Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Truluck's - safety and numbers

Until last weekend, I had never tried Truluck's. I confess, it really is not my kind of restaurant. It is a chain, with locations in towns like Boca Raton, Florida and Addison, Texas. It specializes in steaks and crabs. Its menu is not very creative.

When I finally did try it, I was amazed by the high prices they charge and by the enormous crowd. Almost all entrees were over $20 and many were between $30 and $45. Yet, even in their new large location, we barely obtained a reservation for Saturday night a day in advance, and even then they had no reservations available before 8:30. The restaurant was completely packed.

What makes this pricey restaurant so successful? My theory is that it offers high end dining with maximum safety. It soothes any anxiety a diner might have about going to a "fancy" restaurant.

-Intimidated by snooty waiters? Not at Truluck's. Your waiter is likely to be friendly and highly enthusiastic. He or she probably will know less about the food and wine than you will, but will cater to your every wish - promptly.

-Concerned about weird, confusing dishes? There are no confusing foods at Truluck's. The core of the menu are simple foods that most Houstonians love -- crab and steak. And most other dishes are cooked here with a simple preparation. Sure, Truluck's offers a more adventurous "Seafood Creations" menu. But even this part of the menu contains proven dishes that were trendy 10 years ago, such as miso-glazed sea bass, and sesame tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes.

-Worried that you might not get enough food? Not at Truluck's. Two of us ordered a total of one salad, one cup of soup, one appetizer, and one entree. We could not even eat half of the soup, salad and entree. We also were too full for dessert, but I noticed that the dessert dishes looked bigger than most people's heads. Even the truly obese will get full here.

-Afraid that your date might order the wrong bottle of wine? No worries at Truluck's. Most wines are available by the glass, so you will not get stuck with a disappointing bottle. And helpful wine flights allow you to sample five different, completely unrelated, wines for novices to figure out what they like.

-Concerned about quality? Despite the lack of imagination, every dish we tried had quality ingredients and was cooked professionally. My wild Copper River sockeye salmon was an outstanding piece of fish, seared with a crunch crust on the flesh side, and slightly rare inside. It was a perfect preparation, even if its cherry sauce was a bit dull, and the wasabi mashed potatoes were a bit cliched.

Truluck's is all about safety. It is a great place for people who do not eat out often and want guaranteed quality -- and no adventure -- when they drop a lot of money on food. It would be a great place to go on prom night. And it would be a dream creation for a restaurant marketer who wants to make a lot of money.

Of course, Truluck's has no art. It has no soul.

But I wouldn't mind eating there again -- especially if someone else is paying.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Going Back to Cafe Annie

I had not been to Cafe Annie in several years. I have too much mental baggage about it. I know it is one of Houston's most expensive restaurants. I know that its owner/chef was once considered by many as Houston's best chef. I know it once had the best wine guy in Houston, who has since moved on to the French Laundry in Napa.

I remember the early 90s when tables were hard to get, when the wait staff was snobby, and when all the male customers wore coats and ties. Expensive dinners at Cafe Annie were a symbol of Houston's upper class and its excesses.

I also felt that, in recent years, the innovation of the cooking had trailed off and that the quality of the wine list had dropped. For a while, the crowds trailed off too. I remember going on a Friday night in 2001 when only five tables were full.

In short, I guess I have been avoiding Cafe Annie because it seems like a relic -- a very expensive relic.

When I did return last weekend, I tried a thought experiment. What if I erased all my knowledge and opinions about Cafe Annie, and tried it from the eyes of a newcomer. What would I think?

Last Saturday night, the restaurant was crowded. It was not too formal or dressy. Although some men wore coats, quite a few men wore collared t-shirts without a coat. And no one wore a tie. Several customers had brought their pre-teen children. The waitstaff and front desk staff were quite friendly and gracious.

The huge wine list reflected intelligent thought. Most restaurants put new releases on their list immediately. Many new releases are too young. But not on this list. Vintages were carefully selected. For instance, we ordered a 2002 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir. The currently released vintage is the 2004, which right now is too tannic and backward -- not good to drink. After trying a 2004, I did some research and learned that Swan pinots get much better two years after release, and that the 2002 Swan estate pinot is currently one of the best California pinots of that vintage. Somehow, Cafe Annie knew this and waited to offer the 2002 until it was ready. That may not sound so impressive until you see the hundreds of wine on their list.

The food also was very high quality, and some of it was quite innovative.

