AUSTIN — Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and the Texas Department of Agriculture are asking chefs and restaurant owners who buy and serve local ingredients to bring Texas to the table during the fourth annual GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up, presented by Farm Credit.

During the statewide dine-out week, July 25-31, GO TEXAN member restaurants are offering special Texas menu items or a Texas food and wine pairing. Restaurants also are encouraged to donate part of their proceeds to local food banks and will receive a special menu feature on the Round-Up website for doing so.

“Our farmers, ranchers, winemakers and fishermen make it easy for chefs to serve fresh Texas fare,” Commissioner Staples said. “The GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up celebrates that connection while Texans enjoy local products and support local food banks. Chefs can sign up today to be part of one of the nation’s largest statewide dine-out weeks as we encourage patrons to ‘Go Out. Go Eat. GO TEXAN.’”

GO TEXAN is providing posters, save-the-date cards and other marketing materials to participating restaurants to help inform consumers of this opportunity to enjoy the best of Texas. Establishments serving at least three Texas wines may also receive GO TEXAN wine glasses while supplies last.

Hundreds of Texas restaurants across the state are participating in this year’s Round-Up, including Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steak House in Longview, Southwest Bistro at the Hyatt Regency Austin, Haven in Houston, Calesa in Harlingen, Canary by Gorji in Dallas and Glazed Honey Ham Co. in Lubbock.

“I’m excited to show our local communities that we care about serving fresh local food and authentic Texas wines,” said Jim Baron, owner of Blue Mesa Grill and TNT / Tacos and Tequila in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. “Our customers, more and more, are interested in where their food comes from and appreciate fresh products from local farms and vendors. This is a great opportunity for Texas restaurants to partner with local food producers and give to local food banks.”

Source: Texas Dep't of Agriculture

Funnel Cake is the most popular food at the rodeo.
For the past three years, the best of the various foods offered at the Houston Livestock Show are honored with the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards.  Contrary to popular belief, rodeo food isn't just funnel cakes and BBQ, although you'll find plenty of examples of both.
Here are 2011's winners:

Best Breakfast Food:
1st: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ Big Stone Breakfast Sandwich
2nd: Yoakum Packing Company’s Bacon Blast
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s grilled breakfast burrito

Best Taco/Burrito:
1st Freebirds World Burrito’s carnitas burrito
2nd Tad’s Bodacious Burrito’s garlic chicken burrito
3rd Texas Pride Grill’s fajita taco

Best Seafood:
1st Berryhill Baja Grill’s crispy shrimp taco
2nd Sudie’s Catfish House’s duo of fried shrimp and oysters

Best Baked Potato:
1st: Harlon’s Bar-B-Que’s super baked potato
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork super potato
3rd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Just-Do-It Baked Potato

Best Burger:
1st: Holmes Smokehouse’s angus, bacon, cheese mushroom burger
2nd: Paradise Burger’s ½ lb bacon cheeseburger
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s cheesy burger bites

Best Food on a Stick:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate covered bananas and strawberries
2nd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s jalapeno & cheese sausage on a stick
3rd: Burton Sausage’s Rodeo K-bob

Best BBQ:
1st: Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ’s pork spare ribs (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork bbq sandwich
3rd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s bar-b-que pork ribs

Best Fried Food:
1st: Sweet Cheeks’ deep fried moon pie (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Bear Mountain Bison’s Buffalo chips with The Works
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Tornado Potato Fries smothered and covered

Favorite Food:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate dipped cheesecake
2nd: Sill’s Funnel Cake Hause’s funnel cake
3rd: Saltgrass Steakhouse’s ribs and chicken platter

Most Creative:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s fried Snickers
2nd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Juicy Lucy Cheeseburger
3rd: Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill’s pulled pork sundae

Best Dessert:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s banana split funnel cake
2nd: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ cinnamon roll with “The Works”
3rd: Cobbler Café’s pecan cobbler with soft serve vanilla ice cream

Best New Flavor:
1st: Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Grub chicken, sausage and shrimp jambalaya
2nd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Lava Flow Smoothie
3rd: Paradise Burger’s fried brownie bites

Best Gourmet:
1st: DGZ Chocolates & Fudge’s Toffarazzi (toffee)
2nd: The Caramel Candy Co.’s pecan caramel
3rd: Kettle Korn of Texas’s ribeye sandwich

(via Delicious Mischief)

My bride's birthday was last week, and I wanted to arrange a birthday dinner for her and the immediate family.  One restaurant immediately came to mind:  Ciao Bello, the upscale but casual family-oriented restaurant in Tanglewood owned by the Vallone family.

