Sunday, March 30, 2008

Several surprises in Italy

I just returned from Italy. Several food items caught my attention, and a few of them are beginning to appear in Houston.

1. Crudo -- raw fish Italian style. The Venetians love fish, and their restaurants benefit from the fascinating fish market near the Rialto bridge. With all this fresh fish, is it any surprise that the Venetians have learned to enjoy it raw?

The Italian preparation of raw fish is called crudo. Crudo differs from Japanese sashimi in that the fish is usually served with a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of sea salt, and a sprinkling of citrus juice. I first tried some excellent crudo dishes in Houston last year at Da Marco.

Instead of the appetizer-sized portions of Da Marco, the crudo plates in Venice were sampler plates with bite-sized portions. At one restaurant (Vini da Gigio), the preparations were very simple: langoustine, shrimp, scallops, John Dory (a white fish), and clams were served raw with fruity olive oil, large-textured sea salt, and lemon juice.

At another, pricier restaurant (Fiaschetteria Toscana), crudo had gone modern. Diced raw tuna was combined with diced strawberries in a perfectly-constructed mound. A raw scallop was sliced thinly and placed on top of a thin round slice of a deep green gelatinous substance (seaweed jello?). Raw clams were topped with a dollop of bright orange sea urchin. The presentation was as beautiful as it was strange.

With Houston's growing appetite for sushi, I would not be surprised to see more crudo dishes popping up on menus here.

2. Wines from Friuli

I first noticed wines from Friuli 5 or 6 years ago when a distributor began selling inexpensive Friuli whites, such as pinot grigo and tocai friulano. The ones I tried then were cheap, simple, refreshing summer wines.

What I did not know is that the Friuli region in northeast Italy is making some profound, age-worthy white and red wines that rank among Italy's finest.

On this trip, my first surprise was a 1999 Josko Gravner Ribolla Collio. Gravner makes this cloudy, amber-colored white wine from the Ribolla Collio grape using an ancient technique involving clay amphora. At 9 years, most white wines have long passed their prime. But like a white Burgundy or fine German Riesling, this wine had evolved into a complex wine with an amazing nose of exotic fruits. I spent more time smelling it than drinking it.

My second surprise was the quality of red wines from Friuli. A few months ago, I found the first Friuli red I had seen in Houston -- a di Lenardo Refosco that sold for about $15 at Christopher's Wine Shop on West Grey. After trying a bottle, I was impressed with the quality for the price and bought the rest of Christopher's stock. I discovered that Italian supermarkets are full of inexpensive refosco wine of similar quality. But I was surprised to find that Venetian restaurants highlight a number of more expensive, aged refoscos. We tried a few that were very good, and one that was profound.

I have seen a few $50+ Friuli whites on the wine lists at Cafe Annie and Quattro. As American consumers turn from the standard international grape varietals to more unusual place-specific varietals, don't be surprised to see more and more great wines from Friuli.

3. Bistecca Fiorentina.

In Florence, they cook steak the way I do. They take a thick porterhouse, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and cook it on a searing hot grill for a total of about 3 minutes, flipping it every minute. The result is bloody perfection.

Despite the simple preparation, there is something magical about the Fiorentina -- the beef tastes completely different from ours. I have tried USCA Prime, Kobe beef, and Wagyu beef, and nothing tastes quite so good as this Italian steak. From the first bite, I knew I had to get to the bottom of what made this beef so good.

As it turn's out, it is the beef. The Fiorentina is made from Chianina beef, a particular breed of cattle in Tuscany. Chianina are large white oxen. Fortunately, some Chianina are being grown in America. Does anyone know where to get it in Houston?

The best food surprises in Italy were not dishes, but ingredients. The Italians use simple preparations to highlight outstanding, distinctive local ingredients. In an upcoming post, I will explore whether that philosophy can work here.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Grove -- pleasing many, exciting none

The Grove is a new upscale restaurant downtown in the Discovery Green Park. The menu is designed by two of Houston's best chefs -Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie and Ryan Pera, formerly of 17.

