Wednesday, October 04, 2006

My hiatus and a parting thought about tongue tacos and fried shrimp heads

This site will go on hiatus for a while. I will leave you with a final thought.

Houston's fine dining scene has been growing more and more stale and less interesting. Some of the city's most creative restaurants have closed. Many of the other fine dining restaurants are treading water. Perhaps the scene will revive with some new openings this fall. But right now, our fine dining scene is years behind other cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and even much smaller cities like Las Vegas, Aspen, and Charleston. Yes, at this moment, Houston's top restaurants are probably inferior to Dallas. That is sad, sad, sad.

But there is hope. If you want some dining excitement in Houston, the best places to look right now are ethnic dives. In this category, Houston is better than almost any city in the country except New York. This week, I had two exotic surprises where I did not expect them.

La Jaliscience is a tacqueria on Yale near 13th Street. On a recent visit, I ordered a 99 cent "taco con lengua", which is a tongue taco. The beef tongue had an interesting texture, much like wheat roast or tofu. Still, I doubt any vegetarians will be eating it. The tongue came with onion, cilantro, lime. The lunch also came with a salsa caddy with some extremely spicy green and red salsas and pickled carrots. Although the tongue did not have an unusual taste, it reminded me that we Americans usually don't eat some of the more interesting parts of the animal. Recently, at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, I had a plate of lamb that offered seven unusual cuts of lamb that you do not usually get in American restaurants. I was surprised at the significant differences in tastes and textures. If we are going to eat meat, we ought to be braver in trying some of the other edible parts. The 99 cent taco is certainly a cheaper way to do that than the $210 fixed price meal at Per Se.

Nippon is a very traditional sushi restaurant on Montrose. A Japanese friend says it serves the most authentic sushi in Houston. During my last visit, I ordered a sashimi plate, which came with two whole raw shrimp. After I ate the meat, the waiter offered to have the kitchen fry the left over heads. These were large shrimp heads with eyes and long antenna -- the last thing that I would expect to eat. Of course, I agreed. When he returned with the fried heads, they looked much the same as before frying. I did not see any batter. But somehow, dipping the head in hot oil made the tough shell of the shrimp's head crunchy and edible. Everything was edible -- even the eyes and antenna. The taste was like any food that is fried, but had overtones of the sea. It was strange, entertaining, and very good.

Right now, Houston has no equivalent to the great American restaurants like French Laundry and Charlie Trotter's. It has no equivalent among the cutting edge American innovators like the chefs at Moto and WD-50. If you expect entertainment, art, and surprise from your food in Houston, don't bother with Houston's high end restaurants. Instead, you will have to try some Vietnamese sandwich shops, Asian supermarkets, Pakistani buffets, Korean food courts, sushi joints, and Mexican tacquerias.

Good luck.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tale of the Basil Infused Mojito Ice with Shrimp in Cascabel Puree

This is not a restaurant review. It is the story of an incredible dish at one of Texas' best restaurants, my attempts to reverse engineer the dish, salsa from a taco stand behind a Houston farmer's market, and the ways in which cooking resembles improvisational jazz.

Hudson's on the Bend is a great restaurant near Austin known for creative cooking and exotic game. On my last visit, I had rattlesnake meat fritters and grilled ostrich and kangaroo meat. But the most creative part of the meal was an amuse bouche we received to start the meal. It was glass cone containing a bright green icey slush topped by a single shrimp covered in some sort of chile sauce. The waiter identified it as something like a "basil infused mojito ice with ancho crusted shrimp." The ice had the texture of a 7-11 slurpee, it tasted like a classic mojito, except that the mint flavor had been replaced by basil. This was set against the spicy shrimp, coated in a flavorful ancho sauce. The dish was utterly creative -- a wierd and wonderful combination of southwest and cuban flavors, a strange contrast of spicy chile with a soothing rum drink. It was perfect for the end of summer.

I had to try to make this dish.

As a cook, it can be difficult to reverse engineer a creative dish. I began by trying to figure out how to make basil-infused mojito ice. I searched the internet, and no one had ever posted a recipe for such a dish. But I did find Tyler Lawrence's recipe for a mojito slushy. I knew I only had to switch out the basil for mint, let it sit for a long time so the basil would infuse, and then strain the dish to remove the tough bits of basil.

The biggest, problem, though was creating the ancho chile sauce that coated the shrimp. The salsa has to cling to the shrimp or it will just run into the mojito ice. An ordinary tomato-based salsa just wouldn't work. I did not know how to make a salsa that would stick

Fortuitously, I went for breakfast at Tacqueria Tacambra, a taco truck parked behind Canino's Farmer's Market on Airline Drive. Robb Walsh recommended it. Robb was right; the tacos were fantastic. But the real revelation was the salsa. As Robb described it, ". . . it was made out of nothing but cascabel chiles. The dried cascabels had been soaked until soft, pureed and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of garlic. It was a purist's salsa." The salsa was earthy and spicy, but best of all, it was sticky and was certain to adhere to shrimp.

I knew I had my dish.

So I asked some friends over for a 5-course meal that began with this dish. It turned out a little different from Hudson's -- more of a flavor bomb. There was more basil and rum in the ice, and the cascabel salsa was much spicier than Hudson's ancho salsa. In some respects, my version was more far out than Hudson's. You might even call it psychedellic.

Which reminds me, cooking is like improvisational jazz. You might start with a tune that someone else composed, but then it takes another direction when you start to play with it. John Coltrane took the drippy standard "My Favorite Things" and turned it into a trippy, eastern-sounding, psychedellic classic. Jimi Hendrix tore up the National Anthem and created a classic. Of course, I'm no Coltrane or Hendrix. I credit Hudson's for composing an utterly unique idea. But as an amateur cook, I am learning how much fun it is to play with my food.

Here is the recipe for the dish as I made it:

Basil Infused Mojito Ice with Shrimp in Cascabel Puree
Serves 4

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lime juice, about 4 to 6 limes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
2 limes, zested
1/2 cup light rum
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 tsp olive oil
10 dried cascabel chiles
2 tsp olive oil
8 shrimp
8 cups crushed ice

In a small pan over medium heat, add the sugar and water. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear. Set aside to cool.

Put the sugar syrup, lime juice, basil leaves, lime zest, and rum into a blender and blend until smooth. Set in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

Sautee the pressed garlic in 1 tsp olive oil until translucent. Add the dried cascabel chiles. Cover with boiling water. Set aside for at least 20 minutes.

Transfer the cascabel chiles to a food processor with a little of the soaking water. Puree for about 20 seconds. If the mixture is too dry, add more soaking water, but not so much that the mixture is runny and will not adhere to shrimp. Add salt to taste. Place the mixture in a cup.

Sautee the shrimp in 2 tsp olive oil for about 3 minutes – until they turn pink. Remove from heat.

Strain the mojito mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove any solids. Pour into a blender. Add the ice and blend until slushy. Pour into glasses. Dunk each shrimp into the cascabel puree. Place two shrimp in each glass. Garnish with a sprig of basil.

Of course, you don't have to follow my recipe. You can always come up with your own version.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ultra Grain Bread at Central Market

Initially, I was excited to see that Central Market's bakery bas making bread with ConAgra's Ultragrain™. I like CM's bakery so much because their bread doesn't taste like massed-produced grocery store bread. It almost tastes like bread that you might get in France or Italy.

I was interested to learn that CM is using ConAgra's Ultragrain™ a new, specially-milled grain. The idea behind Ultragrain™ is to combine the nutritional content of whole wheat grains with the taste of processed grains. I don't mind whole wheat bread, and ConAgra's marketing suggested that Ultragrain™ tastes much better.

I was very disappointed. The Ultragrain™ bread did not have the usual authentic taste of most CM bread. Surprisingly, it tasted even worse to me than normal whole wheat bread. The texture resembled ordinary whole wheat bread in that it was very dense and dry. But unlike whole wheat bread, the grains seemed very uniform, which made the texture much less interesting, less chewy, and more like the massed-produced texture of ordinary supermarket bread. No one in my house would eat the Ultragrain™ bread, and we ultimately threw it away.

I might expect such a spectactular failure from ConAgra, but not Central Market's bakery.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Top 10 Revisited

Six months ago, I listed my 10 favorite Houston restaurants. In half a year, so much has changed. Two of my four favorites closed. Some others seem to be coasting. Houston has some delightful new additions. And in some instances, I just changed my mind. So, here is my current top 10.

1. Da Marco. Although Da Marco is far too expensive, every dish I have had there has been creative and perfectly executed.

2. Mark’s. Mark’s may not be consistently creative, perhaps because it is too eager to please everyone. But I have had some of the most innovative dishes in Houston there. See my Aug. 29, 2006 post.

3. Noe. My recent visit showed a drop-off in creativity, but excellent execution. The wine list is greatly improved. See my July 19, 2006 post.

4. Indika. Despite some service problems, Indika is serving Houston’s most innovative fusion cuisine in its new, hip location on lower Westheimer. It blows away the best Indian fusion restaurant in New York. See my June 26, 2006 post.

5. Le Mistral. Still my vote for Houston’s best real French food, followed in a close second by Café Rabelais. See my December 17, 2005 post.

6. Benjy’s. From Sunday brunch, to incredible salads, to thin crust pizzas, to Asian fusion dishes, Benjy’s is a fountain of food ideas. The reasonable food prices and a mid-priced list of small production wines also helped boost benjy's into my top 10. See my September 23, 2006 post.

7. Pico’s. Still Houston’s best Mexican food. The interior dishes are the best.

8. Bistro Moderne. Hip and stylish French-American restaurant with a great chef.

9. Hugo’s. Houston’s most creative Mexican food. Hugo’s is a sister restaurant to Backstreet Café, which made my last top 10. Hugo's gets the nod this time because Backstreet seems like it is in a rut. Hugo’s doesn’t. The wine list is by the same guy, and it is great in both restaurants.

