Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tale of the Basil Infused Mojito Ice with Shrimp in Cascabel Puree

This is not a restaurant review. It is the story of an incredible dish at one of Texas' best restaurants, my attempts to reverse engineer the dish, salsa from a taco stand behind a Houston farmer's market, and the ways in which cooking resembles improvisational jazz.

Hudson's on the Bend is a great restaurant near Austin known for creative cooking and exotic game. On my last visit, I had rattlesnake meat fritters and grilled ostrich and kangaroo meat. But the most creative part of the meal was an amuse bouche we received to start the meal. It was glass cone containing a bright green icey slush topped by a single shrimp covered in some sort of chile sauce. The waiter identified it as something like a "basil infused mojito ice with ancho crusted shrimp." The ice had the texture of a 7-11 slurpee, it tasted like a classic mojito, except that the mint flavor had been replaced by basil. This was set against the spicy shrimp, coated in a flavorful ancho sauce. The dish was utterly creative -- a wierd and wonderful combination of southwest and cuban flavors, a strange contrast of spicy chile with a soothing rum drink. It was perfect for the end of summer.

I had to try to make this dish.

As a cook, it can be difficult to reverse engineer a creative dish. I began by trying to figure out how to make basil-infused mojito ice. I searched the internet, and no one had ever posted a recipe for such a dish. But I did find Tyler Lawrence's recipe for a mojito slushy. I knew I only had to switch out the basil for mint, let it sit for a long time so the basil would infuse, and then strain the dish to remove the tough bits of basil.

The biggest, problem, though was creating the ancho chile sauce that coated the shrimp. The salsa has to cling to the shrimp or it will just run into the mojito ice. An ordinary tomato-based salsa just wouldn't work. I did not know how to make a salsa that would stick

Fortuitously, I went for breakfast at Tacqueria Tacambra, a taco truck parked behind Canino's Farmer's Market on Airline Drive. Robb Walsh recommended it. Robb was right; the tacos were fantastic. But the real revelation was the salsa. As Robb described it, ". . . it was made out of nothing but cascabel chiles. The dried cascabels had been soaked until soft, pureed and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of garlic. It was a purist's salsa." The salsa was earthy and spicy, but best of all, it was sticky and was certain to adhere to shrimp.

I knew I had my dish.

So I asked some friends over for a 5-course meal that began with this dish. It turned out a little different from Hudson's -- more of a flavor bomb. There was more basil and rum in the ice, and the cascabel salsa was much spicier than Hudson's ancho salsa. In some respects, my version was more far out than Hudson's. You might even call it psychedellic.

Which reminds me, cooking is like improvisational jazz. You might start with a tune that someone else composed, but then it takes another direction when you start to play with it. John Coltrane took the drippy standard "My Favorite Things" and turned it into a trippy, eastern-sounding, psychedellic classic. Jimi Hendrix tore up the National Anthem and created a classic. Of course, I'm no Coltrane or Hendrix. I credit Hudson's for composing an utterly unique idea. But as an amateur cook, I am learning how much fun it is to play with my food.

Here is the recipe for the dish as I made it:

Basil Infused Mojito Ice with Shrimp in Cascabel Puree
Serves 4

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lime juice, about 4 to 6 limes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
2 limes, zested
1/2 cup light rum
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 tsp olive oil
10 dried cascabel chiles
2 tsp olive oil
8 shrimp
8 cups crushed ice

In a small pan over medium heat, add the sugar and water. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear. Set aside to cool.

Put the sugar syrup, lime juice, basil leaves, lime zest, and rum into a blender and blend until smooth. Set in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

Sautee the pressed garlic in 1 tsp olive oil until translucent. Add the dried cascabel chiles. Cover with boiling water. Set aside for at least 20 minutes.

Transfer the cascabel chiles to a food processor with a little of the soaking water. Puree for about 20 seconds. If the mixture is too dry, add more soaking water, but not so much that the mixture is runny and will not adhere to shrimp. Add salt to taste. Place the mixture in a cup.

Sautee the shrimp in 2 tsp olive oil for about 3 minutes – until they turn pink. Remove from heat.

