Fa-la-la-la-leaks braised in beef cheeks. It’s that time of year when every chef and restaurateur planning a conceptual new eatery races to open before the holidays. Sliding in under the wire are several newcomers where we dashed to dine.
Costa Brava Bistro. Restaurant management veterans Kitty Bailey and Angeles Dueñas are an impressive duo whose combined tenures at Café Annie, Ouisie’s and The Cordúa Group’s concepts have prepared them well for their ownership role at Costa Brava Bistro in Bellaire. Their cozy nook is ensconced with warm, dark woods and old-world feeling, with still lifes propped casually about — a look that complements their affection for the fare of France and Spain (the latter, Duenas’ homeland). While Bailey has been a fixture in the front of the house her whole career, here you’ll find this eager cook in the kitchen, recreating dishes such as a sophisticated gazpacho Andulaz ($5), steamed mussels and frites ($15), Duenas’ grandfather’s paella ($25) and beef filet with Roquefort cream and Lyonnaise potatoes ($28) — dishes she once only created at home for the sought-after dinner parties the two host together. Dessert chez Costa Brava brings out Bailey’s Francophile taste for hazelnut crêpes and apple tart on buttery pâte feuilletée. Meanwhile, gracious host Duenas scours the country for compelling wine choices to go with Costa Brava’s crave-worthy lunch and dinner menus. 5115 Bellaire Blvd., 713.839.1005; costabravabistro.com.
Artisans. For years, chef and former University of Houston professor Jacques Fox taught classic techniques rooted in French cuisine to young minds seeking a career in the hospitality business. Today he’s putting his own lesson plans into practice. At Artisans in midtown, Fox plays host to diners who, like his students before, are invited to sit theater-style on the front row or elevated at a four-top to peer into his bustling open demonstration showcase kitchen. Never leaving those days of higher learning far behind, Fox and co-owner David Denis (École LeNôtre, Le Mistral restaurant) recreate classics such as steak tartare ($18) and black-pepper-crusted beef tenderloin ($36) with their own tasty spins. We love the scholarly approach they’ve taken, foraging (and paying a tad more) for great ingredients, from Hudson Valley foie gras for their pan-seared dish accented with a savory baklava and saffron-poached pear ($22) to a vivid orange salmon from Tasmania — its tender flesh cooked perfectly, the sweet skin crisp with a fine sheath of sugar caramelized beneath a torch before plating ($33). Another standout is the exquisite medium-rare-cooked seared lamb loin with corn galette and creamy fingerling mashed potatoes ($39). Desserts are a study in restraint by Nguyet Nguyen, while the wine list is a thoughtful variety dominated by French (bien sür), Italian and California bottles. 3201 Louisiana St., 713.529.9111; artisansrestaurant.com.
The Pass and Provisions. At press time, this project has been more than two years in the planning and was nearly complete. The Pass and Provisions, created by chef/owners Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegal-Gardner, actually embodies two concepts under the former Gravitas roof (a location that was home to Antoine’s many moons ago). The Pass is the fine-dining division; when we visited, it had yet to serve its first guest. The casual bistro, patio and bar known as Provisions, however, was all any foodie in town could chatter about for weeks before and after its debut. The Provisions menu, printed on a white-paper table covering, features an ironic quote by outspoken British chef Marco Pierre White: “At the end of the day it’s just food, isn’t it? Just food.” The off-the-cuff remark truly belies the dining experience here, however. This concept is nothing if not meticulously studied. Ice varieties are apropos to specific cocktails, the silver place settings are charmingly mismatched, the beer list focuses on boutique (and Belgian) producers, and your bill arrives wrapped up in a sardine-fashioned can. Nothing here has been left to chance. The earnest, well-schooled waitstaff will likely encourage you to try one of the five bread courses — for instance, a kimchi pan au lait accompanied by a warm egg yolk and cheese (in this case, a cremant from Vermont) priced at $9 each. We opted to take our own bread in the form of a pizza for the first course. Happily we devoured the ricotta/arugula/“ham ‘o’ day” variety ($15) — in this case, the ham was an American prosciutto that hails from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Meals at Provisions are best shared, with tastes from sections dubbed vegetables, meat, pasta, fish and dessert. We also tried a harissa-spiced bucatini pasta with shrimp, guanciale (unsmoked pig’s-cheek bacon) and broccoli ($22) and raw hamachi flavored with yuzukosho (a chili laced Japanese seasoning) chorizo and radish ($19). The meal ended with a beautiful-looking tarte tatin for two ($19), its pristine apples rendered soft under a veil of caramelized sugar and butter, flipped expertly out and into a Staub gray cast iron pan with two sides of sherry-laced ice cream and the best brewed cup of coffee (Kiambaa Cooperative from Kenya) my husband declared he’s had in years. 807 Taft St., 713.628.9020; passandprovisions.com.
