Sunday, July 27, 2008

Last Week: Crave Cupcakes, Thai Lanna, Mary'z, Kubo's, Feast, miracle berries

It was a good week for food: Crave Cupcakes, lunch at Thai Lanna, dinners at Mary'z, Kubo's, and Feast, and Jenny's miracle berry party.

Crave Cupcakes

Crave Cupcakes is a cupcake boutique in Uptown Park. The store has a beautiful design -- lots of glass, wood, metal and soft aqua colors -- which emphasizes the racks of artistically designed cupcakes.

Prices are a little shocking. Most are $3.25. Far more than your average cupcake. But also less than a gallon of gas. So as splurges go, one cupcake is a cheap splurge.

I first tried a maple-syrup-flavored breakfast cupcake. It tasted very similar to the overly sweet maple nut scones at Starbucks, which I can only eat with an overly strong cup of coffee. Fortunately, the Starbucks next to Crave is not part of Starbucks' mass closings.

I returned with Anonymous Child who insisted on a strawberry cupcake. The small bite I negotiated for myself was fruity, far better than the ordinary strawberry cupcake. But it also was too sweet for my tastes.

Admittedly, I don't have a high sugar tolerance. But if you do, and you like cupcakes, you may be impressed with the high-quality, sweet cupcakes at Crave.

Chicken at Mary'z Lebanese Cuisine

Summer is the time for grilled foods. My favorite grilled chicken in town is the chich tawook chicken served at Mary'z Lebanese Cuisine. This juicy chicken has a rich, tangy, salty, slightly-sweet flavor. It is served with a concentrated, pungent garlic sauce.

The secret is the marinade. The menu says it is marinated in garlic and lemon juice. Surely there is more to it than that.

Thai Lanna

Thai Lanna is a quaint Thai restaurant next to an adult movie store in a grungy strip center where the West Loop meets the North Loop. The history is a bit confusing. Once it was Vung Thai, a quirky Thai restaurant with good, home-cooked food. Then, the owner/chef Pim sold the restaurant, and it became Thai Touch -- which sounded more like a massage parlor -- and quality plummeted.

Now, Pim has returned, re-purchased the restaurant, and called it Thai Lanna.

I like Thai Lanna more than 80 percent of the Thai restaurants in town. Unfortunately, it is near my two favorite Thai restaurants -- Vieng Thai and Asia Market. Against these competitors, Thai Lanna's spicy dishes are not as spicy. And Pim caters to the palates of her mostly-Western customers. Still, the food tastes like it was cooked at home.

This week I ordered a traditional papaya salad, called Som Tam. Made with unripened papaya, hot chile, sour lime, salty fish sauce, a little sugar, tomatoes, and ground peanuts, Som Tam is a study in the balance of flavors. At Thai Lanna, I ordered it "spicy," yet it was nowhere nearly as spicy or as exotic as the same dish at Vieng Thai or Asia Market. Yet, most Americans would probably prefer the mellower version of this dish at Thai Lanna.

Kubo's Summer Specials

The best dishes at Kubo's Sushi Bar and Grill are often the bi-monthly specials. The specials this month are particularly good.

The flavorful inside of the summer scallop roll consists of chopped scallop and something crunchy (panko?). Outside are strings of kanikama and three kinds of tobiko. The primary flavor here is scallop, but the the fun part of this dish is the play of contrasting textures.

I liked the flavors of Kubo's cold udon special even more - shrimp, kanikama, egg, barbecue pork, seaweed, cucumber, green onion, and ginger served over cold udon. The bowl of cold ingredients struck me as a single-bowl summary of Japanese flavors.

Kubo's desert special is chestnuts tiramisu. Kubo's has experimented with some very good tiramisu desserts, but this one is particularly interesting. The chestnut-flavor tiramisu is matched with ginger sorbet and sweet "satuma potato chips." I was stunned at how well the potato-chip flavor complimented with the sweet and spicy ginger sorbet. And I wondered why I had never seen potato chips incorporated into a dessert.

Kubo's recently celebrated its 7th anniversary and is soon opening a second location in Chinatown.

Another Feast

Every meal at Feast is an adventure. This week, my wife and I dropped in on a weeknight, unfortunately without a camera. We just concentrated on appetizers.

