Saturday, September 26, 2009

Houston's new peasant food

Vinoteca Poscol surprised me.

I expected a trendy tapas / wine bar. I expected a cheaper casual version of Da Marco. I expected what Alison Cook called a "useful restaurant" with modest portions.

And I expected more of a crowd.

What I found was something far more interesting. Along with Feast and to a lesser degree Dolce Vita, Poscol is an example of a new type of food in Houston -- a revolutionary style that overturns our preconceptions about food.

But with all the excitement, where are the masses? On recent Friday and Saturday nights, we easily got a table at 8 p.m. at Poscol with no reservation.

Like Feast, a lot of people don't "get" Poscol. It doesn't match their idea of great cooking or fine dining. In fact, it goes against our culture's idea of fine dining.

This isn't a review of Poscol. It is an argument for what I call new peasant food. And it's something of a manifesto. (Sorry.)

What is new peasant food?

"Peasant food" may not be the best phrase. It may sound derogatory. It may unfairly suggest authenticity. But it is uesful for a related-set of ideas:

1 - Under-appreciated, inexpensive ingredients. Peasant food is inherently cheap. Like poor people anywhere, European peasants made do with the ingredients they had -- left-over animal parts, easy-to-grow vegetables, simple grains. No precious ingredients. The feudal lord ate those.

2 - Traditional preparation. The focus is often roasting, braising, cooking over a fire. (I suspect the guys at Feast, like Marco Wiles, know some pretty advanced techniques; you just don't see signs of it on the plate.)

3 - Modest presentation. No abstract art here. Peasant food is usually slopped in a bowl or on a plate. It often isn't pretty.

Examples? Bacala may be Poscol's best dish -- a gooey, unattractive casserole of salt cod served with toast. Salt cod is a cheap way to preserve a once cheap fish. It's a pre-modern version of canned fish. Yet this cheap dish explodes with flavor and a rich, creamy texture.

Poscol's beet and hazelnut salad - These aren't expensive multi-colored baby beets. They are simple chunks of soft, red beets, simply roasted, and mixed with nuts and goat cheese.

Poscol's Bruschetta - Poscol's offers 5 toasts topped with simple ingredients -- chicken liver, fava beans. Feast does something similar -- topping toast with chicken hearts, and chicken liver.

Feast's roasts. Feast is the place in Houston for simple roasts with cheap cuts of meat (lamb leg, roasted pork belly) and cheap veggies, like potatoes and kale.

Why peasant food?

I can see a lot of arguments for this type of food.

One is environmental and economic. If you eat meat, it is cheaper and greener to eat the whole animal. Cheap produce has benefits too. Fava beans, potatoes, and rutabagas are less costly and environmentally damaging to produce -- and ship -- than black truffles or even California heirloom tomatoes.

Another is argument is cultural. Modern cooking -- from standard cooking-school techniques to molecular gastronomy -- may be too far removed from our primal activity: foraging for food, cooking it on a fire, and eating.

But for me, the real argument is this:

It's all about the Revolution

The best argument for new peasant food is its deconstructive/revolutionary effect. American fine dining is still too constrained in its choice of ingredients. We still expect great restaurants to serve the same set of items: lobster, fillet mignon, sea bass, truffles, foie gras, morel mushrooms. So pricey restaurants almost all focus on these types of ingredients.

Expensive ingredients are expensive because of supply and demand, not necessarily quality. For instance, in 19th c. New England it was a sign of poverty to eat lobster. In the 1970s, sport fishers in Canada would dispose of blue fin tuna after getting their photos taken with the fish because it had no market value. These ingredients are no better now than when they were dirt cheap. Similarly, cheap ingredients taste no worse simply because they are cheap.

Expensive ingredients are a tool to fleece the customer. Because there isn't a huge supply of Hudson Valley foie gras, restaurants can charge us more for it. Pricey ingredients prop up the entire price restaurant cost structure. Sure, foie gras is really good. But so is chicken liver.

Pricey ingredients are what customers have been conditioned to expect. That may be why some people have such a hostile reaction to Feast, and why Poscol isn't getting the crowds it should.

When great chefs focus on cheap ingredients, it is an act of revolution. It is a way of opening our mind to foods right under our noses -- brilliant foods we have ignored because they lack social status.

So please keep showing me what you guys can do with cabbage, turnips, and fava beans. As you drive around throwing bricks out windows, I am having a great time just being a passenger.

And if some of you still don't get it, let me paraphrase George Clinton: "Free your mind and your palate will follow."

17 comments:

hedrives said...

