Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fusion Now: 3 dishes at Jenny's Noodle House, Dragon Bowl, and Bamboo House

Pan Asian fusion several years later

A few years ago, pan-Asian fusion cooking seemed so exciting. Would it bring us unusual, creative dishes? Would it draw out new flavors we have never tasted?

Now Houston has many pan-Asian restaurants in not-so-Asian neighborhoods with not-so-Asian crowds. Pan-Asian restaurants tend to fall into the middle market -- not too cheap, not too pricey.

As for the food, the results are mixed. Some pan-Asian cooking is little more than watered-down, Americanized dishes with less flavor. But some pan-Asian cooking is a real improvement over the standard Chinese-American menu.

These three pan-Asian dishes typify some of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.

1. Jenny's Noodle House: Art Car Curry

The best thing Jenny's Noodle House ever did was move. Its first location, near Kim Son on the outskirts of downtown, drew unfortunate comparisons. You could go to Jenni's for a mediocre, inauthentic vermicelli bowl and pay around $8, or buy the real thing in nearby midtown for $3 less.

Then Jenny's moved to Shepard at West Alabama. Now it has little competition from cheap, authentic Asian restaurants. Plus Jenny's new hippie/granola theme fits right in with the neighborhood. So do its vaguely Asian/health-food fusion dishes.

I like Jenny's Art Car Curry. It is a soupy green curry with far more coconut milk and far less spice than a real Thai green curry. As a Thai waiter told me recently, Thai restaurants find that Americans prefer curries with more coconut milk. This sweetens the dish, and waters down the heat. Jenny's mild curry has interesting textures, with potatoes, tofu, mushrooms, and carrots.

Sure, Jenny's curry tastes more like Whole Foods than Vieng Thai. And it would be improved by much more spice. But it is a tasty, warming soup that feels good in the mouth, especially on a cold day.

2. Dragon Bowl's Special Pan Fried Rice

At first, Height's Dragon Bowl seemed too inauthentic, too unfocused. But I have since become a fan, enjoying many of their fusion rice and noodle dishes.

Still, I don't know why I ordered DB's Special Pan Fried Rice. Inevitably, fried rice in American-Chinese restaurants is too greasy, too Americanized.

But DB's fried rice was remarkably good. It had a mix of meats -- chicken, Chinese sausage, decent quality shrimp. It also had a huge mix of vegetables, some of which rarely appear in traditional fried rice.

Despite this maximalist, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach, the dish had a refreshing ungreasy, toothsome texture. And every bite was unique.

3. Bamboo House: Pad Thai

My favorite of these three restaurants is Bamboo House. This soothing fusion restaurant on Waugh near Allen Parkway is in a peaceful setting. Soft, New Age music wafts through the minimally-designed dining room.

The minimalism also extends to the food. Most of Bamboo House's simple Japanese, Thai, and Chinese dishes are very good. I especially like the vegetarian Monk's Delight, Shimeji Udon, and Singapore Noodles.

But Bamboo House goes a little too minimalist with their pad thai. Today, it arrived as a brown bowl of noodles sprinkled with brown peanuts and a single cilantro leaf. I searched around the bowl in vain for a lime.

The noodles had a lovely texture, almost like risotto. The dish achieved a marriage of the soft, traditional noodles with broth.

But something was missing. Unlike really good pad thai, this dish did not smell like the elephant cage at the zoo. It had little aroma at all, probably because it did not use fish sauce. And the flavor was not the careful balance of sweet sugar and sour tamarind. The noodles tasted of a slightly savory stock, with perhaps some garlic and soy. But when I closed my eyes, I barely noticed the dish was Asian.

There was nothing wrong with the dish. But it was less than real pad thai.

When fusion works, when it doesn't

Fusion chefs should feel free to play with traditional dishes. It is possible to improve them, or at least create variety.

But fusion does not work as well when chefs subtract flavor. You can add new ingredients and make a good fried rice. But pad thai loses something without fish sauce and tamarind. And curry loses something without all the spice.

We Texans are international sophisticates. We have learned to like stinky fish sauce and sour tamarind and hot chili peppers.

Don't take away those strong flavors and treat us like scrod-eating Yankees.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

2 Psychedelic Food Events

Two psychedelic food events are coming up in Houston. These sound very fun.

