Monday, January 30, 2006

Nundini Imported Food Store

“If it had been an Italian who codified the world of cuisine, it would be thought of as Italian.”

Everyone who likes Italian food should know Nundini Imported Food Store on Shepherd near the Heights. Nundini is an Italian food store, a deli, and a gelateria. I usually go to shop for Italian foods, eat some lunch, and eat a little sorbetto.

As a food store, Nundini has some very interesting Mediterranean foodstuffs: Italian deli meats, Italian cookies, imported pasta, Turkish “aphrodisiac” cookies, Italian rice and grains, bulk spices, dozens of imported olive oils, inexpensive Italian wines, and canned tuna and anchovies. Some of these items are quite exotic. Their squid ink pasta is excellent cooked with olive oil and parmesan cheese. Their faro grain is a very good, nutty alternative to rice. But their bottarga (fermented tuna eggs) are a little too weird for my palate.

As a deli, Nundini has good prices and great sandwiches. Nundini displays a chalk board comparing its prices on Italian meats like prosciutto to Whole Foods and Central Market. According to the board, Nundini is significantly cheaper. Their lunch sandwich specials, which come with chips and tea, are outstanding for $5.95: turkey cesar on Thursday, sopresatta on Wednesday, meatball sandwich on Tuesday. The meatball sandwich is particularly good. Compared to most meatball sandwiches, it is an exercise in restraint and balance. The meatballs are small, moderately spiced, and ground perfectly – not too coarse and not so fine that they lose their texture. Unlike most meatball sandwiches, it is not so covered in sauce that the bread loses its texture. The modest amount of mozzarella adds some dimension to the sandwich, but is not at all overwhelming. This is a perfectly constructed, remarkably light sandwich that wisely highlights its star – the meatball.

As a gelateria, Nundini may be the best in Houston. Recently, I had the cassis gelato. The flavor was intensely sweet and sour and fruity. Cassis is one of my favorite fruit flavors, but I rarely see it in any form. As an Italian ice, it is a fantastic flavor.

The best Italian food focuses on ingredients. Nundini is a great place to get those ingredients.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Trying to Diet Part 2 – Busting Out at Barnaby’s

“Now that fasting in Lent is nothing but a historical curiosity, cholesterol and cellulite have replaced our fear of the Last Judgment.”
-Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food

Barnaby’s is a perfectly good little chain of four cafes, each in the Montrose area. They serve generous portions of salads, grilled chicken dishes, burgers and sandwiches. This post is not about the taste of the food at Barnaby’s. This post is about how many restaurants give a false impression that food is wholesome and healthy, when it is not.

I had three lunches at Barnaby’s last week. Each time I thought, “surely I can get something healthy at Barnaby’s.” Everything about Barnaby’s suggests that the food is wholesome and healthy. First, Barnaby’s looks wholesome. Its marketing logo is a cartoon angel-dog with a halo. Second, it is not an evil corporate chain. Third, most diners at Barnaby’s look healthy – young, thin, singles, and gay or straight couples without kids. Fourth, most deceptively, the menu sends signals that the food is “California casual” – light healthy food.

I tried really hard to be good. On the first visit, I carefully read the menu. I wanted chicken, but all but two chicken dishes advertised a side of fries. One menu item – half of a smoked chicken – said nothing about any side. When the dish came, however, it had a side of fries – a giant plate of them. I tried to ignore the fries, but half way through lunch I decided to try just one. Half a plate of fries later, the diet was in serious danger.

On the second visit, I looked at the other chicken dish that did not advertise fries – Chicken La Jolla. I confirmed with the waiter that it came with a side of rice and black beans instead of fries. Unfortunately, I failed to ask what “La Jolla” meant. Apparently, it means, “covered with vast quantities of cheese.” Once again, the diet was sabotaged.

On the third visit, I decided on salad. One salad sounded particularly healthy -- “Lebanese fatoush salad with grilled chicken.” Fatoush usually is a salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers tossed in olive oil, but I was not taking any chances. I asked the waiter, “does it come with a dressing?” “Yes.” “What kind?” “A vinaigrette.” “Can I get it on the side?” “No, it comes tossed in the salad.” When the salad came, the alleged “vinaigrette” turned out to be an incredibly rich and creamy cheese-based dressing that drenched the salad. Worse, it was not the tomato/cucumber-based salad I expected; over 80% of the salad was a whitish lettuce. And the salad was bigger than my head. Surely this oil and cheese laden salad had over 2,000 calories. The diet had taken a catastrophic hit.