Duck necks were interesting. I found them impossible to eat without my fingers, which the chef later told me is the correct method. The best part of the dish is a highly pungent garlic aioli, made with only raw garlic and oil. This wonderful condiment stayed with me for hours.

Brawn with pickled cauliflower was even better. This pig head cheese was served in a terrine form and was even tastier than the last terrine I tried at Feast. I usually avoid cauliflower, but this relish was surprisingly good.

My wife concentrated on less adventurous dishes. She ordered a egg/spinach salad and a monkfish / scallop ceviche, which had an unusual marinade. It was tangy, with strong vinegar and citrus flavors.

Fest makes a delicious chocolate mousse cake. The cake combines both mousse and cake textures and the flavor is only slightly sweet, which gives the focus to the flavor of chocolate.

Even when I can't go to Feast, I find myself reading its fascinating daily menu.

Miracle Berry Party

There must have been 100 people at the miracle berry party. Jenny did a great job organizing, but La Strada was inept. I was reminded why I stopped going to La Strada 15 years ago.

The berries triggered different responses. Misha was disappointed. But he had a cold.

I found that the berries made lemons and limes taste like very sweet candy. Vinegar potato chips tasted like sweet barbecue chips. Guiness tasted not so stout.

On the other hand, the balsamic vinegar tasted like balsamic vinegar. The blue cheese tasted like blue cheese. The schnozberries tasted like schnozberries. (Thanks Misha).

Perhaps we needed more than one berry per person. Perhaps I was expecting something more psychedelic. Still, the party and the berries were a lot of fun.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"The Wine Trials"

Robin Goldstein -- who edits the Fearless Critic guides -- has published an intriguing little book about wine. It's called The Wine Trials. [Caveat: I know Robin, and I participated in one of his wine tastings last week.]

If you like wine, this book gives a lot to think about.

Goldstein's argument

Goldstein argues that most people buy wine based on image rather than smell and taste. He argues that when most people are given wine without seeing the label, they prefer cheap wines just as much or more than expensive wines.

To prove this, he organized tastings in New York, New England, Austin, and Houston. The tasters included everyone from ordinary folks to wine professionals. They tried wines poured from bottles in paper bags. Some of the wines tried were in the $50 - $150 range. Many wines were under $15.

The result? Although the some of the pros preferred the expensive wines, most ordinary people actually preferred the wines under $15.

To me, this doesn't suggest that cheap wines are inherently as good as expensive wines. It just proves that people are more likely to prefer the kind of wines they are used to drinking.

Goldstein's book raises this question: unless you want to waste money, why develop a habit of preferring expensive wines if you already prefer cheap ones?

Top 100 wines under $15

Goldstein used tastings to come up with a list of the favorite 100 wines under $15. This top 100 list is surprising.

For instance, of 35 white table wines, 11 are Sauvignon Blanc. This probably reflects the current trend toward crisp unoaked whites. Only 7 are Chardonnays, even though that varietal still dominates the market.

Yet I was amazed at the near-absence of wines from Germany and Austria, particularly Riesling. (There was one Riesling table wine and one dessert riesling). Riesling was once the most popular red or white varietal in the world. Many sommeliers believe riesling is the single best varietal of any color to match with most foods. And good Rieslings are available for under $15.

Were the tasters not offered many Rieslings? Or did the tasters not like them?

The red list includes more than 10 Cabernet Sauvignons and 5 Malbecs. But even though Zinfandel usually works with a wider range of food, the list only includes 2 Zins.

Again, were not many Zinfandels tasted? Or did the tasters not like them?

The problems with wine tastings

As much as I applaud Goldstein's book, I suspect this sort of blind tasting is not the best way for me to pick wines to drink with dinner.

One problem is food. When I drink wine, 90 percent of the time it is with food. Food changes the flavor and the experience of wine.

Although many of Goldstein's tastings are in restaurants, I see little mention of food. The photos show tasters sitting in front of 6 - 8 glass of wine. No food. At the tasting I attended, food was prepared by oustanding local chef Justin Yu. Yet the food was served after most people had turned in their tasting results.

