Even someone dining solo could barely find a spot at the bar at One Fifth on a recent early evening before the restaurant was fully seated for its first turn.
It was the last week for the first installment of chef/owner Chris Shepherd's evolving menu, which will shift gears from steakhouse to "Romance Languages" when it reopens after a monthlong hiatus on September 1.
According to the restaurant's floor sommelier (and Peska alumna), Kelly Spradley, there won't be any radical changes to wine director Matthew Pridgen's program, although he will be adding neo-Latin wines that reflect the menu's pivot to European and Mediterranean cuisine.
Pridgen's excellent list is organized by grape variety, a formula that works extremely well for varietally sensitive Americans who like the simplicity of ordering by grape name. But as they leaf through his selections, the wine-savvy will immediately recognize the depth and breadth of his palate.
The Chenin Blanc selection alone would be enough to make any Loire Valley junkie seethe with desire. But the sprinkling of New World offerings in the same section — interspersed with thought-provoking modernist drawings — reveal his vinous wisdom in appealing to wine lovers beyond the hipster world.
Pridgen's program came online in January of this year, not long after Chris Poldoian became the new general manager and wine director of Camerata, one of the city's favorite wine bars and established epicenters of wine hipsterdom.
It was no small step for wine kind, considering the program that preceded his tenure there. But the polymath Poldoian, a restaurant industry veteran with finely tuned chops, has brought a new energy to the list and new verve to the wine education that made this bar such a popular destination for Houstonian wine lovers.
The program's raison d'être (or raisin d'être, as it were), said Poldoian, is to "get people more excited and enthusiastic about wines that they don't know. We're trying to get people to drink good things. Real wines, made by real people, harvested in real places."
At least one Houston wine professional was duly impressed the other day as Poldoian walked him through the nuances of Basque wines, including a primer on Basque pronunciation and language (not only is Poldoian an expert on the wines of Spain and Basque Country, but he is also fluent in Spanish and well versed in Basque thanks to his studies in Spain, where he attended a Spanish — not American — university).
He is conscious of the fact that not everyone visits Camerata to learn about wine: Some folks just want to enjoy a glass of their favorite tinto fino with their date, he noted. But he and his team are still to be counted among the best wine educators in our city and not one of them misses a beat when asked to describe a wine or its appellation.
A glass of a fresh rosé made from Bobal, a rare and once forgotten but now revived grape of Spain, captured the verve and spirit of his engaging approach to fine wine, keeping it fun, tasty and compelling.
Like Poldoian's new program at Camerata, the wine list at Killen's STQ also made its debut at the end of 2016. It's arguably one of the strangest and most discombobulated wine programs in the city. But what it lacks in reason, it makes up for in rhyme.
Deedee Killen's lists at the original steakhouse were known for their monolithic selection of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the like. But this time around, she has expanded her offerings to include some of the cooler-climate appellations from the Golden State, like the excellent Stolpman Syrah from Santa Barbara, the Wind Gap Syrah from Sonoma Coast, and Arnot-Roberts Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Cruz Mountains.
Yes, you'll still find wines like the aptly named Plumpjack from Napa and the ridiculously overpriced (but still go-to steakhouse favorite) Schrader To Kalon, made with fruit sourced from one of Napa's most storied vineyards. But her departure from the "slab and cab" paradigm is as refreshing as it is welcomed.
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And for those among us who like to venture beyond California when shelling out $200 per person for a steak dinner, there is an ample offering of Europeans, like the 2011 Oddero Barolo Villero (single-vineyard) that had an italophile guest swooning.
Unfortunately, there's no apparent order to the list. The wines are arbitrarily listed in their sweeping categories. When asked what the bottle price was for one of the by-the-glass selections (since they are not included), the server didn't have an answer (nor did he follow up).
But STQ's program is a breath of fresh (and cooler-climate) air in a city where steakhouses rarely venture beyond the tried-and-true model.
Deedee Killen's list, like One Fifth's and Camerata's, is a great example of how Houston continues to grow and evolve as a truly cosmopolitan destination for fine wine.