Sunday, December 30, 2007
In contrast, K.L. Restaurant is not very urban, just quaint. The interior feels like someone's home. Although I don't know that they are related, the staff seem like a welcoming family.
K.L. is cheap. It has a large menu that is a good introduction to Malaysian cuisine.
Malaysian Plate Lunch (Breakfast) - Nasi Lemak
A good way to start, at lunch on weekdays, is the $4.95 plate called Nasi Lemak. In Malaysia, this is a popular dish for breakfast, but for Western tastes, it makes more sense as lunch. The central ingredient is a large pile of rice, soaked in coconut milk and then steamed. The rice is surrounded by small servings of various condiment-like ingredients: beef curry, tofu, tiny dried anchovies, sliced cucumber, and a hard boiled egg.
The dish reminds me of a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch -- a mixed variety of dishes surrounding a serving of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. The Malaysian version does not have the macaroni salad, but the idea is similar. Overall, the flavors of this dish are salty and savory. No single condiment stands out, but the overall mix is satisfying.
K.L. serves a wonderful starter dish for $2.95 called roti canai -- lightly grilled flatbreads with a spicy curry dipping sauce. The bread reminds me of Naan, but it is much softer. The grilled flavor of the bread, and the spicy heat of the sauce, make this dish highly addictive.
When I brought my daughter, she ordered KL fish cakes. She probably was expecting fried fish. Instead, the fish had been pulverized, resulting in a smooth, gelatinous texture, with bits of onions and vegetables. On the exterior was a very thin, unbattered, fried crust. I appreciated the unusual textures of this dish. My daughter appreciated the spicy sweet and sour sauce served with it.
Malaysian food is a crossroads for the flavors of India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This is evident in the flavors of K.L.'s main courses.
Shrimp sambal is made with a paste-like sauce of chili, shrimp paste, salt, sugar, and lime. The flavors resemble the food of Thailand, or even Vietnam. The shrimp I tried were surprisingly high quality; they actually tasted like shrimp. This is the most flavorful dish I have had at KL.
Rendang beef is made with a curry paste. The flavors resemble an Indian curry, but include southeast Asian flavors. In the west, we are used to wet curries, often made from coconut milk. This curry is more of a paste. It is full of spices, and some coconut paste, but is not particularly hot. I like the fact that KL serves its beef medium to medium rare. But for my tastes, the beef is a little tough, with a consistency resembling a flank steak. The dish would benefit from a better cut of steak, or more tenderizing. Yet given the tasty curry, the large quantity, and the $6 or so price tag, the dish is steal.
I recommend K.L. if you are a fan of cheap Asian food, or like taking your friends to tasty ethnic dives that you can claim credit for discovering. But I also recommend it if you are interested in Malaysian cuisine. Houston has had several new Malaysian restaurants in the past few years, and hopefully we will soon see even more of this fascinating food.
Update 7.8.09. K.L. has closed. Houston has few Malaysian food restaurants left. In the Bellaire Asia Town, we have Banana Leaf and Cafe Singapore. Sugarland has Nonya Cafe. As far as I know, that's it.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
I often struggle with the "A" word -- authenticity. Honestly, when it comes to food from places like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, I have no idea what is truly authentic. But sometimes a place just feels authentic.
Picture this: a small, grungy southeast Asian grocery store on Cavalcade between I-45 North and Heights Boulevard. The name Asia Market on an old weathered sign is barely visible. On the back wall of the store, a Thai woman is cooking. There is no menu. She does not speak much English. You have to guess at what dishes she makes and order with her by using a dish's Thai name. If you are lucky, you may get some translation help from the person at the front register. There are just three tables. A refrigerator has some Thai canned drinks and a few extra spices are served on a counter next to a TV.
The TV is showing a video of a Thai band, playing arena-style rock, replete with bad guitar solos. The singer sings in Thai, but is wearing a Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie t-shirt. And at some point, I could swear he sang something about "Jesus Christ." Could this be authentic Thai Christian hard rock?
I don't know with certainty that the food is authentic. But somehow, Asia Market just feels like the kind of place where the food is very real.
Learning to speak a little Thai to get great food
It is hard to order at Asia Market without knowing the Thai names for dishes. These are a few to learn:
Pad kee mao. These are wide, flat noodles stir fried with chicken and large clumps of pungent Thai basil. Order it Thai spicy. I have tried a number of similar Thai basil dishes around Houston, but Asia Market's version may be my favorite. The noodles have a slimy exterior, but a toothsome texture. The cook uses generous amounts of basil. It is classic comfort food with an exotic twist.
Som Tam (Thai or Lao). Som tam is a grated papaya salad. The Thai version has peanuts, dried shrimp, and sugar. The much spicier and unusual Laotian version includes chili, garlic, lime, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. If you get the Laotian version, you need to order some sticky rice to balance the heat. The two spiciest dishes I have ever eaten are the Laotian Som Tam at Asia Market and at Vieng Thai. Vieng Thai's version also adds small, crunchy crabs, which made the dish a little too wierd for me. Asia Market's version is just right - garlicky, sour, and extraordinarily spicy.
Pad Thai. This is the most popular Thai dish for Americans and may be the safest dish to start with at Asia Market. And it is quite good. I prefer Asia Market's version to most in town because it uses less sugar and more sour tamarind. The noodles are thinner than most. Somehow, this pad thai tastes less Americanized. I last ordered it with shrimp. Most shrimp in Houston restaurants has little or no flavor. But the shrimp in this little $6 dish was full of fresh shrimp flavor, like you can only get in the finest restaurants or the dives on the coast that buy directly from the trawlers.
I believe the oral menu at Asia Market may change daily. I saw one of the staff eating a meatball noodle soup. They explained that I can order the soup next time, but only if I come late in the week.
I adore Asia Market. Its food is without question the best Asian food in the Heights, and some of the best-tasting, least-Americanized Thai and Laotian food in Houston. But I must confess that my critical judgment is clouded by the funky setting, which seems so real, and so . . . foreign.
If you like traveling in another land where you can barely communicate and are served dishes with unusual flavors, it is worth the effort to eat at one of the three tables in front of the TV at Asia Market. If you want Thai food that is readily accessible, and a little on the sweet side, then you probably would do better at one of Houston's more mainstream Thai restaurants, like Nit Noi, Thai Pepper, and Thai Cottage.
Asia Market has changed a little. It now bears a new sign, "Asia Market and Thai Fast Food." And it now has a written menu.
One item from the menu is a soup called Ka Nom Jeen Nam Ya, rice stick noodle in fish curry sauce. The main component of the dish is a pile of toothsome thin noodles. I assume the sauce is made primarily from shrimp paste, fish sauce, ground bits of shrimp, ginger, garlic, and a little coconut milk. On Fridays, AM serves an off-the-menu dish that seems much like a Vietnamese Pho noodle soup with three types of beef -- meat balls, sliced flank, and delicious chunks that taste like slow-cooked brisket.
With its new printed menu, Asia Market may not seem quite so exotic, but at least English-speaking customers have an easier time ordering. Plus, I have a new goal - to try everything on the menu.
Friday, December 28, 2007
Fifteen years ago, I knew all the best Vietnamese food in Houston. I had been to every Vietnamese restaurant and noodle shop in Vietnamtown, which was then in Midtown. But then the Vietnamese community moved outside the Loop, and I stayed inside it -- which has kept me out of the loop when it comes to new Vietnamese restaurants.
To escape my rut, I asked for help from my friend Ann. About 17 years ago, Ann immigrated to Houston from Saigon. Ann suggested we try Saigon Pagolac.
Saigon Pagolac is in the new Chinatown, behind the Dynasty Mall on Bellaire Boulevard. The interesting interior invokes Vietnam. One wall has a mural of the main market in Saigon -- the Pagolac. Another wall has stringed instruments from North and South Vietnam. Another wall has actual bicycle taxi carts, and right now a life-sized Santa Claus.
Seven Course Beef
Although the menu is quite large, Saigon Pagolac is well known for two things: (1) seven course beef, and (2) table-cooked dishes. The seven course beef costs $15.95 per person, but it will easily feed two. It consists of:
1. thinly sliced tenderlin that you boil at your table in vinegar and wrap in spring rolls, plus a variety of herbs and lettuce to wrap;
2. charcoal-grilled beef slices served with thin noodles;
3. a plate of four kinds of bite-sized beef items, including meat balls, marinated grilled beef, a roll of ground beef, and something that resembles a grape leaf around beef.
4. a tasty ground beef soup with small noodles.
For me, the star of the seven course beef was not the beef dishes, but one of the two dipping sauces. One sauce was nuoc mam cham -- the ordinarythin fish sauce mixed with lime juice, sugar, and garlic. But the real revelation was a thick concentrated fish sauce mixed with pineapple juice and pineapple chunks. Without the pineaple, the concentrated, fermented fish sauce might be very strange to a Western palate. But the sweetness and acid of the pineapple cuts the dead-animal funkiness of the fermented fish, making a very interesting combination. This second sauce worked best with items 1 and 3.
The array of ingredients served with the seven course beef is dizzying. You may want to get some help from the waiter. Also, the spring roll paper is oddly shaped as a triangle. You have to dip it in water for about 10 seconds, and then roll the ingredients inside the triangle as if it were a sushi hand roll or an ice cream cone. Then you fold the tip of the cone over so the juices do not run out of the roll. It is easy, once you get the hang of it, but daunting if you have not seen someone else do it.