One thing I love about Ciao Bello is that their menu has items that appeal to everyone.  If you're a foodie, and want to be adventurous, they've got you covered.  But if you're just interested in a good meal, they do a good job with Italian favorites like chicken parmigiana.
Shortly after we were seated, our waiter came by with a precious amuse-bouche.  A single butternut squash raviolo, glazed with a sage cream reduction.  It's my bride's favorite dish, and for Valentine's weekend, it was served with a twist - the housemade pasta was shaped into a heart.  
I told my bride that the heart shape must have been created especially for her birthday.  She gave me that look that tells me that she's indulging me, but she devoured her raviolo and ordered more as her entree.
We were all pretty hungry, so we ordered a pizza for the table.  We decide on one I'd never sampled, a classic with Italian sausage and peppers.  It came out quickly, and our kids attacked it before I could snap a photo, which explains the missing slices.
We really enjoyed this pizza.  The crust was thin and crispy, with just enough chewiness to keep things interesting.  The sweet peppers, fresh basil, and chunks of Italian sausage combined into a mild, savory combination that was enjoyed by both the adults and kids.  Even Alex loved the pizza; he is our 12-year-old pizza connoisseur who is quick to dismiss any pizza that's too spicy or too bland.
I ordered an appetizer that I'd never tried; pork tenderloin carpaccio.  The presentation was lush; the lightly cooked and seasoned pork was sliced thinly, topped with some mild arugula, shaved aged parmesan,  roma tomatoes, then drizzled with a hint of the Vallone's private labelled olive oil.
The overall impression of this dish was mild but complex.  The dominant flavor was that of the parmesan; the fresh arugula added a nice, subtle crunch, and the tenderloin's gently smoky flavor was more of an undertone.
Next up was the pasta, and I was drawn to something else I'd never sampled here:  Bombolotti Amatriciana.  The short, thick tubes of the mombolotti pasta were prepared al dente, and the signature Vallone Amatriciana sauce was a standout; the fresh tomatoes, bits of basil, and slightly crispy guanciale melded into a rich, tangy delight.  Tony Vallone introduced me to this sauce many years ago the first time I shared a meal with him, and it's one I never tire of.
After this hearty pasta, I had to select a light entree, so my eye was drawn to the seafood.  Sea bass sounded like a good choice, and the waiter assured me that the chef was very happy with the fish that had flown in.
What came out was a firm, flaky sea bass steak, deftly cooked and topped with another Vallone classic, the Barolo wine reduction sauce.  The fish was smooth, buttery, light and flavorful, and the robust tang of the Barolo reduction was a fantastic counterpoint to the creamy flavor of the fish.  On the site was some nicely crunchy garlic-grilled rapini, adding another texture and the rich butter-garlic flavor that was a satisfying complement to the fish.
We weren't surprised to enjoy this special occasion at Ciao Bello; ever since it's opened it has become one of our family's favorites.  Three generations were able to each find something they really enjoyed on the menu, something that's very important for a family event like this birthday dinner.  As a bonus, the resident foodie was able to enjoy some new dishes that he'd not experienced before.  
That's a win in anybody's book.

Ciao Bello - 5161 San Felipe - Houston 77056
713-960-0333 -

Ciao Bello on Urbanspoon

When chef Philippe Schmit left the Hotel Derek's hot bistro moderne, we joined Houston's foodie community in wondering where he would be cooking next.  Buzz about a new restaurant on Post Oak was heard, but the rumored opening date came and went.  But restaurant openings are frequently delayed, so we didn't give up hope.

