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Chef's Corner: New-restaurant roundup

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Chris Shepherd

STEAK NIGHT Chris Shepherd’s steakhouse Georgia James has replaced Underbelly. The James Beard award winner also opened UB Preserv, which showcases Houston’s eclectic food cultures. (Photo: Julie Soefer Photography)

After the summer lull, fall is an exciting time for the restaurant industry. The anticipation of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, etc., pushes many to roll out their new concepts ahead of the holidays. This November is especially electrifying for diners looking for new options for wining and dining out-of-town guests. Here is a short list of new restaurants that have opened this month or relatively recently.

Heart of Montrose

Going “clean,” in addition to “green,” is BIG these days. Located in the old McGowen Cleaners, Vibrant (1931 Fairview) focuses on wholesome dishes free of gluten, dairy, refined sugar and GMO (genetically modified) food. It uses pasture-raised eggs and meats, and strives to source locally when possible.

Perhaps the most anticipated Montrose opening is Chris Shepherd’s Georgia James (1100 Westheimer), replacing the James Beard Award-winning chef’s acclaimed Underbelly, which shuttered in March. The chef-driven steakhouse is named for his mom, Georgia, and dad, James. Both live down the street.

“The thought process was if I was inviting you over to my home, what would I serve?” Shepherd said. “It would be steak night at my house. Growing up, Mom always cooked, so it made sense to call it Georgia James.”

Shepherd also noted that the hustle-bustle always seems to center around steakhouses – old and new – around town. “They’re always busy, and, eventually, they become classics because they’re consistent,” he said.

A few months before Shepherd started searing 100-day wet-aged flank steaks and whipping up batches of creamed collard greens at Georgia James, he opened UB Preserv (1609 Westheimer), an homage to Underbelly’s ritual of showcasing Houston’s eclectic food cultures and, hence, the “UB.” Shepherd put chef de cuisine Nick Wong in charge of the kitchen.

Wong, a chef to keep your eye on, has earned praise for his astute translations of such dishes as duck-egg curry, grilled pork jowl pastor, and Tejas crispy chicken – not surprisingly, considering his pedigree. A California native who started cooking at age 6, the French Culinary Institute grad has cooked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Momofuku Ko and Momofuku Ssam Bar.

East Downtown (EADO)

Talk about being in a pressure cooker. Ryan Pera opened not one, not two, but four different concepts in East Downtown. Like any dining venture, he and Agricole Hospitality partners Morgan Weber and culinary director Vincent Huynh are taking a big risk, but even more so since EADO is still going through gentrification. Then again, Pera was among the pioneering toques who jump-started Heights dining, and look at it now.

Despite the uncertainty, Pera is encouraged by the success of his EADO neighbor, Nancy’s Hustle (2704 Polk), not to mention that a new $150 million hotel and condo tower is planned next door on St. Emanuel Street. His team also is bolstered by the fact that Houstonians seem to gravitate toward Pera’s unassuming approach to food.

Vinny’s, Miss Carousel, Indianola and a banquet facility are housed in a former industrial electrical warehouse on the corner of 1201 St. Emanuel and Dallas. Vinny’s, a neighborhood pizzeria, has an a la carte menu – from chicken meatballs and Brussels sprouts to chorizo and charred broccolini – that allows for pie creativity.

Miss Carousel (inspired by the song from Townes Van Zandt) is a 3,500-square-foot lounge with mid-century modular furniture and a menu that focuses on shareable fare, like beet-and-carrot tartare, caramel popcorn with wasabi and crispy duckling wings tossed in an herb-infused Vietnamese fish glaze sauce.