In addition to the beef boiled in vinegar, a number of othe dishes at Saigon Pagolac involve cooking raw ingredients on top of the table and rolling them in spring rolls. Ann ordered two items marinated in lemon grass -- shrimp and squid. We had to cook them on a hot plate on the table, and then roll them in the triangle paper.
Saigon Pagolac is deeply interactive eating. It is fun because it is a challenge. It may help to have someone like Ann who knows what items go with which sauce, who knows how to cook the raw beef and seafood, and who can demonstrate how to roll the spring rolls. But even without a guide, it is fun to try to figure out how to cook and assemble your meal.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Like a traveling art collection, but it's food
This is the basic idea: Take 40 or so elegant Italian (many Milanese) recipes and carefully train staff to copy those same dishes around the world. Customers in far-away places like Brazil, Dubai, and Houston will pay a lot of money to get faithful reproductions of risotto Milanese, ossobuco, or potato gnocchi - without having to fly to Italy.
It is like copying the permanent collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence - a classic collection of Renaissance art - and displaying the copies in a Houston museum.
Museum Quality Food
To get the classic museum experience, we ordered some typical dishes:
-Tricolore salad ($11). Three colors: purple, white, green - radicchio, endive, arugula. This is the bitter food equivalent of Campari. Three strong, bitter greens are paired with an acidic lemon juice dressing. The only relief from all the bitterness is some nicely toasted pine nuts. I like it -- even if Bice's version is unbalanced by a little too much endive.
-Carpaccio di manzo ($18). Thinly sliced raw beef is served with arugula, lemon juice, capers, and mustard. The menu also mentions "black truffles," but we could not find them. Although the mustard was delicate, it slightly overpowered the beef, making the dish taste a bit like a deli sandwich. My wife agreed that we might have liked this dish more if we had not just tried a much more interesting version at Mockingbird Bistro.
-Risotto with shaved black truffles ($25/$50). A half-sized order of rice -- probably less than one cup -- costs $25. The rice is topped by six or so, quarter-sized, super-thin shavings of black truffle. The waiter explained that Bice served white truffles last year, but had to stoop to black truffles because the price has risen. The delicate, slightly funky flavor of freshly shaved truffles is unique -- completely different from so-called "truffle oil," which is usually made with artificial truffle flavoring. Although it was the most expensive cup of rice I have had, this dish was subtly interesting. Yet it left me scratching my head about why truffles have become so expensive.
-Tagliata de Tonno ($28). Tuna steak and white beans may be my favorite classic Italian combination. With Bice's version, I appreciated the restraint: the beans were served al dente, and the tuna was barely seared. Interestingly, the dish was accented with a sweet balsamic vinegar sauce. Although I usually prefer this dish with more garlic, and less sweetness, it was the only dish of the night that was remotely surprising.
Some "not museum quality" wines
Bice's wine list is dominated by high priced wines. It includes an adequate selection of Italian wines from Piedmont and Tuscany, plus some requisite Chiantis. But some other Houston restaurants have more interesting collections of Italian wines.
Surprisingly, much of the list is Californian. Next to us, a 50-something man, dining with an attractive 30-something woman, ordered Silver Oak, an over-oaked, over-priced cabernet that I cannot imagine drinking with Italian food. Unlike Da Marco and Dolce Vita, Bice does not require that its customers drink interesting Italian wines; it lets customers drink the same overpriced California wines they drink in steak houses.
The Price/Value calculation
Have I said Bice is expensive? Most beef and veal courses cost over $40. Ossobuco was $49. First courses are almost all over $10. Some, like my risotto, are over $20.
Although Bice had an elegant atmosphere early in the evening, a noisy party in the upstairs ballroom changed the tone for the second half of our meal. It is hard to imagine yourself at dinner in Milan when a phat bass guitar vibrates your body and a singer noisily belts out "Brick House." My wife asked if it was ok to get up and dance.
For food, Bice is like any museum collection of old art. You ought to pay the steep ticket price to visit once. If you really like it, you might go a few more times. But over time, the rewards of visiting the same old collection probably will not match the price.
This is particularly true in Houston, where we have a few Italian restaurants that are more creative, more flavorful, more contemporary, and less expensive than Bice. And those restaurants will never serve customers a bottle of Silver Oak.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Perhaps the traditional recipe is mussels in their Platonic form. Perhaps no other recipe can beat it. Perhaps one ought not mess around with perfection.
I want to love this pricey Sicilian restaurant in the Galleria area for many reasons. First, the Sicilian part of the menu is utterly unique in Houston. For instance, Arcodoro is the only place I know in Houston that serves dishes with bottarga -- a funky ingredient that consists of a slab of tuna roe that has been compressed, dried and cured in sea salt, and coated in beeswax. Second, the upscale Euro crowd is funky and chic, and I hope some of that might rub off on a food nerd like me.
Yet I am usually a bit disappointed in the food at Arcodoro. The recipes sound great. But the quality of the ingredients does not match the high prices. For instance, I love the idea of Arcodoro's Campesante e Gamberoni Pungenti - large shrimp marinated with bottarga, wrapped in a thin pasta and lightly fried so that the crunchy pasta resembles a shrimp shell, served with pan seared scallops and a citrus, honey sauce. On my last visit, the dish came with four shrimp that had a decent texture, but no shrimp flavor. The two or three scallops were a little limp and not-so-large -- inferior to some of the wonderful diver scallops that you can get in many of Houston's best restaurants. At $34.50, I was left wondering whether this dish was worth it.
Which brings me to Arcodoro's mussels. A $14.50 appetizer, Vongole e Cozze al Vermentino di Gallura, is a plate of steamed mussels and clams sauteed with white Vermentino whine, garlic, and tomatoes. The recipe is Sicilian. When I arrived in the restaurant, the uncooked mussels were out on the counter next to the kitchen, opening their shells, beckoning to me. After the waiter told us that the mussels came from the Mediterranean, I had to try the intriguing dish. Unfortunately, the meat inside the mussels was small, and a few had hard material inside that nearly broke a tooth filling. I liked the flavor of the tomato garlic broth, but it was so light that I lost interest. I prefer the traditional French recipe.
I recommend at least trying Arcodoro for a very different kind of Italian food. But compared to other restaurants in the same price range, my experience has been that the ingredients tend to be average at best.
I recently raved about the food at this Montrose bistro. Since that post, I returned to Mockingbird and tried a lunch entree of mussels.
Finally, this is what I have been hunting -- Houston's best non-traditional mussel dish -- heck, even Houston's best mussel dish, period.
Like Arcodoro, Mockingbird uses mussels from the Mediterranean. I thought it was impossible to beat mussels from Prince Edward Island. I was wrong. Unlike Arcodoro, these mussels were large and round and plump and juicy and completely clean inside.
I know it is hard for a restaurant to know what it is getting when it buys mussels. It is hard to get perfect-sized mussels all the time. Plus it is all to easy to get a batch that has swallowed sand or baby crabs. There is no way to identify the problem by just looking at the shell. Still, qualitatively, Mockingbrid's mussels were just about the best I have found in Houston.
The real revelation, though, was the preparation. These mussels were served in a wide bowl with a thick tomato spinach sauce, garlic, shallots, white wine and andouille sausage. I was fascinated by the flavor combination -- the strong salty, meaty flavors of the sausage contrasted with the spicy, acidic tomatoes, which played with the earthy alliums and the sea essence of the mussel broth.
Even better, Mockingbird solves the architecture problem by spreading the mussels out in a bowl, giving you room to dip crunchy, toasted French bread in the sauce. Then again, the sauce is so thick, you can eat it with a fork, which I did after I ran out of bread. The thick sauce also works to keep the mussels warm -- something I never could accomplish with the traditional recipe served on a platter.
As a lagniappe, these mussels were served with French fries and a tasty aioli. Yet I only tried a few fries because the mussels attracted all my attention.
A truly, great dish requires great ingredients. But it requires more. True greatness comes from food's ability to engage the intellect throughout the course of a meal and beyond. This was not just a tasty plate of mussels. It was a flavor combination that fascinated me from the first bite to the last. It has left me pondering the dish for the past four days.
It is dishes like Mockingbird Bistro's mussels that compel me to keep writing about food.
Friday, December 14, 2007
The odd social niche of mussels
Traveling in Gaul, the Roman poet Ausonius discovered the double pleasure of mussels: "a food delightful to the taste of lords and cheap enough for poor folks' tables."
Mussels fit a similar niche in the U.S. On one hand, mussels are seen as a slightly exotic, Euro dish. You won't find them on the menu at Chili's. Instead, in Houston mussels usually appear on fairly haute menus. On the other hand, they are plentiful and relatively cheap. You can buy mussels in a fish market for less than $4 a pound.
For the past month, I have been exploring mussels in Houston. I have discovered that a restaurant's approach to mussels says a lot about the restaurant's soul. So my next two posts will be about mussels. But they also will attempt to encapsulate the food at four restaurants -- Cafe Montrose, Cafe Laurier, Arcodoro, and Mockingbird Bistro.
The photograph is a plate of mussels I made. It is the traditional recipe, and it is the best way to start talking about mussels. The recipe is as simple as it is perfect:
1. In a large pot, bring to simmer 1 cup dry white wine with a 1/4 cup of minced shallots or onion, several sliced garlic cloves, and a bay leaf.