Last week we were excited to hear that Philippe Restaurant + Lounge had opened next door to Robert del Grande's swank newish RDG, and couldn't wait to give it a shot.  When a client meeting got pushed back, the opportunity arose for lunch on their first day of lunch service.  We were there in a flash, and here are our impressions.

First, the location.  BLVD place on Post Oak.  Literally a stone's throw from RDG.  Valet parking, or self-parking behind the building.  Inside is a very cool lounge area downstairs; the restaurant proper is up a long, dramatic staircase.  The dining room is sleek but warm; the fabrics chosen keep the space from feeling sterile, and floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of Post Oak and the buildings across the street.

Upon being seated, we were faced with something a bit playful and a bit peculiar.  Paper placemats with clever quotations... from Chef Philippe Schmit.

We perused the brand-new lunch menu, and our first reaction was that it wasn't terribly French.  Salads, pizzas, sandwiches, seafood, pasta, and meats were all represented.  We zeroed in on their bacon cheeseburger, served on a house-made brioche bun.  Ordering it medium rare wasn't a problem.  We also wanted to sample a salad, and the Texas caesar, with BBQ-brushed skirt steak was a tempting, if non-French, choice.

The burger was a thick hand-formed patty, served on the aforementioned brioche bun, which had been griddled perhaps a touch too enthusiastically.  It was smothered in melted and re-congealed cheese, then crowned with some nicely peppered, thick-cut bacon.  It was dressed with thinly-sliced housemade pickles and butter lettuce.

There is much to like here - good quality beef, a deft touch with the seasonings, and a nice, dense housemade bun.  The patty was medium-rare, as requested.

But there were some missteps.  The beef, while tasty, was perhaps too high of grade; it was only minimally oozy, which is rare (no pun intended) in a medium-rare burger.  And the cheese was obviously melted at one point, but had congealed into a firm blanket by the time the burger reached our table.  Regardless of the missteps, this was a solid burger; tasty and featuring top quality ingredients.  We can't expect perfection out of a brand-new kitchen, and we expect it to become even better over time.

Next up was the salad, and it really grabbed our attention.  It was served on one of the longest plates we've ever seen; it literally spanned beyond my shoulders, and the salad was artfully arranged upon it.

The bits of romaine lettuce were drizzled with the mild caesar dressing, as were the croutons, tomatos, and bits of what we found out to be grilled cactus.  Our take on this dish was that it was lovely, but not particularly flavorful.  The extremely tender skirt steak tasted as if it had been grilled, not barbecued, and the expected smokiness was nowhere to be found.  The caesar dressing was also mild, and we admit to being perplexed by the inclusion of tomatoes on a caesar salad.  To be clear, it was a very tasty salad, just not what we were expecting from the description on the menu.

We saw hints of greatness on the plate at Philippe, and we hope the kitchen hits its stride in the coming months.  Considering the ample talent of the executive chef, we don't expect a long wait.

Philippe Restaurant + Bar, 1800 Post Oak Blvd, 713-439-1000.

Philippe Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon

We were excited to see that, the popular financial site, has launched a new public site where spending habits can be researched.  Called , the site is an amazing place to analyze spending habits.  (The data is an aggregate of's user base, and doesn't reveal any personal information.)

From this data we discovered how much Houstonians spend a popular restaurants.  The amounts below are averages charges recorded by Mint users during 2010:

Hugo's - $98.51
Back Street Cafe - $83.06
El Tiempo - $79.26
Pappas Seafood House - $70.84
Churrascos - $70.53
Max's Wine Dive - $62.61
Maggiano's - $59.24
Gravitas - $58.59
Fung's Kitchen - $55.06
McCormick & Schmick's - $56.87
Carrabba's - $55.37
Saltgrass Steak House - $54.91
London Sizzler - $51.01
Pappadeaux - $46.46
Benjy's - $44.90
Miyako - $44.31
La Vista - $43.70
El Tiempo Cantina - $43.72
Macaroni Grill - $42.01
Red Lobster - $41.15
Cheesecake Factory - $40.68
Outback - $40.48
Benihana - $40.04
P.F. Chang's - $39.70
Texas Roadhouse - $39.64
Pappadeaux - $39.55
Grand Luxe Cafe - $38.62

The full list can be seen on Mint.

