Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sweet Soul Food at Alfreda's Cafeteria

The scene

I felt like I had stepped onto the set of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. The interior of Alfreda's is unself-conscious retro kitsch. The walls are part brick and part faux old-English style wood paneling, all painted a deep rust red. The booths are mismatched colors, some bright orange, some a pastel peach. The room looked like it had been decorated, poorly, in the early 1970s, and left alone ever since.

The customers at Alfreda's are almost all African American men. Despite the women behind the counter, it is the sort of place like Texas Cafeteria or Christian's Tailgate that oozes something manly. Maybe it's the garishly clashing interior decor.

Catfish and a quest for neck bone

I first heard about Alfreda's when a co-worker gave me a bite of fried catfish that he brought back for me. This was one of the best pieces of catfish I had tried in years. The fish did not have a muddy or corn-fed flavor. The cornmeal crust was thin, golden, and crunchy. From the takeout menu, I noticed that Alfreda's only has catfish on Fridays. Most entrees are specials that change with each day of the week.

Also on the menu, I noticed that one Tuesday special is callled "neck bone." I have never tried even heard of that dish. I'm not even sure what kind of animal the neck bone comes from. But I knew I wanted to try it.

Slow cooked ox tails; slow cooked sides

Unfortunately, on this Tuesday, Alfreda's was out of neck bone. Instead, they had smothered steak, ham hocks, baked fish, chitterlings, smothered chicken, and ox tails. I ordered ox tails. Ox tails are the tail of a beef animal. They are usually braised. My relatively small serving of ox tails had been slow cooked in a light stew with a few potatoes. When cooked correctly, as Alfreda's had cooked them, they taste like a really good pot roast.

My side vegetables were also tasty. I had sweet potatoes that seemed to have been turned into a puree, not by a food processor, but by cooking them for as long as the ox tails. Of course, these East Texas-style potatoes had been sweetened with some extra sugar and had an orange sheen, like you only see on cafeteria sweet potatoes.

Green beans seemed to be cooked in a Louisiana style, with a little pork fat. They taste very similar to the beans at Zydeco Diner downtown.

Perhaps the most unusual vegetable side was the red beans. They looked just like the Cajun variety of red beans, but the cook had added something sweet. The very idea of sweet red beans sounds a bit heretical -- sort of like the sweet corn bread you get in New England -- but I liked the taste.

Alfreda's had a fantastic-looking peach cobbler, but I thought better of eating more food.

The regulars

The ladies behind the counter seemed to know everyone. "Hey Al, what can I get for to you today?" "Good to see you James -- You want chicken today?" But when it was my turn, I was greeted only with, "Uh huh?"

I didn't feel like they minded seeing a stranger walk in. It just wasn't the sort of thing that happened very often at Alfreda's.

Of course, if an East Texas / Louisiana-style soul food joint like Alfreda's was in my neighborhood, I would be one of the regulars too.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hugo's and the Gay Pride Queen

On some of my favorite evenings, I set out for a quiet dinner and somehow get caught up in a fabulous party. It happened yesterday. I took my wife, my 8-year-old daughter, and 73-year-old mother out for dinner of Hugo's, and we ended up in the middle of the Gay Pride Parade.

The Parade

As we drove to Hugo's, we noticed the police had barricaded Westheimer. I suggested, "maybe it's an art festival." My wife responded, "maybe a criminal on the loose."

When we arrived, Hugo's was packed. Mayor White was just leaving. The bar was noisy, crowded and extremely festive. Despite our reservation, we had to wait 20 minutes for our table.

Then the parade began. Hugo's opened its front doors along Westheimer and the restaurant seemed to become part of the sidewalk. As the music began pumping outside, my daughter exclaimed with glee, "a parade! a parade!" "Daddy, can I go watch?"

I took my daughter to the sidewalk. Gay merrymakers began handing her beads. She pointed to a colorful float with flashing lights and a big sign for "South Beach." On it were six or seven hunky men with six-pack abs and chiseled chests, wearing nothing but BVDs -- about 2 sizes too small. There was a rainbow float for Berring Methodist Church, another for Christ Church Cathedral, floats for various AIDS outreach groups, and even a gay float for Shell Oil.

Of course, a number of the floats showcased princesses and queens. My daughter -- raised on Disney movies -- thought they were great.

My daughter makes friends quickly, and a group of nice men agreed to watch her while we ate. At one point, she drug in her music teacher, whom she had found on the street. He was having a great time playing drums in the parade, although, he insisted, he is "straight as an arrow."

The Trinkets

The real treat was all the beads and glow lights and beach balls and tee-shirts that everyone seemed to want to give to my daughter. Although it was a parade, she was the only child in sight, and all the passerbys decided that she needed their trinkets. At the end of the evening, our little Gay Pride Queen looked like this:

The Food

Hugo's did admirably well, despite the enormous, drunken crowd. Yes, they ran out of white wine glasses and served our white wine in pinot noir glasses. Yes, a drunken reveler knocked over our wine bucket and wine bottle. Yes, the kitchen forgot about one item we ordered, and brought the wrong dish in place of another. But, as usual, the food was incredible.

