Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tapas at Tintos Spanish Restaurant

Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar is a new Spanish restaurant in the River Oaks Shopping Center. It serves mostly tapas.

My first visit was promising. The restaurant channels a Spanish vibe -- art featuring bulls, wines racks on the wall, with flashes of modern design. The wine list has a very good selection of Spanish wines. Plus the sherry list is much better than most Spanish restaurants. Sherry, after all, is the wine best suited to this food.

And the food is quite good.

Delicious small plates

The best dish I tried was caracoles andaluzes -- snails in a creamy broth along with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. The broth was full of flavor. And like a bowl of mussels, we couldn't stop dipping in bread. The snails were not served with shells. They had a nice, slightly chewy texture.

Pinchos de ternera were better than I expected. I am a fan of lamb, but so often skewers are dull. Yet these were served with a bright and delicious cilantro mint sauce.

Even a house salad, arugula with figs and cabrales cheese, was an interesting mix of flavors.

I also enjoyed a mixed plate -- the Montadito plate -- which includes toast points with various combinations of Spanish ingredients, such as quail egg over chorizo and piquillo pepper with blood sausage and spinach.

Is it authentic?

The menu has a wide variety of dishes Spanish ingredients that attempt to invoke the flavors of Spain.

Yet, like other Spanish restaurants in Houston, this is not a real tapas bar. That's not a criticism. Most, but not all, tapas bars in Spain are dives with a small menu. Most focus on drinks more than food. Many have a handful of great dishes. But some serve crap.

Houston's tapas restaurants -- Tintos, Rioja, Mi Luna -- are more ambitious. They have large dining rooms that seat dozens of people. Their menus try to encompass the full range of Spanish foods in a giant tapas menu -- something most real Spanish tapas bars would never do. They also try to appeal to Houstonian tastes. Most of the time the food works. Sometimes it doesn't.

My first impression is that the food at Tintos works. It might even rival Rioja, the best Spanish restaurant in Houston..

Just don't call it a tapas bar.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Tony's revisited

New chef, new menu

Tony's hired a new chef last year. His name is Francesco Casetta. He's from Florence. And he's good. Really good.

So good that Tony's may be back in competition with Da Marco as Houston's best Italian restaurant. And one of our best restaurants.

There's just one problem. Service. Despite its reputation, I tend to have service problems at Tony's. And my last visit may have been the worst yet.

Accoustics, upcharges, and an outdated wine list

Perhaps I can blame accoustics. Every time I go to Tony's, I am placed in a far corner. The accoustics in this particular corner were so bad that the waiter kept misunderstanding me. And when he misunderstood, I lost money.

First, we were charged $6 for bottled water when we didn't order it and didn't want it. (I would have protested, but I didn't scrutinize the bill until I left.)

Second, we specifically asked to split a single order of souffle. The waiter said, "yes, of course, sir." But we were charged for two orders -- a total of $25! Perhaps, Tony's doesn't let you split an order. But no one told us that.

Finally, we asked the waiter if he could get the wine guy to help us pick a bottle. I guess he couldn't hear me because he did not get the wine guy. I asked a second time. He misunderstood again and brought a wine the waiter himself selected -- a Pinot Grigio. (To paraphrase Miles Raymond, "I am NOT drinking any f--ing Pinot Grigio!") It wasn't until after our first course arrived that the waiter finally retrieved a sommelier.

On the plus side, I really like the new wine guy who only has been on the job a few months. He says he is working on bringing in some more interesting Italian wines. He selected a stellar, and unusual, Umbrian white that matched our food very well -- and was extremely interesting.

Most of the giant, but stodgy, list could use his help. So many wines do not match Italian food. Although it has improved in recent years, it still lists more California reds than Italian, more French reds than Italian, and more American Chardonnays than all Italian whites combined. Even the Italian part of the list focuses on a few well-known regions, excluding many parts of the country where some interesting wine making is happening. Why, for instance, does this list have so few of the great wines from Friuli and Alto Adige?

Jonathan (a Da Marco alum) gave me hope that he is working to change that. Let's hope the restaurant and its regulars let him.

Food: better and brighter

As Tony's waitstaff and wine list struggle to come out of the Dark Ages of "fine dining", its kitchen has emerged. With Casetta, Tony's has transformed from old-school dishes to simply prepared Italian dishes that highlight high-quality ingredients.

Crab cakes have been replaced by a "crabmeat tower" -- lump crabmeat held together by mashed avocado and surrounded by fresh heirloom tomatoes.

Carpaccio is a model of simplicity. Thin slices of beef tenderloin are paired with arugula with lemon vinaigrette, hard Italian cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It's the fantastic thick balsamic that makes the dish special.

Even better was Insalata Genovese - a delicately fried artichoke, surrounded by wheels of tomato and cucumber and a pesto sauce that exploded with flavor. The artichoke had been doused in lemon juice, which made it vibrant and light.

