Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Cleburne Caffeteria quandry

"There are plenty of bad restaurants in the world. But it's rare to find an establishment this highly acclaimed by the media that is this consistently awful."

Fearless Critic, Houston Restaurant Guide, review of Cleburne Cafeteria

The questions

I am sick this week. So yesterday I visited the one restaurant I always visit when I am sick -- Cleburne Cafeteria.

I first tried Cleburne in 1987. I was a college student living two doors away in a $195/month efficiency apartment with a bed that folded out of the wall. Usually, I ate cheaply at home -- mac 'n cheese, huevos rancheros. But sometimes, as a splurge, I walked less than 50 feet to the best cafeteria in Houston.

I ordered crab casserole and mashed potatoes and tried to sit near the restaurant's family patriarch, dear Nick Mickelis, whose starving-artist-style paintings adorn the walls. Nick, with his Greek accent, would hold court, talking about subjects such as how smart Greeks were -- like Plato.

Cleburne changed a little in the 1990s. Nick died. The restaurant expanded after a devastating fire. Yet the food has changed little in those 20 years.

Yesterday, as I slowly ate my baked haddock almondine and syrupy sweet potatoes, I asked:

1 - Why did I love Cleburne in college, but agree with the Fearless Critic that the food is, by most standards, awful?

2 - If the food is awful, why is it one of the most popular restaurants in Houston?

3 - And if the food is awful, why do I now feel compelled to visit Cleburne whenever I'm sick?

A lost heritage

The Houston Press in 2005 voted Cleburne "Best Comfort Food." Comfort food has different meanings, but usually refers to a high-carbohydrate, home-cooking style of food. Although Cleburne has plenty of carbs, the real comfort here is the cooking style -- a style that represents a food culture that is fading, if not lost.

The ethnic mix of customers tells the story. Although Cleburne is near Rice and West U, and inside the Loop, you don't see a rainbow of cultures among the customers. There are few Asian-Americans, few Latinos. Instead, the crowd is almost entirely white and black. And I would guess that it is at least 90% southern.

The food reflects the style cooked by southern grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, Cleburne serves a lot of vegetable casseroles -- spinach mixed with cream (or cream cheese) and topped with cheese; eggplant casserole topped with little fried onions; "old fashioned" baked corn casserole. The vegetables that are not casserolized are cooked beyond recognition so that they begin to disintegrate.

Meat dishes, such as prime rib, are also cooked for so long that every bit of red disappears. Many of the meat dishes are fried and left to lose their crispness on the steam table.

The deserts - many with a four-inch high mound of meringue on top - are just as heavy and old fashioned.

The problem

From the standpoint of any chef trained in the last 40 years, or anyone who follows food trends, Cleburne does everything wrong.

Sure, dishes like casseroles and meringue are out of fashion. But what I really mean is that Cleburne's whole philosophy of cooking goes against everything we have learned. Vegetables should be treated with respect, not cooked beyond recognition or buried under mounds of cream or cheese. Deep frying is wrong, not just for health reasons, but because it disguises the flavor of food. And prime rib should never, never, never be cooked extra-well done.

Sick food

Perhaps I loved Cleburne in college because I was homesick. With the many changes in life at that time, I needed an anchor.

Perhaps now, as I eat my haddock almondine and my overly sweet, overly cooked sweet potatoes, I still need Cleburne. When I feel so sick that I just want to curl up in a ball and be comforted, there is something wonderful about eating food cooked the way my grandmother used to cook -- a way that I would never even cook at home, because I know it is so very wrong.

Cleburne is now over 60 years old for a reason. Yes, the food is "consistently awful." But if your grandmothers were from the same culture as mine, it also is wonderful.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Soma -- now I get it

I have never written about a restaurant twice in a row. But Soma is so intriguing, that it deserves it. My last notes were incomplete. Although Soma is still in its "soft opening" phase, and its menu is still labeled "draft," I think I get it.