Étoile Cuisine et Bar. It’s time to thank the heavens above when the state of our local economy — less affected than our compatriots north, south, east and west of us — has the power to lure a chef the caliber of Philippe Verpiand from glorious La Jolla to Houston. Unheard of, right? You might think so, but like many of us expats who now call the fourth largest city our home, the French-born toque sees Houston as a new culinary frontier. Verpiand was raised in the Vaucluse region of France; his résumé peppered with stints at Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as his own much-lauded successful eatery Cavaillon. His intimate Étoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park feels nothing like Andre’s, the former occupant of the space. With warm limestone walls, whitewashed reclaimed wood paneling and tiny chandeliers dangling above farmhouse tables, this 90-seat eatery transports you to all places Français for both lunch and dinner. Sensational tastings ranged from a mushroom ravioli app napped with port and white truffle oil to his very autumnal braised beef short ribs with butternut squash mousseline and roasted vegetables — a signature entrée held over from his California days. While most chefs who excel on the hot line will admit they can’t bake their way out of a Bundt pan, Verpiand is the unusual exception: His from-scratch classic thin apple tart (with house-made puff pastry, topped with vanilla ice cream and fleur de sel–tinged caramel sauce) is better than any in town. Ditto, his panna cotta, the Italian custard Verpiand has Frenchified by infusing the custard with caramel and topping it with a tart apricot coulis. 1101-11 Uptown Park Blvd., 832.668.5808; etoilecuisine.com.
Nosh Bistro. Looking for a something rather exotic? Perhaps a bite of Indian, a dash of Korean spice, Singaporean and Thai? Meander into Nosh Bistro, a pretty platinum- and violet-hued dining den that also offers loads of cozy patio seating. Created by newbie restaurateur Neera Patidar and partner Kwan Lee, Nosh is situated under a canopy of old oaks off Kirby, adjacent to Allegiance Bank. This is a passion project for avid cook Patidar, who has collaborated on the small plates and sharing dishes with chef Carlos Gonzalez (who most recently worked with the Omni Hotel). Try starters such as chickpeas bathed in a warm, sweetly complex Indian curry, served alongside spears of grilled bread or perhaps pakoras, the fritter batter dotted with chopped spinach, potato and onion before it is fried and drizzled with a tamarind sauce. Or order a ground lamb pizza with fresh mozzarella and Nosh’s own serrano-laced pizza sauce. While the owner and chef favor turning the heat up in the dishes they themselves consume, you can modulate each as you wish — toning down, for example, the angry shrimp dish so it’s just a tad disturbed. Be sure to let them know prior to plating how high your spice tolerance goes. And be sure to complement your meal with wine or a champagne-based cocktail by bar manager Jason Le Bove. 3963 Kirby Dr., 713.522.6674; noshbistro.com.
