected strip, ribeye and porterhouse were on the menu at One Fifth Steak, there was no filet. Customers should be satisfied with one of the other options, including the succulent sirloin I had or the 100-day-wet-aged hanger steak, a true onglet cut that you would expect given the restaurant’s provenance. The steaks are USDA Prime, of course, except for the even more marbled Marble Ranch Wagyu. There are bone-in versions for the bigger spenders – and copious seafood towers, caviar service and Pappy Van Winkle – and not just for the ballers, but for tables of six or more, ‘The Baller Platter’ that had a variety of meats and cuts to share for the main course, and that looked very impressive. The sides were riffs and the standard, but in a departure from tradition, there is no Caesar salad. The funkiest things on the menu are a pate, terrine and beef tartar, even if there are lamb necks and a pork collar, they taste just like good lamb and pork, respectively. The wine list was terrific, too, and with good prices for the quality what you can expect from Matthew Pridgen, who has long had a very appealing array of wines at Underbelly and now Romance Languages. All bodes well for its successor steakhouse later this year. 1658 Westheimer (just east of Dunlavy), 77006, (713) 955-1024
Oxbow 7 – $125, entrées: $28 to $38, $32 – Vibrantly set street level – even decked out with cool graffiti-esque art on a well – in the refurbished midcentury 21-story skyscraper that’s the new Le Meridien hotel a few blocks west of Discovery Green, this September newcomer is Chef Bryan Caswell’s most personal restaurant to date, and my vote for the best new Houston restaurant of 2017. The conceit here is dishes inspired by coastal fare to inlands about sixty miles from the shore, from at least Matagorda Bay in the south to the oyster beds in the panhandle of Florida that plays to Caswell’s home here and family roots in neighboring Louisiana. It is cooking with which local restaurant-goers are familiar, especially patrons of Caswell’s nearby Reef, along with some newer and once-neglected items, like rabbit (in the future it’s hoped) and something called East Texas Caviar Service made with the tasty roe of long-uncherished fish in Louisiana and ably matched with crispy, salty house-made potato crisps. Crab gratin, a version of oyster toast with bacon bearing the moniker Angels on Horseback, a near-peerless Crispy Skin Snapper featuring a thick filet and even a version of a campside Vietnamese stew inspired by Caswell’s father’s fishing excursions. The dishes exhibit bright flavors and well thought-out combinations that bear the hallmark of and skilled and experienced hand along with Caswell’s time with Jean-Georges Vongrichthen in New York and his stints in top dining destinations in Asia and Europe. The wine list is excellent and very appropriate, no sorely-out-of-place big Napa cabs here like at Reef, while the bartenders do a fine job crafting cocktails. Plus, there is a bar on the rooftop, yet another welcome diversion here. 1121 Walker (at San Jacinto), 77002, (713) 487-6137
Riel – $105, entrées: $10 to $40, $27 – The description on their website seems quite apt: “Globally Inspired Gulf Coast Cuisine,” as its offerings include items and inspirations commonly from Japan to Canada to Eastern Europe and especially nearby, as executive chef Ryan Lachaine seemed to gain much from his stints at Reef and Underbelly, home of the two best executors of our contemporary regional Gulf Coast cooking, Bryan Caswell and Chris Shepherd (coincidentally, both above). This thin usually energetic spot, quaint for Houston at about sixty seats, has an appropriate setting and atmosphere for its eclectic but sensibly assembled mix of savory preparations numbering about fifteen or so, most easily shared. A stellar trio of which, that have been on the menu in some form since its opening exactly a year ago, include snapper ceviche, a seafood karaage, a fairly delicate Japanese-style fried preparation, and a hanger steak with terrific, salty crust encasing the moist, deep-red interior that is served sliced for sharing along with a horseradish cream sauce. Excellent sourcing for both proteins and plants are readily evident along with the precise techniques. A solid cocktail program and wine list help complement the kitchen’s efforts. 1927 Fairview (east of Shepherd), 77019, (832) 831-9109
Theodore Rex – $120, entrées: $16 to $32, $25 – Justin Yu closed his acclaimed Oxheart in the spring of 2017 to the great consternation of a large number of dedicated restaurant hounds. He came soon with a possibly more user-friendly approach with Theodore Rex: the setting is more comfortable, the serving is à la carte rather than fixed menu, and there are a surfeit of protein-focused plates among the edited list of offerings. There might be items like Roasted Texas Wagyu dressed with fermented radish and beefy bits, Gulf snapper in broth, and cabbage stuffed with smoked hen and rye bread that can be prefaced by the simply named, if not simply tasting, Tomato Toast, mushrooms fried pakora-style and more that might be shared or not. Yu’s cooking is personal, interesting and usually expertly wrought, with special justice down to vegetables. Justin Vann, who does double duty at the estimable wine and whisky Public Services, put together the well-edited, eclectic and food-friendly wine list that will excite many wine lovers, with everything but champagne priced less than $100, usually much less so. But, you just might want to consider a sparkler with Yu’s cooking, and if champagne is too much, there are more than a few possibly funky petillant naturel, natural sparklers. 1302 Nance (at Richey), 77002, (832) 830-8592
Xochi – $110, entrées: $22 to $37, $29 – With Xochi that opened just before the Super Bowl, Chef Hugo Ortega and company then had three Mexican restaurants in Houston, and these are clearly the three best Mexican restaurants in Houston. Oaxacan-themed Xochi lives up to its siblings Hugo’s and Caracol in terms of quality while offering yet another menu of enticing offerings, most well-suited for sharing. There are crudos, roasted oysters, an array of moles – as Oaxaca is the land of seven moles, after all – and other preparations, all bolstered by excellent sourcing. There are even a few insects on the menu, for the adventurous, even if these tastes might not be too far out. As at their other restaurants, Sean Beck puts together compelling wines and cocktails that makes this a clear winner both dining and imbibing. Located in the new Marriott across from Discovery Green downtown, the interior is quite attractive, more so the further you are from the lobby, though the patio seating can be an invitation to be pan-handled. 1777 Walker (at Crawford) 77010, (713) 400-3330
I think that this list is more impressive than the top newcomers in 2016 and also 2015, as enjoyable as these restaurants were and are.
East Texas Caviar Service at Oxbow 7