2. After 3 minutes, add about 2 pounds of mussels and increase the heat to high. Cover and cook until the mussels open -- usually within 4 - 5 minutes.
3. (Optional) Remove the mussels and swirl 2 tablespoons of butter into the broth.
4. Add some chopped parsley.
I get PEI (Prince Edward Island) mussels at Central Market and they are always good.
This dish is almost always served with a lot of crusty French bread. The taste of crusty bread made soggy by the wine/sea/allium-flavored sauce is one of life's great pleasures.
Cafe Montrose is a funky Belgian restaurant on lower Westheimer. It has authentic European service (a bit slow) and a good selection of Belgian beers. It may the best known place in town to get traditional mussels.
Cafe Montrose has seven different recipes for mussels. It also serves two sizes: small ($8) and large ($18). The large serving is enormous and comes with a large side of fries and mayonnaise -- traditional accompaniments for mussels in Belgium.
The only version of mussels I have tried at Cafe Montrose is the traditional one: "Moules Marinniere." As far as I can tell, it follows the recipe above. At Cafe Montrose, the mussels are good quality, the broth is tasty, the fries are crispy, and the mayo is so much better than what usually passes for mayonnaise in America. If you order this dish and a Belgian ale, you will think you are sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Europe.
My only complaint about this dish is its architecture. The broth is hidden deep below a huge pot of mussels. To get to it, you have to move the mussels to the discard plate. I prefer to serve the mussels as in the photo above, on a platter with the broth spooned into each mussel. But arguably, with my approach, the mussels get cold a little more quickly.
Cafe Laurier is a neighborhood bistro in the Greenway Plaza area. Although the restaurant has a modern decor and plays downtempo club music, almost all the customers are over 50. That generation has a real fetish for French bistro food.
Cafe Laurier's food is minimalist French. Most dishes include no more than 4 ingredients. For instance, a wonderfully simple arugula salad has just argugula, olive oil, and parmesan. Laurier uses high quality ingredients, so the food usually withstands the sharp focus created by using a few ingredients. But for some folks, Laurier may not be very interesting.
Cafe Laurier's mussels typify the restaurant's minimalism. The recipe is like the traditional recipe, but I detect no onion, just a little parsley, and possibly no butter or oil. The mussels are good quality, but the dish is a little too austere. Unless of course you pay $2 more and get a pile of mayonnaise and French fries on top. Mayo and fries are traditionally paired with mussels and provide two different contrasting textures with the slimy, slightly chewy texture of the mussels. Laurier makes great fries and great mayo, and the combination is very good.
Laurier's mussel dish suffers from the same architecture problem as Montrose. You have to move a lot of mussels to get to the broth. It does not ruin the dish, but it makes it a technical challenge to eat the mussels, bread, broth, and fries at the same time.
If I had to choose between mussels prepared traditionally at Laurier or Montrose, it would depend on whether I am in the mood for beer or wine. Cafe Montrose has one of the best beer lists in town, but not a good wine list. Laurier has a mid-sized, slightly quirky list with a lot of good values. If you go for wine, get a crisp sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley or New Zealand. It is great with mussels.
NEXT: Breaking with Tradition
Thursday, December 13, 2007
For years, there has been no comprehensive guide to Houston's restaurants. Houston has a lot of restaurants, yet there has been no one place to go to find out where to eat.
Other sources of reviews are not sufficiently reliable or comprehensive to act as a one-stop source of reviews. The capsules in the Chronicle, Houston Press, and Texas Monthly are helpful, but too short, and too few restaurants are reviewed. Our outstanding food critics (Robb Walsh & Alison Cook) and amateur bloggers (like Epicurus and me) can only write detailed reviews for a handful of restaurants at a time. And the more populist dining guides, like Zagat and b4-u-eat, are only as informed as the people who decide to voice their opinion -- and often they are not very informed.
In short, Houston desperately needed a smart, cuisine-conscious collection of thorough reviews about a broad range of restaurants.
Today I received a copy of the Fearless Critic's Houston Restaurant Guide. This big volume contains detailed one-page reviews of over 400 Houston restaurants. I am impressed with the intelligence and candor of the reviews, the scope of coverage, and the judgment of the reviewers. Houston finally has the restaurant guide it deserves.
Good concept, good reviewers
The FCHRG's format is user friendly. Every restaurant gets a witty one sentence caption such as: "Good-hearted Greek food in a gaudy room that ranges from raucous to strangely lonely" (Alexander the Great Greek); and "Vegas decor, and haphazard pan-world food that's even worse than a sleazy casino" (Zula). Then, the restaurant gets a thorough review, with informed details. I like the fact that restaurants are listed alphabetically, but also indexed by cuisine style, location, top 100, and other categories.
This guide also succeeds because it is the work of six informed reviewers, all with chef and/or guidebook writing credentials. They write well. The reviews are entertaining.
Should I even continue this blog?
The FCHRG is now the single best resource for finding a great place to eat in Houston. My immediate reaction was that the FCHRG might make this blog obsolete. What else can Epicurus and I add?
A few things. First, I can disagree. And sometimes I do. The FCHRG gives some dismal grades to a few restaurants that I enjoy:
Bistro Le Cep (C) (deserves a B+)
Goode Co. Barbeque (C-) (deserves a B)
Kanomwan (C+) (deserves a B)
Lankford Grocery (C+) (deserves a B)
Oceanaire (D) (deserves a B)
It gives some mediocre grades to some of my favorite restaurants, (each of which deserves at least an A-):
Backstreet Cafe (B+)
And it gives some grades that are just too high:
Tony's (A) (deserves at best a B+ for overpriced, uncreative food)
Doneraki (A) (utterly average Mexican food, deserving no more than B-)
Luling City Market (A-) (some of the driest, worst barbecue in town, a D)
Fortunately, though, most of FCHRG's rankings are about right.
Second, the FCHRG misses some great restaurants. With over 400 reviews, it covers a lot of ground, including almost every good upscale restaurant in town. Yet with one page per restaurant, it is impossible to cover everything. It skips many of my hidden favorites, especially on the cheaper side: La Sani, Mary'z, Oporto, Candelari's Pizza, Droubi Bros. (on Hilcroft), Mint Cafe, La Jaliescience, Merida, Blue Fin, Rattan, Alfreda's Cafeteria, Cafe Mezza, and William's Smokehouse. On the other hand, it includes many out of the way places that I have never tried.
Despite these quibbles, I highly recommend the FCHRG, the best guide I have ever seen to Houston's most visible restaurants - and some that are not so visible.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
I was in the mood for Singapore noodles.
So now I find myself, the only customer, in a little Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant in the Heights. The noodles are prepared indifferently. The texture is too thick, a little oily. The noodles are supplemented by bland steamed chicken breast and pork. The dish is sadly lacking in curry.
I am overcome with the conviction that something is terribly wrong with American Chinese food.
A mere shadow of Chinese cuisine
I am not the first to make this complaint. Last summer Nina and Tim Zagat -- the restaurant guide couple -- wrote a wonderful op-ed piece about the problem. As the Zagats confirm, "Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what's available here."
I have heard that China, along with France and Italy, has one of the world's top three cuisines. Supposedly, Chinese food is remarkably varied. Allegedly, China's cuisine is unrivaled in its flavorful ingredients and creative techniques.
But you would not know any of that from eating Chinese food in Houston. Menus are standardized, with the same inauthentic dishes: General Joe's Chicken, sweet and sour pork, sesame chicken. Almost all dishes are steamed, stir-fried, or deep fried with batter, American-style. Sauces have too much sugar and oil. The food is anything but authentic, catering to American tastes. Houston's Chinese menus do not give even a glimpse of the diversity of dishes and techniques that are available in China and Taiwan.
Although China is supposed to be the jewel of Asian cuisine, Houston has much better restaurants with the food of India (Indika) and Japan (Nippon, Kubo's, Blue Fin).
A little hope
Of Houston's 400 Chinese restaurants, there are a few glimmers of hope:
-Fung's Kitchen has a broader, more authentic menu than most Houston Chinese restaurants, with a focus on Hong Kong-style seafood. Most dishes are very good.
-Daniel Wong's is not high cuisine, but is a quirky blend of standard Chinese recipes with a Houston twist.
-The pan-Asian bistro explosion is bringing some interesting Chinese flavors at stylish, inexpensive restaurants like Mak Chin's and Rattan.
-You can get some interesting cheap Chinese food at some of Houston's dumpling houses, like Doozo, Dumpling King, and Santong Snacks.
As my Singapore noodles start to get cold, I find myself staring at the rain. My mind starts to wander . . .
20 years from now
On January, 1 2028, a new Chinese restaurant has opened in Houston's very upscale Sharpstown area.
The chef is in her late 30s and has trained in some of the top restaurants in Beijing and Taipei. She has surrounded herself with skilled and creative younger Chinese and American chefs who actively participate in the creation of the nightly changing tasting menu.
The restaurant has three sommeliers and a wine list with over 600 wines. Each wine listing includes a description of the Chinese flavors with which it pairs well. The list has no California Cabernet Sauvignon. It does, however, include a number of wines and liquors imported from China. The sommeliers gladly suggest by-the-glass wines to go with the tasting menu.
