Tuesday, December 27, 2005

BYOB Restaurants in Houston

Mr. Martin (referring to the Jonestown mass suicide): "And then all these people drank the toxic brew, and they all died! Tell me -- Kevin -- what can be learned by this incident?"

Kevin: "Um . . . um . . . BYOB?"


Some of my best memories of wine with food have been at a little restaurant where I have had a 1990 Chateau Margaux, a 1996 Turley Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel, and a 1997 Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon. No, I did not have those 97 and 100-point wines at Pappas Brothers or Cafe Annie. I had them at a pizza joint on Richmond -- Colinas Italian Restaurant. Although some of those wines sell in restaurants for over $600, my tab at Collinas was between $20 and $30. I saved a lot of money, had a good meal, and experienced some great wines -- all because Collinas is BYOB.

Restaurants typically sell wines for two to three times retail price. You can save money, and have your favorite wine, when you can bring your own. Unfortunately, Texas law prevents a restaurant with a full liquor license from letting its customers to bring wine. Fortunately, there are a few restaurants who have chosen to forgo the liquor license and allow customers to bring their own. These are my favorites:

Collinas serves very basic pizza and pasta dishes. Last night I had an outstanding special -- a chicken breast covered in a cream sauce with sundried tomatoes and prosciutto. I noticed on a recent visit that the restaurant was full and every table in the restaurant had brought their own wine. Recommended wine: Zinfandel is my favorite wine for pizza and pasta. It has the spice and acidity to stand up to the acidity of tomato sauce, yet unlike so many Italian wines with the same characteristics, it has wonderful fruit.

La Vista is another Italian restaurant near Tanglewood (Warning: slightly outside the Loop). It serves the finest food of any Houston BYOB restaurant, such as a variety of fish dishes and an excellent fillet mignon. Unfortunately, it is very popular and does not take reservations. Recommended wine: California Cabernet Sauvignon goes very well with their grilled meats.

Ruggles Cafe in Rice Village serves burgers, salads, pasta, and some killer desserts. Recommended wine (especially for the burgers): a big fruit Australian Shiraz, California Mourvedre, or California Charbono.

Alfredo's European Grill in Montrose is easily the best sausage house in Houston. Ok, Houston does not have many sausage houses, but this is great stuff, especially the massive combo platter for 2 or 3 people, which has german sausages, weiner schnitzel, spicy mustard, sauerkraut, and the best potato salad I have ever had. Recommended wine: Reisling.

Skewers is a fast-food middle eastern restaurant at Weslayan and Richmond. They do a good job of grilling meats -- especially lamb and chicken -- which they serve on top of a salad, on a plate with rice, or in a pita wrap. Recommended wine: Cotes du Rhone goes well with the Middle Eastern spices and the grilled meats because of the spiciness and earthiness of the wine.

La Fendee is another fast-food Middle Eastern restaurant on lower Westheimer. Some critics say they have the best hummus and baba ganouj in Houston. They may be right. Recommended wine: Cotes du Rhone (see above).

Update: Istanbul Grill. I love this Turkish restaurant in the Rice Village. Someone just told me that they are BYOB. I hope that information is correct.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Mexican Restaurant Calendar Art

"Along with pre-conquest glyphs and symbols, loteria cards, religious icons and popular art, the Mexican calendar became another source for Chicano artists to explore their cultural identity. These calendar images widely produced in Mexico after the 1920s, glorified its glorious prehispanic heritage as part of larger social effort to create a national identity."
-Romo Tere, The Chicanization of Mexican Calendar Art

It's that time of year -- the time when real Mexican restaurants give out free calendars for the upcoming year. At the top of each calendar is a work of art depicting some important historical event in pre-colonial Mexico. If you have ever seen one of these calendars, you know the art -- an incredibly buff Aztec warrior with massive pecs stands atop a pyramid holding his sword aloft with a look of anguish. At his feet is a scantily clad woman with impossibly large bosoms, lying in a swoon.

