Friday, July 28, 2006

A Moveable Feast of imitation meat

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." Ernest Hemingway, quoted in: A. E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway, pt. 1, ch. 3 (1966 ed.)

Vegetarians face an aesthetic dilemma. Should they eat plant-based food that looks and tastes like meat? Or should they eat dishes that celebrate plant-based foods for what they are?

The first approach mostly appeals to new vegetarians who miss their old meat diet. Good vegetarian chefs can do a lot with soy or tofu to make them resemble meat. Sometimes these dishes taste a lot better than they sound.

The second approach is more aesthetically honest. The focus of a vegetarian diet is vegetables. Cooking vegetables is an art in itself, and some of the most beautiful and wonderfully tasting foods are made without meat. Why eat imitation meat?

Now that I am no longer vegetarian, I usually prefer food that does not pretend to be something else. I like vegetables to taste like vegetables. I like meat to taste like meat. But back when I was a vegetarian eating out in Houston, I took what I could get. I often went to A Moveable Feast on West Alabama. Now that location is gone, but you can visit A Moveable Feast at 9341 Katy Freeway, outside the Loop, near Blalock.

I returned to A Moveable Feast for one of my favorite vegetarian dishes - vegetarian tamale pie. It comes with tamale-like corn breading, soy jack cheese, brown rice, black beans, and pico de gallo and costs around $7. Although I have to add some hot sauce for spice, the dish has a real tamale flavor. I almost forget that the tamale has no meat.

As I eat this fake tamale pie, I have to come to terms with the purity of my aesthetics. Sure, I prefer the flavor of the real venison tamales I get from my friend Bob, the deer hunter. They have a gamey, meaty flavor and a lot more grease. Yet I feel a lot better, and I worry less about dying from a heart attack, after I eat the vegetarian tamales at A Moveable Feast.

A Moveable Feast has a number of vegetarian, as well as healthy meat-based, dishes. The food tastes only pretty good -- but it is great for your health. Like Hemingway said, "wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you."

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pronto Cucinino - fast, mediocre, overpriced

"In 1948, Richard and Maurice McDonald shrank their menu to only those items that could be eaten without silverware, converted their kitchen to a food-assembly line that required almost no skill from employees and dropped teenager-attracting female carhops in favor of a setup that required patrons to help themselves. This Speedee Service System allowed McDonald's to lower its prices — drawing a clientele made up largely of families."

-Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, The New York Times Book Review, January 21, 2001

Pronto Cucinino is a fast food Italian restaurant on Montrose, apparently operated by the family who run two nicer restaurants -- Nino's and Vincent's.

The food at Pronto Cucinino was a disappointment. The menu only has a small handful of choices, and they all sounded dull. The execution was worse.

We started with a few small square slices of pizza. The crust was greasy and had an odd texture -- more like pastry crust than pizza crust. This pizza bore no relation to the wonderfully authentic Italian pizza at Vincent's. My wife also ordered a cesar salad. It was not as good as some other fast food cesars, like La Madeleine. I ordered a plate of Italian sausage with bell peppers and tomato sauce. It was the best dish we ordered, but the sausage was dry and warmed over. The sausage plate tastes far better at Alfredo's European Grill, just down Montrose.

An even bigger disappointment was the price. For a kids plate, Pronto Cucinino sold my daughter a 1 cup portion of penne pasta with butter for $4. The ingredients certainly cost no more than $0.25. Similarly, they sold a glass of Ravenswood Zinfandel Vintner's Blend for about $7 -- almost as much as a whole bottle of the same wine at Specs. I calculate their markup on that wine must be at least four times cost, which is twice as much as most Houston restaurants. They also sell tiny portions of pre-made desserts in plastic containers for $4.75.

Pronto Cucinino even has the nerve to charge for breadsticks, which are free at other fast food restaurants like Cafe Express.

The total bill for a mediocre, fast-food meal for two adults and a child was over $40. That is a lot of money for fast food.

Pronto Cucinino is very fast. We had our food within five minutes. Food served that fast makes me suspicious. Is it heated in a microwave, kept warm by a steam table, or prepared by an assembly line of indifferent and unskilled teenagers? I suspect that the technique that makes this food so fast may be the same reason it does not taste so good.

The best comparison for Pronto Cucinino is a big chain like Olive Garden. Pronto Cucinino is faster. The quality is about the same. But Olive Garden is a far better deal.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Shade - I eat my words and enjoy the flavors

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Shade based on several recent lunches. I suggested that it may be one of the best restaurants in the Houston Heights, but not one of the most innovative restaurants in Houston. After I made that post, I returned on a Saturday night.

