Friday, June 30, 2006

Heights Report Part 1 - Old School

"A society that has made 'nostalgia' a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today."

-Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissm

The Houston Heights feels older than the rest of Houston. The Heights has more old houses, more old antiques, and possibly more old people than anywhere else in this young city. It also has some old restaurants. Recently, I visited two of the oldest: Yale Street Grill, which dates to 1923, and Triple A Restaurant, which dates to 1942.

The Yale Street Grill is an old style lunch counter. I sat on a stool so I could watch the "chef" (or rather "cook") do her thing. She cooked in an area smaller than my kitchen, with a fry basket, some burners, and an assembly area. With this little space, the menu options are necessarily limited. This menu looked like nothing except the prices had changed in 50 years. The menu offered only the most basic lunch food - cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, tuna melt, club sandwich, chef salad.

I had not tried a tuna melt in a long time, so I ordered it. This tuna melt was as retro as the restaurant. It came on some grilled sandwich bread. It had massive quantities of mayo and more chunks of egg white than tuna. In fact, I never quite tasted the tuna. Perhaps I received an egg salad sandwich by mistake?

I usually don't order dessert, but pecan cobbler was the only item on the menu that sounded unusual. The dish that arrived was a pecan pie with cobbler crust instead of pie crust. Even though the concept sounded unusual, the taste was very old school.

Although I hear the Yale Street Grill's shakes are good, there is no other reason to go there except the nostalgia. The food at Yale Street Grill supports the argument that food today is much better than in the past.

The Triple A Restaurant is on Airline next to Canino's Farmer's Market. Supposedly, they get their vegetables fresh from the market -- but then they cook the hell out of them. That is not a bad thing for some vegetables, such as the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and mustard greens that I ordered on my last visit.

Although Triple A has the feel of an old cafe, with waitresses who have surely worked there for decades, the food is more like a Southern cafeteria than a lunch counter or cafe. Each day they offer a series of chef special entrees. On my last visit, I ordered a stuffed bell pepper, a dish I have not had since my childhood. This bell pepper had been cooked so much that it had only slightly more firmness than the mashed potatoes. It surrounded a giant ball of ground meat with subtle spices. This dish was the same as the dish I remembered from my childhood. And I like that dish, even if it violates a half dozen rules of cooking that I have embraced since then.

The highlight of the meal was a basket of cornbread. It was as cornbread should be - moist and not sweetened, which heightens the corn flavor.

The Triple A was a more successful exercise in nostalgia than Yale Street Grill. Admittedly, my father used to take me to the Triple A in the early 80s, so I have fond, real memories of the place. And I can testify that it has not changed one bit in 25 years. But I also like the food better than Yale Street Grill. I easily can make a tuna melt at home that is far superior than the tuna melt at Yale Street Grill. But the stuffed bell pepper at the Triple A -- well, I might be able to make it, but it would take a hell of a long time to cook.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

New York v. Houston Part 4 - Diner Battle

"And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, spring into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."

-Proust, Remembrances of Things Past

As Proust tasted the cookie, it triggered a vivid recollection of his visit to a French town in his childhood. A similar experience is triggered each time I eat a pizza burger. As an impressionable young teenager, I visited a small town in New Jersey. I ate lunch in a diner, and it was there that I tasted my first pizza burger -- a burger with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. Now, whenever I find a pizza burger and take a bite, I am transported back to that little diner in New Jersey and the whole essence of that moment in New Jersey floods into my being. Or at least it would if I were Proust.

As far as I know, we have no pizza burgers in Houston. We also have no real diners -- or at least no diners of the type you would find in New York and New Jersey. Sure, we have 59 Diner, House of Pies, and Biba's Ones-A-Meal -- all 24 hour restaurants that have a diner-like quality. But the food in these restaurants is much more like a southern cafe -- grits, biscuits, huevos rancheros, pecan pie. Only Biba's, with its Greek and Italian items, seems to come close. But even Biba's does not have pizza burgers.

New Jersey is the epicenter of diner culture. Wikipedia says that one third of all diners in the world are in New Jersey. See Wikipedia also tries to define the diner in terms of architecture. Sure, the prefab buildings can be a part of the diner experience. But the building is not essential to the experience of true diner cuisine.

What is true diner cuisine? I cannot offer a precise definition. But I can make an impressionistic stab: Diners tend to serve proto-fast food -- lots of burgers, pizza, Greek sandwiches. This food is prepared quickly, but not prefabbed like McDonald's. Diners often have large menus with many choices. You can choose a sandwich, soup, salad, a dinner plate, or breakfast 24 hours. And diners serve a lot of coffee.