I started with an appetizer of two scallops with a slab of applewood bacon and an asparagus salad. This dish was fascinating because the texture of the scallops and the pork was almost identical, yet their flavors were distinct and complimentary. The asparagus stalks -- interestingly sliced down the middle -- were far better than any asparagus I have had recently.

My wife's appetizer was a Ceasar salad. It was expertly prepared, but nothing unusual or interesting.

She also ordered a column of barely seared rare tuna with dollops of a tabasco-based sauce and a roasted beet and frisee salad. Somehow, this raw tuna was at least as good as the best tuna sashimi I have had in the best sushi restaurants. It paired nicely with the baby beets and frisee. This dish was not that innovative, but again I was impressed with the quality of the ingredients. I also was amazed at how well the raw fish brought out the fruit in the pinot noir.

I had a Cinnamon Roasted Pheasant, which came with a very light cream chili sauce and polenta. The cinnamon flavor was very subtle, which was good because this was the best quality pheasant I have ever had. This was an enormous bird with crispy skin. I have tried pheasant elsewhere that was gamey. The taste of this dish reminded me of Cafe Annie's similar chicken dish, which is one of the best chicken dishes in Houston -- wait -- strike that -- I'm putting aside my past experiences with Cafe Annie for this post.

From the eyes of a newcomer, several qualities stand out about Cafe Annie. First, the service is impeccable and friendly, but reserved.

Second, the ingredients are of the highest quality. I do not exaggerate when I say that our meal included the best pheasant, some of the best asparagus, and some of the best tuna I have had anywhere.

Third, for a restaurant that focuses on Southwestern flavors, the spicing is remarkably tame, and the cooking techniques are much more Continental than Texan or Mexican. Dishes involving chili peppers somehow capture the taste, but not the spice, of the chili. In its restrained Southwestern style, Cafe Annie's cooking is completely unique among Houston's fine restaurants. It is not the most innovative cuisine, but it is different.

Taking off my newcomer's hat, Cafe Annie has not changed much in 20 years. Sure, the menu changes frequently. But the dishes all seem to have the same sauces and the same preparations. They also seem to have the same high quality. It is very good food. It is distinctly Houston. And you still pay through the nose for it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

After Ninfa

Few people have been as important to Houston food as Ninfa Laurenzo. Through Ninfa's she popularized (some say invented) the fajita. She also popularized tortillas cooked on the premises, as well as Ninfa's famous green salsa. And she helped create a new wave of Tex Mex. Chili gravy and American cheese were replaced by grilled meats, white Mexican cheese, and simpler preparations that focused on higher quality ingredients.

Despite its food success, the Ninfa's chain filed for bankruptcy in 1996. The chain was purchased by Serranos and promptly declined. Ninfa died of cancer in 2001. The original Ninfa's on Navigation still has a great atmosphere, serves home made tortillas, and makes some pretty good Mexican food. But it is not the star of Houston Mexican restaurants as it once was.

Fortunately Ninfa's family stayed in the Mexican food business, and they operate two outstanding Houston restaurants. The first is El Tiempo, which currently has three locations.

El Tiempo stands out for its Northern Mexican-styled wood-fired grill, which is used to cook a variety of meats: fajitas, quail, baby back ribs, shrimp, and lobster. It may be the wood, but the grill flavor at El Tiempo beats just about every other grill in Houston. El Tiempo also serves a number of chicken breast entrees -- and they cover almost all of them with white cheese.

El Tiempo serves the same salsa as Ninfa's and the same homemade tortillas. But it is the next generation of Tex Mex after Ninfa's. Fajitas have expanded into a variety of grilled meats. And the standard tomato-stained Mexican rice is replaced on most dishes with a tasty green cilantro rice served in a white ramekin. Along with Pico's, Hugo's, and Teotihuacan, I would easily rank El Tiempo among my 5 favorite Mexican restaurants in Houston.

Now the Laurenzo's have another Houston restaurant -- Laurenzo's 1308 Cantina. The restaurant was formerly called Sabor, an attempt at high end Mexican cuisine run by a partnership of some Houston restauranteurs. I don't know the details, but my guess is that Sabor failed, and the Laurenzo's bought out the restaurant.

1308 Cantina is much more El Tiempo than Sabor. Although the menu lists many dishes not served at El Tiempo, the style is almost exactly the same. There are some traditional Tex-Mex offerings, but the focus is on the wood fire grilled meats and chicken breasts covered in cheese. 1308 has the same red salsa, the same green salsa, the same tortillas, and very similar cilantro rice in a white ramekin.

