Friday, March 23, 2007

Tomo: What's in a Name (Change)?

You probably did not notice. Yan Sushi -- a little Japanese restaurant at 1517 Westheimer -- has changed its name to Tomo Japanese Restaurant. This change is significant to me because of my history with Yan Sushi. It is also significant because it says something about trends in Houston Japanese restaurants.

Why does a restaurant change its name? It might have new owners. It might be emerging from bankruptcy as a new entity. It might be trying to re-market itself and create new attention. But in the case of Yan Shushi/Tomo, my guess is that the change means something else.

When I finished school in 1993, Yan Sushi was one of my favorite places to eat. At that time, it moved into the former home of a Jack-in-the-Box at Holcombe and Kirby. It had about 3 tables and a take-out lane. Everyone called it "Sushi-in-the-Box." Because I had student loan debt, I appreciated Yan Sushi's cheap prices. I also thought the sushi was fresher and more authentic than most sushi restaurants. My girlfriend (now wife) and I ate there about once a week.

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of Japanese restaurants in Houston has more than quadrupled. Each new restaurant has splashier menus that seem to move even further away from traditional Japanese food and toward fusion dishes. Every new restaurant advertises new "sushi" rolls with items like fried shellfish, sweet sauces, mayonaise, cream cheese, jalapenos, Kobe beef, micro greens, and just about every other trendy ingredient you can imagine.

Over this period, Yan Sushi also began to change. It moved to hipper, more expensive digs on lower Westheimer. The prices crept upward. The menu expanded to add more Americanized sushi rolls. But Yan Sushi mostly followed behind the trends rather than keeping up with them. Most of the menu continued to focus on sushi and sashimi and standard, traditional Japanese dishes like tonkatsudon (panko crusted pork on a bowl of rice), japanese curry, and unadon (bowl of rice topped with broiled eel).

Now, with the name change to Tomo, the staff appears to be the same. The decor remains the same. But there is one significant change: the menu. It is now dominated by fusion items. For instance, my daughter and I started with tomo tar tar, which was billed as the chef's special appetizer. These creations rested on squares of crispy fried wontons. On top were cubes of raw salmon (not a fish traditionally served raw in Japan), avocado, tomato, sprouts, and a sweet wasabi mayo. Nothing about these vaguely Japanese nachos is traditional. It's all very American -- the frying, the sweetness, the California ingredients, and the mayo. But for our American tastes, they were pretty good.

For entrees, we sought out more traditional favorites. My daughter's sashimi looked good, but she finished it so quickly that I did not get to try it. Although I could not find the Japanese curry that I loved so much at Yan Sushi, I did find tonkatsu. It was served with both pork and chicken cutlets, rice, and some sauce on the side. In years past, Yan Sushi also served some traditional Japanese pickles with the dish. Tomo does not. Fortunately, the sauce was not a new fusion sweet-and-sour sauce, but the traditional Japanese-style sauce, much like a thickened worcester.

Even with the changes, Tomo is not innovative enough to compete with Houston's more famous Japanese fusion restaurants like Kubo's, Blue Fish House, and Uptown Sushi. But Tomo is a perfectly good neighborhood Japanese restaurant that has some perfectly good Japanese fusion food items at a decent price.

Plus, Tomo still serves some basic, traditional Japanese dishes. You just have to look a bit harder at the menu now to find them.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Otherworldly Peruvian food at La Posada Del Inca

The big screen TV at La Posada Del Inca was showing a rock concert. Well, not exactly rock. The band was wearing American-style clothes and playing guitars before a huge, pulsating crowd of adoring women. But the music sounded like a speedy version of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtrack -- topped with Incan-style flutes.

Peru is the point of collision for many cultures -- Incan, Spanish, Gypsy, Japanese, and even Italian. It makes sense that the cuisine of Peru is regarded by many as one of the world's most varied and best. Some say it is on par with the food of France, Italy, and China. Although I am just getting my feet wet with Peruvian food, I am already a big fan.

Perhaps the best Peruvian food in Houston is served at La Posada Del Inca, a new restaurant on Long Point just west of Blalock. The huge menu has a variety of Peruvian dishes. For Americans new to Peruvian food, some dishes will seem fairly safe and familiar. Other dishes will be extremely exotic.

