Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Camera's "Cuisine" Photo Mode

Food photos are in. At Feast last weekend, the three ladies sitting next to us all whipped out their cameras and started taking close-up shots of the food. So I did not feel so strange when I pulled out my camera to do the same thing.

I am amazed at some of the photography on the local food blogs. Especially Tasty Bits (Misha's site) and She Eats. Compared to them, my food photos stink. But I'm working on it. Misha has offered me some much-needed help.

Plus, today I discovered a setting on my little Olympus camera called "cuisine." No joke. Apparently, it boosts saturation, sharpness, and contrast especially for close-ups of food.

So compare my lousy photos posted earlier today, to this very cool close-up of green curry from Asia Market, taken in Olympus "cuisine" mode:

By the way, that green and white oval thing on the left is a Thai eggplant. This outrageously spicy curry may be my favorite dish of many amazing dishes at Asia Market.

Doesn't it look great?

At Home -- Memorial Day

Summer officially begins on June 20. But in Houston, it seems to begin around Memorial Day. The holiday is a good time to transition from spring to summer ingredients.
So this Memorial Day, I meditated on the season change and cooked three dishes: one goodbye to spring and two greetings to summer.

1. Sea scallop ceviche with fresh herbs.
I sliced the scallops very thinly and marinated them in a mixture of olive oil and fresh orange, lemon, and lime juices. I then placed the scallops with a little marinade on a bed of parsely, taragon, and micro basil, which we have been growing at home. This dish worked very well with a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which has grassy and citrus notes to pick up the flavors of the herbs and marinade.
2. Grilled octopus on grilled bread

Central Market is selling Chinese octopus for around $5 per pound. It is amazing that a seafood delicacy this flavorful and this exotic is so cheap.
The flavor of grilled octopus is unique. It is a very clean-tasting seafood -- more so than even tuna. But on the grill it picks up the smoky flavor of charred flesh that reminds me of a good brisket.
The trick is getting the octopus tender. I simmered my octopus with crushed garlic and a bay leaf in water for over an hour. I then grilled it with a marinade of lemon juice, olive oil, and oregano. It was some of the most tender octopus meat that I have tried.
3. Grilled Saturn peaches / goat cheese / honey

Peach season has begun. Most Texas varieties do not ripen until July, but stores are beginning to carry "cling peach" varieties -- the kind whose flesh clings to the pits. At Central Market, I only found California peaches. I tried a Saturn or donut peach. It has a flat shape like Saturn with its rings or a donut. It is a sweet peach, with nutty overtones. Although it did not give me the same joy as a Texas peach, it is a good way to start the season.

I prefer the flavor of peaches barely brushed with butter and grilled. I served this saturn peach with a little goat cheese and a drizzling of local honey.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Feast Again

On my first visit to Feast, I was impressed with the butchery, exotic meat items, and the kitchen's sense of humor. On my second visit, I was impressed with the kitchen's ability to make unique, intellectually exciting food from ordinary, non-trendy ingredients.

Herb Salad

It seems that fine restaurants showcase herbs less now than 15 - 20 years ago. Herbs should not be a staple that come into fashion periodically. They should be a fixture in the kitchen.

Rarely have I seen a salad that consists almost exclusively of herbs. Apart from a few small oranges and edible flowers, Feast's herb salad was made entirely of tiny leaves of parsley, mint, and taragon, barely, almost imperceptibly, dressed.

The salad was light and ethereal, but full of flavor -- a brilliant way to start a meal.

Snails on Toast

Escargot are a cliche - the sort of food that you only find in old-fashioned cafes that try to be French. Almost all of those cafes believe they must drown the little snails in pools of butter.

Feast disagrees. The snails were cooked with a generous quantity of garlic and placed without oil or butter on a piece of toast. After we ate the snails, we noticed that their flavor lingered on the toast. This preparation emphasized, rather than covered up, the earthy flavor of the snails.


The artichoke is the long-forgotten trend food of fine dining in the late 1970s. Almost no one cooks a whole artichoke these days -- except Feast. Again, the preparation was unusual. The giant choke was served with the heart pressed down so it would support a pool of vinaigrette (not butter as in the 1970s). The leaves had spread out into a wide flower. We dipped the leaves into the vinaigrette until we were left with the best part -- the heart topped with only a thin sheen of dressing.

