Sunday, August 03, 2008

Last week: Blue Nile, Miguelito's, Quattro, Reef

Last week I was busy writing a paper about corporate shareholder liability, so I could not write much here. But that doesn't mean that I didn't eat.

Blue Nile

Ever noticed that every major American city has an Ethiopian restaurant named "Blue Nile"? Compared to Boston, D.C., and New York, Houston does not have much Ethiopian food. But we do have a Blue Nile. And it's pretty good.

A Chowhound Houston group went to Blue Nile last Sunday and tried some of She Eats favorite dishes. Compared to Ethiopian food I have tried in other cities, Blue Nile's dishes lacked the same level of spice and heat. But the ingredients were fresh, and the flavors were varied and vibrant.

I was particularly impressed with Blue Nile's Ehtiopian honey wine, which I had never tried. Perhaps the best dish of the afternoon was Alicha Minchetabish, a bowl of nearly rare ground beef with intriguing spices.


Venezuelan food does not seem very complex or nuanced. It strikes me as very basic -- no fancy techniques, few herbs, few vegetables. Just meat, bananas, and grains and legumes.

So for my first meal at Miguelito's, a Venezuelan restaurant on Richmond near Chimney Rock, I thought I should stick to the basics. The Pabellon Criollo is a traditional Venezuelan plate served with carne mechada (shredded beef), white rice, black beans, and plantains. The beef is mildly spiced with onions and cumin.

Although most of the customers speak in Spanish and presumably have Venezuelan roots, this is not exotic food. It is comfort food that would appeal to the appetites of most Texans.


Tim Keating opened Quattro in the Four Seasons as an affordable take on creative Italian cuisine. Since Keating left a few years ago, Quattro's exec chef position has been a revolving door: Paul Wade, Gaetano Ascione, and now Andrea Ossola.

With the newest chef, there is one significant change: the prices have risen to among the highest in Houston. Most entrees are $30 - $40. Some appetizers are over $20. And wine prices have a big markup.

Fortunately, I was a guest of an old friend who is one of Houston's top wine collectors. We drank amazing wines -- an '05 white Burgundy, and a Grenache made by Sine Qua Non, my favorite American wine producer.

With such incredible wines, I did not want to order any food that might interfere. A chilled zucchini and mint soup (with a spoon of caviar) was light and flavorful. Osso Bucco alla Milanese looked beautiful -- a giant bone of braised meat standing upright and surrounded by a bright yellow/orange risotto. The dish was a bit underseasoned, but an excellent foil for the red wine.

Quattro seems to have abandoned Keating's project of attracting Houstonians downtown with creative dishes and moderate prices. Instead, the focus is on the hotel's base -- conservative business travelers who desire quality and consistency and have an unlimited budget. So the food is high quality, consistent, very expensive, and perhaps just a little dull.


When Reef opened, I was very excited. Since then, large crowds and a few service problems have kept me from being a regular. Yet I remain mostly impressed by the food.

Why just "mostly impressed"? The menu does not seem to change that much. And many dishes just are not right for the season. Why, for instance, would anyone order "Seafood Hot Pot" in August?

Still, Reef's style is creative. Often the best part of a dish are the garnishes. For instance, we started with two raw fish plates - kona kampachi and snapper carpaccio. The best part of the first dish was a small salad of watermelon, onions, radish, and something that tasted like a gerkin pickles. The carpaccio was livened up by a sprinkling of parsley, basil, and mint. The herbs were a simple addition, but they made the dish work.

Similarly, a ravioli of ricotta and greens was livened up by splashes of a beet puree. Although I was not too impressed with a runny corn pudding served with Seared Grouper, I did like the grilled half peach on the side, plus a salsa of tomato, green onion, cilantro, and radish.

Most Houston restaurants could use more variety and seasonality in their menus. Perhaps it is unfair for me to expect that of Reef. Yet with dishes this good, the next logical step for this restaurant is greater versatility.


Misha said...

I had a pretty crappy lunch at Quattro recently. That place is a trap.

Big House said...

I've stopped going to Miguelito's. It can be quite good, but not always. The same dish can be yummy one day and not-so-much the next. Even though it's cheap, I still hate throwing money away on a meal I don't like.

I agree with your observation about Reef -- spot on.

Anonymous said...


