Houston's Haute Plates
The city rockets up the culinary don't-miss list with a slew of new ethnic-inspired restaurants
Call it Texas Creole. Scattered across Houston's trendiest Inner Loop neighborhoods, a band of innovative chefs has prompted a culinary renaissance that heralds the city's ethnic diversity. Influenced by Houston's cultural wealth, the chefs draw inspiration from a populace ranging from Vietnamese to Korean to Indian to Mexican. Factoring in local produce, an upscale clientele, and Texas cooking traditions such as barbecue and Southern grandma-style recipes, the restaurateurs have upped the ante with their varied, contemporary riffs in the kitchen. Backed by James Beard nominations aplenty, among other fast-won food-world awards, these chefs and their snazzy new eateries have the global epicurean crowd on high alert. Here, five new standouts give you a taste why.
Chef Justin Yu and his pastry chef wife, Karen Man, grew up in Houston's Chinese community. With Oxheart, they bring their background into play with exuberant seasonal dishes infused with complex flavor combinations and textures. At this cozy former storehouse in the rustic Warehouse District, nosh on starters such as heirloom carrot haystacks, spiced with coriander and coconut and buttered with chunks of avocado. Then, nibble seasonal stone crab awash in basil bud vinegar. Intimate enough that you can watch Yu cook and talk with him while he waits on your table, Oxheart garnered two 2013 James Beard semifinalist nominations. 1302 Nance St.; 832-830-8592; oxhearthouston.com. Four courses, $49; seven courses, $79 (no a la carte orders).
Must-try: Sunflower Seed Soup, accompanied with burnt onion, puffed rice, black tea, and grains
Pass & Provisions
Downtown's gourmand adventure Pass & Provisions reinforces the notion that two trumps one of anything. A two-in-one restaurant concept, and the brainchild of chef duo Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner, the dining spots sit side by side within a retrofitted, sleek, industrial space. Exceedingly cool, Provisions serves up hearty, contemporary renditions of casual favorites. Think sausage and kale pizza, or generous bread-and-cheese platters combining fresh rosemary bread, piquant Ossau-Iraty cheese, and exotic vanilla tapenade. At the more opulent and pricey Pass, sample a seasonal tasting menu born from the chefs' whims and the availability of local ingredients. 807 Taft St.; 713-628-9020; passandprovisions.com. Pass five-course tasting menu, $75; nine-course tasting menu, $95.Provisions entrees, $15-$20.
Must-try:At Pass, where the menu items and preparation change regularly, the duck has earned a neighborhood following, no matter how the chefs prepare it. At Provisions, Smoked Salmon/Everything, a layered deconstruction composed of classic salmon and cream cheese with pickled tomatoes, chive cream cheese foam, and salmon bits.
All chef Anita Jaisinghani wanted to do was get Houstonites hooked on Indian food. She has managed to do that - and garner some James Beard nominations as well - with Pondicheri, in swish River Oaks. Transport to India through the restaurant's upmarket renditions of curry, thali, dosa, and chutney - Jaisinghani's refined versions of Indian street food. Note the country, too, in decorative touches, such as blood-orange sheers that suggest elaborate gem-colored saris. As glittering as a maharaja's palace at night when the atmosphere grows more formal, this neighborhood favorite also offers daylong casual dining and counter service. 2800 Kirby Drive; 713-522-2022; pondichericafe.com. Entrees, $11-$20.
Must-try: A spicy chai with the zesty Malabar Thali, a dosa stuffed with shrimp, greens, and a killer peanut chutney.
Portraits of Houston mom-and-pop restaurant chefs adorn Underbelly's walls in artsy Montrose. Hung by the eatery's bigger-than-life chef, Chris Shepherd, to pay homage to his mentors, whom he calls the "soul of Houston," the photographs depict the diversity of Houston's denizens and the city's food scene. Shepherd, a 2013 James Beard finalist, draws from these multiple resources to create a menu profuse in what he calls "New American Creole." Korean, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Vietnamese, and Southern influences pepper his cuisine. A canning wall, curing room, and wine corner evoke an affable, down-home environment. 1100 Westheimer Road; 713-528-9800; underbellyhouston.com. Entrees, $11-$30.
Must-try: Crisp Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings or light-as-a-feather Butter Biscuits and Chicken Gravy
Sparrow Bar + Cookshop
The latest from Monica Pope, whose moniker has long been the "Alice Waters of Houston," Sparrow + Cookshop takes Pope's celebrated locavore tendencies to new pinnacles. In a comfortable Midtown setting, with an ambience that feels both familiar and functional, Pope offers global comfort food such as macaroni and cheese with truffles. Beneath light fixtures made from repurposed, perforated pizza pans, munch on experiments such as pickled red Swiss chard stem "fries," served with a dollop of dill aioli. 3701 Travis St.; 713-524-6922; sparrowhouston.com. Entrees, $13-$26.
Must-try: Umami-powered Shiitake Mushroom Dumplings with a blue cheese/honey/mascarpone sauce
Coming soon: Italy meets Texas at Coltivare - opening in Houston Heights this summer. From the farmer (Morgan Weber) and the chef (Ryan Pera) responsible for Houston's wildly popular charcuterie paradise, Revival Market, Coltivare will build its Italian-accented menus around Weber's naturally raised hog products and Pera's creative penchant for locally sourced items. A large, on-site garden will render fresh produce and daily creative fodder for the duo. Occupying a Depression-era, renovated building, the restaurant will feature a 130-year-old East Texas pine-plank bar, rough-hewn furnishings, and colorful Italian tiles. Expect dishes spotlighting pork from Morgan's farm and house-made pastas topped with garden-fresh ingredients. 3320 White Oak Drive; coltivarehouston.com