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.

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