Nice post. FWIW, I found Poscol a treat. Last time I had food like this was at a roadside place on the road from Modena to Maranello. Two of my dining companions the first night we went did not enjoy it at all and two if us couldn't wait to return.

anonymouseater said...

I may have spoken too soon. I tried to go to Poscol the night I posted this, but it was too crowded.

HTownChowDown said...

Very interesting post.

For my dining dollar, if I've got the choice between two talented kitchens, one using great ingredients and one being all revolutionary and using more mundane ingredients, I'll go with the first every time.

When go out for a great meal, I want the whole package. That means superb ingredients plus excellent execution of creative recipes.

While I applaud any chef who can prepare a delicious meal, I find the concept you describe to be a bit silly. Why would you hamstring your recipes with less-than-wonderful ingredients, unless you're forced to?

Of course, there are times when I'm in the mood for something more homey and less spectacular, and I'm happy to enjoy a well-prepared meal made with less precious ingredients. But I expect the bill to reflect the lower food cost.

From what I've read, Poscol isn't inexpensive, even though its ingredients may be. And to me, that makes the "peasant" angle just a gimmick to attract those who confuse different with better.

Bottom Line: It may be a clever trick to produce a tasty meal with mundane ingredients, but one has to wonder how much better it would be if the kitchen were using the best ingredients it could find. And unless the prices are low and the savings from the cheap ingredients are being passed along, it seems like a poor value.

It sounds like Poscol is the antithesis of Ciao Bella, the new casual Italian spot from Tony and Jeff Vallone. One of Tony Vallone's mantras is to use the best ingredients, and it comes through on the plate... and they manage to do this at prices comparable to other casual Italian spots around town.

To me, that's what fine dining is about. Someone else can enjoy the revolution.

Anonymous said...

Poscol was just named Best New Restaurant by the Houston Press "Best of Houston" list, thus the likely reason it was packed Saturday.

I've been several times and find it to be one of my favorite dining experiences in Houston - perhaps because the atmosphere doesn't feel like Houston.

anonymouseater said...

HTown - I think you miss the main step in my argument. You assume that expensive ingredients are the best. That is the premise that infects the thinking of most American fine dining.

Consider Chilean sea bass vs. mackerel. Sea bass is trendy, overfished, and very pricey. It has a nice texture, but not much flavor. Mackerel is not trendy and rarely shows up on menus. Many see it as a trash fish, but it often is on the menu at Feast. I love mackerel because it is has a very strong "dark meat" fish flavor. It may be my favorite fish.

If you take any 100 high-end restaurants, 80 of them will serve sea bass. Almost none will serve mackerel. It's not because sea bass is inherently better. It is because it is pricier, has a sexy name, and customers tend to see it as a luxury fish. I'd rather mackerel.

The other thing I think you miss is that I'm not going to get excited about a menu with non-trendy ingredients unless the food tastes really good. Feast and Poscol happen serve some of the city's best food - without the precious ingredients.

In short, your comment equates expensive and trendy with "superb" and "great." Your comment equates cheap and non-trendy with "less-than-wonderful", "less spectactular", and "mundane." I disagree.

Expensive and trendy ingredients can be great (i.e. foie gras), but often are dull and have less flavor (i.e. fillet mignon, Chilean sea bass). The only reason they are seen as better ingredients than mackerel and pork leg is trendiness, supply and demand.

I love these restaurants because they help me see how much more flavorful non-trendy ingredients can be than some trendy ones.

Dr. Ricky said...

Indeed, Poscol and Feast use less trendy ingredients (which are, I agree, more flavorful that their more expensive counterparts, notably when it comes to cuts of meat), and I applaud them for it. The part that puzzles me is that the dishes are not priced as peasant fare. I know, location has something to do with it, but really I will hold up lechon kawali from Godo's, or the caldo de res from Teotihuacan as better examples of peasant fare. And if one can get full on steak for $10 not too far away at Volcano's once a week, I wonder if it is no more replacing one trend for another. BY making the "peasantness" of the food trendier, "fine dining" restaurateurs can save money, but not pass the savings on to their consumers.

(never mind, of course, that perhaps the target customers *expect* to pay that much)

kmdtx said...

Interesting points, AE. I went there at the beginning of August (and it was deserted on a Sunday night) and thought it was suffering from something of an identity crisis at the time. I wanted to like it since Wiles other two restaurants are among my favorites in town. At the time though I didn't see much to differentiate it from Dolce Vita. At the time they had an extensive sandwich (tramezzini) menu, yet weren't open for lunch, which struck me as a blunder. But it sounds like things are getting a bit more streamlined there and maybe they are getting their feet. I certainly applaud them for their housemade salumi; I have thought very fondly of the testa since I've been.