I do not blame Barnaby’s. We get what we deserve. Perhaps Barnaby’s is so popular because diners think of it as healthy and wholesome, when they are really driven by a subconscious impulse to get all the fat and calories their bodies crave. Restaurants like this are very popular because they help us deceive ourselves. If Barnaby’s truthfully advertised, “enormous portions with lots of cheese and fried items,” would anyone go?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Trying to Diet Part 1 – Going Veggie at Pepper Tree

“I understand the struggle. You look down, see a Jell-O mold implanted in your gut, and figure that your days of having a flat stomach vanished the day you graduated from high school. . . . Think of your abs as the third cousins you met at a past family reunion. You remember seeing them, so you have a vague memory of what they look like, but it's been so long that you really don’t have a clue where they are now.”
-David Zinczenko, The Abs Diet

January is for dieting. Every year I look at my December gut and resolve to turn it to abs by February. It never works, but I feel compelled to try.

I have tried two extreme diets. The first was vegetarian. I did not become a vegetarian to respect animal rights or to follow some eastern philosophy. I went vegetarian because I got food poisoning at Nick’s Beef and Beer. I was a student in Boston, and Nick’s had the cheapest burgers in town. This burger made me very, very ill. I decided then that, if I stopped eating meat, I could avoid food poisoning and lose weight. Plus, the steaks and barbeque in Boston are lousy. I lost 30 pounds at first. But after three years of eating vegetarian, I weighed more than when I started

The second diet was high protein. When I was 34, I tried Atkins. Same problem: lots of short term weight loss followed by lots of long term weight gain. When I returned to my normal diet after Atkins, I weighed more than when I started.

No more extreme diets for me. But once in a while, I revisit my veggie days and go to the Pepper Tree. Pepper Tree is an all-you-can-eat, all-vegetarian, Asian buffet on Richmond near Weslayan. Most buffets are really bad – too many warmed over fried foods that are bad for dieting and worse for eating. But the 40-plus buffet items at Pepper Tree are very good and very interesting. Most dishes use some meat substitute like tofu, soy beans, or wheat roast. About half of those dishes try to imitate meat: veggie “sushi,” sweet and sour “pork” (wheat roast), Indian curry “chicken” (tofu). When I was a vegetarian, I thought this kind of dish was disingenuous – a vegetable should not try to be a meat. B ut now, as a meat eater, I realize that many of these dishes are very good, perhaps because they do taste like meat. The other half of the foods at Pepper Tree are dishes that highlight the actual ingredients. My favorite dish is a salad of soy beans with spicy peppers and julienne celery and carrots. It is salty and spicy and emphasizes the umami flavor of the soy beans.

I enjoy Pepper Tree, but will it help my new, more modest diet? No, not if the shape of the customers is any indication. Sure, some customers are perfectly fit Asian-Americans. But most of the non-Asian customers are really fat. After all, a buffet is a buffet. If you eat massive quantities of food, even a “healthy” buffet is going to make you fat.

Don't go to Pepper Tree to lose weight. Do go if you like soy beans, wheat roast, and tofu. No other restaurant in town uses these kinds of ingredients to make so many dishes full of imagination and taste.

Friday, January 27, 2006


“The wines were dull and lifeless. They tasted like water with some wood added. Some had a little more sugar and some had less, but none tasted much like wine made from real grapes. After that first flight, it struck us that many of these wines probably weren't better than Two-Buck Chuck.”

-Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, “When Cheap Chardonnay Is No Bargain,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2005

I confess. Several times I drank Chardonnay and liked it. I am not admitting that I am a Chardonnay drinker. Nor am I admitting that Chardonnay works well with most food. I only admit there were a few times when I was relaxing with friends, someone pulled out a bottle of chard, passed around the bottle, and … well … everyone else was doing it. So I tried it.

A few of those times the wine was good. One friend pulled out some $300 bottle of French Montrachet. It had a nose of honey, smoked nuts, butter, and toasty oak. Although I would never buy it, I began to understand why it cost $300. Then there were several interesting California Chardonnays: a 2001 Kongsgaard, a 2002 Newton Unfiltered, a 1999 Marcassin, wines that often appear on wine lists for $100 - $300.