Despite some flaws in its infancy -- flaws that may ultimately be fixed -- Soma is already serves some of the most interesting food in Houston, at reasonable prices. To avoid the flaws, and to experience the best of Soma, I offer six suggestions:

1 - Skip the sushi bar; order from the kitchen. The dishes served by the sushi bar are good quality, but ordinary. Sashimi is served as blocks of fish -- no artistry and none of the little extra touches that can make sashimi special. Many of the rolls are dominated by mayonnaise or creamy sauces that ruin the texture for me. I can name at least 10 sushi bars in town that serve raw fish preparations that are more authentic, more interesting, and more enjoyable.

In contrast, the kitchen is one of the most creative in town. How can one restaurant be so schizophrenic? A server explained that the sushi bar is "the same as Azuma," but "the famous chef Robert Gatsby prepares French-Japanese fusion dishes in the kitchen." I can only hope, in the future, that Gatsby gets the chance to teach a little of his magic to Azuma's sushi chefs.

2 - Skip the wine; order sake. Soma's current wine list is the kind of list that wine geeks love to hate. Was it put together at the last minute by a liquor distributor trying to push an overstock of large production California wines? It is dominated by well-known, over-oaked California chardonnays and cabernets -- wines that simply do not go with either sushi or Gatsby's delicate creations. For this menu, I would love to order a white from Alsace, Germany, or Austria. There are none. For a red, I would order a delicate pinot noir from Oregon or Burgundy. Yet the only pinots are over-extracted California fruit bombs. Soma needs a good wine guy.

In contrast, the sake menu is good. They serve my favorite brand -- Shirayuki Junmai Ginjo. I also enjoyed two other good sakes on the list. Somehow, sake just seems to work with Soma's flavors.

3 - Forget about appetizers and entrees; order tapas style. Soma's menu does not list dishes by courses. Instead, the categories are salads, soups, cold plates, and hot plates. Except the fish and chips, the portions are small, and the prices are low. So think of it as a tapas-styled menu. Order two or three dishes per person. Even better, go with a large group and share everything.

4 - Expect to be surprised. It is hard to know what you are ordering. Soma's menu descriptions are minimal and cryptic. Plus, during this soft opening phase, the wait staff cannot explain the dishes. So you don't know what to expect when you order. For instance my wife and I ordered "lobster, seafood preparation, caviar." To my delight, and my wife's horror, it was a glass with bits of seafood swimming in a spicy sea of heavy cream. Other menu descriptions gave no hint that dishes were fried. For my wife, who wants to know exactly what she has ordered, these surprises are unpleasant. But for me they are fun.

I have tried over a dozen dishes at Soma that are creative and surprising. For instance, on a Zen antipasti platter, a small bowl held an egg shell with the top 1/4 cleanly sheared off. Inside were scrambled eggs with bacon and surprisingly large bits of black truffle. "Fish and chips" consists of a sea bass, served whole and tempura fried, with fries and three different dipping sauces. Scallops with orange marmalade come with large, paper-thin fried hash brown (?) cakes that rest on top of the scallops like graduation hats. Plus, Gatsby's signature mango salad is a remakable column of crunchy noodles, finely chopped vegetables, egg, and who-knows-what-else with a spicy kick and a sweet mango sauce.

5 - If you would rather dine than party, avoid weekends. Soma was immediately discovered by the Washington Avenue party scene. On Friday and Saturday nights, everyone is under thirty. Girls wear low-cut party dresses. Boys wear jeans and untucked dress shirts. Girls order colored drinks. Boys order beer. Everyone orders sushi rolls. Girls sit together in groups. Boys wander around the restaurant, trying to meet girls. The seating arrangements at tables are fluid. It's loud. It's entertaining. But it feels more like a club than a restaurant.

At least for now, Soma is much more pleasant at lunch or weekday nights. Then, the focus is on the food, not the scene.

6 - Don't forget dessert. Don't worry about New Year's resolutions. The portions of the deserts are as small as the other dishes. And the desserts are just as fun and surprising and delicious as everything else from the kitchen. Chef Sandalio may be as much a genius as Gatsby, and his desserts are a primary reason to eat here.

