Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Alaskan Seafood

I spent the last ten days in Southeast Alaska. I ate at some of the best restaurants in the region. I was underwhelmed.

Alaska is known for its seafood: wild salmon, halibut, black cod, PEI mussels, and Alaskan king crab. The region produces great fish. But they do not do such a great job of preparing it.

Most of the preparations I tried were severely dated. The recipes tended to overwhelm the fish with creamy, fatty sauces. Or they overcooked and underspiced the fish, leaving it dry and bland. For instance:

-Halibut is a thick, flaky white fish. When I ate it in Gustavus, it was smothered in a layer of sour cream thicker than the fish itself. I tasted the cream much more than the fish.

-Black cod and halibut were served in one of Juneau's most expensive restaurants with Chinese sauces that completely overwhelmed the fish. Both dishes were over $25, yet the sauces tasted no better than standard Chinese American fare. Neither sauce did justice to the fish.

-I tried Alaskan king salmon and coho salmon in Gustavus, Ketchikan, and Sitka. In the first two locations, it was overwhelmed with a fatty brown butter sauce. But when I ordered it grilled without sauce in Sitka, it was overcooked and dry.

-Clams in curry sauce were fairly good in Ketchikan, but the chef added far too much cream to the broth. Why do Alaskans eat so much butter and cream?

-Even at pricey restaurants, most seafood dishes were served with a side of baked or mashed potatoes and frozen vegetable medley. A few of the mashed potato dishes were almost certainly reconstituted from a dried mix.

Alaska's idea of Mexican food.

I was saddened at how chefs squandered great ingredients with unimaginative preparation. I would love to help these kitchens improve their dishes. For instance, I would tell a restaurant with a drier variety of salmon to poach it in a simple ginger broth with leeks, leaving the fish moist but not overwhelming its flavor. With a fattier king salmon, I would suggest grilling it quickly so it remains moist and flaky. With a nice piece of halibut, I might suggest pan searing it to create a contrasting texture while leaving the basic flavor intact. Serve it with a light pinot noir sauce. Or roast the halibut with tomatoes, olives, and basil.

As my trip ended, I did not want to leave the beautiful coastline and snow-capped mountains. But I knew I would find better preparations of Alaskan seafood in Houston.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Farrago - a mess of a restaurant

Farrago admits that it a mess of a restaurant. Its website explains that Farrago is a "medley, a confused mixture, jumble, hodgpodge [sic.]."

Aesthetically, this midtown restaurant is a metaphor for a problem so many restaurants have. There is no signature cooking style, except for the absence of a signature style. There is no real innovation. Diversity? Multicultural flavors and styles? Farrago has many. But it doesn't take those diverse styles and make them its own.

Farrago makes an interesting contrast with the nearby REEF. REEF'S dishes are influenced by many different world cuisines, but the chef incorporates world cooking styles and ingredients as an inspiration for new creations. In contrast, Farrago doesn't build on world cuisines. It just appropriates them and throws them together.

It is hard to construct a coherent meal at Farrago. The varied cooking styles include Thai (pad thai), Mexican (tamales), Italian (pizzas, cioppino), Carribean (jerked chicken wings), New Mexican (posole), French (goat cheese brulee), Lebanese (hummus and tabouleh), Vietnamese (Vietnamese Salad), British (fish 'n chips). Just try to find a wine that matches all the different dishes at your table.

Yet something about Farrago is goofy and fun. And a few dishes are outstanding. I keep returning for their posole, the best I have found in Houston. It is a wonderful, thick stew of hominy, pork, and green chiles served with some flavorful grilled bread. It is just difficult to find an appetizer that goes well with it.

On my last visit, I started with curried mussels. Their preparation is much like French bistro-style mussels, but with the addition of curry powder and coconut milk. The flavors in this Thai/French fusion dish were bold, even if the some of the mussels were no bigger than a large pea. My favorite part was mopping up the curry/coconut milk with the Texas toast-styled grilled bread.

I also had tuna tacos, served with rare blocks of tuna, nappa cabbage, and a wasabi sauce served Cuban style with black beans and white rice. The raw tuna was a bit chewy, and did not quite taste sushi grade. Plus the wasabi sauce was a bit runny and sloppy. But the flavors in this Mexican/Japanese/Cuban dish were good, if not quite coherent.

Many of Farrago's dishes are a reasonable approximation of the original ethnic dish. For instance, the pad thai is fairly good. But I can name a number of Thai restaurants that make it better. So if I am in the mood for Thai food, why go to Farrago when I can get the real thing?

The reason I, like so many people, go to Farrago is indecision. Sometimes I don't know what I want. Particularly with a group, it may be hard to please everyone. Except at Farrago. On this crazy menu, everyone will ultimately find something they like.

As a result of its incoherence and lack of true innovation, Farrago will never be one of the top tier restaurants in Houston. Yet there always will be a place in Houston for this wonderful mess of a restaurant.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The pleasure and pain of escolar

This summer, I first experienced the fish called escolar and have since tried it in three different restaurants. I have learned its pleasure. I have learned its pain.

Escolar is a deep water fish with a high oil content in its muscle tissue. It has a strong flavor that reminds me of swordfish or tuna, but milder and butterier. It is utterly delicious.

I first tried a small serving of escolar carpaccio in Austin at Uchi. The fish was sliced thinly. In its raw form, it had the texture of a scallop. Even in this small quantity, the rich flavor of a fish was a revelation.

I also tried a special at Blue Fish House called spicy escolar roll . It is the typical Blue Fish House roll: lots of sweet sauce, very spicy, suited to the American palate. Yet the flavor of the escolar was strong enough to stand up to the sweet and spicy treatment.

My best escolar experience was grilled escolar at Bistro Moderne. The menu describes it as a "pave of fish with asparagus, soft polenta and borberry (?) vinaigrette." It was, for Bistro Moderne, a surprisingly American preparation. Grilling escolar brings out the full richness of its flavors. The subtle side dishes and sauce left the rich flavor of the escolar to speak for itself.

As much as I love this fish, it has a dark side. The oil in escolar is not digested in humans. That is good for the diet. But it is not so good for our gastrointestinal system. Escolar has earned the nickname "Ex-Lax fish." In portions over 6 ounces, it causes a condition known as keriorrhoea, which rhymes with another, very similar, malady. The Japanese have banned it since 1977. In the U.S., the FDA banned escolar in 1990, but reversed itself a few years later. As one Los Angeles chef said, "It is . . . sort of a crap shoot."

With the small portions at Uchi and Blue Fish House, I had no problems. But the grilled escolar at Bistro Moderne was well over 6 ounces. It was easily the best dish, but it also caused the most pain the next day. Perhaps I should have stopped at about six ounces, but that was far too difficult to do.

There is something intriguing about eating food that may hurt us. The Japanese love fugu, which prepared improperly, is lethal. I recently have noticed a number of new TV shows about hosts who dare to eat strange, disgusting foods around the world. Eating these foods can be a shock to our system, yet we love the challenge. I am reminded of the title of Robb Walsh's excellent book, Are You Really Going To Eat That?

To which I answer, "Hell yes. May I please have more escolar?"