The restaurant's elegant design highlights the kitchen by raising it on a stage-like platform in the center of the restaurant and surrounding it with glass so that it is visible from every chair in the restaurant. The design of the tables, chairs, and fabrics is warm and colorful with hues of black, red, and green.
The central location of the kitchen allows chefs to quickly carry dishes to tables only steps away as they are finished -- to preserve the "breath of the wok."
The food is as good as the best restaurants in China. It is firmly-rooted in Chinese techniques. Yet the chefs use the tradition as a springboard for new flavors, often created with local ingredients from the dozens of daily farmer's markets in Houston.
The restaurant also includes a large bar with a separate menu of less-expensive, small-bite dishes sold a la carte.
Finally, Houston has a world-class Chinese restaurant.
And sometimes they serve a killer version of Singapore noodles.
Friday, December 07, 2007
At 10 on a Thursday, when the kitchens of other restaurants are closing, Max's Wine Dive is just getting going. But then again, Max's is not a restaurant. It's a bar -- a bar with a fantastic wine list and some of the most over-the-top, hedonistic food in Houston.
I had never been to Max's because it is so crowded on weekend nights when I usually eat out. But this Thursday, we wanted food after a party. And although Max is mostly just a bar, it had some tables open.
We could tell the other customers had been there a while. The laughter was loud. Guys still wearing suits from work had their ties loosened and big grins on their faces. Twenty-something girls in jeans stumbled in the door as though Max's was a just stop on a Washington Ave-wine-bar crawl. Slightly drunken conversations spilled over from one table to another. And some 40-year-old ladies were trying to take over the big juke box -- plugging in some horrible 1980s crooner, synth pop, as an antidote to the guys who had previously loaded it with Cream and The Doors. Was a fight brewing?
Although Max's may feel a lot like Kay's or La Carafe, it isn't. Max's wine list is better than 95% of the restaurants in Houston. It is a sprawling, diverse list with a great selection of international wines. Every price range from $20 to $300 is well represented. The markup from retail is reasonable. And the list includes a lot of small production wines that you do not see on other lists.
Max's has a lot of wines by the glass. If you commit to 2 glasses, you can drink any wine on the list by the glass. It is a great way to experiment.
For me, a good wine list makes it hard to decide. I considered a Californian Merlot, an Italian Amarone, and a French Chateauneuf du Pape, but I ultimately landed on a bottle of a wonderful small-production wine from the Prioriat region of Spain. It retails for $65 at Specs. At Max's, it was only about $25 more.
We were many glasses behind the other patrons, but this wine was a good way to start.
Decadent salad, Houston's best pot roast, and a Big Ass Brownie
Max's menu offers the kind of dishes you might not try until you have had a few drinks. Because I was sober, I did not order the exotic fried pigs ears with molasses glaze or fried alligator with spicy Thai glaze. Because I had not lost my inhibitions, I was not about to order something loaded with fat, like Max & Cheese (pasta with truffle cream, gruyere, and parmesan) or the Rib Basket (baby back ribs with hoisin glaze).
Instead, my wife and I soberly ordered "safe" dishes -- a Wedge Salad and a Pot Roast. Yet they were not safe. They were decadent re-imaginings of ordinary dishes. Normally, a wedge salad is a quarter head of lettuce served with a blue cheese dressing. This one came with some dressing, and a giant chunk of stinky blue cheese. And bacon. Lots of fresh bacon. An out-of-season tomato and under-ripe avocado did not add much, but the combination of pungent cheese and bacon and crisp bread was so hedonistic that I forgot it was a salad.
Max's serves pot roast. Hallelujah! As I said back in March, "Now maybe some fine restaurant will have the guts to serve a fantastic pot roast." Max's has done it. And its "Damn . . . Yankee Pot Roast" may be the best pot roast I have tried. The secret to a good pot roast is braising the beef for a long time over a low heat so the fibers break down, the meat becomes tender and the colagen melts into a gelatinous sauce. Sure, Max's pot roast does all of that that, and much more. Max's reduces the rich sauce (with wine?) to a deep dark brown color with a lacquered texture. Visually, the sauce is stunning. Plus it tastes great. I found myself scooping it up with the beef, with the root vegetables on the side, and with the hedonistically buttered slices of Texas toast.
After these dishes -- and the Prioriat -- all hope of restraint was gone. We ordered a "Big Ass Brownie" with some tawny port. This brownie was about 5 inches x 5 inches. Wisely my wife cut off about 3/4 of the brownie and packed it to go. It was predictably rich and gooey, but we tasted a bit more sugar than intense chocolate. The best part of the dish may have been a scoop of gelatto made with Dulce de Leche -- the product of boiling milk and sugar to caramelize them.
Please don't go
There are a lot of reasons not to go to Max's. It is crowded. It is hard to get a table at peak times. It is loud. It is not cheap (a hot dog costs $14; my pot roast was $24). And there seems to be nothing healthy on this menu. I don't know if I would enjoy Max's on a regular basis.
Yet last night, in a noisy bar, I had some of the best food I have had this year. And after I do penance by eating health food at the nearby Dharma Cafe for a week, I want to go back to Max's. Please don't go, so there will be a table there for me.
Monday, December 03, 2007
I dig Dharma on the inside. It is a charming old building with a lot of windows and light. It is decorated with a beautiful bar, photos of iconic beat poets, bookcases filled with cool books, antique chairs and tables, a beautiful front window looking out on Houston Ave., and some hokey new age art. Apart from the art, this is the kind of place I like to hang out.
For a cheap, casual restaurant, Dharma has a great little wine list. The 40 - 50 wines are from all over the world, but is dominated by Italians and French Rhones. It is refreshing to see something other than the same, tired, massed-produced California wines. Dharma also has a well-selected, small international list of beers.
Good ingredients, but few spices
Dharma's menu is dominated by salads and sandwiches with fresh ingredients. They have a soup of the day and a small handfull of cooked dishes. Every dish looks pretty -- most with red and green colors. And the ingredients are all fresh.
My complaint is that every dish I tried lacks flavor.
For instance, Dharma serves everyone free focaccia bread with a little parmesan, olive oil, and vinegar. The bread has a wonderful toothsome quality, and the texture can be addictive. But there is a hole in the middle of the flavor. It was not until my second visit that I discovered the problem: the bread has almost no salt. Fortunately, the problem is easily fixed with a salt shaker.
It was harder to solve the blandness of a daily special eggplant soup. The soup had an interesting texture with large, firm cubes of eggplant in a thin broth. But the soup had only one flavor -- eggplant. I like cooking with eggplant because it is a good canvass for other flavors. But the funky, vegetal flavor of eggplant by itself is, at best, an acquired taste. It really needs a flavor compliment, and this soup had none.
A thai chicken wrap suffered from a similar problem. I loved the texture of the thick tortilla-like wrap filled with rice and chicken. But the wrap, the rice, and the chicken were utterly devoid of spice and flavor. Instead, the wrap's flavor depended on a sauce, billed as "spicy Thai peanut sauce." Yet it lacked spice, and did not taste much like a real Thai peanut sauce. It tasted more like a sweet peanut butter vinaigrette. The dish would have been helped immensely by including some fresh herbs (especially cilantro) or some real Thai spices.
A "mediterrean" (sic.) plate also consisted of great textures, but disappointing flavor. The biggest disappointment was tabouli. Usually one of my favorite salads, traditional tabouli consists of about 95% parsley plus some lemon juice, olive oil, onion, and sometimes garlic, tomatoes, or bulgur wheat. Yet the key flavor is parsley, which is sharp, bitter, and refreshing. But when tabouli migrated to American health food restaurants in the 1970s, something got lost in translation. These restaurants tend to replace the 95% parsley with 95% bulgur wheat, stripping the dish of its flavor, as well as most of its vitamins. Dharma's tabouli is almost all bulgur; you have to pick around to find any parsley.
Other items on the mediterrean plate are a bit better: hummus (a little heavy on the tahini and light on the chickpeas), olives, tomatoes, and an interesting salad of marinated carrots.
The Problem with "Health Foods"
Dharma's Cafe's problem is suffered by some dishes at other local health food restaurants, including Whole Foods Cafe, Hobbit Cafe, A Moveable Feast, and Ziggy's Healthy Grill.
I suppose I could get used to eating dishes with so little spices, so little herbs, and so little flavor. But why do that? I like real ethnic foods with big flavors. I know how to cook food that is healthy, without tasting austere. For instance, even if you have to avoid salt, you can brighten flavors with other methods, such as lemon juice. The chefs at all these restuarants need to trash their Moosewood Cookbooks, abandon their throwback hippie recipes, and use the internet to find some modern healthy recipes with real flavor.
Despite this complaint, I would hang out frequently at Dharma Cafe if I lived in the neighborhood. I really like the place. I hope it survives. I also hope someone buys Dharma a spice cabinet.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
John Sheely's Mockingbird Bistro is a study in longevity. I have been eating there once or twice a year since it opened. Although the food has always been high quality, in my last few visits, the food keeps getting better.
Despite its Montrose-area location, and its eclectic, gothic decor, the crowd at Mockingbird is not so young and hip. Perhaps because of the "country French" theme, it seems to appeal to the gray-haired, sports-coat-wearing set. The crowd has the feel of repeat customers - the kind that keep a restaurant in business.
The food makes Mockingbird one of Houston's best restaurants.