Update 6.11.08

A number of commenters have said they had bad experiences with the food at Soma. My first 5 or 6 meals at Soma were all oustanding. Then it happened to me. Lunch yesterday was disappointing. Five of six dishes in the lunch bento had very little flavor and was not well executed. A very dull corn soup was served room temperature. Tilapia -- a fish with very little flavor -- was served without sauce or flavoring other than some steamed vegetables. The sushi roll was dull. The salad seemed underdressed. Only a lemon custard brulee had much flavor -- and it was nowhere nearly as good as the desserts made by pastry chef Sandalio before he left Soma.

I hope it was just one bad meal. But I am beginning to understand some of the comments from folks who had a disappointing food experience at Soma.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Soma -- first taste

Soma is the new project of Robert Gatsby (former executive chef at Noe) and Plinio Sandalio (former pastry chef at Noe and the Cookie Jar). I have read that the owners of Azuma are involved.

It opened a little over a week ago. I have only tried it once for lunch. It may take many visits for me to figure out this fascinating restaurant. But my one lunch was memorable enough to write about now.


Soma is in an art deco-styled strip center at Washington and Shepard. But the interior is something completely new. The Japanese-influenced, post-modern design has so many different elements that it is hard to describe. There are a lot of red and wood colors. But the design also involves stone, woven bar stools, exposed brick and pipe, and a number of unusual lighting fixtures. The dominant design feature, suspended above the sushi bar, is a set of four transparent glass panels depicting Japanese scenes: a tattooed sumo wrestler, a geisha, some ancient stone steps crossing a creek, and a bizarre straw-like sculpture. I'm no design expert, but I could spend hours studying this room.


A large part of Soma's menu consists of nigiri, sashimi, and rolls. I tried a few pieces of giant clam nigiri -- a fairly rare item on Houston sushi menus -- which was quite fresh. I also watched the Japanese sushi chefs prepare other items. My impression is that the nigiri and sashimi are high quality and that their higher-than-average prices reflect that quality, but the presentation is fairly basic and traditional. The rolls look unusual and creative, with ingredient combinations I have not seen elsewhere.

The Washington Avenue area needed a high quality sushi bar. It looks as though Soma will fill that niche well.

But that is not the main reason to go here.

The kitchen

My main interest in Soma is what the all-star team would create from the kitchen. My first impression is that the result is more mainstream than Noe, but creative, well-executed, and a little hard to describe.

My server recommended a bento lunch special. Apparently, I was the first person to order it. The bento will consist of five items and change daily. Today, it contained:

1-A creamy-textured parsnip puree soup, topped with fennel. A warm puree of root vegetable always comforts me in winter. The parsnip provided a delicate and subtle base, and the fennel added a little sweetness and complexity. The soup's origins were in French, not Japanese, cuisine

2-An iceberg wedge salad with a creamy, spicy (miso?) dressing. A wedge salad works only if the dressing is very good, and this flavorful, Asian dressing was outstanding.

3-A short rib sandwich, on a tiny bun, topped with a fresh caper. The short rib had a deep, smoky soy-like flavor. It was one of the most intensely flavored short ribs I have tried.

4-Two pieces of a sushi roll, involving some fish and mayonnaise. I do not like the texture of mayo in sushi rolls, so this was not my favorite.

5-An excellent small desert with short cake, topped with strawberries and oranges and creme freche. This was a chance for Sandalio's pastry chef talents to shine. The thin, dense cake was soaked through with sweet fruit juices. Its texture reminded me of Lebanese cake soaked with rose water. It was a simple, but delicious desert.

Interestingly, only two of five items seemed to show any Asian flavors. Although the short rib and the short cake were the real stars, the well-balanced combination of five small dishes was an effective way to showcase the diverse strengths of this restaurant.

So what kind of restaurant is Soma?

