Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tilapia: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

"More and more, we're seeing tilapia in fish markets being sold as a substitute for red snapper and other whole fish. But every farm-raised tilapia I've ever had (and all the tilapia sold here is farm-raised) has had an undesirable, muddy flavor. I avoid this fish when I see it, and recommend that you do also."

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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wine Video Blog

Wine Library TV is a wonderfully entertaining video blog about wine.

Gary Vaynerchuk is the Jim Rome of the wine world. He hosts a nearly amateur daily video blog where he tastes wine on video. The guy is brilliant. Check out this description from his September 25 post when he first smells the nose on a red wine from the Loire Valley:

"This is my friends a bus stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel with you pumping that exhaust -- all that crap in there -- directly in your face. And you're smelling it, and you're smelling it good. And you look at the ad behind the bus and it is the New Jersey Lotto."

Robert Parker has never described a wine so vividly.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bluefin (and Uptown Sushi)

(Update July 17, 2008: Blue Fin has closed)

Bluefin is a Japanese fusion restaurant on Westheimer in far west Houston. It is owned by the same family as Nara, one of Houston's first great Japanese restaurants, and it has brought the brilliant Sushi Chef Shoi from Nara. It is a sister restaurant to Uptown Sushi, with similar decor and the same fixed menu designed by Chef Don Chang.

I cannot recommend Bluefin enough, even if you have to drive across town. Here is why:

Bluefin is Uptown Sushi -- without the crowds

Bluefin serves Uptown Sushi's dishes without the wait and the obnoxious crowd. As much as I like Uptown Sushi's food, I rarely go because their crowd is loud and often fairly drunk. Often, it is less a restaurant than a meat market for 20 somethings. To make matters worse, Uptown does not take reservations, and I have had to wait over 90 minutes for a table. The service at Uptown Sushi is a little surly and slow -- probably more the result of the the noise and the drunken crowds than management.

Bluefin is so far west that it is not crowded, at least not yet. Unlike Uptown, the atmospher is quiet and sedate. On a recent Friday and Saturday night, the restaurant was less than half full.

Amazing Design

Bluefin may be the most beautiful restaurant in Houston. The style is similar to Uptown Sushi, but Bluefin intoxicates you with elegance, spaciousness and some brilliant artistic details: a sushi bar framed as a stage by receding tiles and dramatic lighting; a color-changing UFO-like circle in the ceiling mirrored by a curved walkway around the seating area and circular bead designs on the ceiling; a spectatular small-tiled bar with glass shelves and striking lighting; white gauzy curtains; extraordinarily careful detailing in the wood work and subtle lighting; elegant chandeliers with an intricate glass body.


Bluefin and Uptown both excel with their appetizers on the menu. These are my favorite:

Gindara filet (miso cod). This is black cod marinated in miso and mirin, then baked. It is a rich-tasting, dish with flavors of the sea and carmelized sugar. I have had this dishes at many restaurants, but none better than here.

Seiho scallop saute. The flavors in this dish are Chinese -- scallops sauteed with soy butter, garlic, and jalapeno. The flavors push and pull like yin and yang. It is about balance.

Salmon squares. This is finely minced salmon, chives, onions, ponzu sauce, and parmesan cheese. I have never had anything that tastes quite like this salty, sea-flavored dish.

But Bluefin's best appetizer is off the menu:

TuNachos. Delicately fried wonton chips are served with a bowl of that looks like salsa, but is actually diced tuna. On the side is a rich, addictive wasabi sauce. The combination of flavors and textures is decadant - even if the appearance is a playful borrowing from Tex-Mex.


The other part of Bluefin's menu that stands out is their creative fusion rolls. Yes, most Japanese restaurants in Houston play around with traditional Japanese preparations by mixing raw or baked fish with fried seafood, Japanese and American ingredients, and sweet or spicy sauces. Too often these are unsuccessful; the texture is too mushy or flavors don't combine well. Bluefin makes better rolls because it remembers to keep textures and flavors in balance, and because it thinks outside the box. These are just two examples:

Don Roll #2. Sushi rice is rolled around crab and avocado, and whitefish is placed on the outside. The roll is covered and baked with masago caviar and ponzu sauce.

Electric Eeel Roll (off the menu): Cooked eel, avocado, jalapenos -- an extreme combination of sweet, fatty, and spicy flavors.