The best free calendars I have seen this year are at La Mexicana (see my review on 12/26/05). This year they had a special calendar with a different work of art for each month. This may be the best collection of Mexican calendar art I have ever seen -- lots of violence, 6-pack abs, marbled pecs, and young Mayan and Aztec girls with clothes falling off. (I never knew that the Mayan women wore leopard skin bikinis.)

If you miss getting a calendar this season, one good example of this particular school of art is the mural on the back wall of Teotihuacán in the Heights. A number of buff, shirtless warrior/priests smile smugly as they prepare to sacrifice several particularly buxom, nearly naked young women. The women do not look quite so happy as the men.

Why is there no American equivalent to this great art? Why doesn't the all-American Triple A Cafe have a mural with a shirtless, buff George Washington crossing the Delaware or a buxom, barely-dressed Betsy Ross in anguish as she sews the American flag?

No, to see this special kind of art in America, you have to go to a real Mexican restaurant. The art -- on calendars or on walls -- is part of what makes the restaurant Mexican. It is part of what makes it real.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

La Mexicana - Evolution of a Cheap Taco Stand

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape our history."
-Abraham Lincoln

La Mexicana. I had lunch today at La Mexicana Restaurant in Montrose. When I first went there in the mid-1980s, it was called La Mexicana Food Market. Much has changed in 20 years. La Mexicana has transformed from a convenience store to a swank hacienda. Originally, it was a single-room store that looked like any Stop 'n Go, except for one wall that had the cash register, a bakery counter with sweet Mexican breads, and a steam table where they assembled tacos. At some point, La Mexicana added a few tables for people who wanted to eat the tacos in the store. Back then, La Mexicana was the best bargain for tacos on the west side of Houston. For breakfast, they had tacos with eggs and bacon, eggs and chorizo, eggs with ham and potatoes, and eggs "a la Mexicana" with onions and peppers. For lunch, they had tacos with picadillo, tacos with carne guisada (beef stew), and tacos with guisado de puerco (pork stew). Although they would build tacos with the more traditional soft corn tortillas, the default tortillas were some of the best soft flour tortillas in Houston. The tacos were flavorful, authentic, filling, and incredibly cheap at just over $1 per taco -- a college student's dream.

Today, La Mexicana is completely transformed. The room that was once the convenience store now contains one wall with a spectacular carved wooden bar that looks like it was transported there from a Mexican hacienda, another wall covered in tile with a doorway that includes a faux tile roof, and another wall with photos of Pancho Villa and reviews of the restaurant. The bakery counter (and the wonderful Mexican sweet breads) disappeared a few years ago. La Mexicana also has added two hacienda-like dining rooms behind the main restaurant and, in front, a palapa-style patio dining area with a thatched roof and a fountain.

The menu has grown too. Instead of 7 - 8 different kinds of tacos, La Mexicana now serves dozens of dishes, such as Pollo en Mole and a half dozen seafood entrees. Now most entrees are over $9, with many in the $15 range. Breakfast plates cost as much as $8. The expensive items are passable, but do little to distinguish themselves from the many other Mexican restaurants in Houston that cater to a largely gringo crowd.

After 20 years of success, extensive interior decorating, and explosion of menu choices and prices, has La Mexicana escaped its past as a convenience store and taco stand? Fortunately, not completely. The steam table where they make the tacos is still there. And so are the tacos. If you look carefully at the bottom left of the menu, you will still see the same breakfast and lunch tacos listed, with most tacos sold for $1.75. For breakfast, one taco is enough. At lunch, two to three tacos are completely filling. The dirty secret is that the tacos are still, by far, the best items on the menu. Of course, the waiter may give me a sour scowl if I order two $1.75 tacos instead of that $15 entree. So what? I know La Mexicana's history. I know what La Mexicana really is. Like the original Doneraki and 100% Taquito -- good restaurants that began as little taco stands and grew -- La Mexicana is still best as a cheap taco stand. So as long as they sell those tacos, I will return.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Of Winter and Bean Soup

"[B]eans still symbolized the dead to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but they also saw them, being the first fruits of the soil, as representing blessings, the bounty of those below the ground."
--Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food

This December has been a cold one for Houston. Heck, it has even gone below 50 degrees a few nights. With this kind of cold, blustery weather, the best comfort food is a bowl of bean soup.

