Editor’s note: to be considered for this year’s Best New Restaurants feature, an establishment must have opened between August 1, 2014 and August 1, 2015.
Relieved of the trappings of other high-profile openings this year—designer dining rooms, exotic wine lists, tableside fileting of various animals—one has no choice but to focus on the food at Kitchen 713. In lesser hands, such a strong spotlight, borne of its spare surrounds, would expose a multitude of flaws; at Kitchen 713, it only gives the food the attention it deserves.
This spare East End restaurant is the only one on our Top 10 list with counter service only, a help-yourself beverage bar and a complete absence of alcohol, but it’s also the only place in town you’ll find stewed turkey neck lettuce wraps with a complex nuoc mam sauce, lamb kefta meatballs with whipped fava beans, charcuterie boards with house-made rabbit terrine, duck rillete and apricot mostarda, and chicken-fried frog legs with sweet-and-sour eggplant.
The modern soul food that Kitchen 713 specializes in is deeply reflective of Houston’s confluence of cultures: the comfort food that its co-chefs, James Haywood and Ross Coleman, grew up eating, as well as the Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines that are a part of every H-towner’s culinary repertoire (or should be).
It’s been quite a ride for Prohibition. Once a Galleria bar with a trendy penchant for ’20s-era craft cocktails, now it’s a full-fledged, unabashedly throwback, swinging downtown supper club that’s drawing surprisingly good crowds.
Even on evenings when troupes aren’t performing burlesque or vaudeville acts in the main dining room—a glorious rehab of the Isis Theater, first opened as a silent movie palace in 1912—the restaurant packs them in. It’s a tribute to the finely executed classics of culinary director Ben McPherson and his talented team, whose meticulously plated steak-frites and handsome platters of oysters Rockefeller are complemented by an astute wine list and clever collection of cocktails from bartender Elaine Collum, including our favorite: the Excalibur, wrapped in a smoking jacket woven of Laphroiag and Monkey Shoulder, and chased with a genteel splash of Earl Gray-infused vermouth.
Witness this curiosity: arriving at a hotel restaurant in downtown Houston at high noon on a Tuesday only to find that the entire dining room is booked up. There’s not even a seat at the bar. Most hotel restaurants in Houston are either forgettable, terrible or somewhere in between, owing their lives to the ease they offer desperate travelers. But not at one hotel on Main Street.
Though it’s still young, the JW Marriott’s Main Kitchen, run by equally young chef Erin Smith, is singlehandedly changing the way Houston thinks about a whole genre of dining, nudging it in the direction of other big cities, where hotels often showcase world-class cuisine. It may be convenience that’s luring be-suited downtowners the first time (a tunnel entrance helps tremendously) but they’re coming back for Smith’s plump, beautiful burrata, delicate kampachi crudo with eye-opening habanero oil, and pizza with smoked brisket (from Southern Goods, a new restaurant in the Heights, where her fiancé Patrick Feges is the pitmaster). Smith’s culinary bio informs everywhere she cooks, marrying her Houston roots with breezy California cuisine and serious NYC chops.
It’s a deft blend that works extraordinarily well in this setting, appealing both to travelers in search of simple modern American with a Texan infusion and Houstonians interested in the surprising and wonderful.
For the last decade, if you asked cowboy cut connoisseurs what the best homegrown steakhouse in Houston was, the answer was always the same: a three-way tie between Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Killen’s Steakhouse and Vic & Anthony’s.
Today, however, that longstanding triple rivalry is challenged by a brand-new contender in Benjamin Berg’s B&B Butchers. Like Vic & Anthony’s, it sports two stories and a downtown view; like Pappas Bros., it hosts outrageously good cuts of USDA Prime dry-aged beef; like Killen’s, it offers a far more casual setting than its prices would imply. But unlike all of them, B&B features a lower-level full-service butcher shop and deli counter, thus serving an even broader base of carnivores.
At lunch, the old-school deli slings swoon-worthy sandwiches like Hungarian salami and liverwurst on a warm Kaiser roll; at dinner, B&B’s swanky dining rooms glitter with trolleys bearing great, celebratory portions of Texas Wagyu ribeye from Gearheart Ranch, and glistening prime rib. In another city, the white jacketed servers would clash with the otherwise casual dress code, but B&B welcomes all, just like Houston itself.
Our first thought was that Izakaya was aiming to be the hip little sister to Kata Robata—after all, the two share an owner, the Azuma Group, and a chef, Manabu Horiuchi—but then we saw the menu. There’s more to this Midtown newbie than skillfully executed sushi, much more. Traditional dishes like yakisoba and robata classics such as grilled chicken skin are lovingly prepared, but Izakaya doesn’t stop there.
Thanks to Horiuchi’s partnership with chef Jean-Philippe Gaston, the eatery boasts terrifically interesting Japanese-by-way-of-Houston fusion dishes—chicken-fried steak with kimchi-braised collard greens and tofu gravy, panko-crusted antelope meatballs, spicy ceviche with Gulf red snapper and octopus, and a giant bowl of “Izakaya fries” goosed with seductive Japanese curry and a fried egg.
Fusion abounds in the spirits world too. Subtle Japanese whiskey and fizzy Topo Chico come together for a winning highball, a concoction equally enjoyable at Izakaya’s lively bar or on its two patios—one facing the busy intersection of Bagby and Gray, the other an intimate courtyard strung with fairy lights. It may not look like the casual izakayas you know from Tokyo, but trust us, you’ll love it just as much.
