Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Uni pics (uni dinner at Rainbow Lodge)

I have written too much about Randy Rucker and the Rainbow Lodge. So I am not going to write about Randy's uni dinner at the Lodge a few weeks ago.

Instead, here are some photos.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Boston report

The Boston food scene

When I lived in Boston in the early 90s, the food was dull. Upscale restaurants served "Continental" food, old-school Italian, and unseasoned seafood.

The city seemed afraid of flavors, paralyzed by its Puritan antipathy to pleasure.

But over the last 15 years, I had heard Boston's food was getting better. Several farmer's markets opened. And some innovative chefs set up shop.

Last week, I tried some of Boston's top-rated restaurants. The food was better. But it wasn't New York or Chicago. Heck, it wasn't even as good as the best in Houston and Dallas.

One restaurant was an exception. This little Japanese shop was serving food much more exciting than any Japanese food in Houston, or even Texas's best Japanese restaurant - Uchi in Austin. In fact, it may have been the best meal I have had in the past year.

Boston's amazing little Japanese restaurant is called O Ya.

O Ya

O Ya isn't glitzy. Its 37 seats are tucked in an old firehouse in a dead part of town. Many customers wear jeans and shorts, even though it is hard to eat for less than $150 a person.

Tim Cushman's dishes succeed with top-notch ingredients and brilliant flavor combinations.

Take for instance the scarlet scallop above. The impossibly large scallop is marinated in beet juice and sliced thinly to curve around sushi rice. It is topped with yuzu and tobiko. Scallop has such a delicate flavor that you don't want to tinker with it much. These light accents of citrus and earthy sweetness bring the scallop to life.

Sometimes, though, Cushman's accents get most of the attention. His best-known dish is hamachi served with a banana pepper mousse. The dab of green pepper is surprisingly spicy, and at the same time garden-fresh and delicate.

Cushman realizes that food's visual appeal is almost as important as flavor. These fried Kumamoto oysters had a perfectly thin, crispy shell - probably a tempura batter. They became a work of art when topped with squid ink bubbles (foam).

The same Kumamoto oysters show up in a completely different sashimi presentation -- in the shell with watermelon pearls and minced cucumber. This version was even more mind blowing than the first.

Cushman's flavors are surprisingly international, unbound by tradition. For instance, shima aji (amberjack) was served with Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin), ceviche vinaigrette, and cilantro.

In the hands of a lesser chef, this mixing of cultures can be vulgar, sensationalist, inauthentic. But this food was the product of a world-class chef, unconstrained by a particular tradition.

O Ya is part of Boston's thriving community of contemporary sushi fusion restaurants. Others include Ken Oringer's Uni, Oishii, and Oga's in Natick, MA. This is one food genre -- perhaps the only food genre -- in which Houston's scene just doesn't compete at the same level as Boston.

Other Boston restaurants

Boston's best-known chef is Barbara Lynch. We tried three of her restaurants -- No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and the new Sportello.

At No. 9 Park, I appreciated the intellectual combinations and artistic plating. Sometimes, the combinations were almost too brainy, such as lobster paired with monkfish -- a fish with a lobster-like texture once known as "poor man's lobster." These were served with chorizo and fennel. I liked the artsy combination, but the flavors were too restrained.

Perhaps the best dish was salade de courgettes, a playful assembly of different summer squash.

Park's much cheaper B&G Oysters was a fairly ordinary, but good quality seafood bar.

I was much more impressed with Lynch's newest casual restaurant -- Sportello. Instead of tables, the restaurant uses a lunch counter concept. You sit on a stool, watching all the cooking happen just feet away.

Dishes were simply prepared, market-based Italian food. The best dish was a remarkably simple salad of raw shavings of fennel and celery dressed with only olive oil and lemon. I also enjoyed a crispy-skin salmon dressed with summer beans and bacon. It is rare to find a restaurant that makes minimalism so appealing.

Finally, Kenneth Oringer's Clio was an interesting fusion of French and Asian cuisine, much like Jean Georges Vongerichten's restaurants. Oringer's dishes had a lot going on -- perhaps too much going on. The dishes do away with Boston's suppression of flavors, but they go in so many directions it is hard to keep track.

I'm not complaining. Given Boston's sad culinary past, creative restaurants like Clio and O Ya are what the city needs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anvil - Houston's best bar

The problem with cocktails

I rarely drink hard liquor. But when I do, I want to taste it.

Perhaps that is why I never understood vodka -- booze without flavor. Or fruity rum drinks -- booze disguised to taste like fruit and sugar.

The sad fact is that most Americans who drink are not drinking for the flavor. They want a buzz. They want to lower inhibitions and meet people. Or just get drunk.

So I stopped going to bars. When I want to drink, I want an artisinal gin or small production American whiskey. I want it neat. I only want a little. I want to focus on it. So I drink at home. Alone.

Until now.

Anvil - temple to the cocktail

Anvil is not really a bar. It is a temple devoted to the art of the cocktail.

The priests behind the counter do rituals. The rituals take some time. You have to wait a while before you drink.

Last night, the man behind the counter selected an old-fashioned glass. He inspected it. And then he began to assemble. He carefully stirred some rye with large ice cubes. Slowly. Then he strained the rye into my glass. He poured absynthe over a small spoon letting it drizzle slowly into the drink. He carefully rubbed lemon peel around the outside. He occasionally sniffed the drink to check his progress.

He asked me whether I wanted the lemon twist in the drink. It looked so stylish that I said yes. I detected a slight grimace. Wrong answer.