I am going to have to eat my words.

At night, Shade's dishes are very innovative. And the quality rivals some of Houston's best restaurants. The menu sounds good, but the food tastes even better. Here are some examples:

Soups. Shade always serves three interesting soups. On my recent visit, one was good and two were outstanding. The posole was spicy, but a little light on hominy and salt and a little heavy on cumin. (My favorite posole in Houston, at Farrago, is the perfect balance). A cabbage and bacon soup sounded dull, but the flavors were vivid and bright. The combination of flavors was surprisingly interesting. A sweet potato-apple soup soup defied my expectations. Often this sort of root vegetable soup is served in the fall. But this soup tasted like summer -with flavors that were bright and crisp and clean. It was one of the best root vegetable soups I have had in any season.

Fried shrimp with bacon cheese grits. I ordered this for my seven-year-old daughter because it did not sound too wierd. It too was far more better than I expected. The large shrimp tasted fresher than any shrimp I have had this year. The batter (panko?) was perfectly crispy. And the grits were creamy and full of flavor. Everyone at the table loved the grits, even my daughter.

Grilled king salmon was served with mozzarella, micro arugula, a chipolte corn coulis, and small, correctly ugly heirloom tomatoes. King salmon is wild, rare, and available only seasonally. It is the best salmon for grilling because it is thick and has lots of oil. This fish was very good, but I particularly enjoyed the coulis and the flavorful tomatoes. Although I have never thought to pair salmon with tomatoes, wild salmon and real tomatoes are two of the best arguments a foodie can make for summer.

A flourless chocolate cake with pistachio gelato was good, although the cake was slightly overcooked. But my daughter's trio of coffee, chocolate, and vanilla pots de creme was fantastic.

The wine list is smart and reasonably priced. It includes many small production, food friendly wines. I was delighted by the number of unusual varietals, such as gruner veltliner, chenin blanc, and verdejo. Most wines were $30 - $60.

Shade stands out among Houston restaurants for its simple, vivid flavors. It stands out for its synthesis of local food with international cuisine. And it particularly stands out for the ratio of quality and innovation to value. I would expect wild king salmon to cost $30 - $35 at most Houston restaurants. At Shade, it is under $20 -- and better than any salmon dish I have had this summer.

Shade is even better at night than at lunch. It's not just a good restaurant to visit when you are in the Heights. The outstanding cuisine by chefs Claire Smith and Jeb Stuart is worth driving across town for.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ruggles Revisited

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Emerson did not distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise consistency. So how do we judge consistency and lack of change in a restaurant?

In 1988, I thought the best restaurant in Houston might be Ruggles Grill on Westheimer. Ruggles had a signature style. Chef Bruce Molzan's dishes incorporated southwestern, Californian, and Metiterranean cuisine into a bistro concept. They frequently used staple ingredients -- sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, grilled vegetables. Plus you could always identify a Ruggles dish against a dish from any other restaurant because of dinstinctive features: the portion size, the distinctive flakes of parmesan or parsley around the edge of the plate, and the ubiquitous grilled vegetables as a side. Equally identifiable were the desserts -- always over the top and bigger than your head.

Ruggles was about fresh ingredients, minimizing the use of sauces, and a signature style.

Then my romance with Ruggles wained. By the mid 1990s, the food was not evolving, portions were too big, and the staff -- particularly at the hostess desk -- was terribly rude and obnoxious. After finally walking out because of a downright nasty hostess, I decided not to return.

Recently I did return. Thankfully, the waistaff and the hostesses are much nicer. But nothing else has changed. The decor, the loud volume, the huge portions, remain the same. The menu looks the same too. All of the signature ingredients are still there: lots of sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and those grilled vegetables.

On one recent visit, I ordered a special -- grilled rack of lamb. The lamb was simply grilled with rosemary. It came with a huge side of all the usual Ruggles grilled vegetables. This dish was good, classic Ruggles, but not innovative or interesting. An appetizer of seared tuna sashimi was very tasty, but it gave me deja vu. Plus, the name of the dish is contradictory. In 2006 diners are educated enough to know that a dish cannot be both "sashimi" (raw) and "seared."

On another visit, I ordered a Moroccan Grilled chicken breast. There was little about it that was "Moroccan." It came with garlic, olives, goat cheese, and sun dried tomatoes in a very light butter sauce. Although it was served with a little couscous on the side, the dish did not taste like Morocco, but like classic late 80s cooking from California. Which means it tasted like Ruggles in 1988. A wild mushroom soup was also excellent, but it had not changed from the last time I tried it over a decade ago.

