Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Houston's Top 10 Upscale Restaurants 2008

Why do a new list?

I posted top 10 lists back in 2006 and 2005.

It is time for a new list for several reasons. First, since 2006, two of my favorites (Noe and Bistro Moderne) closed. Second, some great new restaurants have opened. Third, I need two lists -- an upscale restaurant list and a cheap eats list. I will post my favorite cheap eats soon.

Top 10

So here is my current, utterly subjective list of my top 10 upscale restaurants in Houston:

1. Indika. My favorite restaurant is the one that blows my mind. On my last two visits, Indika has been better than ever. No other Houston restaurant currently offers the the exotic combination of ingredients and flavors that blow my mind like Indika does. Indika also has one of the best small, low-priced wine lists in town. Discussed more here.

2. Da Marco combines the best quality ingredients in town with both creative and traditional Italian preparations. Best Italian wine list in Houston, but be prepared to pay out the nose for a bottle. Discussed more here.

3. Le Mistral never waivers in its position near the top of my list. The combination of Chef Denis' creative southern French cuisine with a great French wine list and family-like service makes this wonderful restaurant consistently worth the drive to far west Houston.

4. Ristorante Cavour. Chef Denis designed this menu too. But this one is Italian. How can a French chef come up with Italian food that rivals Da Marco? And how can everyone fail to notice, even though the restaurant is in Uptown Park? Discussed more here.

5. Backstreet Cafe is my wife's favorite Houston restaurant and often near the top of my list. For about 20 years, it has featureed some of Houston's best upscale comfort food, plus one of Houston's most well-considered wine lists, in a charming, casual setting. Desserts are amazing. One dish is discussed here.

6. Reef has so much promise. Inventive, multi-cultured seafood dishes. Amazingly inexpensive and deep international wine list. Hip atmosphere. I worry whether the menu will continue to show innovation and whether service is already suffering because of success. Discussed more here.

7. Catalan has a great philosophy - let the chef's continually play with the recipes and ingredients. And let the wine guy provide one of Houston's deepest international wine lists at near-retail prices. If I had to work in one kitchen in Houston, it would be Catalan. The only problem is that dishes are occasionally uneven -- which may be part of the fun. Discussed more here.

8. Feast. Is Feast too young to show up on this list? Perhaps. But in just a month, the kitchen has demonstrated that it can experiment with ingredients and preparations from Old Europe, and excite most of Houston's foodies. Feast's dishes are unlike anything else in Houston. Is it anti-modernism or post-modernism? Who cares -- it's good stuff, even if a bit on the heavy side. Discussed more here.

9. Soma. Has Soma officially emerged from its extended "soft opening" period? Its first several months have been a rough ride. Already, the pastry chef - one of Houston's best - has left. The pairing of fairly ordinary sushi-bar fare from Azuma with Chef Gatsby's strange creations is incoherent. Service is inconsistent, and the pre-party crowds on weekends are annoying. Yet my 5 meals at Soma have been jaw-dropping, primarily because of Chef Gatsby's restless creativity and his brilliant combinations of ingredients. Discussed more here and here.

10. Bluefin. My family eats Japanese food once a week, and Bluefin is in a dead heat with Kubo's for our favorite. Kubo's bi-monthly specials showcase its continuing innovation. But Bluefin gets a slight edge because of the fish quality and the artistry of the sashimi presentation. Also, Bluefin's dining room may have the most spectacular design in Houston. Discussed more here. (Update July 17, 2008: Blue Fin has closed)

My next 13 favorites

Mockingbird Bistro
Dolce Vita Pizzerea Enotecca
Cafe Annie
Sushi Jin.


How can you do a top 10 list in Houston without Mexican food? Or a steak house? Or Vietnamese? How can you not list Tony's? Or Cafe Annie?

If you have criticisms -- or your own list -- let me know. The best part of a top 10 list is not the list itself, but the discussion it creates.


Anonymous said...

Haven't been north of Washington Avenue in a while? Shade and Glass Wall are both inventive, fresh and good.

Rubiao said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Where would you go, and it doesn't have to be upscale, if you wanted a good whole fish? There was nothing truly innovative about it, but the whole broiled snapper at Mykonos was one of the best whole fish I've ever eaten, rivaling those of its namesake country. It was amazingly consistent, moist, and tasty (not to mention huge). In fact, I thought Mykonos was an unpretentious gem with great bread and a delicious olive oil/herb/feta dip. Plus they gave you an inordinately large amount of food.

I find it interesting that seafood restaurants like REEF don't serve whole fresh fish. They have one on their menu, a Thai style fish, but they never have it, more likely due to no one ordering it than to it being oversold. That being said Reef has been solid the couple times I've been. Where to for a fish that stubbornly returns your glance when eating it?

Anonymous said...

Why does it have to be upscale?