Anyone lucky enough to have spent time on Spain’s Mediterranean coast will immediately recognize the energy inside BCN’s renovated Montrose bungalow. It’s not the original Picassos and Mirós hanging from gallery-smooth walls that make this place so vibrantly Spanish, it’s the cool Costa Blanca white tones, the gentle, elegant service, the pops of color you see everywhere—in the edible violets floating in the artful gin-tonics, say, and the saffron aioli atop a fresh piece of gently poached cod.
It’s in the bright cubes of cantaloupe and Jamón Ibérico anchoring a bowl of chilled melon soup or delicate poached quail eggs suspended in potato foam, all of them the product of chef Luis Roger’s bustling kitchen. Rather than the decadent platters of paella and shareable tapas Houstonians have come to expect from Spanish cuisine, BCN’s take is delicate and modern, as welcome as a crisp breeze blowing in off the Mediterranean.
A seafood sommelier for the crustacean-challenged? A 21-year-old wunderkind chef? At first, Peska seemed too contrived to be charming. Yes, there were literally dozens of varieties of fish and shellfish on the menu, but we couldn’t imagine needing someone to steward us through them all.
The joke was on us, however. Peska’s exuberance is genuine and infectious, thanks to a comfortably chic dining room with a West Coast air, a buoyant atmosphere, enthusiastic service and a menu devoted to seafood like Neil deGrasse Tyson is devoted to science. Most every Peska dish, from ceviche to sashimi, is exemplary in its execution. More than that, chef Omar Pereney's offerings like a surprising shrimp burger at lunch and a coffee-rubbed tuna steak at dinner draw the diner into a conversation—about seafood, and about shattering expectations.
If medieval poet John Lydgate had lived to visit Weights & Measures, he might have reconsidered the notion that you can’t please all the people all the time. This ambitious Midtown establishment aims to do just that with an early-morning bakery, midday coffee shop and late-night cocktail bar, meaning it’s open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch—really, you’ve no reason to eat anywhere else.
Where other ventures would feel unfocused or spread thin, W&M just seems spectacular. Really. It is pure spectacle to watch the team—longtime industry vets Ian Rosenberg and Mike Sammons alongside chef Richard Kaplan and fifth-generation baker Heath Wendell—pull off a tricky balancing act with panache.
The key here is devotion where it counts, which is why you’ll always find oven-fresh Slow Dough bread for sale up front (it took W&M to give Houston what it long craved: a storefront for Wendell’s coveted baked goods) as well as worked into dishes like mushroom toast with poached eggs at brunch. The devotion doesn't end there: look for exceptionally good pizzas made with finely turned doughs (try the roasted carrot), and pastas of distinction (try the confit rabbit tortellini).
This is the kind of place where the cortados are as well-crafted and fun as the piña coladas they pour at the Love & Squalor bar, a cheekily shag-carpeted yet crucial piece of the W&M puzzle.
You can call chef Randy Rucker’s cooking nuanced and creative. Just don’t call it Mutt City. The modern Texan food he serves at Bramble, too refined for that puckish aphorism, draws liberal inspiration from classical French techniques and modernist creations as well as the great bounty of the Third Coast: fresh seafood, hearty cuts of beef, creamy field peas, heirloom tomatoes, crisp watermelon and abundant greens.
The result is food that’s thought-provoking yet comforting, complex yet simple. Accessible—that’s the word we’re looking for. Rucker’s creations demand nothing more than enjoyment, although he does casually invite diners to consider things more carefully. (The menu and the servers detail Rucker’s sourcing of native foodways and the care with which he forages for certain prize bits of produce, from wild mushrooms to sea beans.)
Though the dinner menu—no lunch service for now—changes near-daily, you can usually expect staples like buttery roasted chicken, tempting cheese boards and at least a few fresh-caught Gulf seafood items. Bramble gets points for the rustic authenticity of its cozy space too, its walls lined with reclaimed wood from a barn on Rucker’s family’s land.
For years, Tomball-born Rucker has been one of the city’s most talented chefs, having opened and closed two of the past decade’s most talked-about restaurants, laidback manor and Bootsie’s. With Bramble, however, the third time may be the charm. It’s exactly the restaurant we’ve been waiting for Rucker to open.
Helen might have opened four years ago, but sommelier-turned-restaurateur Evan Turner couldn’t find backers willing to invest in a modern taverna with an all-Greek wine list. No one in Houston would drink “weird” wines with unpronounceable names, said the moneymen, but Turner knew better.
His faith in the city’s palate (as well as his hard-headedness) paid off. Bottles have been selling briskly ever since he opened the Rice Village eatery in July with partners Tim Faiola and Sharif Al-Amin, boasting the second-largest Greek wine list in the country. But refreshingly unusual wines aren’t the only reason the cozy restaurant has been stacking customers into its little sliver of space since day one.
They’re coming—like we are—for a familiar cuisine turned on its ear: dolmades wrapped not in grape leaves but bright collard greens; fine layers of baklava sandwiched with Texas pecans. Helen is fascinated by the shared passions of Greek and Texan cuisine—and there are many, it turns out, including a love for such ingredients as quail and okra. Young chef William Wright, whose work at Sicily’s famous La Madia gave him an appreciation for both deeply authentic and reimagined regional cuisine, takes chances in exploring the two cuisines, creating staggeringly beautiful dishes. There’s originality in everything he does—the grilled octopus, Gulf-caught by respected Greek fisherman Frixos Chrisinis, is served with a charred thyme oil alongside classic gigante beans in tomato sauce—but Wright respects tradition too. His horiatiki properly eschews lettuce in favor of the best tomatoes and olives he can find—the former from Texas, the latter from Greece.