These blind, no-food tastings may be the best way to pick a cheap wine to serve in bars or at parties, when people drink wine by itself. But it is not necessarily the best way to choose wine that will enhance the experience of eating.

Another problem is the head-to-head comparison. We normally experience one wine at a time. In a head-to-head tasting, a wine might stand out in a group of 6 wines because the taster's palate is reacting to all six wines. Yet a different one of those wines might be better when experienced by itself.

For instance, in tastings of pricey red wines where I have tried 15 or so wines against each other, I find that fruity California Pinot Noirs often stand out. Some of the worst performers in these big tastings are Rhone wines. Yet I often get much more enjoyment out of a Rhone wine than a Pinot Noir when I drink it alone.

Goldstein's book is just a start

I agree with Goldstein's main argument: most people, including me, will enjoy a number of different wines that cost under $15. Plus, his paper-bag tasting method is the simplest, cleanest way to prove that.

But I seriously doubt that this book's top-100 list represents the best cheap wines to drink with food. I suspect it is a list for the best cheap wines without food. If different foods had been served, my guess is that the top 100 wines under $15 would have been a completely different list.

Because I want the best cheap wines for foods, I am going to have to do a lot of my own experimenting. I am going to have to cook a lot of diverse dishes (hamburgers, scallops in white sauce, pasta with red sauce, Thai salad). Then I am going to have to try each dish with many different wines in brown paper bags.

This is going to take a long time and many, many tests.

Life is short. I had better get started.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Miracle Berries come to Houston

Psychedelic flavors

They say a miracle berry makes a Guiness taste like a choocolate shake. They say it makes Tabasco sauce taste like hot doughnut glaze.

The New York Times says that miracle berries rewire your taste buds for an hour or so, making sour foods taste sweet.

I know of no one in Houston who can confirm these rumors. Miracle berries have not yet landed here.

Not until this Friday.

Miracle berry party -- This Friday!

Local blogger "I'm never full" has scored some of these rare African berries. She's hosting a party at La Strada to try them.

Details are here. What you really need to know is that the event is this Friday 5:30 - 8:00 p.m. And the deadline to sign up is this Wednesday [correction: Tuesday]. The price of berries and food is only $15.

Free your tongue and your mind will follow.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Le Mistral is now world class

Le Mistral has moved up by moving next door

Le Mistral is a Provençal restaurant in far West Houston. Chef David Denis's cuisine has made this one of my favorite restaurants for many years. Yet it had long been held back by its small, quaint space in a strip center.

Recently, the restaurant moved into a much larger new space next door. Now it looks and feels like a world-class restaurant. The new interior has high ceilings and dramatic modern design. Warm Mediterranean colors offset any coldness resulting from the modernism. The dining room has ten more dining tables, and the bar is much larger.

More importantly the kitchen is five times larger. Now Chef David Denis and his team have enough room and equipment that they make everything from scratch. The spotlessly white kitchen even includes a glassed-in room for a chef's table.

The new space dramatically improves Le Mistral's wine service. The cellar is much larger. Far more wine can be refrigerated. The wine list is expanding. And large groups can now dine in an enclosed wine cellar room.

This upgrade cements Le Mistral's place at the top of the Houston's food scene. With the space upgrade (and the departure of Philippe Schmitt from Bistro Moderne), Le Mistral is now unquestionably our best French restaurant. And it is making a run to be the best restaurant of any kind in Houston.

Food from the French border with Italy

Most of Chef Denis' dishes reflect the cuisine of his native Provence, which sits astride two of the world's best cuisines -- French and Italian.

Last night, we started with seared sea scallops over leeks "fettuccini" with a smoked salmon carbonara sauce. The large, fresh scallops explode with the salty taste of the sea. Below the scallops, delicately flavored leeks have been shredded into a pasta texture. The buttery carbonara sauce includes small bits of smoked salmon, which adds to the richness of the dish.

A large red ring on top of one scallop tasted like a potato chip, yet I was not sure whether it was made with a potato or some other vegetable.

My wife's long-time favorite dish at Le Mistral is much simpler. It is a salad of baby spinach leaves with goat cheese and carmelized pecans with a pear vinaigrette dressing. This photo does not to justice to the thickness of the huge ring of goat cheese that sits atop this dish. The disk is a study in contrasting flavors and textures -- creamy warm and pungent cheese, crunchy sweet nuts, fresh greens, and smooth and delicate pear dressing.

