Over the last month or so, we have been introducing you to the nominees in our first CultureMap Houston Tastemaker Awards, which celebrates the best of Houston's dining scene. We asked a panel of industry insiders to tell us who the brightest shining stars are in 11 categories that run the gamut from food to drinks to design.
We celebrated all the nominees and the winners at a gala tasting event Thursday night at Winter Street Studios that drew several hundred food lovers who had a great time.
Join us in congratulating the 2014 Tastemaker Award winners:
Best Restaurant: The Pass & Provisions
Initially, it seemed impossible that chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan would be able to keep both casual Provisions and the more conceptual food at The Pass fresh and interesting, but the restaurant has emerged as one of Houston's finest. At Provisions, the food is centered around a wood-fired oven and the intriguing house-made pastas that vary with the seasons. The Pass now serves a menu that's both vegan and gluten-free, which gives the broadest possible range of diners the chance to experience the restaurant. Want to avoid some of the crowds? Try the underrated Saturday brunch.
Best Chef: Hugo Ortega
The three-time James Beard Award finalist is a winner with our panel. At Hugo's, Ortega brought interior Mexican cooking to Montrose, creating a Houston institution. In December, he launched Caracol and exceeded diners' lofty expectations with a menu that explores the wide variety of influences that constitute Mexican coastal cuisine. That he's able to keep the kitchens at both restaurants operating at a high level while still maintain Backstreet Cafe as a favorite restaurant for the River Oaks set only testifies to his skills. Now to get the JBFAs to notice.
Best Rising Star Chef: Greg Lowry
At Triniti, Greg Lowry assists executive chef Ryan Hildebrand to bring the restaurant's modern, seasonal cuisine to life. His discipline and no-nonsense attitude in the kitchen keeps everything running smoothly. When Triniti participates in events, as at the recent Go Pig! or Go Home! competition, count on Lowry to man the station and serve a dish that's always interesting.
At this unmarked bar hidden above Main Street, bartenders serve a variety of modern and classic cocktails for a crowd of happy devotees. The historic space, with its long bar, low lighting and wood trim, is a stunner — perfect for celebrating a special occasion. The patio allows visitors to soak in the scene while feeling happily removed from it.
Best Bartender: Alba Huerta
As the manager at Anvil, Huerta helped bring a customer-oriented attitude to the occasionally intimidating cocktail spot. At The Pastry War, she developed the agave-focused cocktail menu that includes Houston's best frozen margarita (only $7!). Now she's preparing to launch Julep, a bar that will explore the South's vibrant cocktail history. Expect it to be friendly and welcoming, just like its owner.
Best Brewery: 8th Wonder Brewery
With beers named after various Houston icons, 8th Wonder tries to honor its city. Only a year old, the brewery can't keep up with demand — selling beer as fast as it can be brewed and fermented. When they expand capacity, expect to see cans, because 8th Wonder on-the-go will be great.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant: Down House
Three meals a day, seven days a week — Down House fulfills a neighborhood restaurant's primary mission of always being available for its customers. Chef Mark Decker's menu utilizes high-quality local ingredients throughout and pulls from Houston's diverse array of cuisines. An intriguing cocktail menu and solid craft beer list only add to Down House's appeal. That it serves the best popover in Houston, well, that's just gravy.
Best Pastry Chef: Chris Leung
At Cloud 10 Creamery, pastry chef Chris Leung brings a seasonal perspective to ice cream. The case at Cloud 10 always contains a few staples, but Leung likes to keep things interesting with a rotating mix of flavors. Experience the full range of his creativity by sitting down to a dessert tasting of off the menu treats.
Best Sommelier/Beverage Director: David Keck
David Keck may have left his role as Uchi's beverage director to open Camerata, but he kept the Japanese-inspired restaurant's peerless customer service. At Camerata, he brings all the training and knowledge of his status as an Advanced Sommelier to a wine list that's full of unexpected surprises. His high standards for service have been imparted to Camerata's staff, who can always answer questions about how and where a wine is produced. As one of the founders of the Houston Sommelier Association, Keck is helping to develop the next group of wine professionals who will guide diners to new discoveries.
Best New Interior Design: Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette
Credit FEED, TX partners Lee Ellis and Carl Eaves for taking the basic elements of Liberty Kitchen's seaside design and turning it upscale for the bigger, fancier River Oaks location. With its long, curved bar and adjacent dining room, the space manages to contain different settings for different occasions. Decor recalls a coastal experience but also pays tribute to local neighborhoods. Does every stall in the ladies' restroom need its own chandelier? Probably not, but winners don't settle for doing things halfway.
Best Chinatown Restaurant: Mala Sichuan
No surprise that our panel selected Mala Sichuan as the best restaurant in Chinatown. One can spot a veritable who's who of chefs, bartenders and sommeliers there, particularly on a Sunday night when most fine dining restaurants are closed. They come for the signature mala tingle produced by the fresh Sichuan peppercorns used in many of the dishes, and the wine list prepared by Advanced Sommelier Justin Vann. Visits with groups are particularly rewarding, as it allows people to sample the menu broadly. Just make sure to get two orders of ma po tofu; it's that addictive.
Best New Restaurant: Killen's Barbecue
Best New Restaurant is the only Tastemakers category that's decided by CultureMap readers, and Killen's Barbecue attracted the most votes in each round of voting. Take that as proof that barbecue is still really important to many people, and Ronnie Killen's new restaurant aspires to be the best in Texas. High quality beef, housemade sausage and a custom, reverse-flow brick pit are just some of the reasons why Killen's attracts a line of people every day it's open.