We started with an appetizer of squash blossoms gently fried and stuffed with goat cheese. At this time of year, Hugo's has a whole series of squash blossom dishes. If you have never had a squash blossom, I recommend that you try them soon at Hugo's before the season ends. They are beautiful, large yellow flowers. They taste great with goat cheese.

I had a Taquito de Longosta -- a small lobster taco. The dish consisted of a corn tortilla with grilled lobster and some mild pico de gallo -- appropriately simple so that the taste of the lobster stands out.

As an entree, I had Callo de Acha -- pan seared scallops over sweet corn bread with a chili pepper cream sauce. We all enjoyed the combination of the sweet corn flavor with the mild spiciness of the chilies and the sweetness of the scallops.

As usual, we appreciated Hugo's wine list. With lots of Alsatian whites and low-tannic reds, it is the perfect list to match the mild heat of the kitchen's creative, interior Mexican food.

The end of a fabulous evening

My daughter exclaimed as we left, "I had the time of my life." My mother, a Houston resident for over forty years, was thrilled to finally get to see the Gay Pride Parade. And my wife and I became intoxicated with the spirt of the party, some great wine, and the excellent food.

As we walked out of the restaurant, it struck me how much I love this city. Yes, Houston is hot, humid, sprawling, and ugly. But it has character. And characters. To experience that, sometimes you just have to go out.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The farmer's market, carbon footprints, ugly tomatoes

Carbon Footprints

"When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractor, harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it."

-Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

We are about to see a huge trend in favor of locally grown, small farm, organic foods. For decades, these trends have existed in the subculture, but they are about to go mainstream.

Why? First, Al Gore's movie made a lot of people care, not only about global warming, but also of the concept of the "carbon footprint." The idea is that we each contribute to global warming, not only by driving a car, but also by buying products that have to be transported long distances. Americans have the biggest carbon footprints because we consume so many goods that have to be transported from all over the world.

Second, others like Michael Pollan, have begun to expose just how much petroleum is used to make our "industrialized foods" -- especially the packaged food goods that show up on the center aisles of the supermarket.

As a result of all this talk, more and more Americans are going to start eating more foods that are grown without petroleum products, and are not transported very far.

Farmer's Markets

I became particularly interested in these trends last week when I was listening to something like the "militant vegetarian show" on KPFT. A guest from Vermont said his family spent an entire year reducing their carbon footprint by eating only foods from local farmer's markets. He talked about how it changed their lives; how the food was better; and how they began to feel a real bond with the people who grew their food.

So I decided I should try the Bayou City Farmer's Market in the Greenway Plaza area (about a mile from my house). When I arrived, I was immediately shamed. As I drove into the lot with my big sports car, I was blocked by a pack of 50 or 60 bicyclist. As I was consuming gas at 14 mpg, they were reducing their carbon footprints by traveling to the market on people power. I tried to park in the back and sneak in a side entrance.

The market felt like a street festival. There was a jazz singer. Some "green" electric company was passing out fliers. Some people were selling cookies. Others were selling soap. But about half the stands were actually selling what I came for -- local produce.

I had several impressions about the produce. First, most farmers did not bring much. The average stand seemed to have about 10 bunches of herbs, 20 or 30 tomatoes, and a few exotic vegetables.

Second, the produce was inevitably ugly. Especially the tomatoes. Most of the heirloom tomatoes seemed to have cancer-like growths, deep blackened cracks, or both. At one stand, I selected three of the ugliest tomatoes. The vendor pointed at one and said, "this one is no good. You might want to get another." Since they all looked equally ugly, I don't know how she could tell.

Third, some of the produce was quite unusual. In addition to the ugly tomatoes, I bought a strange mix of greens, some Chinese long beans, and a rare variety of micro basil.

Market food, ugly tomatoes, and an epiphany

At home, I stir fried the long beans with some other ingredients from my pantry. As I began eating my delicious stir fry, I worried again about my carbon footprint. My stir fry had bacon from the Mid West, jarred mushrooms from California, red bell peppers from Bulgaria, soy sauce from the Philipines, peppercorns from India, cooking wine from China, and sesame oil from Mexico. I can't even count the number of planes and ships and trucks that were needed to bring me my all-natural, mostly organic, nearly vegetarian lunch.

The long beans tasted great, but thinking about my effect on the environment was dizzying. Worrying about the carbon footprint can ruin the whole experience of eating. The whole farmer's market ethic was just making me guilty.

Then I chopped up one of the ugly local tomatoes and sprinkled on the micro basil (adding some Italian balsamic vinegar, French salt, Indian pepper, and Italian cheese).

As I took my first bite, I had an epiphany. This was one of the best tasting tomatoes I had ever had. And the micro basil also was pretty outstanding -- much more flavorful than the giant, perfectly manicured basil you get at the supermarket.

At that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe, when someone loves gardening so much that they grow a few handfuls of tomatoes and basil, drive them over to the farmer's market, and spend their whole morning selling about $50 worth of produce, maybe they are doing it out of love. Maybe that food is going to taste a lot better. And maybe what I tasted in that tomato and basil was a lot of attention and caring. Not greed. Not money. And not a lot of petroleum products.

