At this popular Midtown wine bar, proprietor Mike Sammons’s personal wine list revels in obscure varietals, small producers and unfashionable appellations like France’s Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec to go with bar snacks like charcuterie and cheeses. The lovely old building, formerly home to a 1920s dry cleaner, is a rarity in a town known for its tear-downs.
Despite the restaurant’s name, chef Chris Shepherd’s small plates menu is very much rooted in the Gulf Coast and is influenced as much by Asia as Spain. Shepherd serves dishes like cockles cooked in a broth flavored with sambal (a spicy Southeast Asian condiment made with chiles) and Tabasco-cured salmon. The offbeat wine list by sommelier and partner Antonio Gianola includes grower Champagnes (small-production Champagnes made by grape growers), little-known names from Hungary and Italy’s Friuli—all at low markups.
We loved: Calamari crisped in rice flour with a Vietnamese-style lime-and-black-pepper dipping sauce.
The ice cream flavors at Gilbert Johnson’s sweets shop near the Museum District include the intense Orange Sunrise, a mix of dark and milk chocolates and real Valencia oranges.
We loved: White chocolate–root beer ice cream.
In a roomy old house, two English chefs have brought offal-centric nose-to-tail cooking to Houston. James Silk honed his butchery skills at Fergus Henderson’s St. John, while his co-chef, Richard Knight, cooked at Richard Corrigan’s Lindsay House. They both use lots of Texas-ranched meat in soulful dishes like pork-cheek-and-dandelion salad.
We loved: Lamb sweetbreads.
This outpost by veteran Texas chef Robert del Grande fits right into its setting, downtown Houston’s Discovery Green park. The mostly glass-walled restaurant even has a second-floor tomato-and-herb garden. Del Grande and chef Ryan Pera have devised a casual, seasonal menu emphasizing simple grilled dishes and foods sautéed in cast-iron skillets.
We loved: Wood-roasted Kona kampachi; house-cured pork chops.
Houstonians of all stripes congregate at Irma’s kitschy dining room—decorated with items like plastic dolls and old typewriters—for some of the finest homespun Mexican dishes in the country. Irrepressible chef-owner Irma Galvan and her cadre of female cooks dispense mashed-to-order guacamole, house-made corn and flour tortillas and lemonade spiked with fruits like strawberry and papaya.
We loved: Fresh, light-tasting chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers).
Improbably located in a semirural suburban stretch 15 miles from downtown, Killen’s has the feel of a roadhouse. It also happens to have some of the best steaks and Gulf seafood in Texas. Lately, chef Ron Killen has added awe-inspiring dry-aged beef and a lush, indulgent Kobe tasting to his repertoire, which also includes memorable onion rings and sublime creamed corn. The wine list by his wife, Deanna Killen, is savvy, California-heavy and well-priced.
We loved: Crème brûlée bread pudding made with croissants, one of F&W’s 10 Best Dishes of 2008.
In 2007, F&W Best New Chef 2009 Bryan Caswell and partner Bill Floyd turned a coolly rehabbed Pontiac showroom into an outstanding Gulf Coast seafood restaurant offering unusual regional fish like triple tail and croaker. Caswell’s witty takes on Southern dishes, like pecan-shallot cracklings, share the menu with Thai and Vietnamese flavors that reflect Houston’s multi-ethnic makeup.
We loved: Grouper with braised collards.
F&W Best New Chef 2003 Scott Tycer is back in Houston’s fine-dining game after he closed the much-admired Aries and turned to more casual projects. He has returned to making elegant, immaculate dishes like a tiny bacon tart with bitter greens and a poached quail egg. The intimate 30-seat restaurant is aptly named—it’s in a turn-of-the-20th-century textile mill.
We loved: Seared scallops with turnip puree.
The restaurant in the Hotel Icon’s lobby has a new name, a new look, and most importantly, a new chef: Michael Kramer, who ran Charleston, South Carolina’s McCrady’s for years, applies his flawless technique to fish and meat, and also turns out modern classics like mushroom “cappuccino” and heirloom beet salad.
We loved: Venison cooked sous vide with caramelized apples.