We Americans do not give enough respect to beans like the Greeks and Romans did and the Europeans do today. Sure, we splat down a spoonful of beans as a side dish, and an afterthought, to a plate of cheese enchiladas or barbecue brisket. But we rarely make beans the center of attention. I had three meals recently that reminded me how wonderful a main course of bean soup can be.

Rioja. Rioja Restaurant in far west Houston (WARNING-way outside the Loop) has the best paella in Houston, the best tapas in Houston, and along with El Meson one of the two best Spanish wine lists in Houston. When I went two weekends ago, however, the waiter's first recommendation was not the paella or tapas, but their winter special -- a bowl of white bean soup with Morcilla sausage. The soup is outstanding. When beans are cooked correctly in a soup -- not too long, not to short -- they are complex and earthy. The beans and broth make a wonderful combination of textures. And in this soup, the wonderfully rich and meaty Morcilla blood sausage put the dish over the top. Go to Rioja now before winter passes and they stop serving this.

Le Bec Fin. Today, I had lunch at Le Bec Fin -- not the 5-star French Restaurant in Philadelphia, but a small Vietnamese-run cafe in Midtown Houston. Le Bec Fin is the best value for French food in Houston, even if it is only open for lunch. Most main courses, like beef bourgignon, come with a great french onion soup or salad and cost less than $8. The most expensive item on the menu, however, is the $14 cassoulet. Cassoulet is French for "pot of beans." The cassoulet at Le Bec Fin is very simple -- a giant bowl of small white beans in broth with a sausage and a quarter baked chicken. If you can handle eating a giant bowl of beans at lunch, I highly recommend it.

My bean soup with fresh tarragon. I tried making my own bean soup this weekend. The secret ingredient to my soup was tarragon. Tarragon loses its flavor when it is cooked for long or when it is dried. Fresh tarragon, however, when added at the last minute to a dish, adds a complex sweet, lemony, anise-like flavor. It is a wonderful pairing with white beans. It was the best dish I have made in a long time. No, you cannot come to my house and have it, but I will give you my recipe:

Chop a large white onion finely, smash several cloves of garlic, dice a handful of unsmoked bacon, chop up a handful of flat leaf parsley, and sautee all these ingredients for 5 or so minutes in a stock pot. Then dump in 2 cups of canned cannelini beans and add two cups of chicken stock. Simmer for 30 minutes with a lid almost completely covering the pot. About 5 minutes before taking the soup off the stove to serve, add a handful of fresh tarragon, and optionally a few handfuls of fresh spinach. Squeeze a little lemon juice in the soup. Serve with crusty European-style bread.

Maybe beans will be the next big thing. Probably not. They are very old-world, very earthy. The earthiness may explain why beans reminded the Greeks and Romans of the dead. In fact, beans for some ancients were taboo because of their association with the dead. Pythagoras had such a taboo against beans that he let himself be killed by his enemies rather than escape by running across a field of beans. Fortunately, most Americans do not have a taboo against beans. We just do not give them enough respect.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Pho - Lost in Translation?

"The fact is, that here is a new product that is American."
-Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

The Houston phone book has 34 restaurant that begin with "Pho" -- restaurants like: Pho Bin, Pho Bellaire, Pho 518, Pho 45, Pho 95, Pho 99, Pho-Nga, Pho Lieng Fast Foods (alliteration!), and Pho 21. My favorite name is the confusing "Pho 21 #110." Does that mean it is the 21st Pho restaurant or the 110th Pho restaurant? Where are the other 109 Pho 21 restaurants that came first?