Strain the mojito mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove any solids. Pour into a blender. Add the ice and blend until slushy. Pour into glasses. Dunk each shrimp into the cascabel puree. Place two shrimp in each glass. Garnish with a sprig of basil.

Of course, you don't have to follow my recipe. You can always come up with your own version.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ultra Grain Bread at Central Market

Initially, I was excited to see that Central Market's bakery bas making bread with ConAgra's Ultragrain™. I like CM's bakery so much because their bread doesn't taste like massed-produced grocery store bread. It almost tastes like bread that you might get in France or Italy.

I was interested to learn that CM is using ConAgra's Ultragrain™ a new, specially-milled grain. The idea behind Ultragrain™ is to combine the nutritional content of whole wheat grains with the taste of processed grains. I don't mind whole wheat bread, and ConAgra's marketing suggested that Ultragrain™ tastes much better.

I was very disappointed. The Ultragrain™ bread did not have the usual authentic taste of most CM bread. Surprisingly, it tasted even worse to me than normal whole wheat bread. The texture resembled ordinary whole wheat bread in that it was very dense and dry. But unlike whole wheat bread, the grains seemed very uniform, which made the texture much less interesting, less chewy, and more like the massed-produced texture of ordinary supermarket bread. No one in my house would eat the Ultragrain™ bread, and we ultimately threw it away.

I might expect such a spectactular failure from ConAgra, but not Central Market's bakery.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Top 10 Revisited

Six months ago, I listed my 10 favorite Houston restaurants. In half a year, so much has changed. Two of my four favorites closed. Some others seem to be coasting. Houston has some delightful new additions. And in some instances, I just changed my mind. So, here is my current top 10.

1. Da Marco. Although Da Marco is far too expensive, every dish I have had there has been creative and perfectly executed.

2. Mark’s. Mark’s may not be consistently creative, perhaps because it is too eager to please everyone. But I have had some of the most innovative dishes in Houston there. See my Aug. 29, 2006 post.

3. Noe. My recent visit showed a drop-off in creativity, but excellent execution. The wine list is greatly improved. See my July 19, 2006 post.

4. Indika. Despite some service problems, Indika is serving Houston’s most innovative fusion cuisine in its new, hip location on lower Westheimer. It blows away the best Indian fusion restaurant in New York. See my June 26, 2006 post.

5. Le Mistral. Still my vote for Houston’s best real French food, followed in a close second by Café Rabelais. See my December 17, 2005 post.

6. Benjy’s. From Sunday brunch, to incredible salads, to thin crust pizzas, to Asian fusion dishes, Benjy’s is a fountain of food ideas. The reasonable food prices and a mid-priced list of small production wines also helped boost benjy's into my top 10. See my September 23, 2006 post.

7. Pico’s. Still Houston’s best Mexican food. The interior dishes are the best.

8. Bistro Moderne. Hip and stylish French-American restaurant with a great chef.

9. Hugo’s. Houston’s most creative Mexican food. Hugo’s is a sister restaurant to Backstreet Café, which made my last top 10. Hugo's gets the nod this time because Backstreet seems like it is in a rut. Hugo’s doesn’t. The wine list is by the same guy, and it is great in both restaurants.

10. Pizzeria Enoteca. Yes, it’s just a pizza joint -- but an authetic Italian, gourmet pizza joint. I love the simple and unusual dishes, like truffle egg toast and shaved raw fennel with anchovy oil. I love the specialized, low priced Italian wine list. See my September 15, 2006 post.

Who fell off the list and why:

laidback manor. Houston's best restuarant closed. (whimper, whimper, sob).

Aries. Ditto. See "Mad About Aries" my June 22, 2006 post.

The Strip House. I came to my senses. It is just steak. Even if the steak is really good, the food is not that creative.

Backstreet Café. I love the wine list, but in my last few visits, the food has been a little dull, and the menu seems unchanging. See my September 23, 2006 post.

T’afia. This would have to be # 11. The restaurant is based on some great ideas, and I never turn down a chance to go there. But the food is a little too austere and lacking in big flavors. The creativity seems to be waning a bit. See my September 23, 2006 post.

Ibiza. The wine list remains Houston’s best value. The menu doesn’t change enough to stay interesting. And I’m tired of them serving my least favorite food -- brussel sprouts – as a side on over half the dishes on the menu. See my February 11, 2006 post. If they cut the brusel sprouts, they might make my next top 10.