I am glad that for the most part you enjoyed your experience at Reef. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few thoughts.
The Hot Pot is kind of a hybrid between a bouillabaisse and a traditional Thai seafood soup we had on the menu when I worked in Bangkok, both of which are commonly and traditionally served year round. What makes them seasonal is what is in them at different times of the year, a “fisherman’s stew”. While the preparation/technique stays the same the garnish and proteins change with the seasons as they do in our rendition.
The salad with the Kampachi was watermelon, radish, shallots, scallions and pickled watermelon rind (that was the gherkin type thing you tasted).
Seasonality is a funny thing; I guess that some things scream Summer, Spring or Fall louder than others. We actually print the menu about three to four times a week to reflect the changes we make. You had the grouper so I know that you were in the restaurant either Friday or Saturday night this week because we ran triple tail the four days before that. Last week we also ran; Sheepshead, amberjack, wahoo, black-tip shark, b-line snapper and fresh head on gulf shrimp. Today I just received yellow mouth scamp, two huge African pompano, some killer rainbow runners (for a raw dish) and triggerfish and have been promised Hake on Wednesday (hopefully tropical storm Edouard will corporate) I am terribly excited because it will be the first time I’ve tasted Gulf Coast Hake. All these fish are local, whole and cherry, we butcher and fabricate all fish in house. We work very hard at having the largest variety of local finfish in Houston, this was the very idea that inspired Reef in the first place. Growing up and fishing here all my life I know that the gulf waters of Texas/Louisiana is an amazingly diverse fishery but most only focus on snapper, shrimp and crab. All of these different varieties are the very definition of seasonal, only becoming available and abundant when the conditions are right. Every species has a factor; tides, moon cycle, water temperature, salinity content of the water, the range of the thermocline, yearly migrations. So respectfully I must say that the last paragraph you have written about the variety and seasonality is inaccurate.
From your picture of the grouper I could tell that vinaigrette dressing from the radish/tomato salsa is what gave the impression of a runny corn pudding. That was definitely not by design. It is unfortunate; consistency is every chef’s greatest battle.

Why not the wholefish? I have read your comments in the past about wholefish, that night we had some beautiful 1 ½ pound vermillion/b-line snapper for our whole fish. If I had been dining it would have been my choice.

Thanks for the opportunity to voice my thoughts

Bryan Caswell

John said...

A couple things that I hope are helpful here.

I had the seared tripletail a couple days before you had grouper, and the corn pudding was not at all runny. I thought it was excellent.

The triple tail itself was only good, and not very interesting. Maybe I'm not experienced, but I didn't think it tasted different from grouper or maybe snapper. The crust from the searing was probably a bit too thick/tough for my taste.

Kudos to the chef for responding to your posting. Given that many say that Reef is now one of the 3-4 best restaurants in town, I was disappointed. That tripletail just wasn't up to the "best" rating I used to give Scott Tycer at Aries for his seared fish presentations.

anonymouseater said...

Chef Caswell and John --

Great comments about Reef.

Chef, you're right. I'm wrong. I really shouldn't have used the word "seasonal." It suggests the wrong thing. I have no doubt that all the seafood served at Reef is very fresh and very seasonal. And you guys do vary your menu based on the best seafood available.

But I will hang on to a small part of my argument. Many of the preparations on the menu seem to be the same each time I have visited over the past few yearsFor instance -- Johnah Crab claw cocktail, snapper carpaccio, crispy skin snapper with sweet and sour chard, and Vietnamese Coffee tart. All four of those dishes are fantastic - the crispy skin snapper is nearly a signature dish. But they have been on the menu repeatedly -- at least when I have visited. Although I dig a little more variety, most customers probably like to see their favorite dishes repeated.

Also, just personally, a few dishes seem too hot and steamy for me to order in August in Houston --gumbo, hot pot, steamed mussels. But if Houstonians will order them, I would serve them too.

These niggles aside, Reef is the most creative -- and the best -- seafood-focused restaurant in Houston. It is one of my top 6 or 7 favorite restaurants in Houston. Thank you so very much for bringing us such outstanding food in such a beautiful environment.

chris shepherd said...

I would have to say that Brian's awareness and use of gulf seafood is second to none in this city. It is the only place that I know that has the "stuff" to serve and be very excited about Croaker. It rocked. In the business that we are in it is hard to change everything all the time. I know that here at Catalan we will never take the pork belly of the menu. It is not a "summer" dish but, people come for it. Same as they go to reef for the crispy snapper. We have to accommodate our customers, that is what we do. There has to be a core list of things that stay and then the rest can change like the wind. I agree with change and embrace it as Brian does. Seasons here are different than what most people think. Hard squash like butternut, that in most peoples opinion, is a fall item is everywhere at the local farmers market. I use it and wonder if people will understand that it is seasonal. What are peoples perception of seasonal. Is it Satsuma oranges, Meyer lemons and leaf lettuce in November. It is here. Keep doing what you are doing and I will see you at the market

David said...

Addisaba also has very good Ethiopian food. It's on DeMoss street down 59 by Sharptstown mall.

My wife and I had our first date there, so it's got a special place in my heart. I've found it as good as the Ethiopian places in DC. Now, that may be because I don't appreciate the nuances. But, I think it's pretty tasty.

I learned of this place by asking an Ethiopian cab drive where the best place in town was.

Anonymous said...

Reef has really good food. Service was decent. When we went, we sat there for about 10 minutes before anyone came to our table. However some guy who appeared to be the manager did notice that we had not yet been helped, and immediately apologized and after that our waitress was very helpful and friendly. It was packed with people as well.

Crispy skin snapper was excellent. My wife had what I think was saffron risotto with salmon which she enjoyed. The sliders are the best in town, and the vanilla milkshake (waitress gave this to us for free due to the initial wait) was the best I have ever had.