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.