On one hand, I do not get how a restaurant can have such a flash of uniqueness and creativity in a short period, and then remain the same for 20 years. Surely Chef Bruce must have had some new ideas about cooking in the past 20 years.

On the other hand, there is something quaint and nostalgic about a restaurant that freezes in time -- like Yale Street Grill is frozen in 1924, Barbecue Inn is frozen in 1946, and Ruggles Grill is frozen in 1988. It is comforting to know that, in our lifetimes, Ruggles may never change. We can always have the 1980s, and eat them too.

In 2006, Ruggles is not the best restaurant in Houston. Not even close. But it is consistent.

So is that foolish or wise?

Blue Fish House - not so Japanese

"Authentic," under one definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means "conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features "

I have talked a lot lately about whether food is "authentic." Perhaps I should not. When it comes to ethnic food, I know very little about authenticty. The best I can do is guess at what is authentic. I consider indicators like:

1-Are the customers ordinary Americans or members of the particular ethnic group? (The restaurant loses even more authenticity points if the customers are fat Americans).

2-If I have been to the homeland, does the food at the restaurant resemble food in the homeland?

3-Are the ingredients and techinques exotic? Or does the food use suspiciously American techniques, like deep frying?

Of course, even authentic food can taste bad. And sometimes inauthentic food can taste pretty good.

Such is the case with the Blue Fish House, a vaguely Japanese-style restaurant on Richmond near Kirby. They serve noodle dishes, pan-Asian dinners, nigiri sushi, sashimi, and seafood rolls. They have none of the indicators of authentic Japanese cuisine. Rather, they seem to take a lot of Asian food ideas and throw them together in a way that pleases Anglo-Americans. And it works. The proof is the large crowd of white people -- particularly young attractive women.

On a recent visit, I focused on seafood rolls. (I won't call them "sushi rolls" because technically a roll is not sushi, and because most of these rolls use more fried seafood than raw fish). Each roll was a nice balance of textures with strong flavors that appeal to an American palate. One roll came with fried oysters and a spicy pepper sauce. Another roll came sweet teriaki-flavored eel covered with crunchy seaweed. All the rolls tasted great, but the rice did not seem to have the correct sushi rice texture.

As an appetizer, my seven-year-old ordered "fish nuggets." She liked the crunchy panko tempura fried exterior and the sweet vinegary sauce on the side. I ordered an appetizer of eel in a very sweet teriaki sauce. It was far sweeter than the real thing, but tasty.

True to American tastes, a number of dishes are fried, and most dishes have a very sweet or spicy sauce. The rolls are an American "innovation" on Japanese-style cuisine. But they are absolutely, positively, not Japanese.

Blue Fish House has few Japanese-American customers. It fails to capture the subtlety and balance of traditional Japanese food, opting instead for big American flavors. To find authentic Japanese food, go to Nippon on Montrose. They have a big Japanese crowd. But if you like your seafood rolls with some crunch and lots of sweet and spicy flavor, try Blue Fish House. It is an American seafood restaurant that tastes pretty good.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Noe - A Second Look

I first tried Noe after it opened in 2005. I was blown away. Although the service was snooty, and the wine list was inappropriate for the food, the food was some of the most creative I had tried in Houston. Each dish was served with over a dozen different ingredients, with combinations I had never considered. The food seemed like an exotic fusion of French and American and Japanese cuisine. This, I thought, was something new.

I returned to Noe last week. It remains one of the best restaurants in Houston. But this recent visit was different in a number of respects:

The wait staff is now more relaxed, friendly, and helpful.

The menu no longer lists prices. If you have to ask, well . . . everything is expensive. Appetizers range from $16-24; entrees from $30-38; tasting menus from $75 - $110.

The wine list is greatly improved. The selection is very wide, and most of the wines now work well with the cuisine.

But the most noticeable difference was the food. This visit, I ordered a six course “discovery” tasting. Compared to my first visit, the six dishes I had this visit were less exotic and simpler, with fewer ingredients. The food did not seem very unusual compared to other fine restaurants in Houston. It was almost like the restaurant had a new chef who was toning down the creativity.

No complaints though. Although the food was not as revelatory, it was well balanced, elegant, and tasty. Four courses involved seafood – although one person in our group requested no seafood and received completely different dishes. Some examples I ate were:

-sushi of baby yellow tail topped with caviar;
-ravioli with lobster and a spicy cream sauce; and
-fillet mignon served with vegetables and a gastrique of rose water and pink peppercorns.

