Only one category left to reveal for the 2016 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, but we've saved the best for last. In a city of thousands of restaurants — and, ahem, hundreds of good ones — how did our panel of restaurant industry insiders select these five restaurant finalists?
Obviously, the phrase "of the year" plays a big part. These restaurants are still vital, still innovating, and still offering diners a taste of something they might not have even realized they wanted before they sat down. They feature not just talented executive chefs but also motivated cooks who will, hopefully, someday open ambitious places of their own. Finally, they all deliver outstanding service to their guests.
One of them will join Oxheart and The Pass & Provisions as Tastemaker Award winners. Let's look at the finalists.
Coltivare Pizza & Garden
Since it opened in 2014, this restaurant that blends Southern and Italian flavors has held the unofficial title of being the favorite dining destination for members of Houston’s restaurant community. Most of the credit for that goes to chef Ryan Pera’s food, which utilizes high-quality, rigorously-sourced local ingredients, including items from the restaurant’s 3,000-square foot garden.
The black pepper spaghetti has already become a modern classic, and the restaurant’s seasonal salads are some of the city’s most creatively-assembled vegetable dishes. Creative cocktails and a carefully curated wine list further the appeal, which may explain why diners line up at opening for one of the coveted tables.
By any metric, whether it be quality, value for the money, service or overall experience, Kata Robata serves the best sushi in Houston, but the restaurant’s diverse set of skills make it one of the city’s best overall dining experiences, too. Non-sushi options shine as well — just ask anyone who’s scored one of the 12 daily bowls of Kata’s signature tonkotsu ramen.
Executive chef Manabu Horiuchi (Hori-san) sets the tone, and diners who sit in front of him for an omakase tasting can count on one of the best dining experiences in the city. An extensive list of wine, spirits, and sake allows patrons to find the perfect pairing for their meal, and reservations are a little easier to get thanks to some additional seating on what had been the patio.
Diners are well past the days when they had to justify the decision to drive to Pearland for one of Ronnie Killen’s steaks and signature sides like J.J. Watt’s beloved creamed corn. A move that essentially tripled the restaurant’s capacity could have diminished its reputation for quality, at least temporarily, but fans and critics alike have greeted the new arrival with almost universal praise.
To help meet the demand, Killen has surrounded himself with a talented team, including Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year finalist Samantha Mendoza and executive chef Joe Cervantez. The selection of both meat sources (a variety of ranches from across the country) and preparation styles (wood grilled or seared on a broiler) sets Killen’s apart and keeps diners coming back for more. Just save room for creamed corn.
The Montrose restaurant that unites chef Adam Dorris with restaurateur Shepard Ross may bill itself as a neighborhood spot, but its ambition definitely marks it as destination dining. Building on his time at Stella Sola and Revival Market, Dorris utilizes an extensive network of local purveyors to stock Pax’s menu with fresh, seasonal ingredients that are frequently pickled, brined, or smoked to produce layered dishes that surprise diners.
Ross’s ebullient presence — watch him greet diners like old friends at one table then suggest one of his carefully chosen European wines at the next — only adds to the experience. Summer should also mark the return of the restaurant’s signature smoked peach Old Fashioned, which is just one example of Pax’s ambitious cocktail program.
That Underbelly earned a nomination in five Tastemaker Awards categories shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s been one of Houston’s most outstanding restaurants since the day it opened. At four years in, Chris Shepherd’s restaurant that “tells the story of Houston food” has settled into a comfortable middle age as the restaurant that food-obsessed out of towners are most likely to associate with the city.
The restaurant’s passionate support for both local farmers and the restaurants that influence it remains as strong as ever. Although the menu changes daily, groups (going with six or eight is best) should always order charcuterie and the two signature items, Korean braised goat and dumplings and the Cha Ca style snapper — then work with a server to craft a menu from whatever the cooks are most excited about that day. Just save room for vinegar pie.
Join us tonight at the Tastemaker Awards party as we celebrate the nominees and reveal the winners. A few tickets remain. Don't miss it.