I do not know which of the rolls are attributable to Chef Chang or Sushi Chef Shoi. I suspect that the menu rolls may be mostly Chang's, but that Shoi has his own creations. It is fun to ask for rolls that are off the menu -- there are dozens. It is also fun to sit at the sushi counter and ask Shoi or his fellow sushi chefs to create a meal for you. I have read comments that Shoi is the best sushi chef in Houston, and I do not dispute that claim.

Wine and Service

Bluefin has a very good wine list with selections consciously chosen to match the food. The sake list is extensive. And there is a creative list of martini-like concoctions, which I have not tried.

Service at every level is outstanding. The front desk is friendly. The waiters are informed and helpful. Water glasses are kept full. Everyone is pleasant.

I have long said that Kubo is the best Japanese restaurant in Houston. That opinion may change. Bluefin combines the best elements of Uptown Sushi and Nara, resulting in one heck of a Japanese fusion restuarant.

UPDATE (Dec. 28, 2007) Even better than Bluefin's appetizers and rolls is its sashimi. Sushi Chef Shoi is a master. All of the sashimi orders come on a single plate with a dramatic and artistic presentation. We usually tell the waiter to ask the chef to give us 6 or 7 orders of sashimi that he recommends. One of the most interesting sashimi dishes is traditional sea eel, Tokyo style. It is much a large, delicately sweet piece of eel that is much better than the usual unagi with a caramelized sweet sauce than you get in American sushi restaurants.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Da Marco

For our anniversary, my wife and I went to Da Marco. In the past, we have thought that Da Marco serves some of Houston's best food. Last night was no exception.

First, some caveats. Da Marco gets two common complaints: the price and the service. Both complaints are fair.

The Price

Many friends have had sticker shock at Da Marco when they got the bill.

This is surprising because Da Marco menu items are cheaper than other lesser restaurants. For instance, most of Da Marco's menu appetizers cost $7 - $15, and most entrees $20 - $30. Compare that to Brennan's, where appetizers cost $13 - $20 and entrees $28 - $40.

But the bill at Da Marco has a way of creeping up. One pitfall is the bottled water. On this visit, two or three different people tried to push it on us. That H2O can be pretty pricey.

The other pitfall is the specials board. These dishes have much better descriptions than the Spartan descriptions of dishes on the menu, but the price of specials is not disclosed. It can be outrageous. My friends have ordered Da Marco's specials, expecting a price in the $30 range, only to find it was more like $70.

Although I know Da Marco's bottled water trick and its specials board trick, I always pay too much for its wine. The all-Italian list has some great bottles priced over $150, but not many good wines for less than $75. DaMarco's markup is high -- about three times retail for more common wines, and a lot more for some rarer wines. Da Marco's sister restaurant, Dolce Vita, has some good wine values in the $20 and $30 range. But Da Marco's list goes out of its way to avoid those values.

It was our anniversary, and I splurged. I picked a bottle for $150. Six years ago, I bought the same wine at Specs for under $30.

The Service

Countless friends complain about Da Marco's service. Some say the wait staff snubbed them because they did not order an expensive wine. Yet I learned that it does not matter how much you spend. The service is just inept.

One problem is the wine guy. Thirty seconds after receiving the list, he asked if we had any questions. I said, "Not yet, but we probably will in a few minutes." He never returned, even when I ordered that $150 wine.

Another problem is DaMarco's waiters. Most do not have a good command of Italian -- or English. Our waiter gave Italian ingredients a Spanish pronunciation. When he brought an amuse bouche of crostini covered with a thick orange puree that looked like butternut squash, I asked him the ingredients in the puree. "Oh," he said, "eeets olive oil." I responded, "But it is thicker than olive oil. Isn't it some sort squash?" He said, "Oh, Jes." Either he had no clue what was in the dish, or no clue what I was saying.

I'm no xenophobe. I admire immigrants who face the daunting task of learning English. But at a restaurant with food as good as Da Marco, it would be nice to have just one person -- a chef, the wine guy, or a waiter -- who can have an informed conversation about the food.

The language barrier can be a real problem when ordering wine from a Da Marco waiter. I always double check the label. On the first try, they usually bring the wrong wine. Predictably, our waiter got it wrong and brought a wine made with a completly different varietal. When I then gave the wine a Spanish pronunciation, instead of an Italian one, he finally understood. I can't understate how important it is to confirm you get the wine you ordered before it is opened. Some of DaMarco's wines cost over $1,200.

I mention the service only because it is important to some people. Not me. The food is the thing. And at Da Marco, the food is fantastic.


Da Marco serves one of Houston's best dishes: artichoke alla giudea. The artichoke is softened in chicken broth, fried, and served with a lemony sauce. This time, we did not get it.