Big Nick's Burger and Pizza Joint, on 77th and Broadway, is much closer to diner food than anything in Houston. Although it is not in a prefab building, the restaurant is long and narrow, giving it a diner-like effect. The walls are covered with press clippings and autographed photos from famous and not-so-famous guests. The 14-page menu is so long that it has a table of contents. You can order almost any standard American-Greek or American-Italian dish that you can imagine, plus dozens of kinds of pizzas, burgers, salads, and breakfast foods.

As I studied the menu, I considered ordering a pizza burger. I realized, though, that I had progressed beyond the diner food of my childhood. I needed something more sophisticated. So I ordered the Spanish burger. It was a big, greasy burger covered with olive tapenade. The dish was not a culinary breakthrough. But somehow the food captured the place, the surroundings, the moment. It was a dish that I cannot imagine eating and appreciating in quite the same way as in Houston.

The cultural context is crucial to our appreciation of food. Food is culture. Food is a language. The experience of eating food is as much a function of the time and place as its texture and spices. Food is never objectively good or bad. It is a product of whatever habits, opinions, and experiences we bring to the table.

I highly recommend Big Nick's. You can order almost anything you want. The prices, for Manhattan, are remarkably cheap. The atmosphere is funky. They make a mean Spanish burger. And there is nothing quite like it in Houston.

Monday, June 26, 2006

New York v. Houston Part 3 - Battle Indian Fusion

I am very excited about Indian fusion food - largely because of two recent meals I had in Houston and New York City.

Houston's Indika has moved to lower Westheimer. My recent meal there was spicy and inventive. I started with an appetizer of karela stuffed with cashew masala. Karela is an unusual, bitter melon -- not bittersweet, just bitter. The bitterness alone would have been overwhelming, but it became complex and interesting when combined with a spicy cashew masala. This dish was a combination of an exotic Indian ingredient with traditional spices. I have never seen another dish quite like it, and I expect it was completely original. Another exotic appetizer on the menu was goat brain masala. I have to try that next time.

My entree was equally interesting-- grilled halibut with fenugreek, tomato, ginger and cumin curry. The spices were very hot. Again, the flavor reminded me of a traditional Indian dish, but the choice of fish and other ingredients was creative and unique.

Indika has a small, but well-considered wine list. I ordered the 2003 Amberly Semillon / Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. Its slight sweetness and crisp acidity paired well with the spicy foods. The deserts looked good, but after only two dishes, I could eat no more.

Tabla, on Madison Avenue in New York, has a reputation as the first and best Indian fusion restaurant in Manhattan. Their wine list is also well considered, but much larger -- at least 10 times as large as Indika's list. Tabla offers a 3-course prix fixe meal, a 5-course tasting menu, and a 7-course tasting menu. I ordered the 5-course.

One of the best dishes was a fricassee of morels - stewed mushrooms on top of polenta with coconut milk and kokum. Morels are my favorite mushroom - complex and earthy wrinkled balls. Although the preparation and flavors were more French than Indian, this dish was outstanding.

Another great dish was a slow roasted Nova Scotia lobster served with wild mushrooms, water chestnuts, walnuts and a spicy red sauce. Again, the preparation was all French, but Indian spices added a kick to the dish.

I also had a tapioca-crusted soft shell crab and baby lamb with asparagus and fava beans. Both dishes were good, but had few qualities of Indian cuisine other than some accents of Indian minor ingredients and spices.

The tasting menu came with a 5 glass wine pairing. I appreciated that I had the chance to let someone else determine what wine would go best with Indian spices. Each of the wines worked.

Comparison - cuisine. Indika and Tabla offer two different takes on Indian fusion. I slightly prefer Indika. Its food is both more traditional Indian in its flavors and techniques and more exotic in its ingredients and combinations. Tabla more closely resembles French and American cooking styles and ingredients accented with some Indian spices. It is safer food, aimed at the western palate. On the plus side, Tabla gets points for providing more variety in the meal by offering a tasting menu. Tabla also gets points for providing wine pairings and for offering a much more complete wine list.

Comparison - service. I don't usually mention service, but in this instance the difference may say something about the cities. At Tabla, we were greeted warmly at the door, seated when we arrived, and given impeccable service. But the waiter did not seem very interested in discussing the food. At Indika, the waiter was knowledgeable and pleasantly excited about discussing the food. But when we arrived at the time of our reservation and gave the unfriendly hostess our name, she just sighed, looked up at the ceiling, and said, "you can sit at the bar." We then waited over thirty minutes for our table, despite our reservation. Neither the hostess nor anyone else apologized. I appreciate the Houston restaurant's sincere enthusiasm about the food, but I also appreciate the New York restaurant's much smoother service.

