Guess who's back? Back again? It's this column. Tell a friend (please, my kids' livelihoods count on your readership).
After many months of eating out of takeout packaging, we are back in restaurants, baby. Now that more people are vaccinating and establishments are getting back to full dining rooms, the time feels right to bring back this column.
So, let's talk about a few meals I've had recently that you might want to have yourself. This month we'll focus on fine dining ... 'cause it's all the rage. Here's where you should eat this month:
Tasting-menu restaurants are so hot right now. Part of it is pandemic-fueled creativity, sure, but a lot has to do with the fact that when you host several planned seatings each week in a small dining space, you have greater control of your guests, the food you're serving, and the overall cost. This makes it especially tempting for a chef just starting out with their own concept.
With Neo, a couple former Uchi cooks (that's a thread that runs through many of these tasting-menu spots) are serving as many as six guests out of a kitchen at the Montrose menswear boutique Glass Cypress. They focus on dry-aged fish—for example, Tasmanian ocean trout that's been aged in a locker for 24 days—that's presented nigiri style, with both delicate and complex ingredients: dried strawberries, black garlic, Filipino chile paste. Flavors bounce and delight. Pastas, Texas wagyu, uni, pork, foie gras, oysters, and scallops may be part of the action too.
Drinks are part of the $160 bill here, and your glass is constantly refreshed with sake or wine. You'll get as many as 20 courses over about two hours, and everything is paced well. Reservations are hard to come by at Neo, but if they become available, snap them up.
Speaking of tasting-menu restaurants, Uptown's Hidden Omakase is one of the cool attempts that has popped up over the last several months. Billy Kin has since dropped his cooking duties there, so now former Uchi cook (see?) Niki Vongthong is taking the spotlight.
Vongthong hits some high notes, such as the Japanese squid aori ika, with which she presents a tentacle that looks like popcorn but tastes like butter. Elsewhere, you'd better hope she does her ankimo: monkfish liver over milk bread topped with caviar and a gold leaf—its taste is as extravagant as its look.
The chef is still tweaking her work. For example, two wagyu services came with a too-garlicky chimichurri, but the chef was eager to receive guest feedback and took time to listen while I was there. Nevertheless, Hidden Omakase is a fun night out. Hip-hop bumps, the cooks are chatty, and you'll bring your own booze.
With a Michelin Star at its New York location and plenty of hype surrounding it, Le Jardinier at MFAH from The Bastion Collection (La Table) and Michelin Star-chef Alain Verzeroli has arrived. I had a media tasting, and from the moment I left, I wanted to return.
Le Jardinier is a French, fine-dining restaurant focusing on seasonality. While most produce and meats are sourced outside of Houston, the results are nearly impeccable. The chef's tasting menu I tried included a supple pair of Maine scallops served with carrots, carrot mousse, and spring vegetables. For an entrée, there was Texas wagyu with a fresh, nutty, and rich eggplant mousse that I can't stop talking about. Dessert was a show-stopping plate from pastry chef Salvatore Martone: a ring of yuzu delicate mousse with raspberry compote and an artful puff pastry butterfly.
Off of the chef's tasting, I loved the outstandingly tender octopus with hummus, chimichurri, and artichokes. Ora king salmon, heritage chicken, Gulf shrimp, and red snapper are other familiar faces on the menu.
Complementing the menu are sharp-dressed and attentive servers, a helpful and bubbly sommelier, and a beautiful room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking at the Cullen Sculpture Garden. A commissioned 10-by-14-foot wool-and-silk tapestry by Trenton Doyle Hancock called Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two anchors the dining room. This piece vibrantly combines color, the natural texture, and nature in the most pleasing way—a lot like the food here.