I try to be an adventurous eater. But my first experience in a Pho shop 15 years ago was a little too adventurous. I walked in the crowded restaurant by myself and noticed I was only non-Vietnamese customer. The waitresses all looked at each other, wondering who might be able to communicate with me. One drew the short straw. She brought a menu with 50 choices, helpfully labeled A1 - A25 and B1 - B25. Each item had a different name in Vietnamese script. Each item also had an English translation. Items A1 - A25 were all translated the same -- "noodle soup with steak." Items B1 - B25 also were all translated the same -- "noodle soup with meat ball." The Vietnamese lettering told of 25 variations that I could not read. The English translation glossed over the differences, giving me no choice but to pick randomly or ask. So I asked the waitress which "noodle soup with meat ball" was the best. She said, "you like this one" and pointed to B7. As promised, I liked it. I wondered, though, what I missed by not ordering one of the other 24 items called "noodle soup with meat ball."

The French have many different words for the different emotions that we call "love." The Inuit have many different words for the different substances that we call "ice." Perhaps the Vietnamese have many different words for the food we call "noodle soup." I despair that there are no English words that can describe all the wonderfully different variations of Pho.

I ate lunch today at Pho Bui. Pho Bui is in downtown Houston, under the shadow of a scyscraper. The staff probably were all raised in America, speaking English. The crowd is the usual mix of Americans -- caucasian, african-american, asian-american, latino-american, professionals, secretaries, office assistants. Now everyone eats Pho. Heck, I even saw a Pho restaurant in Beaumont.

Even now, the different Pho items can be a little confusing in translation. One soup is listed as "noodle soup with meat balls." Another is "noodle soup with beef balls." What is the difference? Is a "beef ball" a meat ball made with beef? If so, what meat is used to make a "meat ball"? I am a little worried about trying either. I do not want to eat a beef's balls, and I do not want to eat a ball of unidentified meat.

Other menu items are listed as "noodle soup with tripe" and "noodle soup with tendons." I would have used English words other than "tripe" or "tendons." When I think of delicious food, I do not think "tripe" or "tendons." So I usually get something safe at Pho Bui like "noodle soup with eye of round." I know what that is. I know I like that one.

The "tripe" and "tendons" probably will be deleted on Pho Bui's next version of their menu. No one orders them. So the menu will almost certainly change. That is the market. That is Americanization. That is how we turned Italian food into spaghetti and pizza, how we turned the subtle and rich cuisine of China into the egg roll and the all-fried, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It also is how we have created some remarkable fusion cuisine. Perhaps I ought to order the "noodle soup with tendons" before it is lost forever, before I have to travel to Saigon to find it, before every Pho shop in Houston sells "noodle soup with fried chicken tenders."

Pho Bui is quite good. But there are at least 34 other restaurants where you can get Pho in Houston. All of the ones I have tried are good. Honestly, I cannot quite tell the difference.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Japanese food in Houston

"I am honored and proud that so many people are making food like mine. American people are accepting Japanese food. That is good."
-Nobu Matsuhisa

Japanese Fusion. Something really exciting is happening with Japanese food in America. Chefs are melding Japanese ingredients and techniques with Western cuisine. It is all fueled by Iron Chef (the best tv show ever because it presented chefs as gladiator heroes). The results of the new Japanese fusion have been amazing, at Japanese restaurants like Nobu and Megu in New York, Shibuya in Las Vegas, Mori in Los Angeles, Morimoto in Philadelphia, and Sea Saw in Scottsdale.

