Friday, April 03, 2009

Houston's Top 10 Restaurants 2009

A new top 10

At this moment, right now, Houston has the best set of upscale restaurants in recent memory, perhaps in our history.

A lot has changed since my 2008 top-10 list. So before the depression hits our market, it is time for my annual, utterly subjective list of top 10 favorite upscale Houston restaurants. A separate list of cheap restaurants will come soon.

Listed in order of preference, these are the 10 restaurants whose food (and wine) I enjoyed most over the past year.

1. Feast. This has been the year of Feast. Apart from Randy Rucker's laidback manor and Monica Pope's Quilted Toque, no Houston restaurants have changed my thinking about food and cooking so much. It is not just the unusual cuts of meat (veal tongue, cow testicles, pig's feet), or the unusual seafood (mother-in-law, sting rays). It is also the unusual combination of ingredients and flavors, mostly cooked in an oven. In the past year, I have visited Feast far more than any other restuarant. And I check out its ever-changing menu almost daily. A few dishes have been clunkers. But the successful dishes have blown me away.

2. Reef. In its first year, Reef's food was cutting edge. But the execution was uneven from the front desk to the floor to the kitchen - perhaps because of its unexpectedly huge crowds. This year, Reef hit its stride. The raw seafood dishes are more creative and flavorful than any sushi bar in town. And the cooked seafood is our city's finest. Plus, the wine list is laudably priced near retail. Bon Appetit called Reef the best seafood restaurant in America. I don't disagree.

3. Textile. Textile may be Houston's best all-around dining experience from the creative bar drinks to the multi-course tasting menus by Scott Tycer to the creative desserts by Plinio Sandalio. Unfortunately, it is so pricey and so difficult to get into Textile, that I have only been once. Still, it is my restaurant-of-choice for a splurge.

4. Rainbow Lodge. Rainbow Lodge is a fascinating work in progress. What happens when you combine an old-school game-and-seafood restaurant with Houston's most creative young chef? So far, the results have been outstanding - unusual preparations of gulf seafood, avant-garde charcuterie, and local produce. Even the long-standing game dishes benefit from Randy Rucker's improvements on the sauces. With a new garden under construction, I expect that Rucker and the Lodge may soon become Houston's representative local cuisine restaurant.

5. Indika. Indika's food is more creative and higher quality than any other Indian restaurant in America that I have tried. The kitchen focuses on local ingredients and exotic spices. Its creations are unlike any other restaurant in Houston.

6. Catalan. Catalan has my favorite wine list. Most wines are priced near retail, and the list is remarkable for its scope and creativity. And the kitchen, while sometimes uneven, is restlessly creative. Don't miss the funnest part of the menu, labeled "Chef's Playground."

7. Da Marco. For a long time Da Marco has topped various lists of Houston's restaurants - including mine in 2006. It serves some of the best food in Houston, and some of the best Italian food in the U.S. But I sometimes have a hard time enjoying the overly expensive wines (with high mark-up) and the stuffy atmosphere. Yet I forget all that when I try Da Marco's crudo dishes, among the best raw seafood in Houston.

8. Hugo's. An American city with such a high population of Mexican immigrants should have a world-class Mexican restaurant. And we do. Hugo's delights with authentic Mexican dishes, exotic flourishes (grasshoppers, huitlacoche, and squash blossoms), and Sean Beck's list of wines which go remarkably well with spicy foods. It is appropriate that Hugo's is owned and operated by one of our many immigrants, Chef Hugo Ortega.

9. Bedford. Bedford is a new, frustratingly gangly restaurant that seems to be several restaurants in one. The best restaurant is the chef's table when Chef Gadsby prepares a multi-course tasting menu. Many dishes on the a la carte menu are good too, like the mysterious clay pot soup and the hearty short ribs with pork belly stew. The wine list is sure to improve, but in the restaurant's first few months it is too heavily wieghted with overly-oaked, high-production California wines.

10. Voice. Many dishes at Voice are hits -- especially mushroom soup cappucino, baby beets, and halibut with truffle emulsion. Even if it touts local produce, the menu is perhaps our best representation of nationwide restaurant trends -- the sort of stuff they teach in chef school. And preparations are consistently flawless. Earlier in the year, Voice would have been higher on this list. But the menu does not seem to change frequently enough to sustain a high interest over repeated visits.

Runners up

11. Mockingbird Bistro. Mockingbird's kitchen continues to surprise me. Most dishes don't sound creative on the menu, but their execution is as inventive as it is flavorful. Mockingbird belongs in the top 10. But what restaurant could be removed to make a place?

