The calendar year 2015 has been a busy one for interesting new restaurants in Houston, and been a very fun one for intrepid local diners. Some of the best new spots include sushi and Japanese-inflected, Greek, eclectic, at least a couple offering nods to Southern culinary traditions, and steakhouses, which might be the most indelible of the American (and Houston) restaurant concepts.
As the Astros sprung back to Houstonians consciousness this summer for the first time in years, a baseball analogy might apt. No one was really swinging for fences yet, and there were no home runs, but a number of sharp singles and maybe even a double or two. With food quality and execution being of paramount importance, other criteria included utility of concept, how interesting the fare is, décor, service – rarely a high point in Houston dining to be honest – and the wine and other beverage programs, which continue to get better and better. So, below here are the ten best new restaurants that opened in Houston in 2015 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. These aren’t cheap.
- B&B Butchers – $140, entrées: $29 to $80, $50 – 1814 Washington (between Houston and Silver), 77007, (713) 862-1814 – A welcome addition to the near-town dining landscape, it might not be in the class of the top local steakhouses like Pappas Bros. or Vic and Anthony’s, but with its friendly white-tableclothed environs and slightly different take on the familiar American steakhouse, it shows that Houston really can use another steakhouse or two. The restaurant has familiar offerings of aged steaks and a little more done served in an inviting space and atmosphere, but also an on-site retail butcher shop to try your hand at cooking those aged beef indulgences at home, or just grabbing a sandwich. Even with the considerable expense – it’s a Prime steakhouse, after all – it is a comfortable, friendly place sitting charmingly in an older brick building just west of downtown, with niceties like a rooftop terrace with a cool vista of the downtown skyline and plenty of parking, an increasing rarity in ever-crowded Houston. Service is earnest and attentive, if not terribly polished at times and the wine list sports the occasional misspelling, but this is a place that gives the impression it might continue to improve, and overcome some inconsistencies from the kitchen, as it continues age, not unlike a prime cut of beef.
- Bernadine’s – $95, entrées: $22 to $38, $29 – 1809 N. Shepherd (at 18th Street), 77008, (713) 864-2450 – This late-in-the-year arrival shares a building with the also-new Hunky Dory, though not a kitchen, and manages to be the third winning restaurant out of three opened by the local Treadsack group this autumn (Foreign Correspondents, too). Referencing the stretch of Gulf Coast running east through Louisiana as its theme, there are a more than a few influences on this small, very appealing small menu, which includes regional seafood like grilled snapper served with grits and pickled shrimp, but also items like gnocchi, pasta, roast suckling pig with a south Louisiana accent, and a beautiful duck that has been glazed in the Waco-bred dark sugar water. Oysters on the half-shell, with up to six different appellations on a weekend night, enticing cocktails, and well-chosen wine list – that’s more wallet-friendly than its next-door neighbor though by the same folks – have helped make this clean-lined, inviting space packed most nights since opening.
- Bistecca – $120, entrées: $22 to $70, $45 – 224 Westheimer (between Bagby and Taft), 77006, (832) 804-8064 – Alberto Baffoni, who gained some national attention some years ago while he was cooking at Simposio, is back on a notable stage for the first time in years in this smart new restaurant along the state’s best restaurant row, lower Westheimer. Owner Abbas Hussein also has the popular Sorrento a few blocks away. Like B&B Butchers above, this is another new steakhouse worth a visit and is a little different. Occupying a very attractive and lively contemporary space that even has live piano music, this steakhouse also plays on the Italian heritage of Baffoni, who hails from a coastal town in the Marche region southeast of Bologna. There are pastas and other central and northern Italian preparations in addition to the steaks in a number of cuts. What is not entirely Italian among the Italian-named items is their signature 60-ounce Fiorentina, a huge porterhouse cut. Aged Midwestern beef is used rather than the Chianina beef that has been traditionally used in Tuscany; richly marbled and aged Midwestern American beef is tastier, anyway.