The only problem -- it isn't happening in Houston. The sushi scene here is better than it was, say, 20 years ago. But it is still pretty standard. Most Houston Japanese Restaurants ("HJRs") still have the oh-so-helpful table placard with photos of 20 different kinds of sushi. It always made me suspicious that the photos are not printed by the restaurant, but by some Japanese beer company. Why should Japanese beer companies dictate every sushi restaurant's menu? Most HJRs also have a selection of the same 10 or so sushi rolls, a list of the same handful of entrees -- teriyaki chicken, teriyaki salmon, katsu don, miso cod (stolen from Chef Nobu, but damn good) -- some noodle bowls, a selection of 2 - 3 sakes, and . . . that's about it.

But I love Japanese food. So does my 7-year old daughter. So we still go to HJRs.

Best sushi in Houston -- Kubo. Last night, my 7-year old begged to go to Kubo. No, they don't have robotic dancing furry animals. They do, however, do a great job with her two favorite foods -- sushi rice and raw salmon. Most HJRs don't give enough attention to their sushi rice. But Kubo does. I could eat just their rice for a meal. It has only a hint of vinegar and sugar, and a perfect sticky rice texture. Their raw salmon is good too. It broke my heart recently to learn that sushi restaurants in Japan mostly don't serve raw salmon. The Japanese figured out that raw salmon can give you tapeworm. Uggh. Maybe that is why my 7-year old, who eats so much raw salmon, has been so hungry lately. The whole tapeworm thing pretty much killed my taste for raw salmon. But not hers. She's lucky. She has no idea what a tapeworm is.

Kubo is the best HJR. You may ask, “how can you evaluate the best HJR since they all serve the same food?” There are two measures. The first measure is the quality of the fish. Many HJRs have uniformly excellent fresh fish. Many do not. I can immediately delete a number of HJRs from my best list because their fish is not the best -- Tokyohana, Todai, Japon, Miyako, Sushi King, Osaka, Kirin I and II. Most of those HJRs are ok, but their fish is not uniformly excellent, like the fish at Kubo is.

The second measure is innovation. Chefs at a handful of HJRs have been somewhat innovative. Of these, Kubo is the best. Not only do they have several unique rolls not found anywhere in Houston, but each month they have 5 new and very unusual specials. Each month, I try all 5 specials at Kubo, and at least 3 of them usually blow my mind. For instance, last night, we had a truly incredible special -- lightly fried lobster in a sweet truffle oil sauce. They also served a pate made from monkfish paired with a spicy fatty tuna ceviche. In addition to the specials, Kubo typically has at least 5 - 10 kinds of special sushi or sashimi that you just cannot get at most other HJRs -- fish like amberjack, fatty tuna, king salmon.

Kubo also has hon wasabi. This isn't the industrial green-colored horseradish sauce in a tube that you get at any other HJR. This is sweet, mellow, earthy, grainy, complex, and spicy. It is so good; I can eat it by itself. It's not for everyone. It has to be special ordered. And it costs $3 or so. But it is really unique.

Runners Up for Best Sushi in Houston.

Nara. Before Kubo, Nara was the only HJR serving any innovative food. Nara was the first HJR to serve miso cod. Miso cod (gindara miso) is food of the gods. Only a handful of Houston restaurants make it, probably because it requires black cod, which is pricey and hard to find, and 3 days of marinating. Nara does a great job with it. So do Kubo and Uptown Sushi. Nara still serves innovative food, and they have very fresh fish. WARNING -- way outside the Loop.

Uptown Sushi and the Fish. These are ultra-hip HJRs that opened recently in the ultra-hip Uptown Park and the ultra-hip Midtown. Their interior design, and the crowd, are . . . ultra-hip. Their menus have a number of standard HJR items, but they also make some fairly successful attempts at Japanese Fusion. Uptown Sushi has some very good and unusual sushi rolls, which benefit from creative sauces. Uptown Sushi also has possibly the best interior design of any restaurant in Houston. The focus is some cool fabric light fixtures made by an Israeli light designer whose work looks like various sea creatures. Eating at Uptown Sushi is kind of like eating in a fish tank. I find that kind of disturbing, but in an ultra-hip way.