Lucille’s. It’s hard not to root for earnest chef Chris Williams. He was schooled at his grandmother’s knee before his formal culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu’s Austin outpost exposed him to the tenets of classic cuisine — but everything fell into place for Williams when he learned of his great-grandma’s cooking legacy. The story goes that Lucille Bishop Smith made barbecue and chili biscuits her claim to cooking fame and, in so doing, determined when and where Williams would hang his shingle: a modest museum-area turn-of-the-century house that he named, of course, Lucille’s. While you will indeed find Bishop Smith’s chili biscuits on the menu ($7), we’ll be back again for Williams’ own shrimp and grits: creamy stone-mill grits mingled with a complex sherry-spiked tomato broth with andouille sausage ($20). And before watermelon is no more (or perhaps next summer), be sure to order his refreshing watermelon salad mixed with baby arugula, red onions, feta and crushed pistachios — a crisp, wonderful salad I could eat every week ($12). Next time, I’ll try the yard bird (game hen) with sautéed greens, peppers and hoppin’ john ($18) or the whole fish topped with basil succotash and greens --- and watch this Southern soul take on some more dishes close to his heart. 5512 La Branch St., 713.568.2505; lucilleshouston.com.
Two Energetic New Spots We Fell in Love With
Southside Espresso. The craft of fusion beans is here. Southside Espresso is the place where baristas come to get their caffeine fix, where each drink is beautifully crafted and topped with a thick layer of foam. Overseen by head barista Sean Marshall, all the little details of the art of coffee-making matter; the syrups are made in-house, and the asides such as pastries, plus Zhi tea from Austin, heighten the experience. Once you take that first sip, you’ll be hooked. Open 7 am till midnight. 904-C Westheimer; no phone (how chic); southsidespresso.com. Michelle Avina
Roots Juice Bar. Finally! A fast, casual juice bar and cafe that delivers fresh, nutrient-packed elixirs to enliven and empower you, which serves as both a quick grab-and-go and a new gathering place in the Montrose area. Try the free yoga class on Thursdays at 7:30 am, followed by a $5 happy-hour juice tasting. The interior promotes sustainability — think repurposed and reclaimed wood tables, as well as vintage chairs. Health enthusiast and fellow vegan Rebecca O’Brien manages day-to-day operations and has strong ties with the local-farmer’s-market circuit — relationships she first forged as a member of the market management team for Urban Harvest. The juice bar serves a wide variety of juices including Alchemy, Green Age Dreams (my personal favorite), Beet It and Kale Take, but the seasonal menu changes regularly. Roots also offers smoothies, light vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free fare as well as raw, gluten-free, vegan items. And for those who can’t make it during the week, drop in for Saturday or Sunday brunch. 507 Westheimer Road, 713.524.1000; rootsjuicehouston.com. Michelle Aviña
Coming … Any Moment (or So We’re Told)
Evo: David Guerrero’s soon-to-open Peruvian restaurant in the Montrose (a stone’s throw from Da Marco) has been plagued by construction delays. But there’s good news: You can cool your Jimmy Choos while you wait at Guerrero’s sister eatery, Alma (1275 Eldridge Parkway), where they offer fare that blends his Peruvian homeland’s cuisines with tastes hailing from China, Africa, Italy, Japan and Spain. At press time, we were told to look for a January 2013 opening for Evo.
Eatsie Boys Café: The self-proclaimed Eatsie Boys are moving on up from their roaming food truck (or sometimes stationary one parked at Agora Coffee House) to their own brick-and-mortar site in the former Montrose digs of Kraftsman Baking, 4100 Montrose Boulevard. We’re waiting with bated breath for their delectable-sounding sandwiches such as Frank the Pretzel, a pretzel bun stuffed with homemade chicken poblano sausage, sautéed onions and mustard ($6), or the No Sleep Til Philly, a high-style cheesesteak made with rib eye then downplayed with homemade Cheez Whiz ($8). And don’t get me started on the inspired ice cream, including the curiously named In 3’s Vietnamese Coffee and Peach Cobbler in Effect. C’mon boys. Open, open, open!
