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Cook Publishes Top 100, Invites Controversy

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Yesterday, via the Houston Chronicle's iPad app, critic Alison Cook published her list of the top 100 restaurants in Houston. It's the first time Cook has undertaken such an endeavor, and she has not shied away from controversy with her choices. The list is not simply an attempt to list the consensus "best" places as might be done in a Zagat or Yelp ranking. As she explains in the article accompanying the list, "these are the restaurants that matter most to me right now; the ones that make me the happiest, that stir the keenest anticipation and convey the richest sense of place." Until the article is posted on 29-95 later this week, here's an overview of the winners and losers from the top 100.

First of all, here's the top 10, in order: Oxheart, Kata Robata, Tony's, Hugo's, Feast, Underbelly, Uchi, Hubcap Grill, Pondicheri and Pho Binh trailer. There are significant surprises here. Three of these restaurants, Oxheart, Uchi and Underbelly, only opened this year, and Cook has yet to write formal reviews for any of them. Overall, the list is dominated by restaurants that have been open fewer than five years, which includes every restaurant in the top 10 except Hugo's (10 years). Tony's has been around forever, but chef Grant Gordon, specifically praised by Cook as the reason for its lofty ranking, has only been working there since 2010. Pho Binh has been open for a long time but only came into the collective consciousness of Houston's food community in 2009 when Greenway Coffee owner David Buehrer began championing it to anyone who would listen.

Obviously, Cook proclaiming Oxheart, which has only been open since March, as the city's best restaurant is the most significant news from the list. Chef Justin Yu, pastry chef Karen Man (Yu's wife) and general managersommelier Justin Vann should feel an immense sense of pride that their 31 seat, tasting-menu only restaurant has found so much favor. Cook awarded Tony's four stars in 2011; Oxheart's rank above Tony's suggests it will earn the same rare score when she publishes a formal review.

Marco Wiles is another big winner. All three of his restaurants Dolce Vita (13), Da Marco (20) and Poscol (42) are included. The only surprise is that casual pizza restaurant Dolce Vita came in ahead of the more formal, higher end Da Marco.

Ethnic restaurants that do superlative work in their category do well. In addition to Pondicherri and Pho Binh in the top 10, the list is scattered with notables such as Himalaya (11), Great W'kana (19), Mala Sichuan (26), Vieng Thai (31) and Banana Leaf (68). It's a testament to the quality and diversity of Houston's restaurant scene that Cook included so many in her ranking. These restaurants will find new audiences thanks to the list.

Also worth noting is Cook's take on Houston's sushi restaurants. Two, Uchi and Kata Robata, made the top 10, but no others make the top 100, which excludes well-regarded restaurants such as Azuma, Kubo's, Kaneyama and Soma Sushi.

Long-established Houston restaurateurs such as the Mandola family are among the other noticeable absences from the list. Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen (73) makes the list, but other, long-lived Mandola family establishments including Carrabba's, Damian's, Nino's and Vincent's don't make the cut.

Other, well-regarded restaurants with long histories that fail to make the list include Mockingbird Bistro, Backstreet Cafe and Mark's. The implication may be that these expensive restaurants that are known for style and service have been resting on their laurels food-wise for too long and need to step up their game.

One last omission: Triniti, Chef Ryan Hildebrand's new restaurant recently received two stars from Cook but is absent from the list. Roost, which Cook reviewed after Triniti and also received two stars, clocks in at 59.

Whether one agrees with either a restaurant's specific position or inclusion on the list, Cook deserves to be commended for taking on such a task. It provides a good survey of the depth and breadth of Houston's dining scene.

· The List: Alison Cook's Top 100 Restaurants [Houston Chronicle]

Oxheart's dining room by Gin Designs with input from Forest Design Build and Dumptruck Design. [Dumptruck Design]

Oxheart Restaurant

1302 Nance Street, Houston, TX 77002 832-830-8592

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