Comparison - price. Although the wine prices were about the same, the bill at Tabla was almost three times the price of the bill at Indika.

I highly recommend both restaurants, but for a more interesting take on Indian cuisine, and for better value, I prefer Indika. Still, Indika could learn a few things from Tabla -- expand the wine list, suggest wine pairings, offer a tasting menu, and improve the service, particularly at the front door.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Houston v. New York Part 2 - Battle Falafel

"Two dollars," says the Arab-New Yorker street vendor when I ask him how much a falafel sandwich costs. "Ok." For the next 5 minutes, I watch him fry the balls of ground chick peas and carefully construct a sandwich in a pita with lettuce, tahini-yogurt sauce, and hot pepper sauce. He hands me the sandwich. I hand him two dollars.

"Three dollars," he says, acting disgusted. "I thought you said two." "No, falafel is three dollars."

I was reminded of my experience with Arab Israeli taxi drivers in Jerusalem. They would quote me one price at the beginning of the trip and a higher price at the end. Sure, it is a small fraud, but this time I was smiled as I paid my three dollars. You see, three dollars was a steal.

The falafel stand named All Halal Foods was on the sidewalk somewhere in Midtown Manhattan. It was the third falafel stand I had seen in three blocks.

As far as I know, there are no street vendors who sell falafel in Houston. In fact, apart from a few taco trucks, Houston has no street vendors at all. Perhaps it is because we lack a pedestrian culture or because draconian health code regulations make it hard to sell food on the street. Either way, we are missing an important genre of food.

The falafel sandwich at All Halal Foods was great. The falafel balls were crisp and crunchy on the outside. As I bit into them, they fell apart. Inside, the chickpea mixture was coarsely ground and had a nutty flavor. The hot sauce on the sandwich gave it a kick that was balanced by the creamy tahini-yourt sauce. If the falafel sandwich has a Platonic form, I had found it.

Falafel is often disappointing in Houston. Typically, the chick pea mixture is ground too finely. The fried balls resembles hush puppies more than real falafel. The crust often is not crunchy, but hard. These faux falafels may be baked, or they may have been under a heat lamp for too long.

The falafel at La Fendee on Westheimer are as good as any I have had in Houston, but not that great. These falafel have an unusual spice or herb flavor that I cannot identify. The inside is green, rather than the tan color of chickpeas, so I suspect it may be an herb. The taste is good, but the texture is not quite right. The chickpea mixture is too fine from over processing and begins to feel like a rock in my stomach after several bites. The outside is crispy, but too hard, which is probably the result of grinding the meal too finely. These falafel sandwiches cost $4.25, plus tax and tip.

I recommend other items at La Fendee -- interestingly-spiced schwarma, baba ganooj, hummus. Plus, La Fendee is BYOB.

But if you really want good falafel, I have not found a restaurant in Houston to recommend. Instead, I suggest you get on a plane, fly to New York, and eat your falafel on the street.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Houston vs. New York Part 1 - Battle Japanese

"Hey, you have a Buddha! Oh, I love Buddhas. They're like bright, cheery, naked Asian Santas."
-Oscar Novak, Three to Tango

My wife and I took a weekend trip to New York for food. We tried everything from a Michelin 3-star restaurant to street vendor food. Our meals make for some interesting comparisons with similar food in Houston.

Part 1 - Kubo vs. Megu.

Kubo is my favorite Houston Japanese restaurant. But how does it compare with one of the top Japanese restaurants in New York?

Megu is the first U.S. restaurant opened by Hiro Nishida, a high-end Japanese restauranteur. He reportedly auditioned chefs Iron-chef style for 25 spots. I anticipated my meal there for weeks.

Megu is one of the most striking dining rooms I have seen. In the middle of the room is a giant Buddhist temple bell that hangs over a 5-foot tall ice sculpture Buddha. The ice Buddha melts during the evening. They place a lit candle in front of him -- either to illuminate him or to make him melt.

We arrived too late for a tasting menu, so we tried a few appetizers and a plate of assorted, chef's choice sushi. The sushi was excellent. Like Houston's best sushi restaurants such as Kubo and Nara, the sushi was perfectly sculpted in an arc around the rice, the fish tasted fresh, and the rice had perfect texture. The wasabi was freshly grated from Japanese horseradish root at the table. It had a much more earthy and complex, but less spicy, flavor than the ordinary green stuff. Although everything about the sushi was outstanding, Sushi is by nature conservative. Traditional sushi gives a chef more of an opportunity to demonstrate competence than to demonstrate improvisation.