The dish took a long time to eat because it was so much fun.

Juniper Braised Goat with Spaghetti Squash

This is a classic preparation of an under-appreciated meat. The goat was braised in red wine with carrots and mushrooms. It tasted like beef bourgogne. I have never seen that preparation for goat meat, but it makes so much sense. Goat is a very flavorful meat that benefits from a pairing with the strong flavors of the wine sauce.

The spaghetti squash was an interesting side, that I rarely see in American restaurants.

Chocolate Cake

We ended with a molten chocolate cake served with ginger, pear ice cream. Although it was one of the best-executed chocolate cakes in town, the real surprise was the vibrant, balanced flavor of the ice ice cream.

It is a beautiful dish to look at, but much better to eat.

Feast is not a gimmick or just a place to eat strange meats. It has emerged straight from the womb as one of the best, most interesting restaurants in Houston.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Japaneiro's - American Fusion in Overdrive

American Fusion

Japaneiro's in Sugar Land is a strange fusion restaurant that bills itself as "sushi bistro and latin grill." I would just call it "American fusion."

Why American? Apart from using raw fish, this food bears little resemblance to real Japanese cuisine. Although it has Latin elements, few dishes seem traditionally Latin. Instead, this food is an incoherent mish mash of ingredients. It is loaded with hot peppers and sugar.

It is uniquely American. And I dig it.

A Bistro? Hardly.

A lot of non-French restaurants have been calling themselves bistro. But Japaneiro's use of the phrase "sushi bistro" is a joke.

A bistro is a small, intimate restaurant serving simple food and wine. Japaneiro's has a boisterous night-club atmosphere. We sat next to a table of about twelve noisy girls in their late teens. Most customers were in their early 20s, on dates. Although we arrived at 9:30 p.m., the restaurant was still crowded and noisy when we left around 11.

Japaneiro's also does not serve simple bistro food or wine. Its menu is about six pages of strange, complicated creations. And you don't want to order wine here. The small, uninteresting wine consists mostly of oaky American wines that hardly match the flavors of raw seafood and Latin peppers.

If you want to capture the spirit of Japaneiro's, order a fruity cocktail. The drink list is long and fascinating -- strange mixtures of fruit juices with sake, vodka, and rum. I tried a mojito martini. Compared to a traditional mojito, it seemed to have double the alcohol, double the lime, and double the mint. Intense.

I also tried a Brazilian cocktail called "cahipirinha." It mixes lime juice, a lot of sugar, and cachaca, a Brazilian brandy that tastes more like rum. Under all the sugar, this drink had a distinctive flavor.

Strange raw fish dishes

Japaneiro's serves some ordinary sashimi and nigiri sushi. My daughter ordered a plate of fresh salmon, and we tried a Diablo Roll. Both items were fine, but unexceptional. We avoided the portion of the menu devoted to "Grilled Specialties," which looked uninteresting.

The best strategy is to go for the strange stuff. We started with a dish called Crudo Sampler. Ordinarily, "crudo" means simple, Italian-style raw fish preparations. This crudo was hardly Italian. It consisted of thinly-sliced sashimi, each topped with a different spicy, fruity sauce. Salmon was topped with a sweet soy, strawberry sauce and a side of hot Sriracha chili sauce. The two fish on the right (hamachi?) were served with a raspberry chipotle sauce and a spicy peach sauce. Seared albacore tuna was served with some sort of sweet, spicy chutney. And a ruby red tuna was served with a spicy Chinese plum sauce.

My wife scraped off a lot of the sweet sauces and said the fish was very fresh. Yet after the fish was gone, I found myself using a spoon to scoop up the excess sauces.

Japaneiro's Peruvian ceviche also did not seem very Peruvian. White fish was served in a soupy marinade of lime juice, cucumber, cilantro, red bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno pepper, and quite a bit of sugar. On the side were several crispy wonton chips, which provided a nice texture contrast. Like the crudo, sugar was dominant.

The final dish was the strangest and most flavorful. But that doesn't mean it was pretty. The Carribean Volcano is an ugly pile of sauteed sweet plantains, topped with a generous serving of raw tuna cubes and avocado slices, then covered with a strange miso / coconut milk broth. That description does not do justice to how wonderful these flavors worked together. At $12, this large dish is a full meal.