. I have not been there in over 10 years, so I can't swear by Nippon. A good friend who is married to a woman from Japan says that she says it is the best and most authentic Japanese restaurant in Houston.

Azuma. Azuma is really good. They advertise hot rock beef, which is more interesting to cook yourself at the table than it is to eat. They also advertise their robata grill, which they use to cook a number of different meats and fishes, including gindara (black cod). But their best food is their sushi. They have some interesting rolls and some very fresh fish. It could become the best HJR, but right now they do not have quite the level of innovation, or the same frequency of innovative specials, that Kubo has.

Worst sushi in Houston - Tokyohana. Throngs of West U families pack in Tokyohana on weekend nights. In 2004, Tokyohana was voted on Citysearch as "Best Sushi in Houston." In my one visit -- and I will not return -- they distinguished themselves by serving the worst sushi rolls in Houston or anywhere else. The sushi roll variety plate had a variety of rolls with one common feature -- the innards of every roll were swimming in soggy cream cheese and/or mayo. Worse, the soggy mayo and cream cheese were not balanced by any competing texture, such as crunchy crab or shrimp or even firm fish. The tiny bits of limp fish seemed like an afterthought in the soggy, mayo rice rolls. I confess that my worst fear is to die drowning in a giant vat of steamy, hot mayo. Tokyohana's rolls reminded me of my fear. Maybe all those West U families come to Tokyohana for something else. I hope, for the sake of our American culture, that it is not all the mayo.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Boycott Central Market?

"O woe, woe, man is only a dot:
Hell drags us off and that is the lot;
So let us live a little space,
At least while we can feed our face."
-Petronius, The Satyricon

I had lunch with two lefties. They boycott Central Market because they think the owners contribute to some anti-choice fund or some other right-wing cause. Ok. If I cared enough, which I am not suggesting that I do, I might boycott Wal-Mart or Coors beer. It wouldn't matter -- I never would shop at Wal-Mart or drink Coors beer anyway. But boycott Central Market? Blasphemy.

I remember one cold winter when I lived in Boston and the local grocery store had a selection of only 10 different kinds of fresh fruits or vegetables. I never could find even a jalapeno, much less a habanero. I had an epiphany then. Life is too short for that kind of deprivation. Life is too short to live in a place like Boston. Life is too short to go to a crappy grocery store with no produce. Especially when you can live in Houston and go to the best goddammed grocery store in the Western Hemisphere.

I don't care if they eat babies for fun. I'm not boycotting Central Market!


"Eat my grits."
-Flo on Alice

This morning I ate at 59 Diner. They have my favorite Southern breakfast food. I was worried back in the 1980s when they closed Phil's and opened a new restaurant with a nostalgia theme that the food would not be as good. Despite the decoration, it works. Many of their waitresses and waiters have been there a long time, and they make the atmosphere authentic, despite the tacky decorating. 59 Diner has an excellent chicken fried steak -- thin, crunchy, smothered in white gravy. I don't eat it often because of my fear of death. I, however, do frequently get their diced ham and eggs, their outstanding biscuits, and their grits.

Grits are the ultimate comfort food. Warm and nothing but carbs -- except for the added salt and butter. 59 Diner does a good job with their grits. Their portions are a bit skimpy.

The best grits in Houston may be at the Breakfast Klub. When I first saw the menu at the Breakfast Klub, I was tempted by their waffles with fried chicken and catfish and eggs. But those dishes were a little too ambitious. They really excel with their grits. These grits have perfect texture. Breakfast Klub grits are to ordinary grits what fine steel cut Irish oats are to instant oatmeal. Plus, the Breakfast Klub serves a giant bowl of grits.

If everything else at Breakfast Klub was as good as their grits, I probably would go there every Saturday morning instead of 59 Diner.

