Monday, February 23, 2009

The Iceman Cometh and Eateth Hamburgers and Proclaimeth

I was frozen in time on November 22, 2007. On October 8, 2007, AE was gracious enough to toss me the keys to this fine blog. I wrote several posts, enjoying myself immensely, and then, I vanished, much to the shock and horror of my legions of adoring fans.

Yes, that's correct, legions.

Gentle readers, have mercy, for just a few days later, I encountered the true nemesis of fine dining everywhere:

a screaming doodiemonster.

This was the birth of my beloved Baby E.

Not having the benefit of having extended family Deepinthehearta, Mrs. E and myself immediately went from foodies who live to eat out to housebound parents, which has been a lovely ride but for quite awhile put a serious damper on our eating out.

It did give me the opportunity to work on my cooking, which has improved substantially, if the diners' reports are to be trusted. Though this is a food blog about Houston, I will from time to time post reports of my latest culinary stylings, such as they are, if AE and the readership of this blog will indulge me.

But, Baby E is barrelling towards toddlerdom, literally and figuratively, and the (Foodie) Iceman has begun to thaw just a bit. For some reason, AE agreed to give me the wheel of FiH again, and I will do my best to earn his trust in this regard.

Enough with the chat-chat; on with the food. One of the few restaurants Mrs. E and I did manage to make it out to whilst Baby E held us hostage began to make em's way was Reef, which any good reader of this blog knows inside and out. The short of it was that we both loved it, and were particularly impressed with the way Caswell captured Houston cuisine. Southwestern elements, Tex-Mex, Vietnamese, Cajun, Southern, barbecue all seem to find some kind of a place on his menu, with spectacular results. I would have laughed in your face if you would have told me I would like jalapeno mint jelly with my (yeast) bread, but hey, I'm a believer.

So, I was stirred into action by AE's latest missive on burgers, which, I have to say, puzzled me quite a bit. As I remarked to AE privately, what is not to like about burgers? Nice fatty beef, grilled, topped with outraged onions (which suit my perpetual sense of outrage at just about everything), served on lovely bread, with a side of freedom fries . . .

I can only eat hamburgers every once in awhile, and I don't know how Alison Cook, bless her heart, does it every Friday, but I was surprised at AE's muted response to Little Bigs (esp. having tried the sliders at Reef), and resolved to give it a proper test drive myself. This weekend, Mrs. E and I gently removed the soldering iron Baby E was using to affix emself to us, and went to hear Helene Grimaud play Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 (glorious, and superior to the more famous No. 2, I think), followed by a stop at Little Bigs. I ordered two beef sliders and a spicy chicken, and Mrs. E did the same.

Pause for a moment to query why the heck portobello still finds its nasty, mealy self into fine dining (yes, I consider Little Bigs at least fine dining-esque, since its genesis was in the kitchen of Reef and the brain of Caswell)? I was watching an Iron Chef America competition in the last few months and had to restrain myself from cheering when one of the judges took Bobby Flay to task for using portobello. Since cost is not a factor in Kitchen Stadium, the judge asked, why use portobello? Aside from being so 1994 (his words), they just don't taste very good. Why not morels (it was a beef dish)?

I love mushrooms. Oyster, shiitake, chanterelle, porcini, cremini, morel, even baby bella mushrooms are good with me. But portobello? The flavor is overpoweringly woody, and they are just so meaty and mealy, you have to literally drown them in fat to have any chance at softening them. They're gross. Those who like portobellos are wrong.

(mostly kidding, but I do find them nasty). As such, especially in anything like a fine dining scenario, portobellos have no business with much of a presence. There are infinitely tastier, more refined fungi than portobello. And so let me also say that using them as a vegetarian substitute for meat -- because of the meatiness of portobello -- only serves to highlight what makes these shrooms so foul to begin with. Get them out of there, Mr. Caswell.

For the record, I adore vegetarian food, and am a huge fan of all manner of veggie burgers (esp. black bean burgers). But portobello is a bit uninspired, especially considering the source, and does not belong on the menu, IMO.

Second point: the spicy chicken burger was too spicy for Mrs. E. After nigh on a decade in Houston, Mrs. E is slowly developing some capacity to handle spice, but cayenne pepper is rough stuff for her, and I did not even think to suggest that most Southern batter recipes do feature cayenne to some extent.

This did not prevent me from eating her spicy chicken burger, of course . . .

Overall, how were the burgers? Excellent, really. Enjoyable little bites, and where else can you go spend $20 dollars for six gourmet sliders, two heavenly baskets of freedom fries (very very good), and contemplate spending roughly twice as much on a Turnbull blend that is almost certainly sold at or near cost ($37)?

I still maintain that for pure burger satisfaction, one would be hard-pressed to find better work than Lankford Grocery or PappasBurger (hey -- they do it well, frankly), but I am certainly no authority on burgerdom.

I am champing at the bit in my haste to try Bedford, as I absolutely adore Robert Gadsby's food. I am especially keen on trying it after reading Jennifer's wonderful review in 002 and learning what Mrs. E and I had discovered after multiple trips to Noe (when he was still cooking there): the man can make incredible food without butter or cream. Amazing, that.

More on that in future posts. For now, the Iceman must retire to his ice cave and contemplate the greater quandaries of life.

(And prepare Baby E's milk)


Whole Fish said...