Those were the times when the Chardonnay was good, and I was feeling ok.

And then there were the other times – all those other parties where the only wine was some awful California Chardonnay, tasting much like sugar water saturated with burnt oak. That kind of swill amounts about 98% of all California Chardonnay. It is absolutely awful. Rarely can I find a reasonably-priced Chardonnay that is even drinkable.

I have three big complaints about Chardonnay. First, the Chardonnay grape has little individual character or flavor. The flavor we usually associate with Chardonnay is the added oak, not the grape. The few good Chardonnays are made by really good winemakers with access to really good wood.

Second, Chardonnay does not go well with many foods. Yes, it is good with lobster and scallops and some kinds of grilled fish. But it conflicts with many other foods that often work well with white wines. For instance, the exotic flavors of Asian or Indian foods usually go best with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Viognier. Salad, goat cheese, and ceviche work much better with a Sauvignon Blanc.

Third, Chardonnay utterly dominates many Houston white wine lists. At almost any high-end steakhouse, Chardonnays constitute at least 80% of the white list. There also are restaurants that should know better. For instance, the great, recently departed Scott’s Cellars f/k/a Scott Chen’s was the best Asian/French fusion restaurant in Houston, and it had a really extensive, pricey wine list. But their white wine list was almost all Chardonnay. Similarly, the best Asian/French fusion restaurant in Houston right now is Noe. When I visited shortly after its opening, Noe had Chardonnay after Chardonnay, but almost none of the white wines that would work with the food. Although I suspect that Noe’s list may soon diversify, it was a mistake to open that restaurant with that list. Chardonnay just does not go with Chef Gatsby’s brilliantly complex flavors.

For inexpensive whites, there are many superior alternatives to Chardonnay. One wine I discovered last week is made by a couple of California wine makers who feel like I do about Chardonnay; they call their wine “Chard-No-Way.” The 2003 Vinum Chard-No-Way is 100% Chenin Blanc – a wonderful grape with lots of character. It costs under $12 at Specs. It has a nose with an exotic perfume of peach, citrus, and flowers. The palate is bright, fresh, and pure with a bite on the finish. It reminds me of a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but it had more fruit and a more exotic nose. It is a good wine to sip chilled, and it is particularly good with fish in a cream sauce or spicy baby back ribs.

So if you have a friend who runs a wine list, please help him or her to understand: friends don’t let friends drink bad Chardonnay.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Houston Downtown Dining Clubs

“Carl Walker, a prosecutor who tried much of the case against Ali [for dodging the draft], told Hauser, ‘The only concern we had involved . . . rumors that there might be some sort of confrontation. . . . In those days, racial tensions were pretty high. . . . So we had a meeting with Ali in that regard. [The United States Attorney] Mort Susman took us all, including Ali and his lawyers, to lunch in the Plantation Room at the Houston Club.’”
-Roger D. Citron, The Champ's Greatest Fight,

Let's get this straight. In 1967 lawyers took Muhammad Ali to the Houston Club’s Plantation Room? Yes indeed. A former colleague of mine was part of the group that broke the color barrier by bringing Muhammad Ali -- the first African American to dine, rather than serve, in the whites-only club. Of course, even a whites-only club would be foolish to refuse to serve the greatest boxer of all time.

Perhaps I am not being fair to the Houston Club's real motives for admitting Ali. It always has been a progressive club. They even began to admit women – in 1989.

The downtown dining clubs are one of this city's strangest restaurant phenomena. These members-only clubs are hidden in tall buildings and cater to business people. If you do not work downtown, you could easily miss them. For years, this is where contacts were established and deals were made. Times may have changed, but they still have vestiges of the older, more exclusive days. Gentlemen are still asked wear coats. Plus, the world of privileged white men is still reflected in the décor and art. One club prominently features paintings of 19th century English gentlemen inspecting naked prostitutes in a bordello.

The clubs are not about the food. They are about a narrow range of conservative choices. As a result, none of them serve food of much interest. But the food quality does vary. These are three examples:

The Houston Club was for decades the Queen of the downtown clubs. It now seems a bit shabby – the paint, the carpet, the chairs, and the food. At a recent buffet, they served a round slab of unidentifiable meat covered in a dark brown tasteless gravy, parts of chicken breasts covered in a light brown tasteless gravy, and small triangles of dry fish covered in a cream-colored tasteless gravy. This food is extremely safe – no spice, no character. This quintessential Southern banquet food is designed to please everyone the same, but it is also designed to please no one all that much.