So why do I like it?

By this point, Japaneiro's may sound like an unfocused, inauthentic mess of a restaurant serving dishes that are overwhelmingly sweet and spicy. It is. But it is also quite good. Compared to some other Americanized sushi fusion restaurants, like Aka and Blue Fish House, Japaneiro's excels because of the quality of its fish and the vibrancy of its flavors. The chef does not just throw disparate ingredients together without thinking. These are intelligent, well-prepared dishes, even if they have too much sugar.

It is easy to forgive all the sugar. Japaneiro's is in the far suburbs. It gets a lot of young customers. It knows its crowd. Plus, the town of Sugar Land was founded as a sugar plantation in the mid 1850s. Perhaps Japaneiro is just doing homage to its indigenous local ingredient.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bistro Le Cep -- Old School

A Little History

Chef Joe Mannke was born before WWII in the land of Pomerania. Pomerania is a lost country, now divided between Germany and Poland.

In 1978, Mannke opened Rotisserie for Beef and Bird -- a game-based restaurant that many considered to be one of Houston's best restaurants. For the past 8 or so years, he has been the chef/owner of Bistro Le Cep, a French-style cafe on Westheimer at Wilcrest.

The food at Le Cep is high quality and well prepared. It is also very old school. To me, it tastes less like a bistro in France than a French restaurant in America in the 1970s.

But that description doesn't begin to capture the unique cultural experience of eating at Bistro Le Cep on a Saturday night.

A mature crowd?

Over the last four or five years, Le Cep's customers have aged -- a lot. Last night, my wife and I noticed that we were 35 years younger than the average customer. We're 39.

During the course of the evening, we began to wonder whether these customers were mature. On one side of us, a 50-ish man was dining with his father, who was turning 72. The son was a regular. The Depression-era father was shocked by the prices. "Fourteen dollars for chicken!?" He special-ordered a plain grilled chicken breast and French fries. When the son tried to get the restaurant to bring Dad a birthday cake, the older man had a fit. Too much excess. As they left, the father exclaimed that he could not believe the son had paid "forty dollars!" for the meal.

On the other side were five women. The oldest was a dead ringer for Dr. Ruth Westheimer -- except she was Catholic. She talked a lot about her priest. She also talked a lot about Hilary Clinton. Loudly, she called her a "prostitute" and a "whore." It was her birthday. She let the restaurant bring a cake and sing "Happy Birthday."

Accordion Crimes

Speaking of music, a restaurant can't be elegant unless it has an accordion player.

Le Cep's accordionist wasn't the type to hang back in a corner and play quiet gypsy tunes. He was more the stalker-type accordionist. He would go table-to-table and look with great passion at the diners while he played. For some reason, Le Cep's customers all seemed to like that.

The music he played was not the sort of music you would hear in a bistro in France. Instead, it was the kitschy sort of music you might expect to hear in a 70s-era French restaurant in America. He segued from "La Vie en Rose" to "Frere Jacuqes (Brother John)" to "Somewhere My Love" -- the Russian theme song to Doctor Zhivago.

My wife suddenly looked at me in fear. "Oh my God, he's coming to our table!" Apparently, as he approached, the accordionist saw her look of sheer terror. As I glanced over my sholder, I saw him carefully backing away to the next room, never to return.

Old School Food

Le Cep begins each meal with a rustic hors d'oeuvre of duck liver pate with small toast crisps. My wife -- no pate fan -- thought it tasted like tuna salad.

Our first course was stuffed cherrystone clams. The old-style stuffing reminded me of a cross between Thanksgiving dressing, and the stuffed crab still served at some old-school restaurants, like Barbecue Inn and Gaido's. Although I could taste a hint of clam, the dominant flavor was high-quality chicken broth.

My wife's mussels were a classic preparation with wine broth and tomatoes. In the broth, I detected an unusual alcohol flavor. Although a dry white wine is standard in most mussel preparations, my guess is that this kitchen used vermouth or some other fortified wine. The broth was excellent, but the mussels were of mixed quality.

When walked in the restaurant, I read out loud the catch-of-the-day on the specials board. "Groper." I started to grab my wife, but she didn't appreciate the joke. Still, because of the misspelling, I had to order the grouper, which was oven roasted and served with a simple, light lemon/butter/caper sauce. The good-quality fish was the highlight of the night.