French Bistros in Houston

"To La Belle France whose peasants, fishermen, housewives, and Princes -- not to mention her chefs -- through generations of inventive and loving concentration have created one of the world's great arts."
--Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

For a while, the French had it bad in Houston. Houstonians were gung ho for war. The French were not. So Houstonians boycotted everything French. One by one, many French restaurants closed their doors. Now that the war seems to have been a poor idea, and the French don't seem so bad. The bistros have come back.

Last night, we ate at Cafe Laurier. I like it better than when it first opened. When it first opened several years ago, reservations had to be made days in advance. The steak and frites was mediocre -- the steak was tough and the frites were uninspired. I could grill a far better, more flavorful steak at home for about $20 less. Worse, there were almost no French wines on the list. What is a bistro without Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape? I decided not to return.

But we did return. I can report great improvement.

Two weeks ago, the braised lamb shank had wonderful broth. It had been cooked a long time and was very tender. A baby beet salad was very petite and cute -- perhaps a bit too precious. The salad did not have much flavor apart from the beets, but the small white beets were wonderful -- al dente and sweet. My wife had a salad involving shaved fennel. TRENDY FOOD ALERT! -- everyone is serving raw shaved fennel suddenly. Why? Fennel is a wonderful vegetable, but it has much more flavor grilled than raw.

Last night we started with mussels with aoli (let's be honest and call it mayo) and french fries piled on top. The key to mussels is a good broth, and the broth was very flavorful. The french fries and mayo created an interesting texture contrast. My wife had a goat cheese salad. It was not terribly inventive, but it had very tasty sherry vinaigrette and candied pecans. I had a shitake and chanterelle risotto that was possibly the best mushroom risotto I have had outside of Italy. So many chefs do risotto wrong. Risotto is not rice pilaf. The rice should retain its texture, but should marry the broth, with the texture of the rice beginning to bleed into the broth. By this standard, this risotto was perfect. The broth is the key to flavor in a risotto and this broth was creamy, salty, and wonderful.

Wine. The wine list is bigger, but it still has very few Fench wines. That makes no sense. When I think of bistro food, I can taste a Rhone wine. Laurier had almost no rhone wines, but they did have a lot of California syrahs, Australia shiraz, and other rhone-style wines like California Mouvedre. California and the Ausies do a good job with Rhone varietals, but it just doesn't have that same herby, earthy rhone taste. We settled for a Bethel Heights Pinot Noir from the Williamette Valley in Oregon. In the $40 range, it was a bargain. I hear that the Williamette Valley is the next big thing for Pinot Noir. The wines I have had from Williamette are consistently interesting, earthy, fruity, and a great value. I have bad luck with Burgundian pinots. They have too much character and usually not enough fruit. I have the opposite problem with pinots from Napa and Sonoma -- fruity, but lacking in character, overly alcoholic, and monolithic. Williamette Valley pinots strike a nice balance.

The crowd and Julia Child. The crowd at Laurier was in the 45 - 65 range. Apart from two 20-somethings eating with Mom and Dad, we were the only people under 40. Why does that middle aged generation so love French bistros? I speculate that it is because of Julia Child. Growing up in the late Fifties and Sixties, their mothers believed and taught the family that Julia Child was high cuisine. And Julia was high cuisine -- compared to the mass produced crap that Americans began to eat in the Fifties. That generation thinks of a cold December day, they think of missing the comforts of Mom and home, they think of Julia-inspired food, and they head for their nearest bistro.

Music and dining. In both recent visits, Laurier was playing Bebel Gilberto. I like Bebel Gilberto. But I worry that she will become the next Gypsy Kings. In 1993, every restaurant in Houston played all-Gypsy Kings, all the time. Now it is poor Bebel. What a shame. Such a pretty voice.

