Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Yatra Brasserie

Creative music calls for creative food

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.

Some history

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

Pink's Pizza

Pink's Pizza is a take-out pizza joint on Heights Boulevard. It is owned and managed by the same guy as Dragon Bowl. His name is Ken. When I visited yesterday afternoon, Ken was making the pizzas.

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

Bistro Moderne closing

Bistro Moderne closed a week ago.

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

On Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving Fellow Foodies!

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.

Cranberry-Apple Cobblers

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

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

"No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

-Yogi Berra

Restaurant Overbooking

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.

Past Offenders

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.

Recent Offenders

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.

A Solution

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

Lunch at Dimassi's

Dimassi's Mediterranean Buffet is an all-you-can-eat buffet with primarily Lebanese food. Although there are a number of Dimassi's locations around town, and although it serves dinner, my only recent experience is with the original location on Richmond and South Post Oak at lunch.

Some history

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.

Some highlights

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.