My recent visit confirms that the secret to Sheely's success is a fresh, flavorful, innovative approach to traditional ingredients and techniques.
Beef carpaccio is a standard dish, but Sheely's interpretation is delicious. Although carpaccio is often sliced too thinly, this beef was sliced just thickly enough to give it a substantial, oily mouth feel and to bring out the flavor of the beef. Sprinkled parmesan also was a nice touch. But the real brilliance of this dish was the little puddles of white, green, and red sauces on the side -- a vinaigrette, a "basil essence," and a white truffle oil. The creamy truffle oil had a wonderful, funky aroma. Crostinis added the perfect texture contrast to the creamy-textured beef and sauces.
King Salmon is not in season. But Sheely's winterized preparation of this summer fish is outstanding. The thick, oily piece of fish was perfectly seared to give it a crunchy exterior, but was cooked to my order medium rare on the interior. The part of this dish that really sings is the ingredients under the fish: a ragout of different-sized white beans with andouille sausage and black mussels. This cassoulet-like preparation married flavors of earth and sea that made the dish complex and interesting through the last bite.
Mockingbird's winter menu is full of ingredients that I enjoy at this time of year -- mushrooms, root vegetables, sweet breads, and beans. I had a hard time choosing.
My only slight disappointment is Mockingbird's wine service. In the past, Mockingbird has had one of the better value wine lists in town. And I have enjoyed conversations with their various wine stewards. Now the list seems to focus on higher-priced wines, but it lacks the selectivity of Houston's best expensive lists. We never spoke with a wine steward, but only a nice waiter who called our glass of sherry a "port."
In the past, Mockingbird carried a large number of small production red wines in the $30 to $60 range. Now about half of the reds on the list are over $100. For a "bistro," the list of Rhone wines was particularly unimaginative -- wines by Guigal, Balandran, Mourchon, and Delas that are widely available in Houston. There are so many smaller production Rhones that would go so well with this food.
Our waiter tried to steer us from a less expensive pinot noir toward the Joseph Swan Trenton Pinot Noir at $88. Swan's pinots are excellent, but they require at least a year of cellaring after release. When I tasted it a month ago, the 2005 Trenton was disjointed, showing few characteristics of pinot noir. Yet this wine becomes fantastic with age. Earlier this year, Cafe Annie served the 2002 Swan, which is at its peak. This summer, Brennan's served the 2003. Although Mockingbird listed 2004, the waiter arrived with the 2005. He did not seem to notice that the year was different than the list.
I rejected the too-young Swan and ordered a 2003 Kunstler Spatburgunder pinot noir from Germany, which was half the price of the Swan. The waiter again arrived with a 2005, without mentioning that the year on the list was wrong. When I accepted it anyway, the waiter seemed disappointed, and did not decant the wine, which he did for the more expensive wines at nearby tables.
Fortunately, this $44 wine was excellent -- better than many of the $100+ California pinots on the list. But there were so many ways the wine service could have been better:
-Restaurants with great wine service are vigilant about listing the year that the restaurant has in stock.
-Restaurants with great wine service hold newly released wines when they are not quite ready for drinking.
-Restaurants that care about wine give respect to customers who order value wines of high quality. Some of my favorite wine stewards in town actually get more excited when you order their special values than when you order an expensive clichee, like Silver Oak.
-Restaurants with good value wines seek out unusual, small production values, as Mockingbird once did.
-Restaurants with great wine service make sure you get the chance to talk with someone knowledgeable about wine.
With a little work, it is possible get a good wine for a decent price at Mockingbird. So why do I complain so much? Perhaps it is the fact that the Mockingbird Bistro's food is at the highest level in Houston. And it's getting better. The wine list -- once a reason to go here -- seems like it may be going in the opposite direction.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Last night I was looking for somewhere to eat downtown before a concert at the Christ Church Cathedral. To set the stage, the concert was not the sort of thing you expect in a church. It was part of the Nameless Sound fall concert series -- a performance by the European creative improvisation trio of Achim Kaufmann, Frank Gratkowski, and Wilbert de Joode. The music lies somewhere between (and beyond) contemporary avant-garde classical and American free jazz.
The music is radical and restlessly creative.
I wanted some food like that.
I had heard good things about Yatra Brasserie, an Indian restaurant at 706 Main Street, the former location of laidback manor. The space retains the hip, urban feel of its predecessor.
As I wandered in, I saw an old friend eating alone. I joined him. He gave me the history of the different chefs who have headed the kitchen in the short life of this restaurant. Apparently, Yatra's various chefs have had extensive former connections with other Houston Indian restaurants.
I told the waiter I wanted something spicy. He suggested, "vindaloo curry." Although I am a vindaloo fan, I eat it frequently. My favorite vindaloo may be the extremely spicy version at Khyber. But I wanted to see how creative the restaurant could get, so I asked if he could recommend something unusual. He said, "lamb vindaloo." After getting the same answer to two different questions, I had no choice.
To start, I tried a bite of samosa chaat. It was excellent. The exterior of the pastry was cruncy and pastry. The stuffing of peas, potatoes, and chickpeas had an interesting texture. But it was the dueling sour and sweet flavors in the tamarind and mint sauce that really impressed. The dish was not particularly different from somosas elsewhere, it was just very nicely executed.
Sadly, the lamb vindaloo was good, but not great. The curry was surprisingly thin and liquid; I prefer more density. The heat level was moderate. And the spices were nothing unusual. It was a perfectly good, competent vindaloo, nothing more.
Like most good, fresh naan, Yatra's is deeply satisfying. These tortilla-like rounds of bread are alternately crispy and soft after cooking in the tandoori oven. Yatra's rice is flavorful, delicate, and fragrant.
Although one visit and two dishes is not enough to evaluate a restaurant, my initial impression is that Yatra is a much-needed Indian restaurant downtown. I like the space. I find the waitstaff to be remarkably friendly. And the food is competent, perhaps even very good. But it does not approach the creativity of some of Houston's top Indian restaurants, such as Indika.
Yatra's food satisfied my appetite, but not my intellect. For sheer creativity, I had to wait for the Kaufmann, Gratkowski, and de Joode. For two hours they explored all kinds of sounds I had never imagined musicians bringing out of a piano, bass, and bass clarinet. It was the sort of performance that I wish more chefs did with food.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Dragon Bowl was a smart move for Ken. The Heights needs Asian restaurants. And a quirky Asian restaurant like Dragon Bowl makes sense.
But the Heights already has two of Houston's best pizza joints: Star Pizza, which has the best deep dish crust and spinach pizzas in town, and Candelari's, which has the best Italian sausage topping in town. Does the Heights need more pizza?
Fortunately for Pink's, it fills a unique niche -- pizzas with creative toppings. You can tell how much fun these pizzas are just by reading the menu. Some of my favorites listings are:
Southwestern - cheddar and mozzarella, BBQ marinated chicken breast, red onion, jalapeno.
Mediterranean - garlic and olive oil, feta, sun dried tomatoes, onions, black olives, marinated artichokes, chicken breast, and fresh tomatoes
Double Down - rosemary chicken, bacon, mozzarella, spinach, tomato, roasted garlic, alfredo sauce
Santa Monica - gorgonzola, mozzarella, prosciutto, eggplant, marinated artichoke, sun dried tomato, and cranberry
Ken takes great care making the crusts by hand -- spinning dough in the air and then running an odd device over the crust to create small holes in it. The resulting crust is standard thickness, but quite good. The ingredients are all good quality. And these unusual toppings actually work.
Pink's will not run Star Pizza or Candelari's out of business. But it creates some interesting competition in Houston's best neighborhood for pizza.
Monday, November 26, 2007
According to an e-mail by Chef Philippe, the Hotel Derek has been sold, and the new ownership is implementing a new restaurant. The good news is that Chef Philippe currently plans to remain in Houston.
Earlier this year, I proclaimed that Bistro Moderne just might be my "favorite restaurant in Houston." That apparently is the kiss of death. I said it about laidback manor, and it closed within months. It's a curse, like the Sport's Illustrated cover jinx. Watch out Da Marco.
I appreciated the hip, urban style of Bistro Moderne, but mostly I loved the food. Chef Philippe's dishes had one foot in the tradition and one foot on the cutting edge. I always enjoyed chatting with him as he walked the floor of the restaurant. Conversations might start a bit awkwardly, but once you engaged him on a topic like blue foot chickens, he would explode with passion and excitement. He is a chef who loves food and does great things with it. I mourne Bistro Moderne's passing, but I wait excitedly for his next venture.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
If ever there was a holiday for the epicureans, it was Thanksgiving. I thought I'd post the menu at our home, which, I am proud to say, is almost exclusively being prepared by me, myself, and I, Mrs. E being nine months pregnant.
Roasted Turkey Tenderloins Stuffed with Goat Cheese & Spinach
Turkey is generally a staple in the Epicurus household; low(er) in fat, nice texture, extremely versatile, goes well with red and white wines, depending on the preparation. We do not have a huge number of guests arriving, so a full bird would be too much food and take too long (though convection cooking can really cut down on the roasting time). Accordingly, we are preparing some lovely tenderloins instead, crusted with fresh ground sage (sage is the ultimate turkey herb), and filled with a goat cheese-spinach mixture. Yes, we like Mediterranean-style food.