Mr. Peeples Seafood + Steaks: Reps are telling us we’ll have to wait until later this month for this high-designed midtown restaurant/bar/underground lounge to be revealed. The space is huge (40,000 square feet, give or take), inside the former Boy Scouts building (dubbed Scouts Square) in a mixed-use development at 1911 Bagby Street. We’re dying to see how W Hotel design alum Carlos Castropareds will fashion the multilevel interiors — and to taste the offerings by chef Pedro Silva (an alum of Ruggles Grill at Saks).
Volare: Cara Cox’s New York–style pizza joint, housed in a tiny space in the same center as the famed Hot Bagel Shop (2017 S. Shepherd Drive), will start shoveling pizzas out of its brick oven later this month. (Crostini, soups, salads and paninis will also grace the menu.) Local sommelier Antonio Gianola, who has quite the following, will select the vino and craft beers, while Ara Malekian will stand over the stove. Start the queue early to grab a seat inside or out, or just dash in and take your meal to go.
Still Simmering: Openings That Still Have Us Chattering
Brasserie 19 • L.A. Bar • La Fisheria • Latin Bites Cebiche & Pisco Bar • Liberty Kitchen Local Foods • Oxheart •
Roost • Sparrow Bar + Cookshop • Triniti • Uchi
Favorite Haunts: Compelling Places that Draw Us Back Month after Month
Alto’s Pizzeria • Arcodoro Ristorante • Armando’s • Benjy’s • Branch Water Tavern Brennan’s Café • Rabelais • Canopy • Da Marco Del Frisco’s Steak House • Dolce Vita • Ibiza Kata Robata • Mark’s • Ninfa’s on Navigation • Pondecheri • RDG/Bar Annie • Tiny Boxwood’s (either location) • Tony Mandola’s • Tony’s • Up
Simmering People, Places and Food Things
Chef Ryan Hildebrande, who opened Triniti earlier this year, is working on his next concept, due to debut Fall 2013. MC2 architects are planning to tear down the former Ruggles Grill in the Montrose on Westheimer and build Brande, set in a contemporary building with a rustic farmhouse vibe where Hildebrande will bake breads, pastries, craft charcuterie and dry-age his own meats. The American fare–focused eatery will have a decidedly masculine edge, with chef de cuisine Dax McAnear manning the range … Grace’s, a Johnny Carrabba concept based on his grandmother Grace’s Italian-style home cooking, debuts in 2013 on Kirby Drive, a block from his Carrabba’s … Word is that Lee Ellis, Carl Eaves and Lance Fegan (Liberty Kitchen, BRC, Petite Sweets) are taking over the location of Vida, the ill-named “sexy Tex-Mex” joint on San Felipe. Everything from concept to food to decor will be overhauled to create another Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette. Ellis describes it as an “East Coast seafood house meets River Oaks,” as the trio plans to step up their game to suit the neighborhood. Stay tuned for more details.
Hot in the Kitchen
• Whomped-up bread service (a variety of artisan baked breads) served as an appetizer with flavored butters, spreads and cheeses.
• Creative waiters’ uniforms, such as the custom leather aprons at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop.
• Heirloom anything, from vegetables to vintage silver and stemware.
• Local everything (not to mention sustainable and organic), from fruits and vegetables to meats. Today it’s not just about procuring regional foodstuffs; it’s about giving menu credit to the farmers who raised the animals and tended the crops.
• Artisan cocktails are the standard. (Especially bartenders who procure an array of bitters (or, better yet, make their own, along with infused syrups and spirits). It’s all about tweaking those old-school classics.
• Gluten-free. We had no idea so many diners suffered with lower GI issues.
• House-made charcuterie.
• Food trucks. The trend rolls on and sometimes even leads to a lease. (See the Eatsie Boys.)
• Grazing through sharing plates.
• Peruvian cuisine and its ingredients (Evo, Alma, Latin Bites, etc.).
• Steak tartare.
• American comfort fare given an ethnic, global spin.
• Celebrity chefs. Our only advice: Let someone else call you a “celebrity.” To refer to yourself as one is terribly immodest, don’t you think? Everyone’s a food critic and has a Twitter following. And apparently we’re simply dying to see photos of their last meal. Really?