As 2010 draws to a close, it's time for us to look back at this remarkable year, and recognize the people, places, and things that we'll most fondly remember.

Trend of the Year

Burgers, burgers, burgers.  The humble hamburger represents a full-fledged trend in the Houston dining scene.  Always a popular choice, we've seen it elevated to new heights by both fine dining establishments and neighborhood joints.  It seems that every other new restaurant features a signature burger, and the result is that diners can enjoy a superb meal for an amazingly modest tariff.

Annoying Trend of the Year
Foodie Backlash.  During 2010, we saw an increasing number of pundits attack foodies and their enthusiasm for great meals, talented chefs, and the whole experience of dinner-as-theater.  Granted, some foodies brought this upon themselves, but we thought it was a bit disingenuous to attack an entire group based on the antics of a few overly self-serious standouts.

Closing of the Year

Tesar's.  One of the most promising restaurants outside the loop fell victim to the slow economy, a seemingly hexed location, and inexperienced management.  But out of the ashes of the restaurant's failure arose two talented young chefs who will be making their mark on the Houston restaurant scene in the coming years.

Honorable Mentions: Amici, Sabetta, La Trattoria, The Rockwood Room

Opening of the Year

Caffe Bello.  Tony Vallone has been the master of fine dining in Houston for decades, and many an eyebrow was raised when he announced plans to open a restaurant in Montrose.  This was not the playground of his usual crowd, but Tony, son Jeff, and savvy young partner Scott Sulma quickly charmed the denizens of Montrose with their spin on modern Italian cuisine, including the tasty, thin-crust pizzas that left all the critics swooning.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, The Burger Guys, Cinq.

Burger of the Year

Hubcap Decker at Hubcap Grill.  This category was a tough one in 2010 - we sampled dozens of fantastic burgers, and didn't even work our way to the end the list of places we wanted to try.  But one burger stood out for us among all the rest - Ricky Craig's superlative Hubcap Decker, perhaps the finest incarnation of a traditional double cheeseburger we've ever encountered.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille Burger, Bleu Cheese Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen, Beaver Burger

Foodie of the Year

Dr. Ricky.  Anyone following the Houston food scene knows that Houston has no shortage of people who are willing to share their experiences and opinions about food and dining.  But we think that Dr. Ricky goes above and beyond, and educates his audience with every post.  His knowledge of food is vast, and we had the pleasure of dining with him and learning that the man is just as insightful and interesting in person as he is online.

Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, J.C. Reid, Nishta Mehra

Critic of the Year

Katharine Shilcutt.  When Robb Walsh stepped down as critic for the Houston Press, a vacuum was formed, and we were very curious to find out who would fill it.  Enter Katharine Shilcutt, a popular local blogger and foodie who had recently started making great contributions to the Press's Eating Our Words blog.  Shilcutt had big shoes to fill, but her engaging writing style, quick wit, and genuine love of exploring new places made her the right choice for the Press.

Honorable Mentions: Alison Cook, Sarah Rufca

Restaurateur of the Year

Bryan Caswell.  We've watched Bryan Caswell expand his sphere of influnce from the kitchen of Hotel Icon to the living rooms of foodies across America.  Along the way, he's opened what many consider to be the best seafood restaurant in the United States (REEF), an outstanding slider joint (Little Bigs), and a unique spin on Texas Italian cuisine (Stella Sola).  Between all this he had a chance to represent Houston on The Next Iron Chef, and explain to up-and-coming cooks why they need to work in a Waffle House.  Next up?  Opening a classic Tex-Mex place in Montrose with Robb Walsh.  After that, we expect a run for the Governor's Mansion.

Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Jeff Vallone, Cary Attar

Chef of the Year

Cesar Rodriguez.  Houston is a town with a lot of churrascarias.  But one, Samba Grille, stands above them, with an impressive slate of composed dishes alongside the savory grilled meats.  Chef Rodriguez has brought his years of experience (with both the Vallone and Cordua organizations) to this new restaurant, and right out of the gate the new kitchen was firing on all cylinders.  We attended the soft opening, and can't remember a new organization ever executing so well.  The result was that after being open for only a month, Samba was on every critic's short list for 2010, and deservedly so.  From unique soups to a top-notch burger, the kitchen at Samba Grill delivers, thanks to Chef Rodriguez's watchful eye at the helm.

Honorable Mentions: L.J. Wiley, Jeramie Robison, Austin Simmons, Bryan Caswell

Restaurant of the Year

Hubcap Grill.  There are tens of thousands of restaurants in Houston, and the safe choice would be one of the city's superb fine dining establishments.  But to us, Hubcap Grill sums up what a great restaurant is all about: A superlative product delivered with vision and passion, making its guests very happy.  A tiny location in the shadow of the tall buildings downtown, Hubcap Grill has become Houston's go-to spot for great burgers, due to the hard work and brilliant insight of Ricky Craig, the chef and proprietor.  Ricky's approach to designing a burger is as meticulous as the work of any Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and the results speak for themselves: Hoardes of satisfied guests, and a list of accolades including three coveted stars from Alison Cook.  We concur with the esteemed Ms. Cook; Hubcap Grill has succeeded, and is among the very best restaurants to be found in the city.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, RDG+Bar Annie, Chez Roux

We're big fans of the food of New Orleans.  Whether it's the upscale Creole cuisine served at the fine restaurants around the Crescent City, or the down-home Cajun food found at hole-in-the-wall kitchens all over Louisiana, we love the cuisine of our neighbor to the East.

The only problem is that it can be tough to find... especially as you get farther outside the Loop.

So you can imagine our interest when we received a tip from a reader about a new restaurant opening on Market Street.  Called Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen, it's a family-run restaurant located on Market Street in the shadow of the Avia Hotel.

Wait a minute.  Family run?  On Market Street?  The place where the new Tiffany's just opened, and Tommy Bahama's is inexplicably busy all the time?

It's true.  The Schilleci family has opened this intimate, elegant French Quarter-style restaurant on Market Street.  The family had operated a small carry-out cajun cafe in Spring, but when their lease ran out, they decided to head north to the Woodlands to open a full-service restaurant.  Market Street is truly becoming the culinary capital of Montgomery County.

The restaurant is strategically located by both the Avia Hotel and the parking garage.  So unlike just about every other restaurant on Market Street, parking should be plentiful and nearby.

We visited Schilleci's for a late lunch on their first day in business, and met most of the family.  Wayne Schilleci, Sr is the patriarch of the family; he and his wife Debbie were overseeing the bright, airy dining room from a strategic location in the corner.  Wayne Sr was also talking with every customer, soliciting feedback and displaying the type of humility that's rare in the restaurant business.  Their son Zach was overseeing the front of the house, welcoming each guest and coordinating the operation of the very new waitstaff.  Wayne Jr is the chef, and was putting his kitchen staff through their paces - in this brand-new restaurant, many of the cooks had never worked together before, and had to learn to coordinate their efforts.

The Schilleci Family: Debbie, Wayne Sr, Zachary, Wendy, Wayne Jr

But how is the food?  We know it's not fair to pass judgement on a restaurant's cuisine on its first day, but we want to pass along our initial impressions.  We sampled a couple of New Orleans classics:  Jambalaya and Seafood Gumbo.

First, the Jambalaya.  Our cup was overflowing with chunks of soulful, coarse-grained Andouille sausage and thick slices of spicy Italian sausage.  Completing the dish was some beautiful saffron-colored rice, seasoned with peppers, onions, and a hint of celery.  The heat level was moderate, starting deceptively slowly and building up to a nice controlled burn.  The heat was masterfully balanced with the savory flavors in the dish, something that's all to rare in Cajun cooking.