Why I Like Le Cep

Le Cep's food is far from the cutting edge. The atmosphere isn't cool. It isn't even successfully rustic. It is an adorable,uniquely American kitsch.

Le Cep is where we've been. It captures the cliche of American "Continental" dining in the 1970s.

Yet Le Cep is also where we are going. Hopefully, when I'm 77, I will go to my favorite restaurant. My daughter will laugh gently at me for ordering seared tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes. And she will smile at me for listening to the guy walking around the restaurant with a portable synthesizer, belting out Michael Jackson tunes . . . with passion.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A wine blog, and wine lists, for the Wine Geek

Wine geeks vs. wine snobs

There are two kinds of wine fans: (1) the wine snob, and (2) the wine geek.

The wine snob prefers wines from the world's top grape five or six varietals and regions. The wine snob follows Robert Parker's wine ratings. The wine snob fondly remembers the night he tasted eight $1,000+ bottles. The wine snob loves the wine lists -- or rather, "wine libraries" -- at Pappas Brothers, Lynn's Steakhouse, and Cafe Annie.

The wine geek is a very different animal. The wine geek loves under-appreciated varietals and exotic regions. The wine geek doesn't care about fashion or Robert Parker. And the wine geek does not worship at the altar of the 5 or 6 "great" varietals. The wine geek loves to find unusual flavors and great values.

There are some sub-groups of wine geeks:

Varietal nuts - They get excited about drinking strange and exotic grape varietals. They keep lists of the varietals they have tried. You can't even join the club if you have had less than 100.

Pairing freaks - They talk about "synergy" and how a wine "brings out" the flavors of the food. They organize an entire meal around the perfect pairing. They stop you from ordering asparagus because it "won't work with the wine." They tend to like Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. (Disclaimer: I am a pairing freak.)

Zin-heads and other varietal or region freaks - They believe that Zinfandel is the great American wine. They dismiss Robert Parker for never rating a Zin over 96. They can immediately tell whether a Zin is from Dry Creek, Lodi, or Paso Robles. Some geeks specialize in other varietals or regions, such as the Oregon Pinot freaks.

So am I a wine snob or a wine geek? Last night at Mary'z, I got excited about drinking a Cinsault-based Lebanese red for under $30. Take a guess.

A New Blog for Wine Geeks

Wine geeks rejoice! A ambitious website site discusses wines available in Houston. Blue State Carpetbagger's Red Wine Blog gives detailed notes about each wine's look, nose, flavor and mouth feel. He likes a variety of wines, including a lot of cheap wines. I don't know how I did not run across this site sooner.

Carpetbagger is a wine geek. He has only reviewed 15 cabernets, but has reviewed 50 Zinfandels. He likes a lot of wines under $20.

The problem with national wine reviews is that the wines reviewed are not always available in Houston. Because Carpetbagger is local, you can find most of the wines he discusses at Spec's. This is a great source for local wine information.

Some Great Wine Lists for Wine Geeks

Many Houston wine lists are geared to wine snobs. But the trend seems to be toward wine geek lists. If you are a wine geek, I highly recommend these lists:

1. Value Lists

Houston is the home of a new trend toward value wines. Instead of the standard 2 or 3 times retail markup, some Houston restaurants are serving great wines at a price near the retail price. Each of these lists includes both popular wines, as well as a large selection of unusual varietals and regions.

Ibiza - The original value list in Houston keeps getting bigger and better. Great selection of west coast Pinots. But given the restaurant's name, there are surprisingly few Spanish wines.

Catalan - Ibiza's sister. I like this list even better because it is more informative and more diverse. There are great selections for Zin-heads and Italian lovers.

Reef - Reef's seafood-based menu has a diverse range of spices and flavors. This list includes a lot of whites that work with the food. Cruelly, it also has some mind-blowing values on some intense, concentrated reds that don't work with the seafood.

Voice - Although it is a new restaurant with a new list, it is already extensive and diverse. Their wine guy is a master at pairing wines with difficult flavors.