I would drive a long way for food like that. Fortunately, this farmer's market is just down the street.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Where I'm Eating Now

Every six months or so, I list my ten favorite Houston restaurants. Those are the restaurants that I consider Houston's finest. But many of them are too pricey for me to eat there very often.

So where do I eat the rest of the time? This is a list of the restaurants where I eat at least four times a year. They may not all serve Houston's finest cuisine, but are my favorites for their combination of convenience, value, and quality.


59 Diner - nostalgia breakfast on Shepard at 59

Texas Cafeteria - blue collar breakfast in the Heights; good cafeteria lunch too

Breakfast Klub - soul food breakfast in Midtown, best grits in town


La Jaliescience - wonderful cheap tacqueria in the Heights; not many gringos eat there; my favorite salsa in Houston

Teotihuacan - the best Mexican food north of I-10

Merida - Yucatanean food on Navigation

Berryhill Hot Tamales - prices are too high for what you get, but the original fish taco remains one of my favorite lunches

Taco Milagro - upscale River Oaks tacqueria -- I don't go for the food; I go for the salsa bar

Les Givrals - since the Original Givral's closed, this joint has midtown's best Bahn Mi sandwiches

Chinese Cafe - Richmond near 610 - some of the best cheap Chinese in town; wonderful steamed tilapia dishes

Bamboo House - Despite the overly-trendy pan-Asian menu at this Montrose restaurant, it serves simple dishes that are cooked with care

Pepper Tree Cafe - unusual vegetarian buffet in the Greenway Plaza area

Tapioca Express - my 8-year-old daughter loves this Hong Kong-style tapioca tea / fast food sushi cafe in West U

Shade - the best restaurant in the Heights; the best soups in Houston

Paulie's - quasi-Italian cafe on Westheimer; a hang out for ladies who lunch; great wasabi tuna sandwich and pasta with Italian sausage

Lankford Grocery - burger joint in a garage in Montrose; my favorite burger in Houston

Biba's / One's a Meal / Greek Village - A restaurant with many names, they make my favorite Greek salad, plus a lot of other good diner food

Ko-mart: strange Korean food court in Spring Branch

Dinner - BYOB restaurants

I frequent restuarants where I can bring wine. My favorites are:

Cafe Mezza - on Westheimer, possibly my favorite mid-priced restaurant in Houston; although it feels like a cheesy chain, the chef is a genius at bringing a new twist to standard American and Middle Eastern dishes

Mint Cafe - very good basic Middle Eastern food

Ruggles Cafe - Cafe in the Village with decent salads, good sandwiches, great desserts

Colinas - good, cheap red-checkered-tablecloth style American/Italian food

Dinner - not BYOB

When I go out for a nice dinner, I like variety. So I do not tend to go to the same restaurants frequently. Still, there are a few restaurants that I keep returning to for dinner:

Benjy's - Rice Village restaurant with my favorite salads in Houston, unusual pizzas, occasionally brilliant entrees

Backstreet Cafe - River Oaks restaurant with a seasonal American menu a bistro feel, and a great wine list

Kubo's - my favorite Japanese food in Houston; my family eats there at least twice a month

El Meson - a Rice Village restaurant with good Spanish tapas and Cuban dishes, fantastic Spanish wine list

Pico's - located in Bellaire, Pico's is my favorite Mexican restaurant anywhere, with some great standard menu items and innovative nightly specials

Houston's - it is painful to admit that I like this soulless Atlanta-based chain, but they have a smart small wine list (which often has hard-to-find Turley Zinfandels), plus some really good grilled food, and my favorite pork chop anywhere

I wish I went more often:

Fung's Kitchen - best Chinese food that I have had in Houston, but my wife does not like it

Indika - brilliant Indian fusion, bu reservations can be difficult to get

Dolce Vita Pizzaria Enoteca - we would go to this great Montrose pizzaria once a week, except that they don't take reservations and the wait for a table is often over an hour

Le Mistral - often I think this French bistro might be my favorite Houston restaurant; if only it were not outside Beltway 8

La Sani - A Pakistani restaurant with intense spices and dishes like curried goat. It is too bad that I have such a hard time getting anyone else to travel out 59 South with me to eat curried goat

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chicken Fried Steak: The East/West Divide

Robb Walsh wrote a great article in yesterday's Houston Press on chicken fried steak. In it, he proposes something like a unified field theory for CFS. He makes sense of a question that I have been pondering for the last year:

How could anyone say that Mary's Cafe in Strawn, Texas has the best CFS in Texas?

Last year, I researched the question of who made Texas's best CFS. A lot of people on the web said that it is made by Mary's Cafe in Strawn, which lies midway between Fort Worth and Abilene, just off Interstate 20. So I made a pilgrimage to Strawn.

When I got there, Mary's CFS just seemed all wrong. The breading was thick, not crispy, and tasted like it had been burned a bit in the pan. Although the peppery flavor was good, I had a serious problem with the doughy consistency of the steak. As I have said here before, my perfect CFS is 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. A bad crust just throws everything else off.

