When you live in a culinary city as young and creative as Austin, it's easy to forget there are other food hotspots in the world, especially in the Lone Star State.
I lived in Austin for nearly six years before I started dividing my time between here and Houston. At first, it was difficult to adjust to Houston's culinary scene, mostly because I had been living in the Austin bubble for so long and felt no Houston restaurant could match the likes of Barley Swine, Uchiko, Foreign & Domestic or La Condesa.
In the time I've spent in Houston, however, I've learned that my initial assumptions were exceedingly wrong. Though it is quite different in many aspects, Houston's food scene is just as creative and inventive as Austin's. I'm slowly eating my way through Montrose, the Heights, Midtown, Bellaire, Rice Village, and I've become enamored with all that I've come across.
Should you be making your way down to Houston anytime soon, consider sampling and savoring a few of these nine Houston hotspots.
The Pass and Provisions
This two-in-one restaurant concept comes from the minds of Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. Provisions, the casual restaurant of the two-part establishment, serves rustic dishes like apple tarte tatin, mussels, and mushroom, truffle and fontina pizza. Pass, the fine dining portion of the restaurant duo, opened at the end of November, but has already garnered positive reviews from the likes of Pat Sharpe and numerous Houston restaurant critics. Pass features a different prix-fixe menu every night and only one seating per evening, so you'll need want to plan in advance to attend. If your travels don't take you to Houston, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan will also be attending the Austin Food & Wine Festival this spring.
Sparrow Bar + Cookshop
I watched Houston chef Monica Pope on Top Chef Masters years ago, but never got around to trying her restaurant Tafia. Over the summer, Pope completely revamped and renovated the entire restaurant, giving it a new name and a fresh concept. Known for embracing of farm-to-table cuisine and local ingredients, Pope's newest restaurant, Sparrow Bar + Cookshop, is nothing short of astounding, with delicious dishes like steamed mussels, okra with grits and grilled veal sweetbreads.
Over the summer, Oxheart was named one of the top ten best new restaurants in the nation by Bon Appétit magazine, and it's no surprise why. Executive chef Justin Yu has crafted a remarkable menu in his small (34-seat), yet valiant Houston restaurant. I highly recommend going in with one or two friends and ordering a handful of plates. I won't recommend any specific dishes though, since everything I've tried thus far has yet to disappoint.
Like Oxheart, Underbelly has also been garnering its share of local and national media praise. Houston chef Chris Shepherd draws inspiration from the varied global food cultures rooted throughout Houston to create his dishes, and all his menu items are embedded with a smörgåsbord of delicious flavors and ingredients. The menu changes based on seasonality and availability of local ingredients, but I highly recommend the Korean braised goat and dumplings, cornmeal-breaded oysters or seared snapper.
Latin Bites Cafe
Latin Bites serves a myriad of cebiches and other seafood-centric offerings. The executive chef, Roberto Castre, recently traveled to Peru and brought back a number of new Peruvian-inspired dishes with him to feature on his new menu. Surprisingly, many of the new dishes have Asian-centric ingredients and flavors. My favorites thus far include duck rice, quinoa salad and cebiche de mercado.
Philippe Restaurant + Lounge
It's been a long time since I've eaten at a French restaurant I've actually enjoyed. It's not that I have an aversion to French cuisine; in fact, I love French food, but too many restaurants dub themselves French-inspired simply because their cuisine is smeared in butter and cream. Philippe is a different story. Each dish I sampled from this sophisticated, elegant menu left me smiling in disbelief, and that rarely ever happens to someone who eats out as much as I do. Every time I was certain I had tasted the best item on the menu, the next course proved otherwise. If you're craving French food while you're in Houston, drop whatever you're doing and go to Philippe. I recommend the duck two ways, mushroom ravioli, burgundy beef cheeks and rainbow trout.
I know, I know. Uchi is already in Austin, so why visit it in Houston? Even I was skeptical when I first heard Uchi was making its way to Houston, wondering "Is it really Uchi without Tyson Cole commanding the kitchen?" Uchi Houston, however, has its own unique identity. Your doubts will be put to rest the moment you scarf down dishes like maguro sashimi and goat cheese, the famous jar jar duck, uchiviche and numerous offerings from the daily menu.
Mongoose Versus Cobra
I knew I had to include at least one bar on my list, and no bar belongs better than Mongoose Versus Cobra. This elegantly designed industrial bar crafts some of the finest, most creative cocktails I've tasted in a long time. The three or four bartenders working at any given day will create most any drink you request, but if you're stumped on what to order, I recommend the house punch, red-headed stranger, or the Jack Lemon. If cocktails aren't your cup of tea, there is a great craft beer menu as well. The house pretzel and pickled eggs are worth devouring, too.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Though it is housed in a small building, Anvil's menu of cocktails and brews is rather extensive. Anvil comes from the mind of Bobby Heugel, who has become one of the most respected mixologist/bar entrepreneurs in Houston. The five or so cocktails I sipped and sampled were divine. The French 75, The Brave, Pliny's Tonic, and Don't Give Up the Ship are all spectacular, but let your conscience be the guide when perusing Anvil's cocktail menu. I've heard the food is also delicious, but I never got around to eating after downing one too many cocktails... if you know what I mean.