2. Obsessively Regional Lists

These lists are great for the wine geek who obsesses about particular wine regions:

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enotecca - best selection of Italian wines for under $100

Da Marco - best selection of Italian wines for over $100

El Meson - best Spanish list in town

Le Mistral - great French list, including a lot of Rhones

Cafe Rabelais - best French list in town, including a lot of Rhones

3. Food Friendly lists

These are lists for pairing freaks. The wines are carefully selected for how well they work with food. And when a restaurant has particularly challenging food to pair, a successful pairing is a thing of beauty.

Hugo's - Mexican food is very hard to pair with wine. Most people just give up and drink margaritas and beer. But Hugo's has a large, diverse list of red and whites that actually work with the spicy food.

Indika - Indian food is just as hard to pair as Mexican food. Indika pulls it off with a diverse small list. The suggestions are not always what you might suspect. For instance, I am surprised at how well the Italian whites on this list work so well with Indian spices.

Benjy's / Mockingbird Bistro / Shade - American bistro food is not as hard to pair as Mexican or Indian food. But these restaurants have well-rounded, diverse lists with many wines to excite the wine geek.

Backstreet Cafe - Sean Beck (who also does Hugo's list) wins special kudos for highlighting 10 or 12 wines each month and describing them in depth. I usually stick to his highlighted wines because they are so interesting and food friendly. Yet the rest of his large list is diverse, food friendly, and very wine-geek friendly.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Randy Rucker's Tenacity

This post is a plug for a friend of mine. He did not ask me to do it. I'm just such a believer in this local chef that I wanted to spread the word.

Randy Rucker is an energetic young chef, and one of the best in the city. He has worked in some of Houston's finest restuarants. And he was the chef/owner of laidback manor. Back before I knew him, in January 2006, I wrote a post about his restaurant called, "laidback manor throws a grenade on the plate."

His current venture is a private dining service called Tenacity. Randy describes the service here and gives a sample menu here. His website, feeding curiosity, is filled with photos of his creations.

The basic idea is that Randy will bring his magic to your house for a dinner for you and your friends. He has excellent sources for ingredients, and some mind-blowing techniques.

The contact information for Tenacity is on b4-u-eat.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Great Dumpling Hunt Part 7 - Xiong Cafe

It's Chinatown

Anonymous Kid was playing in the street when I called, "Want to go get dumplings?"

She is a 9-year-old foodie, already too picky. "Where?" she asked skeptically.


She threw down her scooter and yelled, "Oh Yeah!"

She and I have learned this hard fact of life: Houston's best dumplings are in Chinatown, the stretch of Bellaire from US 59 to Beltway 8 and beyond. You might get fancy dumplings elsewhere. But if you want the basics, you go to Chinatown.

In most other neighborhoods, a Chinese restaurant can make a profit selling average dumplings. But in Chinatown, the competition is intense. The Asian-American customers know the product.

You've gotta make a mean dumpling to sell it in Chinatown.

Xiong Cafe

Xiong Cafe is in the Sterling Shopping Center at 9888 Bellaire. It sells dumplings, noodles, and soups. Its sister restaurant next door is My Tea House. They are like 2 restaurants in 1. You can go to the back of Xiong and order a fruit juice or bubble tea from My Tea House through a service window.

Xiong followed a tough act. The day before, I had gone to the nearby Sandong Noodle House. Xiong feels different. It is bright and welcoming. Xiong's wait staff are young and cheery -- not hardened veterans of the dumpling wars, like at Sandong.

But on that afternoon, we weren't looking for atmosphere. We were looking for dumplings.

Not just any dumplings. The best dumplings.

A customer at the counter offered to help translate the Chinese menu on the wall. I saw an English menu on the counter. But I accepted his offer. He looked like a regular. He looked like he knew dumplings. I told him we wanted the two best dumplings on the menu.

"Do you want steamed, boiled, or pan fried?" "Do you want pork or chicken?" "Or do you want a variety plate." Apparently, Xiong had a lot of choices. I explained that it didn't matter. We are not casual dumpling eaters. We don't care about chicken vs. pork. "We only want the best. "

He looked me in the eye, and saw I meant it. This is what he suggested:

Szechuan Spicy Dumplings

Priced at $3.25, this bowl of 12 boiled dumplings is not a lot of dough. The skin is like a wonton, but a little thicker. It is wrapped around a ground pork filling and coated with ground nuts and green onion. Under the dumplings is a liquid that can't decide whether it is a soup or a sauce. I guess the liquid has some broth, vinegar, and chili paste. But mostly garlic. A lot of garlic.

