The Hit List: New Houston Restaurants to Visit in December 2021
It’s hard to believe we are almost at the end of 2021. As we ponder where has all the time gone, we can also consider where are we are going to dine this month — and treasure that we are actually able to do so. There are certainly plenty of new Houston restaurants to try, whether you are in the mood for modern takes on Mexican fare or warm dishes of housemade pasta.
Alba Ristorante, 1080 Uptown Park: Housed inside Hotel Granduca, this recently opened northern Italian restaurant gives a stylish makeover and a new menu to the former Ristorante Cavour location. Chef Maurizio Ferrarese —a native of Italy’s Piedmont region who was executive chef of Quattro and Roma before joining the Hotel Granduca team in 2018 — has cultivated his version of upscale northern Italian fare. Highlights on the menu include antipasti, such as Albese Beef Tartare made with 30-day aged Piedmontese beef tenderloin accented by bagna càuda (an anchovy-garlic sauce) and mustards, and scallops served with truffles, Modena balsamic and porcini mushroom dressing. Entrées include cast-iron seared Mediterranean Branzino Filet with glazed carrots, carrot reduction, saffron potatoes and caviar.
There are also options for those with dietary preferences and sensitivities, like the vegetarian Sweet Corn Ravioli served with brown butter, sage and Parmesan shavings and the gluten-free Cream-less Cauliflower Soup and Caviar made with roasted cauliflower, cipollini onions, black garlic and Italian caviar drizzled with crème fraîche. The space is also home to a Champagne bar that offers cocktails such as the Alba Kiss with vanilla bean-infused Barolo grappa, and an extensive wine list that features many Italian vintages.
Chivos, 222 West 11th: This modern Mexican restaurant from Night Moves Hospitality, which also operates Space Cowboy and Trash Panda Drinking Club, is bringing delights both simple and complex to the Heights. Chef Thomas Bille is helming the kitchen, after garnering attention for his prior restaurant, Belly of the Beast in Spring. Diners can expect creative dishes such as Pozole Dumplings served with pork broth, almond salsa macha (a salsa made with fried nuts or seeds, dried chiles and chile oil), Napa cabbage and thinly shaved radish; the simple but elegant handmade flour tortillas with truffle butter and salmon roe spread; and shrimp aquachile. Behind the bar, Leesly Valdez (formerly of Monkey’s Tail, Calle Onze and Space Cowboy) is mixing up cocktails that showcase under-appreciated Mexican liqueurs and spirits. Try the D.F., a riff on the Manhattan with Mexican whiskey and tamarind bitters, or the West Tejas made with tequila and Nixta Licor de Elote, a corn liqueur from Jilotepec. For more on this new eatery, check out Phaedra Cook’s “First Bite.”
Clique Bistro, 120 Westheimer: From the team behind EaDo’s recently opened J-Bar-M Barbecue comes a cozier spot with a dog-friendly patio in Montrose. The menu by chef Justin Santellana features a selection of bar bites such as Clique Korean Sliders (three to an order) made with kimchi, gochujang mayonnaise, pickled daikon, and Asian slaw, and Braised Pork Empanadas with manchego cheese, lime crema, pickled red bell peppers and cilantro sauce. Vegetarians can try Tofu Fried Egg Rolls with marinated tofu, chiffonade cabbage, and pickled carrots, which are served with sweet and sour sauce. In addition there are also a few entrées such as Broiled Miso Salmon with basmati rice, garden peas, carrots, red bell pepper, black sesame seeds and coriander leaves.
The bar program is a collaboration between Christophe Paul (Cafe Rabelais and Bistro 555), Eric Boyd (of The Boyd’s Bar) and Coretta Wintz (from Houston staple The Richmond Arms Pub). It features a seasonal selection (the current offerings are part of the Winter Signature Cocktails list) that includes the Whiskey Fig Cobbler made with Jim Beam, simple syrup, lemon juice and ginger beer and the Sleigh Ride made with Maker’s Mark, orgeat, Cointreau, lime juice and Canton ginger. The wine list, influenced by Christophe Paul, is broken out into easily navigated, taste-oriented groups like Various Zesty & Somewhat Spicy Reds and Esoteric Whites.
Common Bond Brasserie & Bakery, 800 Capitol: Many Houstonians are familiar with the pastry delights found at Common Bond’s several locations. Now, it’s time to get acquainted with the group’s newest project: a full-service brasserie serving lunch and dinner. Common Bond Brasserie & Bakery is located downtown above the Understory food hall in the Bank of America Tower. The 5,000-square-foot space, which includes the bakery, was developed by executive chef Jason Gould (former chef and owner of the long-closed but still-missed Gravitas), president Chris Fannin and CEO George Joseph. It currently offers breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., happy hour Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., a bar menu with snacks and dinner from 4 to 9 p.m.