10. Pizzeria Enoteca. Yes, it’s just a pizza joint -- but an authetic Italian, gourmet pizza joint. I love the simple and unusual dishes, like truffle egg toast and shaved raw fennel with anchovy oil. I love the specialized, low priced Italian wine list. See my September 15, 2006 post.

Who fell off the list and why:

laidback manor. Houston's best restuarant closed. (whimper, whimper, sob).

Aries. Ditto. See "Mad About Aries" my June 22, 2006 post.

The Strip House. I came to my senses. It is just steak. Even if the steak is really good, the food is not that creative.

Backstreet Café. I love the wine list, but in my last few visits, the food has been a little dull, and the menu seems unchanging. See my September 23, 2006 post.

T’afia. This would have to be # 11. The restaurant is based on some great ideas, and I never turn down a chance to go there. But the food is a little too austere and lacking in big flavors. The creativity seems to be waning a bit. See my September 23, 2006 post.

Ibiza. The wine list remains Houston’s best value. The menu doesn’t change enough to stay interesting. And I’m tired of them serving my least favorite food -- brussel sprouts – as a side on over half the dishes on the menu. See my February 11, 2006 post. If they cut the brusel sprouts, they might make my next top 10.

25 others who come close: Kubo, Rouge, Bank, Pesce, 17, Gravitas, Cafe Rabelais, Mockingbird Bistro, Shade, Glass Wall, Simposio, Sorrento, Quattro, Arcodoro, Damian's, Nino's, Masraff's, Rioja, Cafe Annie, Saffron, Americas, Pappas Steakhouse, Fung's Kitchen, Mai's, Tony's.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Three favorites: Benjy's; Backstreet Cafe; T'afia

When my wife and I started dating in the early 1990s, three of our favorite Houston restaurants were Benjy's, Backstreet Cafe, and Monica Pope's Quilted Toque (followed by Monica Pope's Boulevard Bistro). Over a decade later, three of our favorite Houston restaurants remain Benjy's, Backstreet Cafe, and Monica Pope's T'afia.

Each of these restaurants are hip, upscale, casual, inner Loop eateries. The cuisine at each restaurant incorporates local ingredients with Asian, Southwest, and other international flavors, plus the usual French and Italian techniques. Each has an excellent mid-priced wine list focused on low production wineries. Each one is a gem in the Houston restauarnt scene.

Benjy's may be the best place in Houston to order a salad. Every salad is magical. On a recent trip, I started with a baby arugula salad with candied walnuts, manchego cheese, and mango vinaigrette. It was a perfect balance -- bitter fresh greens with sweet crunchy nuts, a creamy pungent cheese, and sweet and sour dressing. The entree was great too -- sesame crusted ahi tuna with baby bok choy, sticky rice, and soy vinagrette dressing. The dish is a classic 1990s Benjy's dish -- Asian flavors in a very American combination. For a wine, we had the sort of wine we usually find at Benjy's -- Ponzi Arneis, which is an unusual white blend from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

At Backstreet we started with a roasted pear salad with bleu cheese, dried fruit and nuts. In the past, this dish has been a revelation. This time, it was just good. The dish incorporated potatoes, both white and purple, that did not cohere well with the texture and flavor of the pears. My entree of mustard crusted grilled pork chop was better. But the most impressive course was a chocolate cake with a liquid center. This is one of my favorite desserts, and Backstreet did a great job with it. Sean Beck's wine list is always outstanding. I particularly appreciate his recommended wines of the month. We tried a Betts N Scholl Australian Grenache, which reminded me of a big, fruity Chateauneuf du Pape. With dessert, we had a glass of 1975 Abala Pedro Ximinez -- one of the best, most complex glasses of dessert wines that I have had. Although Backstreet's food remains good, it has been in something of a rut lately. The menu just hasn't changed much. But the fascinating, affordable wine list remains a key reason to go here.

T'afia is the oddest restaurant of the three. Although I am a huge fan of Monica Pope's food, I doubt that most of my friends would like her food. It is a little too austere. Yet the restaurant remains consistently crowded, and I always have a good meal. Monica has always focused on local ingredients, exotic ingredients, and local wines. But these days fewer ingredients seem so exotic, and the menu advertises fewer local ingredients or Texas wines. But the food remains dinstinctive and very good. Tonight, my wife and I docused on Monica's vegetarian offerings -- a beet salad with candied walnuts and blue cheese; beer battered mushrooms; bean ravioli with walnut cilatro pesto and a ricotta sauce; and agadashi tofu with soba noodles with portobello mushrooms and endamame and a ginger soy sauce. This style of pan-international cooking is almost retro now -- heavily influenced by the cuisine of Moosewood and Alice Waters in the late 1980s. No dish was a brilliant innovation. No ingredient was new to me. But every dish was tasty. We ended with a small plate of bittersweet chocolate truffles - for $4, they were a taste of heaven.

If I have one complaint about these three restaurants, it is that they are less inventive than they once were. The menus at T'afia and Backstreet have changed very little in the past year. Benjy's changes some menu items frequently, but other dishes are holdovers from the 1990s. On one hand, I hate to see great chefs fall into a rut. I want to experience more of their ideas. On the other hand, if it is a good rut, why question it?

If you haven't tried Benjy's, Backstreet, or T'afia, please do. A two-course dinner without wine at all three restaurants runs about $40 - $50. Despite these reasonable prices, they are among the best restaurants Houston has to offer.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Memo to Mak Chin's


To: Mak Chin’s Inc.

From: Ace Restaurant Marketing Corporation

Re: Marketing Strategy (and menu) for new high volume restaurant.

Location. We ruled out locations on Hillcroft and Bellaire Blvd. to avoid competition from inexpensive, authentic Asian restaurants. We recommend Shepherd Drive just south of I-10, an area of growing income and little real competition for a highly marketed restaurant.

Marketing theme. We have successfully marketed and designed menus for stylized, high volume, "Pan-Asian" fast food establishments like Pei Wei and can repeat that success for your restaurant. We recommend calling your new restaurant Mak Chin’s Asian Bistro. The word “bistro” no longer means cozy, casual French food with wine. Instead, it suggests a “classy casual,” “hip”, and “approachable”, upscale, fast food restaurant.

Marketing logo and décor. You want your restaurant to appear safe, yet exciting and sexy. To add “flair”, your menu and marketing photos will depict mid-century photos of Asian pin-up girls. Asian pin-up girls are exotic and wholesome and deliver great sex appeal. For décor, we suggest investing in an oversized wooden entranceway to create the appearance of class and to justify the relatively high prices for your fast food. We also suggest simple interior décor, with lots of wood and red paint. A minimalist décor will hint at Asian design styles, but more importantly, cut your start-up costs.

Condiment bar. The defining food concept for Mak Chin’s will be a condiment bar with at least 16 different types of Asian condiments. The concept has worked great for Taco Cabana and Café Express, and it will be a real innovation in the Asian restaurant genre. Because many consumers are spice-adverse, we recommend you serve bland dishes and then let customers create their own flavors and adjust levels of spice through the condiments. You can give them options like hot chili paste, sweet and sour sauce, grated ginger, jalapenos, and hot Chinese mustard. You also should serve some unusual condiments, like Kim Chee. This high visibility / low consumption item will suggest authenticity, but will cost you very little because no one will actually eat it.

The condiment bar embodies the concept of “consumer freedom.” At Pei Wei, the menu gives consumers the “freedom” to pick the meat to match the sauce. But at Mak Chin’s the condiment bar will give consumers the “freedom” to match basic food choices with their own “flavor profile.” That saves your “chefs” from guessing how to flavor customer's food.

Menu. Our team of marketing specialists has designed a menu of trend-wise "Pan-Asian" dishes. They borrow heavily from the Pei Wei / P.F. Chang’s niche. As P.F. Chang's found, American consumers love familiar dishes, safe ingredients, light spices, and large quantities of sugar. For instance, we suggest “tender pork in garlic sauce -- a stir fry of ordinary pork meat, a tiny hint of garlic, thinly sliced bell peppers, canned bamboo shoots, jicama, and a bland sauce with a lot of sugar. Although the servings will be large, the dish relies on shoots and jicama to add much of the bulk for a very low cost. On the side, you should offer brown rice because consumers think it is “healthy.” We also recommend “classic” sides like hot and sour soup, an egg roll, and a small plate of Chinese mustard and sweet and sour sauce, stylishly swirled together. The price point on this and similar dishes will be in the $9 - $12 range. Our marketing strategy will ensure that consumers are happy to pay this price, even though your costs will be as low a fast food restaurant.

It has been a great pleasure for our corporation to work with your corporation in designing the marketing strategy (and menu) for this new, profitable venture. We anticipate a regional expansion to suburban areas with the opening of multiple new locations within a five-year strategic growth term. We wish you and your shareholders the greatest financial success.

[Author's note: I wrote this based on my initial impression of Mak Chin's. Mak Chin's has now changed, and I like it much more, as I discuss here.]

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Rapture: Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .”
-Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Forgive the quote. I’m just trying to explain how I finally got a table at Dolce Vita Pizzaria Enoteca. I have been trying to go to Marco Wiles’ pizzeria on lower Wetheimer for almost a year, but every time I call, they have an hour-plus wait. A few weeks ago, it was Tuesday and raining, and I finally got a table.

Dolce Vita did not just meet my expectations. It blew them away.

The first thing I noticed was that the music and vibe of the restaurant were ultra hip. Even on a rainy Tuesday, customers were casual chic. Speakers were blaring neo post-punk dance music from seriously cool bands like LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture. Since it was a slow night, our beautiful hostess relaxed and began grooving. Then our handsome, suave waiter appeared. His name was Jesus.

Jesus recommended we start with escarole salad, which came with a ceasar-like dressing, anchovies, shaved parmesan, and a lot of lemon juice. This refreshingly bitter salad was a perfect way to wake up my palate. And it was one of the best variations on a ceasar salad I have had since 17 took a Caesar salad and fried it. I was beginning to put my faith in Jesus.