The Plaza Club has a nice view from the top of the Shell Tower and features a salad and entrée buffet. On a recent visit, I did not try the entrees, each of which was covered in the mandatory gravy, but the salad bar was not all bad. Although the “sushi” was 9/10 rice and 1/10 tuna, the smoked salmon was very tasty and had all the correct sides. The buffet featured pasta salads, spinach salad, romaine salad, and a variety of classic dressings like Italian and French. It was conservative, but comforting, and possibly even better than Souper Salad.

The Coronado Club cooks the best food of all the downtown clubs. At a recent luncheon, I had chicken enchiladas with some real spice – a healthy dose of jalapeno salsa on top. The broccoli and carrots were correctly served al dente. But best of all, the black beans had a lot of flavor. They prominently featured onions and tasted much like a Brazilian black bean soup. The whole-wheat jalapeno biscuits were spicy and had an interesting texture. The chocolate cake tasted like strong, dark chocolate, not the bland guess-the-flavor deserts these clubs usually serve. In another recent visit to the Coronado Club, I had a seafood Cobb salad that was far better than any Cobb salad I have had in Houston. The cuisine is not revolutionary, but it has enough flavor to be good.

I am sure that Ali enjoyed breaking the color barrier when he went to the Houston Club. But I doubt he liked the food.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Big Night at Buca di Beppo

Bob: Beautiful country, Italy.
Secondo: You ever been there?
Bob: No.
-Big Night

The movie "Big Night" -- one of my favorite food movies -- is about two Italian restaurants. One restaurant is a great small, authentic, gourmet Italian restaurant. It is run out of business by the second restaurant, which is a big, noisy American-Italian joint that panders to American tastes and serves a lot of spaghetti, tomato sauce, and cheese.

Buca di Beppo is just like the obnoxious American-Italian restaurant that ran the real Italian restaurant out of business. So many things about Buca are enourmous -- the portions, the wait for a table, the noise level, and most of the customers. Of course, the food has lots of tomato sauce and cheese, much of the food is fried, and all the wine is cheap. In short, the food is not authentic, has no individual character, and bears little relation to any food I had in Italy. But is it really so horrible?

I confess that sometimes I enjoy Buca. It delivers on the American mythical stereotype of Italian food. My favorite dishes are the chicken marsala and the Margherita Pizza. Plus, my seven-year-old daughter loves the noise, the wall decorations, and the fried food. On occasion, mass production chain restaurants that butcher traditional cuisine with kitsch and pandering just feel soulless. Once in a while, though, the kitsch and pandering can be fun.

Still, would I rather go to Buca di Beppo than da Marco, Simposio, Damian's, Nino's, Arcodoro, or even Star Pizza? Not on your life.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

laidback manor throws a grenade on the plate

“Call out the instigators because there's something in the air. We've got to get together sooner or later because the revolution's here, and you know it's right.”
-Thunderclap Newman, Something in the Air

The revolution is here, and it is on Main Street. A very young chef named Randy Rucker just opened an amazing new downtown restaurant called laidback manor. He is serving the most unusual, creative, and revolutionary cuisine I have seen recently in Houston. As an illustration, some of the dishes I tried last weekend included:

·Flat iron steak tartare served next to a tempura fried quail egg and a scoop of intensely flavored sweet potato ice cream. The crunchy egg married perfectly with the creamy texture of the tartare and the ice cream. Even better was the marriage of contrasting flavors -- salty, meaty, and sweet.

·Oyster mushroom and pearl onions cooked in a sous vide method, which involves vacuum packing the food in advance and slow cooking it in a water bath with an immersion circulator. The mushrooms lost none of their moisture or flavor in the cooking process, were uniformly cooked throughout, and were easily the best oyster mushrooms I have ever had.

·Pan seared fluke toped with an ethereal bouillabaisse foam and served with baby vegetables and some sort of tasty lime green puree.

·“Ham and cheese” – small stacks of Serrano ham, manchego cheese, marinated pear and arugula. This was perhaps the least flavorful dish I had, but the idea was playful and fun.