On my first visit, I ordered safely, despite my best efforts. I asked the waitress -- a fair-skinned English-speaking woman -- which item on the menu was "really unusual." She recommend a rotisserie cooked chicken. "No, no," I said, "I want something unusual, something different." Then she describes a dish of marinated meat, "much like fajitas mixed with french fries." She just was not getting it, so I tried a different tact: "Perhaps some seafood?" She responds, "we have ceviche." I asked, "is it marinated in lime juice, like Mexican ceviche?" "Yes," she admitted. "Ok," I said, "what about this yellow dish pictured on the menu?" "Oh," she said, "that's Aji de Gallina -- chicken in spicy milk. It's one of my favorites."

The aji de gallina looks exactly like a plate of French curry. Pieces of chicken are swimming in a bright yellow sauce next to a beautiful mound of perfectly cooked rice. Yet the sauce -- the "spicy milk" -- does not taste like curry. Nor is it all that spicy. It does have a wonderful creamy flavor and tastes like a concentrated chicken broth. The dish is subtle, emphasizing the flavor of chicken.

The waitress explains that I can make the dish spicier by adding some aji sauce -- which is a salmon-colored paste served in a separate bowl. This is a bit confusing because my chicken is called "aji de gallina. Apparently "aji" is a generic word for "pepper" that comes in different colors and spice levels. The "spicy milk" is yellow because it uses a mild, yellow-colored aji. Yet the aji sauce on the side has a pinkish color and is extremely spicy. The flavor is a salty,greenish pepper flavor, more like jalapeno than habanero. But the sauce is as spicy as habenero. After a few bites, my mouth is burning.

The aji sauce is, quite simply, one of the two or three best hot sauces I have ever had. I mix as much as possible into the chicken dish. And I leave the restaurant in some serious pain.

On my next visit, the waitress is gone and no one speaks much English. I try to communicate in Spanglish with a man in a chef's apron. He points at some photos on the wall of some dishes he seems to like, including one called anticuchos. Anticuchos are skewers of spicy marinated beef heart. Altough I do not always like organ meat, these hearts have a texture similar to beef tips and a flavor that is less like liver and more like the strong meat flavor of very rare beef.

The anticuchos are accompanied by a pan-sauteed boiling potato, plus the strangest corn-on-the-cob I have ever seen. The corn kernels are enormous, bigger than hominy, and their color is pale white. Their taste and texture are more like potatoes than corn.

Once again, they serve the glorious aji sauce, but this time with some commercially-manufactured tortilla chips. I am not impressed with the chips, but they do their job of conveying the spicy aji to my mouth.

As I leave, I pick up a small desert called alfajores. It consists of a filling of molasses sandwiched between two layers of very soft pastry, made from a mix of flour, lemon rind, and powdered sugar. It is so good that I wished I had bought a second.

Apart from some unusual ingredients and the spicy aji sauce, the main appeal of this food is a purity of flavor. The chicken dish really tastes like chicken. The beef hearts really taste like beef. This purity of ingredients reminds me much more of French cuisine than Mexican, or Italian, or Spanish.

I beg you to try to La Posada Del Inca. My reasons are selfish. I need this restaurant to survive because there are so many menu items that I want to try. And yet on both of my two lunchtime visits, I was the only customer. It deserves better. The food is out of this world -- or at least out of this hemisphere.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Thoughts on Food in Las Vegas - Part 2 of 2

This is the second of two posts about dining in Las Vegas and what it says about the future of food in Houston.

2 - The Las Vegas Future: Celebrity Chefs

The restaurant scene in Las Vegas changed dramatically in 1992. In that year Wolfgang Puck opened Spago -- Vegas' first celebrity chef restaurant. Now celebrity chef restaurants dominate. Almost every casino/hotel on the Strip has at least one. Many of the world's most famous chefs have made their name elsewhere, then opened their second, third, or tenth restaurant in Vegas. Some examples include: Bouchon (Thomas Keller); Emeril's New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand (Emeril Legasse); Joel Robuchon at the Mansion; At Prime in the Belagio (Jean Georges Vongerichten); Mix (Alain Ducasse); Nobu at the Hard Rock Casino (Nobu Matsuhisa); Mesa Grill at Caesar's Palace (Bobby Flau); and Daniel Boulud Brasserie.

I spent most of a day wandering down the Strip looking at menus. For such allegedly cutting-edge chefs, I was surprised how many menus were dominated by steak. The typical restaurant had about 12 entrees, and about half were steaks or chops.