I was so disappointed by my CFS pilgrimage to Strawn that I didn't even write a post about it. For weeks, I pondered: What went wrong? Was it just a bad day? Or did I just not get it?

Apparently, I just didn't get it. Walsh explains that Mary's serves the West Texas "panfried" version of the CFS, which is distinctly different from the crispy East Texas version. Walsh says that West Texans think the East Texas version "with its undulations and flakes, to be indulgent, overwrought and sinfully rich."

I prefer my "undulations and flakes." My preference makes sense. The East Texas version was the kind made by my grandma. All of my ancestors came to East Texas -- mostly in the Piney Woods -- between 1850 and 1900. That makes me a 5th or 6th generation East Texan. And it makes me more inclined to like the East Texan version of the CFS.

Walsh has helped me see that Mary's CFS is not bad. It is just pursuing a completely different ideal.

And its not my fault that I prefer the crispy versions of the CFS I get at Houston restaurants like Avenue Grill, Lankford Grocery, and even Prince's Hamburgers.

It's my East Texas genes.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Goat for Father's Day

For Father's Day, my wife and daughter let me decide how to spend my day.

"Okay, can I cook a goat?"

After a pause -- to see whether I was joking -- my wife could tell I was sincere. "Sure, you can cook a goat. As long as you don't make me eat any."

Although I had never cooked goat meat, I knew that finding and slow cooking the goat would be a day-long project. Fortunately, I got lucky in finding the goat. My instincts took me to the Fiesta on I-10, which happened to have a Father's Day sale on cabrito. Just before noon, I bought their second-to-last leg for only $5 a pound. (Although Houston may not have the country's best restaurants, we do have the best supermarkets: Fiesta, Hong Kong Market, and Central Market.)

Goat benefits from a lot of spice and very slow cooking. So I coated the leg with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon ancho chile pepper, and a 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne. I first cooked it in a gas grill, with mesquite chips, on low heat for two hours. I then wrapped it in aluminum foil and cooked it in an oven at 250 for 2 more hours.

When I pulled the goat leg from the oven, the tender meat fell right off the bone. It was neither dry nor greasy. The aroma of meat and spices filled the house.

"Yep," said my wife, "smells like goat."

I covered the meat with chopped cilantro and served it on corn tortillas with grilled jalapenos, grilled green onions, sour cream, and salsa. The result was as good as I have had in any restaurant. (Click on the photo for a close-up.)

Goat meat is strongly flavored, but this young cabrito was not too gamey. Still, the bold meat flavors benefitted from a combination with other strong flavors, like cilantro, jalapeno, and spices.

Goat goes well with beer, but I wanted to prove that it would pair with wine. The spicy ingredients were great with a dry white wine from Alsace - a Trimbach Pinot Gris, which was acidic to stand up to the strong flavors and had just enough sugar to cut the spice.

The New York Times says goat meat is the most widely consumed meat in the world and has the fastest growing sales of any meat in the U.S. It is no wonder that Fiesta sold out of their goat legs so early on Father's Day.

Although I grilled some chicken for my wife, she finally agreed to try the goat.

It was, she admitted, better than she expected.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Food Trip to Austin - Part 2 - Uchi

I have been searching for the perfect fusion of Japanese and American cuisine. In my search, I have found a few dishes and restaurants that come close:

-an inspiring sashimi dish at Roy's in Austin;

-some overly Americanized sushi rolls, with a lot of sweet and fried ingredients, at Houston's Blue Fish House;

-a much more Japanese version of fusion at Megu in New York City;

-Houston's best Japanese food, which includes some outstanding fusion dishes, at Kubo's.

Despite these finds, I knew that Japanese fusion could be even better -- that it might unite the wonderful simplicity and flavors of Japanese cooking with the best ingredients and techniques of American gourmet cuisine.

I finally found a better version of Japanese fusion. It is a wildly popular restaurant in Austin called Uchi.

Uchi has a large, almost intimidating, fixed menu with sushi, fusion sushi rolls, grilled fish, and raw and cooked fusion dishes called "tastings." Uchi also has a list of 10 or so nightly specials. And it puts those specials together in a 10-course "Omakase" tasting menu. To get the best sampling, we ordered the Omakase.

Our 10 courses were a parade of ingredients that ranged from raw to cooked, from Japanese to trendy American. I failed to take notes, and ultimately the evening became a wonderful blur. Yet a few dishes stood out:

-Tuna sashimi with fuji apple, goat cheese, and pumkinseed oil;

-Applewood smoked salmon with thin plantain chips, marcona almonds, and currants;

-Pan seared grouper fillet with Meyer lemon puree; and

-Duck breast with heirloom Rainier cherries and warm apple butter.

Although Uchi advertises itself as a Japanese restaurant, this tasting menu seemed much more American in its ingredients. For instance, Uchi served cheese, which is rarely served in Japan because 85 percent of all Japanese adults are lactose intolerant. Similarly, Uchi served a carpaccio of escolar, which is illegal in Japan. And it served a barely-smoked salmon, which is taboo in Japan, due to the possibility of parasitic worms. Plus, even when ingredients were not taboo to the Japanese, they were more likely to consist of trendy American items, such as marcona almonds, Rainier cherries, and Meyer lemons, and not ingredients used in traditional Japanese cooking.