Our entree was rabbit stuffed with olive tapenade with gnocchi and a light tomato sauce. There was were some difference of opinion on this dish. The man at the table next to us thought his rabbit was dry and stringy. My wife remarked how tender, moist, and non-gamy our rabbit was. "Almost like chicken," she observed. I thought the truth was somewhere in between. And I am happy for rabbit to taste gamier than chicken.

My wife didn't like the gnocchi quite as much as the toasted pillows of gnocchi that Chef Denis created for the menu at Ristorante Cavour. She thought the texture of these gnocchi was a little two chewy. I disagreed. For this dish, I had the sense that Chef Denis was using tubes of gnocchi to emulate a root vegetable. I enjoyed the chewiness, and found the dish very creative. Yet I still believe that his gnocchi at Ristorante Cavour is the best pasta dish in town.

Finally, we split a dessert that has long been one of our favorites -- chocolate fondant with a Marie Brizard Cafe-infused vanilla shake. The center of this cake was not as liquid as usual. But I the ice cream had improved now that Le Mistral makes it in house. Throughout the ice cream were small, yet noticeable, black dots of vanilla bean.

Where can Le Mistral go from here?

Le Mistral is still getting used to its new space. There are far more restaurant staff, and they stumble over each other a bit as they work out their routines. But service already has improved as the result of the expansion. By fall, the restaurant to hopes to expand out to its courtyard patio. (They are waiting for a large fountain to be completed.)

The only improvement I could hope for is a little more seasonality and experimentation in the menu. Many dishes, including some of our favorites, have not changed much in years. In July, the menu is dominated by wintry dishes, from French onion soup to beef wellington to racks of lamb with mashed potatoes. Denis seems to use Ristorante Cavour more for his experimentation and seasonal dishes.

Yet I appreciate that Le Mistral must walk a line between culinary invention and pleasing its suburban crowd. For instance, a review on b4-u-eat by "Bubba" made this complaint:

"I ordered a cocktail, a salad, a steak and a glass of wine. Salad choice was limited to some sort of blueberry vinaigrette dressing . . . no ranch, blue cheese or …..?; the filet came out perched on top of a potato like a miniature tower swimming in some sort of blueberry syrup. Weird."

Sorry, Bubba, Le Mistral doesn't have ranch dressing. And its plating (do you know that word, Bubba?) is not weird. It is artistic and creative.

With its new space and huge crowds, Le Mistral is dragging its largely suburban audience into the forefront of French cuisine in Houston.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sayonara Blue Fin

Blue Fin closed. It was one of my favorite Houston restaurants.

Why I liked Blue Fin so much

Perhaps it wasn't Houston's best Japanese restaurant -- although it was certainly in the running along with Kubo's, Teppay, Sasaki, Sushi Jin, and Nippon.

But I enjoyed eating there more than all the others. It was one of the most beautifully designed restaurants in town. I particularly liked the positioning of the sushi bar like a stage, raised up to be seen to all customers. There was even a bead curtain behind the sushi bar, leading backstage to the kitchen.

Fortunately, most of Blue Fin's creative appetizers and menu items are still available at its sister restaurant, Uptown Sushi.

But I am saddened because I don't know where to find Blue Fin's two master sushi chefs: Shoi and Uka. For decades, Shoi has been my favorite sushi chef in Houston. He always wowed the crowd at Blue Fin's predecessor, Nara. Although Blue Fin never had the same crowd, you could tell that many people went just to see Shoi. And the younger Uka created one of my favorite fusion rolls -- the Uka roll.

If anyone knows where these guys went, please tell me. Whoever hires them is fortunate.

What Happened?

I could tell Blue Fin would not survive. It never had the crowd of its inferior sister, Uptown Sushi.

Why? My guess is location. Far West Houston just wasn't the right spot for Blue Fin.

Blue Fin would have been a huge hit inside the West Loop. Consider Uptown Sushi. With its Galleria location, Uptown is constantly overflowing with 20-somethings with disposable income. For any glitzy-looking sushi restaurant, that has to be the target crowd. And that crowd tends to live near the Galleria, not in the far-west suburbs.