Next, Jesus said the truffled egg toast was good. Actually, it was incredible. To make this brilliantly simple dish, the chef took a thick slice of country bread, cracked an egg on top, threw it in the pizza oven, and then sprinkled it with truffle oil. The egg came out over-easy and upside-down. When I touched it with a fork, the yolk spilled all over the bread, mingling with the truffle oil. The gooey texture reminded me of the classic breakfast dish, egg-in-toast. But the rich flavor of truffles put the dish over the top. After all, truffle oil is a gift from God.

Finally, Jesus said we might like a pizza with taleggio cheese, arugula, pears, and truffle oil. Dominated by arugula, this was one of those salad-on-a-pizza type dishes, which are becoming a little too trendy. But this one was outstanding. The crust was crunchy and thin, exactly like pizzas I tried in Italy. The cheese, taleggio, is a very pungent, stinky, creamy cheese that can be overpoweringly funky. On this pizza, though, it struck a nice balance with the bitter greens and sweet pear slices. I didn’t taste much truffle oil, but my truffle taste buds may have been overwhelmed by the previous dish. No matter. By this third dish, I was having my own kind of religious experience – culinary rapture.

Our food cost less than $30 for two. Jesus tried to push desert, but we were stuffed.

The wine list is one of the best specialized lists in Houston. It has a large, eclectic selection of interesting Italian wines, made from unusual varietals in rare regions like Umbria and Sicily. Most bottles cost between $15 and $50. If you need a recommendation, ask Jesus.

Some of Houston’s best chefs have had problems with their “second” restaurants when they tried to go casual. Dolce Vita proves that a second restaurant can work. It proves inexpensive food can be original and full of flavor. And it proves that a value wine list can be exciting.

I will be rushing back to Dolce Vita -- on the next dark and stormy night.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro

I really like some Pan-Asian food. A talented chef can play off of traditional Asian dishes with great results. Consider the excellent Pan-Asian dishes served at some of Houston's best restaurants, like Noe, Bank, and Benjy's. Or the outstanding Pan-Asian dishes at cheaper restaurants like Bamboo House and Mo Mong. These restaurants all incorporate Asian cuisine, but concsiously depart from tradition to good effect.

In contrast, the Pan-Asian food at Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro just seems sort of clueless.

The Dragon Bowl is a new cafe in the Heights on W. 11th at Shepherd. In some respects it is a welcome addition to the Heights, which needs good Asian food. The only other decent Asian restaurant in the area is the excellent Vietnamese Restaurant. Given this lack of neighborhood competition, Dragon Bowl isn't bad. But it also is not worth driving across town to visit.

An obvious misfire is Dragon Bowl's rice. The rice consists of dry, individual, long white grains -- the kind of rice a white American cook would make. They are not the short and sticky grains usually served with real Asian food. The problem with Dragon Bowl's rice is that the clumps fall apart when you try to eat with chopsticks. (Advice to chef: add one third more water to the rice cooker if you want to solve this problem.)

Then there is Dragon Bowl's bulgogi. It also doesn't taste much like the real thing. Real bulgogi is thinly sliced beef with a sweet and spicy hot marinade. See my August 31, 2006 post. Dragon Bowl's version is more like a shish kabob of teriyaki-marinated and grilled flank steak. The meat is too thick, and it is neither sweet nor spicy. But they do add some sweet marinated onions and a bit of Chinese chili sauce on the side. You might call it a "deconstructed" bulgogi if it wasn't so obviously out of touch with the real thing.

Similarly, the Super Udon Bowl is a huge mish mash of udon, large pieces of carrots and bell peppers, chewy tofu, and a few pieces of shrimp. The mild sauce seems to consist of soy, sugar, and a little ginger. It is the sort of Pan Asian dish I would make at home. Of course, I'm not Japanese. Nor was this dish.

On the plus side, every dish at Dragon Bowl is under $10. The portions are generous. The food doesn't taste like a chain restaurant. And there is something about the restaurant that is oddly approachable -- perhaps the fact that you can see them cook behind the counter.

I probably will return to Dragon Bowl. It is kind of fun to watch them massacre traditional Asian dishes, but come up with something fairly decent in the process. The next time I am going to try "Pad Thai', which comes with real "Thai noodles", "a tangy tamarind sauce," and "shitake mushrooms." That should be fun.

UDATE (9/24/06): So I tried the Pad Thai. Although it wasn't the best in town, it was very good. A few minor aspects seemed a bit off. The "tangy tamarind sauce" was a little too tangy, and not quite as sweet, as the perfect Pad Thai. Also, instead of crushed peanuts on top, this Pad Thai was toped with some other sort of crushed granules -- possibly garlic. And the shitake mushrooms, a Japanese ingredient, seemed a little out of place, even if they were tasty. But this dish worked because of the outstanding noodles. When I try to cook Pad Thai, I alway damage the noodles, leaving them undercooked, burnt, or sticking to the pan. Many Thai restaurants ruin Pad Thai by adding too many bean sprouts to the noodles. In contrast, Dragon Bowl's noodles had the perfect consistency, with few pesky bean sprouts added. Even if not completely authentic, this is an outstanding dish for $8 and one of the best Pad Thais in miles.

Dragon Bowl is neither authentic nor creative fusion high cuisine. But the food is satisfying and far, far better than nearest Pan Asian bistro competitor -- Mak Chin's. See my September 16 post. Unlike Mak Chin's, the food at Dragon Bowl is the creation of a real chef.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Lucio’s BYOB and Grill recently opened next to Gravitas at 905 Taft. After Fox Diner moved from this address, it has housed many restaurants that failed quickly: Café Zoro, Saltwater Grill, Mom’s Cookin’, and Annabelle’s Diner (a “bring your own dog” restaurant).

Like the previous inhabitants, Lucio’s does not fit neatly into any categories. You might call it a quirky, unconsciously retro, mid-priced café with Louisiana Creole and Italian influences. But however you classify it, Lucio’s is anti-trendy. It is not the kind of place that was created by a restaurant marketing expert. It is the kind of place you would expect was opened by an untrained cook after all his friends said, “Lucio, you cook real good. Why don’t you open a restaurant?”

And when you order correctly, the chef at Lucio’s does cook real good. My friend knew exactly what to get. He started with spinach and artichoke dip, a laughably quaint dish, like jello mold with fruit. But Lucio’s makes the best spinach dip I have ever had. They use a creamy, funky ingredient (blue cheese?) that gives it a really thick texture and powerful flavor. They serve the dip on odd fried bread triangles that resemble beignets. This “appetizer” was so heavy that even half of it would fill me up for the rest of the day. I only recommend it for parties of 8 or more, or the extremely large.

Next, my friend ordered pecan crusted chicken. This dish is a little more modern – it was popular in the late 80s. The bite I tried was crispy and had a great, nutty flavor. My friend wisely opted to substitute sautéed spinach for the usual side of fettucini alfredo.

Finally, my friend ordered bread pudding. It looked less like pudding, and more like three small pieces of French toast with butter. But the “toast” was very dense and tasted like bread pudding, and the “butter” was a sweet sauce. It was one of the best bread puddings that I have had.

Unlike my friend, I had not yet figured out Lucio’s when I tried to order something light and trendy (circa 2000), a seared tuna salad. The salad was odd, as though the chef had heard the concept of a seared tuna salad, but never actually tasted one. Instead of the usual Asian flavors, it combined ordinary ingredients from a cheap Italian dinner salad -- oily Italian dressing, romaine lettuce, red onions and canned black olives. The tuna was a dense, coarse, and meaty fish with strong flavor. It probably was albacore, which is not the best kind of tuna to sear. Searing should be reserved for creamier, higher quality tuna, like blue fin. In contrast, albacore deserves to be fully cooked and smothered in sauce, like puttanesca. Although the quantity of tuna was generous, I wished they had served half as much and used tuna twice as good.

Don’t worry about reservations. Lucio’s is off to a slow start. At noon, we were two of only four customers. I am rooting for Lucio’s to survive because it is loveable. I say “loveable” because it is so cluelessly unfashionable, and sincerely good.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Creative sashimi

I had a great sashimi dish at Roy's in Austin. The dish suggests the possibilities of what a creative chef can do with raw fish.

The dish was suzuki (sea bass). It came on top of a small bed of an unusual tree-like seaweed. The suzuki was drizzled with a little yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), paper-thin slices of serrano peppers, grey sea salt from France, and a few leaves of a Japanese micro green, which was growing on a shelf in the kitchen. These minor accompanyments brought out flavors of the fish without overwhelming it.

The dish was a brilliant variation on typical sushi flavors. The yuzu replaced lemon, which is frequently served with fish and occasionally with sushi or sashimi. It gave the dish an exotic flavor. The sea salt replaced soy sauce. In addition to sodium, it added an unusual, crunchy texture. The serrano replaced wasabi for spicy heat. The dish did not ignore the traditional preparation, but it was very unique.

Some of the best, most creative sashimi dishes have been created by gourmet American chefs. Rather than relying solely Japanese tradition or trying to pander to American tastes by frying or adding sweet sauces, these chefs use simple flavors that accent sashimi and give it unique flavors and textures. For instance, in 2000 at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, I tried yellow tail sashimi with cauliflower puree with a few micro greens on top. I usually do not like cauliflower, but it was an inspired pairing with the yellow tail. It was an incredible little dish that proved to me that sashimi can be made new and interesting, without sacrificing its simplicity.

Roy's is a national chain of upscale Hawaiian restaurants founded by star chef Roy Yamaguchi. All four of my meals at Roy's in Hawaii and Austin have been outstanding. Hawaiian cuisine is a combination of flavors and cooking styles from Polynesia, Hawaii, Japan, China, and the mainland. It has emerged as one of the great American regional cuisines in the last 20 years. If you can't make it to Hawaii, Roy's has locations in Austin and Dallas. I wish they would open one in Houston.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Catalan - a quick first glance

Catalan is the new restaurant on Washington Avenue brought to us by Ibiza's Charles Clark, Grant Cooper, and Chris Shepard and former Da Marco sommelier Antonio Gianola. It opened on Wednesday, and I tried it today for lunch.