25 others who come close: Kubo, Rouge, Bank, Pesce, 17, Gravitas, Cafe Rabelais, Mockingbird Bistro, Shade, Glass Wall, Simposio, Sorrento, Quattro, Arcodoro, Damian's, Nino's, Masraff's, Rioja, Cafe Annie, Saffron, Americas, Pappas Steakhouse, Fung's Kitchen, Mai's, Tony's.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Three favorites: Benjy's; Backstreet Cafe; T'afia

When my wife and I started dating in the early 1990s, three of our favorite Houston restaurants were Benjy's, Backstreet Cafe, and Monica Pope's Quilted Toque (followed by Monica Pope's Boulevard Bistro). Over a decade later, three of our favorite Houston restaurants remain Benjy's, Backstreet Cafe, and Monica Pope's T'afia.

Each of these restaurants are hip, upscale, casual, inner Loop eateries. The cuisine at each restaurant incorporates local ingredients with Asian, Southwest, and other international flavors, plus the usual French and Italian techniques. Each has an excellent mid-priced wine list focused on low production wineries. Each one is a gem in the Houston restauarnt scene.

Benjy's may be the best place in Houston to order a salad. Every salad is magical. On a recent trip, I started with a baby arugula salad with candied walnuts, manchego cheese, and mango vinaigrette. It was a perfect balance -- bitter fresh greens with sweet crunchy nuts, a creamy pungent cheese, and sweet and sour dressing. The entree was great too -- sesame crusted ahi tuna with baby bok choy, sticky rice, and soy vinagrette dressing. The dish is a classic 1990s Benjy's dish -- Asian flavors in a very American combination. For a wine, we had the sort of wine we usually find at Benjy's -- Ponzi Arneis, which is an unusual white blend from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

At Backstreet we started with a roasted pear salad with bleu cheese, dried fruit and nuts. In the past, this dish has been a revelation. This time, it was just good. The dish incorporated potatoes, both white and purple, that did not cohere well with the texture and flavor of the pears. My entree of mustard crusted grilled pork chop was better. But the most impressive course was a chocolate cake with a liquid center. This is one of my favorite desserts, and Backstreet did a great job with it. Sean Beck's wine list is always outstanding. I particularly appreciate his recommended wines of the month. We tried a Betts N Scholl Australian Grenache, which reminded me of a big, fruity Chateauneuf du Pape. With dessert, we had a glass of 1975 Abala Pedro Ximinez -- one of the best, most complex glasses of dessert wines that I have had. Although Backstreet's food remains good, it has been in something of a rut lately. The menu just hasn't changed much. But the fascinating, affordable wine list remains a key reason to go here.

T'afia is the oddest restaurant of the three. Although I am a huge fan of Monica Pope's food, I doubt that most of my friends would like her food. It is a little too austere. Yet the restaurant remains consistently crowded, and I always have a good meal. Monica has always focused on local ingredients, exotic ingredients, and local wines. But these days fewer ingredients seem so exotic, and the menu advertises fewer local ingredients or Texas wines. But the food remains dinstinctive and very good. Tonight, my wife and I docused on Monica's vegetarian offerings -- a beet salad with candied walnuts and blue cheese; beer battered mushrooms; bean ravioli with walnut cilatro pesto and a ricotta sauce; and agadashi tofu with soba noodles with portobello mushrooms and endamame and a ginger soy sauce. This style of pan-international cooking is almost retro now -- heavily influenced by the cuisine of Moosewood and Alice Waters in the late 1980s. No dish was a brilliant innovation. No ingredient was new to me. But every dish was tasty. We ended with a small plate of bittersweet chocolate truffles - for $4, they were a taste of heaven.

If I have one complaint about these three restaurants, it is that they are less inventive than they once were. The menus at T'afia and Backstreet have changed very little in the past year. Benjy's changes some menu items frequently, but other dishes are holdovers from the 1990s. On one hand, I hate to see great chefs fall into a rut. I want to experience more of their ideas. On the other hand, if it is a good rut, why question it?