12. Le Mistral. This is the first time Le Mistral did not make my top 10. My last meal there was a little less interesting than previous visits. But over the past five years, it has remained the best French food in Houston.

13. Ristaurante Cavour. Cavour is the best restaurant in Houston that no one goes to. The menu designed by Chef Denis of Le Mistral proves that he can do Italian just as well as French.

14. Ibiza. Ibiza has some of the best starters in Houston, and a wine list second in value and scope only to its sister restaurant Catalan. I prefer Catalan's creativity. But I never tire of some regular menu items at Ibiza such as Basque green pepper soup, morcilla sausage with goat cheese, and stuffed piquillo peppers.

15. Shade. Shade's three soup offerings change daily, and they often among my favorites in town. Although I eat at Shade at least once a month, the menu changes enough, and is innovative enough, to sustain my interest.

16. Max's Wine Dive. It is maddening that they serve such outstanding food in such a cramped, overcrowded bar. I rarely go to Max's for this reason. But when I do go, I am amazed at the quality of the bistro-like dishes.

Other Runners Up: Beaver's, Bistro Max & Julie, Backstreet Cafe, Benjy's, Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca, Kubo's, Teppay, Gravitas, Cafe Annie, Mark's, T'afia, Tony's, Pesce, Arcodoro, Masraff's, Fung's Kitchen.

Places I haven't tried. These upscale restaurants might possibly make my list if I ever get around to trying them: Chez Roux, Au Petit Paris, Olivette, Vic & Anthony's, Polo's Signature, Danton's. I have started to go to every one of these restaurants, but then checked the daily menu at Feast.

Please comment -- I would love to hear your 10 favorites.


Ruthie J. said...

Great list -- and so interestingly different from last year's. As always, a great concentration on the regional, but it's funny how during the economic downturn, the list seems much more upscale.

Misha said...

Voice just released a spring menu and the new dishes are excellent. I am really impressed by the execution at this place. Definitely deserves to be higher on the list.

anonymouseater said...

@Ruthie - I didn't notice that it is more upscale. Perhaps so. Of the 5 restaurants that were not on the list last year, 3 are new (Textile, Bedford, Voice) and one has a new chef (Rainbow Lodge). I suppose that I am surprised that so many new upscale restaurants have opened.

@Misha - Is the spring menu up on their site? I had a hard time choosing between Voice, Hugo's, Bedford, and Mockingbird.

KnittingReader said...

Great list! I haven't had the opportunity to try all of those restaurants. My favorites for upscale dining are: Reef, Rainbow Lodge, Catalan, Gravitas, and Max's Wine Dive. I used to love Beavers, but I had horrible service the last time I went. I used to go at least 3 times each month, and now I might not go back.

Feast said...

Thanks for the #1 spot! We always enjoy seeing you and hope you continue to be pleased with our efforts!


Rubiao said...

Not too many surprises this year, possibly a result of the pool being thinned. So many interesting new restaurants opened up this year that good old ones don't get patronized enough.

I would have knocked Hugo's off the list as everything there is starting to taste very similar. Good, but it has a very distinct flavor profile. Maybe replace it with Backstreet. I have never had good food at Gravitas, but haven't been since Textile opened. Polo's was surprisingly impressive twice last year just as Shade underwhelms every time. La Dolce Vita is amazing and surprisingly cheap and Beavers is neither good nor upscale, but what a space! Olivette is delicious as is Max's, but for some reason, you're right, they don't seem to belong on this top ten list. I think we can pretty much pencil in DaMarco's new salumeria on this years list, or it might spur a new list of mid-scale with La Dolce Vita, Max's, La Vista, and a few others with entrees under 20 bucks. I'm rooting for Casa Grande.

There is room out there for this list to become very Heights-centric. The Glass Wall could have been mentioned, and some people include the Washington corridor in the Heights. Textile, Bedford, Glass Wall, Shade, Rainbow Lodge, Catalan, Max's, Cova, Dharma Cafe, and Benjy's, really more than any city could ask for, even a little dry neighborhood in the strip mall capital of the world.

Anonymous said...

"Other Runners Up: [...] Tony's"

Tony's barbeque is fantastic. Or did you mean the Mexican restaurant? It's sort of bland.

anonymouseater said...

Tony's barbecue isn't upscale. But the Mexican Tony's is, especially after several margaritas.

Misha said...

Web site is definitely outdated. Justin has a few details on the Voice blog, though I didn't get the most interesting stuff he mentions. Think you have beg.

anonymouseater said...