Blue Fin also didn't look right for the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs. Most suburbanites want to be soothed, not excited. The problem with Blue Fin was that it did not look reassuring and comfortable. It looked hip and edgy.

Blue Fin's beautiful look made suburbanites suspicious. It looked overpriced. It looked like you needed to dress up. And folks in the suburbs don't want to have to dress up unless they go into town.

In short, Blue Fin was a beautiful fish out of water.

Sayonara Blue Fin. May your outstanding chefs find honorable work and more appreciative customers.

*Anonymous eater bows deeply*

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Salad at Bowl

A post for my wife

My wife is a petite person. She often reads my tales of gluttony in horror. Ten-course dinners. Barbecue tastings. Filipino buffets. Plates full of Peruvian beef hearts.

I try to convince her that all those meals are the exception. When she is not around, I usually eat a small salad. I just don't write posts about all those little salads because no one would read them.

For some reason, she doesn't believe me. So this post is for her.


Bowl is a new little salad (and sandwich) shop on Richmond between US 59 and Montrose. For $7, you can order a salad with:

•Choice of greens (romaine, spinach, iceberg mix greens)
•Choice of 10 toppings (out of a list of 56)
•1 cheese (which I skipped, of course); and
•1 dressing

You can also add a light "protein" -- beef tenderloin, herb chicken, and shrimp -- for $2.

Sure, many folks would prefer a salad bar like Souper Salad because it is all-you-can-eat. But a salad from Bowl tastes better than most salad bars because its ingredients are higher quality. I particularly liked the lemon tarragon dressing, which was light yet full of citrus flavor.

Because the salads are not very large, Bowl helps me stick to my strict portion control.

Bowl also serves 7 kinds of sandwiches. For instance, a pulled pork sandwich on ciabatta has Thai coleslaw. The executive grilled cheese includes green apples, white cheddar, and bacon. They looked awfully good.

Of course, I haven't tried any of the sandwiches, since I usually eat a small salad for lunch.

Here's the proof:

Bowl opened a few weeks ago. It is not yet open at night, but soon it plans to stay open until 7 and offer some dinner specials.

If you have to eat a salad, and are near Montrose or the Museum District, I can't think of a better place to go than Bowl.

Monday, July 14, 2008

New Felipiniana - Filipino food

A lot of Filipinos and a Buffet

I had never tried Filipino food. Although I usually do not like buffets, there is no better way to jump in the deep end of a cuisine than with an $8 buffet with more than 50 dishes.

The New Filipiana Restaurant, 9671 Bissonnet, is in the same strip center as La Sani. On Sunday at lunch -- as on weekdays -- New Filipiana serves an enormous buffet. On Sundays, it costs around $8.

On this Sunday at noon, it was packed with Filipinos. They had filled every table and a crowd of at least 30 was waiting for tables.

Fortunately, I had arrived earlier, just before the crowd. Apparently, I stood out. One Filipina woman asked me incredulously, "Do you like Filipino food?"

Do I like Filipino food?

I do now. But Filipino food was not what I expected.

Before Spanish colonization, the indigenous culture in the Phillipines was Malaysian. I knew Filipino culture has a broad mix of influences. But I expected the food to be a Malaysian/Asian blend, much like the food in Hawaii.

Instead, the dishes I tried reflected more a mix of European cooking techniques with island ingredients. The food resembled more than anything else the food of Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Still, there is no question that this food was diverse. Many meats were braised or stewed, including goat, beef, and oxtail. There were adobo preparations, tomato sauces, and peanut sauces. Some seafood items such as calamari were lightly fried, but many were cooked in a stew. A few dishes included dried fish. Many dishes included fruits, such as coconut, bananas, mango, and currants, plus a lot of sweet potatoes.

Only a handful of dishes had much Asian influence. These included a popular but unappetizing batch of chopsuey, tiny fried spring rolls, at least one dish with tamarind sauce, and a dish called sweet bananas, which included firm bananas, sweet potatoes, and coconut milk.