The sazerac is America's first mixed drink, from pre-Prohibition New Orleans. It tastes like a liquor, not fruit juice. I was amazed by the quality of the rye. It was accented -- not disguised -- by bitters, absynthe, and a slight essence of lemon peel.

It reminded me of the product of a great sushi chef. No sugary sauce. No fried bits. Just high quality fish with wisely chosen accents.

Next I ordered an old fashioned. He prepared it with the same ritual and care. I felt honored.

Every drink comes with a large glass of water. The point is not to drink alcohol because you're thirsty. The only point of the alcohol at Anvil is flavor.

And Beer?

I can't imagine ordering anything at Anvil other than a cocktail.

But last night, another local blogger told me that he was a beer fan. "Where," I asked "can you get the best beer in Houston?" I was surprised at his answer:


I never noticed any beer at Anvil. Yet apparently, it has an excellent selection of small-production beers on tap. Just as importantly, Chris said, they swap out the taps frequently. He explained that this prevents the beer from becoming stale. He told me that Anvil respects the beer better than anywhere else in town.

Maybe I will try a beer at Anvil someday -- after I work my way through Houston's best selection of American whiskey:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Austin's Mighty Cone

There are two Austins.

One is new, corporate, industrious, and utterly without character. It is the new McMansions. The new chains of restaurants littering the suburbs. The cluster of highrise condos, with sleek trendy restaurants underneath.

The other is older, slower, anti-commercial, and wierd.

Guess which one I like?

The Mighty Cone trailer

Last Friday, my nephew walked me a mile down South Congress to a block of food trailers. Mighty Cone has set up in this "permanent" spot within the last year.

Despite the new location, Mighty Cone it is part of the Old Austin. The trailer is owned by Jeff Blank, the Chef/Owner of Hudson's on the Bend. Hudson's is one of Texas's best restaurants.

The trailer's origins are earlier, in 2002, when Blank took it to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. With each festival, the cones became so popular, that Blank decided to open the trailer permanently on South Congress -- one of the few areas that still feels like old Austin.

So what is a Mighty Cone?

The cone is a flour tortilla wrapped around fried chicken, fried avocado, mango-jalapeno cole slaw, and an ancho chil aioli. But that doesn't begin to give a hint of how good it tastes:

It is difficult to pinpoint what makes the Mighty Cone so great. Perhaps it is the texture of the unique breading made from nuts, seeds, corn flakes, sugar and spices. It creates a remarkable crunch, especially when you bite into a creamy slice of fried avocado.

Or perhaps it is the spicy, sweet sauce. It has a combination of peppers and sugar, which reminds me more of Thai peanut sauce than an ancho mayonaise.

The trailer also serves some other items -- sliders with "fois gras", a venison cone dog, and chili-dusted fries. They sound awfully good. But I was advised that I had to start by trying the Mighty Cone.

It was good advice. The Mighty Cone captures the feel of old Austin. Plus, I can't think of any better trailer food in Texas.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

San Antonio's Le Reve

As I bit into caramelized onion tart, something came over me. I wanted to say how good it tasted. But I found it hard to speak. I noticed a strange sensation in my eyes.

Was I tearing up? Surely not. Food doesn't make me emotional. But I almost felt like Proust and his madelaine.

The tart was amazing. A thin, flaky crust was topped with a layer of goat cheese and creme fraiche, and the sweetest onions I have tasted. Swirls of sauces on the plate included an unusual, translucent onion sauce and a lively basil puree. Together, they created magic. Art.

Le Reve

Gourmet Magazine has listed Le Reve in the top 10 American restaurants.

It is the finest dining experience I have had in Texas -- from the delicious tasting menu to precise service to brilliant wine pairings.

Of course, all of that comes at a cost. The dining room is small. Jackets are required for men. Dinner lasts about 3 hours. And the price of a tasting menu is $105, or $175 with wine pairings.

In New York, those prices would be a steal. But by Texas standards, it isn't cheap. The next day, I ate at Whataburger.

The full French tour

The tasting menu may not sound interesting on paper. Descriptions are brief: "Scallops" "Foie Gras" "Asparagus salad" "Line caught fish" "Beef."

It sounds standard. It sounds French.

And it is. But the beauty is in Chef Andrew Weissman's details. Foie Gras is served as a club sandwich with lettuce, bacon, jelly, and slivers of mango. It was an ultra-rich version of my favorite breakfast -- bacon and jelly on toast.

It was fun to watch other tables discover the foie gras club for the first time. A couple next to us look puzzled. Then, after a bite, they grinned. Within a few seconds they were laughing and gesturing, absorbed in the experience of the sandwich.

Almost as fun were scallops. Actually, it was only 1 scallop. Perched on a firm corn souffle that was exactly the same size and shape. Surrounding both was a sweet corn puree.


One of the most enjoyable parts of our meal was the Sommellier Fabien Jacob. He brought us tastes of 12 different wines, sometimes two different wines with a single course. And he discussed them all.

Jacob talks wine with animation. His mission as to inform guests about flavors and why pairings work.

And his pairings work quite well. Most wines were not pricey, and some perhaps not so interesting by themselves. But every one came alive with the dish they were picked to accompany.

If you like to talk wine, try going early or late so he can spend more time with you.


Even spaced over 3 hours, the 8 to 11 courses (depending how you count) were a little too much. We neared our limit with a plate of beef tenderloin and scalloped potatoes -- perhaps the least interesting dish.

But that was followed by a cheese plate, creme brulee, a lemon cake with chocolate mousse, and a plate of mignardises.

The desserts were delicious. Too delicious.

So as we left to wander down the Riverwalk, we were a little too full, and a little tipsy. But we knew we had eaten our favorite meal yet in Texas.