Thursday, February 28, 2008

Catalan Food and Wine - constant change

When Catalan opened a year and a half ago on Washington Ave., I found it promising. Since then, it has been one of the most restless and exciting restaurants in Houston.

Restless menu

The evolution of Catalan's menu has been fascinating. The menu has grown. And new dishes frequently rotate on and off the list.

Some of Catalan's dishes are brilliant. A few are failures. A successful meal requires some strategy.

Catalan's menu has five categories: "small plates to share," "soups," "small greens," "Chef's playground - what we're eating now," and "big plates."

On a first or second visit, I recommend making a meal of the small plates section. Most of Catalan's best and most interesting dishes are in this category. Among my current favorites are crispy pork belly with cane syrup, piquillo peppers stuffed with lamb, and salad of morcilla sausages with dates and Cabrales cheese.

As I discussed in my last post on Catalan, no one should miss the garlic soup.

Some of the large plates do not work as well. For instance, a special I tried last year consisted of a crispy skin fish on a bed of cauliflower puree. The fish was fine, but the huge pile of puree had the consistency of oatmeal and the flavor of old cabbage. I have had far better cauliflower purees elsewhere. Another entree came with a side of brussel sprouts - my least favorite vegetable. Even the big plates that have better sides fail to maintain my interest in the same way the small plates do.

The Chef's Playground section is a good idea, and a good way to step out on the edge. It gives the kitchen an excuse to serve strange dishes it might not otherwise serve. Last Saturday, I tried pupusas filled with duck confit and a side of spicy cabbage slaw. The thick corn pancackes were spicy street food that you might expect to be served in a grungy Central American restaurant. Sure, it was inconsistent with the other dishes on Catalan's menu and did not fit well with the rest of my meal. But the dish was tasty and different. Other strange listings in this section range from organ meat to a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich with foie gras to venison tartare with blueberry compote.

Catalan's food may not have the consistency or the coherency of restaurants like Da Marco and Cafe Annie. But its primary audience is not elegant diners, but experimental foodies. I don't mind a few failures on the menu because they are a sign that Catalan is experimenting on me. Your experience may depend on how much you want to be experimented on.

My favorite wine list

Antonio Gianola has put together my favorite wine list in Houston. It may not be as brilliantly matched with the restaurant's food as, say, Sean Beck's lists at Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's. It also is not as big a menu, or as deep on expensive cult wines, as the lists at Cafe Annie, Lynn's, and Pappas Bros. And it is not as deep on particular regions as the lists at El Meson (Spain), Cafe Rabelais (Rhone), Da Marco (Italy). But Catalan's list has two very strong virtues:

1 - Value. Along with Ibiza and Reef, this is one of three wine programs in town that sell wine at a price near retail cost. Yet Catalan's list is even better because of a second reason.

2 - Excitement. Every time I read Catalan's last, I keep exclaiming, "wow!" For one thing, I am impressed at how many hard-to-find cult wines show up on the list. Consider the zinfandels. Last Saturday, Catalan had at least 7 different Turleys on the list. I have never seen that many hard-to-find Turleys on any list in Houston. But it also had even rarer zins by Williams Selyem, Martinelli (the prized Giuseppe and Luisa), and A. Rafanelli.

As much as I wanted to order one of those zins, I have been even more excited lately by some of Catalan's more exotic European wines, including multiple labels of whites and reds from little-known regions in Italy, Spanish Albarinos, Austrian whites, chenin blanc from Savennieres, and reds from Prioriat, Monstant, and Jumilla. At most restaurants, I can find 3 or 4 wines that catch my interest. At Catalan, it is always over 20.

This Saturday, we chose a wine from Veneto that was Gianola's featured red. He came to our table just to chat about the wine, and 10 minutes later, he had given us a print out of his favorite restaurants in Rome and Venice to use on our upcoming Italian trip.

Gianola's excitement sums up why I like Catalan. The owners and staff are excited about food and wine. They want you to be excited. So what if a dish here or there is not perfect? Catalan is not about perfection or consistency. It is about experimentation and generating interest in food.

That excitement makes eating at Catalan more fun than almost anywhere else in town.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine's Day and Superbowl Sunday

This is my strategy for the two February food-related holidays:

Superbowl Sunday - go out;

Valentine's Day - stay home.

Dining during the Superbowl

Superbowl Sunday may be the most celebrated holiday in America, perhaps more than Christmas. But unlike Christmas, restaurants do not close.

During the game, I usually go to Houston's on Kirby. I have a weakness for this restaurant chain. Something about their grill gives a wonderful flavor to steaks and pork chops. Plus, they usually have Turley, my favorite bottle of Zinfandel, but very hard to find.