It was hard to know exactly what I was eating. Only a few dishes were labeled, and about half the labels were in Spanish. I had heard that Filipino cuisine tends to use more of the animal than American cuisine. So I would not be surprised if I ate some unusual animal parts.

One of the more interesting dishes was dinuguan, a stew made from pork blood. Although the sauce had a blood-brown color and a slightly gritty texture, it tasted like a traditional European stew. Another stand out was kare-kare - 0xtails and vegetables in a light peanut sauce.

In short, I like what I tried. But there were so many items on New Filipiniana's buffet that I did not try even a third of them. The experience whet my appetite for more Filipino food. But perhaps next time, I will eat Filipino food off a menu -- so I know what I am getting.

What it looks like

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Another Randy Rucker supper club

Another supper club

Last Thursday was another Randy Rucker supper club dinner.

Every dish was eye opening. My favorite involved smoked cobia fish with some sort of emulsified brown butter sauce. The hearty fish had a smoked flavor, but moist texture. The sauce was rich, thick, and flavorful although Rucker insisted that he did not use that much butter.

Other highlights included chicken feet in an Indonesian soy sauce; a remarkable dish involving pig headcheese, raw zucchini, and a hollandaise-flavored foam; and an amberjack ceviche, served with a shot glass of the ceviche marinade called "leche de tigre". The marinade tasted like a mouthful of sea.

These little supper club dinners are just about the most exciting food events going on in town this summer. Rucker is hosting yet another dinner with Plinio Saldalio tomorrow. I can't make it, so please go and tell me how it is.

I will conserve my words here and just leave you with Thursday menu and a slide show. After all, Rucker's cuisine is as visually artistic as it is flavorful.


1 - sauteed chicken feet in Indonesian soy sauce

2 - barely cooked gulf shrimp tartare, sprouting radish, lcyuri & baby lemongrass

3 - amberjack, leche de tigre (ceviche marinade), gelled tomato, rhubarb, yuzu lcosho & red veined sorrel

4 - chilled 3d coast shellfish nage, octopus, neri uni, crunchy pig ear & celery pistou

5 - best parts of the pig (a head cheese made of ears, cheeks, eyes, feet, shank), shimeji mushrooms, zucchini, marigold & foamed hollandaise

6 - cobia smoked with applewood & broiled, red malabar spinach & creamy brown butter

7 - guava smoothie & a sense of coconut deja vu (some sort of frozen coconut milk)

8 - corn puddin' (pure corn juice), whipped agave nectar, papaya, caramelized dairy & poppy


Friday, July 11, 2008

El Rey Taqueria - King of Tacos?

El Rey Taqueria is a Cuban/Mexican taco chain with three locations. It has won qute a few awards, such as the 2005 best drive thru from the Houston Press. (The Press has not given that award since 2005). The Press emphasized El Rey's rotisserie chicken.

El Rey also has a group of devoted customers who think it serves the best fast food in Houston.


Yet El Rey can feel a little overrated. There are far better Cuban restaurants in Houston. I have found much better tasting rotisserie chicken. And there are much better taquerias for basic Mexican tacos and tortas.

As an illustration, consider the flawed architecture of El Rey's tortas. The flimsy bread cannot stand up to the mass of soggy ingredients. Never try to eat one of these tortas by hand -- or while driving.

Two Great Tacos

But El Rey does serve two unique tacos that are among the best in town.

First, El Rey makes a wonderful creation called the Cuban taco. The ingredients are simple: fajita beef or chicken (beef is better), black beans, fried plaintains, and sour cream. It is a contrast of flavors and textures that encapsulates the best aspects of Cuban food in a compact taco.

This dish makes me wonder why more restaurants pair bananas with meat.

Another remarkably good dish is the tempura shrimp taco. Sure, some other restaurants sell tacos with fried shrimp and cabbage. But what makes this tempura shrimp taco the best in town is its concentrated, pungent cilantro sauce.

If you limit your order to these two tacos, then maybe El Rey does have the best drive thru in Houston.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Chinatown Crawl Part 2 - Sichuan Cuisine, Jungle Cafe

After soup dumplings and other dishes at three restaurants, the Chinatown crawl was beginning to slow to a crawl. We needed a lift.