The broth was more savory than spicy. There was some heat. And, if you need more heat, Xiong has a vat of chili paste in back. But I didn't need more heat. I was happy to just enjoy the garlicky, salty flavor.

Pan Fried Pork Dumplings

Xiong lays down the gauntlet by selling pan fried pork dumplings. You see, pan fried dumplings are the specialty at Sandong, where I had eaten the day before. Xiong threw a punch with its ground pork filling, slightly more flavorful than Sandong's. But in the texture competition, Xiong lost to Sandong. At Xiong, the dumplings had been left in the pan a few seconds too long without liquid. The crunchy side was a little too hard and toasty. The other two sides were not as moist and chewy as at Sandong. Plus, at $5.95, the pan fried dumplings at Xiong cost about a dollar more. That's not a lot of dough, but in these hard times, every buck counts.

"Forget it Jake."

My daughter and I had good times at Xiong. She loved her Boba Milk Tea. I dug the unusual Szechuan Spicy dumplings. I would recommend Xiong's pan fried dumpllings over 98% of the dumplings I have tried. And I might even rather go back to Xiong than Sandong.

But in a close pan-fried dumpling match, Sandong wins.

Competition on this strip of land is tough. It's the dumpling wars. Someone's gotta win. Someone's gotta lose. If you lose, you can't let it get to you.

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Great Dumpling Hunt Part 6 - Sandong Noodle House

THE Pan-Fried Dumpling

One side is crisp, toasty, crunchy. The other two sides are thick, soft, moist, chewy. The filling is meaty and satisfying.

Eating pan fried pork and leek dumplings from Sandong Noodle is a tactile experience. Yes, you can taste the fresh ground pork and leeks. And the flavor improves when you dip it in rice vinegar and chili paste. But the joy of these dumplings is all texture.

Background and Debate

Sandong Noodle House is located at 9938 Bellaire, in the new Chinatown. It moved a few years ago. The name seems to have been spelled different ways -- Santong Snacks and San Dong. Most of the customers seem to be Chinese speakers, so I expect the spelling changes reflect an effort to get non-Chinese speakers to pronounce the name correctly.

Sandong's pan fried dumplings cost under $5 (cash only) for a plate of 10 or so. They are widely praised, but also the source of debate. On b4-u-eat, Houston's ethnic food guru, Jay Francis, proclaimed that Sandong:

"is undoubtedly one of the best dumpling houses in Chinatown - we're talking authentic Chinese dumplings."

Another critic said: "The best in Houston. No one does it better."

But others don't get it:

"The dumplings were fully mediocre . . . .we'd have pan fried some of the frozen dumplings we buy at one of the grocery stores on Bellaire and they would have tasted about the same."

I agree that the filling of these dumplings is nothing special. But that isn't the point. I have pan fried frozen pot stickers many, many times, and I have never achieved this texture. If you are talented enough to create dumplings of this texture at home, by all means, save $4.50 and skip Sandong. But I haven't found any other Houston restaurant, regardless of price, that makes a dumpling exterior this good.

Something Else

On a Saturday at Sandong, I noticed something on the counter that did not appear to be on the menu. It was a bun with an exterior like a pan-fried dumpling. Can anyone tell me from the photo what this dish is?

This exterior of this bun had a texture similar to the pan-fried dumplings. But the filling was different. It consisted of minced green onion, Chinese mushroom, tofu, and glass noodles. It was difficult to eat with chopsticks, but a nice vegetarian alternative to the pork dumplings.

Strange Euphoria

I have to report on the strangest part of my Sandong experience. After eating a plate of pan-fried dumplings and a drinking a pot of tea, I began to feel strange. At first, I just felt happy and satiated. Then, I felt balanced, at peace. Then, love began streaming in from the universe. I realized I was experiencing a full on case of euphoria.

This was not just my happiness to find good dumplings. This was something chemical. Was it all the carbohydrates? The caffeine? The chilp paste? Did someone slip something in my tea?

Whatever it was, you can bet that I will return to Sandong.

NEXT: For more Chinatown dumplings, Anonymous Child and I get pan-fried dumplings and Szechuan spicy dumplings at Xiong Cafe.

