In recent years, Houston has gained a reputation as one of the nation’s top and most diverse culinary cities. With the addition of the new Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston to the ranks of city’s top hotels (see recent Forbes story), guests at the property can easily Uber it to various districts in this huge metropolis in order to sample some innovative newcomers. Here’s part two of a rundown on prime culinary experiences that you can enjoy in the nation’s fourth-largest city.
Burly, bearded Chef Bryan Caswell looks like he was cast to play a chef. Cast is also the operative word for this fishing fanatic local son and his restaurant Reef is only the better for his passion. Already the city’s top seafood restaurant, the expansive Midtown space just came back to life this spring after a complete redesign and slow rebuild since a roof leak during Hurricane Harvey flooded it in September, 2017. With the kitchen still operating back then, Caswell and team were able to feed thousands of people in the hurricane relief.
Walk in now and you see a fish availability board that lists more Gulf species than you ever knew existed. Chef Caswell, who was a Jean-Georges Vongerichten protégé, has also opened a brand new chef’s table of sorts. A dozen guests sit on stools at a curvy bar-style table in front of the open kitchen. Caswell calls it Weedline, a marine term for an area where fish can be found within seaweed growths.
The omakase type of service of up to ten plates includes Oysters Ghutz which are roasted Gulf oysters with Shiner beer-washed sauerkraut and jalapeño sausage. Caswell is also fond of Gulf cobia, a white, flaky fish that he grills. The crab fat and dough dish is made up of blue crab baked into bread, with a sabayon sauce and pickles.
The vibe at nearly-three-year-old Xochi on the ground level of the Downtown Marriott Marquis is palpable, as you can feel a fun buzz coming from diners at the long bar and down to the booths that are up against floor-to-ceiling windows. The decor is festive as well, with one wall showcasing more than a dozen small, colorful folk art animal heads from a cat and ram to an elephant.
Xochi diners enjoy southern Mexican dishes from Oaxaca under the guidance of Chef Hugo Ortega, a James Beard award-winner who is known for his moles, his housemade masa corn dough and quesillo, a mozzarella-like cheese in a ball. Xochi is also your chance to sample beef tongue tacos in a red morita pepper sauce, or crispy duck, tomatillo avocado sauce, chicharrones. And grasshoppers too, which you can wash down with Mexican brews and agave-based cocktails.
Lucille B. Smith may not be a household name outside of Texas, but she should be. Her great-grandson, Chef Chris Williams, named his seven-year-old Museum District restaurant Lucille’s in her honor. In addition to founding U.S. Smith’s Famous BBQ in Fort Worth, Lucille was a culinary educator who by the time of her passing in 1985 at the age of ninety-two was an institution in Texan culinary affairs.
Lucille’s is housed in a fine two-story 1920’s bungalow in whose back room dining area off the kitchen hangs a framed letter from fellow-Texan LBJ thanking Lucille for sending her famous chili biscuits to the White House. Inspired by his great-grandmother, Chef Williams cooks her shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and braised oxtails. He also serves smothered duck confit, with sautéed collard greens, parsnip purée, and duck fat gravy. His yardbird chicken is another hit.
The walls of the upstairs private/events dining room are lined with vintage photos of elegant Lucille and extended family members. Some of Lucille’s original recipe cards are on display as well. Chef Williams is doing Lucille proud.
In what was for years an old uniform factory in Washington Corridor, Julep has a bar that curves around an open middle space and intimate booths. While five-year-old Julep has been garnished with accolades from spirits publications, it remains unpretentious and thankfully not faux divey either.
As its name suggests, Julep’s vibe is Southern, with bourbon specialties created by owner Alba Huerta. A celebrity in the cocktail world and with a book to her name, Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned, Huerta knows whereof she speaks. Her cocktail menu has a special “From the Book” section, with drinks such as the Armagnac Sazerac with bonded rye, Armagnac, turbinado sugar, bitters and absinthe. You wouldn’t know by the name either, but Julep essentially doubles as an oyster bar, with East Coast and Gulf Coast oysters on the small menu, along with other nibbles such as Viet-Cajun crispy shrimp.