Apart from steaks, menus were dominated by old trends. I must have seen three different menus offering seared ahi tuna served over wasabi mashed potatoes. That is so five years ago.

Perhaps these famous chefs have learned that, in Vegas, the mainstream customers want the safety of familiarity, not a true adventure.

My favorite menu find was Daniel Boulud's $32 burger. The menu said the ground sirloin burger was stuffed with foie gras, braised short rib, and black truffles -- served with fries. It was a strange mix of luxury ingredients and the most conservative of American foods -- a hamburger. It encapsulates the essence of Las Vegas -- expensive excess for unadventurous tastes.

To see where the celebrity chef trend began in Las Vegas, I tried Spago. To start, I ordered a mediocre crab cake. The tiny cylinder tasted more of bread crumbs than crab. Then, I had a black truffle-crusted organic king salmon, served with mushrooms and brussel sprout leaves. "Organic" is a code word for "farmed." The fish was good quality for farmed fish, but not as good as wild king salmon. (I should know not to order salmon in March). The preparation, however, was more creative than I expected. On the other hand, I tried a friend's braised short ribs. It tasted like a good pot roast. But it was not unusual, and not as good as the braised short ribs I had recently at Backstreet Cafe in Houston.

I had to wonder how much the celebrity chefs were involved at these restaurants. They all have other restaurants. Many of them host TV shows. And almost all write best-selling cook books. I do not see how it is possible for them to spend much time at their third restaurant in Vegas. Perhaps they don't. In fact, the menus at some of these restaurants candidly identify some lesser known person (not the celebrity chef) as the real executive chef.

I used to appreciate the idea of a celebrity chef because chefs deserve that glory. For too long chefs have toiled in the kitchen, outside of the lime light. They have not been recognized in the same way as other artists, like novelists and painters. But now chefs do combat in a stadium on Iron Chef. Some have become cultural icons, or at least household names. And their vocabulary has been adopted by the culture. "Pow!" indeed.

But I fear that chef celebrity is becoming no more than a brand -- a Ralph Lauren pony on the restaurant's shirt pocket. The brand offers familiarity, and a promise of quality. And like fashion, celebrity chef restaurants tend to follow the trends of the season. But the brand does not necessarily mean true creativity or artistry. And certainly not individualized attention.

With the movement of corporations into fine dining, the growth of the celebrity chef trend is inevitable. In Houston, we only have two celebrity restaurants: Jean George's Bank and Wolfgang Puck Express. Fortunately, most of our best restaurants have not been corporatized and branded. They do not all slavishly follow food trends. And they still offer a lot more than steak.

More importantly, in Houston, unlike Las Vegas, there is a decent chance that your fish was bought or seasoned or plated or served to you by a real chef who runs his or her own restaurant and still works in the kitchen -- someone like Monica Pope, John Sheely, or Mark Cox. They don't manufacture food in accordance with a brand. Instead, they create their own individualistic art. They are our real culinary heroes.

Let's hope they do not get edged out by celebrity chef carpetbaggers who inevitably will open their 5th or 10th restaurant in Houston now that they have all conquered Las Vegas.

Thoughts on Food in Las Vegas - Part 1 of 2

I just spent four days in Las Vegas. On the way to the Strip, a grizzled taxi driver said how he missed the good old days where everything was run by the mob. Now, he lamented, everything is run by corporations. Las Vegas may say something about the future of the American restaurant industry. And I don't like it.

Las Vegas has two restaurant phenomena: (1) the high-end buffet, and (2) the celebrity chef restaurant. Right now, we have very few of those types of restaurants in Houston. Unfortunately, they may be the future of American dining.

1 - The Las Vegas Past: Casino Buffets

As a relic of Las Vegas' past, almost every casino/hotel has an upscale all-you-can-eat buffet. The price at most is over $20. The food quality tends to be very high.

Houston does not have this type of buffet. Sure, if you travel outside the Loop, you will find low quality American chains or Chinese restaurants with buffets. But these buffets are much cheaper. The food almost always suffers from low quality ingredients, unimaginative preparation, and damage from heat lamps or steam tables.

In Vegas, I tried the buffet inside Tillman Fertitta's Golden Nugget, which serves everything from prime rib to sushi to tortilla soup. It is not the best buffet in Vegas, but it is representative. All the food I tried was much better than the chain buffets in Houston. Despite the steam tables, each item here seemed to be the correct temperature and not too damaged by sitting out for too long.

