Our coverage of the nominees in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards has reached the final two categories. First up are the 10 nominees for Restaurant of the Year.
These restaurants are a diverse lot. In terms of their settings, one is a humble-looking, hidden sushi counter in an office building, while another is a seafood restaurant in a food hall — a sharp contrast from March, which occupies a purpose-built space that's decorated with museum-worthy art. Some have beverage programs with extensive wine lists and spirits from around the world, while others are BYOB. A few of them serve a fewer than 50 people in an evening, while others may serve hundreds throughout lunch, brunch, and dinner.
They’re united by a commitment to serving consistently excellent food that utilizes high quality ingredients — many of them sourced from local farms and ranches. These nominees also set high standards for the service they offer their customers. When those elements are combined correctly, they create memorable experiences that keep us coming back again and again. That's why our panel of local restaurant industry experts has selected them for this recognition.
We’ll find out who wins next week at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony on Thursday, April 13. Tickets are sold out.
This Montrose-area restaurant’s mix of French and Gulf Coast influences has been a hit since it opened in 2020. While Houstonians have discovered a surprisingly large appetite for staples like lobster pot pie, baked Alaska, and short rib ravioli, executive chef Aaron Bludorn and chef de cuisine Chase Voelz continue to evolve the menu with additions such as a jollof rice-inspired crab rice originally created for a collaboration dinner with New Orleans chef Serigne Mbaye — one of many guest chef meals that always brings a little extra energy to the restaurant. Beyond the food and warm service, the restaurant also regularly raises money for the Southern Smoke Foundation, World Central Kitchen, and other worthy causes.
Located in downtown’s Post Market food hall, this seafood restaurant is led by Norwegian chef Christopher Haatuft in partnership with James Beard Award and Top Chef winner Paul Qui. Haatuft brings his passion for sustainability to the restaurant’s menu, which draws upon Gulf Coast, East Coast, and globally-sourced fish and shellfish. While it’s possible to eat an inexpensive meal built around dishes like fish nuggets and a snitter (a Norwegian, open-faced sandwich), the biggest culinary thrills are in expertly prepared bluefin tuna, whole red snapper, and luxurious shellfish platters. While the setting may lack some of the drama of our other nominees, the artful blend of European, Japanese, and Texas influences makes it must visit for serious diners.
True to its name, this Galleria-area sushi restaurant is unmarked (first time visitors should look for the storefront decorated with Japanese comic books). Once seated at the intimate, U-shaped counter, chef Niki Vongthong and her team lead diners on a 12-15 course progression that includes both nigiri and composed plates. Hidden Omakase’s use of dry-aged fish, its carefully made housemade sauces, and chef Vongthong’s incorporation of her Thai heritage — we recommend paying extra for her duck larb hand roll — into the menu all help make for a memorable meal.
Part of what makes this Upper Kirby sushi restaurant so compelling is its breadth. From familiar fare such as the $12 katsu don lunch special and lobster mac and cheese to an elaborate omakase that utilizes fish flown in from Japan, Kata Robata caters to just about every taste. Daily specials showcase seasonal ingredients, and an extensive beverage list features includes a wide range of sake, spirits, wine, and beer. To borrow a term from baseball, it's a five tool player — the rare unicorn that does everything well all the time. No wonder it's constantly packed for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
This restaurant in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston offers a vegetable-forward menu that mixes locally-sourced, seasonal produce with luxurious ingredients like French white asparagus, Ora King salmon, and Dover Sole. Its elegant dishes are delivered with service worthy of its sister locations in New York and Miami that each hold one Michelin star. A dining room that features the dramatic, wall-sized tapestry Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two and a view of the museum’s sculpture garden enhances the restaurant’s refined atmosphere.
What sets March apart from other Houston restaurants is how carefully choreographed every aspect of its meals are. From a sip of vermouth in the lounge to the final mignardise, the March experience is precisely calculated to attend to its diners’ needs. The recently introduced Greek menu demonstrates extensive research and precise technique with its modern interpretations of classic dishes such as spanakopita, moussaka, and souvlaki. Similar effort goes into sourcing the right wine pairings for each dish. If Michelin inspectors ever make their way to Houston, we predict they'd recognize March with at least two stars.
This ultra-exclusive omakase counter evolved into a complete restaurant over the past year. Renovations upgraded the kitchen’s capacity — paving the way for Neo to serve diners six nights per week and for reservations to be available via Tock. Chefs Paolo Justo and Luis Mercado took the next step in their careers, too, collaborating with former Pujol head chef Alex Bremont on a series of sold out dinners that blended Mexican and Japanese techniques. While the specific pieces of what nigiri the chefs serve may vary depending on what’s ready in the dry-aging case or which local produce the chefs are employing, the highly personal service and intimate atmosphere are constants.Expect both chefs' recent travels to manifest as ever more exciting new dishes.
Six years in, Riel remains as vital as its ever been, a testament to the discipline and focus of chef-owner Ryan Lachaine and his team. Asking this restaurant’s fans to pick their favorite dish from the menu of elevated comfort food is bound to cause an argument. When someone says butter burgers, someone else might say caviar tots — but wait, what about the truffle pierogi or the kimchi carbonara pasta or the cabbage rolls. Thankfully, the shareable format means a group of friends can get all of their favorites at every meal. Finish your meal with a shot of bourbon for the full Riel experience.
As it prepares to celebrate its fourth anniversary this month, Squable maintains its status as one of Houston’s most consistently delicious restaurants. Chef Mark Clayton’s European-inspired menu blends staples like the marinated mussels on toast and the signature French cheeseburger with seasonal items that keep things fresh. General manager Terry Williams oversees a beverage program that includes both an eclectic, globally-sourced wine list and a spirits selection worthy of its sister concepts Anvil and Better Luck Tomorrow. A recent upgrade to its patio has made this Heights restaurant an even more comfortable place to dine.
Texas barbecue meets Vietnamese techniques at this restaurant that unites Masterchef winner Christine Ha with Saigon House’s Tony Nguyen. The dynamic duo earned a James Beard Award Best Chef: Texas finalist nomination in 2022 for their menu, which features dishes such as Viet-Cajun roasted oysters, beef rib fried rice, fried chicken that’s marinated in lemongrass and buttermilk, and a wagyu flat iron steak served in the style of bo luc lac. A full menu of creative, Asian-influenced cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) enhances the food.