Soma's chefs are bursting with talent. I cannot yet determine what direction they will take this restaurant. It certainly is not another Noe, nor another Azuma. But will it be a modern American restaurant that happens to have a good sushi bar? Or will it be a contemporary Japanese restaurant that fuses Japanese with modern French and American cuisine? Or will it be something sui generis -- an idiosyncratic mix that reflects more the personality of its chefs than any one or two traditions?

After I eat a few dinners -- and a lot of bento lunch specials -- I will let you know.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Omakase at Sushi Jin

Ordering omakase

Omakase is Japanese for "entrust." If you order omakase in a Japanese sushi bar, the chef will choose what you eat. It often means that you will receive the best quality fish of the night.

In Houston, omakase has some different meanings. In some restaurants, it just means a sushi or sashimi sampler plate, including the most popular, and ordinary, offerings. But a few Houston restaurants have Japanese sushi chefs who use omakase not just to show off their freshest fish, but to demonstrate their creativity and artistry.

I am on a mission to find the best omakase experience in Houston.

Sushi Jin

My quest began at Sushi Jin, a Japanese restaurant on Westheimer near Dairy Ashford that looks fairly ordinary. Robb Walsh praised it for its fresh fish. He is right; the fish is quite fresh. But I wanted to see what the Japanese sushi chef would do if we ordered omakase.

So we sat at the sushi bar between two couples, both speaking Japanese. I asked the chef to make us whatever he wanted. I told him that we would eat anything. He asked whether we wanted anything from the kitchen. I said, "no." I never said "omakase," but he got the idea.

The first dish was hamachi or yellowtail served as sashimi. The chef used a kitchen torch to barely caramelize the exterior of the raw fish. This minimal cooking added a complexity to the fish, which was enhanced by a tasty, nearly clear sauce made from yuzu, a Japanese citrus. Although I have tried a number of dishes with yuzu, this combination of fish and sauce was different and very interesting.

Toro, or fatty tuna, was served simply as sashimi with some real Japanese wasabi, not the imitation wasabi horseradish that you get in most sushi restaurants. The toro needed no cooking and no flavor additives because it had a rich flavor and texture standing alone. So we ate all the fish first, and then the wasabi.

The chef carved raw Scallops to create a flower shape. Like the hamachi, they were barely caramelized on top with the kitchen torch. As much as I like scallops, they rarely do much for me as sashimi or sushi. But these scallops had an amazing sweetness, either created by using high quality scallops, or the slight caramelization. The chef also helped by telling us not to use soy sauce -- sage advice because the scallops needed no additional flavor.

I was surprised when the chef served salmon sushi. Although popular here, salmon is generally not served raw in Japan because of the risk of parasites. I wondered why the chef would serve this non-traditional item. Perhaps, it was to show off the skill most prized by Japanese sushi chefs, to perfectly sculpt the piece of fish over and around the rice. But then he said, "eat that with yuzu sauce" -- the same sauce we had with the hamachi. Again, his advice made the dish sing. The combination of salmon with yuzu was something I had never tried and turned a well-crafted, but ordinary, sushi dish into something extraordinary.

Finally, I departed from our omakase arrangement and ordered an unusual dish that is hard to find here: mirugai or giant clam. The chef looked surprised. "Not too many people order that." I responded, "Is it good?" "Oh yes, very fresh" he replied. As we bit into the mirugai, our eyes opened in surprise to the slightly sweet, sea-essence flavor and the slightly crisp texture.

Why omakase is special

Our entire omakase experience was eye opening. Eating ordinary sushi and sashimi can become dull because it's just raw fish. But in the hands of a master, fresh fish can be sculpted, or barely cooked, or paired with a simple condiment or sauce that makes the dish utterly new, while still remaining in the tradition.

I had the sense that, if we got to know this chef, he might go even further out on a limb, serving us even more creative or unusual dishes. Nonetheless, this night, he served two non-Japanese strangers one of the most creative fish dinners we have had.

Can Omakase in Houston get any better?

Does Sushi Jin serve the best omakase meal in Houston? I plan to try it at a few restaurants that are very Japanese, such as Teppay and Nippon. If you know of others that are worthwhile, please let me know.