Lunch features Common Bond classics such as Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Flatbread and coq au vin. The brasserie’s French-inspired dinner menu, which is unique to this location, is comprised of a focused selection of appetizers, sides, fresh oysters, petite and grand seafood towers and entrées. Standout appetizers include Citrus-Poached Lobster (Maine lobster, coconut milk panna cotta, ruby red grapefruit, avocado, Thai basil dressing and sesame tuile) and chili-sesame glazed crispy pork belly served with apple and arugula salad. Entrées include Oven Roasted Rack of Lamb with Moroccan spiced carrots, farro pilaf, and mint chimichurri and Seafood Bouillabaisse made with Gulf fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops, tomato broth, toasted baguette and saffron.
Be sure to save room for desserts, which were created by executive pastry chef David Berg, such as the Chocolate Gateau with chocolate mousse, devil’s food cake, glacage chocolate, raspberry coulis and crème chantilly.
d’Alba Craft Kitchen & Cocktails, 3715 Alba: Industry veterans Daut Elshani (of Underground Hall, Beer Market Co.), chef Geoff Hundt (Local Foods and Benjy’s) chef Mike Hartley (Brasserie 19) and bar manager Kehlen Selph (formerly of Anvil Bar & Refuge) joined forces this year to bring this neighborhood restaurant to Garden Oaks. The menu features shareables such as Alba Balloon Bread made with pesto, garlic and truffle honey, and Chile and Lime Roasted Cauliflower. There are also larger plates like Gulf fish served with roasted sunchokes, English peas, bell peppers, cilantro and grilled corn chutney, and the Falcon Lakes Burger served on a brioche bun with Fontina, aioli, arugula, house pickles and bruléed onions.
d’Alba also features a selection of rotating housemade pastas such as campanelle tossed with basil pesto, Parmesan, English peas, cherry tomatoes, basil and summer squash and wood-fired pizzas that emphasize meatless options like wild mushroom and sweet potato with béchamel, cacio e pepe, truffled arugula and lemon zest.
Cocktail enthusiasts can peruse a menu organized by spirits. There are takes on classics such as the upDated Old Fashioned made with Forester 100 infused with dates and roasted pumpkin seeds, and the Callabria Collins made with Citadelle gin infused with lemongrass and lemon. In addition, there is an extensive wine list for by-the-glass and bottle options.
Idle Hands, 910 Westheimer: From Austin-based hospitality group Midas Willum Holdings (Idle Hands Austin, Found Texas, Taster’s Table Club, and Eat. Drink. Texas) comes the Caribbean-influenced Idle Hands. Housed in the mixed-use project Montrose Collective, the space includes a downstairs bar and patio, an upstairs indoor bar and lounge area, and rooftop patio seating. The Cuban-and-Colombian bar offers snackable selections such as guacamole with plantain chips and street corn made with roasted garlic butter, cotija cheese, crème fraîche and cilantro and mini chicken empanadas. Hungrier guests can order one of the three mains such as the Cubano sandwich and fries or the Lover Boy Burger and fries, made with a beef and chorizo patty, guacamole, pickled red onions, candied jalapeños, a Mexican cheese blend and roasted-poblano aioli.
The bar offers wine, beer, seltzer and ciders as well as specialty cocktails and frozen drinks like the Blue Hawaii made with Deep Eddy Vodka, Rumhaven coconut rum, blue curacao, pineapple and lemon and the Old Rosser made with Misunderstood Ginger whiskey, sweet tea and peaches.
Mahesh’s Kitchen, 6019 City Walk, Sugar Land: Fort Bend County gets a spot on this month’s Hit List with the opening of Mahesh’s Kitchen. Currently serving lunch and dinner, this upscale Indian restaurant is serious about its spices, reportedly receiving over 300 pounds every month directly from India. Newcomers Neelesh and Shubhangi Musale dedicated this sophisticated space and menu to Shubhangi’s late brother Mahesh, who passed away before realizing his dream of attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Diners can choose from an ample selection of appetizers such as traditional samosa (which come two to an order) and pani puri with spiced green peas, potato, mint, sweet and spicy chutney. Entrées include murgh makhani (aka butter chicken), made with fresh tomatoes, free-range chicken, butter, garam masala and cashew nuts, and Goan Sear Halibut made with coconut, chili, cashew nut, curry leaf, and malabar sauce. Mahesh’s also features a full bar, cocktails and a wine list featuring a selection of organic options. For more, read about writer Sandra Crittenden’s recent visit.
Maize, 14795 Memorial: From chef-owner Fabian Saldana comes Maize, a new progressive Mexican restaurant in the Energy Corridor. The venture is supported by longtime Houston chef Mark Cox (who operated his eponymous restaurant in Montrose for 19 years) and Carmelo Mauro (who owned his own namesake restaurant at this same address for 38 years). Just a few years ago, Mauro went into partnership with Ben Berg, who owns B&B Butchers and several other Houston restaurants. Ultimately, Carmelo’s turned into B.B. Italia with Berg’s brother as chef and then closed. Now it’s returned to Mauro’s oversight, but the restaurant concept is now entirely different.
