Sunday, July 22, 2007


REEF is the most exciting restaurant to open in Houston within the past year.

The vibe of this midtown spot in an old building is young, loud, hip, urban, and very cool. You can sense the coolness in REEF'S minimalist decor as you walk into the reception area. Each of the three walls is coated with a slightly different shade of sea blue-green. The far wall of the dining area is textured like white ocean waves. Don't expect a romantic evening or even the chance to have conversation: the restaurant is usually packed and the acoustics are deafeningly loud. But do expect outstanding food and wine.

It is hard to describe or pinpoint the influences on the cuisine of chef-owner Bryan Caswell. Unlike Cafe Annie or Ruggles, it would be difficult to blind-taste a dish from REEF and guess the restaurant that made it. If there is a consistent feature, it is that each dish restlessly borrows from some cuisine around the world -- Mexico, France, Japan, China, India, Italy, Southern U.S., California farmer's market. Yet each dish combines these eclectic styles and flavors in a way that is completely unique. Every dish I have tried has been outstanding. Here are some examples:

Crispy skin snapper on sweet and sour chard. The fish was delicate and flaky, perfectly cooked with a crisped skin on top. The real surprise was the unusually spiced greens underneath. They did not taste so much like sweet and sour chard as an Indian saag paneer -- creamed greens with exotic spices. Because of its richness and slight sweetness, my wife described the dish as "dessert fish."

Raw vegetable and fresh herb salad. This salad was so different from my snapper that it was hard to believe it came from the same kitchen. It consisted primarily of farmer's market vegetables -- weedy greens, tiny heirloom tomatoes, small carrots, a radish-like pink vegetable -- mixed with flavorful herbs such as tarragon, basil, and chives. This austere salad had virtually no fat or carbohydrates, yet it was full of flavor. It is a thrilling adventure for farmer's market fans.

Another wonderfully odd ethnic-influenced dish was a tempura soft shell crab with "taqueria-style" pickled vegetables vinaigrette. The delicious crab was very delicately fried in a way that emphasizes the crab meat over the batter. But it was the sweet, spicy-hot, pickled white greens (cabbage?) that took this exotic appetizer over the top.

Another flavorful appetizer was a snapper carpaccio with pink grapefruit. The delicate flavor of the fish was highlighted by the acidity of the grapefruit and some flavorful herbs. I could tell I would love this dish on its own, but I had made the mistake of tasting it after the palate-destroying spiciness of the softshell crab dish.

Our dessert was a fairly standard French-style chocolate fondant with a gooey center - not inspiring, but better than most chocolate fondants in Houston. It was a let down only because it was the first dish we tried that was not utterly innovative.

REEF has a fantastic wine list for a newly opened restaurant. It a good-sized list, dominated by reasonably priced wines in the $25 - $40 range, but peppered with some more expensive cult wines. The markup is low, placing it along with Ibiza and Catalan as one of the best value lists in Houston. Although there are some fairly standard offerings, it contains wines from some unsung wine regions and made from exotic varietals. We had a German reisling, which was perhaps the only wine that would go well with the extreme range of spicy, sweet, and garden flavors we had ordered.

If you want to go to REEF on a weekend, make your reservation days in advance. The reservations fill up because the restaurant is so popular -- and with good reason.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Report from the Hinterlands: Waco, Round Top, Schulenburg


I spent the last week in Waco. If you are ever in Waco, and you want some oustanding and innovative food, there is only one place to go: leave town.

Waco's food scene is dominated by chains. It has IHOP, Denny's, Outback, Applebees, Chilis, Pei Wei, Cracker Barrell, and Luby's. I suspect that any local flavor was repressed by the Walmart effect: big high volume chains move in and force out any restaurant with character or innovative cooking. Waco's food is so bland, it might as well be a suburb of Dallas.

Waco still has a few non-chains, but the food in those restaurants was not very good. At the low cost end, the burger joint called Health Camp is famous. But their little burgers are not much better than Whataburger.

At the expensive end, Diamond Back's allegedly serves Texas-style steaks and seafood, plus sushi (?!?). A tortilla soup had three times as much chips and American cheese as either broth or chicken. A dish advertised as "trout" had an undesirable, muddy flavor more like a bad tilapia or catfish.

I ate at other Mom and Pop restaurants, hoping to discover some sort of unique regional character, but all I found was sub par, bland food. Ultimately, I found myself returning to Luby's. At least their fish tasted fresh.