Other bistros. Cafe Laurier is not the best bistro in Houston. There are several other bistros that compete for that title:

-Le Mistral is my favorite. The menu changes seasonally, and every dish I have had in 8 - 10 visits has been flavorful and very innovative, yet still French. This is not Julia Child fare. The wine list is predominantly French and may be the second best French list in town. The proprietors are brothers from southern France and one of them turned me on to the wonderful wines of Bandol, made from the Mouvedre grape. My only complaint -- Le Mistral is far outside the beltway on the west side. Outside the loop is for mass-produced chains. Really good restaurants should be required to move inside the Loop.

-Cafe Rabelais is almost as good as Le Mistral. Their French-only wine list is even better. The food is perhaps more traditional. The ingredients are outstanding. My only complaint -- the small dining room and the lack of reservations makes this one of the hardest tables to get in Houston. You can wait in their wine bar -- but it is two blocks from the restaurant. And it's December. It's not like we are in Boston, but it is still cold.

-Bistro Moderne is so chic and modern that it really is not a bistro. The chef is very creative. His crab and avocado bombe -- a lime green dome of avocado filled with fresh crab -- is one of the most unusual and wonderful dishes in town. The wine list is interesting and ecclectic, but it does not have enough French wines. Moderne has great bistro-inspired food, but the trendy hip vibe and the California wines don't make it feel like a real bistro.

-Gravitas bills itself as something like an American Bistro (a hint of Francophobia?). It is new, and it might become one of the best bistros in Houston. The chef -- Scott Tycer of Aries -- is one of the two or three best chefs in town. This is his casual restaurant. At this point, the service is spotty. The volume is deafening. The wine list is global and not very French. The food is somewhat precious -- lots of shaved fennel. But the beef bourguignonne may be the best in town. It is slow cooked in a great broth and topped with small diced vegetables and some fried onions. The fried onions put it over the top.

-Bistro Le Cep is as good as it gets for the Julia Child crowd. This is the place to take mom. I would describe the food as country French -- the style that La Madeline massacred. The proprietor used to run Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, so he knows how to please the greying crowd. I had the best Coq au Vin I have had in Houston there. When I first visited, the wine list had about 10 wines. Then they brought in much of the cellar from Rotisserie, which was one of the best in Hosuton. I have not visited Le Cep for the past year, but I am hoping they have taken over many of allocations from Rotisserie. WARNING -- outside the Loop.

-Bistro Provence. This was one of the few bistros that weathered the anti-French craze in Houston. Although not terribly innovative, the food is country French, very traditional, and very good. Bistro Provence plays well with the Julia Child crowd. They have the best escargot in Houston. They also have the most authentic bistro atmosphere in Houston. Too bad they had to close their location inside the loop. WARNING -- outside the Loop.

Food in Houston

"The delightful sensation of satisfying hunger gave the biped such pleasure that after several million more years or generations it was moved to express it in a cry."
--Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food

"Cookies!" -- The Cookie Monster

Why this blog? I love food. I love cooking food, watching food, smelling food, eating food.

I am also very fortunate to live in a wonderful city for food. Houston does not have quite the same variety of food as in New York. Houston has no restaurant quite as good as Charlie Trotter's or the French Laundry. But Houstonians eat out more often, per capita, than citizens of any other American city. Why? For one thing, we are fat. The fattest city in the country. To stay that way, we need food. Second, Houston has a great variety of food stores and restaurants. It has possibly the best Tex-Mex and Vietnamese food of any American city. Third, eating well in Houston is easy and inexpensive. No Houston restaurant requires reservations more than a week in advance, and few require reservations more than one day ahead of time. Entrees are rarely over $30, and a glorious meal can be had for under $3. For the quality of food, the prices are outstanding.

This is my space to talk about restaurants, dishes, stores, and trends.

I should confess some specific biases. Spice is good. Diversity is good. Authenticity is good. Innovative dishes are good. Goat curry is good. Most indiginous cuisine from cold climates is bad. A waiter who hawks expensive bottled water is very bad. And a restaurant that plays the Gypsy Kings throughout my meal is very, very bad.