Thursday, October 25, 2007

On Tex-Mex

Don't miss this N.Y. Times' article on the importance of Tex-Mex cuisine in Texan culture. The article even cites Robb Walsh, the excellent if snobbish food critic of the Houston Press. Excerpt:

So what is the essence of Tex-Mex? I drove 200 miles east on Interstate 10 to Houston to try to answer that question.

San Antonio lays a legitimate claim to high-end Tex-Mex (if there is such a thing) and Dallas leans Anglo with its fajitas and frozen margaritas. But in Houston, Texas’s largest city, the cuisine is part of the fabric of everyday life. Perhaps that is because more than 37 percent of Houston’s residents are Hispanic, according to United States census figures from 2000.

“I discover a new Tex-Mex gem every week,” said Mr. Walsh, who is the restaurant critic for the Houston Press.

Neon signs flicker above pastel storefronts promising excellent Mexican food in virtually every block of the city. The trick is to figure out which places will deliver on that promise.

Here are a few guidelines: 1. It has to be family-owned. 2. A ramshackle space with added-on rooms is a positive. The most successful Tex-Mex restaurants started small and expanded due to popular demand. 3. It’s best if the patrons in the dining room look like the face of democracy. You want a mix of gringos and Hispanic customers; professionals and laborers.

Alison Cook also discusses one of my personal Tex-Mex faves, Spanish Village, which also happens to be open 24-hrs/day. I particularly like their sandwiches, as I am a sandwich nut.

(h/t bH)

UPDATE: D'oh! Kevin Whited helpfully points out in the comments that I am thinking of Spanish Flowers, not Spanish Village. Proof of just how much Tex-Mex there is in Our Fair City.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Istanbul Grill

I know AE has already reviewed Istanbul Grill, so this will not be a formal review, but I did just want to assure our readers that even while diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Turkey suffer, fabulous, inexpensive Turkish food is readily available in Houston.

Istanbul Grill is assuredly one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, and Ms. Epicurus loves it as well. The food is fresh, well-prepared, and, as one would expect in Turkish cuisine, literally explodes with spices and flavors. I like Turkish food so much I have spent some time trying out different recipes, and though I am not much of a chef, I can report that it is harder to make than one might surmise. It's not that any individual step is necessarily difficult, but rather that many of the recipes involve a number of steps, which multiplies the opportunities to make mistakes, IMO. I can, however, make a mean cup of Turkish coffee.

The most popular Turkish cookbook is the excellent Sultan's Kitchen, which I heartily recommend.

In any case, aside from fresh, well-prepared food, Istanbul Grill's interior is well-lit, exudes warmth from the wood-brick oven in the corner, and is immaculate. The servers are friendly and quite helpful in figuring out the menu if needed, and the restaurant also keeps a nice selection of Turkish wines on hand (which I can report are eminently quaffable). Even better, the restaurant is BYOB, and charges only a modest corkage fee. The portions are well-sized, and the food is extraordinarily cheap for the quality and the portion size. The restaurant is usually nicely crowded, with Med. Ctr. employees and Rice students commonly dining, and it really feels like a neighborhood bistro.

The desserts are also first-rate; I particularly recommend the honeycake or the baked rice pudding, with a cup of Turkish coffee, of course. On weekends, Istanbul Grill serves some specials, and the manti, or Turkish ravioli, must be tasted to be believed. Ground, minced lamb is spiced (common Turkish spices include Turkish red pepper, cumin, dried parsley and dried mint) and used to fill butterfly pasta, which is served with a delicious creamy yogurt sauce. The lamb is incredibly spiced, the pasta is always al dente, and for those of us who tend to dislike the typically overwhelming alfredo and white sauces in American Italian cuisine, the yogurt sauce is a lovely alternative. It manages to impart some creaminess without the viscosity and heaviness of the typical white sauce. The dish is topped with some fresh parsley, some fresh mint, and a little bit of chile oil. It's incredible.

I may be biased, because, to paraphrase Kramer, I would eat Turkish food out of a dumpster, but Istanbul Grill is a local treasure, IMO.

A Formula for Raw Tuna Appetizers

The Formula

Raw tuna is showing up on more and more menus. It is usually an appetizer. And at the moment, raw tuna appetizers typically follow this formula:

Raw tuna + crunchy carbohydrate + creamy spicy sauce (usually with wasabi) + tomato or avocado (optional)

The formula works well because of the texture contrasts. The texture of raw tuna is slightly chewy and a bit creamy. That texture is mirrored by a creamy sauce, but contrasted with a crispy carbohydrate such as a cracker or crispy wonton or potato chip.