Sweet Pepper Cornbread Stuffing
This recipe uses a slow cooker, which helps by freeing up oven space. We love slow cooking, but one absolutely must remember that liquids do not evaporate in a slow cooker, so plan accordingly. This recipe uses sweet red peppers, jalapeno cornbread, croutons, and pine nuts. FYI, one thing I am thankful for today is living in Texas, and as a transplant, I realized Texas was going to be a nice home for me when I discovered jalapeno cornbread. I have always loved cornbread -- cake or bread style, it matters not -- and had long thought it was impossible to improve upon. I was disabused of my error when I moved to Houston and discovered jalapeno cornbread.
Sweet Potato Casserole
I made this last night. It's a pretty easy recipe. One trick Mrs. E taught me with potatoes of any kind is to skin and quarter them, and then use a microwave to cook them. It works amazingly well, and because microwaves are so consistent, it always works. Just place them on a microwave-safe plate, cover with plastic wrap, and cook for 8-12 minutes, depending on the quantity. The potatoes will be soft and "mashable." This recipe eschews cinnamon, which is one spice that is over-used in Thanksgiving recipes, IMO. The casserole is topped with a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and chopped pecans.
Fennel and Blood Orange Salad
A nice, easy, refreshing salad. Fennel is wonderful anytime, of course, but seems to capture autmun flavors in particular. Served over spinach.
These are made using fresh cranberries, and are baked in individual portions using tartlet pans. The Epicurus family has a major sweet tooth, so hopefully this will fit the bill.
Depending on the preparation, I find turkey goes nicely with a number of different red wines. I personally love zinfandels, though a nice pinot noir or, even better, a Burgundy or Bourgogne-style wine. We have, for today, a bottle of Goat Roti 2005 and a Les Mugues Balandran 2005, which is a southern French wine from Nimes. Though I generally prefer lighter, sweeter white wines (Rieslings, Gewurtztraminers, etc.) I think a robust Chardonnay or Chablis would probably complement many turkey preparations nicely.
A choice of port or eiswein is available to go with the dessert, along with some kona coffee, which I am lucky enough to receive from family that frequents Hawaii.
In any case, Happy Thanksgiving, and good eating.
Monday, November 19, 2007
I rarely complain about restaurant service. I care more about food. Plus, I am sympathetic with hosts and waiters. It is a tough job that does not pay enough to deal with so many demanding and difficult customers.
But there is one service problem that really gets me mad -- overbooking. Nothing makes me more angry than making a reservation, and then not being seated for 30 minutes or more after the time of the reservation.
Sometimes overbooking is accidental. A restaurant has a bad night. An unusual number of customers overstay their welcome. Or the front desk just miscalculated. Those offenses are forgivable.
Yet sometimes overbooking seems purposeful, a matter of restaurant policy. That strategy works for airlines, who routinely overbook flights to maximize their profits. To compensate customers, airlines offer coupons to customers willing to take a later flight. I have never seen a coupon like that in a restaurant.
I have boycotted two Houston restaurants for overbooking. In the mid 1990s, Ruggles was notoriously bad about overbooking. I was almost never given a table at the time it was reserved, and the hostesses were often rude about the situation. I finally decided to boycott Ruggles for a decade.
When I finally returned to Ruggles recently, my reservation was honored, and the front desk was friendly. The restaurant also was not as busy as it once was. It is interesting that service had improved after the crowd had died down.
My worst overbooking experience was at Bank. During that restaurant's heyday (now past), we had waited more than 45 minutes after our reservation when the hostess said our table was almost ready and actually pointed out the table we were going to get. A few moments later, the famous Houston multi-millionaire, Charles Hurwitz, walked in the door and was immediately given the table that had been promised to us. We waited another 45 minutes -- a full 90 minutes after our reservation -- before we were seated. I was insulted. I was angry. And I have not returned.
I have run into some overbooking recently, but not so bad that it has caused me to boycott any restaurant -- yet.
Catalan made me wait for over 15 minutes after my reservation the first three evenings I went there. The third time, we waited for 45 minutes before getting our table. One aggressive woman in our party complained to the hostess when she sat someone else first. The hostess explained that they had been waiting for 90 minutes since the time of their reservations. Fortunately, when we were seated, the manager sent our table a free plate of fried calamari. No one at our table particularly wanted calamari, but it was a nice gesture.
The good news is that when I returned to Catalan several weeks ago, we were seated on time. It seems that the restaurant may be trying to correct its overbooking problem, or perhaps the buzz has just died down.
Reef may be the most exciting new restaurant in Houston. But when we first visited a month after it opened, we had to wait 20 minutes after our reservation. I blamed the wait on the fact that the restaurant was new. But, when we visited again last Saturday, we had to wait over 45 minutes after the reservation. Then, after our 45 minute wait, we were not approached by a waiter for another 20 minutes.
My wife was disgusted and wanted to leave. But I wanted to find out if the restaurant was overbooking on purpose. So I asked our waiter, who gave us a long explanation about how the evening was a "perfect storm" of bad events and promised us that the restaurant usually seats its customers at the time of their reservation.
We did not receive any free food at Reef, but I appreciated the waiter's efforts to explain the situation. So it appears that Reef had not overbooked consciously. It sounds like it was just a coincidence that we have been there on two problem nights. Still, I am very interested to see what happens next time -- if I can convince my wife to go again.
Overbooking is easy to fix. Don't do it. If a restaurant finds customers having to wait after the time of its reservation, it should book fewer reservations in the future. It is not about maximizing profits on a particular night. It is about securing long-term customers by committing to their happiness.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Dimassi's opened with a fresh wave of Lebanese restaurants in Houston in 1994. I had been introduced to Lebanese food about ten years earlier with the classic Sammi's Restaurant on Richmond. But Dimassi's was something different. It served food cafeteria style and charged by the item. Diners could see what they ordered, which was helpful since so many of these dishes were new to Houston. Dimassi's emphasized fresh ingredients and introduced me to the joy of Middle Eastern salads.
By the late 90s, Dimassi's had gone downhill. Newer, better Lebanese (now called "Mediterranean") restaurants opened in Houston, and Dimassi's crowd dwindled. Much of the food sat on the steam table for too long. It looked to me like the sort of dying restaurant featured on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares -- a restaurant that needed a resurrection or a good bankruptcy lawyer.
Change to a buffet
I had not been to Dimassi's in over seven years when I popped in last week for lunch. Much had changed. The only option was an $11 for the all-you-can-eat buffet. The number of dishes had grown to well over 40 or 50 items. And the cavernous restaurant was surprisingly crowded.
I don't like buffets. Most buffet food tends to suffer from sitting out too long. The emphasis is usually on quantity instead of quality. Since buffets need a large number of diners to survive, they usually pander to mainstream American tastes. Ethnic buffets typically lose their authenticity in transition to a buffet as they try to provide the low-cost foods that many Americans love -- especially fried and heavily sugared dishes.
Dimassi's is completely different. Almost every dish was an authentic version of an Eastern Mediterranean recipe. Plus, most of these dishes are not harmed by sitting in the buffet. Many Lebanese dishes are not served warm and tend to actually improve as they rest and the flavors combine. For the hot dishes, Dimassi's has a large enough lunch crowd to bring out fresh servings frequently.
I have always appreciated the freshness and vibrancy of Dimassi's salads. Its tabouli is chopped more coarsely than most and nicely accented with lemon juice and mint. An interesting Lebanese Salad was made from cucumber, tomatoes, onions, vinegar and lemon juice. Also good are the fatoosh and Greek salad.
Dimassi's dips are well made. Although the hummus is, like much hummus, a bit bland, it is processed into a fine, cream-like consistency and sprinkled with colorful spices. Baba Ghanouge is even better -- capturing the smoky essence of the best versions of this eggplant/tahini dip. If you look hard, you also will find a wonderfully strong garlic dip that works very well with the many chicken dishes on the buffet.
For a buffet, the hot dishes were surprisingly good. A yellow-colored chicken in light yogurt sauce was as tasty as it was pretty. A few other chicken dishes were also quite good. I usually find that Kaftah Kabob -- ground beef mixed with parsley, onion, and garlic -- to be bland, but this version was spicy and flavorful.
A big surprise was the inclusion of lamb shank on the buffet. At most restaurants, this pricey dish costs $15 - 25 for a single shank. Dimassi's version cannot compete with the best in town, but it tastes good and is a great deal on an $11 buffet.
Only a few dishes were below average. Baked fish, probably tilapia, had the muddy, dog-food flavor of much farmed tilapia. Falafel balls were made in the dense, heavy style that drops in your stomach like a rock. Unlike the best falafel, they were not delicately fried.
Why go to Dimassi's?
I was surprised at the quality of Dimassi's buffet because I thought the restaurant had declined and because buffets are usually so bad. I was wrong. That does not mean that Dimassi's has the best Lebanese food in Houston. For most of these dishes, better versions are served at Mint Cafe, Droubi's (Hillcroft location only), and Mary'z. But Dimassi's may be the best restaurant in town to get introduced to a wide array of Lebanese food. Plus, it is a real value for a big lunch.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Alison Cook also discusses one of my personal Tex-Mex faves, Spanish Village, which also happens to be open 24-hrs/day. I particularly like their sandwiches, as I am a sandwich nut.
So what is the essence of Tex-Mex? I drove 200 miles east on Interstate 10 to Houston to try to answer that question.