Despite these American features, the simplicity of the dishes -- and the prevalence of raw fish --reflected a Japanese aesthetic. I was impressed with the creative combinations, particularly in the use of fish with fruits such as apples, currants, lemons, and yamamomo berries. I could tell it was the cooking of a restlessly, inventive young chef, full of interesting ideas and contrasts.

Unsurprisingly for such a young restaurant, we had a few minor complaints. First, Uchi does not take reservations after 7:00, and the line by 8:00 appeared well over an hour long. Restaurants with great service do not put their customers through that sort of ordeal.

Second, although Japanese cuisine uses a lot of rice and noodles, my wife complained that this 10-course menu was almost completely devoid of rice and grains. I agreed that the repetition of the fish/meat-greens-fruit combination seemed a bit unbalanced.

Finally, the only dessert course consisted of a few nearly-ephemeral marble-sized balls of sorbet. I thought surely the sorbet was a transitional course, as in most tasting menus. But it was the end of line. Most of the best tasting menus go over the top on dessert, serving two, three, or four different dishes. For a $95 per person tasting menu, a little scoop of sorbet was underwhelming at best.

Despite some flaws, Uchi is a real pioneer in Japanese/American fusion. It is the kind of restaurant that I would expect to find in Houston. Instead, if we want truly creative Japanese fusion food, we are going to have to travel to Austin.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Food Trip to Austin - Part 1 - Wink

I lived in Austin briefly in 1991 and 1992. Back then, Austin's food could only compete with Houston's food in a few categories: barbecue (Salt Lick, Stubbs), Tex-Mex (Matt's El Rancho, Las Manitas), and chicken fried steak (Threadgill's). Sure, Austin had some stuffy, Continental-style, upscale restaurants like Jeffrey's and the Driskill Grill. But only Hudson's on the Bend, a game-based restaurant on Lake Travis, was truly innovative. And for even the most basic ethnic foods, like Lebanese, Indian, Vietnamese, and Japanese, Austin was a barren wasteland.

Last weekend I took a food trip to Austin to investigate an awful rumor -- that fine dining in Austin may now be more progressive than fine dining in Houston.

I have sad news to report. That rumor may be true.

wink restaurant sounds too cute. Its home is a small, noisy room on South Lamar, filled with equal parts (1) young beautiful people, and (2) food nerds. The menu has no capitalization. It does not identify dishes as either appetizers and entrees. And the menu proudly proclaims a few statements of purpose:

"wink restaurant is pleased to be a member of the international slow food movement"


"wink is proud to work with austin's local farms and gardens."

The wine list (unfortunately called the "winklist") is equally geeky. Most bottles are under $50. Well-known wines are studiously avoided. Instead, the list is populated by wines like Mourvedre from Bandol, Grenache from Paso Robles, Petite Sirah from Lodi, Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil, and Pinot Meunier from Mendocino. I tried to order a $99 pinot noir from the Saint Lucia Highlands. When the wine guy discovered they were out, he guided me toward the $37 pinot meunier, which may have been much better. How many restaurants in Houston would down sell a wine customer like that?

Despite its veneer of foodie pretentiousness and wine geekiness, wink really does deliver where it matters -- on its ingredients. Although trendy, they were fresh, very flavorful, and well-prepared.

I started with an appetizer (?) of "shaved summer black truffles on handcut fettucini," which may have been the tiniest portion of pasta I have ever been served. The few strands of pasta were covered with extremely thin shavings of black truffles, and accented with very flavorful tiny tomatoes and a green pesto sauce.

Even better was my entree (?) of "roasted branzini & porcini mushrooms with salsify, fiddlehead ferns, and charred corn vinaigrette." This dish sounded like an attempt to set the world's record for trendy ingredients. Yet they all worked well together. The branzini was a succulent, flaky white fish, with a crispy skin. The porcini mushrooms were fresh, not reconstituted as in 95 percent the American restaurants that serve them. The distinctively curled fiddlehead ferns struck my wife as odd: "They smell like an old library book." I found their flavor more green, like fresh snow peas. And the pickled salsify and charred niblets of fresh corn added even more complexity to the dish's earthy and garden-like flavors.

My wife ordered an equally outstanding appetizer (?) of "seared dayboat scallops with morel mushrooms, hearts of palm, and pickled ramps." Apparently, the phrase "dayboat scallop" means a scallop caught on a one-day fishing trip. But in this case, it might also mean "a scallop as big as your fist." The two enormous scallops rested in a creamy stew of trendy ingredients, such as the ramps (wild leeks) and morels, which are my favorite kind of mushroom.

This was my third visit to wink in five years. Each time, the food gets better, and more cutting edge. In my opinion, it has easily surpassed all of Austin's more expensive, old guard restaurants, with the possible exception of Hudson's.

wink's trendiness would make it right at home in San Francisco or New York. But at the moment, there is nothing quite like it in Houston. The only restaurant that comes close is Monica Pope's T'afia -- a wonderful "local food" restaurant with a philosophy that resembles "slow food." Yet T'afia's dishes are less busy, a little more austere, and not quite so trendy. On my last few visits, the dishes at T'afia have been hit or miss --not quite as interesting as wink, and not quite as innovative.

