Branzino over fluffy gnocchi

Image: Jenn Duncan

Just before the hostess dropped us off at our four-top in Tris’s gold-accented dining room, she asked, “Are we celebrating anything tonight?”

I loved the question. There was no anniversary or birthday, yet my wife and I were in a celebratory mood. After spending 40 minutes weaving through Friday rush-hour traffic, we were here in The Woodlands’ main shopping and entertainment district, ready to witness the work of the restaurant’s buzzed-about executive chef, Austin Simmons.

Simmons runs two concepts: small, experimental tasting-menu spot Cureight, which the chef calls “my playground,” and Tris, previously Hubbell & Hudson (he also ran the kitchen there). Last year ownership rebranded and renovated the latter, putting Simmons front and center. Open as of September, the revamped restaurant, which the chef named after his daughter, offers a menu influenced by Simmons’s travels to places like France, Italy, and Thailand. And yes, it is worthy of any celebration. 

Image: Jenn Duncan

The starter menu is full of hits. My favorite dish of all has to be the tender, butter-poached, chile-dusted crab chunks, served on a snappy kimchi pancake with a sumptuous butter sauce and pickled daikon. Our table snapped it up immediately. But that’s not the only seafood starter Simmons aces. His red-wine-braised octopus, served with Texas grapefruit slices, razor-thin jalapeño, and a tantalizing avocado crema, has a perfect deep-brown char, while his generous blue crab fingers, presented Thai-style with chopped peanuts and garlic, are excellent.

Other must-try apps include the lamb lollipops, typically sourced from New Zealand, which arrive with a crusty sear and just-warm-enough center, over an earthy-sweet sauce with truffles and local honey, and the fist-sized lamb-and-44 Farms-beef meatballs, which come with both a spicy Italian salsa verde and a sharp San Marzano sauce. I found myself wanting more of the latter as I mopped it up with buttery-brown homemade garlic bread.

The showstopping Korean poached crab

Image: Jenn Duncan

Among the entrées, the branzino—seared skin-on in a cast-iron skillet and served with fennel almandine, fluffy gnocchi, and a light butternut squash puree—is an outstanding example of rustic seaside Italian fare. I also loved the osso bucco, which falls apart over saffron polenta in its peppery broth, and the gently seared 20-ounce 44 Farms rib eye, one of the best steaks I’ve had in the Houston area, even more fabulous with sides of sweet-and-tangy roasted Brussels sprouts and creamy kimchi mashed potatoes.

There’s a deep wine and spirits list at Tris, but I suggest a cocktail, as the program shines. The blue-cheese-infused martini called the Dow Jones is downright addictive, and the powerful, fiery-sour Moving the Needle—coconut-and-kaffir-lime-infused gin with Thai-chile-and-lemongrass syrup—might be my favorite libation of all time.

The misses at Tris are rare. A crab-and-truffle pasta relied too much on the latter, and a deconstructed banana pudding seemed to take the soul out of the dish, replacing it with an oven-dried meringue that looked and tasted like Styrofoam. But even those dishes demonstrate that Simmons isn’t afraid to challenge perception and stake his own claim on familiar fare.

The chef’s skill and adventurousness mean you won’t regret paying a visit to The Woodlands for your next celebration.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Having spent a decade living in the New York City suburbs, I’m used to driving 45 minutes in snarling traffic to get places, so I don’t mind driving to Katy. In fact, I enjoy it. I can roll down the windows and play a full album, and if my destination is Tobiuo Sushi & Bar in the Cinco Ranch shopping and entertainment development known as La Centerra, I can bide my time as anticipation builds, knowing that an exceptional sushi dinner rivaling the best offerings inside the Loop awaits.

Tobiuo—Japanese for “flying fish”—is where Mike Lim, the chef who helped open Houston’s location of gourmet Japanese steakhouse Roka Akor, has grown wings and taken flight. Here he is undoubtedly the star, his precision and ingenuity on full display at both omakase dinners and specialty fish-box nights, when he receives a fresh shipment that he opens for the first time in front of a dozen guests ready for a multi-course spectacle.

The foie gras arrives in a cloud of smoke.

Image: Jenn Duncan

If ordering off the regular menu is more your speed, you’re in good hands. Tobiuo’s well-informed servers, who get to know guests on a first-name basis, ensure no one is intimidated by the vast menu, which is broken up into cold and hot dishes, nigiri and sashimi, and maki rolls.

Among the cold dishes, I recommend the delectable salmon belly carpaccio, brightened by pops of pomegranate. And the best hot dish is the foie gras, a showstopper that arrives inside a glass dome removed tableside, filling the space with intoxicating campfire smoke. Bites are delicate and explosive at once—the liver, heated over an open flame and coated in a dehydrated strawberry paste, comes with smoked blueberries, which add the perfect pop of acidic sweetness.

Other standouts among the hot dishes include the fluffy pork chashu buns and the perfectly cooked asparagus spears coated in sweet yakitori sauce. The only underwhelming offering was the bone marrow with tempura flakes, chives, and flowers, which was more style than substance.

Lim shows laudable restraint with his fish, some of which is flown in from Japan’s Toyosu Fish Market. The nigiri and sashimi list features three cuts of bluefin tuna—ask because some cuts may be unavailable—along with eel, salmon, and scallops. Lim does little to the nigiri, letting the fish shine. I especially enjoyed the medium-fatty bluefin belly chutoro, the fish marked with a few simple cuts for absorbing a drop or two of bonito-marinated, smoky soy sauce, then draped seductively over a loosely packed mound of rice infused with just enough vinegar. The sashimi, presented theatrically in illuminated bowls of ice, is otherwise an impeccably classic preparation. Get the bluefin trio.

Delectable salmon carpaccio belly

Image: Jenn Duncan

The maki rolls are superb. Even offerings that sound basic, like spicy tuna, are anything but—a generous serving of fish in Korean spiced aioli is packed in rice and topped by hibiscus seeds and sesame seeds for texture. And I was astounded by the Garden of Eden, a cucumber, pickled daikon, and asparagus roll topped with nori rice chips, fried carrot, and guacamole. Just for a moment, I forgot how enamored I was with the chef’s skill with fish. Spicy tuna and vegetable rolls are fine gateways for sushi newcomers; considering the restaurant’s inviting atmosphere and service, you can easily see novices jumping into otoro sashimi within no time.

Inner Loopers will no doubt be thrilled to hear that Tobiuo is looking to expand. As of April the restaurant’s owners were actively seeking a space for a second location in areas including Midtown, the Heights, River Oaks, and the Medical Center. So maybe the ride down I-10 will soon be unnecessary.

Regardless, go to Katy and pay homage to the original Tobiuo. You’ll want to tell everyone you were among the first to experience it.

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