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.
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.