Next up was the gumbo.  We sampled Schilleci's seafood gumbo, a sharp, spicy roux packed with plenty of nicely-sized gulf shrimp and lump crabmeat.  The roux had a simmering, balanced heat, and the onion, pepper, and okra flavors melded to create an exceptional background for the fresh seafood.

We love gumbo, and Schilleci's may be the best gumbo we've had in Texas.  We were particularly impressed that we didn't have to kick up the roux with a few drops of Tabasco - Chef Wayne is not afraid to season his gumbo, and deftly walked the line between too bland and too hot.

Wayne Schilleci Jr and Zach Schilleci

Schilleci's didn't feel like a restaurant that had just opened.  The staff was knowledgeable and friendly, the food was very well prepared, and the cozy interior was beautifully finished - the dove grey walls were adorned with  photos of New Orleans taken by another family member.  Considered touches were all around; even the ceiling was tiled with ornate squares that evoked the feeling of a hundred-year-old establishment in the Quarter.  And the Schilleci brothers seem to naturally fall into the two key roles needed for a successful restaurant - a talented chef in the back of the house, and a gracious host who's working the room and keeping the patrons happy.

We predict that Schilleci's will be a big success; it's a totally different dining option for Woodlands residents, and the restaurant is overflowing with the type of warmth that only comes from a family-run establishment.

Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen - 9595 Six Pines Drive Suite 120
281-419-4242 -

Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen on Urbanspoon

My first rule of dining is to order what a restaurant specializes in, or is known for.  That rule rarely steers me wrong, so I tend to follow it almost every time.  But recently I broke this rule.

Samba Grille is a new restaurant downtown, one I've visited before.  I really enjoyed their churrascaria; as a devoted carnivore, a variety of freshly grilled meats is something hard to pass up.  They also have some tempting seafood dishes, many of which I've yet to sample.

But I was on a quest.  One of the partners in Samba Grille is Nathan Ketcham, who happens to be a friend of mine.  Nathan and I used to eat lunch together frequently when he lived in the Woodlands, often at the late, lamented Tesar's Modern Steakhouse, which was home of one of the state's great hamburgers.

Nathan shares my passion for burgers, and he knows a good one from a bad one.  Now that Nathan is helming his own restaurant, I had to sample his hamburger.  Of course, his place specializes in the cuisine of South America, so my expectations weren't too high... but I figured Nathan wouldn't disappoint me.
So on a recent Friday, I picked up my lovely bride at her downtown office, and we drove over to Samba for lunch.  Parking was a snap (often an issue downtown) and we entered and sat down.  After a brief perusal of the menu, we both ordered burgers.  While we waited, we snacked on Samba's addictive cheese rolls.  In short order, the burger appeared.

Samba's burger has a strong Latin flair.  It's made from grilled sirloin, no doubt trimmed from the steaks they butcher in-house.  The beef is blanketed with buttery Spanish machego cheese.  To this they add crisp, smoky bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, and aji aioli, a spicy garlic sauce made with Peruvian peppers.  The burger was built on a soft, slightly sweet bun.  I'm a bit of a burger purist, so I vetoed the avocado, but I decided to try the aioli.

Biting into it, I was immediately impressed by the smooth mouthfeel and the balance of the burger.  Front and center was the flavor of the meat - a robust beefy swagger that really hit the spot.  I've eaten some very good burgers lately, but none have nailed the beefy flavor quite like Samba has done.  The counterpoint of the buttery machengo cheese added smoothness, and the heat from the aji aioli popped in a moment later, adding a spicy Latin counterpoint to the flavor profile.  Not only has Samba created a great burger, they've done so with South American flair.

The choice of ingredients was masterful.  The bacon's flavor was subtle, and the slight crunch was a nice contrast to the smooth feel of the beef and cheese.  The difference between good and great is in the details, and it's obvious to me that Nathan and Chef Cesar Rodriguez spent the time to sweat the details.

This is the burger I've been waiting for since Tesar's shut down.  Thank you, Nathan.

I came to Samba expecting to enjoy a good burger, but instead I found one of Houston's very best.  If you love burgers, go check 'em out.