If you haven't tried Benjy's, Backstreet, or T'afia, please do. A two-course dinner without wine at all three restaurants runs about $40 - $50. Despite these reasonable prices, they are among the best restaurants Houston has to offer.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Memo to Mak Chin's


To: Mak Chin’s Inc.

From: Ace Restaurant Marketing Corporation

Re: Marketing Strategy (and menu) for new high volume restaurant.

Location. We ruled out locations on Hillcroft and Bellaire Blvd. to avoid competition from inexpensive, authentic Asian restaurants. We recommend Shepherd Drive just south of I-10, an area of growing income and little real competition for a highly marketed restaurant.

Marketing theme. We have successfully marketed and designed menus for stylized, high volume, "Pan-Asian" fast food establishments like Pei Wei and can repeat that success for your restaurant. We recommend calling your new restaurant Mak Chin’s Asian Bistro. The word “bistro” no longer means cozy, casual French food with wine. Instead, it suggests a “classy casual,” “hip”, and “approachable”, upscale, fast food restaurant.

Marketing logo and décor. You want your restaurant to appear safe, yet exciting and sexy. To add “flair”, your menu and marketing photos will depict mid-century photos of Asian pin-up girls. Asian pin-up girls are exotic and wholesome and deliver great sex appeal. For décor, we suggest investing in an oversized wooden entranceway to create the appearance of class and to justify the relatively high prices for your fast food. We also suggest simple interior décor, with lots of wood and red paint. A minimalist décor will hint at Asian design styles, but more importantly, cut your start-up costs.

Condiment bar. The defining food concept for Mak Chin’s will be a condiment bar with at least 16 different types of Asian condiments. The concept has worked great for Taco Cabana and Café Express, and it will be a real innovation in the Asian restaurant genre. Because many consumers are spice-adverse, we recommend you serve bland dishes and then let customers create their own flavors and adjust levels of spice through the condiments. You can give them options like hot chili paste, sweet and sour sauce, grated ginger, jalapenos, and hot Chinese mustard. You also should serve some unusual condiments, like Kim Chee. This high visibility / low consumption item will suggest authenticity, but will cost you very little because no one will actually eat it.

The condiment bar embodies the concept of “consumer freedom.” At Pei Wei, the menu gives consumers the “freedom” to pick the meat to match the sauce. But at Mak Chin’s the condiment bar will give consumers the “freedom” to match basic food choices with their own “flavor profile.” That saves your “chefs” from guessing how to flavor customer's food.

Menu. Our team of marketing specialists has designed a menu of trend-wise "Pan-Asian" dishes. They borrow heavily from the Pei Wei / P.F. Chang’s niche. As P.F. Chang's found, American consumers love familiar dishes, safe ingredients, light spices, and large quantities of sugar. For instance, we suggest “tender pork in garlic sauce -- a stir fry of ordinary pork meat, a tiny hint of garlic, thinly sliced bell peppers, canned bamboo shoots, jicama, and a bland sauce with a lot of sugar. Although the servings will be large, the dish relies on shoots and jicama to add much of the bulk for a very low cost. On the side, you should offer brown rice because consumers think it is “healthy.” We also recommend “classic” sides like hot and sour soup, an egg roll, and a small plate of Chinese mustard and sweet and sour sauce, stylishly swirled together. The price point on this and similar dishes will be in the $9 - $12 range. Our marketing strategy will ensure that consumers are happy to pay this price, even though your costs will be as low a fast food restaurant.

It has been a great pleasure for our corporation to work with your corporation in designing the marketing strategy (and menu) for this new, profitable venture. We anticipate a regional expansion to suburban areas with the opening of multiple new locations within a five-year strategic growth term. We wish you and your shareholders the greatest financial success.

[Author's note: I wrote this based on my initial impression of Mak Chin's. Mak Chin's has now changed, and I like it much more, as I discuss here.]

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Rapture: Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .”
-Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Forgive the quote. I’m just trying to explain how I finally got a table at Dolce Vita Pizzaria Enoteca. I have been trying to go to Marco Wiles’ pizzeria on lower Wetheimer for almost a year, but every time I call, they have an hour-plus wait. A few weeks ago, it was Tuesday and raining, and I finally got a table.

Dolce Vita did not just meet my expectations. It blew them away.