The problem with Houston's is that it is very popular and does not take reservations. At normal dinner hours, even on weeknights, the wait can be one or two hours. The food just is not good enough to wait that long.

But on Superbowl Sunday, the tables at Houston's are nearly empty, and the grill is hot.

Staying home on Valentine's Day

If New Year's Eve is amateur night for drinking, Valentine's Day is amateur night for dining.

Restaurants book up more than a week in advance. Menus are shortened. Most fine restaurants only offer 3 or 4 options. Prices are high. Crowds are enormous.

Dining out on Valentine's Day is ugly. There is nothing romantic about it.

This Valentine's Day, I put on a Chet Baker cd, opened a 2002 Copain Hawks Butte Syrah (rated 96 points by Robert Parker), and cooked a roasted chicken stuffed with lemon, thyme, and rosemary on a bed of mint/peanut couscous. Desert was a trio of a chocolate tart, mousse, and pot de creme. The food cost? Under $30.

No restaurant in town had a deal so good. And no restaurants were as quiet and romantic.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Aka Sushi House

The Inner Loop Sushi Scene

My family has a Friday-night ritual -- Japanese food. Although we eat some nigiri sushi, we usually order some combination of sashimi, sushi rolls, and cooked Japanese dishes.

Our current restaurant rotation is something like this:

1. Once a month: Kubo, Blue Fin, (and Sushi Jin is so good it may join this list)

2. Twice a year: Rickshaw, Blue Fish House, Zake, Uptown Sushi, Nippon.

3. Once a year: Azuma, Tomo, The Fish, Sake Lounge.

Our list keeps expanding because new Japanese restaurants keep opening, particular on the west side of the Inner Loop.

The newest is Aka Sushi House, the sister restaurant of Aka Japanese Cuisine. It is located on West Alabama between Kirby and Shepard. That spot is sushi central -- right in middle of the triangle formed by Rickshaw, Blue Fish House, and Zake (plus Ra Sushi, not on my list).

But apparently, this area needs more sushi. Two Fridays ago, just after Aka opened, it only had four tables occupied. This Friday, every table was full with a line was out the door. Aka is an instant hit.

For me, Aka is an interesting addition to the scene and worth trying. But it is not going to place high on our rotation list.

Aka's highlights

Aka's two best features are its long sake list and its enormous menu. Aka has more sake -- and more high quality sake -- than I have found anywhere except Spec's. It also has some interesting cocktails. Unfortunately, its wine list is not the same quality.

Aka's food menu is even more encyclopedic. Fortunately for Aka, there is no copyright on recipes. Aka's menu designers seem to have scouted the entire sushi scene in Houston and copied most of the hits. Imagine any popular American/Japanese fusion dish that has been served in Houston in the last 10 years, and you are likely to find it on Aka's menu. You will find bi-weekly specials (many that are similar to Kubo's specials), miso-marinated cod (originally from Nobu), hot rock beef (like Azuma), tuna nachos (like Blue Fin and Uptown). You also will find grilled teriyaki dishes, sashimi platters, many speciality sushi rolls, noodle bowls, cooked dishes, cook-your-own-food dishes, and more. The menu takes at least 15 minutes to read.

Despite some obvious appropriation, I was very excited about Aka's menu. It seemed to be on top of some of the better Japanese fusion trends.

Something missing

Of the 9 or so dishes I tried at Aka, none was bad. But none was special. It is hard to pin down what is missing.

Take for instance, Aka's version of tuna nachos, which was on special last week. Like the same dish at Blue Fin (and Uptown Sushi), this dish came with crispy wonton chips, a bowl of diced tuna, and avocado. Although the chips were fine, they lacked the airy and crispy quality that makes Blue Fin's version so appealing. The tuna was ok, but it seemed a bit watery, and not as firm as the tuna at Blue Fin. Plus, Blue Fin's version comes with an addictive side of spicy wasabi cream. Aka's version has no sauce. And the dish, while fine, did not have much flavor.

A sashimi platter came with six different kinds of fish -- allegedly the freshest fish of the night. The fish was served in large blocks. Unlike the best sashimi, there was little artistry to the presentation. This fish was firm and relatively fresh, but not quite of the same quality as the sashimi at Blue Fin or Sushi Jin.

I expected much more of Aka's bi-weekly specials. But almost all of these specials were identical to dishes that I had tried at other restaurants, and usually was not quite as good.

I did notice a few dishes that may be original to Aka. One sushi roll contains Doritos. Its barbecued ribs come with a strawberry sauce. Unfortunately, innovations like Doritos and strawberry sauce don't interest me much.

