Houston Native Wine Celeb Ray Isle Returns Home, Finds Food Scene "Deeply Local While Still Cosmopolitan"

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My 80-year old mother may not know his name but she knows his face.

"You mean that handsome young man who talks about wine on the Today show with Kathie Lee [Gifford] and Hoda [Kotb]?" she asks when I mention that I'm having lunch in Houston with Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle.

But hey, let's cut Ray some slack: My mother isn't exactly totally up to speed on the highest-profile wine writers in our country today. But she does watch morning television religiously.

Thanks to his monthly columns and frequent appearances on national television, Ray is known to more American wine lovers than any other U.S. wine writer working today. And his work not only reflects the heightened levels of wine connoisseurship in our country, it also shapes and informs the American wine palate on a scale unimaginable even a few short years ago.

Yesterday, Ray sat down with me at The Pass & Provisions on Taft for a sampling of its menu and a chat about his visit this week to Texas, where he spoke at the Austin Food & Wine Festival and spent some time catching up with family and eating his way through Houston.

As wine director Fred Jones (above, right) poured us Godello, Chenin Blanc, and a wonderful expression of Sangiovese from Molino di Grace (Chianti Classico), Ray - who grew up grew up "in West University, and later in the Braeswood/Meyerland area" -- shared his impressions of the Houston dining scene.

"It's amazing to come back [to Houston] if you grew up here in the 1970s," said Ray. "Today it's one of the best food scenes in the country. The level of ambition and the level of new stuff popping up is fantastic. And there's an awareness of food of all kinds that wasn't here when I was a kid."

"I think that one of the reasons why Houston has captured the attention of the national media is that the chefs here are pulling from multiple cultures. It's a melting pot that's really interesting."

"Like Chris Shepherd's signature dish" at Underbelly, Korean braised goat and dumplings: "It's a goat ragù with Italian gnocchi that's been filtered through a Korean sensibility."

"And the fact that he's able to source so much of his menu locally is really impressive. It's deeply local while still cosmopolitan."

On the subject of local, Ray also talked about the Texas wine seminar that he led last weekend at the Austin Food & Wine Festival.

"I was really impressed by the Texas Tannat by the Bending Branch winery" in Comfort, Texas, Isle said.

"Like California," he noted, "Texas is still trying to figure out what grapes will work best here. Tannat is a relatively rare grape, essentially grown only in few places in the world" (notably southwest France and Uruguay). "But this thick-skinned, sturdy variety really seems to do well here in Texas."

As our server at The Pass and Provisions offered Sriracha to spice up our eggplant parmigiana pizza, I asked Ray what the next stop was on his dining agenda.

"I'm dying to get down to Pearland to visit Ronnie Killen's new barbecue," he told me.

It may be Houston's new "deeply local but cosmopolitan" food scene that has captured the attention of the national media. But it's the barbecue that keeps calling Ray back. You can take the boy out of Texas but you can't take the Texas out of the boy.

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