I have had at least four versions of this appetizer in the past month. Although they were all good, some were more successful than others. So I have ranked them.

Honorable Mention: Seasons (at Lost Pines Resort) - Tuna Tartare

I was stuck on business this week at the Lost Pines Resort in Bastrop. Although I am not a fan of the resort, it has an excellent restaurant called Seasons. Season's raw tuna appetizer had the best presentation of the four tuna appetizers, but fell slightly short in texture and flavor. The dish consists of a beautiful cylinder of raw tuna, a bowl of black pepper waffle potato chips, and different sized dots of wasabi cream. The presentation reflects the minimalism of Japanese design. The problem was that the potato chips were not strong enough to hold the tuna, so I had to crumble them on top of the tuna. Also, the wasabi cream was more cream than wasabi, which made the flavor a bit dull. Fortunately, the black pepper in the potato chips gave the dish a little kick.

Third Place: Rickshaw's Tuna Tataki

Rickshaw is a pan-Asian / sushi restaurant on Westheimer near River Oaks. Their Tuna Tataki appetizer comes with plantain chips, seared and nearly-raw tuna, shiso oil, and wasabi cream. Plantain chips have a firm crispiness that allows you to eat the tuna like chips and dip. The wasabi cream has enough horseradish to make it nicely spicy. It is delicious dish with interesting texture contrasts.

Second Place: Benjy's Seared Sashimi Tuna Pizzette

Benjy's in the Rice Village follows the tuna appetizer formula with a brilliantly creative pizza. The key is the very thin, extra crispy pizza crust, much like pizza crusts I tried in Italy. But the grain of the crust is unusual -- possibly made with cake flour. This cracker-like crust provides the crunch to contrast with pieces of raw tuna. The pizza also includes some greens and roma tomatoes and, of course, some wasabi aioli to make it spicy. But it is the contrast of cracker crust to creamy tuna that makes this dish sing.

First Place: Bluefin's TuNachos

I recently talked about this wonderful Japanese restaurant. Its off-the-menu raw tuna appetizer slightly edges out Benjy's. Bluefin makes the best wonton chips I have found. Shaped like tortilla chips, they are thick, yet crispy and delicate, yet firm enough to hold the tuna and eat like a nacho. Along with the fresh cubes of raw tuna, this dish also includes some thin slices of creamy avocado and a few sprouts for greenery. The wasabi mayonnaise served with this dish is the spiciest I have tried anywhere. Like good chips and a spicy salsa, this dish is highly addictive.

Wine Suggestion

I am surprised by the wine I have found works best with these dishes. It is not a white wine, as I might expect. Instead, it is pinot noir. There is something about the spiciness and delicate texture of pinot noir that works remarkably well with raw tuna -- perhaps even better than the classic combination of pinot noir and salmon. Another good pairing is a good-quality sake.

Although the raw tuna appetizer is trendy, it is popular with good reason. Tuna plus crispy carbs makes for an interesting, fun combination.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mak Chin's is different

Mak Chin's is a pan-Asian bistro on Shepard just south of I-10. It is placed in an area that needs some good Asian food.

When I tried Mak Chin's last year, I was unimpressed. I thought it was over-marketed, over-priced, fast food. I thought it mistakenly followed the P.F. Chang / Pei Wei trend of making Asian food safe for Americans by serving dull dishes with too little spice and far too much sugar.

Then, last month, I received this comment from a reader (probably affiliated with Mak Chin's):

"You might want to give Mak Chin's another try. Gone is the counter service motif. Gone is the previous menu and in its place is something superior to Rattan. Malaysian Roti Prata, Ropa Vieja of Crispy Duck, Beef Rendang, Sake Cured Alaskan Black Cod, etc. They brought in a consulting chef from San Francisco named David Yeo who specializes in Straits cuisine. It is truly a different day at Mak Chin's."

Interesting. "Straits cuisine" refers to the style of food made in Singapore and other nearby British colonies whose population included immigrants from China, India, and Malaysia. Straits cuisine tends to combine Chinese cooking methods with South Indian spices. This comment suggested that Mak Chin's was something fairly new and different.

So was it true? Did the formerly soulless Mak Chin's finally have character?

There is no doubt. Mak Chin's is different. It now has table service, instead of counter service. The prices have risen, with most entrees in the $10 - $22 range. The cheesy Asian pin-up girl theme is mostly gone. And the menu has been completely redone.