As good as its competition

I expect Aka will do quite well in its new location. Compared to its closest competition, its quality seems slightly below the sushi bar at Rickshaw, on the same level as Zake, and slightly better than Blue Fish House. Overall, that is not bad; all three of those competitors are much better than the average sushi bar.

In short, Aka is good enough to compete and make a lot of money from the weekend night sushi and cocktail crowds. As for my family, Aka might make our twice-a-year rotation, but it is just not special enough to visit more often than that.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ristorante Cavour in Hotel Granduca

Remember "continental cuisine"? Thirty years ago, that was the description used to categorize most of the fine restaurants in Houston. Continental restaurants served French and/or Italian-based dishes in a formal setting. Men wore coats and ties. Waiters wore bow ties. And the ladies looked lovely.

In today's restaurant world, the term "continental" is hopelessly out of style. So is the stuffy formality associated with continental restaurants. Houston's finest French and Italian restaurants emphasize their casual atmosphere. Restaurant decor has transformed from ornate and traditional to minimalist and contemporary.

Continental atmosphere

So I was a bit shocked when I walked into the dining room of Ristorante Cavour, which just opened in the new Hotel Granduca in Uptown Park. The small dining room had only five tables, bookshelves with antique knick-knacks, antique paintings, elegant chairs and tables, and candlelight. I felt like I had stepped onto the set for a Merchant Ivory period film.

Only two other tables in the tiny dining room were occupied. One had a large group of 8 or 9 European women speaking an Eastern European language. Another table of four well-dressed, older Houstonians were discussing the department store Battlesteins, which closed decades ago. I wasn't sure whether we had been transported to Europe, transported back in time, or both.

Usually, efforts to recreate European luxury in Houston feel false and pretentious. But Cavour felt romantic and even a little exotic.

Outstanding Food

The real reason to go to Ristorante Cavour is the cuisine of Executive Chef David Denis. Denis is also the owner/chef of Le Mistral, my favorite French restaurant in Houston. He comes from Southern France, not too far from Italy. So it makes some sense that his second restaurant would focus on Italian dishes. The style is much the same as Le Mistral -- high quality ingredients in simple preparations that borrow heavily from tradition but branch out in new directions. Denis's food is some of the most artistic and best tasting in Houston.

We tried these five outstanding dishes:

-Antipasti: mixed greens with basil lemon dressing and roasted pine nuts. The greens arrived on a clear glass plate, shaped into a beautiful mound, almost a column, with two long chives crossing over the top. The star of this salad was the unctuous dressing, more basil-flavored, than lemon-flavored. Although it was delicious, my wife complained that the salad was a bit overdressed.

-Antipasti: beef tenderloin carpaccio. This dish also arrived on a clear glass plate, and the beef and parmesan were sliced so thinly, that you could almost see through to the table. It was lightly dressed with a sweet balsamic sauce. On the side was a shot glass with gazpacho-flavored juice.

-Primi: pan seared potato gnocchi with sage. This gnocchi had the best texture of any gnocchi I have tried, even in Italy. Perhaps it was the pan searing: each little ball of potato had the texture of a tiny pillow with almost an imperceptible crispness on the exterior. The sage also had been crisped, presumably in butter. By my second bite, my wife asked me why I was doing the happy dance in my chair.

-Secondi: Although it was hard to follow the gnocchi, Colorado lamb chops were also excellent. The chops were lightly covered with a chunky sauce of green olives, prunes and roasted garlic. On the side was a simple serving of white beans, prepared al dente and full of flavor. I could tell a lot of care and effort went into making this simple side of beans.

-Dessert: Chocolate fondant with a milkshake. This dish is a carry-over from Le Mistral. Denis makes some of the best chocolate cake in town, and the shake is an inventive side.

Cavour's wine list is currently small, but well chosen. Italians dominate. Most bottles are between $40 - $100, and the markup seems to be a little less than twice retail, which is better than most restaurants.


Chef Denis may not be the most well-known chef in Houston, but he is one of our best. I am so glad he has created an Italian menu, and that he has done it inside the Beltway.

Cavour is pricey, but not as pricey as it feels. Most antipasti and primi are between $8 - 10 and most secondi are between $25 - 35. When the food is in the same league as Da Marco, Tony's, and Bice, those prices are almost a bargain.

Although it is not my style, there is something to be said for Cavour's romantic, old-world atmosphere. If your significant other swoons over Italian and French antiques, and if "continental cuisine" is not a dirty word, this might be the place to go for Valentine's Day.

UPDATE (5.4.08): A second visit to Cavour last weekend was just as good. Yet on a Saturday night, there were only 6 customers. For the past several months, this has been one of Houston's best and most romantic restaurants. Where are the customers?