The first thing I noticed was that the music and vibe of the restaurant were ultra hip. Even on a rainy Tuesday, customers were casual chic. Speakers were blaring neo post-punk dance music from seriously cool bands like LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture. Since it was a slow night, our beautiful hostess relaxed and began grooving. Then our handsome, suave waiter appeared. His name was Jesus.

Jesus recommended we start with escarole salad, which came with a ceasar-like dressing, anchovies, shaved parmesan, and a lot of lemon juice. This refreshingly bitter salad was a perfect way to wake up my palate. And it was one of the best variations on a ceasar salad I have had since 17 took a Caesar salad and fried it. I was beginning to put my faith in Jesus.

Next, Jesus said the truffled egg toast was good. Actually, it was incredible. To make this brilliantly simple dish, the chef took a thick slice of country bread, cracked an egg on top, threw it in the pizza oven, and then sprinkled it with truffle oil. The egg came out over-easy and upside-down. When I touched it with a fork, the yolk spilled all over the bread, mingling with the truffle oil. The gooey texture reminded me of the classic breakfast dish, egg-in-toast. But the rich flavor of truffles put the dish over the top. After all, truffle oil is a gift from God.

Finally, Jesus said we might like a pizza with taleggio cheese, arugula, pears, and truffle oil. Dominated by arugula, this was one of those salad-on-a-pizza type dishes, which are becoming a little too trendy. But this one was outstanding. The crust was crunchy and thin, exactly like pizzas I tried in Italy. The cheese, taleggio, is a very pungent, stinky, creamy cheese that can be overpoweringly funky. On this pizza, though, it struck a nice balance with the bitter greens and sweet pear slices. I didn’t taste much truffle oil, but my truffle taste buds may have been overwhelmed by the previous dish. No matter. By this third dish, I was having my own kind of religious experience – culinary rapture.

Our food cost less than $30 for two. Jesus tried to push desert, but we were stuffed.

The wine list is one of the best specialized lists in Houston. It has a large, eclectic selection of interesting Italian wines, made from unusual varietals in rare regions like Umbria and Sicily. Most bottles cost between $15 and $50. If you need a recommendation, ask Jesus.

Some of Houston’s best chefs have had problems with their “second” restaurants when they tried to go casual. Dolce Vita proves that a second restaurant can work. It proves inexpensive food can be original and full of flavor. And it proves that a value wine list can be exciting.

I will be rushing back to Dolce Vita -- on the next dark and stormy night.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro

I really like some Pan-Asian food. A talented chef can play off of traditional Asian dishes with great results. Consider the excellent Pan-Asian dishes served at some of Houston's best restaurants, like Noe, Bank, and Benjy's. Or the outstanding Pan-Asian dishes at cheaper restaurants like Bamboo House and Mo Mong. These restaurants all incorporate Asian cuisine, but concsiously depart from tradition to good effect.

In contrast, the Pan-Asian food at Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro just seems sort of clueless.

The Dragon Bowl is a new cafe in the Heights on W. 11th at Shepherd. In some respects it is a welcome addition to the Heights, which needs good Asian food. The only other decent Asian restaurant in the area is the excellent Vietnamese Restaurant. Given this lack of neighborhood competition, Dragon Bowl isn't bad. But it also is not worth driving across town to visit.

An obvious misfire is Dragon Bowl's rice. The rice consists of dry, individual, long white grains -- the kind of rice a white American cook would make. They are not the short and sticky grains usually served with real Asian food. The problem with Dragon Bowl's rice is that the clumps fall apart when you try to eat with chopsticks. (Advice to chef: add one third more water to the rice cooker if you want to solve this problem.)

Then there is Dragon Bowl's bulgogi. It also doesn't taste much like the real thing. Real bulgogi is thinly sliced beef with a sweet and spicy hot marinade. See my August 31, 2006 post. Dragon Bowl's version is more like a shish kabob of teriyaki-marinated and grilled flank steak. The meat is too thick, and it is neither sweet nor spicy. But they do add some sweet marinated onions and a bit of Chinese chili sauce on the side. You might call it a "deconstructed" bulgogi if it wasn't so obviously out of touch with the real thing.