Still, it is hard to escape the inherent problems with buffets. You feel compelled to eat your money's worth, which is too much food. Worse, a buffet that offers something of everything results in an incoherent mess on the plate. My plate had prime rib, eel sashimi, sweet potatoes, barbecue, ceviche, spinach, and grilled salmon. Everything was fine by itself. Nothing fit together in combination.

As Houston grows, or rather as the waist of Houstonians grow, we may see more upper end buffets. Buffets offer the promise of food as an endless commodity. They present a future of unlimited gluttony. And they threaten the artistry of dining.

NEXT: Part 2 -- The Las Vegas Future: Celebrity Chef Restaurants

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Braising at Backstreet, Benjy's, Pico's

Houston's short winter is in its death throes, if not already dead. But before we say goodbye to winter, I should mention a trend I think I am seeing in some of Houston's best restaurants. More restaurants seem to be serving braised meats. These soupy, warming dishes have been some of my favorites of the season.

Braising is a cooking method where meats are browned in hot fat, then slow cooked in liquid. Braising is often used to take tough, inedible meat, and break it down, so that the collagen dissolves into the liquid. The classic American braised meat dish is pot roast. I have been experimenting with cooking pot roasts from a Cooks Illustrated recipe, and I love the results. Yet as wonderful as pot roast is, few fine restaurants serve it.

Braising gets a bad rap. When Alton Brown cooked a pot roast on Good Eats, he went to a friend's trailer home. That is how most people see pot roast -- very low cuisine. Even fancier braised dishes like coq au vin or beef bourguignon are seen by the French as dishes for bistros, not fine restaurants.

Fortunately, some of Houston's best restaurants have been more willing to serve some braised dishes lately. Of course, they use some trendy ingredients, and expensive-sounding meats. But the result is not that different than a fantastic pot roast. The following are the three best braised dishes I had this winter.

1 - Backstreet Cafe - Coffee braised short ribs over ancho pepper polenta. This dish is much like the lowly pot roast, yet it is stunning. Backstreet slow cooks short ribs on the bone. The extremely thick brown sauce has root vegetables, and a gelatinous texture as a result of the collagen. It is served on top of polenta and cooked greens. It is hard to tell where the meat ends and the sauce begins -- and where the sauce ends and the polenta begins. Does that sound like a sloppy mess? It is, but the taste is incredible. This is the perfect winter dish, and not expensive at $20. If I ever had any doubts about Backstreet's food coasting, this dish erased them.

2 - Benjy's Restaurant - Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork osso bucco with creamy marscapone polenta, braised winter vegetables, and red wine reduction. This $21 dish is a similar preparation to Backstreet's, although the meat is very different. Osso bucco is usually a lamb shank, cut across the bone, browned and braised in wine and aromatic vegetables. Benjy's version is made from a pig -- a very large pig. This shank is enormous, and the meat is wonderfully tender and flavorful. Like Backstreet, Benjy's has discovered that polenta matches well with the thick gellatinous texture of the sauce created by braising. Part of the appeal of osso bucco is getting to the bone marrow. One time I had this dish, I could get to the marrow. The other time I couldn't. But I gave the leftovers to my dog, and she found the marrow very quickly.

Kurobuta pork is appearing on a lot of Houston menus. In just a few weeks, I have had it at Benjy's, Kubo's, and the Lodge at Bayou Bend. These have all been great dishes. Perhaps it is something special about Korobuta Pork. Or perhaps it is something special about the chefs.

3 - Pico's Restaurant - Pork Osso Bucco with tomatoes and white beans. This was a special that Pico's served on Vallentines Day, and I hope to see it more often. Unlike the rest of the mostly Mexican menu at Pico's, the overall flavors of the dish were more Spanish. Unlike the rest of the mostly Mexican menu at Pico's, the overall flavors of the dish were more Spanish. It was not nearly as soupy as the previous two dishes, but it was just as wonderful. The braised pork shank was covered with a garlic, onion, tomato sauce. It was served on a bed of flavorful white beans. Like the pot roast, the white bean is a winter food that does not get enough respect from restaurants. The beans made a welcome addition to an excellent dish.