The best dish of the night was a special -- seared branzino with a Gavi / Meyer lemon reduction and plum tomatoes. The bright flavor of Meyer lemons gave life to the fish flavors, and the wine reduction added complexity.

To enhance flavors, this kitchen uses less salt and more of the acids from vinegar and lemon juice -- lots of lemon juice. It brings out the garden flavors from the high quality produce.

Before Casetta came aboard, I found that the dishes at Tony's were little more than the sum of their expensive parts.

That has changed. Casetta has found combinations that make dishes tastier than you expect. And it is even more remarkable that he does it with such simple preparations. In some hands, simpler can mean duller. But the dishes from this kitchen sing.

If only I could order them in a different dining room.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Inn at Dos Brisas

Best restaurant in Texas?

Last year, the Mobil Travel Guide gave five stars to only 17 U.S. restaurants. And only one of those was in Texas.

What Texas restaurant got that rating? The Inn at Dos Brisas in Brenham.

A free meal

I had been planning to try Dos Brisas when a "press" friend made me an offer. Dos Brisas was hosting press and bloggers. If I took a day off work, I would get a free meal and wine.

I am rarely offered free meals -- because I'm anonymous. And even then, I don't write about them. It often is not a fair representation of the food.

But this was one I couldn't pass up.

The garden

Dos Brisas has a huge advantage over most restaurants. They get to grow most of what they cook. The inn is on a sprawling, hilly estate with a very large, organic garden. Your meal is picked hours before serving. There are a number of full-time gardeners.

Freshly picked vegetables really do taste different. For instance, these tomatoes tasted very sweet:

The garden flavors are highlighted by the subtle cooking of Chef Jason Robinson. I respect his approach: don't do anything change the fresh produce flavors. But don't go here expecting big flavors.

The tomatoes were accented only by herbs and a light "lemon essence." I did not detect any salt. And little, if any, oil.

Similarly, risotto balls are served on a puree of basil. Perhaps because the puree does not use much oil, the flavor of the basil does not spread out on your palate. You have to concentrate to pick up the flavor of basil -- perhaps that's the point.

I was surprised at how much of the meal came from the garden. Allegedly, the only dish with ingredients from elsewhere was a halibut in a cucumber, rhubarb broth.

The halibut was somewhat overcooked, and served more as a foil for the cucumber. It made sense: these folks are so proud of what they grow that they inadvertently dissed the non-local ingredient.

The most striking, and best, dish was this squash tian with garden ratatouille. A tian is a baked vegetable dish in layers. Thin slices of zucchini were beautifully wrapped around a filling of ratatouille. It tasted completely of the garden.

Even a dessert, eggplant beignets with eggplant ice cream, was focused on food from the garden. It tasted great, but I had a hard time detecting any eggplant flavor.

Wine and Cheese

The wine guy, Christopher Bates, is also part of the reason to go. They have a fantastic cellar -- focused primarily on European wines. He does a great job of pairing with the sweeter-than-average vegetables.

But the biggest surprise was the cheese. He is making his own cheese! I expected something amateurish. Instead I tried some of the best cheese I have had in this country.

What's the secret? I could speculate, but I won't. Let's just say that the cheese gets the flavor of some of those young European cheeses that we simply cannot get in the U.S. If you are a cheese fan, you know what I mean.


Best restaurant in Texas? I'm not going to say anything like that, especially after they paid for my meal.

Plus, for my tastes, the flavors are too restrained. This is subtle, elegant food focusing on fresh garden flavors. I respect that -- a great deal. I dig the philosophy. But my tastes are a little more wild and wooly.

Still, I am extremely impressed with the produce quality -- and the wine and cheese. Prices for most dinners start at $85 per person. The best option sounds like the all-vegetable tasting, which I believe costs around $140. Jackets are strongly suggested, and the place appears quite formal.

I am going to return. Next time, I will pay for myself. And maybe wear sunglasses and a fake Jesus beard.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Are French ingredients better?

We may have surpassed the French

On Friday, I reviewed Au Petit Paris. I argued that French restaurants in America are rarely as good as French restaurants in France because French have access to higher quality ingredients. I argued that it is part of their culture.

Misha (Tasty Bits) kindly sent me a link to this article. It argues that the quality of ingredients in America is now better than France.

I haven't been to France in 10 years. It may be that high-end American restaurants now have access to better quality produce, meats, and seafood than French restaurants.

My lunch at Andre's

Still, in Houston I have never had any bread, or any cheese, quite as good as the bread and cheese in ordinary French convenience stores.

For instance, on Saturday, I had a ham and cheese sandwich from Pastisserie Thierry Andre Tellier in Uptown Park. The "French baguette" was not at all crisp. It had a texture that reminded me of hoagie bread. And it tasted dry. The cheese was tasteless. It reminded me of the shredded swiss packages you get at Randall's.