I have been to plenty "upscale" restaurants and found the food wanting.....and me wanting and wishing I had gone to Molina's or Johnny Tamale!

anonymouseater said...

Glass Wall wouldn't make my list. I forgot about Shade, even though I go there at least once a month. Soups are especially good there. It would make my top 20, but not my top 10.

The Heights is well-represented in my cheap restaurant list.

As for whole fresh fish, I wish I could find more in Houston. I happen to like the whole steamed fish at Chinese Cafe on Richmond. I will have to try the one at Mykonos. Thanks for the suggestion.

And as for the question "why does it have to be upscale?", it doesn't. That is why I am posting a separate cheap restaurant list. But seriously, Molina's?

Anonymous said...

A whole fish - ask for the grilled Branzino - whole - at Da Marco's! Very nice, moist, and perfect with a drizzle of EVOO

anonymouseater said...

In my last two visits to Pico's Mexican Restaurant, I have ordered a special of huanchinango entero a la Veracruzana -- whole snapper cooked Veracruz style.

When available, this is a high quality, nicely prepared fish.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting such kind words about Feast! We appreciate it!
For the writer looking for whole fish, we do sometimes offer whole fish on our menu. The menu changes daily but you can view the updated menu on our website. www.feasthouston.com
Last night we had salt baked bass. Very tasty!

Anonymous said...

whole fresh fish? run to tampico now! get the grilled whole red snapper. one of the single best dishes in houston.

arcodoro and pesce both do the whole fish encrusted in rock salt and then baked. both are delicious and fileted tableside, although i'd rather do it myself.

Unknown said...

I haven't been everywhere on your top 10 (and 2nd top 10) lists but for the most part agree with you on those where I've eaten. Feast, Le Mistral, Backstreet, and Catalan all are deserving. (I predict Feast is going to reach cult status, such was the quality of my experience with just a lunch. Sublime.)

However, I have to disagree with you on Soma. I went for the first time yesterday and while I might go back sometime it would never make a top 10 list for me. It's certainly not in the league with the others you mention.

Based on the previous reviews, I skipped the sushi and went for a cold plate and appetizer, and ordered sake instead of wine.

Positives: The Hamachi Yuzu has been reworked since you described it - it now comes in small, thin filets, seared on one side, with truffled citrus and microgreens and a few truffle slices. I think these changes have elevated the dish as the flavors are light and ingredients fresh. The sake was very pleasant, even ordering a smaller, less expensive bottle, and worked very well with the hamachi. My waiter was timely and helpful as well (though with an empty restaurant it shouldn't be otherwise).

The so-so: The peppercorn tuna was a fusion between a tuna nicoise and peppercorn steak gone awry. The tuna was cooked perfectly and the ingredients were terrific individually. But as a dish, the classic peppercorn sauce overwhelmed the rest, and the peppercorns were left whole in egregious amounts (also impossible to pick up with chopsticks!). It would have been better as a reworked nicoise with just a peppercorn coating on the tuna. Also, they were out of sparkling water; not a big deal, but really, who runs out of sparkling water??

The negatives: The food was intolerably slow. I went at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon. The place was dead. Yet after placing my order I must have waited 15 minutes or more for a dish that couldn't have taken more than 5 to assemble. I'm afraid the desserts have gone downhill with the departure of the pastry chef. The list was so uninspiring I skipped it entirely. And a small quibble - they've not mounted the awnings on the patio yet, so no shade. This in May in Houston...

anonymouseater said...


I really appreciate your feedback on Soma. Never have so many people been disappointed by a restaurant I have recommended than Soma. I've been 5 times, and have found that about 25% of the dishes are misses, but that 75% are hits. And the hits -- to me at least -- are out of the park.

But I would add to my long list of caveats that not everyone likes Soma -- even some people who are adventurous and who have good taste in food.

Unknown said...

Anonymous Eater,
I have to say, even the good bits were not out of the park.
I am an adventurous eater. I had the 10 course tasting menu at Laidback Manor (thankful I made it during it's brief run), I ate at Fat Duck (www.fatduck.co.uk, only the ala carte I'm afraid, as I was with colleagues whose limit for avant garde was not up to the tasting menu) and have, I kid not, eaten muktuk; ie., whale blubber.
I would be more than happy to try again with yourself as company, simply to understand what you find outstanding about the place....
I certainly agree with you about Feast though! An herb salad that is, actually, herbs!! Huzzah!

anonymouseater said...

After 5 or 6 visits to Soma, I finally had an uninspired meal, where every dish was either dull or poorly executed. It was very disappointing.

If I did the list again today, I would delete Soma and add Voice in the Hotel Icon, which opened shortly after I posted this list.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog. I concur with most of the profiles, but Cafe Annie has been the greatest Houston restaurant "mystery" to me. I had an appalling meal, snooty service and paid a princely sum. How does it continue to be so highly regarded? I find it offensive.