- Bramble – $95, entrées: $14 to $36, $28 – 2231 S Voss (at Del Monte), 77057, (832) 819-0322 – Chef Randy Rucker’s return to the kitchen, his kitchen, in the city confines has been a very welcome development. His Southern-influenced local cooking is at both comfortable and intriguing. Even the now familiar shrimp and grits are something more than the usual, featuring terrific shrimp grilled over wood-stoked flames and rich grits both complemented with a flavorful deep-hued Creole sauce. The ever-changing fare rooted in what’s ripe or being caught at the time, is accompanied by fun cocktails, and a very focused and interesting selection of food-friendly wines. The 70-seat space it occupies is similarly comfy and contemporary, and it nicely joins a neat, new restaurant nexus along Voss than began with Arturo Boada’s place a few years ago and includes Roegel’s Barbecue and The Del.
- Helen Greek Food and Wine – $105, entrées: $28 to $50, $34 – 2429 Rice (between Morningside and Kelvin), 77005, (832) 831-7133 – Vibrant and inviting, both for the setting and fare, this offers a cleaner and more contemporary take on Greek cooking that is both familiar and new. The thin, brick-lined space often bustling in the evening like a quality bistro (or maybe taverna) fits nicely in the heart of the increasingly upscale Rice Village. It can be hard to believe it occupies the space that was Kahn’s Deli for so many years. Offering a mostly small plate approach from a relatively concise menu, the kitchen turns out vibrant, fresh-tasting dishes, like wood-grilled octopus and mint-enlivened lamb and beef meatballs, which are attractively presented and well-executed. The all-Greek wine list shows how far the Greek wine industry has come in the past couple of decades, and the skill that proprietor Evan Turner has taken in selecting them. It can be nice alternative for wine lovers, even if prices by the glass are quite high – $15 on average for wines you have never heard of nor can pronounce. And, it is paired with a beer list that might only appeal to hopheads or hipsters or hopheaded hipsters. No matter, the food, beverages and experience will be enjoyable.
- Hunky Dory – $110, entrées: $17 to $45, $30 – 1809 N. Shepherd (at 18th Street), 77008, 713) 864-2450 – Announced over two years prior, this flagship of the very busy Treadsack group finally opened in October. It was well worth the wait; it is the best restaurant to open in Houston in 2015. Offering a “whimsical take on seasonal British-American cuisine and reimagined pub fare” with steaks and chops as well as the food Chef Richard Knight calls, “simple things done well.” For those who are not fond of traditional British cooking, the restaurant will quickly allay any concerns. The creations on the fairly short list of offerings are rather straightforward and somewhat playful. Approachable and even fun, when arriving to the table, the offerings quickly remind the diner of the considerable experience and skill that went into creating and crafting the dish. Flavors are distinct and sensible, and always complementary to what else is on the plate, buoyed by excellent ingredients. The hearth-grilled eggplant with a salad of couscous and arugula with a harissa dressing and fried eggplant croutons are terrific, a reminder of how well Knight handles vegetables, even though he, from his days at Feast, has been associated so much with animals well beyond the familiar parts. Those are not forgotten with terrific house-made terrines, beautiful black pudding, and a wonderful seared foie gras. The very handsome contemporary design divides the space into a main dining room – which has a working hearth on display – and a handsome restaurant-like pub area. Each side its own menu, but diners in the pub area can get the main attractions, too. Fine dining with a splurge from their properly French-heavy wine list, enlightened pub grub, a pint consumed from one of the dozen seats at the comfortable dark wooded bar, a workaday lunch, or even brunch with kids, Hunky Dory and Knight’s cooking can please in a number of ways.
