Thursday, January 14, 2016

My 2015 Favorites

I know, late to the party. All of the "best of" and "worst of" lists were published right at the end of 2015, so I figured it would be wise to wait until everyone cycled through all of those before posting my favorites of the past year. That or I've gotten lazy, you decide. It was quite the year for restaurants in Houston as the city continued to garner national attention for its burgeoning dining scene, and I tried my best to experience as much of it as possible.

My favorites of the year: Lists are of course completely subjective, and I'm not proclaiming these as a "ten best meals of the year" list. Many of my favorites from 2014 were just as fantastic the next year, but what would be the point of re-hashing old news? It was not easy to narrow down my favorites this year; I dined out 395 times during the year, and that's not counting morning coffee stops and the occasional fast food foray. That said, these were some of the things that impressed me most in 2015.

10. A daily brew from Javaman Coffee: Up first is a place quite close to my 'hood, and it's something I have at least once a week. Javaman Coffee, located just east of West Lake Houston Parkway on FM 1960 in Humble, opens at the unfathomable time of 5:30 AM on weekdays. As someone who works early hours that often prevent me from being able to stop at the trendy "artisan" coffee shops in town (not meant as a slight, I love Blacksmith and the like) that don't open until 7 AM when I'm already at work, it's a godsend having an early hours coffee shop close by that serves a quality cup. The owners and baristas are incredibly friendly and know all of their regulars by name, and it's a pleasure stopping in for a strong, affordable cup of French press coffee on mornings when I don't wake up early enough to brew my own. The espresso drinks are also worth a try as are the house-made pastries and weekend beignets, but for this list I'm sticking with my go-to from Javaman. A medium to dark roast with moderate acidity, the daily brew is always full bodied and a great start to my day.

9. All beef sausage at Zimmerhanzel's: Is anything simpler and more perfect than a peppery, all beef sausage in small town Texas? The sausage at Zimmerhanzel's is exquisite in its straightforward beefy goodness with a taut casing and great amount of fat running through it. The small town barbecue price of $9.49 per pound for this great non-commercial sausage is one of the best values in Texas. My barbecue touring cohorts (Scott and Bryan) and I had 52 smoked meat stops together in 2015, and I cannot think of a better example of classic Texas BBQ than the beef sausage we enjoyed courtesy of Zimmerhanzel's in Smithville, Texas. 

8. The dip trio at Helen Greek Food and Wine: I'll be the first to admit that I didn't understand the hype behind Helen Greek Food and Wine at first. Helen opened to much acclaim, and I could not wait to try the small Rice Village restaurant serving the delicious, authentic Greek food that had all of the city's gourmands talking. My wife and I went on opening weekend and were underwhelmed. I go to a lot of restaurants just as they open and have come to expect the normal opening day glitches commonly seen in both service and in food. That said, even with the expectation of some missteps, I left dinner that night knowing it would take something unexpected to get me excited about Helen again. Thank heavens for lunch. Not wanting to financially commit to another dinner at Helen, I decided to venture back to try it at lunch. As most good restaurants do, Helen had more than hit its stride in my next visit, and it didn't take more than the first plate to show me just how special it was. The trio of dips, which varies based on seasonality, may appear to be a standard dish, but is anything but. The three dips on my visit were a vibrant lemon tinged chickpea, a nicely charred eggplant, and a slightly spicy red pepper with feta. Each provided a contrast of interesting flavor. Helen's fresh pita bread serves as the perfect vessel with which to scoop up whatever dips Evan Turner's team is offering. The rest of that lunch was equally impressive and I am anticipating a trip back for dinner again soon. Never have I been so happy to be wrong about something than I was about Helen. 

7. Shrimp a la plancha at State of Grace: This past year saw more highly anticipated restaurant openings in Houston than any other I can recall. I certainly did not eat at every new restaurant, but I got to many of them, and none impressed me more than State of Grace. Chef and restaurateur Ford Fry opened his first Houston restaurant in River Oaks last fall and it is off to a great start. The restaurant itself is stunning, and my two visits there to date have been great. Their $1 oyster happy hour (4-6, Monday-Friday) is one of the best deals in town, and the eclectic mish-mash of a menu is fun to pick from. While several dishes stood out, one I continue to go back to is a great shrimp dish on my first visit. Large head-on gulf shrimp are served with a lime broth and toasted bread that's perfect for dipping. Much like the lauded "lobster hushpuppies," the shrimp a la plancha showcases State of Grace in all of its whimsy.

6. Preserved Pork at Hunan Bistro: Chinatown is by far my favorite lunch area. One could go every day and try something completely different. While some restaurants in the area have become more known the last few years, Hunan Bistro operates in relative obscurity. After seeing bartender/world traveler/international cuisine enthusiast Chris Frankel sing its praises on social media, I quickly added the place to my to-do list. It did not disappoint. Hunan has a great menu of non-Americanized dishes, my favorite being the preserved pork with chiles and mustard greens. My best advice is to go with a few adventurous eaters and order several dishes from the menu. You'll be glad you did.