I am already looking forward to next winter. Now maybe some fine restaurant will have the guts to serve a fantastic pot roast.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Chilosos Taco House and the Question of Existence

The philosopher Descartes famously struggled with the question of whether God exists. Me? I struggle almost daily with the question of whether Chilosos Taco House exists.

I know Chilosos does not exist in cyberspace. I Googled it a few minutes ago. No results. No website. No review. Not even a directory listing. Is it possible that any restaurant can exist in Houston physically, but not in cyberspace? Perhaps it is possible -- if you consider that Chilosos is nothing more than a neighborhood taco joint in the Heights.

But even physically, Chilosos’ existence has been in doubt. In its short life, I have been lucky to eat there at least 10 times. Yet it remains a daily question whether Chilosos will be open.

Last year, a sign with Chilosos’ yellow and red sombrero graphic appeared in front of a house on 20th St., with the promise, "OPENING SOON." After many months, Chilosos finally did open, but only for a short time. Then it closed, reopening a few days later with a patch on the ceiling where a pipe had burst. After several weeks in business, Chilosos posted a large sign in front that said "NOW OPEN." But then, within days, it closed and remained closed for weeks. Finally today, Chilosos has reopened. One of the proprietors explained that they had problems with the floor in the kitchen. Now, they reassure me, the floor is reinforced and Chilosos is open for good.

When it is open, Chilosos serves breakfast and lunch. It is a home-turned restaurant that still feels more like a home. Inside are two small rooms, bar stools surrounding tall tables, three TVs, and a steam table that separates the dining room from the kitchen. The kitchen serves good tacos that each costs between $1.35 and $1.55. Two sisters run the operations. They are very friendly and appear to have great patience with the restaurant’s many physical problems.

The breakfast tacos are good, but my favorites are two lunch tacos: carne guisada and puerco en salsa verde. Carne guisada is a stew of beef tips in gravy. Chilosos’ version does not have quite as much cumin as my favorite carne guisada recipes, but it is far above average. Even better is the puerco en salsa verde, chunks of pork in a mild green salsa. This thick, yummy salsa is not as spicy as I might expect, but it is full of flavor. Chilosos also makes a good chicken fajita taco, which is greatly improved by a liberal dousing of the salsa verde. Although the default tortillas are flour, I prefer the corn tortillas which are thick and taste homemade.

If you find yourself in the Heights at lunch time, I recommend Chilosos for its homey atmosphere and its good cheap tacos. Of course, you might want to call first -- just to make sure it's open. Chilosos Taco House, 701 E. 20th St. (between Studewood and Heights Blvd.), 713.868.2273.

Update (November 18, 2007): Chiloso's is now open regularly, and I eat there regularly. The kitchen seems to be rotating in various taco fillings. For instance, on some days it serves very good chicken mole tacos. Fortunately, they always serve my favorite, puerco en salsa verde.

Going with a Critic to the Lodge at Bayou Bend

Food criticism is inherently subjective. For instance, no one agreed with me about Laidback Manor. I loved it. No one went. It closed. I am underwhelmed with Tony's. It remains crowded. Similarly, two like-minded people can eat the exact same plates of food, at the same time, and have opposite reactions. That is what happened when I took my wife to the new Lodge at Bayou Bend.

My wife is a small woman, but she is an ex-lawyer who can be fierce and fiesty. She usually leaves judgments about restaurants to me because I care so much about food. Lately, though, her book club has been reading "Garlic and Sapphires," a book by Ruth Reichl, the former food critic for the New York Times. The book describes her experiences as a food critic and includes many of her reviews of New York restaurants. Overnight, my wife has become a food critic. It isn't pretty.

The Lodge at Bayou Bend is a beautiful restaurant, the former house of Rainbow Lodge. It has two levels, and the second is a balcony overlooking the first. On the walls, modern art has now replaced animal heads. We are seated at an isolated balcony table. I am delighted with the quiet table and the view over the restaurant. My wife growls quietly, "they sat us in Siberia."


We order a highly-regarded Australian Shiraz. Initially, the steward brings a lesser wine made by the same winery. It is about half the price. I assume it is an honest mistake, especially since the first wine they brought was cheaper. My wife makes the opposite assumption, "they must not have wanted us to get the good one."