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

Every year, the nationwide city guide Citysearch sponsors a Best of Houston contest. It's a contest where Citysearch users vote to name the best local business in a variety of categories.

According to Citysearch:

Based on millions of votes from our Citysearch community, Best of Citysearch showcases the best restaurants, nightlife, spas, salons and other businesses in your neighborhood. Click on the winner lists below to discover the best Houston has to offer.

This year's contest had some peculiar results.

Best Restaurant: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Fine Dining: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Business Lunch and Dinner: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Outdoor Dining: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
(I'll stop posting links at this point.  But they just keep winning...)

Best Lunch Spot: The Barbed Rose in Alvin

Best Group Dining: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best American Food: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Burger: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Dessert: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Seafood: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Steak: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Best Wine List: The Barbed Rose in Alvin
Are you seeing a pattern?

The Barbed Rose is a small steakhouse that's located in Alvin, Texas, many miles past the city limits of Houston.  They've been open since July.  I think it's a safe bet that if you polled a hundred Houstonians at random, very few would name The Barbed Rose as the best in any of these categories.

Heck, none might even know of the restaurant's existence.

Apparently The Barbed Rose conducted some sort of grass-roots campaign, complete with bribes incentives for those voting for them.  And apparently it was conducted on a large enough scale that a small restaurant in Alvin was able to win all of these categories in America's fourth largest city.

UPDATE: Got a note from @barbedrose on Twitter on 9/10. They say that we've made false statements, and that "All our appeals to vote for us r on Facebook Fan Page. That is ALL we ever did. To say anything else is just slanderous"

Our comment about "incentives" was based on information from two sources who say they received these incentives. We'll let you decide who's telling the truth.

And worst of all, apparently Citysearch had no problem with this, nor with naming The Barbed Rose winner in all these categories.

UPDATE: Apparently this is happening in other cities as well.  @KyleJack noticed that Bagatelle was proclaimed New York City's Best Restaurant, Best Fine Dining, Best Steak, Best French Fries, Best People Watching, Best Bruch, and Best Burger.
UPDATE: @KyleJack also discovered that in Austin, Citysearch says that Gumbo's offers the Best Steak, Best Wine List, Best Business Lunch, Best Fine Dining, Best Lunch, Best Dessert, and Best Seatood.
When confronted with these rather peculiar results (on Twitter) a Citysearch representative said "We stand by a community model" and "We limited votes to one per email and vet for fraud afterwards."

After a bit more back and forth, we were told "I'm not sure of the exact details implemented by our product team, but needless to say there will be improvements." and "Your feedback allows me to make recommendations to our home office and product leads to make this better."

Glad to know that it takes a public observation that their Best Of campaign is a joke before someone decides that maybe things need to be improved.

Further discussion caused the Citysearch rep to add "We've have been working on our BOC product well before today, I assure you."

If that's the case, then why publish these flawed results?  Fix the product before you use it to conduct a contest that names "Best of Houston".
My Bottom Line:

As someone who tries to seek out the best food in Houston and tell the world about it, I'm disgusted by  Citysearch's complicity in this gross act of deception.  It calls into question any recommendation or suggestion made by that site.  It also calls into questions the ethics of those associated with The Barbed Rose.

I'd suggest that anyone looking to advertise their restaurant or other local business think long and hard before doing business with Citysearch.  
I'd suggest that anyone looking for restaurant recommendations look elsewhere.  
And I'd suggest that if you're looking for a great meal, you might not want to buy into any hype associated with The Barbed Rose.

We've been keeping up with a new project opening downtown, and were excited to be invited for the Friends and Family preview.  Called Samba Grille, it's a Brazilian restaurant offering rodizio service, and it's located in the center of the Theater District in the Bayou Place center.

Walking in, we were immediately taken by the swank surroundings.  The Texas Avenue location is sleek and sophisticated, yet the warm Latin vibe makes it very inviting.  A well-equipped bar hugs the back wall of the room, and the tables and booths are placed in a multi-level arrangement, adding to the sense of intimacy and romance.  This is without a doubt a romantic restaurant - we expect it to be a very popular date destination.