Perhaps I should make this argument another way. Surely, there is some restaurant in Houston that serves new ingredients like fiddlehead ferns. They are quite trendy right now, showing up in all the gourmet food magazines and on all the best New York menus. And I know you can buy them at Central Market. So why don't I see them popping up on menus in Houston? Why do our menus seem several years behind the national curve?

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that good food needs to be trendy. I am saying that, in a big city like Houston, we ought to have access to some restaurant that is as cutting edge as Wink -- if for nothing else, just to see what all the fuss is about fiddlehead ferns.

NEXT: On the advice of a reader, I finally try Austin's Uchi.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Something about DiVino

Sometimes you need comfort food -- something simple, fresh, traditional, and not too spicy. And comfort food is best in a simple, neighborhood restaurant that feels like an old shoe. After some particularly nasty food trauma, my wife and I needed some comfort food last night.

Our instincts led us back to DiVino Restaurant and Wine Bar. DiVino is a small Italian restaurant on West Alabama near the Menil museums. It is the kind of place that has a lot of regulars, the kind of place that may be more crowded on a weeknight than a weekend, the kind of place that feels like home. We are not regulars, but we have been going to DiVino once or twice a year since it opened about a decade ago.

DiVino is not the most upscale or creative Italian food in Houston. But it also is not a highly-marketed chain, or a cheap, red-checker-tablecloth place that sells lots of tomato sauce and pasta. It is a mid-priced, traditional Italian restaurant, with a focus on the food of Tuscany and central Italy. Most of the menu does not change, but there are seasonal specials.

DiVino doesn't go for big flavors. Its dishes emphasize tastes that are simple and often garden-fresh. An appetizer of bruscetta comes with grilled Italian bread, glistening from a few brushes of olive oil. It is served with three bowls of dips -- olive tapenade, pureed white beans, and tomatoes with basil. I make olive tapenade and pureed white beans frequently, and I usually experiment with different ways to pump up their flavor: concentrated orange oil, truffle oil, cayenne, smoked paprika, or lots of garlic. Not DiVino. Their tapenade tastes like just olives. Their white beans tastes like just white beans. No big bursts of flavor. No surprises. Yet with the perfectly grilled bread, these dips are delicious.

Another appetizer is grilled shrimp with grilled polenta with tomato sauce. The fresh shrimp are skewered on a sprig of rosemary, which infuses them with rosemary flavor. The polenta are perfectly textured, not too thick and not falling apart, as usually happens when I try to grill polenta. The tomato sauce is very light, barely cooked, and hardly more than a simple tomato puree. Right now, in high tomato season, I was glad the tomatoes had not had the heck cooked out of them.

An entree of pork tenderloin with white beans, tomatoes, and green beans is as simple as it sounds. As it should be, the focal point of this dish is the beans, which swim in a slightly soupy, tomato-based broth. The pieces of pork are hard to find in the soup, almost as if it was added as an afterthought for flavoring. These beans do not provide the burst of flavor that I had in a similar white bean and tomato dish last weekend at Quattro. But this dish, particularly with its addition of green beans, does taste clean and fresh from the garden.

Most of DiVino's dishes are what you expect. Fillet mignon is served with port reduction. Duck breasts are served with cherry sauce. Butternut squash pasta is served with fried sage. The menu is quaintly predictable.

The biggest element of surprise at DiVino is the wine list -- one of my favorite small wine lists in Houston. Most wines are between $15 and $56. About 1/3 of the wines are Italian. But it is a great list for wine geeks. Almost every entry is a small-production wine from little-known producers. Many wines are from off-the-beaten-path regions like Friuli, Sicily, and Prioriat. And, although the list has some cabernets and chardonnays, it also has a fair number of exotic varietals like Primitivo, Nero D'Avola, and Nerello Mascalese.

As we left DiVino, I realized I had not tried anything new. My food horizons had not been expanded. But, somehow, I felt better. There is something restorative about good, well-balanced food.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Lair of the White Worm

Warning: This is not my usual cheery restaurant review. It is a gourmet, gross-out story. If you are squeamish, if you have a phobia about parasitic worms, or if you have just eaten, please do not read it.

I warned you.

I have to tell this story. If this is my last post, I wanted you to know what happened to me.

My wife and I are big fans of in-season, wild-caught, Alaskan salmon. When June comes, we start scouring ads from Central Market and Whole Foods, looking for the best deals on our favorite fish. Of course, wild Alaskan salmon isn't cheap. At Central Market for the past few weeks, the price has been hovering around $20 to $26 per pound. When it dips to $19 or less, we buy.

That is why we were stunned to find that Randall's is offering wild-caught, Copper River, sockeye salmon for $9.99. Although it is a few blocks from my house, I usually avoid buying fish from Randall's. I much prefer CM or Whole Foods. But for under $10, we could not resist buying a pound.