Lunch probably is not the best time to go to Catalan. The restaurant focuses on wine and tapas. But at lunch, they don't serve tapas, and I don't drink wine. Still, if my lunch is any indication, Catalan is a great addition to the Houston restaurant scene.

The real standout was a garlic soup with a soft egg floating in it. The soup had a smooth, viscous texture and tasted great. It was even better when I broke open the egg and stirred around the yolk. What a great idea to float an egg in soup.

I also tried two pressed sandwiches. One was a pulled chicken sandwich, which came with ham, avocado and a white cheese. I loved the texture of the pressed bread, but I did not think the taste of the other ingredients was very special. In contrast, a lamb and mint sandwich was outstanding. The combination made so much sense, but you don't see it that often in sandwiches.

Like Ibiza, the main reason to go to Catalan may be the outstanding wine list and prices. Like Ibiza, these wines are priced around 1/2 to 2/3 the price of most other restaurants in town. For instance, the 2004 Far Niente Chardonnay is $115 at tony's and $75 at Catalan. The 2002 Caymus Special Selection is $350 at tony's and the 2003 vintage is $155 at Catalan. Fortunately, the majority of Catalan's wines are in the $30 - $50 range and are far more interesting than Far Niente and Caymus. There are a lot of wines from wonderfull lesser-known regions like Friuli (Italy), Jura and Zamora (Spain), and Lake County (California). Plus, the list looks quite long -- at least 250 different wines.

The interior of Catalan reminds me of a smaller and more informal version of Ibiza. But don't expect "Ibiza light." The menu looks entirely new. Our waiter told us that one of the best items at night is "pork pops" which are made from pork bellies and rum. He also mentioned fried balls of foie gras.


Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ko-mart: the Korean food court surprise

I found a wonderful surprise at Ko-mart, a Korean grocery store on Gessner just north of I-10. In a corner of the store, they have food stalls with about five different vendors. One has dessert. One has sushi. And the other three have traditional Korean food.

I went to the one of the stands and ordered bulgogi -- a popular Korean dish made from thin slices of sirloin marinaded in soy sauce, pear juice, sesame oil, garlic, onions, ginger, wine, pepper, and sugar. Although bulgogi is often grilled, I think this dish was pan cooked, along with onions, green onions, and shredded carrots. It was slightly sweet, slightly spicy, and very tasty. The generous portion of beef came with a bowl of rice, miso soup, a side of spicy bean sprouts, and a side of kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage).

This did not taste like food court food or even fast food. It tasted like a carefully made homecooked meal. It also was a lot of food.

Here is the surprise: my wonderful meal costs $5. No tax. No tip. It is hard to buy a fast food meal, or a even Starbuck's coffee, for that price.

I must admit, Bulgogi is "beginner" Korean food, and I am just a beginner. In the future I am going to try one of the more exotic dishes, like Korean sausage or blood soup. Fortunately, the vendors hang helpful photos to show me what the different dishes look like -- so I won't be too surprised.

There may be better Korean food in Houston, but there certainly is no better Korean food for the price.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Coming Soon: The Oceanaire Seafood Room

I am excited about a new Minneapolis-based seafood chain opening in the Galleria area this fall -- The Oceanaire Seafood Room. I tried the Dallas location last night and was very impressed.

I was not inclined to like the Oceanaire. I despise chain restaurants. They tend to lack real character. And the food usually lacks innovation. More importantly, my mother told me never to order seafood more than 60 miles from the ocean. Dallas is about 300 miles from the ocean. And the Oceanaire is based in Minnesota.

But the Oceanaire works because it is part of a relatively new trend that I call "airmailed seafood." High end seafood chains send buyers around the world to find interesting seafood, flash freeze it, and then airmail it overnight to the kitchens. As my waiter at the Oceanaire said, "most of our fish were swimming yesterday." That is pretty remarkable when the fish come from all over the world. For airmailed seafood, a big chain has a real advantage because of its buying power.

Consider two of Houston's best seafood restaurants -- Pesce and McCormick & Schmick's. Pesce is tops for gourmet seafood preparations in Houston. But it is not a chain, and their menu does not offer that much variety in the kinds of seafood. In contrast, McCormick & Schmick's is a huge chain. They have far more buying power, and therefore a much greater variety. For instance, on an average night, McCormick usually offers at least 12 different kinds of oysters from all over North America, plus a variety of fish like thresher shark from California, black grouper from the South Atlantic, or monkfish from New Jersey. Pesce has more interesting fish preparations. McCormick has more interesting fish.

The Oceanaire is a lot like McCormick & Schmick's - a huge variety of airmailed seafood. But if my one dish is any indication, the Oceanaire may be slightly better. I ordered a pan seared Virginian black sea bass, a fish I had never had. It was a thick white fish similar to black cod or Chilean sea bass, but the individual flakes of fish were thicker. Although I rarely eat fish skin, this skin had a tasty, crunchy crust. The fish was served with polenta and some sauteed tomatoes. The preparation was simple, but all the elements worked together to provide contrasting and complementing textures and flavors. Somewhere in the corporate hierarchy, a smart chef had given this fish a lot of thought and individual attention.

Like McCormick, the Oceanaire is purposefully retro. The inside is simultaneously elegant and cheesy. It is made to resemble a dining room in a 1930s cruise ship. The prices seeme higher than McCormick, but then the portions are larger. The waiter told me twice that most fish portions are over 18 oz. It is a good restaurant to split an appetizer, an entree, and a side.

Although scheduled opening dates frequently change, the Oceanaire currently plans to open here in late October or early November. If you decide to go, make a reservation. In Dallas, on a Tuesday night, the Oceanaire was reservation-only and every table was full.

(UPDATE: The Oceanaire, Houston is open for business, and I have tried it.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I have not been able to make my mind up about Mark’s. During some visits, I think the food may be the best in Houston. During other visits, I find it unextraordinary. Now I may know why.

Last Saturday, I tried a several outstanding, creative dishes. The best was black cod with foie gras butter. Black cod may be my favorite fish. It is a big, flaky white fleshed fish with a firm texture and buttery taste. The most famous preparation of this fish may be black cod marinated in miso by Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of Nobu. Black cod marries well with the creaminess of miso. As Mark’s Chef Mark Cox has discovered, black cod also marries well with the creaminess of a sauce made with butter, wine, and foie gras. To make the dish even more interesting, Cox adds broccolini, tiny flavorful mushrooms (chanterelles?), fingerling potatoes, micro greens, and white pea shoots. The dish is complex, rich, and endlessly fascinating.

My wife ordered a ceasar salad. It was very good, but nothing original. Similarly, on an earlier visit, I ordered a seared beef tenderloin, which was served with mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The dish was executed well, but nothing about it was daring or interesting.

In short, Mark’s serves some dishes that are far more creative than any dish at tony’s. But not all of Mark’s dishes are innovative. Some other restaurants, such as laidback manor, have a more consistently creative streak. Yet Mark’s is almost always crowded.

Mark's combination of creative and ordinary dishes may be intentional. Mark's pleases all tastes -- real foodies as well as the steak-and-potatoes crowd. Everything is good. You just have to know which crowd you are in and order accordingly. When I have been disappointed at Mark’s, it was because I ordered food that was too mainstream. In the future, I will ask the waiter, “What is your most interesting dish tonight?” If I keep ordering the most unusual dish, Mark’s may again become my favorite restaurant in Houston.

If you have never been to Mark’s you should know that prices are very expensive. The wine list is excellent, but not one of the very best in Houston. The location on lower Westheimer has previously been a church, a head shop, and a pizza restaurant. It’s pretty, but there are more elegant places to eat. The real reason to go to Mark's is the food. If you go, you really owe it to yourself to try to order something more interesting than steak and potatoes.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Trip to Hong Kong City Mall

"Nobody stopped thinking about those psychedelic experiences. Once you've been to some of those places, you think, 'How can I get back there again but make it a little easier on myself?'"

-Jerry Garcia

I am driving outside the Beltway on Bellaire to Hong Kong City Mall. To prepare myself, I am playing "Dub Side of the Moon" - a reggae/dub cover version of the whole album of Pink Floyd's, "Dark Side of the Moon." Dub music is very trippy, and so is "Dark Side of the Moon." The combination of the two is pleasantly disorienting. And so is Hong Kong City Mall.

The mall has grown into a huge series of Chinese and Vietnamese shops and restaurants. The shops specialize in Asian music, DVD's, and hair styles. The restaurants sell Pho, Banh Mi, and Asian baked goods. But the highlight of the mall is the giant Hong Kong Market - the most wonderfully strange supermarket in Houston.

For an American of Western heritage, the foods at Hong Kong Market are downright weird. They sell some giant durian - the world's foulest smelling fruit - that are larger than my 7 year-old. They sell unimaginable varieties of fungus and Vietnamese herbs, giant thin purple eggplants, bitter melon, fresh water chestnuts, lime green gelatinous baked goods, dried fish parts, and animal parts that would never appear in a Western supermarket. In the produce section and at the fish counter, I don't recognize even half the products. They even have a whole aisle for products you can use to build your own little Buddhist shrine.

The market also has some incredible deals. I buy a large bag of bay leaves, which usually cost around $6, for 69 cents. I buy a tin of Jasmine tea, usually over $5, for less than $2. I also buy some strange products that I will almost certainly regret, like bitter melon tea. It cost less than $1, so it is worth trying.

It's lunchtime, so I buy this package wrapped in banana leaves and tied with a pretty bow. It is called "BanhChung" and it lists the ingredients as "rice, pork, mung bean, salt, pepper, banana leaves, onions, and msg." I untie it and find a square block of sticky rice. The first bite of rice isn't bad. I like the texture. Then I try the meat inside. It is savory, very salty, and has an odd flavor I can't quite pinpoint. It looks a bit like cat food. Then, after a few seconds, I start to recognize the taste . . . that's it! -- It's Spam! I stop eating. Suddenly a good trip has taken a turn for the worse. I start to feel a little dizzy -- maybe from the msg -- and nauseous -- probably from the Spam.