Instead, we ordered two different types of crudo -- raw fish dishes. I ordered a tuna crudo, a good-sized cylinder of raw tuna and crab topped with arugula, tiny tomatoes, and a lot of lemon juice. The meaty and sweet flavors of the tuna played off the arugula's bitterness and the lemon juice's bite. The dish captured the essence of the sea, and the essence of Italy.

It was surprising, then, that my wife's hamachi crudo was so Japanese. The yellow tail fish was covered with a mound of green and red tobiko -- flying fish roe -- advertised on the menu as "caviar." The green tobiko had been soaked in wasabi. The red tobiko was soaked in another ingredient I could not identify. (No use asking the wait staff).


As her entree, my wife ordered an appetizer: a frisee salad with taleggio cheese and pears. Like my tuna crudo, it was a wonderful contrast of textures and flavors. She thought the taleggio was a bit strong -- or as she said, "stinky." I thought it was creamy and buttery and even a bit mild for taleggio. But I have a high tolerance for stinky cheese.

I ordered roast quail with fava beans. I was more interested to try the beans than the quail, and they did not disappoint. The fava beans were bright green, cooked al dente, and served with a thin layer of some Italian cheese. (No use asking the wait staff.) Again, the mix of textures -- earthy, creamy, and meaty -- was brilliant.


I finished the evening with a shot of espresso. It was much more dense and flavorful than espresso from Starbuck's or other American coffee chains. It triggered a memory of a sidewalk cafe in a Roman Piazza dominated by a Bernini sculpture. (It also reminded me of how hard it was to talk to Roman waiters in Italian.) The coffee was a wonderfully Italian end to a wonderful, mostly Italian meal.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Pan Asian Bistro Explosion

Pan Asian Bistros -- I like the concept, but rarely the execution. Finally, I found a good one -- a really good one. But first, some background:

A Short History of PABs in Houston

The first PAB I noticed was P.F. Chang's. It successfully appeals to an upscale white clientele by selling overly-priced, overly-sugared Americanized Asian food with mass-produced and mass-marketed wine. P.F. Chang's tastes like fast food, but cost a lot more. Its popularity is one of life's great mysteries.

Then P.F. Chang's unveiled its cheaper sister Pei Wei. At least Pei Wei is honest about being fast food. It is cheaper than P.F. Chang's and serves P.F. Chang's best dish -- lettuce wraps. But the wine selection is even worse.

Inevitably, more PABs opened. In the Heights, Mak Chin's serves cynical, overly-market-tested, vaguely Asian fast food. I couldn't say anything good, so I just poked fun at it.

Also in the Heights, Dragon Bowl is a much more sincere, quirky attempt at pan-Asian cuisine, even if their dishes don't always work. Dragon Bowl serves more beer than wine, and it has a strip center, fast-food vibe.

A slightly more authentic PAB -- Sinh Sinh

I stumbled last week on Sinh Sinh, a PAB on Bellaire Blvd., just east of Beltway 8. Apparently, Sinh Sinh has been around awhile. Now it has a new owner. Some customers report that it has gone downhill and that the service is awful. My service certainly was not good. But the restaurant is interesting.

Visually, Sinh Sinh looks like the restaurant Tillman Fertita would have opened if he had grown up Asian American in Bellaire. You walk in between two walls of tanks with live lobsters and crabs. The ceiling has a curved, flying wing and is painted in different hues of blue. One station in the restaurant is the barbecue stand, with roast pork and fowl hanging from the ceiling. The accoustics are terrible. (Studies show that high volume makes customers order more). And tables are jammed together. On a Sunday at 1 p.m., almost every seat was full, and I was the only non-Asian customer.

The menu is a mix of standard Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes. It is not very innovative; every dish here shows up on many other restaurant menus. I ordered a plate of rice with barbecue duck and pork. The barbecue style seemed more Chinese than Vietnamese. The meat was juicy and flavorful -- nothing amazing, just good barbecue. I also tried a Vietnamese spring roll that was good, but unexceptional.

What surprised me was the quality of the wine list. Sinh Sinh has some of the finest wines of any Asian restaurant in Houston, including a number of high-end Bordeaux and California wines. The problem is that most of these wines are oaky cabernets and chardonnays that don't pair very well with Asian food. But it is impressive to see any sort of decent wines in an Asian restaurant. If "bistro" is now defined as a casual restaurant that focuses on wine, then Sinh Sinh may have been Houston's first Pan Asian Bistro.

Yet I had the sense that Sinh Sinh is past its prime.