I order petit greens, which come with a thinly-slied Fuji apple, a huge lump of Stilton cheese, candied pecans, and a lemon sherry vinaigrette. She orders hearts of romaine – a caesar-like salad served with roasted garlic, focaccia croutons, parmigiano, and smoked tomato. She quickly rejects her salad because "the dressing is not as good as what I get at Central Market." So we switch. I like the dressing. I think the croutons are flavorful. And I especially like the parmigiano cheese, which pairs nicely with the dressing. "It is not as coarse and flavorful as good-quality, aged parmigiano" she says. She also complains about the Stilton on my salad. "Too stinky." Of course, that is just how I like it. She continues, "plus it is too big a serving." I tell her that we don’t have to eat it all. But I do.


My wife orders elk tenderloin au poivre. The waiter warns us that it is seared with a lot of cracked pepper. "Just how I like it," she says. But when the elk comes, it is served with more pepper than she ever imagined. "You cannot taste the elk," she says. "The pepper kills it." I try it, and I am very impressed. The focus really is on the cracked peppercorns, but these are good quality peppercorns. The gamey meat compliments the strong pepper flavor. Sure, many people might prefer the pepper to compliment the game, rather than vice versa, but I find the dish unique and flavorful.

I order roasted Kurobuta pork tenderloin medallions. This dish, we finally agree, is special. Small bites of tenderloin are laid in a row, mixed alternatingly with squares of fried pork belly. The meat is surrounded with aromatic vegetables, such as fennel, leek, apple, and sweet potato, and drizzled with a port reduction sauce. Pork tenderloin can be too lean, but not when you can alternate bites with fatty pork belly. The vegetables are even more impressive. I can smell them before the waiter lays the dish down in front of me. They work perfectly with the pork.


Disagreement returns with the dessert, an orange chocolate bombe. First, my wife makes me try a stick of chocolate that rests atop the desert. "What does that taste like?" "Chocolate?" I guess incorrectly." "No, it tastes like Easter-bunny chocolate." I know what she means, and I know it is not good. For her tastes, the chocolate in this dish is not sufficiently dark and intense. She also gets irritated that the shell of the bombe is so tough that she cannot break it with a spoon. So I break it with a fork. Then she complains that the inside of the bombe – orange chocolate mousse, orange creme, and chocolate sponge cake – is not sufficiently "toothsome." I find it light and airy, a nice contrast to our heavy meal. But, finally, I concede that the dessert is not quite as good as a similar dish at Bistro Moderne.

The experience

To sum up my wife’s experience, the quality of the ingredients and preparation did not quite live up to the promise, and the price, of the menu. As for me, I did not have high expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised, espcially by the pork.

At least we both agree that the service is some of the best in Houston – better than Tony’s, better than Mark’s, better than CafĂ© Annie. For instance, we asked for a doggie back to take home the extra elk. At the end of our meal, the waiter explained that it had been delivered to the valet who had placed it in the back of our car. I was blown away. My wife laughed out loud. "You’re kidding?" she asked incredulously, as though no restaurant would actually do such a thing.

The setting of the Lodge at Bayou Bend is one of Houston's most romantic. It is a perfect, if expensive, restaurant for a special occasion or a romantic date -- unless you go with a food critic.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Ouisie's Table and the Venison Chicken Fried Steak

Ouisie’s Table is an upscale restaurant on San Felipe in River Oaks.

It reminds me of the Republican Party in four respects. First, the crowd is well dressed, somewhat aging, and drives mostly Mercedes. Like most Republicans, you would never call these people “hip.”

Second, the atmosphere is country club. Tables have white tablecloths. Service is impeccable. And on weekends you can hear a duo that plays cool jazz – a conservative form of the music that emerged in the 1950s from mostly white musicians.

Third, the food is more traditional than progressive. You won’t find any creative foams or unusual amuse bouche offerings. Instead you will find dishes that are more “conservative populist” -- dishes like veal picatta, prime rib eye, and fried snapper.

Finally, like the modern Republican Party, the focus of the food seems to be Southern. Ouisie’s offers Southern dishes such as fried oysters, crab cakes, lump crab with sliced tomatoes, roasted quail with apple smoked bacon, and most famously, the chicken fried steak.

Perhaps because I prefer my jazz and food a little more on the progressive side, I am not completely at home at Ouisie’s. But I like it just fine. After a few visits, I finally got the courage to order the famous chicken fried steak. Or more precisely, I ordered a variation on the dish – the chicken fried venison steak.

