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By Eating Our Words
9. Cafe Rabelais
"Their wine list is exclusively French," says Vann. "And it is massive." Among the many lists in town that focus exclusively on wines from a single country, Cafe Rabelais's list is the best. "These types of wine lists deserve to be rewarded and celebrated because they're great places to try something new, and for classics," says Vann. "Tell them what you drink and have them find the French equivalent for you. Plus, these kinds of lists are great for hidden gems, like a 2006 A et P de Villaine Bouzeron for $65."
The wine list at Hugo's, created by longtime sommelier Sean Beck, is notable for its seamless pairing with chef Hugo Ortega's interior Mexican cuisine. "In my opinion, sushi and Mexican cuisine are two of the most lazily paired types of food," says Vann. "They both demand thoughtful wine lists, and these are the best examples of setting a guest up for success in a world where it's not easy to find the right wine with the food. Sean spells it out explicitly, not just showing which wines work with some dishes, but even goes further to warn about wines that won't work: the heavy reds section says 'careful, these may fan the flames [of spicy cuisine].'"
7. Uchi and Kata Robata (tied)
Along with Kata Robata, Uchi sets the bar in Houston for pairing sushi with wine — a difficult task, as noted above. At Kata, you'll find a section of Steven Salazar's wine list devoted entirely to solid sushi pairings with what Vann calls "legendary choices like Domaine Sigalas Santorini or Huet Sec Vouvray." And at Uchi Houston, Vann notes: "David Keck is an invaluable resource. He convinced the restaurant group to participate in 'Summer of Riesling,' which is genius for sushi joints."
6. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
"When you've got a billion dollars, you'd better have a great wine list," Turner jokes. The famously wealthy wine cellar under sommelier Steven McDonald at Pappas features more than 40,000 bottles — or roughly $5 million worth of wine. "When you want to spend serious money on a bottle of red wine, this should be your first choice," says Vann. "It's really quite simple: a massive, cavernous cellar, tended to by some of the best sommeliers in town. Their markups are beyond reasonable."
"Oxheart's list is great, and especially when you start talking about a list that lets its own ego go," Turner remarks. Chef Justin Yu's dazzling food is never overshadowed by the wines that Vann picks, although the wines themselves typically are unusual choices. Right now, for example, Vann is doing a daring all-white pairing with Oxheart's four- and seven-course dinners. "It stays very much in line with what they're doing in the kitchen, which is what a wine list should always do," says Turner. "It's just the wonderful frame in which that food is shown."
4. Backstreet Cafe
Sean Beck's motto at Backstreet is that "wine is not an extra or a luxury but a necessary part of healthy living and a critical ingredient in helping food taste its best." To that end, the list has something for everyone — perfectly geared toward the diverse clientele that crowds the old River Oaks house and its lush patio. "Backstreet's list is great in that if you and your wine geek buddies want to go and have something to eat, and drink something really new and cool and groovy, [Beck's] probably got it," says Turner. "If your aunt from Kansas City comes to town and all she wants to drink is Cakebread, they've got that, too."
Philippe's sommelier Vanessa Trevino Boyd has been hard at work recently, making sure that the wine program she curates remains one of the best in town. She's been hosting acollaborative guest sommelier series that's a steal at only $40 a person, and she's also transformed the ground floor of Philippe into Phil's Wine Lounge, which offers 80 choices by the glass from her fine, French list. "A lot of wine programs go 'Woo, I've got a lot of money, I can do anything!'" says Turner. Not at Philippe, where the wine list is classically structured, thoughtfully curated and captained ably by one of the few female somms in the city.
2. The Pass & Provisions
Plenty of raves are reserved for the intelligent wine list that sommelier Fred Jones has constructed at the whimsical Pass & Provisions. "Fred has such a geeky list, but approachable," says Borel. "Maybe it's because I'm such a geek, but I always find something I love on that list." Vann gushes that the list is "uncompromising, daring, adventurous, aggressive, esoteric," noting that he loves Jones' list "because in a town where too many wine lists play it safe, [they] are doing something few people are brave enough to do: push people out of their comfort zones. But their wines aren't just cool, they're good. Sometimes those two can be at odds with one another."
1. 13 Celsius
It's a nearly unanimous decision that 13 Celsius is still the gold standard for wine lists in Houston nearly ten years after its owners renovated a 1920s-era Mediterranean-style building that once housed Jennings Cleaners and Dyeing Shoppe. Vann calls 13 Celsius "the best wine bar in town" for its "aggressively low markups on an extensive by-the-glass program that also allows tasting-sized pours." Turner agrees, adding: "Everyone else is playing for second place. Their list is amazing, it's big, it's interesting, it's curated with such love and care. You go in there and speak to anyone who works there, and it's like they made that list." "Mike [Sammons] and Adele [Corrigan] gravitate toward French and Italian selections — both classic and the freaky stuff," says Vann. "Plus they also have a killer beer list, and it is the best place in town to go knock back a few bottles of Basque Sidra out of the authentic Porron decanter." Turner adds with an approving laugh: "And they only carry one American Chardonnay on that list."