·Milk chocolate foie gras milkshake. Yes, you can taste the foie gras – and it is great with chocolate.

·An incredible rice pudding with intense Indian flavors, such as cardamom, plus a mint foam.

The food is like a grenade on the plate. Every dish served by Rucker involves some innovative idea or method – a “deconstructed” take on a classic, food turned into foam, unusual purees, sous vide cooking. Rucker is not alone in developing these unusual techniques. He is part of a wider revolution in cooking that as controversial as it is mind-blowing. One leader of this attempted coup is the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. Many people think El Bulli is the best restaurant in the world, and many despise the very idea of the restaurant. Adrià treats cooking like a chemistry lab; he even uses test tubes and beakers. He also brings playfulness, irony, and the absurd to cuisine. By its very definition, his approach is about throwing bombs – rethinking and radicalizing the way we cook and eat. Adrià’s approach has many detractors, including many leading American chefs. But Adrià also has influenced a small number of American chefs, mostly in New York and Chicago. The one chef who is leading the introduction of these techniques to Houston is Rucker.

Although this grenade on the plate may be mind blowing for some, it will be an act of war for others. Culinary conservatives will cringe. For diners who need steak and potatoes, these dishes will be weird, if not downright disturbing. Many wine fans will find the current list of reasonably priced wines to be too small. Diners who want atmosphere will despair that the restaurant spent most of its starting capital on the kitchen, not the interior decorator. At least one critic is going to vilify laidback manor as just plain wrong.

This revolution will appeal to individuals who like their food served with a side of creative thought. For those people, in January 2006 in Houston, Texas, laidback manor is as good as it gets – and probably better than we deserve.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


"Vegetables are not food. Vegetables are what food eats."
-post by Ricky at The BBQ Forum

No food is the subject of more "best" or "top 10" lists in Texas than barbecue. And for barbecue fans, no subject is more controversial than naming the best barbecue.

The best barbecue joints in Texas are in rural areas -- not in Houston. Rural barbecue joints do not have to deal with air pollution codes that prevent the construction of a good pit. If you are stuck in Houston, however, where can you get the best barbecue? My answers are inherently subjective, and they depend on the type of meat being barbecued.

Best brisket - Thelma's. Thelma's is a shack just south of Chinatown. The line is terrible, but that is because the food is so good. Nobody else's brisket comes close to Thelma's. It is black and crispy on the outside and moist and juicy inside. The smoke flavor is great. Thelma also fries a mean catfish.

Beef ribs -- Pappas BBQ downtown. My friends disagree with me on this one. They say Pappas' sauce is too sweet. They are reluctant to say the best ribs could be made by a chain operated by a local restaurant dynasty. But these ribs are really good -- large, meaty, and cooked perfectly. Plus, I like the sauce, even if it is sweet.

Pork ribs -- Williams' Smoke House in Acres Homes. These pork ribs have a great, spicy rub and a crispy exterior. A lot of people say the best pork ribs are at Pizzitola's near Shepard and I-10. Pizzitola's has an overwhelmingly white crowd, and Williams has an overwhelmingly African-American crowd. Most of the white folks who love Pizzitola's probably have never been to Williams's Smoke House, so they do not know any better. If they tried both, they would know that the ribs at Williams' are meatier and have more flavor than the ribs at Pizzitola's.

Other items -- Goode Co. on Kirby. The brisket at Goode Co. is decent, but not especially goode. Their pork ribs are ok, but not great. But Goode Co. does excel with other items. They have the best barbecue side dish in town -- Austin baked beans. They also have my favorite barbecue sausage and possibly even the city's best smoked turkey breast. (Of course, how many real barbecue joints cook something so healthy as turkey breasts?) Plus, Goode Co. has a really tasty barbecue sauce. Goode Co. wins a lot of "best barbecue" polls in Houston. I suspect that has a lot to do with its locations in West U and Memorial. Most people in West U and Memorial would not be caught dead at Williams' or Thelma's or any other barbecue joints in more "economically depressed areas." For economically affluent parts of Houston, however, Goode Co. probably is as good as you can get -- and much better than Luther's, Otto's, Luling City Market, Demeris, or any other of the many mediocre barbecue restaurants in the city.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dominique's - one week more in Houston

New Orleans' Chef Dominique is one of the most celebrated new chefs in America. He mixes inspiration of his native Mauritius with French, Asian, and New Orleans influences. Since Hurricane Katrina, he has been running his restaurant out of the Westchase Marriott. On my visit last weekend, the food was outstanding. His rock shrimp with foie gras emulsion appetizer was salty and rich. His tuna appetizer came with cubes of tuna sashimi mixed in a mysterious tasty green mayo sauce with an exotic tuna empanada. His redfish entree with lobster/lemon oil served on a bed of hearts of palm and crawfish was even better.