When I get home, I brew some Thai tea that I bought. It is flavored with star anise. The flavor reminds me of a milk and tea drink my grandmother used to make me. Or maybe the flavor is the combination of tea and anise cookies. The tea calms my stomach and brings me back from the nauseating experience of the block of rice and Spam.

When you don't know what you are doing, a trip to Hong Kong market can be very strange. Some surprises are pleasant; others are disturbing. It may help to have a guide -- someone who knows what the trip there is like and who can point you the right way.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 5 - Kojak's Deli

Some posts on say Kojak's Deli (on 18th near T.C. Jester) is one of Houston's best restaurants. These are their breathless comments:

"Kojak's is some of the most amazing food I have ever had the pleasure to eat!!! Everything that Chef Mark creates is a glorious experience for my taste buds."

"Mark is a trained chef and always has great food and extraordinarily reasonable prices!!!!"

"Simply put, one of the best restaurants in Houston."

I have been to Kojak's twice. It is an ordinary deli with unexceptional food.

Most of the menu consists of standard, uncreative sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes. For instance, a pasta special with sun dried tomato came with two different pasta shapes, jarred red peppers, garlic, olives, olive oil, and a little parmesan Other than using two pasta shapes, which I would never do, it is the sort of pasta dish I might whip up at home after about 10 seconds thought. The other menu pastas are equally uninteresting -- linguini with marinara and meatballs, linguini with chicken and alfredo sauce, and linguini alfredo.

Another special, a pork tenderloin sandwich, was served on very good pressed bread, much like a real Cuban sandwich. But the inside was less interesting. Instead of large chunks of marinated pork, the sandwich used thin, watery slices. The pork was served with provolone cheese, a few sauteed peppers, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and a nice, slightly sweet sauce. It was good quality, but I have made far better pork tenderloin sandwiches at home. You can also order even less interesting sandwiches -- a burger, tuna melt, veggie burger, and a chicken club.

Kojak's is fine - maybe slightly better than a Jason's Deli. But it is not "amazing" or "glorious" or "one of the best restaurants in Houston." It is not even one of the best 300 restaurants in Houston. In fact, there are at least three other delis in town that begin with a "K" and serve much better food - Kahn's, Katz's, Kenny & Ziggy's.

You simply can't trust online food reviews. A review might be written by a competitor. Or the restaurant's owner. Or a real customer who doesn't get out very often. Or a kid spaced out on psychedellic drugs.

Or an opinionated food snob like me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 4 - Vung Thai

"The lunch buffet offered everything I was planning to order so I tried it. Wonderful. I'll be back. Inexpensive as well, the buffet is $5.50."

-Review of Vung Thai on

Near northwest Houston is an interesting little corner of the city that has a lot of quirky, Mom and Pop, Americanized restaurants. The area has no fine dining, few chain restaurants, and almost no authentic ethnic restaurants. That is, none except Vung Thai.

Vung Thai fits the region in many respects. First, it is a quirky dump. The tables have bright yellow plastic tablecloths. The bottom half of the walls is tacky wood paneling, and the top half is painted bright lime green. There are some cheap decorations, an ugly fish tank, and metal and vinyl diner chairs. Some reviewers on allege that it is "dirty." But it's not dirty, just cheap.

Second, this place feels like a Mom and Pop shop. It is the opposite of Nit Noi, a decent Thai restaurant that grew too big and opened too many locations with suspiciously upscale decor.

I have had a hard time deciding whether Vung Thai authentic or Americanized. Is it real Thai food? Or is it Americanized like so many other restaurants in the area that claim to be "Chinese", "Italian", and "Mexican"?

My favorite restaurant reviewer, Robb Walsh, discovered Vung Thai in 2001:

Robb said the restaurant was authentic: "The food tastes like the kind your Mom would make if she were Thai." He also said the spice was really hot: "I like my food pretty damn hot, but I still find this heat level a tad too high."

In the 6 years since Robb's review, Vung Thai has changed. First, they have toned down the spice. Recently, I have tried at least 8 dishes, and I even requested some of them extra spicy. None was very hot at all. In fact, the spice was milder than many Thai restaurants around Houston. For instance, the basil chicken had far less pepper and basil than the wonderful version at Nit Noi downtown. (But, strangely, Vung Thai's version is spicier and better than the mediocre version at Nit Noi in Rice Village). And of course the spice level here is nowhere close to my favorite Thai restaurant in town - Kanomwon.

Second, the Americanization has begun. At lunch Vung Thai now serves a quaint buffet. It only has six items: tom yum soup, two kinds of spring rolls, pad thai, a curry, and a tofu-based entree. The curry is very mild. The pad thai has very little of the fish sauce and tamarind flavors that I expect from a good pad thai. And the tofu dish is downright dull -- an afterthought with lots of cabbage that seems to be included to please vegetarian customers. The only thing exceptional about this little buffet is the very cheap price: $5.50. The buffets at Patu and Thai Spice are much more extensive and much more interesting, but they cost twice as much.

Vung Thai is still home cooking in the sense that the vegetables are sliced unevenly and there is no attempt at presentation. Unlike the food at Nit Noi, which resembles the highly produced sound of Britney Spears in the 90s, Vung Thai's food remains more like the sound of the Rolling Stones in the 70s -- sloppy, ugly, and tasty.

Vung Thai remains a quirky little restaurant with home cooking, but the food has been changed by its location. Ultimately, most restaurants -- even funky Mom and Pop restaurants -- cannot resist the pressures of their environment. A restaurant's cuisine is not just the product of an isolated chef. It also is the product of the customers, the surrounding culture, and even the local air and water. When it opened, Vung Thai may have resembled a real Thai home kitchen, but it is becoming more and more like near northwest Houston.

UPDATE (June 4, 2007): Vung Thai seems to have changed owners, changed its name, and changed the items on its lunch buffet. My verdict is still out on the new restaurant.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


My first experience at tony's was awful. It was New Year's Eve in 1999. The old location in the Post Oak area was dark and stuffy, coats were required, the prices were outrageous, and the food was no better than banquet food. It was the worst rip-off I have experienced. Sure, a big part of the problem was that I went on New Year's Eve. But I was still unimpressed. It felt like a restaurant on its last leg.

But tony's was reborn in Greenway Plaza, and I finally tried it. Tony's has not recaptured its long-lost status as Houston's best restaurant. But it is the place to go for elegance. And for a foodie, it's not bad.

The most impressive aspect is the interior design. The stand-alone building is modern, elegant, and bright. Initially, you walk in through a door between two walls of running water. Inside, the emphasis is on glass, Mediterranean colors, and an almost Asian modernist feel. It also incorporates pieces by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles. Along with Trevisio, 17, Quattro, Americas, and Uptown Sushi, it is one of the most creative restaurant designs in Houston. It also may be the most elegant. Yet the feel is now younger, a little more casual and less stuffy, which befits the new location near West U.

Tony's is known for its service, and it was good. The waiters were knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly. But not flawless. They dropped a drink next to our table, and never picked up some large ragged shards of glass next to my chair. They also seated our party of non-socialites in Siberia, even though the restaurant had plenty of interior tables. By the time we finished, we were completely alone, even though the interior of the restaurant was buzzing. At least dining in quiet allowed us to focus on the food.

Unfortunately, the food is not the main reason to dine at tony's. The menu choices are not tired or clichéd, but they are fairly safe. The focus is on top quality, expensive ingredients in simple preparations. Most dishes are well prepared, but few dishes amount to more than the sum of their parts. And there was almost nothing on the menu that I have not had previously at another restaurant. These are some examples that I tasted:

-Veal with a morel mushroom sauce was the best dish I tried. I did not know what to expect because I find veal dull, but morrels are one of my favorite ingredients. Fortunately, the morels dominated the dish and made it sing.

-Rabbit with garlic, olives, and porcini mushroom sauce. This was one giant rabbit -- legs much bigger than a large chicken. Unfortunately, the sauce was a little too acidic and vinegary and did little to integrate or enhance the tastes of the rabit, garlic, and olives.

-Ravioli with braised short ribs. Dull. Dull. Dull. And it did not have to be. I have had similar dishes that were far better, such as the ravioli with brawn at laidback manor. At tony's, the short rib meat was remarkably flavorless. The white cream sauce was advertised as "sage essence" but I barely tasted any sage. I only tasted a white and creamy blandness.

-Pasta with shaved truffles. The truffles were great. It is rare for a restaurant to freshly shave the truffle on a dish at the table, which was really neat. The rest of the dish was just a vehicle for the taste of truffle. There was no interesting combination. It was the sum of its parts, but one part was really good.

-Bosc pear salad with gorgonzola. Passable, but dull. I have made much better salad with pears and cheese at home. The dressing did little to bring the flavor of the pears and cheese to life. Again, the sum of its parts.

-Chocolate Souffle. Everyone orders tony's souffle. They have one chef whose sole job is to make it. It is huge and fluffy, but they use far too much sugar. The sugar not only makes the dish too sweet, but it makes the texture too grainy. I have had much better versions of the same dish at other restaurants in Houston, such as Le Mistral. Tony's version was fun, like cotton candy is fun. But it was not great.

Finally, the wine list is one of the best in town. If money is no object, they have four good vintages of Screaming Eagle at about $2,500, and 100+ year-old wines from Bordeaux for over $10,000. But they also have a good selection of wines from around the world in the $50 range, and a great selection of wines in the $100 range.

Tony's is expensive, elegant, and fun. Plus, the food is reasonably good. But of six dishes, only one was magic. That is why tony's is no longer the best. There are at least 10 other restaurants in town with a higher batting average.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 3 - Jazzie's Cafe

Once again, I go to for a recommendation on a restaurant in near northwest Houston. I find a lot of people talking about the shrimp po-boy at a little food stand on W. 19th east of Shepherd called Jazzie's Cafe.