Lastly, Indianola is a modern American restaurant inspired by what “we believe America represents to us,” Pera said. Take breakfast, for example. It will feature baby Dutch pancakes, Asian rice porridge and huevos rancheros.

baby Dutch pancake

THE CLASSIC ALL DAY The puffed baby Dutch pancake studded with berries and peaches is a brunch hit at Benjy Levit’s new The Classic All Day. (Photo: Julie Soefer Photography)

Greater Heights

Northwest of downtown is still going strong. Greg Gordon opened a new chapter with La Vista 101 (1805 W. 18th Street) in Timbergrove, but don’t expect this to be an ode to his shuttered, modest, Italian BYOB in Briargrove. This is a modern, more “worldly approach” to Italian, along with other Mediterranean inspirations. 

Veteran restaurateur Benjy Levit recently debuted his new American bistro, The Classic All Day (5922 Washington Ave.). The airy space, formerly benjy’s on Washington, is divided by center tables, banquets and comfy, retro avocado green booths. Chef Mike Potowski oversees the kitchen, humming with juicy $8 burgers and daily specials such as blackened redfish with a haricot vert salad tossed in a light dressing, bolstered by chopped egg whites. The contemporary menu, while provocative, is wholly relatable, much like the ever-present and stellar Mom’s Chocolate Cake. Simple and delicious, courtesy of Levit’s mom, Leah.

Atlanta-based Ford Fry expanded his dining empire in his hometown with Superica and La Lucha, located on a nearly 9,000-square-foot plot at 1801 N. Shepherd, across from the newly transplanted Hawaiian Teapresso (718 W. 18th Street, Suite H), an adorable organic coffee and brewed-to-order boba milk tea shop.

"La Lucha is inspired by Fry’s childhood memories of the San Jacinto Inn,” said State of Grace and La Lucha executive chef Bobby Matos, showing us the menu, which highlighted the Inn’s oysters and chicken dinners.

Fry and Matos serve up their interpretation of these classics with a half or whole fried chicken dinner, served with homemade biscuits and pickles. But here is an update: It comes with a choice of green harissa, honey sambal or oyster mayonnaise condiments. Diners also can add a half-pound of fried shrimp for $16.95. However, Matos is particularly proud of his fried oyster loaf, sandwiched between Mrs Baird’s white bread and slathered with Duke’s Mayonnaise. The approach to food here is laid-back, much like adjacent Superica. The 4,850-square-foot Tex-Mex hub dishes out such classics as chicken flautas, bean-and-cheese nachos, cheese enchiladas and tacos al pastor. And, of course, there are the grilled fajitas, menudo, ceviche, and posole. 

West University, Galleria & Beyond

Along with Spicy Girl (3285 Southwest Freeway), a Sichuan Chinese restaurant, West University is now home to Pizza Motus (6119 Edloe), which serves Roman-style pizza characterized by a light, airy center and crispy bottom. But don’t overlook its deftly crafted paninis, particularly the fried rosemary-brined chicken.

Across Highway 59, Flower Child (1101‐06 Uptown Park Blvd.) of Fox Restaurant Concepts is riding high on the clean-eating trend. During weekday lunch, expect a long wait. The line is out the door with sweat-beaded Houstonians hankering for gluten-free mac and cheese, sustainable salmon with quinoa and sweet corn, or a bowl of ancient grains. You get the drift. The beef is grass-fed, the chicken is all natural, and the tofu is non-GMO.

Jonathan’s the Rub has called Hedwig Village home for a decade. Now, owner Jonathan Levine has a second home: Jonathan’s the Rub at Memorial Green (12505 Memorial). Here, you’ll find the self-proclaimed oldest line cook’s Brooklyn Italian dishes, steaks, chops and chargrilled cheeseburgers (which we’re fans of). But make note, too, of the menu section titled “New Houston Cuisine,” with dishes such as braised Denver steak, bacon chipotle pork, Hill Country fried chicken, and shrimp and chicken mole poblano.

More restaurants are on their way for December and 2019, including several food halls. The food-court trend, big on the East and West Coasts, is picking up steam in the Bayou City, but more on that some other time.

Editor’s note: Buzz dining columnist Dai Huynh is a James Beard food-journalism award winner and longtime Houston-based restaurant writer.

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