Nine out of this year’s 10 categories in the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards are decided by our panel of restaurant industry insiders. The only exception is Best New Restaurant.
The results always produce some surprises along the way, and we're sure this year's group will be no different. Read about the Round One matchups below and vote for your favorites.
The polls in the first round close at 11:59 pm on Thursday April 6, so don't delay. One vote per person per day, please. Results will be closely monitored to ensure a level playing field for all competitors.
Killen's STQ vs Cafe Azur
At Killen’s STQ, chef-owner Ronnie Killen and sous chef Teddy Lopez explore the blending of live fire cooking techniques — smoking and grilling — that unite his two most popular restaurants, Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s Barbecue. The results, as expressed in dishes like smoked short rib ravioli and pork belly burnt ends in cherry habanero barbecue sauce, have packed the intimate, 60-seat dining room every night.
While the cuisine at Killen’s STQ is a hearty take on two of Houston’s most popular cuisines, Cafe Azur looks at the lighter side of French. Chef Sidney Degaine skips familiar dishes like beef bourguignon in favor of dishes like lobster ravioli, bouillabaisse, and the whimsical French foie gras taco. Even better, the restaurant began lunch service this week, meaning it’s now possible to spend an afternoon lingering over wine on the comfortable patio.
One Fifth vs Night Market
As noted in last week’s in-depth interview, One Fifth’s first incarnation as a steakhouse has exceeded chef Chris Shepherd and partner Kevin Floyd’s expectations, and why not? Houstonians love a good steak, and the product Shepherd has sourced from high quality Texas purveyors like 44 Farms and Marble Ranch are among the best around. Seafood items, including the signature uni panna cotta, offer a twist on familiar fare, while the low wine markups and extensive bourbon selection keep drinkers happy, too.
Just as Shepherd is known for incorporating Southeast Asian techniques and ingredients into his cooking, Night Market takes a global perspective on the curry house. Chef Rikesh Patel offers Indian-influenced dishes alongside Thai and Japanese-inspired ones, while partner Mike Tran (Tiger Den, Mein) created an intimate, low lit room that makes diners feel like they’re in on a secret.
Xochi vs Nobie's
For his third Mexican restaurant, chef Hugo Ortega turned to Oaxaca, the diverse region where he both spent time as a child and has sought inspiration as an adult. The dishes, including the tylauda, a thin, crispy tortilla that’s topped like a pizza, utilize ingredients Ortega and his wife/business partner Tracy Vaught are importing to the U.S. for the first time. All that food gets back by a beverage program created by Sean Beck that features an extensive selection of tequila and mezcal, as well as wine and beers (including some Oaxacan options).
Nobie’s, on the other hand, is the first restaurant owned by chef Martin Stayer, who brings an extensive resume of stints at some of Chicago’s best restaurants to the little house in Montrose that formerly housed Au Petit Paris. Although the menu changes frequently, seafood dishes, in particular an octopus that’s braised then grilled, are always a highlight. Bar manager Sarah Troxell brings her chef’s training to the cocktails, which are always a very reasonable $10.
Riel vs Morningstar
This year has already seen enough high-profile openings that the title of Houston’s hottest restaurant has shifted a few times (currently held by Yauatcha, but I digress), but Riel is a strong contender for the best restaurant to open this year. Chef Ryan Lachaine blends the Asian-influenced modern Southern cuisine he learned while working at Reef and Underbelly with elements of his Canadian upbringing and Ukrainian heritage. That blending results in a menu where Japanese-style fried fish karage and locally-sourced hangar steak with pierogis are equally exciting choices. Stylish decor, well-priced wine and cocktails, and smooth service all mark Riel as Montrose’s newest can’t-miss restaurant.
But Lachaine isn’t the only one who mixes Asian influences into his cuisine. At Morningstar, coffee veterans David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto (Greenway Coffee, Blacksmith) put their signature twist on coffee and doughnuts. The matcha green tea doughnuts, honey butter chicken biscuit with sambal, and barbecue brisket kolaches deliver subtle twists on some of the city’s favorite breakfast treats. In addition to a full range of espresso beverages, Morningstar also offers matcha drinks for those who don’t consume dairy — just another thoughtful touch from two of Houston’s most dedicated hospitality professionals.