That was a very funny and witty post. First, thanks for the heads up with the chicken. I went in this morning and realized there was a pretty important procedure not being followed. There were a few inconsistencies I would like to point out if I may. The mushrooms used at Little Bigs are Creminis, not Portobellos, but technically (as I'm sure you already know) Portobellos, Creminis, Champignon de Paris , Meadow , or Field mushrooms are all actually the exact same genus of mushroom, just at different stages of existence. Even the White Button mushroom is a genetic variation of this same mushroom that, up until the 70s, were called Large and Small Brown Mushrooms; the names were changed for the obvious marketing challenges that these terms caused.
Please feel free to call me directly in the future if there’s any confusion about menu items (or anything else). I am happy to make myself available for all questions and/or fact-checking. And, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go ahead and use this post to let your colleague, Anonymouseater, know that I am also offering full disclosure of my food cost financials at Little Bigs so he may review and correct his previous post where he compared my apples to someone else’s oranges.

Truthfully, I mean all of this in a non-Eddie Haskell kind of way.

Bryan (sp) Caswell

Liz said...

Please don't let the Iceman behind the wheel again.

Epicurus said...

Good lord, look what I've gone and done now -- I brought out the man himself!

Being in the cyber-presence of culinary royalty is quite humbling, and having the chance to chat about food with Chef himself is even cooler.

Three cheers for the innerwebs.

Ok, since I am purely an Armchair Foodie, with no culinary training whatsoever, I am happy to admit my total ignorance at the fact that Portobellos, Creminis, Champignon de Paris, Meadow, or Field mushrooms are the exact same genus.

I have to say, however, that knowing this does not much alter my view that portobello mushrooms are grossbuckets. I am more than pleased to know that the mushrooms at LB are creminis, though I wonder why the menu does not indicate as such (perhaps because most diners are more comfortable and familiar with the term portobello?).

Chef Caswell, I am sure you have better things to do than edumacate an Armchair Foodie, so I am exceedingly unlikely to call you directly, so long as you promise to keep appearing in the kitchen when I have the great fortune of dining at Reef.

(It really comforts me when I see the executive chef behind the wheel, so to speak. I have noticed a considerable drop-off over time of other fine restaurants in Houston once the executive chef left the cooking to his/her minions).

In all seriousness, thanks for reading and commenting.

anonymouseater said...

Welcome back E! It's nice to have another voice here.

Chef C - It was originally my mistake to call them portobellos. But surely those mushrooms are too big to be creminis?

E - You still should try the shroom slider. It is the contrast of slimy mushroom to crunchy crust that makes them interesting.

And finally, E, I have nothing against burgers. I like them just fine. I just don't have anything intelligent to say about them. Although your post has a number of intelligent thoughts, apparently you don't have much intelligent to say about the burgers either.

More posts soon please.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Dr. Demeter said...

Hello Epicurus -- enjoyed reading your entry, and as a parent to a newbie toddler (just a month younger than your own), I can relate to your limited foodie-ing in the past year plus. Ours was pretty amenable to eating out for the first 7 mo or so, but then she found her voice in the middle of an Olive Garden in Roanoke, VA, whilst on a roadtrip (normally we would not set foot a chain, but when on a roadtrip and craving Italian-esque food in rural locales, you take what you can get). Eating out with her is now... unpredictable.

That being said, I must second the recommendation that you try the mushroom sliders at Lil Bigs. They are AMAZING. Seriously. The combination of mushroomy goodness, melty spicy cheese (w/ a touch of horseradish, perhaps?), and just the right amount of breading puts them ahead of the beef versions, IMO. In regards to the chicken, perhaps I was there on an off night, but once I took the pickle off (not a big pickle fan, but these weren't dill, more of a very spicy sweet) the chicken itself was extremely bland, like a tiny version of the Jack in the Box dollar menu chicken sandwich. All the spice on mine came from the pickle. I was disappointed and will stick to the beef and 'shroom ones from now on. Excellent fries also!

To sum up, chicken slider gets a C, beef gets a B (good, but not great), and mushroom gets an A+. (Confession: I love the meaty goodness of big, hearty, meaty mushrooms -- they take a marinade and grill up SO well)

Oh, and I will add that it would be great if Little Bigs added some highchairs. It's such a kid-friendly establishment, but we keep having to leave little P in her stroller for lack of anywhere else to stick her.

Looking forward to reading more from you!

StefTampa said...

E, Just wanted to drop you an FYI that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is opening in Bunker Hill (9762 Katy Freeway) on Thursday 3/19. totally different from Little Big's sliders...a BIG GIANT 15-topping, double-patty burger made-to-order. There's a Friends & Family day this Wed. 3/18 serving FREE FOOD from 11am-1 pm and 5-8 pm for all friends/family of the workers, media and Five Guys "virtual family" of Facebook fans it out if you can

StefTampa said...

E, Just wanted to drop you an FYI that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is opening in Bunker Hill (9762 Katy Freeway) on Thursday 3/19. totally different from Little Big's sliders...a BIG GIANT 15-topping, double-patty burger made-to-order. There's a Friends & Family day this Wed. 3/18 serving FREE FOOD from 11am-1 pm and 5-8 pm for all friends/family of the workers, media and Five Guys "virtual family" of Facebook fans it out if you can