Despite remarkably simple food, the Grove took me a while to figure out. My first meal there last Saturday was full of contradictions:

Contradiction 1 - informal atmosphere vs. not-so-informal attire

I entered the Grove from a valet parking circle where all the very best cars were parked -- Bentleys, Maseratis, and Jaguars.

Yet once I walked in the door, the atmosphere felt informal. The restaurant space is like a giant solarium, with a high ceiling, glass walls, and no obstructed views. From anywhere in the restaurant, you can see all the other customers. I liked the space, but my wife was uncomfortable. She felt she was on display inside a fish tank.

For such a casual space on the edge of a park, the crowd was dressed quite conservatively. Most men wore sports coats. Most women wore their Saturday dining out finest.

Contradiction 2 - Downtown location vs. Memorial-area crowd

Because of the Grove's location, I expected an eclectic, urban crowd. Instead, the crowd was almost uniformly white and suburban. Most diners were between 40 and 60. And most women had that Memorial-style hair.

It looked like a Post Oak crowd had been bussed downtown.

Contradiction 3 - Casual menu vs. not-so-casual prices

As I read the menu, I began to wonder, "Am I in Benigan's?" The Grove's menu includes a cheese burger, a grilled pizzette, BBQ baby back ribs, tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa, fried shrimp, and grilled skirt steak with chili cheese fries. Yet the prices are not Bennigan's. The burger, for instance, is $12, and the skirt steak is $24. A number of items are $30.

To be fair, there are some classier and healthier items. For instance, the menu includes a section that lets diners match their grilled protein (such as salmon, swordfish, scallops, fillet mignon, and lamb sirloin), with a sauce (aioli, olive oil and herbs, steak sauce, spice chili, or tapenade), and a side (mashed potatoes, spaetzl, green beans, and corn off the cob).

In another section labeled "American Rustic Cooking," the kitchen chooses the pairing of protein, sauce and side. For instance, a gulf red snapper is served with spicy mustard broth and a roasted lemon jam. Those dishes looked a little more interesting. But overall, the Grove's menu is geared to the upscale diner who does not mind paying $20 - $30 for an unadventurous main course.

Contradiction 4 - fine execution vs. uninspired recipes

My wife and I tried hard to find something interesting to order, and ultimately we settled on three dishes:

1-Gulf Coast crab cocktail with endive and spicy remoulade;
2-watercress and citrus salad;
3-grilled ahi tuna on a bed of grits with leeks and pancetta.

All three dishes were well prepared. Consider the tuna. I ordered it grilled rare, and arrived exactly as ordered. The side of grits gave me déjà vu -- the same flavor as the classic grits Del Grande has served at Cafe Annie for decades. In short, no surprises whatsoever.

The crab cocktail was not just safe; it was positively retro. Although the remoulade had some spice, it was the sort of dish that you might have found in country clubs in the mid-20th century.

Only one dish showed serious innovation. The watercress salad was served with a variety of unusual citrus fruits, including some candied, preserved fruit that reminded me of marmalade. I was blown away contrast of the bitter greens and the sweetness and acidity of the fruit and dressing.

The nicest thing I can say about the Grove is that the kitchen has done a remarkable job in just three months of serving a capacity crowd and executing every dish flawlessly. These are the signs of experience.

Resolving the contradictions

Is there a way to resolve these contradictions? Perhaps, the explanation is that Del Grande and Pera have decided to go safe -- very safe. The Grove is calculated to appeal to a particular crowd:

-diners who have a precise expectation about their meal and demand it be fulfilled;
-diners who want a casual setting where they can see and be seen by others in a well-dressed crowd;
-diners who are willing to pay for precise execution of ordinary American dishes; and
-diners who value competence and consistency over innovation and surprise.

In short, the Grove will appeal to many Houstonians, who will return again and again.

But I will not be one of them.

I can't justify driving all the way downtown, when I can make most of these dishes at home. I can't justify spending $80 for casual food, when I can spend $40 less, and get more interesting food in a casual environment -- or spend $40 more, and get truly elegant food in the elegant setting of Cafe Annie.