The Pit Room vs Cane Rosso
The Pit Room demonstrates all the ways Houston has barbecue has improved in the last five years. The Montrose restaurant uses wood-fired, offset barrel smokers, makes three kinds of sausage, and blends Tex-Mex and barbecue with a selection of housemade salsas and tortillas made with smoked brisket fat. Best of all, it’s open for lunch and dinner every day, which means people can patronize The Pit Room without a long wait in line.
Cane Rosso brings a similarly artisan approach to its rigorously authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas, but the restaurant also has a sense of humor. How else to explain its popular Honey Bastard pizza, which gets topped with habanero honey and bacon marmalade, or the Star Wars-themed promotions it runs from time to time? Of the two Houston locations, we’ll give the nod to the Montrose one, which features a massive patio that’s both covered and dog-friendly: two factors that should make it a popular place to enjoy spring’s pleasant weather.
State Fare vs Relish Restaurant and Bar
State Fare offers a compelling lineup of dishes inspired by partners Lee Ellis and Jim Mills’ memories of their childhoods in Texas and Louisiana: everything from massive burgers to shrimp cocktail to fried seafood. Ellis brings his signature aesthetic to the dining room with smoked glass panels and blue leather banquettes that help divide the massive space in the Gateway Memorial City complex. An extensive selection of craft beer, creative cocktails, and wine round out the experience.
While State Fare represents the culmination of Ellis and Mills’ years of experience, Relish is the first restaurant from Addie D’Agostino Teague and her husband, chef Dustin Teague. The concept constitutes an evolution from the to-go offers of Relish Fine Foods with a focus on classic American fare. At lunch, that means salads and sandwiches, including a first-rate fried chicken option made with chicken thighs instead of the more conventional breast, while dinners offers staples like pasta, steaks and chops, and seafood. Those dishes are served in a stylish dining room designed to make its River Oaks regulars feel right at home.
Ritual vs Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors
At Ritual, restaurateur Ken Bridge (Pink’s Pizza, Lola, etc) has united with Black Hill Ranch owner Felix Florez to create a casual steakhouse with an in-house butcher shop that offers an extensive selection of dry-aged meats, housemade charcuterie, and creative sides. The food options get paired with one of Houston’s best selections of craft beer, creative cocktails, or well-priced wines (Florez once served as a sommelier at Brennan’s). Taken together, it’s turned the former El Cantina space into a place that draws crowds at both lunch and dinner.
Eloise Nichols represents a step up in terms of sophistication for Adair Kitchen owners Nick Adair and his sister Katie Adair Barnhart. Thankfully, the siblings tapped Joseph Stayshich to craft a menu that blends raw items with inventive twists on familiar fare like the coffee roasted beets and redfish on the half shell. Stylish decor and a thoughtful beverage program make the restaurant a welcome (if occasionally noisy) respite from the chains at nearby River Oaks District.
Pi Pizza vs Le Colonial
Turning a successful food truck into a brick-and-mortar restaurant can be a perilous process, but Anthony Calleo’s decision to join forces with Cherry Pie Hospitality has taken Pi Pizza to new heights. With proper storage and better equipment, Pi’s offers a larger roster of pizzas than it ever could on the truck, as well as a full selection of sandwiches, salads, and starters. The restaurant’s signature design element — skateboards that have been custom painted with images of musicians and cult classic films — enhances the restaurant’s punk rock aesthetic.
If Pi Pizza is rock and roll, Le Colonial is jazz; specifically, the music one might have heard during the 1920s in French Indochina. While the restaurant may feature a retro design, its food offers a lighter, more modern take on classic Vietnamese fare under the direction of chef/author Nicole Routhier. Polished service and the posh upstairs lounge have made the restaurant one of River Oaks District’s hottest dining destinations.
Be sure to vote for your favorites now.