San Antonio lays a legitimate claim to high-end Tex-Mex (if there is such a thing) and Dallas leans Anglo with its fajitas and frozen margaritas. But in Houston, Texas’s largest city, the cuisine is part of the fabric of everyday life. Perhaps that is because more than 37 percent of Houston’s residents are Hispanic, according to United States census figures from 2000.
“I discover a new Tex-Mex gem every week,” said Mr. Walsh, who is the restaurant critic for the Houston Press.
Neon signs flicker above pastel storefronts promising excellent Mexican food in virtually every block of the city. The trick is to figure out which places will deliver on that promise.
Here are a few guidelines: 1. It has to be family-owned. 2. A ramshackle space with added-on rooms is a positive. The most successful Tex-Mex restaurants started small and expanded due to popular demand. 3. It’s best if the patrons in the dining room look like the face of democracy. You want a mix of gringos and Hispanic customers; professionals and laborers.
UPDATE: D'oh! Kevin Whited helpfully points out in the comments that I am thinking of Spanish Flowers, not Spanish Village. Proof of just how much Tex-Mex there is in Our Fair City.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Istanbul Grill is assuredly one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, and Ms. Epicurus loves it as well. The food is fresh, well-prepared, and, as one would expect in Turkish cuisine, literally explodes with spices and flavors. I like Turkish food so much I have spent some time trying out different recipes, and though I am not much of a chef, I can report that it is harder to make than one might surmise. It's not that any individual step is necessarily difficult, but rather that many of the recipes involve a number of steps, which multiplies the opportunities to make mistakes, IMO. I can, however, make a mean cup of Turkish coffee.
The most popular Turkish cookbook is the excellent Sultan's Kitchen, which I heartily recommend.
In any case, aside from fresh, well-prepared food, Istanbul Grill's interior is well-lit, exudes warmth from the wood-brick oven in the corner, and is immaculate. The servers are friendly and quite helpful in figuring out the menu if needed, and the restaurant also keeps a nice selection of Turkish wines on hand (which I can report are eminently quaffable). Even better, the restaurant is BYOB, and charges only a modest corkage fee. The portions are well-sized, and the food is extraordinarily cheap for the quality and the portion size. The restaurant is usually nicely crowded, with Med. Ctr. employees and Rice students commonly dining, and it really feels like a neighborhood bistro.
The desserts are also first-rate; I particularly recommend the honeycake or the baked rice pudding, with a cup of Turkish coffee, of course. On weekends, Istanbul Grill serves some specials, and the manti, or Turkish ravioli, must be tasted to be believed. Ground, minced lamb is spiced (common Turkish spices include Turkish red pepper, cumin, dried parsley and dried mint) and used to fill butterfly pasta, which is served with a delicious creamy yogurt sauce. The lamb is incredibly spiced, the pasta is always al dente, and for those of us who tend to dislike the typically overwhelming alfredo and white sauces in American Italian cuisine, the yogurt sauce is a lovely alternative. It manages to impart some creaminess without the viscosity and heaviness of the typical white sauce. The dish is topped with some fresh parsley, some fresh mint, and a little bit of chile oil. It's incredible.
I may be biased, because, to paraphrase Kramer, I would eat Turkish food out of a dumpster, but Istanbul Grill is a local treasure, IMO.
Raw tuna is showing up on more and more menus. It is usually an appetizer. And at the moment, raw tuna appetizers typically follow this formula:
Raw tuna + crunchy carbohydrate + creamy spicy sauce (usually with wasabi) + tomato or avocado (optional)
The formula works well because of the texture contrasts. The texture of raw tuna is slightly chewy and a bit creamy. That texture is mirrored by a creamy sauce, but contrasted with a crispy carbohydrate such as a cracker or crispy wonton or potato chip.
I have had at least four versions of this appetizer in the past month. Although they were all good, some were more successful than others. So I have ranked them.
Honorable Mention: Seasons (at Lost Pines Resort) - Tuna Tartare
I was stuck on business this week at the Lost Pines Resort in Bastrop. Although I am not a fan of the resort, it has an excellent restaurant called Seasons. Season's raw tuna appetizer had the best presentation of the four tuna appetizers, but fell slightly short in texture and flavor. The dish consists of a beautiful cylinder of raw tuna, a bowl of black pepper waffle potato chips, and different sized dots of wasabi cream. The presentation reflects the minimalism of Japanese design. The problem was that the potato chips were not strong enough to hold the tuna, so I had to crumble them on top of the tuna. Also, the wasabi cream was more cream than wasabi, which made the flavor a bit dull. Fortunately, the black pepper in the potato chips gave the dish a little kick.
Third Place: Rickshaw's Tuna Tataki
Rickshaw is a pan-Asian / sushi restaurant on Westheimer near River Oaks. Their Tuna Tataki appetizer comes with plantain chips, seared and nearly-raw tuna, shiso oil, and wasabi cream. Plantain chips have a firm crispiness that allows you to eat the tuna like chips and dip. The wasabi cream has enough horseradish to make it nicely spicy. It is delicious dish with interesting texture contrasts.
Second Place: Benjy's Seared Sashimi Tuna Pizzette
Benjy's in the Rice Village follows the tuna appetizer formula with a brilliantly creative pizza. The key is the very thin, extra crispy pizza crust, much like pizza crusts I tried in Italy. But the grain of the crust is unusual -- possibly made with cake flour. This cracker-like crust provides the crunch to contrast with pieces of raw tuna. The pizza also includes some greens and roma tomatoes and, of course, some wasabi aioli to make it spicy. But it is the contrast of cracker crust to creamy tuna that makes this dish sing.
First Place: Bluefin's TuNachos
I recently talked about this wonderful Japanese restaurant. Its off-the-menu raw tuna appetizer slightly edges out Benjy's. Bluefin makes the best wonton chips I have found. Shaped like tortilla chips, they are thick, yet crispy and delicate, yet firm enough to hold the tuna and eat like a nacho. Along with the fresh cubes of raw tuna, this dish also includes some thin slices of creamy avocado and a few sprouts for greenery. The wasabi mayonnaise served with this dish is the spiciest I have tried anywhere. Like good chips and a spicy salsa, this dish is highly addictive.
I am surprised by the wine I have found works best with these dishes. It is not a white wine, as I might expect. Instead, it is pinot noir. There is something about the spiciness and delicate texture of pinot noir that works remarkably well with raw tuna -- perhaps even better than the classic combination of pinot noir and salmon. Another good pairing is a good-quality sake.
Although the raw tuna appetizer is trendy, it is popular with good reason. Tuna plus crispy carbs makes for an interesting, fun combination.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
When I tried Mak Chin's last year, I was unimpressed. I thought it was over-marketed, over-priced, fast food. I thought it mistakenly followed the P.F. Chang / Pei Wei trend of making Asian food safe for Americans by serving dull dishes with too little spice and far too much sugar.
Then, last month, I received this comment from a reader (probably affiliated with Mak Chin's):
"You might want to give Mak Chin's another try. Gone is the counter service motif. Gone is the previous menu and in its place is something superior to Rattan. Malaysian Roti Prata, Ropa Vieja of Crispy Duck, Beef Rendang, Sake Cured Alaskan Black Cod, etc. They brought in a consulting chef from San Francisco named David Yeo who specializes in Straits cuisine. It is truly a different day at Mak Chin's."
Interesting. "Straits cuisine" refers to the style of food made in Singapore and other nearby British colonies whose population included immigrants from China, India, and Malaysia. Straits cuisine tends to combine Chinese cooking methods with South Indian spices. This comment suggested that Mak Chin's was something fairly new and different.
So was it true? Did the formerly soulless Mak Chin's finally have character?
There is no doubt. Mak Chin's is different. It now has table service, instead of counter service. The prices have risen, with most entrees in the $10 - $22 range. The cheesy Asian pin-up girl theme is mostly gone. And the menu has been completely redone.
But what about the food? The new menu has some very good ideas. The sauces are unusual and tasty. But the kitchen does not always do such a great job of executing the consulting chef's ideas. For instance:
Bamboo Steamed Vegetables. This dish is a good test of a Chinese kitchen. Usually, the dish is an uninspired, overcooked mess of vegetables, mostly broccoli and cabbage, served with hoisin sauce. When I ordered the dish at Mak Chin's, it took a long time to arrive. And when it did arrive, I could tell why. The vegetables had been so overcooked that they had lost all crispness. Their texture had degenerated to a soggy mess. But I could tell the idea was good. The vegetables were not what you usually get in Americanized Chinese restaurants. They included baby bok choi, purple eggplant, tofu, carrots, asparagus, and decent quality mushrooms. Even better, the vegetables were served with a light tamarind sauce. The sauce was a very intriguing and flavorful combination with the vegetables. I found myself pouring the sauce over rice so I could eat it all.
Beef Rendang. This is an Indonesian style curry made into a paste-like sauce that contains no coconut milk. The earthy spices in this dish were very interesting, very non-Western. The curry and beef were served over an excellent coconut sticky rice, which had the perfect sticky texture. The only problem was that the beef was dry and overcooked. I don't mean that it was just well done; something seriously wrong had happened to the texture. About 15 seconds before this dish appeared at my table, I noticed the kitchen pull a similar bowl out of a microwave oven. If the kitchen had microwaved the beef, it would explain what happened to the texture. I know from experience that beef does not hold up well in the microwave.