1: Savoy Truffle

The 40th anniversary of the Beatles White Album is November 16. Love Street Light Circus is hosting a benefit concert with various local artists to cover the entire White Album. It benefits kids with cancer. There also is a food event.

The White Album includes one of the best food songs ever -- Savoy Truffle. The song is about a box of sweets. The sweetest one of all was the Savoy Truffle:

"Creme tangerine and Montelimar
A ginger sling with a pineaple heart
A coffee dessert--yes you know its good news
But you'll have to have them all pulled out
Afte the Savoy Truffle."

Yet no one knows what a Savoy Truffle is.

Starting in mid-October, Houston's top pastry chefs will be serving their own imaginings of the Savoy Truffle in their restaurants. You can try them there, or you can try them all at the concert on November 16. Restaurants include: Catalan, Gravitas, Ibiza, Mark's, Tenacity, Bouchon's at La Torretta Del Lago and Voice -- many of my favorite restaurants.

Details are here. (Disclaimer -- I was a bit of an advisor on this project.)

2: A second (and third), even better, miracle berry party

The Houston Chowhounds are having a second Miracle Berry Flavor Tripping Party at the St. Arnold Brewery on November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30. A third party is set for November 23 from 5 to 7.

In an earlier post, I explained miracle berries make sour and bitter foods taste sweet. At the last party, the berries may not have profoundly changee the flavor of every food. But they did make raw lemons and limes taste like candy.

A $35 ticket includes 1 miracle berry, a banquet of foods, and all the St. Arnold's beer you can safely drink. The beer alone makes this one worth it.

There's a very good cause too: A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Koonce Family Benefit Fund, set up for James and Katherine Koonce who were injured in the Brennan's fire.

At the party, you also can buy copies of Fearless Critic's Houston Restaurant Guide, plus The Wine Trials. Fearless Critic is donating a portion of sales to the Koonce fund.

Tickets are available here. I hear only 25 tickets remain for the first date.

I have been too busy to post much lately, but I hope to post soon about great experiences Kubo's, Sasaki, and Teppay.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brasserie Max & Julie

I had not been that interested to try Brasserie Max & Julie. Perhaps it was a series of dull meals at M&J's sister restaurant, Cafe Rabelais. Perhaps it was because Max & Julie took the space formerly occupied by the great Aries. Perhaps Max & Julie's menu just looked uninspired.

But something about the dishes at Max & Julie snuck up and grabbed me.

Roasted bone marrow was far better than I expected. Three large ossobuco-like bones were served without meat, but with a generous serving of creamy marrow inside. Bone marrow is a simple dish. So M&J wisely serves it with two simple complements: thin toasts of bread and sea salt. Although my wife thought the marrow had little flavor, I tasted a meaty flavor. But the marrow's best quality is a creamy consistency that is much tastier than fat and matches well with the crunch of large-grained salt and toast.

Crawfish cakes were filled with bread crumbs, corn, red pepper, and crawfish. I rarely get excited about crabcake-like dishes. But this version had excellent accompaniments: a mustard sauce plus a dense salad of frisee and lardons (bacon) in a vinegary dressing.

Perhaps the best dish of the night was a skate wing, served with croutons and a lemon butter, caper sauce. Along the Gulf Coast, we rarely see skate on menus. It is a delicious, mild fish in the ray family that has curious ribbed, almost corduroy-like texture. The buttery croutons on top of the fish created an interesting texture contrast. And the lemon butter, caper sauce complement the skate's delicate flavor.

Our only disappointment of the night was a goat cheese salad. The greens, cheese, and dressing were perfectly good quality. But every ingredient in the dish -- dressed greens, cheese, marinated mushrooms -- had a slimy texture. That would not have been a problem had there been something crunchy in the salad to balance the texture. The two small bread crisps served under the goat cheese were insufficient.

I like M&J's large, French-only wine list. I like the simple interior, which has not changed much since the space housed Aries.

On a Friday night, the crowd seemed split between two groups: young, 20-something professionals in jeans and untucked shirts; plus the usual over-50, French restaurant crowd. For some reason, French cuisine does not seem to popular with my generation. Perhaps, that might change if we had more casual, high quality, creative French restaurants like Max & Julie's.