But there are differences. For instance, 1308 Cantina serves a unique dish called chicken breast calabaza with pumpkin seed recado. It is a large, pounded-flat chicken breast covered with sweetly carmelized onions and a ground pumpkin seed which looks like finely ground sausage. The pumpkin seed paste gives this dish a wonderfully unique flavor -- earthy, sweet, complex. Of course the chicken and sauce are covered with the required coating of white cheese. But the dish is so good, it doesn't need it. It is served with the always excellent bean soup, plus the ramekin of cilantro rice, which at 1308 is loaded with surprises including corn, veggies, some sort of fruit, and bow tie pasta (!!?).

1308 Cantina is an evolution from El Tiempo, and ultimately an evolution from Ninfa Laurenzo's little cafe on Navigation. It almost seems as though the bankruptcy and the sell off never happened.

From heaven, Mama Ninfa looks down and is very pleased.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

El Meson - a big menu change

Restaurants often change their menu. Some change their menu with the new season. Others change to gradually to bring in new dishes. But rarely do you see a restaurant menu drop the cuisine of one country and start offering the cuisine of another. That is what has happened at El Meson in the Rice Village.

I started going to El Meson when I was in college in the 1980s for their Mexican food. Although the restaurant offered Cuban and Mexican food, my Rice friends and I went there because it was the closest place to get Mexican food. The cheapest Tex-Mex items were on a page of the menu called, "Hospitality Dishes." In other words, the restaurant was embarrassed to serve Tex-Mex, but they did it just to be hospitable.

El Meson's Tex-Mex dishes were ok. I discovered that their more expensive Cuban dishes were better. My favorite has long been Pollo al Ajillo -- chicken with a sauce of olive oil and a heck of a lot of garlic. Their ropa vieja is not the best in town, but it is good.

Just as the restaurant had a split personality between its Cuban menu and its Tex-Mex menu, there has been an even greater split between its food and wine. El Meson has long had one of Houston's best wine lists. In particular, it is easily Houston's best list for Spanish wines. No other Houston restaurant offers two whole pages of wines from the glorious region of Prioriat, plus pages of wines from more obscure regions of Spain. The list ranges from inexpensive to ultra-expensive, and most wines have a very reasonable price markup. I love this Spanish list because, right now, Spain makes some of the best quality wines for the price.

The problem was that El Meson's wine did not match its food. A Ribero Del Duero simply does not work with cheese enchilladas and chips and hot sauce. Sure, the menu had some Cuban dishes that paired decently with some Spanish wines. For instance, a highly extracted red Spanish wine would work ok with their overcooked rib eye. But most of the food just did not work with the wine, and was not of the same high quality.

Earlier this year, El Meson finally dropped most of its Tex-Mex menu, replacing it with the food of an entirely new country -- Spain. The menu now includes 16 tapas items, 8 different styles of paella, plus a few Spanish style entrees.

I have tried about half of the tapas and can report that they are very good. These are a few examples:

-Piquillos de la Tierra are piquillo peppers stuffed with ground lamb and raisins in a pimenton sauce. They are nice mix of meaty, fruity, green, and spicy flavors.

-Gambas al Romesco are shrimp in an almond-heavy romesco sauce. The flavor is unlike any romesco I have had -- less red pepper and more nut. It pairs surprisingly well with red wine.

-Albondigas al Jerez are ground lamb meatballs in a brandy de Jerez sauce. My wife thought they reminded her too much of canned meatball in sweet tomato sauce, but I liked the unusual flavor of lamb with brandy.

-Pinchas de Solomillo de Vaca are tips of beef tenderloin with mushrooms in a roasted red pepper and port reduction sauce. This is my favorite new menu item. The mushrooms are full of flavor and the reduction sauce compliments the tender beef. It pairs very well with the extracted red wines of Prioriat.

In addition, El Meson serves a killer Sopa de Ajo -- a garlic soup mixed with egg and a lot of soggy crutons.

With this menu change, El Meson is no longer a cheap Tex Mex option in West U. It still is not one of Houston's best Cuban restaurants -- I like Cafe Piquet and Cafe Latina better. Nor has it become Houston's best tapas restaurant -- Rioja is the best, and even Mi Luna down the street from El Meson has a much larger tapas menu. But El Meson has a fantastic wine list that easily beats all other Latino and Spanish restaurants in town. And now it has some good Spanish food to go with its great Spanish wines.