But what about the food? The new menu has some very good ideas. The sauces are unusual and tasty. But the kitchen does not always do such a great job of executing the consulting chef's ideas. For instance:

Bamboo Steamed Vegetables. This dish is a good test of a Chinese kitchen. Usually, the dish is an uninspired, overcooked mess of vegetables, mostly broccoli and cabbage, served with hoisin sauce. When I ordered the dish at Mak Chin's, it took a long time to arrive. And when it did arrive, I could tell why. The vegetables had been so overcooked that they had lost all crispness. Their texture had degenerated to a soggy mess. But I could tell the idea was good. The vegetables were not what you usually get in Americanized Chinese restaurants. They included baby bok choi, purple eggplant, tofu, carrots, asparagus, and decent quality mushrooms. Even better, the vegetables were served with a light tamarind sauce. The sauce was a very intriguing and flavorful combination with the vegetables. I found myself pouring the sauce over rice so I could eat it all.

Beef Rendang. This is an Indonesian style curry made into a paste-like sauce that contains no coconut milk. The earthy spices in this dish were very interesting, very non-Western. The curry and beef were served over an excellent coconut sticky rice, which had the perfect sticky texture. The only problem was that the beef was dry and overcooked. I don't mean that it was just well done; something seriously wrong had happened to the texture. About 15 seconds before this dish appeared at my table, I noticed the kitchen pull a similar bowl out of a microwave oven. If the kitchen had microwaved the beef, it would explain what happened to the texture. I know from experience that beef does not hold up well in the microwave.

Hot and Sour Soup / Salad. The hot and sour soup has a disappointingly standard flavor, but it does contain some interesting mushrooms. The dinner salad served with lunch is much better. The dressing has an unusual orange flavor that reminds me of an Orange Julius.

The new Mak Chin's is worth a try. Although not as good as Rattan, it might be the most interesting and different pan-Asian food inside the Loop. I say interesting because the consulting chef has created some unusually flavored sauces that do not pander to American tastes.

Based on my few visits, the kitchen needs to do a much better job with the ingredients that the sauces are used to cover. Dishes often lack soul when the kitchen that prepared them is not the same kitchen that created them. A chef who creates her own dishes cares deeply about their execution. Her dishes are her art, her legacy. In contrast, a chef running a kitchen that makes someone else's dishes just does not have that connection. They do not care as much, and the food reflects it.

Update (April 21, 2008)

Mak Chin's is evolving into a very good Thai/Malaysian restaurant catering to Western customers. Chef Yeo is in house and very hands on. He has transformed this restaurant into something unique and different.

For lunch, they have lowered the prices and started serving "Bento boxes," which include a main dish with a number of sides.

The straits curry chicken is one of the best curries I have had in some time. It is intensely earthy and full of pungent spices. It has the type of smell that my wife says reminds her of a "stinky underarm." That's a good thing. I highly recommend it.

Some of the sides in the Bento box show the influence of Americanized Chinese restaurants. The hot and sour soup is not particularly hot or sour and is topped with those strips of fried wontons that Americans love. The spring roll is ordinary, and served with an overly sweet, sweet & sour sauce. The salad is served with a miso vinaigrette. But a simple side of bok choi is both delicious and authentic.

The new formula seems to be working. Mak Chin's was crowded for lunch on Monday.

Sure, it may not be as thoroughly authentic as, say KL Malaysian or Malay Bistro. I have yet to see an Asian-American customer at Mak Chin's. But the menu is creative. The kitchen's execution has improved greatly. And, as far as I know, it remains the only place to get Malaysian food inside the Loop.

Monday, October 08, 2007

On Refilling

Thanks for the rousing welcome from AE, though I disagree that my perspective is more wordly than his. Indeed, I have never met any more adventurous souls when it comes to food and drink than he.

In the best spirit of Peter Griffin, we could well subtitle this post "You Know What Really Grinds My Gears?" Actually, as I am quite the grump, perhaps that could well subtitle most of my posts here . . .

In any case, what is grinding my gears at present is the unbelievably annoying habit even accomplished servers have of pouring wine into a wine glass that already contains wine I have been drinking. This is irksome for a variety of reasons.

First and most important, that wine has my freaking backwash contained in it. Naturally, that is hardly going to prevent me from quaffing the remaining contents of the glass, but hopefully one can see why I might prefer not to have the comparatively pure contents of the bottle mixed with the amalgam of wine and saliva contained in the glass. Even if this doesn't change the flavor of the next glass, it is unappealing and detracts from the hedonic experience itself. Wine is not coffee to be topped off (BTW, I love coffee).