The waiter provided wine pairings with each course for an extra $45 per person. Although I did not like one particularly vegetal California pinot noir, the other five wines were interesting and thoughtfully paired.

There is a lot to be said for Noe's tasting menu. The food is elegant, the chef caters the menu to individual tastes, and the wine pairings are quite good. But my one experience with the tasting menu was not as creative and interesting as my previous visit when I ordered off the menu. Has there been a change in the kitchen? Or is the tasting menu just less creative?

This is a small complaint. If you can afford a restaurant with undisclosed prices, I highly recommend Noe. It remains one of Houston's best restaurants.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Heights Report Part 4 - Carter & Cooley goes ethnic

"Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether."


Carter & Cooley is a sandwich shop on 19th Avenue, which is the Heights' version of a small town main street. The sandwich shop has 1920s interior design features, old black & white photos, a hanging menu on a wooden board.

For the last month, they have promoted their special sandwich -- a Vietnamese pork tenderloin sandwich "in honor of the Chinese New Year." From the standpoint of cultural authenticity, this sandwich is an abomination. It is an attempt at cultural appropriation that fails, miserably. But it tastes pretty good.

Let's start with the bread. The key to a proper Vietnamese Bánh Mì sandwich is fresh French bread. See my February 6, 2006 post. The C&C sandwich, however, uses bread that resembles a hoagie roll. Then they grill it in a sandwich press, much like a Cubano sandwich.

The meat is also un-Vietnamese. Vietnamese pork Bánh Mì uses small flavorful bits of roasted marinated pork. I am never sure what part of the pig is used, but I suspect they use most of it. In contrast, the C&C sandwich uses only pork tenderloin -- the least fatty part of the pig with the least pork flavor. Admittedly, I like cooking with pork tenderloin because it is healthy, easy to cook, and soaks up other flavors. But this pork, which comes in thick lean slices, is nothing like Vietnamese pork.

The biggest difference may be the sauce. Vietnamese Bánh Mì shops flavor their sandwiches with fermented fish sauce, either in the marinade for the pork, or the carrot relish, or just as a sauce on the sandwich. The C&C sandwich uses a sweet, vinegary sauce that more closely resembles a Chinese sweet and sour sauce. Then, they add a lot of spicy pepper. The sauce has a strong flavor and a big kick, but tastes nothing like Vietnamese flavorings.

The C&C sandwich comes with shredded carrots and cucumber. On the side, they serve a tiny potato salad that is about 1/2 potato and 1/2 mayo. Or you can get potato chips. The sandwich costs $7.50. Most Bánh Mì sandwiches sell for less than $3.00

How did C&C create this "Vietnamese sandwich"? I suspect that someone read a brief description of Bánh Mì and tried to recreate one using ingredients bought in an American supermarket. Yet they had no idea what they were doing. This sandwich is no more Vietnamese than it is Cuban or Chinese. It is to Vietnamese food what a Taco Bell enchirito is to real Mexican food, what supermarket vegetarian "sushi" is to real sushi.

Perhaps, more than anything else, this sandwich is American. It is true fusion food.

If you want real Vietnamese food in the Heights, you have to go to The Vietnam Restaurant, just down the street. But if you want a quirky, strongly flavored sandwich that is a mish-mash of cultures, go to Carter & Cooley before their "Chinese New Year" special ends.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Heights Report Part 3 - Teotihuacan

I am not sure I want to tell you about this restaurant. The prices are cheap, the food is great, and the crowd is rapidly growing. But you, dear blog reader, are a good friend. So I will tell you, but please, please, keep this restaurant a secret.

Teotihuacan serves the best Mexican food in the Heights. In fact, it serves some of the best Mexican food in Houston, competing with great restaurants like Pico's, Hugo's, and El Tiempo. It also is considerably cheaper.

Every dish I have had at Teotihuacan has been authentic, delicious, and a great bargain. Pollo Corral is a 1/2 roasted chicken with a bright red sauce that reminds me of a barbeque sauce minus all the sugar, minus half the vinegar, and plus chili pepper. I think "pollo de corral" means "free range chicken" in Spanish, but I am not sure whether that is the origin of this dish. The 1/2 chicken is generously sized, juicy, and flavorful. And on Thursdays, this fantastic dish is only $6.99.

Asado de Puerco is a plate of three grilled discs of pork. I am not sure what the cut of meat is, but it is tender and very flavorful. The grill flavors and a subtle rub (of garlic?) make this one of the most flavorful grilled pork dishes in Houston. I think it costs $7.99.