(Update: May 18, 2008. Eating chile peppers causes the body to release endorphins, which are the body's natural opiates. Mystery solved.)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Great Dumpling Hunt Part 5 - Gigi's Asian Bistro

Hunting for dumplings again

Last year, I went on a hunt for Houston's best dumplings. I had a lot of fun eating dumplings around town. See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. But I did not find the superlative dumpling.

I did discover a great traditional recipe for dumplings by Grace Young, a Chinese-American chef. Her Shu Mai dumplings call for equal parts of fresh water chestnuts, ground pork, Chinese mushrooms, cilantro, and scallions. For me, working with fresh water chestnuts took a lot of time. Young's dumpling recipe required hours to make, but the dumplings were better than I had found in restaurants.

The problem is that Americans expect dumplings to be cheap food. So we get dumplings with a ball of ground mystery meat, and if lucky, a little onion or ginger. Or we get dumplings made from canned water chestnuts. But the really great dumpling recipe is too time intensive to be cheap. So I let the hunt stall out.

This weekend, I stumbled across several great dumplings in Houston restaurants. The hunt is back on.

Gigi's Asian Bistro and Dumpling Bar

Gigi's is an offshoot of Hunan in the Galleria. The restaurant decor is beautiful. The prices are high. Predictably, on the populist website b4-u-eat, Gigi's is panned by some readers as "non-authentic" and "Ruggles prices with Galleria food court quality." But I wanted to give Gigi's a chance.

My family tried three different kinds of dumplings. Two kinds of dumplings were nothing special. I was particularly disappointed with Gigi's pan-fried dumplings, which had a dry, uninteresting texture. But the Gigi's shu mai dumplings had some of the best dumpling filling I have found in a Houston restaurant.

Shu Mai

These dumplings have the delicate wrappers that is traditional for shu mai. The filling is very flavorful. It includes pork and crab and green onions. It probably included fresh water chestnuts and Chinese mushrooms. But the dumplings were so good that we did not pause to look carefully at the insides.

I could tell that these dumplings were a completely different animal from the ordinary Chinese dumplings in Houston. They were made with a great deal of care and time. They were Chinese banquet-quality dumplings, not street food. The time required to make these dumplings was reflected in the price. A meager serving of four dumplings costs $10 -- easily the highest price-per-dumpling I have seen in Houston.

Everything else

The rest of Gigi's menu consisted of high-priced, pan-Asian fusion food. The results were mixed. At $28, the most expensive item on the menu, Chilean Sea Bass with stir-fried vegetables was disappointing. The fish was dry and over cooked. The heavy sauce was too salty and did nothing to compliment the delicate flavor of the sea bass. Sea bass is hard to ruin, but this preparation did just that.

Much better was a salad with a pungent Vietnamese fish sauce vinaigrette. The marriage of fish sauce with vinegar in dressing is so natural that I am surprised I do not see it more often in fusion restaurants.

Stamed mussles with Thai curry was also surprisingly good. It is common for French chefs to include curry powder in a mussel preparation. So it is a logical step to then add a rich coconut curry to the mussels before serving. The mussels were good quality. And the curry - although a bit overly sweet - was addictive. A similar dish has been served at Farrago for some time. I only wish that Gigi's version had been served with bread.

Gigi's has a good small wine list for a Chinese restaurant. They have the sort of wines that actually work with Chinese food, like Riesling and Gruner Veltliner.

As a high-end Chinese restaurant, Gigi's is not entirely successful. It needs to focus on its best dishes, and drop some of its unsuccessful ones. But I will return for its expensive shu mai dumplings.

Next: I finally get to eat great pan-fried dumplings, pay a lot less, and experience strange euphoria at Sandong Noodle House.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Voice in the Hotel Icon - tasting menu

2008 is shaping up to be the best year for Houston restaurant openings in a long time. First Soma. Then Ristorante Cavour. Then Feast. Now Voice.


Voice replaces Bank in the Hotel Icon.

The executive chef is Michael Kramer. In chef circles he is a big deal. He has worked at Spago and the Mansion on Turtle Creek.

Another talent in the kitchen is local chef Justin Bayse, who formerly worked at laidback manor and Vin.

Overall impression

Voice is not just a worthy successor to Bank. It is better.

The food manages to straddle a line between progressive and accessible.

