After the usual summer slowdown, Houston’s restaurant scene has begun to heat up again. This month’s list of new restaurants to try features three of the year’s highest-profile openings in Aqui, A’Bouzy, and One Fifth Romance Languages.
Typically, I set the order in which I think diners should try the listed establishments, but all three are all equally compelling for different reasons. As for the rest of this month’s crop, it includes two new options in The Woodlands, downtown’s latest fine dining destination, and an upscale sushi restaurant that needs some tweaks.
At a time when most of the city’s most intriguing new restaurants open in the Heights, this Southeast Asian restaurant from Paul Qui, the Austin-based Top Chef and James Beard Award winner, serves as a reminder that Montrose remains the city’s premier dining neighborhood. With its double gable design, sleek, modern interior, and massive open kitchen, Aqui is one of the most attractive restaurants to open in recent memory.
Of course, those good looks wouldn’t mean much if the food doesn’t wow, but chef de cuisine Gabriel Medina (Kata Robata, Soma, Bosta Kitchen, etc) and his crew deliver a menu of flavorful dishes inspired by Thailand and the Philippines. Highlights include a rich hamachi crudo, the decadent uni toast from the “perfect bites” section (a dozen or so nigiri-sized dishes), and the lechon, a juicy piece of roasted pork belly topped with crispy skin. Medina’s been tweaking the menu regularly; as the restaurant rounds into form, I expect its cuisine will become even more compelling. 520 Westheimer
One Fifth Romance Languages
After a seven month run as a steakhouse, Chris Shepherd has moved on to the cuisines of France, Italy, and Spain at One Fifth, his Montrose restaurant that will change concepts annually. As Shepherd noted on my podcast, steakhouses are about product — essentially, buy great meat (or seafood) and don’t mess it up — but Romance Languages gives the James Beard Award winner and chef de cuisine Nick Fine the opportunity to demonstrate their technique.
A foie gras torchon delivers with its incredibly creamy texture and rich flavor that has just a hint of mineral tang. Spaghetti carbonara, a dish Shepherd obsessed over after spending two weeks in Italy, might be the best in the city thanks to its properly al dente pasta, house made guanciale, and locally sourced eggs. A mushroom appetizer came up short — too much sweet eggplant capponata, not enough earthy mushrooms — but I’ll chalk that up to opening weekend jitters.
For our entree, a friend and I split the massive cast iron paella that seems destined to be a Romance Languages signature. At $70, it seemed like a steal — enough food for three or four people for the price of two entrees — which is probably why the price has already been raised to $100. Instead of rice, One Fifth uses fideo noodles, a regional variation from Valencia, but the absence of saffron or a proper socarrat meant the dish didn’t match my friend’s expectations for what paella should be.
While it may not be traditional, the noodles are flavorful, and the dish is packed with expertly prepared shellfish (lobster, mussels, clams, and shrimp) and chorizo. I would happily order it again, even at the increased price, assuming my party was four or six instead of two. 1658 Westheimer
I keep reading descriptions of Shawn Virene’s newly opened River Oaks hotspot that describe it as a “wine bar,” but that’s not really fair. First, no wine bar in Houston sells bottles as cheaply as A’Bouzy, and that’s doubly true for champagne where really good grower vintages can be found priced starting in the $60 range and the $45 bottles of Delamotte brut are a true value.
More importantly, I’ve found the quality of the food over three visits to be of sufficiently high quality to make A’Bouzy a legitimate dining destination. Most tables will stick to light bites like the signature tuna and watermelon sashimi, salmon tartare, duck fat-fried pommes frites, or tomato and burrata salad, but diners who indulge in a full meal will find a lot to like. Both the roasted pork chop and pan-seared sole offer well-executed takes on classic preparations at affordable prices. Even the desserts are good — not that most of the social set who’ve packed the restaurant since day one will allow themselves to be seen in public indulging in anything so decadent.
The fun atmosphere (the servers shout “A’Bouzy!” every time they open a bottle of bubbles) and friendly, knowledgable service combine to have A’Bouzy poised to be River Oaks’ next great restaurant. 2300 Westheimer
After almost two decades working for the Brennan family in Houston and New Orleans, chef Danny Trace has traded Creole cuisine for Italian fare at this downtown fine dining restaurant from Astros owner Jim Crane and operating partner Bill Floyd (Reef). Whatever stumbles the restaurant had when it first opened, the elegant room and Trace’s cooking, which features locally-sourced ingredients and precise plating that would be Instagram worthy if the room weren’t so dim, make it an establishment that fans of places like Da Marco should visit.
Trace swaps foie gras for veal in his tonno crudo, which gives the classic dish a richness it usually lacks. Cacio e pepe features properly al dente housemade spaghetti and an extravagant amount of black truffle. Lamb chops arrived spot on medium rare with a vibrant mix of vegetables. Just save room for dessert — pastry chef David Berg (Tony’s) sweets are not to be missed. 1515 Texas
Goode Co Kitchen & Cantina
For its first new concept since Armadillo Palace, Goode Co has evolved its taqueria into Kitchen & Cantina — a modern Tex-Mex restaurant in the mold of places like Ninfa’s on Navigation and El Tiempo. Given the company’s legacy as a pioneer in modern Texas cuisine and its family history in South Texas, it comes as no surprise that Kitchen & Cantina offers a lot to like.