The fame of Ouisie's CFS was cemented in 2001, when Robb Walsh wrote one of the best columns ever about Texas food called “Chicken-Fried Honor." In it, he defended the CFS from critics. And he pronounced that “Ouisie’s Table serves a world-class chicken-fried steak – without a doubt, one of the best in Texas.”

Ever since Robb’s endorsement, I have wanted to try Ouisie’s CFS. But then last weekend, when I finally went to try it, I saw the more exotic venison variation. This is how Ouisie’s menu describes it:

“Back strap of Axis prepared the way the chuck wagon cooks fixed ‘em when out on the trail or for the Boss back at the ranch house. Pounded out pieces of venison were dipped in seasoned flour and skillet-fried over a camp fire. Tonight we bring it into our kitchen to pan-fry some beautiful Axis back strap medallions ‘til crispy and serving ‘em with, a mess of greens, wild Rice Risotto with butternut Squash, mushrooms and Lucy’s Corn Pudding. Cream Biscuits will be served to round this out along with extra gravy on the side.”

With that description, I had no choice but to order it.

If you read my posts about dumplings, you might guess my criteria for a perfect CFS: a marriage of (1) tender, thin meat with (2) a crispy, flavorful crust, plus (3) cream gravy that complements, but does not overwhelm, the flavor of the meat.

As it turns out, Ouisie’s venison CFS is near-perfect in two categories, but falls a bit short in another. The meat is great. The three small rounds of deer meat are thinly pounded and incredibly tender, almost milky. The taste of venison is obviously gamier than beef, but it works in a CFS. This is possibly the best meat I have ever had inside a CFS. The gravy is equally outstanding. Although a cream gravy, it is colored brown, presumably from meat juices. It has a perfect bechamel consistency, and enough salt and spice to make it interesting.

The only problem is the crust. It is not my favorite kind of CFS crust. It is appropriately crispy, but the batter is very thin, almost like finely ground cracker or cornmeal. I prefer big, crispy flakes of flour batter that create a profound contrast with the thin, tender meat.

For comparison, the meat at Ousie's is much better, but the crust is not as good, as the CFS at 59 Diner, the Pig Stand (RIP), Prince’s Hamburgers, and Avenue Grill. And overall, I might not like Ouisie's CFS quite as much as the versions at the Barbecue Inn and Hickory Hollow. Plus, most of those competing versions cost about $20 less than Ouisie's.

Still, Ouisie's CFS dish is very good, especially considering the sides. Although the risotto is nothing special, the greens and corn pudding are perfect Southern dishes. The biscuits are tiny, but flavorful and flaky.

If you can handle a greying River Oaks crowd, if you can stomach jazz that is played a bit on the "white" side, and you don't flinch at buying a very good chicken fried steak dinner for around $30, then you probably will love Ouisie's Table. If not, there are plenty of other places in Houston to get a perfectly good chicken fried steak.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Rioja Spanish Tapas

Ten years ago, it looked like Spanish tapas were about to really catch on in Houston. They didn’t. Although we have some good tapas restaurants (i.e. Mi Luna, Catalan), many good ones have closed (i.e., Beso, Solero, Barcino). Plus, the tapas dishes we can get are often very different than real tapas from the point of origin -- Andalucia in Southern Spain.

But, if you are willing to drive some, you can find the most authentic tapas at Rioja Restaurant. Every time I travel to this restaurant outside the Beltway on Westheimer, I am blown away by their Spanish food and wine.

Last Saturday night, I drove my wife, my 73 year-old mother, and my 8 year-old-daughter to Rioja. I felt ok to bring my daughter because in Spain it is customary to bring kids to the tapas bar, even on a Saturday night.

Rioja was packed. The tables were so crowded together that waiters frequently bumped and jostled our chairs. The crowd was half-drunk and noisy and the live Latin music made it even noisier. Yet we loved the atmosphere. It felt like we had traveled from the Houston suburbs to Sevilla.

First, I should say something about the service and my attempts to get the right wine. Rioja has a great list of Spanish wines, but not the one I ordered – a 2003 Genium. Initially, the waitress mistakenly brought a wine called Gaudium. Then, she brought a wine called Genium Costers, priced more than twice as much as the regular Genium. Finally, a manager admitted they were out of the wine I wanted. I was a little frustrated, but mostly amused. Then he did something extraordinary. He said he would bring me his favorite wine, a wine was not on the list and that probably was far more expensive than the Genium, but he offered to charge me the same price. The wine he brought – a modern-style blend from the Alicante region of Spain – was one of the most complex, concentrated Spanish wines that I have had in a long time. As it breathed during the course of an hour, it became even more harmonious and fascinating. It reminded me of Vega Sicilia – Spain’s most famous wine. But I paid far, far less. More importantly, I felt like the restaurant really cared about making us happy.

