Monday, January 29, 2007

El Hidalguense - Mexican goat and lamb

I have two quandries about goat and lamb. First, why do so many Americans prefer flavorless meats, such as chicken breasts and ground beef, over meats with strong natural flavors, like goat and lamb? Goats were one of the first animals domesticated by humans, about 10,000 years ago, and in many countries, goat meat remains a staple. I much prefer flavor of goat and lamb meat, but in this country I am in the minority.

Second, why is lamb so cheap and goat so expensive? If you go to ordinary supermarket chains in areas like southwest Houston, you will find lamb at much lower prices than beef. Yet goat, or cabrito, is much harder to find. And it is more expensive. Although I have had reasonably priced goat stew at La Sani, a Pakistani restaurant, most goat dishes in Houston are $18 or higher. Cadillac Bar has grilled cabrito (baby goat) for around $20. The goat at The Great Greek is a little more. It has become my quest to find good, inexpensive goat meat in Houston

My quest takes me to El Hidalguense on Long Point, between Antoine and Silber. There are promising signs. The restaurant's front wall panels proclaim each year the restaurant has won the Houston Press award for "best cabrito." Inside, the furnishings are cheap, a Mexican game show is on TV, and the air is heavy with the smell of goat and lamb.

Everything on the menu is cheap, with one exception. Cabrito is $17.99. I want to try it, but I just can't pay that much for lunch.

So I order lamb barbacoa en salsa verde for just $4.99. First, they bring a fried taquito with a bowl of red salsa. This is the kind of salsa I love -- no vinegar, no tomatoes, no onions, just reconstituted chili pepper in its own juices. It is deep red and tastes earthy and moderately hot. The taquito is fine, but it really is just a salsa delivery vehicle.

Then comes the lamb. It is a tender, stewed lamb, strongly flavored. I know the beef barbacoa here is made from the head of a steer cooked over hot coals. I am not sure whether the lamb barbacoa is made from the lamb's head. Regardless, this dish is excellent because the lamb flavor is matched by the heat and spice of salsa verde. After eating a few corn tortillas with the barbacoa, my mouth is on fire. A side of mashed pinto beans helps. Unlike most Tex-Mex beans, these don't have a lard or bacon flavor, or fatty texture. They seem to be flavored just by cooking broth.

As I enjoy this wonderful meal, I try to console myself for not getting goat. I tell myself that stewed lamb brains in green salsa is even more exotic than grilled goat. I remind myself that lamb tastes a lot like goat. Plus I ask myself whether this wonderful stewed lamb may even be better than the goat. But because the goat is a lot more expensive, and because I am a little too cheap, I am not going to find my answer today.

Friday, January 26, 2007

An Excellent Choice Sir

"After my friends and I get a table and place our order, one of our servers volunteers, in a jubilant voice, that Mr. Robuchon thinks we’ve made excellent decisions. I survey the path between my table and the door. Is it long and broad enough for cartwheels?"

Frank Bruni, "You May Kiss the Chef’s Napkin Ring," New York Times, January 24, 2007 (about a dinner at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon)

It is a familiar scene: After ordering fillet mignon at a pretentious restaurant, your server promptly responds, "An excellent choice sir."

But I am always suspicious. Is it really an excellent choice? Or does the waiter think everything on the menu is excellent? Or did he just say that to make me feel good about myself?

This type of comment is repeated so often it is becoming a meaningless cliche. For instance, yesterday at Dry Creek Cafe, I ordered tap water, and the server responded, "very good." Well, I know Houston tap water and, while ok, it is hardly "very good."

These compliments would be a lot more credible if, just once in a while, a waiter would wrinkle his nose and say:

•"You know, the arctic char is a little fishy tonight."
• Or, "You should know that the terrine is a French preparation and Chef’s real specialty is Italian."
• Or, "Honestly, the truffled pasta here is a little over priced."
• Or, "Of all the choices you might make, the baked chicken has to be the worst."

To be fair, I have heard some more honest comments from servers in salt-of-the-earth type restaurants. For instance, back when Nit Noi was a single hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Village, an old Thai waitress grimaced when I ordered a spicy, cold noodle dish called The Angel Lady. She said, "Maybe you not like that. You try Pad Thai?"