Fajita Salad sounds like a dull choice for a restaurant with so many authentic dishes, but at Teotihuacan it comes with generous portions of grilled chicken that has a fantastic grill flavor. I can't remember the price, but it was very cheap for the size and quality.

Although the grilled rib eye steak may not be the best steak in Houston, it also has a great grill flavor and, when on special, costs under $10.

The Chile Relleno is cooked in a style more resembling the rellenos I have had in Colorado and New Mexico rather than the traditional Tex Mex version. I suspect it is more authentic than most rellenos in Houston.

Other details make Teotihuacan special:

-They serve a green and red table salsa, and both are great.

-It is hard to spend over $10.

-The campy mural on the wall depicts an Aztec sacrifice. (See my December 26, 2005 post.)

-Although the gringo element of the crowd is growing, the crowd is largely latino. Of course, it shouldn't matter to me who else is dining in a restaurant. But when a restaurant serves the cuisine of another culture, I feel some reassurance if that culture is represented in the clientele. In other words, Teotihuacan feels authentic.

Since I have given you this tip, please try to avoid Teotihuacan at lunch. The crowds have been growing, and lunch time is when I like to go.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Heights Report Part 2 - Shade and The Glass Wall

"Houston Heights' dry ordinance, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in large portions of the community, was passed on September 25, 1912. This ordinance remains in force today."

-Houston Heights Association

It is hard to open an upscale restaurant in the Houston Heights and make a profit because, in most of the Heights, you cannot serve alcohol.

The two best upscale restaurants in the Heights are restaurants that found a way to get around the ordinance: Shade and The Glass Wall. In fact, they may be the only upscale restaurants in the Heights. Shade began as a BYOB restaurant, but now sells wine after you get a free private club membership. The Glass Wall, however, must be in one of the "wet" parts of the Heights; it managed to open its doors with a full bar.

The two restaurants beg for comparisons. The decor at both restaurants is hip and modern. Shade is slightly more casual; Glass Wall slightly more elegant. Both restaurants are conspicuously un-Heights like: no antiques; contemporary food. And there seems to be a suspicious overlap among their wait staff -- I have seen some of the same waiters at both restaurants within the same week.

Although I ate dinner at Shade when it opened, my most recent meals have been lunches. The food -- contemporary American cuisine with international influences -- is rarely fantastic, but is always very good. A typical dish at lunch is the Mediterranean Plate. It comes with a selection of Mediterranean comfort food -- pita, hummus, and orzo pasta with cherries and tomatoes. None of these items are revelations, but they make a good lunch. Similarly, the Curried Tuna Salad Sandwich is a lot like the same dish I make at home -- tuna with mayo, curry, grapes, and toasted almonds. It is not all that original, but it is a heck of a lot better than the eggy tuna melt at Yale Street Grill. (See my June 30, 2006 post). This tuna sandwich costs about $3 more than Yale Street Grill, but it includes a small soup and plantains. The best part of Shade's menu may be the frequently changing soups. The last soup I had was a Thai Red Curry Soup with Pork. Sure, I have had spicier and more authentic Thai Curry, but this soup was a nice and unexpected accent to my tuna sandwich.

Lance Fegen, formerly of Zula, recently opened The Glass Wall on Studewood. The food is contemporary American cuisine, which is very similar to Zula, except the portions are smaller and the focus seems to be on fewer ingredients. Like Zula, on my first visit, no dish was a revelation, but each dish was very good. I had a quail appetizer and a pork chop entree. The ingredients were all high quality, but I missed the smoky grill flavor that I find in some of my favorite grilled quail and pork dishes around Houston: the grilled quail at Goode Company Mexican Food and El Tiempo, and the grilled porkchop at Houston's. On the other hand, a roasted beet salad was fantastic because of the many different colored miniature beets, which carmelized in the roasting process. The beets were served with a simple, but tasty, mint yogurt. The dessert -- a small chocolate cake with a liquid chocolate center -- was the best part of the meal.

For a new restaurant, The Glass Wall began with an amazingly good wine list. Even better, the menu suggests wine pairings with each dish and offers that pairing by the glass. Absolutely brilliant! Why don't more Houston restaurants suggest by-the-glass pairings? Not only do they suggest pairings, but they suggest pairings that are interesting and unusual. For instance, the pork chop was paired, not with a zinfandel or a pinot noir, but with a pinot blanc.

Shade and The Glass Wall may not offer the most innovative cuisine in Houston. But they are welcome additions to the Heights -- and some of the few places in the neighborhood where you can get some good wine.