John Mariani Comes Clean About Houston, and He Really Likes Lucille's

Yesterday we told you about Esquire's list of the best new restaurants in the U.S. for 2013. And we lamented the fact that, while two Dallas restaurants made the cut, no Houston eateries were on the list.

Imagine our delight, then, when Esquire's food and travel correspondent and the author of the list, John Mariani, reached out to us regarding our displeasure with his selections. He reminded us that back in 2000 Lee Brown, the mayor of Houston at the time, proclaimed October 19 "John Mariani Day" in appreciation of Mariani's recognition of Houston's dining scene. So because everyone -- even folks who wrongly choose Dallas over Houston -- deserves a fair trial, we gave Mariani a call so he could speak in his defense.

"First of all," Mariani told us, "I just want to address the fact that I name 20 restaurants in the U.S., so not every year is every city going to have one. This year I got to Austin for two or three days, and spent the same amount of time in Houston and Dallas. I found a number of places in each city that were certainly worthy."

Mariani went on to explain his method for judging restaurants. First, he says, they must have opened between September and August of the year he's writing about. Second, they should be chef-driven and serve excellent food. Third, they should be distinctive in some way or be doing something that no other restaurant is doing. And finally, they should be able to stand up against the top-ranked restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Apparently, Mariani has eaten at The Pass, though, he says, "I wish I'd gone to the Provisions part. He said that he was able to get a reservation on short notice because the restaurant wasn't full on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. He dined with Teresa Byrne-Dodge of My Table magazine, and said of the experience:

"It was very subdued, and the people at the next table weren't saying anything to each other, while people on the next side of the wall (at Provisions) were having a grand time. I have admiration for what they're trying to do at Pass, but I thought that a lot of it was gimmickry that didn't add up to taste."

We asked Mariani where else he ate in Houston on that trip, and he said he had a wonderful time at Lucille's. He noted that if he'd had 25 or 30 slots to fill on his list of best new restaurants, Lucille's would probably be on there. He also mentioned again how much he loves what Underbelly is doing and that Tony's continues to be "as fine an Italian restaurant as you'll find in the U.S."

In February 2012, Mariani responded to a question posed by My Table magazine: "Is Houston the Next Great American Food City?"

On his blog, Virtual Gourmet, Mariani wrote, "On occasion, when asked what are America's best restaurant cities, I have sometimes surprised people by putting Houston just behind New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and L.A., and ahead of Boston, DC, Miami, and its rival, Dallas."

He highlighted El Real, Quattro and Philippe as standouts during his visit back in 2012. He wrote that El Real is "the real deal," and that no other Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston "has the breadth and depth, not to mention Texas white-guy swagger, that El Real does."

Of Quattro, which Mariani again mentioned as being one of his favorites during our phone conversation, he wrote, "It's always hard not to order cotoletta of veal alla milanese when I see it on a menu, and Quattro's is first-rate, the breading crisp and buttery, the veal full of flavor, with bright salad and tomatoes on top. Nothing could improve on an impeccably cooked branzino alla piastra, grilled, with mixed vegetables."

Finally, in his blurb about Philippe, Mariani wrote, "Next time I go to Philippe's, I'll go early, sit down and order any of the French dishes, knowing that a chef of his background -- soon to be awarded the illustrious title of Maître de Cuisiniers de France -- will deliver all I crave of that kind of cooking."

These are all lovely comments about Houston food, but we couldn't let Mariani go without addressing the criticism that's followed him for years regarding the way he operates. Many people claim that he notifies restaurants that he'll be coming before he dines there, which most would agree is unethical for a critic.

But, says Mariani, he's not a critic.

"I do tell the restaurants that I'm coming for the simple reason that I'm not technically a daily city newspaper critic who pretends to be anonymous when everyone knows who they are," Mariani said. "I go as a feature writer. I want to talk to the chef, and I tell him to make me his best dish. But there's no pretense to that whatsoever."

"Let's say I was a movie critic," Mariani continued, "and I also interviewed actors and directors and wrote about the movie compared to their last movies. It's the same type of thing. If you look at my colleagues at GQ like Alan Richman, or Jeffrey Steingarten at Vogue...I don't think anywhere any of us is called a critic."

Whether you deem Mariani a critic or take issue with the way he does his job is up to you. But one thing's for sure: Mariani needs to get his ass back to Houston and try more of our top-notch food, stat. We suggested Chinatown to the intrepid diner, which he embraced.

"Chinatown it is next time I'm in town!"

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