Andre's sandwich was not half as good as the worst convenience-store sandwiches I ate in France. The ingredients just were not as good.

Our best restaurants now may have access to superior product. Yet many of our mid-level restaurants could use some improvement.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Au Petit Paris - a little Paris in Montrose

What's wrong with French food in Houston

So often, Houston French restaurants feel like American restaurants using French recipes. It is hard to find food that actually tastes like France.

You can't fault the restaurants. It is the entire American food distribution system. Our producers focus on scale, not quality. Ingredients here are rarely as good as in France.

Even the local, organic movement in America cannot compete with the quality as the French farmer. We lack the tradition, the culture, and the years of practice in perfecting the quality ingredient.

So when a restaurant pulls off a real French experience -- even just the experience of eating at a small Parisian bistro -- it is remarkable.

Au Petit Paris is almost a little bit of Paris

Au Petit Paris almost feels like a French bistro. It is located in an old converted house on a residential street. Each dining room is small, and a little cramped, like Paris. The walls are filled with Parisian photos. The restaurant tries hard to invoke Paris.

Yet this is not quite Paris. At one table a West U woman cackles loudly with a Texas accent. She has had a little too much white burgundy. At another table, two doctors are competing to dominate the conversation. On a busy night, the tiny restaurant is so noisy with loud Americans, that it can be hard to hear yourself.

A front patio offers outdoor seating. Yet Houston weather would destroy any illusion that you might actually be in Paris.

High quality ingredients, simple presentation, and a touch of innovation

The menu looks a bit dull. Most of the dishes are what you would expect from a bistro -- French Onion soup, escargot, mussels, duck confit, rack of lamb. And the kitchen sticks to traditional French preparations.

Yet the strength of this food is in the high quality of ingredients, simply prepared, with just enough innovation to impress.

Consider the signature dish, sautéed sea scallops. On one corner of the plate are three deliciously fresh (but not particularly large) scallops, each accented with a sliver of bacon wedged in the middle. In another corner are unadorned asparagus. And in the third corner is a puree of cauliflower, curry, and mustard. The flavors of the scallop, bacon, and asparagus are pure and simple, emphasizing the quality of each ingredient. The spiced puree adds an exotic note that sends your imagination off in another direction.

Just as good are the Burgundian escargots. Most American French restaurants serve escargot drowning in butter. Here, they served in tiny pastry shells designed to barely fit the snail. The genius of the dish is a garlic and herb broth that gets drawn up into the pastry shell.

Similarly, goat cheese salads appear too often on Houston menus. Yet here, the goat cheese is toasted on French bread, giving it a delightful crunch. It is served with a mesclun salad and a delicious rosemary honey dressing.

The kitchen is especially good with desserts. A light and fluffy chocolate mousse is infused with grand marnier and served with rich pieces of chocolate and tangy pieces of candied orange zest.

The real strength of this restaurant is its skill in buying ingredients. Many Houston chefs would kill to product this good.

A note on prices and the wine list

The menu prices may seem high, especially given the refreshingly small portions.

Fortunately, the food price is offset somewhat with a reasonably-priced French wine list. The list lacks the high-dollar wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy that distinguish some other French wine lists in Houston. But it does have a good variety of commonly available wines from those regions that are under $100, many under $40. It also has a decent selection of wines from the Rhone, Alsace, Champagne, and Languedoc. It is not a wine-destination restaurant. But it is nice to see one Houston restaurant with a decent selection of inexpensive French wines.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Banana Leaf

Why doesn't Houston eat more Malaysian food?

It doesn't make sense.

Houston is a major city. We have a large Asian population.

Every year, a few Malaysian restaurants open. And every year, because of a lack of business, about the same number close. KL closed recently. So did Malaysian-influenced Mak Chin's.

Malaysian food is booming on the West Coast, . Yet right now, Houston only has 2 or 3Malaysian restaurants.

Houstonians ought to like this food. We like spicy food. Malaysian food is spicy. We like Chinese, Indian, and Thai food. Malaysian food lies somewhere between those cuisines.

Banana Leaf tries hard to make Malaysian food accessible

Banana Leaf tries hard (perhaps too hard) to make this cuisine accessible. It is located in one of Asia-town's newest, and most contemporary strip malls. The casual decor and friendly waitstaff are welcoming. The English menu is descriptive and easy-to-read.

Most importantly, you can see the dishes on TV. Every table along the wall has a small flat screen with a colorful slide show.

And the food looks quite good.

The best dish I've tried is banana leaf BBQ fish with flounder. The fish is served whole, covered in a funky, slightly sweet shrimp paste. The server debones the fish at the table.