(The only negative about the intimate, romantic setting is that natural light photos with the iPhone 4 didn't come out well.  Thus there aren't any food photos in this article. The paparazzi should find this frustrating, too.)

Lead by partners Nathan Ketcham and Estella Erdmann, the team behind Samba Grille is a strong one.  Chef Cesar Rodriguez is at the helm in the kitchen, and his experience with the Vallone organization has translated into the kind of smooth consistency that you rarely see in a new establishment.  Sommelier Marc Borel, previously with 13 Celsius, brings his studied approach to a carefully edited wine list, and he's fully up to the challenge of suggesting pairings with the broad rodizio and composed offerings coming out of Chef Rodriguez's kitchen.

Marc Borel, Nathan Ketcham, Estella Erdmann, Cesar Rodriguez
Photo credit: Chuck Cook / @Bitspitter

Let's look at what the kitchen brought forth.  (And remember, Samba hasn't even had its soft opening - the kitchen is just sorting things out at this point.)

First out was a Caesar salad, and it was a very auspicious start.  The romaine lettuce was deftly coated with a tart, briny Caesar dressing, sharp with plenty of bite and anchovy flavor.  Large, thin shavings of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese completed the salad.  It was one of the best Caesar's we've had in Houston.

Next up was the vegetable plate, an artistically composed arrangement of flash-fried yucca, sauteed Peppadew peppers, sweet plantains, and thin green beans.  The careful handling exhibited by these veggies was impressive; the yucca was crispy on the outside yet fluffy and tender within; the Peppadews were sweetly spicy and not overpowering.  The plantains were rich and flavorful, and we dabbed a bit of the house chimmi-churri sauce on top.  The green beans were al dente and had a nice snap.

But the centerpiece of a rodizio is the meat, and Samba rolled out an impressive variety.  The presentation is dramatic - servers circulate with large swords impaling the savory chunks of meat and seafood, slicing off a portion as requested.  The servers displayed an uncanny ability to deliver the precise degree of doneness I requested, and seemed to magically appear just as I'd finished the previous portion.

The bacon-wrapped filet was a walnut-sized nugget of bacon-wrapped beef, deliciously smoky and peppery. The dark, earthy-sweet flavor of the bacon infused the filet, making for a very satisfying start.

Next up was the house-special sirloin.  This was a standout among the very good offerings - a rich, robust, beefy swagger, sliced very thin, yet were still juicy and tender.  We came back for seconds (and thirds) on this one.

Broiled shrimp came out next.  The large shrimp were nicely firm and cooked to just the right point; the delicate buttery herbal baste completed the preparation.

Large, baseball-sized chunks of filet mignon came out next.  Cooked to a beautiful medium rare, the flavor was gentle and delicate, a skillful counterpoint to the bold flavors of many of the other beef servings.

A real surprise were the bacon-wrapped chicken breasts.  A sweetly tangy apple flavor infused the chicken (no doubt the result of some slow, careful brining) and offset the peppery bacon.  Another dish we could have eaten all night.

Another surprise were the pork ribs, atypical for rodizio service.  Gently grilled, the dense, chewy pork provided a textural contrast to the tender, silky beef.

Speaking of silky, our final offering of flank steak was very unusual.  Prepared on the rare side of medium rare, it was almost supernaturally tender and luscious.  This cut of beef was even richer than the filet, and had a smooth mouthfeel that was totally unexpected.  We suspect some very artful grillwork here.

There were other rodizio offerings, but at this point were were simply too full to sample them.  I blame multiple samples of the sirloin; it was something we kept eating more of.

Samba's grand opening is auspiciously scheduled for Brazil's Independence Day, September 7.  Considering how well things were running during this sneak preview,  I have a feeling that it's going to be an event to remember.  We'll see you there.

(For another early look at Samba Grille, check out Phaedra Cook's article on Houston Food Adventures.)

Samba Grille - 530 Texas Avenue -

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

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