- Izakaya – $100, small plates: $6 to $19 – 318 Gray (at Bagby), 77002, 713) 527-8988 – Riffing on the izakaya theme – small plates meant as an accompaniment to drinking in Japan and increasingly so in this country – this nice-looking, energetic spot in bar-laden Midtown provides a canvas for Jean-Philippe Gaston and Manabu Horiuchi, who worked together at local sushi favorite Kata Robata, to serve fun multi-cultural creations, most with strong Japanese themes or ingredients, that tap into Peruvian, local Gulf Coast traditions and more. Portions are indeed small, and not overly shareable, for the most part, but are fun. The forty or so dishes are divided among grilled, raw, greens, starters, traditional Japanese, and “nom nom nom,” a collection of definitely non-Japanese items like the now-ubiquitous Korean fried chicken, Scotch eggs, and a take on chicken fried steak. This features with the familiar cut smothered in a not-unfamiliar-tasting white gravy made of tofu and sitting atop delicious kimchi braised collard greens. The kitchen shines with the raw preparation, as might be expected with Gaston’s resume, which includes the shuttered seafood alcove in Haven, Cove. One such item is the hamachi crudo, a delicate, balanced, light and delicious composition featuring the white fish below bits of mushroom, crispy baby sardines, and cilantro, which contrasts sharply with a comparatively crude dish with the same name at Saltair, another high-profile seafood-centric newcomer.
- MF Sushi – $130 ($225, omakase), nigiri sushi: $9 to $25 – 1401 Binz, 77004, (713) 637-4587 – Chris Kinjo, like Ford Fry of State of Grace, has managed to easily translate acclaim in Atlanta to the larger and more diverse Houston market. He did that first on Westheimer near the Galleria a couple of years ago, and now in a beautiful, sleek space in the Museum District. As their name, sushi is the specialty, and its impressive array of raw fish accompanying vinegared rice are among the very best in the city. A special treat is their omakase, a chef’s choice of small, mostly seafood preparations, maybe twenty or more, that is served at the 12-seat sushi bar.
- State of Grace – $110, entrées: $26 to $55, $33 – 3258 Westheimer (between Kirby and River Oaks), 77098, (832) 942-5080 – This very handsome October arrival immediately showed to be the handiwork of an accomplished team that is quite knowledgeable about the locale and local fauna, quickly becoming a clubhouse of sorts for River Oaks. This is a River Oaks restaurant. Not surprisingly, proprietor Ford Fry, who has nine restaurants in the Atlanta area, attended both neighboring schools, St. John’s and Lamar, and grew up in the area. The offerings at his hometown return resonate with local diners, featuring items from several food traditions that Houston diners enjoy. There is Tex-Mex and Mex (a cheese enchilada and queso flameado), Gulf Coast-inspired fare (oysters, crab fingers, flounder), Italian (fresh pastas in restaurant-familiar forms), hearty expense-account-worthy steaks, of course, and even some Asian flavors (crab fried rice, Korean fried chicken). And, it all seems to be make sense for Houstonians. Honoring the flavors and dishes of present-day Houston, the menu is more Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Seafood than Underbelly, which can be a good thing, too. The executive chef is Bobby Matos, who has brought a familiarity with the diners that the restaurant is attractig, having worked at Tony Vallone’s Ciao Bello beforehand. If you have trouble obtaining a table – the restaurant has been a smash hit since the get-to – grab a seat at the gorgeous tiled and marbled oyster bar, which can be an attraction in itself.
- Weights and Measures – $90, entrées: $15 to $38, $25 – 2808 Caroline (between McGowen and Elgin), 77004, (713) 654-1970 – At the edge of Midtown’s food and wine establishments, this can be an enjoyable stop for lunch, brunch, a more serious dinner, earnestly crafted cocktails with their area referencing one of the best of J.S. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and even a bake shop featuring the goods from the estimable Slough Dough, this multi-hued Midtowner appeals in several ways. There are doughy pizzas, duck confit tortellini and an aged bone-in pork chop among the well-executed evening offerings that pare well with the attractive, modern and usually energetic space. Operated with help from Mike Sammons of nearby 13 Celsius wine bar, you can assured that the wines are compelling and go well with a range of foods.