Similarly, the Super Udon Bowl is a huge mish mash of udon, large pieces of carrots and bell peppers, chewy tofu, and a few pieces of shrimp. The mild sauce seems to consist of soy, sugar, and a little ginger. It is the sort of Pan Asian dish I would make at home. Of course, I'm not Japanese. Nor was this dish.

On the plus side, every dish at Dragon Bowl is under $10. The portions are generous. The food doesn't taste like a chain restaurant. And there is something about the restaurant that is oddly approachable -- perhaps the fact that you can see them cook behind the counter.

I probably will return to Dragon Bowl. It is kind of fun to watch them massacre traditional Asian dishes, but come up with something fairly decent in the process. The next time I am going to try "Pad Thai', which comes with real "Thai noodles", "a tangy tamarind sauce," and "shitake mushrooms." That should be fun.

UDATE (9/24/06): So I tried the Pad Thai. Although it wasn't the best in town, it was very good. A few minor aspects seemed a bit off. The "tangy tamarind sauce" was a little too tangy, and not quite as sweet, as the perfect Pad Thai. Also, instead of crushed peanuts on top, this Pad Thai was toped with some other sort of crushed granules -- possibly garlic. And the shitake mushrooms, a Japanese ingredient, seemed a little out of place, even if they were tasty. But this dish worked because of the outstanding noodles. When I try to cook Pad Thai, I alway damage the noodles, leaving them undercooked, burnt, or sticking to the pan. Many Thai restaurants ruin Pad Thai by adding too many bean sprouts to the noodles. In contrast, Dragon Bowl's noodles had the perfect consistency, with few pesky bean sprouts added. Even if not completely authentic, this is an outstanding dish for $8 and one of the best Pad Thais in miles.

Dragon Bowl is neither authentic nor creative fusion high cuisine. But the food is satisfying and far, far better than nearest Pan Asian bistro competitor -- Mak Chin's. See my September 16 post. Unlike Mak Chin's, the food at Dragon Bowl is the creation of a real chef.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Lucio’s BYOB and Grill recently opened next to Gravitas at 905 Taft. After Fox Diner moved from this address, it has housed many restaurants that failed quickly: Café Zoro, Saltwater Grill, Mom’s Cookin’, and Annabelle’s Diner (a “bring your own dog” restaurant).

Like the previous inhabitants, Lucio’s does not fit neatly into any categories. You might call it a quirky, unconsciously retro, mid-priced café with Louisiana Creole and Italian influences. But however you classify it, Lucio’s is anti-trendy. It is not the kind of place that was created by a restaurant marketing expert. It is the kind of place you would expect was opened by an untrained cook after all his friends said, “Lucio, you cook real good. Why don’t you open a restaurant?”

And when you order correctly, the chef at Lucio’s does cook real good. My friend knew exactly what to get. He started with spinach and artichoke dip, a laughably quaint dish, like jello mold with fruit. But Lucio’s makes the best spinach dip I have ever had. They use a creamy, funky ingredient (blue cheese?) that gives it a really thick texture and powerful flavor. They serve the dip on odd fried bread triangles that resemble beignets. This “appetizer” was so heavy that even half of it would fill me up for the rest of the day. I only recommend it for parties of 8 or more, or the extremely large.

Next, my friend ordered pecan crusted chicken. This dish is a little more modern – it was popular in the late 80s. The bite I tried was crispy and had a great, nutty flavor. My friend wisely opted to substitute sautéed spinach for the usual side of fettucini alfredo.

Finally, my friend ordered bread pudding. It looked less like pudding, and more like three small pieces of French toast with butter. But the “toast” was very dense and tasted like bread pudding, and the “butter” was a sweet sauce. It was one of the best bread puddings that I have had.

Unlike my friend, I had not yet figured out Lucio’s when I tried to order something light and trendy (circa 2000), a seared tuna salad. The salad was odd, as though the chef had heard the concept of a seared tuna salad, but never actually tasted one. Instead of the usual Asian flavors, it combined ordinary ingredients from a cheap Italian dinner salad -- oily Italian dressing, romaine lettuce, red onions and canned black olives. The tuna was a dense, coarse, and meaty fish with strong flavor. It probably was albacore, which is not the best kind of tuna to sear. Searing should be reserved for creamier, higher quality tuna, like blue fin. In contrast, albacore deserves to be fully cooked and smothered in sauce, like puttanesca. Although the quantity of tuna was generous, I wished they had served half as much and used tuna twice as good.