Second, I'm not stupid. I know darn well that restaurants earn most of their money on alcohol, and that the restaurant therefore wants to encourage me to drink up in the hopes that my sadness at finishing the bottle will impel me to order more wine. Being a natural contrarian, this immediately makes me resistant to doing anything of the sort. I am (no longer) a fraternity brother. I like to savor my wine, to see how it unfolds into and with the foods I have selected. I cannot stand feeling rushed or pressured. I am quite capable, astonishingly, of deciding if and when I want another glass of wine.

Third, when a server refills a wine glass that already contains wine, they often fill it close to the brim (again, to encourage further expense). This is maddening, as it prevents me from swirling the wine to aerate it, which unquestionably affects the palate, especially for red wines. Alternatively, I can slosh the wine all over the tablecloth. As my wife and friends know, I really do not need any help in spilling food and drink; I am quite proficient at it without the server's assistance.

I know some claim that the refilling is an important part of wine service, but I find it maddening. At the very least, if the server is going to refill the wine glass, wait until it is empty. Unfortunately, this habit seems widespread all over Houston, including at some of the finer restaurants in town. This has happened to me at Da Marco, though, as AE points out, Da Marco is not necessarily known for its fine wine service. Just last week, I went to eat at Cafe Rabelais, a delightful French restaurant with marvelous food, a cozy interior, and a terrific all-French wine list with a lovely mixture of low and high price-point wines. The server, however, refilled my wine glass when it was 1/3 full, before I could object. I proceeded to move the wine bottle to a protected location on the table, and zealously guarded it whenever the server came by, which I think seemed to frighten or confuse her.

Better that than drinking my own backwash. Gross.

Introducing a New Writer

From the start, I have written all the posts on this page. Now I have asked a friend to help.

Starting soon, you will see posts here by two writers. We remain anonymous because we do not want any chefs to spit in our food. But I can tell you a little about us.

1 -- Anonymous Eater. That is me. I am in my late 30s, a lawyer, and a part-time law professor. I am Houston-born and, apart from a 3-year stint in Boston, have lived here my whole life. I cook for a hobby. Because my family has been in Texas for over 150 years, I am a bit Texas-centric.

2 -- Epicurus. That is our new writer. He is younger, born in South African, grew up in Florida, and went to college in Connecticut. He also has been a lawyer and a part-time professor, but is now a Ph.D candidate. Epicurus has great taste in food and wine. As a result of his world travels, he has a more diverse knowledge of world cuisines than I do.

In short, Epicurus will bring great judgment and a unique perspective. Hopefully, we will even disagree a little. I am very excited to be joined by Epicurus on this site.

--Anonymous Eater

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Customer designed meals (T'afia, Artista)

There is a broad spectrum for the degree of choice that chefs can give customers..

One end of the spectrum is no choice -- the chef tasting menu. Your dinner is designed from beginning to end by the chef. At restaurants such as Charlie Trotter in Chicago and French Laundry in Napa, the chef alone decides what the customer will eat. The only choice may be between a regular menu and a vegetarian menu.

The other end of the spectrum is customer freedom. At Houston restaurants such as T'afia and Artista, a portion of the menu is a pick-and-match menu: the customer gets a choice of protein (i.e., chicken, steak, tuna, tofu), a choice between sauces, and a choice of sides. This approach reminds me of a Mongolian barbecue -- you pick all the ingredients to be cooked in your bowl. The quality of your meal is entirely up to the choices you make.

At T'afia last night, I noticed the menu has three parts: (1) the chef's tasting menu, (2) the standard menu with chef-created combinations, and (3) the pick-and-match menu. After dining at T'afia many times, I finally tried the pick-and-match, ordering tuna, coconut chutney, and eating some of my wife's quinoa. Predictably, it was the sum of its parts. The tuna was very good quality, and the chutney was interesting, but together they created no magic. Fortunately, my server knew that the best sauce for the tuna was a lime-soy mignonette. He brought some of that sauce on the side, and it was a better combination.

So which of the three menu approaches is best? At T'afia, my best experience has been with the chef's tasting menu. Monica Pope is a fantastic chef, and her choices are better than mine. Yet I rarely ever choose the tasting menu because I usually want more control over what I eat.

The debate between these approaches was highlighted on a recent episode of Top Chef. One of the chef contestants gave the diners a choice between two cheeses in a dish. The celebrity chef judge berated him for not making the choice of cheeses himself. For chefs, the issue of how much freedom to give the diner is deeply philosophical. Some see customer chosen combinations like telling Picasso to add a horse to his painting of a woman and a staircase. Others see customer choice as giving priority to the customer.

For me, true artistry is achieved when the chef makes the choice. The chef knows which dish is the best on any given night. So philosophically I know it is best if the chef chooses. Yet for some reason, my impulse more often is to want to exercise at least some of my own choice.