Chinatown coffee

Somehow, we stumbled into a gourmet food store that sold vacuum-packed duck tongue. They also had this coffee-making contraption:

The proprietor explained that she about to open a coffee store on the south side of Bellaire. Her coffee had steeped overnight. She gave us free (!) samples.

It was amazing. A simple cold, espresso-sized cup of coffee held some of the richest and smoothest coffee I have ever tasted. It was a strong, concentrated coffee without any acidity or bitterness.

I can't wait for her new cold-press coffee store when it opens in Chinatown.

Feasting at Sichuan Cuisine

After our pause from eating, and a little lift, we were ready for more food. When Jenny took us to Sichuan Cuisine, we lost our dumpling focus. We had to try some of the famously spicy food.

Jenny procured us a few plates of cold appetizers. These included sliced beef and mow, pork nose and pork ear:

The nose had been smoked, presumably in something like hickory wood. It had a nice, barbecue flavor. The ear was a little stranger, with a rubbery texture and an odd flavor. Even an adventurous eater as She eats could not handle it. I could stomach it, but I much preferred the snout.

Soon, we had a spicy plate of kung pao duck tongue with green onions and jalapenos:

I was surprised that duck tongue contains such a large bone. But the little tongues were delicious and spicy.

At that point, the dishes started flying out of the kitchen and spinning around our lazy susan:

We had boiled sliced fish in spicy sauce, congquin chicken, fried tofu, double-cooked pork, green beans with ground pork, and tea-smoked duck.

Many of the dish involved sichuan peppercorns. To my tongue, these are not so much spicy as taste-bud deadening. By the time I finally tried a soup dumpling, my taste buds were toast. My guess is that these soup dumplings would come in a close second to Fu Fu.

From pig nose to duck tongue to wierd peppercorns, Sichuan Cuisine is one of the strangest wonders of the Houston food scene. I need to go back to fully appreciate it.

On this Sunday, after three previous restaurants, it was a blur -- much like the 16th wine you try at a wine tasting. I had lost all discernment.

Cake at Jungle Cafe

Just as Charlie Bucket and his father surreptitiously left Willy Wonka and the group to try fizzy lifting drinks, Anonymous Child and I wandered away from the rest of the group to try Jungle Cafe, which Misha recently reviewed.

Jungle serves perhaps the prettiest and most artistic little cakes in Houston. This is the lemon/chocolate cake that Anonymous Child ordered. She loved it.

I only managed to get a small bite.

But by that point, I could not have eaten even a wafer-thin mint.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Chinatown Crawl Part 1 (Fu Fu, Classic Kitchen, Lai Lai)

From 11:30 to 3:30 today, Jenny (aka neverfull) led a Chowhound group on a crawl through the Bellaire Chinatown. (Neverful has a longer account here.) Ostensibly, our purpose was to find the best soup dumplings.

But we found ourselves branching out beyond dumplings. Along the way, we encountered many foods, strange and wonderful.

What is a soup dumpling?

A soup dumpling is a triumph of architecture. The dumpling is not in soup. Rather, the soup is in the dumpling.

You have to have a strategy to eat soup dumplings. If you cut it or bite into the side first, you lose the soup. My daughter tried it and had a dumpling-full of soup pour down her shirt. Many soup dumplings are too large, and too hot, to eat whole.

My strategy was to bite a small hole and slurp out the soup. Then I ate the dumpling like a normal dumpling.

My criteria for judging most dumplings is:

(1) texture of the skin,
(2) flavor of the filling, and
(3) flavor of the sauce on the side.

But for soup dumplings, the criteria is a little different:

(1) texture and architecture of the skin (including how well it holds soup),
(2) flavor of the filling, and
(3) quality of the broth.

Soup Dumplings at Fu Fu Cafe, Classic Kitchen, Lai Lai Dumpling House

The best skins -- and the best all-around soup dumplings -- were at Fu Fu Cafe in the Dun Huang Shopping Center.

We had very few broken dumplings at Fu Fu. The skin was sufficiently thick and doughy to hold in the soup. The texture was slightly chewy, but not at all rubbery.

The best meat fillings were in the soup dumplings at Classic Kitchen in Sterling Plaza. The meat had strong flavors of ginger and green onions. But at Classic Kitchen we had the heartbreak of quite a few broken dumplings. The skin just was not up to the task of holding in the soup.