It is rare to see whole-fish flounder in Houston restaurants. Yet it makes so much sense. Flounder is firm, yet not too thick. So it stands up to the wok cooking, while still absorbing the sauce. Its large bones make it easy to eat. Avoid getting the less expensive version of this dish with tilapia or the more expensive version with sea bass.

The restaurant is proud of its roti canai. Just behind the counter, in plain view of the of the tables, the cooks shape the fladbread in to large discs and throw it in the air. It is easy to forget you are not in a pizzeria.

The ultimate comfort food, this bread is served warm with textures of crisp toast and soft dough. It is served with a slightly spicy curry sauce. I found myself wanting a little more spice.

The rest of the menu reminds you that Malaysian food is the original pan-Asian food. The country's position as a trade crossroads is reflected in dishes that range from satay to curry to pad thai to Chinese-style flat fried noodles.

Stir-fried pearl noodles taste like they could fit on the menu of any Chinese restaurant. Yet the noodles have a fascinating worm-like texture -- almost like a gummy bear -- that makes the dish just a little more exotic.

No alcohol is served, but the kitchen makes some interesting drinks, including durian slushee and a satisfying, slightly sweet, Malaysian Ice Milk Tea.

If there is a gripe about Banana Leaf, it is that it doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from mainstream Asian restaurants in Houston. The restaurant seems to be holding back. For instance, the spices in sambal shrimp and beef rendang are muted compared to some Malaysian restaurants. I was left wondering whether the restaurant toned down the spices for the same reason it bought in the TV menus. Accessibility has its drawbacks.

Regardless, at this moment, this is the best Malaysian food we have. It is hard to imagine anyone who would not find something to like here.

Monday, June 01, 2009

6 reasons to love Vietnamese weddings

Recently, I wrote about a traditional Vietnamese engagement, where I obtained a pig's head.

The engaged couple -- Mark and Ann -- were married Saturday. I was so taken with the beauty, art, and food at the wedding, I almost wished that I had had a Vietnamese wedding.

These are 6 reasons to love Vietnamese weddings.

1 - The clothes

Traditional American brides have only one dress -- white and , frankly, a little boring. Yet this lovely Vietnamese bride was required to wear 3 outfits during the day.

The first -- a red dress with stunning red hat -- was my favorite.

2 - The artistry

This wedding day had many beautiful touches you don't see in American weddings. For the initial ceremony at the bride's house, a relative made these beautiful green jello eggs:

The relative offered me an egg to eat. But it was so pretty, I didn't want to ruin it.

3 - The ancestors

We started the day with a small ceremony to introduce the families, secure permission for marriage, and to pray to the ancestors.

I appreciated the incorporation of the ancestors. At American weddings, we never any talk about the dead -- unless someone's close relative died within weeks before the wedding. In this ceremony, the couple sought the blessings of long-departed relatives. This communing with the ancestors invoked a sense of life's continuity, rather than placing all the emphasis on bride and groom.

4 - The Buddhas and monks

The wedding was at Linh Son Temple, near Dickinson. It was conducted by monks from the sangha, who seemed genuinely happy to conduct a marriage. They stood in front of large plastic Buddhas with lights flashing from their heads.

Because much of the ceremony was in Vietnamese, I understood few words. But after the wedding, I had a feeling of peace, as though I had been meditating for an hour. Perhaps something from the monks rubbed off on me.

Reason 5 - Yard art

I haven't been to many Buddhist temples. But if the Linh Son is any indication, Buddhists make great yard art.

After the wedding, the lead English-speaking monk encouraged everyone to walk around and "take pictures." If you like photography, a visit to Linh Son is a must.

Reason 6 - The food

Vietnamese weddings emphasize the feast. The reception guests were treated to a 9-course meal at Kim Son Ballroom.

I enjoyed ground shrimp wrapped around a sugar cane and coated with slivers of almonds. Most other versions of this dish in Houston skip the almonds. They added a nice crunch to a dish that is sometimes dull.

My table's favorite dish was a spicy, sweet salad of jellyfish, scallops, shrimp, and vegetables. Everyone ate it before I could take a photo.

Lobster with green onions and a savory sauce had an intriguing, salty/sweet flavor. Because the lobster was served in the shell, this dish forced all the anglos at our table gave up on chopsticks.

The most visually interesting dish was seafood birdsnest - a basket of baked noodles holding a mix of scallops, shrimp and vegetables.

Dessert was mixed fruit. When this dish arrived, my tablemates stared at it, without moving a spoon. Someone dared me to go first.

I reported to the table on the flavors: a little like a peach cobbler on top, strange pasty-textured substance on the bottom (red bean paste), and nuts that taste suspiciously like chick peas (ginkgo nuts?). I said I liked it. The rest of the table dove in. Sure, some of them stopped eating after a bite or two, but we were all happy to have had the experience.

Mark and Ann: Thank you for helping me see weddings a little differently. Have a long and happy life together.