I cooked the fish using one of my favorite recipes from Mark Bittman of the New York Times. I heated a frying pan on the highest stovetop setting for 5 minutes, sprinkled in a quarter cup of salt, and then threw in the fish, skin-side-down, for 10 minutes. It's a stinky, smoky preparation. But it is respectful of the fish, which comes out cooked and completely undamaged.

My wife and I then proceed to eat almost the full pound of fish. At the very end of our meal, our 8-year old daughter asks to try it. I give her a few bites.

"Daddy, there is a worm in my fish."

As a parent, your initial instinct is to disbelieve a report of insects or worms in food. Sure, there are white lines in salmon that might look like a worm to a kid. But I had cooked this fish thoroughly. Surely, there was no worm.

Yet she shows me the little white thing, and it does a wiggly dance for us. Then I inspect the rest of the cooked salmon that we have not yet eaten. It is teeming with other squirming white worms.

Within seconds, I was combing the internet, trying to find out what we had eaten. I already know that eating raw salmon can cause you to contract a species of tapeworm. They can grow to 10 meters long and live for 20 years. Fortunately, that worm is treatable.

But I find a worse possibility: the nematode, anisakis simplex, which is not treatable. This is what the Houston Press says about this little worm:

"If the worm perforates the stomach wall and enters the peritoneal cavity, symptoms may suggest acute appendicitis or a gastric ulcer. Since humans are not the definitive host species for this worm, the luckiest patients simply cough up the inch-and-a-half-long creature. For most others, fiber-optic endoscopy will allow the physician to spot the worm and remove it with the endoscope's grappling tool. For maybe 10 percent or so of victims, those who have the nematode set up house in their small intestine, only a surgical resectioning of the infested portion of the bowel will rid them of the creature."


After reading this, my wife manages to gag herself and expel most of the fish. I am not so lucky. I cannot make myself throw up. So I try the next best thing -- drinking large quantities of Scotch. I hope to induce vomiting or drown the worms. But I find it difficult to drink a lot of Scotch. So ultimately, I just fell asleep.

Now, it's the middle of the night. I am wide awake, terrified of what is crawling around inside me. I am thinking about the movie Alien. And I wonder, when will the severe intestinal distress begin? Will I cough up a giant worm? Will I have to have a surgical resectioning of my bowels?

Plus, I have a terrible headache from all the Scotch.

I resist the temptation to criticize Randall's fish counter. Yes, I dislike going to Randall's. I don't like their cheesy supermarket music. I don't like the quality or selection of their produce. And I don't like their choices of foods to stock. But I have no evidence to criticize Randall's fish -- well, no evidence except one worm-infested filet of salmon.

If you ever get a deal on wild Alaskan salmon that is too good to be true, inspect your fish -- very carefully. Or your intestines may also become the Lair of the White Worm.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

New Chef at Quattro

I wish I knew the back story behind the last several years of chef shuffling at Quattro. One of Houston's best chefs, Tim Keating, opened the restaurant in the Four Seasons in 2002. But Keating left Quattro and left town in 2005, ultimately ending up at the Walt Disney World's Flying Fish Cafe.

Then Quattro hired Paul Wade, who had been the head chef at the Little Nell in Aspen -- possibly my favorite restaurant in Colorado. But Wade left Quattro abruptly.

Now Quattro has a new chef, Gaetano Ascione. Ascione is a native of Naples, but has cooked around the world. The Chronicle's food writer Alison Cook is a big fan.

When I first saw Quattro's new menu, I was underwhelmed. Under Keating, the menu had focused on complex combinations of many exotic ingredients. Although the menu was Italian-influenced, there was no doubt that this style was not traditional, but new food. And Keating's dishes were some of the busiest, most interesting combinations in town.

In contrast, Ascione's menu looks dull. It is quite short. And the dishes just don't sound very interesting. For instance:

"Beef Carpaccio, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, Shaved Parmigiano-Regiano and Arugula"

"Insalata Caprese - Buffalo Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil"

"Seasonal Whitefish, Shellfish, Vegetables, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Broth"

The entire menu consists of simple descriptions of ordinary ingredients in a simple-sounding preparation.

In cooking, simplicity is not always a virtue. Several years ago, I purchased a cookbook that contained only recipes with three ingredients. The dishes I cooked from it turned out dull. Similarly, a few years ago, I finally tried Chez Panise in Berkely, the restaurant from which Alice Waters started a new trend toward simplicity in cooking. My meal was underwhelming at best.

But Ascione's version of simplicity was delicious. The truly revelatory dish was my entree -- a thick piece of grouper, resting atop a modest stew of white beans and tomatoes. Something about the three simple flavors of this dish came together. I love the combination of white beans and tomatoes, and they were even better with this fish. Of course, it helped that the grouper was perfectly cooked -- flaky inside, slightly crispy on top -- and one of the best quality pieces of fish I have had this season.

Two fairly simple appetizers were also good. The carpaccio was made from very high quality ingredients: beef (in impossibly thin slices), arugula, and Italian cheese. This simple dish is classic because the ingredients work so well together.