Mesquite wood touches a lot of the dishes — everything from the fajitas platter to red fish on the halfshell and Laguna shrimp, which are wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese and jalapeno. Green chile and pork empanadas have a flaky shell and just the right level of heat, while enchiladas verdes start with a jolt of tart acidity and finish with a lingering spiciness.
Gin Designs Group has created a space that evokes the spirit of Mexico and South Texas without being too theme-y. After a couple of the well-crafted tequila cocktails, diners might even think they’ve traveled south of the border.
Although the restaurant is only in The Woodlands for now, Kitchen & Cantina will come to the Memorial area in a couple months. Expect it to be a hit. 8865 Six Pines Drive (Shenandoah)
This Dallas-based chain opened quietly in the same Briargrove shopping center that’s home to the new Michael’s Cookie Jar and Houston classic Fountain View Cafe. My colleagues at CultureMap Dallas promised that Snappy Salads’ diverse range of ingredients, grilled-to-order proteins, generous portions, and reasonable prices help set it apart from similar restaurants. I set aside my initial skepticism and stopped by for lunch.
The format is fairly simply: build-your-own or choose from one of the preset combinations on the menu. I opted for a yellowfin tuna salad that utilized a sesame-ginger vinaigrette and wasabi peas to give a pleasant balance between sweet and spicy. Its proximity to the CultureMap office ensures I’ll be back soon. 1920 Fountain View
South Bank Seafood Bar
Burgers are out and lobster rolls are in at this new concept from Eighty Six’d Hospitality Group (Bovine & Barley, The Fish in Midtown). Formerly the Refinery, the restaurant’s space has been transformed with a new covered patio that gives its all-weather utility. The dishes sampled keep things fairly simply, but that suits the casual environment and affordable prices. While I prefer my lobster rolls classic, South Bank’s version that comes with housemade pickles on a roll that’s been toasted with garlic butter is a fun variation. 702 W Dallas
For their third Woodlands concept, Fieldings Group restaurateur Cary Attar and culinary director Edel Goncalves have turned their attention to all things chicken: everything from roasted to fried to Indian-style butter chicken. Goncalves’ French training comes through in a reference standard version of chicken liver mousse with tarragon mustard and bacon jam.
Quarter, half, and whole birds are available roasted, fried, and grilled. Of these, friends and I most enjoyed the spicy fried Tennessee Red and the fiery grilled chicken with a piri piri glaze. Sides like biscuit hush puppies, Brussels sprouts, and cornbread round out the experience. Like all Fielding’s restaurants, craft beer, cocktails, and a well-priced wine list round out the experience. 4223 Research Forest
Retrospect Coffee Bar
Admittedly, it’s taken me too long to visit the new coffee shop that’s joined Axelrad and Luigi’s Pizzeria in the “Almeda Yards” section of Midtown, but Retrospect has a lot to offer. That starts with the space itself, which has transformed a former gas station into a place with both a covered patio out front and an expansive outdoor seating area out back. The lack of interior seating could be an issue for laptop-wielding types during the summer heat, but the imminent arrival of fall’s milder temps will make it a pleasant place to spend a couple hours.
Of course, patrons can count on expertly made brewed and espresso drinks, but Retrospect’s selection of sweet and savory crepes help set it apart from other coffee shops. A crispy exterior and a filling that included blueberries and granola made the Ladybird crepe (they’re all named for famous Texans) particularly enjoyable. Grab-and-go customers will appreciate the selection of baked goods, all of which are made in house. 3709 La Branch
“Zen Japanese Izakaya and Kata Robata have some new competition,” Houstonia dining editor Alice Levitt wrote about this new sushi restaurant on Washington Avenue that’s home to chef Shimao Ishikawa, who came to Houston after a stint at New York City’s Michelin-starred Jewel Bako. Given Levitt’s praise and Ishikawa’s lofty reputation, I had hopes for my first visit to Kukuri, but the experience came up short.
Kukuri touts its omakase (tasting menu), which starts at a fairly lofty $150. The word’s translation includes the word “trust,” but that has to be earned. Three of us split a $120 sushi and sashimi platter as a way to gauge whether we’d be willing to come back for another visit. For the amount of money, we expected more than 10 pieces of nigiri and two pieces each of six different kinds of sashimi. A dish of raw beef served on a hot plate with curry and so-so tempura did little to improve that first impression.
Hopefully, Ishikawa hits his stride, and Kukuri starts serving food that matches its prices. Until then, I’ll be sticking to places like Kata Robata, MF Sushi, and Kuu for high-end sushi. 1902 Washington Avenue