@Rubaio Yes, the Heights suddenly has a wealth of great restaurants. I'm not sure how that happened - perhaps lower rent.

I'm not a fan of Glass Wall, although I can see how reasonable minds might disagree about it. But I really disagree that Dharma Cafe fits on the list of the other restaurants you mentioned. Although I love the atmosphere, I have eaten there four times and am consistently disappointed with the flavors.

Also, have you been to Beavers lately? With JJ as new head chef it is improving rapidly.

Anonymous said...

Just ate at Reef this weekend and it was the best meal of my life. Trigger fish over artichoke and the tuna bacon appetizer were out of this world good. I am not a foodie but I know what I like. I will check out Feast - had never heard of it before.

plinio said...

ah wonderful! thanks for the spot on your top 10 list.

Katharine said...

You know I look forward to your list every year. :)

Feast most definitely belongs at the top of the list. I'll sing their praises for as long as they're around. I was pleasantly surprised at Reef, since hype doesn't usually equal a good experience for me; I ended up loving the place to pieces. And I agree that Voice is a little too staid and could benefit from mixing it up a little on the menu.

As much as I adore Le Mistral, you're right to not include them in the top 10 this year. I don't know if it's the expansion or the side projects, but the food and service there have suffered greatly. I miss the old Le Mistral miserably.

overeater said...

I guess Missouri City doesn't qualify since Aura isn't on the list?

Anonymous said...

Great list - I've got some more I need to try now.

One new one to consider - Andrea Ristorante Italiana. It's out west - Westheimer and Dairy Ashford - but Andrea Pintus (used to be at Patronella's - does an excellent job. He's a great host and an excellent chef!

Another great restaurant with some different taste combinations is La Vista on Fountainview. Greg Gordon is always trying new combinations.

Give either one of these places a try, and you won't be disappointed!

anonymouseater said...

Thanks for all the suggestions. A few reactions:

Aura? It's a good neighborhood French place, but not a destination restaurant like the others on this list. I used to be a fan of the chef who used to be at Cafe Perier - and still am. But, for me, it's just not worth driving across town.

Andrea? Never heard of it. I must try.

La Vista? Great wine program (BYOB). But the food seems like fairly average Italian/American with a lot of grilled recipes. There's a little creativity there, but not a lot.

Brian said...

What do you think of Killen's in Pearland?

Rouse House Concerts said...

A good list. But where is Rioja? What caused Mark's to drop off the list?

You should try Au Petit Paris. It is outstanding.

Based on my experience, there is a reason no one goes to Cavour. Although the food can interesting and above average, the abysmal service overwhelms whatever goodwill is engendered by the meal.

Beaver's is another restaurant I have stopped going to. The food has been marginal, at best, often the meat has been burned or overdone.

anonymouseater said...

Road House -

Since I did this list, I have been to Au Petite Paris. There is a blog about it on here somewhere. It would make my top 20, but perhaps not my top 10.

Beaver's has been much better over the past 9 months than it was originally. Still probably not top 10, but really good.

I find that Rioja has declined some - especially the wine list, but also the food quality. Still, it is probably the best Spanish food in town.

Mark's was once Houston's best restuarnat. Now its problems include consistency and lack of inspiration. Every once in a while I get a great dish. But it is all too rare -- and it's all too expensive for a mediocre meal.

anonymouseater said...

Brian - I haven't been to Killen's, but I hear good things.

GG said...

Has anyone eaten at Chez Roux? I am planning on going to dinner there soon and I was wondering if it was any good.

elham said...

You need to try District 7 grill, Table 7 Bistro and recently opened Table Seven on durham. Great food and prices..

J. Gardiner said...

Great list! My husband and I will be moving from Australia to Houston next year and this list will provide us with several new exciting restaurants to try!

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Kasey said...

What about t'afia, Max's Wine Dive, Beavers, and Red Lion?

Anonymous said...

1. Pappa's Steakhouse
2. Reef
3. Brennan's
4. Benjy's
5. Tony Mandola's
6. Brenner's on the Bayou
7. Mark's
8. Barnaby's
9. Fred's Italian Corner
10. Hugo's

michael said...

Antica Osteria serves the best Italian food I have ever eaten in the USA. Converted from a house into a restaurant, it offers a cozy atmosphere and an amazing "from Italy only" wine lists. Fresh food done right. Simply spectacular.

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Well still in 2011 this list is the same for me, thanks a lot for the little review of these places.

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