Oh, if only we could get such honesty from servers at Tony’s.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Portuguese Tapas at Oporto Cafe and Wine Bar

Houston has great ethnic foods, but we have one gaping hole -- not a single Portuguese restaurant. Some American cities, like Boston, have large Portuguese communities with dozens of fantastic Portugese restaurants. I have particularly fond memories of cold nights in Boston with hot Portuguese fish stew and Portuguese sausage. But Houston didn't get the Portuguese immigrants, so we don't have a Portuguese restaurant.

Now, at least, we have a Portuguese tapas bar. Oporto Cafe and Wine Bar is on Richmond near Weslayan between Colina's and Pepper tree. It is a funky, narrow space with an old wooden bar, modern minimalist decor, and hip, modern music. At lunch, they serve soups, paninis and pizzettes. At night, they add a tapas menu.

In one visit, I just scratched the surface, but I was impressed. I started with a chicken and rice soup called canja. The key to a simple chicken soup is a great broth. Although chicken broth is not exciting, it is one of those baseline ingredients that demonstrates how much a chef cares about food. This broth is one of those flavorful rich chicken broths you only get from long, slow cooking. The soup has a slightly exotic edge because it has lemon and mint. For a cold winter night, it was both comfortingly familiar and different enough to be interesting.

The tapas item I tried was linguica oporto con batatas -- Portuguese sausage with potatoes, sauteed onion, garlic, porto wine, and piri-piri oil. The sausage was unusual and had a lot of flavor. It consisted of a few slender rings of spicy meat that is much more similar to Spanish morcilla sausage than German sausage or American country sausage. The oil was infused with piri-piri, the Portuguese name for a thin, red pepper. It is flavorful, not that spicy, and is often used in Portuguese sauces. The combination of pepper oil, garlic and sausage added to the base ingredient of roasted potatoes made an exotic, warming dish perfect for a cold winter night.

Oporto has an interesting, inexpensive little wine list. The majority of the wines are Portuguese or Spanish. Because I don't see Portuguese wines enough, and because the price/quality ratio tends to be outstanding, I ordered a glass of red Marques de Borba from the Alentejo region. Most alentejo reds are a blend of grape varietals you probably never heard of -- Periquita, Aragones, and Trincadiera. This one reminded me of a Spanish syrah. It had far more concentrated fruit that wines this cheap usually have.

As I was enjoying this unusual wine, the couple next to me at the bar asked if they could get a California Cabernet Sauvignon and grumbled about the tapas sounding odd. That single moment may explain why we have so little Portuguese food and wine in Houston. Most Houstonians are not aware of Portguese food and wine or just are not interested enough to try it.

Maybe Oporto will change that.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Fish City Grill

The idea of Fish City Grill sounds suspicious: a seafood franchise originating in landlocked Dallas, a Houston location in a West U strip mall, overly cheery waitstaff who greet everyone repeatedly, and a something-for-everyone menu without no stylistic focus. Yet it fills a particular need.

For a long time, I have wanted a mid-priced seafood restaurant, near my house, with a broad selection and simple preparations that emphasize the fish. This is hard to find because most Houston seafood restaurants fall into these niches:

-high-end expensive seafood (Pesce, McCormick & Schmick's, Oceanaire);
-highly spiced, buttery Cajun seafood (Pappadeaux, Zydeco Louisiana Diner, Goode Co.);
-fried seafood joints (Boudreaux's, Rajin' Cajun);
-Mexican/Chinese fried seafood joints (Mambo, Golden Seafood House, Connie's Seafood); and

These restuarants don't specialize in good, cheap, simply cooked fish.

But Fish City Grill does. In fact, it has almost every common preparation of seafood, except sushi. On their basic menu, you can order shrimp, catfish, tilapia, and Atlantic salmon. You can get it grilled, blackened, fried, on a salad, on a sandwich, or on pasta. You can get flavorings like Mexican (oyster nachos and fish tacos), Cajun (po-boys, blackened fish), Asian (Thai coconut shrimp, Thai chili oysters, grilled salmon salad with Asian noodles), or you can get just the fish. These menu items are all under $10. But I have avoided them because fish like catfish, tilapia, and Atlantic salmon are usually inferior. They are farmed, and, unless you fry them or smother them in spice, they usually taste too muddy or too much like dog food.