The soup dumplings at Lai Lai Dumpling House in Diho Plaza had skin problems.

First, the skins were rubbery, tasting as though they had been frozen.

Second, the dumplings were packed two closely together. Many stuck together, causing us to lose the soup when we pulled apart the dumplings.

But I tried one dumpling that retained its soup. Of all the soup dumplings we tried, Lai Lai's dumplings had the best broth. It was rich and viscous and full of flavor. The filling was good too.

If Lai Lai's insides could marry Fu Fu's skin, the product would be the perfect soup dumpling.

Fu Fu's Pan-Fried Dumplings

I had one other major discovery at Fu Fu Cafe. The pan-fried dumplings had a fascinating, smoky flavor. Jenny speculated that the smoke came from the oil in the hot wok. The smoke migrated inside the dumplings through two large holes left in each side and flavors both the meat and skin.

The skins of these pan fried dumplings are not as glorious as the pan-fried dumplings across the street at Sandong Noodles. But their unique smoky flavor makes them worth trying.

Chinese Donut Breakfast Taco

Jay Francis spotted something odd on one of the tables at Classic Kitchen.

This strange dish was a weird mixture of Mexican, Chinese, and French food. On the outside was an ordinary flour tortilla. Inside was a long strip of fried dough, much like an unsweetened French crueller donut. Also inside the tortilla were scrambled eggs, cilantro, and a sauce of sweetened vinegar.

I never caught the name of this dish. Apparently, it is popular for breakfast. Which seems like the best time to eat a Chinese donut breakfast taco.

Fusion food indeed.

Next - Part 2: The Crawl continues at Sichuan Cuisine, Jungle Cafe

Update: Tinyhands found this link for how to make soup dumplings. Now we know how to get the soup inside the dumpling.

Friday, July 04, 2008

green garlic, zucchini, coffee

a food funk

Nothing is sadder than a string of bad meals.

Wednesday night I stir fried some wild duck that had been in my freezer too long. No amount of hoisin sauce could take away the off flavor of the duck.

Thursday night, we went to a Persian restaurant. Too many ingredients were bad. The radishes served as condiments were rotting. Grilled beef had the flavor of poor quality. And "saffron" basmati rice had no flavor whatsoever.

Plus, my lunches both days had been sad leftovers.

I was having a bad week. I needed something simple and delicious to snap out of it.

I never thought I might be saved by zucchini.

zucchini, green garlic, basil

Zucchini has never interested me much. It doesn't have a bad flavor. It just has never seemed to have much flavor at all.

But some bloggers have been talking the past week about a strange synergy between zucchini and coffee. They claim zucchini enhances the flavor of coffee.

This was something I had to try.

There also has been a lot of talk lately about green garlic. It is on sale at Central Market for 99 cents a bundle.

So for lunch today, I grated a zucchini, salted it for 30 minutes, rinsed it, and then sautéed it with some green garlic.

To finish it, I sprinkled some fresh Thai basil and mint that I have been growing:

This was unlike any zucchini dish I had ever tried.

The zucchini was moist, but had some crunchy edges from the sauté -- like a hash brown but with more juice.

The green garlic added a fresh, vegetal garlic flavor, but was not nearly as bitter as pungent as normal garlic. The salt added a brightness to the zucchini. The herbs added complex, summery flavor notes.

The dish sang.


Halfway through this amazing, simple dish I remembered the coffee.

As I started to make it, I discovered that my wife had made coffee this morning and left it in the pot. So I decided to try the experiment with 3-hour-old coffee.

A sip. Nothing. A gulp. Nothing.

I swished it around my mouth as if I was tasting wine. Nothing. No strong flavors of nuts but chocolate. But also, no bitterness. No stale coffee flavor.

The zucchini had simply neutralized the flavor of the stale coffee, mellowed it out, made it palatable. But it didn't enhance the flavor either.

Perhaps I will try the experiment later with higher quality, fresh coffee.

Yet the zucchini/coffee experiment had been a success. I discovered that zucchini makes stale coffee taste ok.

More importantly, for the first time, I have fallen in love with zucchini.