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100 Favorite Dishes 2012

No. 1, Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings at Underbelly.

Best place to enjoy: The Raven Grill

4. Chicken pot pie

Tender chicken, sweet carrots and peas, creamy gravy, flaky pie crust: Chicken pot pie is warm, filling and comforting in the same way that visiting your grandparents' house and finding not a single dish or rug to be out of place after 30 years is. It's not a mature or elegant dish, but it's hearty and delicious — and that's all that matters.

Best place to enjoy: Daily Grill

3. Oyster stew

Oysters are at their best during cold weather and the cooler it gets in the Gulf this year, the plumper and sweeter our Texas oysters will be. (The other two coasts can keep their tiny, ugly, super-briny runts, please-and-thank-you.) And while oysters on the half shell are tasty in any kind of weather, cream-thickened oyster stew is far too heavy for a summer meal. It's even better if you throw a little smoky tasso into the mix — the meatiness of the pork cuts through the heavy broth and the salinity further perks up those buttery oysters.

Best place to enjoy: Danton's

2. Hot Pot

One of the greatest ways to enjoy a communal meal with friends is to gather around a butane-fueled hot pot and spend the evening cooking your own dinner together. Do you want your hot pot to be all spicy? All mild? Half and half? With chicken? Beef? Seafood? A combination of all three? You can completely customize your meal to nearly everyone's liking, although spicy hot pot with beef is my personal fall favorite. At the end, don't forget to crack that egg into the remaining broth to create one last bowl of egg-drop soup.

Best place to enjoy: Thai Spice Express

1. Gumbo

One of the highlights of my year is attending the Christmas gumbo party at the childhood home of one of my best friends. Her deeply Cajun mother starts making the stock for the gumbo each year right around this time — last year, it was a lobster stock — and ends up with enough gumbo to fill an oil drum. A big pot of gumbo is just as good as hot pot for bringing people together, and there's nothing like enjoying good, warm food with good, warm company.

Best place to enjoy: Liberty Kitchen / Brennan's (tie) Katharine Shilcutt
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Wine Time

Consumer-Friendly
Aggressive pricing makes wine go down easier in Houston.

As a Texan transplant (by way of southern California and New York City), I have always been impressed by Houston's across-the-board aggressive wine pricing in restaurants.

A few weeks ago, when I visited Osteria Mozza, the swank Los Angeles outpost of the Bastianich empire, one of the wine buyers told me that "$14 a glass is a sweet spot" for his city.

Compare that with a tide of Houston by-the-glass programs that start at $7 per glass and rarely exceed $12, including some of the most glamorous dining spots in town, and you realize that we have some of the most consumer-friendly pricing in the country.

There are also a number of wine directors who are finding creative ways to get their patrons to step outside the dreaded "Napa Cab" comfort zone where so many of our high-rolling residents sadly reside.

At L'Olivier on Westheimer, wine director James Watkins will pour any wine on his list by the glass if a table will commit to two glasses. And once a bottle has been opened and poured by the glass, other guests can order it by the glass as well, like the superb Marqués de Murrieta 2006 Rioja Blanco Cappellanía he suggested last night at $12.

This oxidative white, made from 100 percent Viura grapes, may not be an easy sell for James, especially when the majority of his crowd tends to go for the infamous "oaky, buttery 'Chard.'" (Man, I just cringe every time I write Chard. Feh!) But his innovative pricing allows him the luxury of serving a tasting pour here and there and saving a glass for a wayward wine writer who happens to stop by for an aperitif. I loved the wine.

At Underbelly, Houston restaurant scene veteran Matthew Pridgen pours any and all of his by-the-glass selections in half pours, like the superb Domaine du Salvard 2010 Cheverny for which I paid $5 ($10 by the glass).

This fresh, bright, acidity-driven Loire Valley expression of Sauvignon Blanc was the ideal pairing for my Gulf snapper crudo (above). And a half pour was just the right amount of wine to accompany me as I slurped down the dish.

For the record, the by-the-glass programs at both venues start at $7.

Like many wine professionals in Houston, both James and Matthew have told me that aggressive pricing is the key to getting a relatively close-minded restaurant crowd to move beyond their comfort zone.

In the nearly four years that I've lived in Texas, I've found that sommeliers and wine directors generally have to face a disconnect between their personal interests and their guests' middle-of-the-road tastes.

One man's "Napa Cab" may be another man's poison, but Houston wine professionals' creative approach to this gap makes the city one of the most wine-friendly towns in the U.S.

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