So I gravitate to the slightly more expensive specials board. It has 8 or 9 different kinds of fresh seafood, like grouper, flounder, roughy, and scallops. They are usually priced between $10 and $16. Last night, I had macadamian crusted orange roughy with pineapple salsa. The crust was very light and the salsa gave just enough flavor to make the dish interesting, without overwhelming the high-quality fish, which was flaky and not overcooked. The sides were mixed quality. I loved the green beans with strips of red peppers, cooked al dente with a little vinegar. But the fried new potatoes tasted like they had been recently frozen.

Fish City Grill is a family restaurant. From the kid's menu, my daughter ordered chicken strips and waffle fries, and then ordered a key lime pie. She liked it all.

Of course, like most family restaurants, the wine list is lousy. It is dominated by over-oaked California chardonnays.

Fish City Grill has little character, originality, charm, or style. But it has inexpensive, good quality seafood, cooked almost any way you might like.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Where is the real Rainbow Lodge?

Where are this year's new upscale restaurants? Now is the time to open a high-end restaurant because winter is when they profit more from selling expensive red wines. Usually four or five new fine dining restaurants have opened by January, but not this year. I count only two -- the Oceanaire Seafood Room (see my last post) and The Lodge at Bayou Bend.

I want to try The Lodge at Bayou Bend, but I have a serious problem with the name. It opened in the location of the old Rainbow Lodge -- a venerable Houston dining institution. I heard that the landlords refused to renew the Rainbow Lodge's lease after 29 years. That's business. But it seems presumptious and confusing to open a new restaurant in the same location using the unique word "Lodge" in the name. I bet a lot of people go there thinking it is the old Rainbow Lodge.

But it isn't. The real Rainbow Lodge has opened in a new location -- a real log cabin on Ella near TC Jester. The log cabin is great. Sure, it doesn't have the great view of the old building, but it really feels like a "lodge."

When it comes to food, the reason to go to Rainbow Lodge is wild game. Although the preparations are conservative, the chef does innovate enough to make interesting. And the results are excellent. A ceasar salad was classic. It had the tang of a real ceasar dressing with eggs and anchovies. Even better was a bitter arugula salad with parmigiano reggiano cheese, olive oil, and a lot of lemon. I also tried the Taste of the Wild game sampler, which came with some very nice game sausage and other grilled game. My entree was peppercorn crusted fillet of venison tenderloin with rosemary polenta, roasted figs, and shallots. The dish had an interesting purple garnish and a subtle sweet reduction sauce that paired well with the venison. It was a modern twist on a classic game dish.

The other reason to go to Rainbow Lodge is wine. Over 30 years, they have built up some great allocations from top-notch wineries. The list is not huge, but it is high quality, selective, and includes some rare cult wines: Turley zins and petite syrahs, great Australian shirazes like Shirvington and Torbreck's The Factor, amd cult California cabernets such as Paul Hobbs and Shafer's Hillside.

As you might guess, Rainbow Lodge is not cheap. Their website disclaims: "An average cost for dinner, including wine is approximately $120 per couple." They must need that sort of statement when they open the only fine dining restaurant in Near Northwest Houston -- a part of town known for cheap middle class food. (See my August 15, 2006 post.)

You shouldn't go to Rainbow Lodge expecting the most creative new cuisine in Houston. But you should expect the best game in the city, one of the best lists of hard-to-find wines, and one of the most romantic settings. It remains the only restaurant in town that truly deserves to be called the "Lodge."

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Houston

In my August 30, 2006 post, I discussed the Dallas location of the Oceanaire Seafood Room. Last weekend, I tried its new location in the Houston Galleria.

This national chain flies in fresh seafood, gives it a retro upscale preparation, and charges a lot of money. In Houston, the interior decoration is fabulously classic -- like the interior of a 1920s luxury liner dining room. Located in part of the space formerly occupied by Lord & Taylor, it has a beautiful glass wall that looks right out on Westheimer.

