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.

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