HTownChowDown said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Anon.

I believe that in general, there is a reason that certain ingredients become popular. It's because a good chef can turn out a superior product using them, a product that a majority of patrons would consider to be superior. Some of it is certainly marketing and perception, but I've yet to experience a USDA Choice steak that I enjoy as much as a well-handled Prime steak, for example.

That's not to say that a great talent can't turn out a delicious meal with more mundane ingredients; it's certainly possible. Feast is apparently doing that.

But the big question remains: If they're using cheaper ingredients, why isn't that reflected in the price on the menu? I don't begrudge any restaurant its profit, but if I'm paying $30 for a well prepared piece of fish, I'm probably going to choose the sea bass over the mackerel.

Now give me the mackerel for $20, and we'll talk.

apronless said...

Poscol has been on my list of places to try for a while.

I admire chefs who can showcase an expensive cut of meat and create complicated meals with ingredients that are more apt for a science lab. Knowing intimately how chemisty works in and with food is a skill that awes me.


That being said, 'peasant food', or food prepared simply with what is on hand will always remain near and dear to my heart. I also get a thrill when making peasant food-- knowing that I'm making something with the same indredients and methods as others have prepared it for years (maybe hundreds of years, depending on the dish) makes me feel connected to the task at hand.

anonymouseater said...

Htown -

Your steak analogy is helpful. We both prefer USDA prime over choice. But I don't think you'll see USDA choice at Feast or Poscol.

You will find really high-quality, less popular meats like lamb. Although most American beef has had the flavor bred out of it, lamb hasn't. It's much more full-flavored and cheaper.

One more illustration: The Japanese didn't like fatty tuna belly until the post-war U.S. occupation when they were exposed to marbled steak and foie gras and learned to value fatty foods. Now fatty belly tuna is the most prized fish in Japan. So even a culture's choice between lean or marbled meat changes over time.

Finally, Feast and Poscol are cheaper. I spend less than one-third for a meal at Poscol or Feast than I do at DaMarco or Tony's. Both Poscol and Feast do get very high-quality ingredients -- they just happen to be high-quality ingredients that aren't pricey.

If you try either place, let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

I fell in love with feast- i'm not usually a fine dining person (not impressed anymore with truffle oil or foie gras) but you can tell the chefs have put a lot of fun and heart into the food at Feast- they put a lot of care into even the most humble of ingredients (who knew brussel sprouts could taste so delicious?)

i've grown up eating strange, lesser cuts of meat (yay for being Asian!) so stuff like black pudding, kidneys, etc are just fine, especially when cooked wonderfully. Who needs filet mignon?

Everything was rich, decadent, and I left full - physically and emotionally. The food and atmosphere at Feast is warm and comforting and rightly deserves all the accolades. I love it when food speaks to you - and Feast has a whole lot to say.

You may like watching Bourdain's No Reservations- a lot of your post is captured perfectly by his show- he marvels at how cultures take humble ingredients and transforms them into something wonderful.

I cannot wait to try Poscol now!

Justin said...

HTown-

I think the discrepancy in price falls onto three points:

While the "lesser" cut of meats are less expensive, if you're still getting good product in of a lesser cut, it still costs more than a lesser cut of lower quality.

Quality execution takes quality talent. Talent, even if it's just one chef or sous chef in the kitchen and a bunch of lesser paid line cooks, costs more money as opposed, to say, a kitchen manager whose main goal is to get the food out as opposed to a chef whose main goal is to get the food out, and make sure it's good.

I'm guessing the rent isn't cheap on westheimer. I'm pretty sure if Poscol were on a street with lesser traffic and an area with a lower average income, they'd be fine with charging less. But in an area where $35+ psf isn't out of the question, I think "not expensive, but certainly not inexpensive" truly qualifies.

btw, I'd choose the $30 mackeral over the sea bass =)

anonymouseater said...

last anon comment - Yeah, you pegged me. I'm a huge Bordain fan -- books, tv show, the whole thing. But I think I had similar ideas before I started reading him.

Justin - Agreed. A lot more goes into restaurant price than ingredients. Plus, I don't think the ingredients at either place are exactly cheap. They just aren't trendy and precious.

apeineforyourthoughts said...

I just wanted to let you know we tried Poscol based on this post on Friday night and had the best time! The atmosphere was tremendous, the food was interesting and very good, and our waitress was happy to take the time to tell us what the heck everything was. Thanks for keeping us posted on great new restaurants!

alex said...

Thanks for the post! It just made me more excited about our Houston dating getaway! Great post really!

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