There are two good reasons why people are so proud of finding this spot. First, Jazzie's has Houston's best shrimp po-boy. It has long amazed me that no restaurant in Houston could replicate the unique flavor of a shrimp or oyster po-boy from New Orleans. Some cajun restaurants, like New Orleans Po-Boy, don't get the bread right. Others, like Rajin' Cajun, don't get the filling right. Still others cajun restaurants, like Treebeards, don't even bother with trying.

But Jazzie's pulls it off. Their shrimp po-boy comes on fresh french bread. It is perfectly dressed -- just the right amount of mayo, lettuce, and tomatoes. It also includes a huge quantity of perfectly fried shrimp. The readers on b4-u-eat all gush:

-"VERY GOOD shrimp po-boy"

-"their po-boys are excellent"

-"This place has an awesome shrimp po-boy ... nearly a foot long on a fresh soft baguette, properly dressed ... I could only eat half of it. On the half I didn't eat, I counted 22 good-sized shrimp. The thing was stuffed! It was easily the best shrimp po-boy I've found in Houston."

This time, I agree with their 4-sentence reviews. Jazzie's sells a great shrimp po-boy. It tastes more like New Orleans than any other po-boy in Houston.

But there is a second reason why the b4-u-eat reviewers and I love Jazzie's. Part of the joy -- and part of the reason we want to tell others about it -- is our surprise and pride in the journey we took to find such a perfect food in such an unexpected place. To get to Jazzie's, you have to drive down an ugly side street in a dull part of town to find a dingy little stand that doesn't look like it could possibly be any good. And when you find it is good, you know it must be authentic. This joy of discovery is why so many Inner Loopers love joints like Lankford Grocery and Market and Christian's Tailgate -- dirty looking shacks that sell sandwiches so good that they could only be made with some authentic, primitive magic, unknown to our civilized, urban world.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 2 - Texas Cafeteria

As I continue to search Near NW Houston for restaurant finds, I again turn to the populist restaurant review site, I discover a joint on Shepherd near the North Loop called Texas Cafeteria. See if you can catch the common theme in these reviews:

“Do not let the outside scare you off.”

“Probably would'nt [sic.] think twice to stop in if you were driving by.”

“Won't find any Roll Royces in the parking lot, it is a working class group that goes there.”

Everyone agrees: Texas Cafeteria is butt-ugly. From the parking lot, it looks like they only let in customers who drive beat up pickup trucks. So as an adventurous, anonymous, amateur food critic, this was a place I had to try.

A litmus test for cafeteria food is the rolls. At Texas Cafeteria, they serve hot, yeasty clover rolls that are the Platonic ideal of cafeteria rolls. And they are free!

The rest of the food is mixed quality, but generally decent. The only healthy entrée I noticed on my first visit was a grilled chicken breast with some bell peppers, mushrooms, and a little cheese on top. The dish was nothing special, but at about $6 for the main course, 2 veggies, and a roll, it was a steal. On my next visit, I succumbed to the lure of the fish special – some chunks (not fillets) of catfish or tilapia that were fried fresh to order. This fish was hot and crispy, yet not greasy. It came with a few fried shrimp that were good sized and, amazingly, deveined. Again, at about $6, the dish was a real bargain. Most of the veggies looked over-cooked or over-cheesed. I ordered the sweet potatoes, which turned out to be over-cooked and over-sweetened, but not too badly.

In short, the food is fine, but nothing to drive across town for. I hear their breakfast is good, but have not tried it.

The real reason to come here is the atmosphere. Inside are photos, wood paneling, and lots of fishing memorabilia. It feels like a hangout in a small town. About 80% of the customers are men – working men. Many of them have their name sewn onto their shirt pockets. The owner plays fishing videos and football clips (even in the summer off-season). Plus, the nice serving ladies keep your ice tea glass full.

Cafeterias are a phenomenon of the South, and Texas Cafeteria feels like the South. It is the new South – a mix of whites, blacks, and Mexican Americans. But in other ways it is not so diverse. It is very male and very blue collar. Nope, you won’t find many foodies here. Or intellectuals. Or metrosexuals. Or (gasp) Yankees. And you might be a little overwhelmed by all the fishing stuff, pickup trucks, fried fish, and over-cooked sweet potatoes. But you also might just relax and enjoy the feeling that aliens have beamed you up from urban, inner-Loop Houston and transported you to a quaint, small-town Texas cafeteria.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 1 - Golden Cafe

I am exploring the region that I call "near northwest Houston." This region is described in my last post

Because I am exploring this region for the first time, I need a guide. I cannot look to food critics Robb Walsh and Alison Cook because they rarely review any restaurants here. The region also is not well represented on Citysearch. Instead, the best guide for the area is -- the best site for populist restaurant reviews written by average folk. These 4-sentence reviewers don't think too much of fancy food, and they love their bargains.

Armed with, I ran a search to find the best Asian food in the area. The best reviews were for Golden Cafe. These were some of the gushing comments taken from the 4 most recent reviews [with my reactions in brackets]:

-"I have tried almost every Chinese restaurant in the area, and this is by far the best of the best. They are extremely clean and friendly." ["Clean waiters" -- that's a real plus.]

-"the food is great, abundant and reasonably priced." ["Abundant" sounds like "overweight"].

-"Excellent high quality food. I'm picky about white meat chicken and don't have to worry about that here. It's all white meat." [Someone should tell her that real Chinese chefs prefer dark meat. It has far more flavor].

-"Excellent food, large choices, reasonbly priced and great service. Can't ask for more." [except maybe authenticity or innovation?]

Assured that the waiters are clean, the portions are huge, the chicken meat is all white, I had to try the restaurant.

In every respect, Golden Cafe is a classic, thoroughly Americanized Chinese restaurant circa 1975. The restaurant is inside a dingy, gaudy colored building on 19th near Ella. Inside, I first notice the plastic holders on every table with yellow mustard and day-glo orange sweet sauce. Preserved under the glass table top is the traditional red paper placemat with the signs of the Chinese zodiac. As I might expect, the menu does not have a single unique dish. Every item is exactly the same item you find at any other cheap Americanized Chinese restaurant. They have about 30 specials that come with soup (egg drop and sweet and sour, of course), egg roll, and fried rice.

Trying to stay healthy, I order garlic chicken, because it looks like one of the few non-fried items. I also asked for white rice, even though the menu does not give that as an option. As I waited they brought me an amuse bouche -- a bowl of fried strips to eat like tortilla chips -- just in case the egg roll, fried rice, and fried entree are not enough fried for one meal. I began to wonder, does the "Golden" in Golden Cafe really mean "golden fried"?

When my garlic chicken arrived, it came with many chunks of the promised white meat, covered in a sauce amply thickened with corn starch. But this garlic chicken had a secret ingredient. Rather than adding a lot of garlic, which tends to be too strong for some white folk, they had added copious amounts of sugar. This must be the sweetest garlic chicken in town. The egg roll was well-executed and exactly what you would expect. It was a crispy fried roll filled with cabbage and finely ground mystery meat (white meat chicken?) that pairs nicely with the msg-laden mustard and the day glo orange sweet sauce.

Yes, the portions are large. Yes, the price is cheap ($4.95). Yes, all the chicken is white.

No, there are no Chinese American patrons. No, this place has absolutely no authenticity or innovation whatsoever.

But Golden Cafe is quaint and nostalgic, in an American way. It reminds me of the Chinese food I learned to eat when I learned to eat Chinese food in the early 1970s -- back before we had Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean reastaurants and Chinese restaurants that actually tried to be authentic. Sure, I would rather eat at Mai's or Kanomwon or real Chinese food at a great restaurant like Fung's Kitchen. But I can understand why so many white people like Golden Cafe: It tastes more like home.

Near NW Houston - Introduction

I am currently obsessed with near northwest Houston. This is the region bounded by the Heights on the east, I-10 on the South, the West Loop and Northwest Mall on the West, and the North Loop and Garden Oaks on the North. The epicenter of this region is Ella and T.C. Jester.

The near northwest is notable for the restaurants it does not have -- no "fine dining," no trendy eateries, no exotic ethnic restaurants, and surprisingly few chains (although there is a Dairy Queen). It feels a bit like small town America before it was franchised. Many of the restaurants are like a time capsule to the 70s or 80s. They tend to be Mom 'n Pop establishments that cater to an unpretentious crowd. And they can be a little quirky.

In the next few weeks, I will talk about some of the representative restaurants in this area, including: Golden Cafe, Texas Cafeteria, Jazzie's, Kojak's Deli, and Cavatore's Restaurant.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Wine and the Middle East

"Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more."
-Proverbs 31: 6/7

"I'm sure that being sober all these years accounts for my ill humor."-Fran Leebowitz

This post has almost nothing to do with Houston. It is about Israel and Lebanon and wine.

Five months ago, I took my family to Israel. We visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, and Galilee. But the thing that impressed me most was the quality of new Israeli wines.

We went to a party at the Grape Man, a wine bar in Jaffa outside of Tel Aviv. where I tried at least 10 different Israeli wines. These were not your ordinary, overly-sweet Kosher wines. They were modern wines, such as cabernet sauvignons, merlots, and shirazes. They were concentrated, balanced and elegant. Many were indistinguishable from outstanding wines that you would get from California, France, or Australia.

One wine in particular caught my attention -- the 2003 Galil Mountain Yiron. It was a concentrated blend of 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. It was a rich and complex wine with strong fruit. At first, I thought it was a Syrah/Grenache blend because of its jammy fruit. The grapes are grown in the Golan Heights in the northeast part of Israel. I brought a few bottles home in my carry-on luggage, which now thanks to Al-Qaeda we can no longer do.

A few months ago at Saffron in Houston, I had a bottle Chateau Kefraya, which is a Lebanese Cabernet. It too can compete with outstanding cabernets from elsewhere. It is grown in southeast Lebanon.

The current fighting makes me think about these wonderful wines. These Four people died a few days ago in a bomb attack in Kefraya. With the large scale exodus from these regions, will even be a 2006 vintage? At a minimum, the new wave of outstanding vinticulture in Israel and Lebanon will surely suffer.