These dishes appear to be a product of a dialogue with the country's leading chefs. Although many dishes are unique, you will not be surprised at the food here if you have been hanging out at French Laundry, Per Se, and Spago. For instance, the menu includes foam and sous vide preparations, which are rarely found in Houston, but quite common in Chicago, New York, Aspen, Charleston, and the Bay Area. Voice also employs a number of trendy ingredients, such as truffles, micro greens, short ribs, fennel, and crispy fish skin.

But the food also will be accessible to Houstonians. The menu does not include too much sci-fi molecular gastronomy of the sort that seems to scare away so many Houstonians. And it does include some fairly traditional ingredients. Dull and unadventurous diners can order a steak with potato or a rosemary grilled chicken breast.

Voice makes an interesting comparison with Soma and Feast. If they survive, all three are sure to be among Houston's best restaurants. But the cuisines at Soma and Feast are the individualized product of unusual chefs. Although Voice has its own personality, its food is more reflective of the Zeitgeist of contemporary American cuisine. Houston needs both kind of restaurants.

The dining space -- a former bank lobby -- has been softened and modernized. It no longer feels like a cavernous antique gallery.

Amazingly, after three weeks, the service at Voice runs like clockwork. At Bank, the service at had been condescending and sometimes inept. Voice is altogether different.


I shared a tasting menu with wine pairings with a group of bloggers and my favorite local chef, Randy Rucker. Although Voice promotes its 5 and 7 course tasting menus, it also has a regular menu. The items on the tasting menu and regular menu overlap.

These were a few highlights:

Mushroom soup cappuccino. This was a small soup made from scraps of crimini, portabellas, and shitake, with some chicken stock, wine, and cream, topped with a shaving of black truffle. Apparently, this is one of Kramer's signature dishes. It has a viscous texture and perhaps the greatest concentration of earthy mushroom flavor that I have ever tried. It wins my dish of the night award.

Sashimi of yellow fin tuna. A mainstay of the contemporary restaurant menu follows this formula: raw fish + fruit + vegetable. Soma employs formula a lot. So does Uchi in Austin. This version included a wide thin strip of high quality tuna with mango, avocado, radish, and yuzu juice. The flavor of the mango pushed this dish over the top.

Patchwork of baby beets. Some dishes stand out because of original preparations. Others stand out because of ingredient quality. When you have a great ingredient, a chef doesn't need to do much to it. It is no great innovation to serve baby beets with local, goat cheese and micro greens. But when the baby beets are good enough -- as they were at Voice -- it can be a great dish.

Halibut. The fresh halibut in Houston restaurants has been fantastic for the past few weeks. Voice's version includes crispy fish skin, fennel, and a truffle foam.

Venison sous vide. All of America's top restaurants seem to be experimenting with sous vide preparation -- except in Houston. It is a remarkable technique involving vacuum seals and long, low heat cooking that seals in both flavors and moisture. This venison sous vide was mind blowing. It was completely moist, full of flavor, and bright red, without even tasting rare. Runner up for dish of the night.

The desserts were all outstanding. But I had too much food and wine by that point. The dessert course was an impressionistic blur.

Only a photo can capture the artistry of the plating at Voice. Misha has a great series of photos of the dishes.


I have not seen Voice's wine list. But the pairings chosen by the wine guys were very creative and non-traditional. For instance, you would expect halibut, a big white fish, to be paired with a big white or a pinot noir. Instead, they served a merlot, which was a delightful marriage with the flavors in the truffle emulsion. Foie gras is traditionally paired with a botrytis wine such as a sauternes. But Voice a late harvest Chenin Blanc (!) with a ton of residual sugar -- a wonderful variation on the tradition.

The wine pairings included a number of international wines and less common varietals. It looks like the wine geeks may gravitate to Voice.

Will it work?

Voice is going to appeal to a lot of people: the Tony's/Cafe Annie crowd, the serious foodie crowd, and the out-of-town traveler. The biggest hurdle is location. Downtown Houston continues to bleed high-end restaurants. Vin was outstanding, and it did not even last a year. Ditto laidback manor. Other restaurants, such as 17 and the Four Seasons, have repeatedly lost their star chefs. Great downtown restaurants often operate at half capacity on weekends.

Bank drew a large crowd for at least a year. I sincerely hope that Voice will last longer than that. But we are all going to have to make an effort to drive downtown for dinner.