Chronicle food critic Alison Cook revealed her list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants Wednesday night. For the first time in the three-year history of the list, the paper chose to celebrate the occasion with a party, dubbed Culinary Stars, that drew a sold-out crowd of 600.
In addition to corporate sponsors and a splashy location at the downtown Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, 20 Houston restaurants paid tribute to Cook by serving food at the event. No puny sous chefs or proxies either: James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd sliced ham for Underbelly; nearby, James Beard Award winner Robert Del Grande and wife Mimi greeted diners at the RDG + Bar Annie table. Monica Pope served Sparrow’s pad thai, and Kevin Naderi doled out Roost’s antelope tartare (dish of the night, in my opinion). Triniti chef/owner Ryan Hildebrand filled plastic cups with tomato soup and Ronnie Killen supervised chefs Teddy Lopez and Patrick Feges as they served a smoked beef short rib.
When Eater first published Cook's picture two years ago, it set off a wave of controversy, but that's all gone now. She addressed the audience from the stage as photographers snapped away and posed for pictures with attendees. Asked about the change on Twitter, Cook was philosophical.
@Fulmer Laughing earlier tonight at how much tonight's event(s) would have horrified me. Today, it's just making a living.— Alison Cook (@alisoncook) September 25, 2014
The turnout speaks to Cook's lofty position in Houston's culinary scene. Like it or not, her list matters. Almost every conversation I’ve had with various restaurant industry insiders over the last three weeks has touched on it. Who will be up compared to 2013? Who’s going down? How big a splash will the class of 2014 make? Will Oxheart three-peat in the top spot? (Of course it did.)
Five new entries cracked the top 10 and sent some previous standouts tumbling down the list.
While Oxheart and The Pass may have held on to the top two spots for the second consecutive year, five new entries cracked the top 10 and sent some previous standouts tumbling down the list. Killen’s Barbecue (3), Common Bond (4) and Caracol (5) dropped Underbelly out of the top 5. Coltivare debuted at No. 9, and Melange Creperie, a tiny food cart that features imaginative, seasonal fillings, jumped from 15 to 10.
Although it’s only been open for six weeks, Pax Americana landed at 12.
The night’s big winners have to be chef and restaurateurs Hugo Ortega (Caracol, Hugo's), Ronnie Killen (Killen's barbecue, steakhouse), Marco Wiles (Dolce Vita, Da Marco), and Anita Jaisinghani (Indika, Pondicheri), who each had two establishments in the top 25. It was a good night for food trucks that opened brick and mortar outposts as Good Dog (23), Bernie’s Burger Bus (45) and Eatsie Boys Cafe (77) all received recognition. Andes Café (44) and 60 Degrees Mastercrafted (51) both earned two-star reviews in 2014 that netted them coveted spots. Roost entered the top 20 for the first time, and Provisions made a big jump from 60 to 34.
The losers list starts with Uchi and Tony’s, which fell from three and five in 2013 to 32 and 27. Cook opines that Uchi suffers from the “parent company’s expansion mode (that) seems to have dulled its once razor-sharp focus." As for Tony’s, she writes that chef de cuisine Kate McLean needs to “find her footing” with the restaurant’s tasting menus to earn a top spot.
RDG + Bar Annie fell from 28 to 65. Lucille’s (49), Asia Market (59), Poscol (64) and La Fisheria (66) highlight places that all had spots in 2013 and are completely absent in 2014. A few high-profile newcomers that Cook snubbed include Bradley’s Fine Diner, Songkran Thai, Nara, KUU and Vallone’s Steakhouse. Better luck next year.
Sticking to what works may help explain why venerable temples of fine dining like Mark’s have never found a spot on the list.
What caused some to fall? It’s hard to imagine that Del Grande’s cooking got somehow measurably worse in a year. “I tend to prize excitement and evolution over comfortable stasis in a kitchen, or in a restaurant operation as a whole,” Cook writes in a companion piece. Consistency, which can be prized by diners who may go to a restaurant just to order one favorite dish, loses out to novelty in the rankings. Sticking to what works may help explain why venerable temples of fine dining like Mark’s have never found a spot on the list.
“Beverage programs matter: not just the wine lists of yore, but the cocktail and beer lists that have become more important in recent years,” Cook writes. Perhaps the departure of former Anvil manager Chris Frankel from RDG helps explain its slip. Did adding Matt Tanner, another former Anvil manager, enable Pappas Bros. Steakhouse (unranked in 2013, now 56) to rise above rival Vic & Anthony’s (59, down from 38)? Probably not just that — new executive chef Daniel Bridges may have played a role, too — but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
While the list makes for good conversation (and undoubtedly good web traffic for the Chron), it’s hard to know how much impact it really has. Last year’s ranking at 37 didn’t save Philippe, and 45 wasn’t enough to keep Haven open. Oxheart taking the top spot in 2012 helped bring attention to the tiny restaurant, but chef Justin Yu has now earned enough national acclaim that his celebrity status is assured. Conversely, don’t expect Uchi’s dip to make getting a reservation easier.
In the end, it’s a free country. Feel free to disagree with even a thoroughly researched opinion. If a restaurant makes you happy, who cares what some critic thinks?
Which restaurants got what it deserved? Who's too high or too low? Sound off in the comments.