My experience in Waco does not prove that food is always bad outside of large urban areas. In fact, I have experienced a few counterexamples to that proposition in the last few months.

Round Top

Several weeks ago, I had a fantastic meal in Round Top, Texas, population 68. Round Top is mid-way between Houston and Austin on US 290. It is the home of antique shops and a famous summer classical music festival.

The best restaurant -- maybe the only restaurant -- in Round Top is Royers Cafe. Royers is a very casual joint that has a pricey menu. It manages to combine small town dishes and flavors with big city-style cooking. The pork tenderloin is grilled, but it tastes like it has been slow cooked on a smoker like a fantastic brisket. It is covered with a sweet and sour peach and pepper glaze. Although it is country-style food, it is innovative and extremely flavorful. I have never had anything quite like it.

I also tried a bite of Royer's strawberry rhubarb pie. This pie had an amazingly dense, toothsome texture that left me dreaming about it weeks later.

Royer's thrives because it is a destination for tourists from Austin and Houston who want upscale food somewhere in between. It is run by expatriates from the city, trying to establish a great restaurant in a small town.


Another alternative to chains in some small towns is the small-town local restaurant that survives the chains because it is so much better.

Schulenburg, Texas, which sits mid-way between Houston and San Antonio, has some great German food. A few months ago, I returned to a long-time favorite -- the classic German/Texas diner named Frank's. Besides burgers and steaks, Franks has five or or six daily specials that often include barbecue, chicken fried steak, or German sausage with German-style potato salad and sauerkraut. I especially like the sauerkraut. Franks also has some very good pies, much lighter in texture than the pie at Royers.

Frank's is a traditional slice of Germany-to-Texas immigrant culture that has not been rubbed out by the Walmartization of small-town Texas. It successfully competes with the local chain restaurants and hopefully will outlive all of them.

Monday, July 02, 2007


If you are a fan of cooking, I recommend the new Disney/Pixar cartoon Ratatouille.

No, I am not going to start reviewing films here. But I should mention this little cartoon because it is such a remarkable film about the joy of food, learning how to cook, the formal roles and hierarchy of a traditional French restaurant kitchen, and modern trends in our food culture.

The first major American film about cooking and restaurants

First, it is remarkable that a major studio even released a movie about cooking and restaurants. Yes, there have been some small independent and foreign films about cooking: Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Babette's Feast, What's Cooking. One major American film, Chocolat, remade a French film that dealt with making candy. But Ratatouille is the only major release I know that focuses on chefs and cooking.

Ratatouille reflects the rise of television cooking shows and the celebrity chef. The movie begins with the main character -- who happens to be a rat -- learning to cook by watching a TV cooking show. The TV chef's cookbook, "Anyone can cook," has an almost Biblical imporance. It is reminiscent of Julia Child. It also reflects the modern wave of home cooking -- Food Network, Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table, and so many bestselling cookbooks for the home chef.

Ratatouille also deals with a celebrity chef whose name and image are used to sell mass-produced frozen foods, including burritos and corn dogs. Think Wolfgang Puck.

Starting a cuilinary debate

The second remarkable aspect of Ratatouille is that it introduces important issues in contemporary restaurant cooking. It asks big questions, such as:

-Is food is just fuel for the body, or is it art for the mind?

-Does a great chef need formal training or can anyone be a chef?

-Is it more important to follow the traditional recipe or experiment?

-Does a famous chef give up integrity by marketing fast frozen foods?

-Should the head chef always get the public credit for great dishes in a restaurant?

-What is more important: fame and Michelin stars, or making great food?

Of course, keep in mind that Ratatouille is just a Disney cartoon. It cannot afford to address these issues in too much depth. And the answers it gives are a little too pat. But the fact that a popular movie even raises these issues is ground breaking.

Visualizing taste

The other remarkable accomplishment of Ratatouille is how the film uses animation to visualize the sensation of taste. When different characters eat a dish, the character appears in front of a black backdrop and different colors, representing each distinct flavor, begin to swirl around the character's image as they describe the flavors. It is some of the most remarkably artistic animation since Fantasia. It is perhaps the best visual representation of the sensation of tasting that I have seen in any film.

If I were a film critic, I might talk about character development, the amazing animation, and the humor that made me and my daughter laugh out loud. But I know less about film than I know about food.

I enjoyed Ratatouille mostly for the food.