The atmosphere is fun, the service is flawless, and the food is uniformly high quality - even if lacking in innovation. This is what I tried:

-My daughter had shrimp cocktail. The shrimp were huge and tasted far fresher than in most restaurants. The accompanying cocktail sauce was heavy on the horseradish.

-My wife had Massachusetts Bay diver scallops in a creamy casserole with salsify, asiago cheese, and bread crumbs. The scallops were huge and high quality. The preparation was heavy comfort food that recalls high end American cooking from the 1950s.

-I had acrtic char with bernaise sauce and asparagus. Char is a good salmon-like fish. Of course, you can't get much more retro than asparagus and bernaise -- a classic Hollandaise-like sauce with lots of taragon.

-Desert was creme brulee. Not creme brulee seasoned with cardamon, flavored with orange liquor, or served in little spoons. Just a big dish of classic creme brulee with real vanilla bean.

This is not "new food." No progressive chef with any integrity would ever serve these types of preparations in 2007 with a straight face. But this kind of nod-and-wink nostalgia can be fun.

With this expensive, retro food, and the glitzy setting, you would expect an elegant crowd. And in Dallas, the crowd was very dressy. But Houston is different. I saw more jeans than sports coats. And the patrons were diverse. Near us was a table of 6 Asian-American kids in jeans who could not have been over 20. They ordered an outlandishly-sized dish involving crab claws on ice plus a stack of onion rings that was at least 10 inches high. Another table was a large Indian family in modern Indian clothes. There were a few white guys in suits, but they were outnumbered by a lot of diversity, including kids. The restaurant does not offer a kid's menu,nor does it try to cater to children, but at least 6 other tables had children under 10.

My 8 year old loved it. With a big smile as we left, she announced that the Oceanaire was "the fanciest restaurant I've ever been to."

Who am I to correct her?

UPDATE. Food goddess Alison Cook reviewed the Oceanire 3 days after this post. She loved the raw oyster bar. I didn't try it because I frequently get the same Canadian and New England oysters at McCormick & Schmick's for a slightly lower price. But Alison complained that her fish (arctic char) was cooked a little too much. Interestingly, on my visit, the waiter did something very unusual: he asked how I wanted my fish cooked, and I said medium rare. I am not sure whether Alison's waiter gave her the same choice, but it is an easy solution to the problem.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in the Oceanaire, read Alison's excellent review. It is far more detailed and knowledgeable than mine:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Merida - Yucatanean food here and there

Over the holidays, I traveled to Merida, Mexico. I was curious to see how the Yucatanean food in Houston compared with the real thing.

Merida Restaurant on Navigation is an old favorite of mine. They specialize in pulled pork dishes from the Yucatan, like Cochinita Pibil. So is it authentic? Yes. The dishes resembled the similar dishes I had in Mexico, with similar sides like refried black beans and pink marinated onions. But Merida Restaurant does not represent the full scope of Yucatanean food. For instance, seafood is very popular in the Yucatan, but is not very prominent or very good at Merida Restaurant. Turkey (Pavo) is also popular in the Yucatan, but does not show up on the menu at Merida.

Although I would not call it a Yucatanean restaurant, Pico's has some Yucatanean dishes too, like cochinita pibil and fish wrapped in banana leaves. Again, the dishes proved to be authentic to the dishes in the region, but Pico's does not represent the full scope of the food in Merida. The same is true with Otilia's - a very good interior Mexican food restaurant in
Spring Branch that has a few Yucatanean dishes.

I should give a few examples of what we are missing. One of the best and most popular Yucatanean dishes is Pork Poc Chuc -- thinly sliced pork marinated in bitter oranges and grilled. I had a great Pork Poc Chuc at Los Alamendros in Merida. But I have not seen it on any menu here. Perhaps the bitter oranges just are not available in Texas. Yucatanean restaurants also specialize in turkey, especially at dinner. Even though we can certainly buy turkeys in Houston, I am not aware of a single Yucatanean turkey dish in a Houston restaurant.

In the real Yucatanean restaurants, they also served a killer spicy salsa, probably made from habanero peppers. It made me cry tears of pain and joy. I haven't had anything like it in Houston.

We can get some very good Yucatanean food in Houston. My only complaint is that we don't have enough.