If we wanted to taste cutting edge Japanese food, we probably should have ordered something more creative. But the focus in the rest of the menu seemed to be less on creativity and more on high-priced items like $150 fillet mignon and $60 grilled cubes of Kobe beef.

We did get two interesting appetizers. The miso cod (listed on the menu as "silver cod grilled with Yuan miso") tasted similar to the same dish at Kubo -- the fish probably was marinated for several days in miso, which gives it a rich, sweet flavor. The primary difference was that Megu's miso cod added some exotic, long-necked mushrooms and a bit of lemon, which added some acidity. It also had been grilled in a wrapper of hosho paper, rather than baked uncovered. As a result, the dish at Megu was very moist, but lacked the crunchy, slightly carmelized crust you get on some of the edges of the baked fish at Kubo. Either at Kubo or Megu, miso cod may be my favorite dish.

Another appetizer was Hamachi Carpaccio -- a simple preparation of thin strips of yellow tail, with small, exotic peppers, and "spicy Kanzuri sauce." The yellow tail was remarkably rich and fatty. I have no idea what was in the sauce, but it had an outstanding, citrusy flavor.

Megu did not have the same sort of "fusion" sushi rolls that I love at Kubo. Sure, these are cliched American-Japanese food, but they are a lot of fun, and they give chefs the chance to experiment with ingredient combinations and sauces. Instead, Megu had very traditional rolls. The one that came with our sushi consisted only of rice, fish, and rice paper. I was a bit surprised that Megu seems to avoid this sort of American cross-cultural combination.

The wine list at Megu beats the pants off of any Japanese restaurant wine list in Houston. There were pages and pages of wines that pair well with raw fish -- reislings, gewurtztraminers, Gruner Veltliners. We ordered an Alsatian reisling that was floral, nicely acidic, and surprisingly dry. It was perfect to pair with sushi. At Kubo, the best wines you can get are mass-produced Chardonnays from California or a Pinot Grigios from Italy. Those wines do not pair so well with sushi.

The other big difference was the price. The meal at Megu, not including wine, cost us just under $200. At Kubo, a much larger meal with more variety usually costs no more than $60.

Kubo rates very well against Megu, especially at less than 1/3 the price. But our visit to Megu does suggest two ways Kubo could improve. First, get a real wine list. Second, offer a set tasting menu to show off the chefs' most creative dishes. And one more thing -- maybe you can raise your prices if you hire a sculptor each night to make a bright and cheery ice Buddha.

Mad About Aries

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more."
-Howard Beale, Network

To bring back the blog, to shake me out of my lethargy, I had to get really mad.

And I am really mad. You see, Aries closed. Scott Tycer has replaced it with a new "casual" restaurant that sells food like burgers and fruit juice. Here is the news:

I loved Aries. It had some of Houston's most interesting food. Tycer loved Aries too, but he did not have much choice. Apparently, in 6 great years, Aries could not make a profit in Houston.

I'm mad because of what this says about Houstonians and food. Aries was one of our best restaurants. It had outstanding wine. It had tasting menus that were ground breaking and often mind-bending. It treated food as an aesthetic end. Yet Houston never completely accepted Aries. Many Houstonians thought the food was "too wierd" or that portions were "too small" (as though we need bigger portions, Fat City).

I'm mad because Houston just does not seem to be able to support creative restaurants for very long. On some recent Saturday nights, I have seen such great restaurants as Bistro Moderne, laidback manor, and Quattro with no more than 10 - 15 patrons.

I'm mad because other cities are different. In New York, I recently went to Thomas Keller's Per Se. Like Aries, the food at Per Se is creative, served in small portions, expensive, and artistic. But unlike Aries, it was nearly impossible to get a reservation. After trying three weeks for a reservation at any time during a 3-day weekend, Per Se finally offered me a reservation that became available -- 10:30 on a Sunday night. Of course, if Per Se were in Houston, there rarely would be any crowd at all, much less on a Sunday night.

I'm mad because I worry that one day we are all going to wake up and find ourselves like Galveston. All the restaurants owned by the Scott Tycers of the world will be replaced by restaurants owned by the Tillman Fertitas of the world. We will eat in exactly the same restaurants where other people eat in Des Moines or Lubbock.

Things have got to change my friends. You've got to get mad. You've got to do more to support and publicize our best restaurants. You've got to avoid bland steak houses and tired franchises. You've got to spend that money in restaurants that care about food -- restaurants whether cheap or expensive that treat food as art and not just substance to fill your gut. You've got to tell all your friends about the really good restaurants, or better yet, take them there. But first get up out of your chairs, open your window, stick your head out and yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."