Hot and Sour Soup / Salad. The hot and sour soup has a disappointingly standard flavor, but it does contain some interesting mushrooms. The dinner salad served with lunch is much better. The dressing has an unusual orange flavor that reminds me of an Orange Julius.
The new Mak Chin's is worth a try. Although not as good as Rattan, it might be the most interesting and different pan-Asian food inside the Loop. I say interesting because the consulting chef has created some unusually flavored sauces that do not pander to American tastes.
Based on my few visits, the kitchen needs to do a much better job with the ingredients that the sauces are used to cover. Dishes often lack soul when the kitchen that prepared them is not the same kitchen that created them. A chef who creates her own dishes cares deeply about their execution. Her dishes are her art, her legacy. In contrast, a chef running a kitchen that makes someone else's dishes just does not have that connection. They do not care as much, and the food reflects it.
Update (April 21, 2008)
Mak Chin's is evolving into a very good Thai/Malaysian restaurant catering to Western customers. Chef Yeo is in house and very hands on. He has transformed this restaurant into something unique and different.
For lunch, they have lowered the prices and started serving "Bento boxes," which include a main dish with a number of sides.
The straits curry chicken is one of the best curries I have had in some time. It is intensely earthy and full of pungent spices. It has the type of smell that my wife says reminds her of a "stinky underarm." That's a good thing. I highly recommend it.
Some of the sides in the Bento box show the influence of Americanized Chinese restaurants. The hot and sour soup is not particularly hot or sour and is topped with those strips of fried wontons that Americans love. The spring roll is ordinary, and served with an overly sweet, sweet & sour sauce. The salad is served with a miso vinaigrette. But a simple side of bok choi is both delicious and authentic.
The new formula seems to be working. Mak Chin's was crowded for lunch on Monday.
Sure, it may not be as thoroughly authentic as, say KL Malaysian or Malay Bistro. I have yet to see an Asian-American customer at Mak Chin's. But the menu is creative. The kitchen's execution has improved greatly. And, as far as I know, it remains the only place to get Malaysian food inside the Loop.
Monday, October 08, 2007
In the best spirit of Peter Griffin, we could well subtitle this post "You Know What Really Grinds My Gears?" Actually, as I am quite the grump, perhaps that could well subtitle most of my posts here . . .
In any case, what is grinding my gears at present is the unbelievably annoying habit even accomplished servers have of pouring wine into a wine glass that already contains wine I have been drinking. This is irksome for a variety of reasons.
First and most important, that wine has my freaking backwash contained in it. Naturally, that is hardly going to prevent me from quaffing the remaining contents of the glass, but hopefully one can see why I might prefer not to have the comparatively pure contents of the bottle mixed with the amalgam of wine and saliva contained in the glass. Even if this doesn't change the flavor of the next glass, it is unappealing and detracts from the hedonic experience itself. Wine is not coffee to be topped off (BTW, I love coffee).
Second, I'm not stupid. I know darn well that restaurants earn most of their money on alcohol, and that the restaurant therefore wants to encourage me to drink up in the hopes that my sadness at finishing the bottle will impel me to order more wine. Being a natural contrarian, this immediately makes me resistant to doing anything of the sort. I am (no longer) a fraternity brother. I like to savor my wine, to see how it unfolds into and with the foods I have selected. I cannot stand feeling rushed or pressured. I am quite capable, astonishingly, of deciding if and when I want another glass of wine.
Third, when a server refills a wine glass that already contains wine, they often fill it close to the brim (again, to encourage further expense). This is maddening, as it prevents me from swirling the wine to aerate it, which unquestionably affects the palate, especially for red wines. Alternatively, I can slosh the wine all over the tablecloth. As my wife and friends know, I really do not need any help in spilling food and drink; I am quite proficient at it without the server's assistance.
I know some claim that the refilling is an important part of wine service, but I find it maddening. At the very least, if the server is going to refill the wine glass, wait until it is empty. Unfortunately, this habit seems widespread all over Houston, including at some of the finer restaurants in town. This has happened to me at Da Marco, though, as AE points out, Da Marco is not necessarily known for its fine wine service. Just last week, I went to eat at Cafe Rabelais, a delightful French restaurant with marvelous food, a cozy interior, and a terrific all-French wine list with a lovely mixture of low and high price-point wines. The server, however, refilled my wine glass when it was 1/3 full, before I could object. I proceeded to move the wine bottle to a protected location on the table, and zealously guarded it whenever the server came by, which I think seemed to frighten or confuse her.
Better that than drinking my own backwash. Gross.
Starting soon, you will see posts here by two writers. We remain anonymous because we do not want any chefs to spit in our food. But I can tell you a little about us.
1 -- Anonymous Eater. That is me. I am in my late 30s, a lawyer, and a part-time law professor. I am Houston-born and, apart from a 3-year stint in Boston, have lived here my whole life. I cook for a hobby. Because my family has been in Texas for over 150 years, I am a bit Texas-centric.
2 -- Epicurus. That is our new writer. He is younger, born in South African, grew up in Florida, and went to college in Connecticut. He also has been a lawyer and a part-time professor, but is now a Ph.D candidate. Epicurus has great taste in food and wine. As a result of his world travels, he has a more diverse knowledge of world cuisines than I do.
In short, Epicurus will bring great judgment and a unique perspective. Hopefully, we will even disagree a little. I am very excited to be joined by Epicurus on this site.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
One end of the spectrum is no choice -- the chef tasting menu. Your dinner is designed from beginning to end by the chef. At restaurants such as Charlie Trotter in Chicago and French Laundry in Napa, the chef alone decides what the customer will eat. The only choice may be between a regular menu and a vegetarian menu.
The other end of the spectrum is customer freedom. At Houston restaurants such as T'afia and Artista, a portion of the menu is a pick-and-match menu: the customer gets a choice of protein (i.e., chicken, steak, tuna, tofu), a choice between sauces, and a choice of sides. This approach reminds me of a Mongolian barbecue -- you pick all the ingredients to be cooked in your bowl. The quality of your meal is entirely up to the choices you make.
At T'afia last night, I noticed the menu has three parts: (1) the chef's tasting menu, (2) the standard menu with chef-created combinations, and (3) the pick-and-match menu. After dining at T'afia many times, I finally tried the pick-and-match, ordering tuna, coconut chutney, and eating some of my wife's quinoa. Predictably, it was the sum of its parts. The tuna was very good quality, and the chutney was interesting, but together they created no magic. Fortunately, my server knew that the best sauce for the tuna was a lime-soy mignonette. He brought some of that sauce on the side, and it was a better combination.
So which of the three menu approaches is best? At T'afia, my best experience has been with the chef's tasting menu. Monica Pope is a fantastic chef, and her choices are better than mine. Yet I rarely ever choose the tasting menu because I usually want more control over what I eat.
The debate between these approaches was highlighted on a recent episode of Top Chef. One of the chef contestants gave the diners a choice between two cheeses in a dish. The celebrity chef judge berated him for not making the choice of cheeses himself. For chefs, the issue of how much freedom to give the diner is deeply philosophical. Some see customer chosen combinations like telling Picasso to add a horse to his painting of a woman and a staircase. Others see customer choice as giving priority to the customer.
For me, true artistry is achieved when the chef makes the choice. The chef knows which dish is the best on any given night. So philosophically I know it is best if the chef chooses. Yet for some reason, my impulse more often is to want to exercise at least some of my own choice.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Mark Bittman, Fish
I disagree. Tilapia is an inexpensive farmed fish, but it can have a delicate, flaky texture and a clean flavor. It also can be awful. Buying and ordering tilapia is a roll of the dice. Here are a few of my recent experiences:
Whole steamed tilapia is always fantastic at Chinese Cafe. The fish is steamed with a lot of cilantro and shredded ginger and sesame oil. The fish is never muddy flavored and always perfectly textured. It costs under $8 for a whole fish!
This summer, the Harris County Courthouse Cafeteria served a baked tilapia. Courthouse cafeterias are usually an awful place for cuisine. Yet the tilapia was outstanding -- no muddy flavor at all.
I had a lemon pepper tilapia special yesterday at King Biscuit. Despite the generous use of spices, the fish tasted dirty, almost like dog food.
I had the same problem tonight at Amazon Grill. The tilapia was crusted in potato and placed on a sweet honey sauce. Yet no amount of fried coating and sugar could take away that dog food flavor. I like the preparation, but the last four times I have ordered this dish, the fish itself has been awful.
Why does the quality of tilapia vary? I suspect it is due to the quality of the food and water used to raise the fish in fish farms. Tilapia eat a varied diet, from pellets to vegetables to algae and duckweed. The diet affects the flavor. My wife once had a friend whose family raised catfish on a diet of dog food. The fish tasted like dog food. Water quality matters too. If the fish live in stale water with their own wastes, it is going to affect the flavor.
Restaurants need to start thinking more about the quality of farmed fish and less about price. For light-tasting fish such as tilapia and catfish, the quality of aquaculture matters a great deal. If the fish tastes like dog food, no amount of seasoning and frying will fix it.
There is no excuse for serving muddy-flavored tilapia when clean-flavored tilapia is available. So Amazon Grill, take notice: tonight was the last time I ever eat your lousy, dog-food-tasting fish.