I have a forward-thinking Middle East peace plan: get all the warring factions together and make them all drink these wonderful wines. Then they would stop shooting rockets . . . and go back to making wine.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Green Tea Rendezvous

"Ok, who ordered the green tea?"
-Samurai Jack, Episode 9

I get excited when a chef takes an ingredient out of its usual context and transports it to a new setting with unexpected results.

That is why I am such a fan of the Green Tea Rendezvous dessert at Kubo's. The chef takes a good, but ordinary tiramisu and covers it, and the plate, with matcha -- a fine, powdered green tea. On the side, he serves a bowl of green tea ice cream, some mint leaves, and an odd raspberry-like Japanese berry.

By itself, matcha is strongly flavored and bitter with a seaweed-like flavor. When I have tried tea made with matcha, I wanted to like it, but it was too bitter and odd. But I am a fan of green tea ice cream, which is usually made with matcha. Green tea ice cream is not as sweet as American ice cream. The matcha flavoring gives it a slight bitterness, and sea-like quality. It is subtle and complex. Somehow, it makes me think about the flavors more than an overly sweet American desserts.

The pairing with tiramisu is brilliant. Like green tea ice cream, tiramisu is not very sweet. Yes, it has been overexposed for the last 15 years. (The line about tiramisu in "Harry Met Sally" was the turning point of over-exposure.) But the addition of green tea makes tiramisu interesting again. It brings adds complexity and an exotic quality to the dish, and pairs well with the coffee flavors in the dessert. The dessert is simultaneously familiar and strange -- a great way to introduce the American palate to the flavor of matcha, which most of us Americans do not like by itself.

I have written about other food at Kubo's before in my posts on June 22, 2006 and December 18, 2005. It really is one of Houston's culinary gems, and the atmosphere is very hip. The service -- particularly one waiter, Jake -- is outstanding.

Monday, August 07, 2006


"Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world's perfect food."

--Michael Levine (a nutrition researcher), The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars

We are on the cusp of a second revolution in chocolate.

Fifteen years ago, most chocolate fell into one of several categories: overly-sweet, mass-produced American milk chocolate candies and chocolate bars; specialty "chocolate box" stores like Russell Stover with chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-covered nuts, and the like; and a few kinds of imported European chocolates, like Lindt. In the last 15 years, we have had two revolutions in chocolate that give chocolate lovers some new, outstanding choices.

Revolution 1 -- "Pure" chooclate bars. About a decade ago, there was a revolution in the kind of chocolate you could find on the shelves of Houston's best food stores. The revolution happened after the European Union, in 1994, began requiring chocolate makers to identify the percentage of cacao. Suddenly, chocolate producers began to compete to see who could make the most hardcore, "pure" chocolate. The 70%-plus cacao bars are my favorites. Typically, this new, stronger tasting chocolate was marketed based on its country or region of production. This revolution was much like the Starbucks revolution in coffee -- an overnight shift from weaker, less flavorful coffee, marketed by brand instead of by growing region to a much stronger, intensely flavored coffee specifically marketed by region of origin.

Revolution 2 -- Gourmet chocolate. Now, a new revolution is emerging. It is the use of this wonderfully strong chocolate in combination with other gourmet ingredients. This is the revolution I appreciate because the real artistry of cooking is in creating new, wonderful combinations. This movement goes where chocolate has never gone before.

An outstanding local gourmet choclatier is Richard Kaplan, who sells chocolate under the name Brown Paper Chocolates. Kaplan makes a large, unadorned 4.5 ounce cube of chocolate that he sells in a brown box. Each chocolate has a mixture of gourmet ingredients, such as:

-Dark chocolate with almonds, tequila, ancho chili;
-Dark chocolate with pistachios, cointreau, dried cherries, orange peel;
-Dark chocolate with espresso, Kahlua, cocoa nibs;
-Milk chocolate with cashews, Jack Daniel's and sea salt;
-White chocolate with pistachio, coffee liquor, caramel, orange peel.

Brown Paper Chocolates are for people who don't just love chocolate, but who need chocolate. They are quite simply the best chocolate I have had anywhere. The chocolate flavor is particularly intense. Unlike traditional American chocolate bars, Kaplan heightens, rather than dilutes, the flavor of the chocolate with small amounts of other ingredients. For instance, ingredients like ancho chile, espresso, sea salt bring out some of the best aspects of chocolate flavor.

These chocolates work particularly well with dessert wines. For instance the dark chocolate with ancho chili is great with late harvest zinfandel. The white chocolate with pistachio is great with sauternes.

I bought Brown Paper Chocolate when Kaplan first began selling them himself at the Saturday morning Midtown Farmer's Market at T'afia. He made helpful suggestions about wine pairings. Now you can also get them for around $6 at Spec's downtown, or for around $9 in the cheese aisle at Central Market. I also saw them at Berring's Hardware (!?). Soon Brown Paper Chocolate will be everywhere.

An outstanding local chocolate vendor is the Cutting Garden. The Cutting Garden does not make their own chocolates; instead they buy them from around the country. These resemble the old Russell Stover-style of boxed chocolates, but they are the prettiest, most artistic chocolates I have ever seen. A box of these chocolates is an impressionistic swirl of colors, and true to this style, each chocolate has a surprise flavor inside. Plus they taste a lot better than Russell Stover.

To try this revolution, go to the Cutting Garden for little chocolates that taste good, look like art, and make a wonderful gift. Or get a Brown Paper Chocolate if you want to gnaw on an ugly block of chocolate that explodes with wonderful flavors.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Café Mezza - something for everyone

"My menu has something for everyone; hearty pastas, traditional American sandwiches, fresh homemade soups and salads. While at the same time we have marinated grilled kabobs, steaks, and ‘mezzas’ or assorted Mediterranean appetizers such as hummus and baba ganooch."

-Chef Mike Tibi, Café Mezza & Grille website

Café Mezza looks like a bad idea -- an Americanized cross between Middle Eastern food, Italian food, and the Cheesecake Factory. The bright, casual restaurant is in a strip center on Westheimer, outside the Loop just west of Fountainview. They play loud, bad 80s music. They offer well over 50 different dishes, including salads, pastas, sandwiches, and grilled meats. Their food sounds vaguely Middle Eastern (kabobs, hummus), vaguely Italian (fettuccini alfredo, chicken parmigiana), or just American (turkey melt, fish taco, veggie burger).

Yet I keep going back to Café Mezza. Every dish I have tried has been surprisingly good. Here are some of the best:

-Baba ganooch is usually a puree of eggplant, tahini, and olive oil. But at Café Mezza, it also includes diced tomatoes and walnuts, which really improves the texture. On comes on a plate with two other appetizers for $10.

-Fatoush salad is usually a salad of tomato, cucumber, olive oil, and vinegar. But the Café Mezza version adds crumbled feta, crispy bits of pita bread, and generous amount of mint, which greatly improves the flavor.

-Chicken apple sausage ($13) is fabulous. It comes with angel hair pasta, creamy spicy chipotle sauce, baby spinach, and carmelized granny smith apples. The dish is rich, smoky, sweet, and very spicy.

-A beef tenderloin salad ($12) sounds like a list of trendy ingredients from 15 years ago: chuncks of beef tenderloin, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, feta cheese, roasted garlic, and garlic dressing. The flavor of the dressing, and the combination of the ingredients, make this a very tasty dish.

-The fillet mignon on the shish kabob platter ($13) is good, as are the grilled vegetables on the side. But the best part of this dish is the basmatti rice, which is more flavorful than any basmatti rice I have ever had.

Café Mezza offers various kids platters for $5 and over 25 different sandwiches for $6 - $8.

Café Mezza also is BYOB. They do not charge a corkage fee.

Yes, the food at Café Mezza is a cultural mishmash. Yes, the menu looks like a Mediterranean version of Cheesecake Factory. Yes, Café Mezza blatantly panders to mainstream American tastes. But every dish I have had is innovative enough to be interesting. It tastes a lot better than Cheesecake Factory, or any other restaurant of that ilk. I get to bring my own wine. And it's cheap. How bad can that be?

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Moveable Feast of imitation meat

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." Ernest Hemingway, quoted in: A. E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway, pt. 1, ch. 3 (1966 ed.)

Vegetarians face an aesthetic dilemma. Should they eat plant-based food that looks and tastes like meat? Or should they eat dishes that celebrate plant-based foods for what they are?

The first approach mostly appeals to new vegetarians who miss their old meat diet. Good vegetarian chefs can do a lot with soy or tofu to make them resemble meat. Sometimes these dishes taste a lot better than they sound.

The second approach is more aesthetically honest. The focus of a vegetarian diet is vegetables. Cooking vegetables is an art in itself, and some of the most beautiful and wonderfully tasting foods are made without meat. Why eat imitation meat?

Now that I am no longer vegetarian, I usually prefer food that does not pretend to be something else. I like vegetables to taste like vegetables. I like meat to taste like meat. But back when I was a vegetarian eating out in Houston, I took what I could get. I often went to A Moveable Feast on West Alabama. Now that location is gone, but you can visit A Moveable Feast at 9341 Katy Freeway, outside the Loop, near Blalock.

I returned to A Moveable Feast for one of my favorite vegetarian dishes - vegetarian tamale pie. It comes with tamale-like corn breading, soy jack cheese, brown rice, black beans, and pico de gallo and costs around $7. Although I have to add some hot sauce for spice, the dish has a real tamale flavor. I almost forget that the tamale has no meat.

As I eat this fake tamale pie, I have to come to terms with the purity of my aesthetics. Sure, I prefer the flavor of the real venison tamales I get from my friend Bob, the deer hunter. They have a gamey, meaty flavor and a lot more grease. Yet I feel a lot better, and I worry less about dying from a heart attack, after I eat the vegetarian tamales at A Moveable Feast.

A Moveable Feast has a number of vegetarian, as well as healthy meat-based, dishes. The food tastes only pretty good -- but it is great for your health. Like Hemingway said, "wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you."