A PAB with great food and wine? Rattan Pan Asian Bistro

The best PAB in Houston just opened a few weeks ago in far West Houston -- Rattan Pan Asian Bistro. Rattan is the brainchild of Ron Chen, the original owner of Sinh Sinh.

First, I should warn you that Rattan is a bit over marketed. It may have the most stylish, contemporary website of any Houston restaurant. As you walk in the door, you first notice the giant flat-screened TVs flashing slide shows of the restaurant's dishes. Then you notice the Asian decor, which is surprisingly hip and ultra-modern for a restaurant that has counter service.

In light of this hype, the food is far, far better than I expected. The menu is a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai preparations. The dishes focus on the best aspect of traditional Asian food -- simplicity and balance of flavors. Yet, they are much more innovative than any other PAB in town.

But these are not the same old tired Asian/American dishes. For instance, Buddha Chicken is a bowl of light cocount milk broth, served with steamed chicken, taro root, mushroom, sweet potato, and peanuts. The broth has a traditional Thai curry flavor, but is lighter in texture and fat content. Each ingredient had a contrasting texture, but the flavors married together perfectly.

The sushi menu is fairly traditional -- no far out American rolls here. I was impressed with the texture of the rice and the thickness of a generous piece of escolar carefuly wrapped over the rice in the traditional manner.

As good as the food is, the wine is even better. Rattan has a first-class list, with many different varietals from all over the world. A large percentage of the wines actually go well with Asian food. Rattan sells the wines at a reasonable price, and it sells 40 of its 120 or so wines by the glass. Rattan is the first Houston restaurant to use the Italian Enomatic wine dispensing system, which preserves the wine in an open bottle for up to three weeks. This is not one of Houston's best wine lists. But it is the best Asian restaurant wine list in Houston at this moment. (Long live Scott Chen's.)

Rattan has two drawbacks. First, the flashy flat screens and counter service make it feel more like Cafe Express than a comfortable place where I want to hang out for long. It doesn't achieve the "bistro" feel it advertises. Second, for an Inner Looper like me, Rattan is a long, long way west -- 1396 Eldridge Parkway. That is almost as far as Highway 6. I can justify traveling that far for a long evening at Rattan's neighboring restaurant, Le Mistral, one of the best French restaurants in Houston. But I have a hard time driving that far for counter service.

When Rattan opens a location near Rice U or the Galleria, I will be there once a week, glass in hand.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Village Turks

Houston only has a handful of Turkish restaurants. Strangely, two of them are less than a block apart in Rice Village.

Istanbul Grill

My long-time favorite is Istanbul Grill on Morningside. The restaurant is a small, spartan space in a short strip mall with very little parking. The parking issue is significant because so many people go to the bars nearby, particularly toward the end of the week. The restaurant also is not very romantic, but the food makes up for it.

Meals begin with a heavenly Turkish bread (pide?) that is fluffy and crispy. It is paired with olive oil poured over some earthy spices and sesame seeds. I could eat just oil and bread for a meal. But there are good reasons not to. Istanbul Grill serves some good Mediterranean appetizers, pizza-like dishes on Turkish bread (Lahmacun or Pide), and some fantastic grilled meats. I particularly like Adana Kebab -- a shish kebab made with lamb.


Because I liked Istanbul Grill so much, I have been ignoring the other Turkisn restaurant, just down the street on University -- Pasha. I finally tried it last night and was very impressed.

Pasha is more romantic. It is located in a house instead of a strip center. Tables are covered with white tablecloths. There are a few more parking spots, but I imagine parking remains an issue on weekends, when you probably need a reservation to avoid waiting for a table.

A meal at Pasha also begins with some wonderful Greek bread. But the oil served with the bread is not quite as good as Istanbul Grill; it could use more spices.

Pasha's menu very similar to Istanbul Grill. Although neither restaurant is expensive, prices tend to be about $1 - $3 more per item at Pasha. And Pasha has a handful of additional items that Istanbul Grill does not have.

Last night, I was particularly impressed with a special that involved Lamb, slow-cooked in the oven for 5 - 6 hours. The lamb was tender and flavorful. Also noteworthy was ezme -- a cold appetizer with chopped tomatoes, onion, crushed walnuts. It was both sweet and spicy hot.

Both restaurants have nice small wine lists that focus on Turkish wines. I like Turkish reds quite a bit -- even more than the reds made by their Greek and Lebanese neighbors.

I recommend both Istanbul Grill and Pasha. Pasha is a little better on a date. Istanbul Grill is better on the budget. Both restaurants serve great Turkish food.