On the down side, the current location in a hotel atrium (way outside the Loop!) feels like a bad taste time warp back to 1984. The wine list is similarly bad -- in the storm, Dominique's lost an amazing collection of wines, including some Bordeaux dating back to the 19th century. But great food makes up for a multitude of sins. If you read this in time, you really should try this outstanding food before Chef Dominique and his team return to New Orleans. I was told their last day in Houston is January 26 or 27.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Molé -- Sauce of the Gods

"Molé. The most famous Mexican sauce, takes its name from moli, a Nahuatl word meaning mixture or concoction; and it is indeed a mixture of many ingredients. The constant factor among the numerous different versions is the starring role played by chili peppers and the fact that the mixture is always cooked. Mole poblano de guajolote...or Pabo in mole a dish of some antiquity and has achieved some fame for the inclusion of bitter chocolate in the sauce, although the quantity is small and the effect not separably discernable."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 1999 (p. 511)

Although I have great admiration for the art of French sauces, which are generally the world's best, the very best sauce on the planet is molé. There are hundreds of different recipes for molé, but in my opinion, the best molé sauces involve many different kinds of red peppers, chocolate, cinnamon and often a little peanut butter. Outside of Oaxaca, I speculate that we Houstonians have access to more different molé sauces than any other city. I have not tried them all. Here are some of my favorites:

My favorite molé in Houston -- Pico's. The molé at Pico's nails it. It is complex, spicy, slightly, sweet, unctuous -- incredible. It is far more than the sum of its parts. It sings to me, causing me to hallucinate with visions much like Mexican Calendar Art (See my Dec. 26, 2005 post). Even more incredibly, Pico's has two great molé sauces on the menu - a traditional and a special Oaxacan black molé - molé negro. Both are equally good. I have to confess, once for a party, I bought a quart of Pico's molé, sauteed some duck breasts, and did not tell any of the guests that I had not made the sauce. Everyone raved about it. The praise, however, really belonged to Pico's. (Warning! Outside the Loop).

My second favorite molé in Houston - Spanish Flowers. Spanish Flowers is a decent 24-hour Mexican restaurant in the Heights that I usually only visit when I have to eat Mexican food after 2:00 a.m. Surprisingly, they have a fantastic pollo molé - very similar to Pico's.

Wierdest molé in Houston -- Teala's. Teala's molé is a cross between traditional molé and a Thai peanut sauce. It is more a molé-inspired peanut sauce than a molé sauce. But I love peanut sauce. So even if this one is not traditional, it is worth trying.

Most expensive molé in Houston -- Cafe Annie and Hugo's. These are upscale takes on molé. Cafe Annie frequently uses mole in different items, such as lamb chops in Oaxacan molé. Similarly, Hugo's -- run by one of Houston's best chefs, Hugo Ortega -- regularly has several different kinds of molé on the menu. The molé dishes at both restaurants are pricey, come in many different varieties, and are usually quite good. But I have not had any molé at either restaurant that was quite the explosion of flavor I get from the molé at Pico's. For instance, at around $18, Hugo's duck in molé is good, but it just does not compare to the chicken en molé for half the price at Pico's.

Other molé. Merida -- a fantastic, little known Yucatanean restaurant, makes a decent mole. It is a bit thin, but strikes a nice balance between spice, pepper, and sweetness. Their pibil sauce -- a Yucatanean sauce -- is even better. La Mexicana (see my December 21, 2005 post) makes an even better molé sauce, although it is perhaps too sweet. 100% Taquito has really cheap chicken molé tacos that are tasty, but a bit greasy. I also have had decent molé at local chains Doneraki's and Guadalajara.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Greek Salad

Nicko! Don't play with food! When I was your age, I didn't have food!
-Maria Portokalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding

"So you wanta salad?" says John, the imposing Greek waiter at the restaurant labeled outside as "Bibas" and "One's a Meal" and "Greek Village" (I call it Bibas). John's question really is not a question, but a statement. John knows me. John knows all his customers. He knows what they want better than they do. He does not bother to bring a menu. He decides what his customers are going to have.