Utilizing his extensive experience as a chef at Hugo Ortega‘s acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant Xochi, Saldana’s first solo venture features dishes that incorporate housemade masa. The menu is broken out into sections: Crudos/Ceviches, Masa Antojitos, Ensaladas Y Sopa, Platos Fuertes and Inscectos. Oyster- and spice-lovers will enjoy the Jalapeño Ostiones: Gulf oysters with jalapeño, cilantro and lime served by the half- or full-dozen. Other standouts include the empanadas de camarón, or two shrimp empanadas with cotija cheese and bright “guacasalsa”; the gluten-free flautas de puerco made with pork confit carnitas, salsa verde, crema and housemade queso fresco; and ensalada de quelites with purslane, candied pistachio, oranges and onion-and-honey-pasilla pepper dressing.
The bar offers regionally focused spirits such mezcal, sotol and tequila, as well as creative takes on classics like margaritas and signature cocktails such as the El Caldero, made with Espolòn blanco tequila, pomegranate juice, La Pinta pomegranate liqueur, apricot giffard, lime juice, simple syrup, and pomegranate smoke. There is also an extensive wine list, which features a number of wines from Mexico.
Toro Toro, 1300 Lamar: Chef Richard Sandoval has just opened the 6th location of his pan-Latin steakhouse inside the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston. It’s actually his second concept inside the hotel; the first being bourbon-focused Bayou & Bottle. Both are part of a phased hotel renovation project that’s spanned the past five years.
Sandoval’s menu emphasizes churrasco-style steaks, exotic game and seafood, with dishes such as the enormous 52-ounce Mezcal-Flambéed Prime Tomahawk and South Texas Antelope Tenderloin from Texas’ Broken Arrow Ranch. There is also Grilled Spanish Octopus and raw fish dishes such as Peruvian Ceviche: hamachi with leche de tigre, sweet potato, red onion and canchas (toasted corn).
Accompanying the hearty fare is an extensive wine list featuring several Latin American-based wineries in addition to cocktails like the Mercado Margarita with jalapeño-infused tequila hibiscus, passion fruit purée and hibiscus-rosemary foam and the Negroni Norte with mezcal, Campari and Carpano Antica vermouth. For more read, Lauren Bebeau’s article on the opening of Toro Toro.
Trattoria Sofia, 911 W 11th: The latest from the rapidly growing Berg Hospitality Group (B&B Butchers & Restaurant, BB Lemon, The Annie Cafe & Bar, Turner’s, NoPo) aims to transport diners to a street-side eatery in Italy. Named after the eldest daughter of Benjamin Berg (the group’s founder and CEO), the space has a rustic feel with décor designed by architect Issac Preminger and Sam Governale, operating partner for The Annie Cafe & Bar and Turner’s. The kitchen is being overseen by executive chef L.J. Wiley (formerly the chef of well-regarded but long-closed Yelepa Playa Mexicana). He and his team are whipping up appetizers such as Crostini Di Gamberi Arrabiata made with crispy shrimp, spicy tomato sauce, smoked labneh, dill and fennel pollen; and Polpo Arrosto, wood fire-roasted octopus, Sicilian tomato pesto, crispy potatoes, salsa verde, basil, parsley and lemon. They are also serving heartier fare like the Vitello Alla Milanese comprised of veal Milanese, castelfranco (a prized variety of chicory) salad and lemon. Carb lovers will find pasta dishes such as cacio e pepe and bread from master bread maker Magnus Hansson.
Berg brought in Julep owner Alba Huerta to develop cocktails with Italian twists on classics such as Modena Cup made with Pimm’s, gin, strawberry, blood orange syrup and white balsamic vinegar and the Bergamot Margarita with tequila, lime and bergamot liqueur. In addition, there is also a focused list of wines by the glass.
URBE, 1101 Uptown Park: Chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught’s newest eatery recently opened in the Galleria area. It finally gives Houstonians a chance to visit an Ortega restaurant dedicated to his love of causal Mexican street fare. Housed inside the former Café Express, the location is unique to the H Town Group because it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as frozen and non-frozen drinks developed by beverage director Sean Beck. URBE serves breakfast Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Diners can choose from smaller items, such as breakfast tacos, as well as more substantial dishes like pambazo torta or Chilaquiles Gordos.
Lunch options, also served Tuesday through Friday, include the blue corn tortilla quesadilla made with squash blossom, squash, corn, quesillo and mole Amarillo, and assorted tacos (three per order with corn tortillas) such as tacos al pastor (trompo pork in achiote with charred pineapple, onion, cilantro and habanero salsa) and tacos de birria (braised beef in adobo consommé with and quesillo).
The dinner menu is served Tuesday through Saturday and features many of the lunch menu favorites along with a few larger mains. Brunch is also served Saturdays and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., respectively. Read more about URBE in Ryan Kasey Baker’s “First Bite” article.