Likce the service and wine, the tapas dishes were excellent:

-Gambas Al Ajillo – sauteed shrimp in garlic and olive oil with hot peppers – tasted like the same dish I have had in Spain. We could not stop dipping bread in the oil.

-Mussels in Salsa Verde were possibly the best mussels I have had anywhere. They were steamed in sherry and garlic. But what really put the dish over the top, and made it a great match with the red wine, was the addition of carmelized onions. Again, we spent a long time dipping bread in the sauce.

-We loved two different kinds of empanadas – one with ground beef filling and a chimichurri-like sauce and the other with crab filling and romesco sauce.

-Pincho de Solomillo – grilled fillet mignon marinated in Rioja wine and paprika – had an unusual flavor that reminded me of sherry. I like my beef with a bit more salt, but this dish was very good.

-Mushrooms in garlic, sherry, and olive oil were one of my favorite dishes, despite their simplicity. And everyone liked the spinach sauteed with pine nuts, garlic and raisins and topped with Manchego cheese.

-Finally, the flourless chocolate cake was one of the better versions I have had of this popular dessert. It was appropriately dense and rich, walking a fine line between cake and fudge. Not so Spanish perhaps, but a perfect end to a wonderfully hedonistic evening.

Full of great food and wine, our ears ringing with sound of the crowd and Latin music, the four of us wandered out the door, into the night, half-expecting to see the ancient walls of an Andalucian city.

But instead we found a suburban strip mall, the sounds of Houston traffic on a Friday night, and a long, long drive back inside the Loop.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dumpling Hunt Part 4 - Lai Lai

I just can't find Santong Snacks.

Twice I traveled out Bellaire hunting for this famous dumpling house. I went to the addresses for its old and new locations (9384 Bellaire and 9938 Bellaire), but it is either hidden or not there. When I called, the woman who answered could not speak English and could not answer my questions. She only said, "not open." Because it is Thursday at noon - an unlikely time to be closed - I wonder if this "not open" status might be permanent.

My failure to find Santong Snacks is a metaphor for my dumpling hunt. I am finding a lot of decent dumplings, but the perfect dumpling seems impossible to find.

When I finally give up on Santong, I head for the nearest dumpling house -- Lai Lai Dumpling House. Although I have eaten there many times, I have not had their dumplings since 1987. Then, even as a poor college student, I was not impressed. Recently though, I read some positive comments about the dumplings. So I give them a second try.

I assume that Lai Lai's plate of 8 assorted steam dumplings has vegetable, pork, chicken, and beef dumplings, but it is hard to tell for sure. Each of the meat dumplings seems identical. The outside is an extremely thick, doughy lump of pasta. They have relatively artistic designs, but the dough is so thick that it settles in my stomach like a lead weight. Inside are ping-pong-ball sized lumps of finely compressed, slightly gelatinous, rubbery meat. If you threw these balls against the nearest wall, they would bounce right back to you. A woman next to me has ordered pan fried dumplings, and they appear to contain the same cylindrical lumps of meat.

These dumplings taste fine, and they are quite filling. But they lack flavor. And the meat is a bit of a mystery. Behind me, two businessmen are discussing a plan to import Chinese health products into the American health food market. They say that Americans need to be educated about healthy diets. Ironically, they too are eating the mystery balls of meat.

The vegetable dumplings are more interesting. They seem to contain egg, glass noodles, and cabbage (or maybe leeks), plus little bits of Chinese mushrooms that dominate the flavor. I am a big mushroom fans, but I always have found the taste of Chinese mushrooms to be odd and slightly unpleasant. Nonetheless, this filling at least reflects much more care, thought, and variety than the meat ping pong balls.

Lai Lai offers the usual condiments: soy, vinegar, sesame oil, chili pepper flakes. It also serves a nice, light ginger-based dumpling sauce. This adds flavor, which the meat dumplings need.

As I leave Lai Lai, I am only $6 poorer. My intellect is unsatisfied. But after 8 dumplings, my stomach is very full. I feel satiated. And I think I am going to need a nap.