Bibas -- a 24-hour Greek diner on West Gray -- serves a killer Greek pizza and an even better Greek calzone with feta and tomatoes. John, though, knows that I really want a Greek salad with gyro meat added. Salads too often are boring, healthy affairs with too much vinegar and too little personality. Not this one. It has good quality, green-colored greens, a pungent and creamy Greek dressing, lots of feta, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives (with pits) , and an enormous pile of the best gyro meat in Houston.

I have tried other Greek salads, and they do not compare. The Greek salad at Niko Nikos on Montrose has basically the same ingredients, but the execution is not as good. Niko Nikos uses white iceberg lettuce, not the high quality greens they serve at Bibas. Niko Nikos also serves about half the quantity of feta and gyro meat, and the gyro meat is not nearly as good. The gyro meat at Bibas is juicier and more flavorful than the dry crumbs of meat that they toss on the salad at Niko Nikos. Although Niko Nikos gets rave reviews from many loyal customers, the salad and the gyro meat are not nearly as good as at Bibas.

The Greek salad at Yia Yia Mary's also uses awful white iceberg lettuce. It comes with a huge slab of white feta and some large chunks of tomato. Fortunately, the different marinated, grilled meats you can order on top of the lettuce are quite tasty -- so tasty, that they do not belong with the otherwise dull salad. Yia Yia Mary's has the best pita bread in town, as well as the best Greek wine I have found anywhere. Just skip the lousy salad.

The Greek salad at Droubi Bros. on Dallas Street in Downtown is perhaps the worst of all. Of course, they serve the mandatory white iceberg lettuce. The dressing is a runny brown vinaigrette with a heavy emphasis on vinegar. The worst part, however, is the gyro meat. I do not know how any restaurant can make gyro meat this bad. Dry and rubbery, it reminds me less of beef or lamb and more of some cheap soy meat substitute -- like the meat they served in elementary school. (Yum, soy burgers!) Although I have heard that the original Droubi's is quite good, the salad at the Downtown Droubi's is awful.

A Greek salad does not have to be a study in deprivation. It can be a wonderful affair, with good quality greens, delicious Greek dressing, and flavorful gyro meat. Just ask John. He knows what you want.

Houston Bistros (Part Two)

After I posted my December 17 discussion of Houston bistros, I noticed a similar discussion in My Table Magazine. See Their list of Houston bistros includes all the bistros on my list plus some additional restaurants.

The additional restaurants listed by My Table are mostly non-French bistros. For instance, they include the "American Bistros," Mockingbird Bistro and Backstreet Cafe. Both restaurants are casual restaurants that serve very good, creative American food. But are they bistros? They serve very few of the standard bistro dishes, and the food is far more new American than traditional French. Similarly, the My Table list included some "bistros" that serve the food of other countries: Taste of Portugal (Portuguese), Cafe Montrose (Belgian), Julia's Bistro (Latin-inspired fusion).

The My Table list illustrates a problem with the current usage of the word "bistro." It is too expansive. It seems to include any mid-priced, casual restaurant, regardless of what kind of food it serves. Under this definition, a restaurant could be a Chinese bistro, a Mexican bistro, a Cuban bistro, or even an Ethiopian bistro. Do those examples sound too extreme? Are they really more extreme than a Portuguese bistro or an American bistro? "Bistro" really should be limited to casual, French or French-inspired restaurants. That definition would be much more descriptive of the food diners should expect. Instead, when a restaurant is called an "American Bistro," the only real descriptive information you get is (1) don't bother to wear a sports coat, (2) the food could be anything, and (3) the owners are jumping on the cool "bistro" trend. Plus, they probably serve shaved fennel.

The My Table list does include one outstanding French bistro that I omitted -- Bistro Calais. I had my wedding reception in the same space in 1994, when it was previously occupied by a different restaurant. Overlooking a gazebo and park area off of Bammel Lane, it is one of the prettiest restaurant locations in Houston. They serve very traditional French food, which is outstanding. On my last visit, I had a foie gras terrine and a duck stew. Both were very French and delicious. Although the wine list is not as extensive as some other bistros, at least the wine, like the food, is primarily French.