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pronto Cucinino - fast, mediocre, overpriced

"In 1948, Richard and Maurice McDonald shrank their menu to only those items that could be eaten without silverware, converted their kitchen to a food-assembly line that required almost no skill from employees and dropped teenager-attracting female carhops in favor of a setup that required patrons to help themselves. This Speedee Service System allowed McDonald's to lower its prices — drawing a clientele made up largely of families."

-Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, The New York Times Book Review, January 21, 2001

Pronto Cucinino is a fast food Italian restaurant on Montrose, apparently operated by the family who run two nicer restaurants -- Nino's and Vincent's.

The food at Pronto Cucinino was a disappointment. The menu only has a small handful of choices, and they all sounded dull. The execution was worse.

We started with a few small square slices of pizza. The crust was greasy and had an odd texture -- more like pastry crust than pizza crust. This pizza bore no relation to the wonderfully authentic Italian pizza at Vincent's. My wife also ordered a cesar salad. It was not as good as some other fast food cesars, like La Madeleine. I ordered a plate of Italian sausage with bell peppers and tomato sauce. It was the best dish we ordered, but the sausage was dry and warmed over. The sausage plate tastes far better at Alfredo's European Grill, just down Montrose.

An even bigger disappointment was the price. For a kids plate, Pronto Cucinino sold my daughter a 1 cup portion of penne pasta with butter for $4. The ingredients certainly cost no more than $0.25. Similarly, they sold a glass of Ravenswood Zinfandel Vintner's Blend for about $7 -- almost as much as a whole bottle of the same wine at Specs. I calculate their markup on that wine must be at least four times cost, which is twice as much as most Houston restaurants. They also sell tiny portions of pre-made desserts in plastic containers for $4.75.

Pronto Cucinino even has the nerve to charge for breadsticks, which are free at other fast food restaurants like Cafe Express.

The total bill for a mediocre, fast-food meal for two adults and a child was over $40. That is a lot of money for fast food.

Pronto Cucinino is very fast. We had our food within five minutes. Food served that fast makes me suspicious. Is it heated in a microwave, kept warm by a steam table, or prepared by an assembly line of indifferent and unskilled teenagers? I suspect that the technique that makes this food so fast may be the same reason it does not taste so good.

The best comparison for Pronto Cucinino is a big chain like Olive Garden. Pronto Cucinino is faster. The quality is about the same. But Olive Garden is a far better deal.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Shade - I eat my words and enjoy the flavors

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Shade based on several recent lunches. I suggested that it may be one of the best restaurants in the Houston Heights, but not one of the most innovative restaurants in Houston. After I made that post, I returned on a Saturday night.

I am going to have to eat my words.

At night, Shade's dishes are very innovative. And the quality rivals some of Houston's best restaurants. The menu sounds good, but the food tastes even better. Here are some examples:

Soups. Shade always serves three interesting soups. On my recent visit, one was good and two were outstanding. The posole was spicy, but a little light on hominy and salt and a little heavy on cumin. (My favorite posole in Houston, at Farrago, is the perfect balance). A cabbage and bacon soup sounded dull, but the flavors were vivid and bright. The combination of flavors was surprisingly interesting. A sweet potato-apple soup soup defied my expectations. Often this sort of root vegetable soup is served in the fall. But this soup tasted like summer -with flavors that were bright and crisp and clean. It was one of the best root vegetable soups I have had in any season.

Fried shrimp with bacon cheese grits. I ordered this for my seven-year-old daughter because it did not sound too wierd. It too was far more better than I expected. The large shrimp tasted fresher than any shrimp I have had this year. The batter (panko?) was perfectly crispy. And the grits were creamy and full of flavor. Everyone at the table loved the grits, even my daughter.

Grilled king salmon was served with mozzarella, micro arugula, a chipolte corn coulis, and small, correctly ugly heirloom tomatoes. King salmon is wild, rare, and available only seasonally. It is the best salmon for grilling because it is thick and has lots of oil. This fish was very good, but I particularly enjoyed the coulis and the flavorful tomatoes. Although I have never thought to pair salmon with tomatoes, wild salmon and real tomatoes are two of the best arguments a foodie can make for summer.

A flourless chocolate cake with pistachio gelato was good, although the cake was slightly overcooked. But my daughter's trio of coffee, chocolate, and vanilla pots de creme was fantastic.

The wine list is smart and reasonably priced. It includes many small production, food friendly wines. I was delighted by the number of unusual varietals, such as gruner veltliner, chenin blanc, and verdejo. Most wines were $30 - $60.

Shade stands out among Houston restaurants for its simple, vivid flavors. It stands out for its synthesis of local food with international cuisine. And it particularly stands out for the ratio of quality and innovation to value. I would expect wild king salmon to cost $30 - $35 at most Houston restaurants. At Shade, it is under $20 -- and better than any salmon dish I have had this summer.

Shade is even better at night than at lunch. It's not just a good restaurant to visit when you are in the Heights. The outstanding cuisine by chefs Claire Smith and Jeb Stuart is worth driving across town for.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ruggles Revisited

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Emerson did not distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise consistency. So how do we judge consistency and lack of change in a restaurant?

In 1988, I thought the best restaurant in Houston might be Ruggles Grill on Westheimer. Ruggles had a signature style. Chef Bruce Molzan's dishes incorporated southwestern, Californian, and Metiterranean cuisine into a bistro concept. They frequently used staple ingredients -- sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, grilled vegetables. Plus you could always identify a Ruggles dish against a dish from any other restaurant because of dinstinctive features: the portion size, the distinctive flakes of parmesan or parsley around the edge of the plate, and the ubiquitous grilled vegetables as a side. Equally identifiable were the desserts -- always over the top and bigger than your head.

Ruggles was about fresh ingredients, minimizing the use of sauces, and a signature style.

Then my romance with Ruggles wained. By the mid 1990s, the food was not evolving, portions were too big, and the staff -- particularly at the hostess desk -- was terribly rude and obnoxious. After finally walking out because of a downright nasty hostess, I decided not to return.

Recently I did return. Thankfully, the waistaff and the hostesses are much nicer. But nothing else has changed. The decor, the loud volume, the huge portions, remain the same. The menu looks the same too. All of the signature ingredients are still there: lots of sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and those grilled vegetables.

On one recent visit, I ordered a special -- grilled rack of lamb. The lamb was simply grilled with rosemary. It came with a huge side of all the usual Ruggles grilled vegetables. This dish was good, classic Ruggles, but not innovative or interesting. An appetizer of seared tuna sashimi was very tasty, but it gave me deja vu. Plus, the name of the dish is contradictory. In 2006 diners are educated enough to know that a dish cannot be both "sashimi" (raw) and "seared."

On another visit, I ordered a Moroccan Grilled chicken breast. There was little about it that was "Moroccan." It came with garlic, olives, goat cheese, and sun dried tomatoes in a very light butter sauce. Although it was served with a little couscous on the side, the dish did not taste like Morocco, but like classic late 80s cooking from California. Which means it tasted like Ruggles in 1988. A wild mushroom soup was also excellent, but it had not changed from the last time I tried it over a decade ago.

On one hand, I do not get how a restaurant can have such a flash of uniqueness and creativity in a short period, and then remain the same for 20 years. Surely Chef Bruce must have had some new ideas about cooking in the past 20 years.

On the other hand, there is something quaint and nostalgic about a restaurant that freezes in time -- like Yale Street Grill is frozen in 1924, Barbecue Inn is frozen in 1946, and Ruggles Grill is frozen in 1988. It is comforting to know that, in our lifetimes, Ruggles may never change. We can always have the 1980s, and eat them too.

In 2006, Ruggles is not the best restaurant in Houston. Not even close. But it is consistent.

So is that foolish or wise?

Blue Fish House - not so Japanese

"Authentic," under one definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means "conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features "

I have talked a lot lately about whether food is "authentic." Perhaps I should not. When it comes to ethnic food, I know very little about authenticty. The best I can do is guess at what is authentic. I consider indicators like:

1-Are the customers ordinary Americans or members of the particular ethnic group? (The restaurant loses even more authenticity points if the customers are fat Americans).

2-If I have been to the homeland, does the food at the restaurant resemble food in the homeland?

3-Are the ingredients and techinques exotic? Or does the food use suspiciously American techniques, like deep frying?

Of course, even authentic food can taste bad. And sometimes inauthentic food can taste pretty good.

Such is the case with the Blue Fish House, a vaguely Japanese-style restaurant on Richmond near Kirby. They serve noodle dishes, pan-Asian dinners, nigiri sushi, sashimi, and seafood rolls. They have none of the indicators of authentic Japanese cuisine. Rather, they seem to take a lot of Asian food ideas and throw them together in a way that pleases Anglo-Americans. And it works. The proof is the large crowd of white people -- particularly young attractive women.

On a recent visit, I focused on seafood rolls. (I won't call them "sushi rolls" because technically a roll is not sushi, and because most of these rolls use more fried seafood than raw fish). Each roll was a nice balance of textures with strong flavors that appeal to an American palate. One roll came with fried oysters and a spicy pepper sauce. Another roll came sweet teriaki-flavored eel covered with crunchy seaweed. All the rolls tasted great, but the rice did not seem to have the correct sushi rice texture.

As an appetizer, my seven-year-old ordered "fish nuggets." She liked the crunchy panko tempura fried exterior and the sweet vinegary sauce on the side. I ordered an appetizer of eel in a very sweet teriaki sauce. It was far sweeter than the real thing, but tasty.

True to American tastes, a number of dishes are fried, and most dishes have a very sweet or spicy sauce. The rolls are an American "innovation" on Japanese-style cuisine. But they are absolutely, positively, not Japanese.

Blue Fish House has few Japanese-American customers. It fails to capture the subtlety and balance of traditional Japanese food, opting instead for big American flavors. To find authentic Japanese food, go to Nippon on Montrose. They have a big Japanese crowd. But if you like your seafood rolls with some crunch and lots of sweet and spicy flavor, try Blue Fish House. It is an American seafood restaurant that tastes pretty good.