5. Baby Backs and Butter Beans at Opie's BBQ: Thirty-five miles west of the barbecue Mecca that is Austin, Texas lies Opie's BBQ in the city of Spicewood. It's not really on the way to any major city in the state, but it is absolutely worth the trek for barbecue lovers. While the traditional Texas barbecue items are excellent at Opie's, what keeps me thinking about the place and trying to plan another BBQ run that will take me out that way are two items you don't see at a lot of joints: sweet and spicy baby back ribs and butter beans. Baby back ribs pop up on barbecue menus here and there, but rarely are they as meaty or delicious as Opie's. Baby backs are too often small with very little meat on them, but Opie's are hefty with a good amount of mesquite smoke and a great balance of sweetness and spice. The butter beans at Opie's are served only on weekends and are complimentary, but explicitly for dine-in customers only. They are absolutely delicious and have become one of my favorite barbecue sides of all-time. I've tried to recreate them at home with no success; I'll just have to get back to Opie's for more R & D. 
Clockwise from top left: daily brew from Javaman Coffee | chickpea, charred eggplant, red pepper and feta dips from Helen | baby back ribs from Opie's BBQ (photo courtesy of Bryan Norton) | preserved pork from Hunan Bistro
4. Beef Rib Burnt Ends at Killen's Barbecue: If you live in Houston and pay any attention to its food scene, then you've of course heard of Killen's Barbecue. Nationally renowned and rightfully so, Ronnie Killen's return to the Texas barbecue scene has been a roaring success. While the regular menu is expansive and worth sampling in full, the specials at Killen's are equally stellar. Early in 2015 they debuted their beef rib burnt ends. Lightly sauced and heavily peppered crispy cubes of prime grade beef rib make for one of the most memorable bites of barbecue I've ever had.

3. Shrimp and Grits at Kitchen 713: There is not a frill to be seen at Kitchen 713, and I love it. Patrons order at the register from a small menu that is a mix of southern food with international touches. The food is brought out as it's ready by the very small staff; each table will likely be served by one or both of the chefs. Menu items like the fried chicken, boudin balls, and biscuits and gravy are as well executed as one would expect, but it's the most pleasant of surprises when a restaurant can make me love a dish that I didn't think I could ever have an affinity toward. The shrimp and grits from Kitchen 713 did just that. The collaborative minds of Chefs Coleman and Haywood came up with a stunning version of the classic and made a fan out of me. Stone ground poblano grits are amped up with a bit of white wine and cheddar, and the dish is adorned with well cooked shrimp and a shrimp chorizo made by the chefs that was a showstopper. Prior to sampling the quintessential southern dish at this East End gem, I had rarely had a version of the dish that was more than just satisfactory. This one was a game changer.

2. Sauerkraut and Potato Dumpling at The Progress: I almost feel guilty for putting something on this list that isn't readily accessible to Houstonians or even Texans, but the entire meal I had at The Progress in San Francisco was so enjoyable, and this dish in particular so great, that it could not be left off. The brightest star in a meal full of highlights were the toasted dumplings with a potato and sauerkraut filling. The dumplings were perfect in texture and served with plum preserves and bok choy. This dish was unpredictably phenomenal. Some of my favorite dining experiences are the ones where your mind tells you a dish shouldn't work but upon tasting, you realize how wrong you were. This dish epitomized that feeling. Chefs/owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski had set the bar high for The Progress after the success of State Bird and Provisions. If my meal there last fall is any indication, they've got another winner on their hands.
From left: beef rib burnt ends from Killen's Barbecue | shrimp and grits from Kitchen 713 | sauerkraut and potato dumplings from The Progress in San Francisco
1. Braised beef with local root vegetables at Coltivare: Sadly, I do not have a photo of my favorite dish of the year. In my defense, it was a Valentine's Day meal on Coltivare's outdoor patio which was covered at the time and did not provide the best setting for pictures. The star of this visit and my favorite dish of the year was braised beef with local root vegetables, potatoes, mushrooms and jus. The skin on the potatoes was perfectly crispy and the other vegetables had just a touch of golden brown color to enhance their flavor. My first few bites of the beef didn't fully hit home until I requested a serving spoon to scoop out some of that wonderful jus. After that, each bite was sublime. It was a flawless dish that was perfect for the season. Coltivare has become my most recommended restaurant when people ask where to go for a "nice meal." I find the menu approachable for any audience, the prices more than fair, and the food consistently excellent.

I would like to express my gratitude to all the restaurants I had the privilege to dine at this year, and all of the friends and family who dined with me. I had so many great plates of food from so many talented, dedicated people in Houston and beyond. I cannot wait to see what kind of culinary treasures 2016 holds...

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