A Cesare salad had similarly standard ingredients, but an unusual preparation. The chef had made a little basket out of crisped Parmesan cheese, pouring the garlic/anchovy dressing on the bottom of the basket and arranging the romaine lettuce in the basket like a bouquet of flowers. I had fun eating it, but my wife thought it was too much work.

I rarely trust wine guys to pick a wine for me, but I let Quattro's wine guy guide me toward a brilliant white wine from the Friuli region of North Eastern Italy, made half with the grape "tocai friuliano" and half with some other varietal I did not recognize. I have had some great under-$15 white wines from Friuli, but this one was otherworldly. It was light and fruity, yet the nose, and the changing flavors in the different spots of the palate made this one of the most profound Italian whites I have tried. I was impressed that the wine guy recommended something so exotic, rather than just an over-oaked Pinot Grigio or an over-priced Orvieto.

Here is a secret about Quattro: It seems to get its biggest crowd during the week at lunch, and its next biggest crowd on week nights. Under all its different chefs, it has been uncrowded, quiet, and romantic on most weekend evenings when other restaurants are at their most crowded. That is when I like to go -- and when I will be returning soon.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Looking for falafel in all the wrong places

A year ago, I explained why I like falafel from New York street vendors so much more than any falafel I have found in Houston. Since then, I have been looking for the ideal falafel sandwich in Houston. After many misses, I may have found it.

Falafel is a fried ball of ground fava beans or chickpeas, popular throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, and North Africa.

Culturally, the falafel is very significant. Wikipedia claims that it "is now seen as a uniting, pan-Middle-Eastern dish." Indeed, in Tel Aviv, I found that falafel were made, sold, and eaten by as many Jews as Arabs. So can falafel bring unity and peace? Perhaps not: in Iraq, some street vendors have been threatened and killed by religious zealots for selling falafel, because "their products were not a feature of life during Mohammed's time." Regardless, in the 21st century, falafel are one of the world's best fast foods.

As you might expect, falafel has many variations, which often reflect regional differences. But I believe with religious certainty that there is a perfect falafel. It has a light, crispy exterior that barely holds the ball together. Inside, the chickpea mixture is coarsely ground, light and not too dense, moist, and provides an earthy, nutty flavor. The best falafel is a light and refreshing play on crisp and fluffy textures. It should be served in pita with a few veggies and a creamy sauce of tahini and/or yogurt.

I first found the perfect falafel in a food truck in Boston in 1991. The always-serious, usually grumpy proprietor told me that his food was "much cleaner" than the Chinese food truck down the street. He placed his falafel balls in flat piece of pita bread with a little limp lettuce, a few limp tomato slices, and a lot of tahini sauce. Despite the awful salad, the combination of crispy falafel and creamy tahini was heavenly.

Since then, I have found perfect falafel sold by street vendors in Manhattan. But I had never found the perfect falafel in Houston.

Perhaps the single worst falafel I have had in Houston were some hard, dried-out balls served by Droubi Brothers Mediterranean Grill in downtown Houston. They had a hard exterior, and the inside filling was much too dense and much too dry.

I also dislike the green-interior falafel at La Fendee and Aladdin, both of which are excellent little Middle Eastern restaurants on lower Westheimer. I assume the green color comes from the use of fava beans. The fava beans also may explain why these dense, heavy falafel lack delicacy and fill my stomach like large rocks. I recommend both restaurants, but not their falafel.

Similarly, I have found the chickpea falafel to be too dense and too dry at Yildizlar and Cafe Lili. Last weekend, I struck out with a falafel sandwiches at Phoenician Deli, on Westheimer near Kirkwood. The crust was right -- light and crispy. But the chickpea interior had been ground too finely and was not light and moist. Also, the sandwich suffered from a much too high ratio of salad-to-falafel. But I did like the spicy chili paste served on the side.

I found a nearly perfect falafel at Mint Cafe, a great Mediterranean cafe on Sage near the Galleria. The falafel balls had a light crust, and the interior was lighter and moister than most in Houston -- but not quite as moist as the Boston falafel truck and the New York street vendors.

Then, finally, yesterday morning I found it! Houston's perfect falafel. It had been right under my nose. I frequently go to Droubi's Bakery and Delicatessen on Hillcroft, south of Bellaire. I love their authentic Middle Eastern dishes, such as kibby in yogurt sauce and their braised lamb shank. But I have avoided their falafel because the ones at their sister restaurant -- Droubi Bros. downtown -- were so terribly wrong.

The falafel at Droubi's Bakery had it all -- crispy crust, light and moist interior, and an outstanding grainy, nutty flavor. The falafel sandwich, rolled in pita bread into a cylinder, had a little onion, tomato, and pickles, but 90 percent of the sandwich was dominated by the perfect falafel balls and a very generous amount of sauce, which was so creamy that it probably included at least some yogurt, in addition to tahini.

Droubi's falafel is as good as the best street falafel in Boston and New York. And as a complete sandwich, it may be even better. Even more incredible, it costs only $3.

Finally, after much searching, the best falafel in Houston has been found.

Let's hope no one gets hurt.