Don’t worry about reservations. Lucio’s is off to a slow start. At noon, we were two of only four customers. I am rooting for Lucio’s to survive because it is loveable. I say “loveable” because it is so cluelessly unfashionable, and sincerely good.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Creative sashimi

I had a great sashimi dish at Roy's in Austin. The dish suggests the possibilities of what a creative chef can do with raw fish.

The dish was suzuki (sea bass). It came on top of a small bed of an unusual tree-like seaweed. The suzuki was drizzled with a little yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), paper-thin slices of serrano peppers, grey sea salt from France, and a few leaves of a Japanese micro green, which was growing on a shelf in the kitchen. These minor accompanyments brought out flavors of the fish without overwhelming it.

The dish was a brilliant variation on typical sushi flavors. The yuzu replaced lemon, which is frequently served with fish and occasionally with sushi or sashimi. It gave the dish an exotic flavor. The sea salt replaced soy sauce. In addition to sodium, it added an unusual, crunchy texture. The serrano replaced wasabi for spicy heat. The dish did not ignore the traditional preparation, but it was very unique.

Some of the best, most creative sashimi dishes have been created by gourmet American chefs. Rather than relying solely Japanese tradition or trying to pander to American tastes by frying or adding sweet sauces, these chefs use simple flavors that accent sashimi and give it unique flavors and textures. For instance, in 2000 at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, I tried yellow tail sashimi with cauliflower puree with a few micro greens on top. I usually do not like cauliflower, but it was an inspired pairing with the yellow tail. It was an incredible little dish that proved to me that sashimi can be made new and interesting, without sacrificing its simplicity.

Roy's is a national chain of upscale Hawaiian restaurants founded by star chef Roy Yamaguchi. All four of my meals at Roy's in Hawaii and Austin have been outstanding. Hawaiian cuisine is a combination of flavors and cooking styles from Polynesia, Hawaii, Japan, China, and the mainland. It has emerged as one of the great American regional cuisines in the last 20 years. If you can't make it to Hawaii, Roy's has locations in Austin and Dallas. I wish they would open one in Houston.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Catalan - a quick first glance

Catalan is the new restaurant on Washington Avenue brought to us by Ibiza's Charles Clark, Grant Cooper, and Chris Shepard and former Da Marco sommelier Antonio Gianola. It opened on Wednesday, and I tried it today for lunch.

Lunch probably is not the best time to go to Catalan. The restaurant focuses on wine and tapas. But at lunch, they don't serve tapas, and I don't drink wine. Still, if my lunch is any indication, Catalan is a great addition to the Houston restaurant scene.

The real standout was a garlic soup with a soft egg floating in it. The soup had a smooth, viscous texture and tasted great. It was even better when I broke open the egg and stirred around the yolk. What a great idea to float an egg in soup.

I also tried two pressed sandwiches. One was a pulled chicken sandwich, which came with ham, avocado and a white cheese. I loved the texture of the pressed bread, but I did not think the taste of the other ingredients was very special. In contrast, a lamb and mint sandwich was outstanding. The combination made so much sense, but you don't see it that often in sandwiches.

Like Ibiza, the main reason to go to Catalan may be the outstanding wine list and prices. Like Ibiza, these wines are priced around 1/2 to 2/3 the price of most other restaurants in town. For instance, the 2004 Far Niente Chardonnay is $115 at tony's and $75 at Catalan. The 2002 Caymus Special Selection is $350 at tony's and the 2003 vintage is $155 at Catalan. Fortunately, the majority of Catalan's wines are in the $30 - $50 range and are far more interesting than Far Niente and Caymus. There are a lot of wines from wonderfull lesser-known regions like Friuli (Italy), Jura and Zamora (Spain), and Lake County (California). Plus, the list looks quite long -- at least 250 different wines.

The interior of Catalan reminds me of a smaller and more informal version of Ibiza. But don't expect "Ibiza light." The menu looks entirely new. Our waiter told us that one of the best items at night is "pork pops" which are made from pork bellies and rum. He also mentioned fried balls of foie gras.