Thursday, September 18, 2008

More hurricane thoughts

This is a supplement to my last post about Hurricane Ike.

-Brennan's. After my last post, I learned that Brennan's GM and its sommelier and his daughter were severely injured in the fire. That is the real tragedy of Brennan's. Several restaurants will have benefits to assist them. If you have details, please post them in a comment. I will do my best to spread the word.

Jenny says that "catalan will be offering a $65 [edit: $60] tasting menu starting tonight of which $10 will be donated to the fund for brennan's sommelier james and his daughter katherine."

-Open restaurants. I'mneverfull has a list of restaurants now open.

-Birds. This week has been surreal, but nothing has been stranger than the disappearance of birds. I have only seen or heard a few live birds in southwest Houston this week. The ones I saw were pigeons who probably survived under freeway underpasses. In the Kroger parking lot on Buffalo Speedway, I saw hundreds of small bird bodies. As I walked neighborhood streets after the storm, everywhere I saw and smelled dead birds.

Fortunately, Jay Lee found and photographed some birds who made it through the storm.

-Kids. For the neighborhood kids, this has been a great week -- no school and little to do but play. Several days ago, I found my wife supervising a clean-up crew of 10 kids aged 5 to 12. They swept up our street's debris. My wife paid them a total of $40 -- a pretty steep rate even for illegal child labor.

-Lines. For those of us whose houses remained intact, the biggest annoyances of the week were the lack of power and the lines. Lines at gas stations. Lines for ice. Lines for cash. Lines at the PODs. Lines behind the dead lights at intersections. When I needed to drive east to Beaumont on Monday, I could not find a gas station with a line shorter than an hour. I first had to drive west past Katy to Brookshire, just to find gas without long lines.

Even today, one week later, at 2:00 p.m., there was a line of over 20 cars in line at the drive through for Whataburger. Our perspective has changed. We now are so desparate that we will wait an hour for a Whataburger.

-Ice. Without electricity, the single most important commodity is ice. Ice keeps you cold. Ice preserves food. Ice becomes cold drinking water. Finding ice was the first goal at the beginning of each day. Gas and food came later. Kudos to Central Market for shipping in a lot of ice. Still, it wasn't enough. Now, I finally appreciate the old Texas tradition of the ice house. The appeal wasn't just beer. It was the coolness provided by ice.

-Himalaya. Jenny organized a Chowhound group to have lunch at Himalaya. Unlike Whataburger, Himalaya had no wait. This Indian/Pakistani restaurant had been flooded, so they did not have a full menu. The kitchen was offering a tasty sampler lunch plate with chicken tika masala, karahi gosht (minced goat), chapli kabob (ground beef formed into a hamburger patty, spiced with corriander seeds and pomegranate seeds), rice, and mint yogurt. Under the circumstances, it was an impressive effort. I am looking forward to trying this restaurant with a full menu.

-The non-viability of life in Houston and the Texas coast. I have to wonder whether people were meant to live here. Before "civilization" -- that is, before shipping ports and oil -- very few Native Americans lived along the Southeast Texas coast. There are few native foods in this region. Without air conditioning, the weather is miserable. And a giant wall of water sweeps away life on the coast at least once a century.

Houston was lucky that the hurricane veered east, and that the wind was not more severe. Yet our civilization has been turned upside down for a week.

I am a sixth-generation East Texan. I love this city. Yet, I question whether it makes any sense for our city to be here.

Hurricane Ike: a strange week for food in Houston

4 leaks. 1 broken window. 1 refrigerator full of spoiled food. 5 days without power.

And my only internet access is at my temporary law office in the food court at Memorial City.

It's been a strange week for food.

"FEMA send beer" - a week of cooking out on the street

There is nothing like a neighborhood barbecue - especially when nothing in your kitchen works.

I had no idea that former sportscaster Bob Boudreaux lives on my block. But the night after Ike, he put up a cardboard sign, pointed upward, that read, "FEMA send beer." And he fired up the grill. I had to meet this guy.

So I brought two magnums of Sonoma cult wines as an offering. Of course, Bob was drinking beer. But he was happy to share his thawing freezer full of grilled venison and pork chops with the neighbors.

We stuffed ourselves on grilled meats, wine, and beer. And I got to know a lot of neighbors.

The following nights, we scored other food to grill. A friend fled town, leaving her barely frozen wild salmon. After a few days, Kroger started selling frozen tuna, and then offered a great deal on rib eyes ($9.99 a pound). Nightly we had cocktail hour with neighbors and then went home to grill.

A hurricane is a community-building exercise.

Anniversary dinner at Mockingbird Bistro

Last night, my wife and I went out for the first time. It was our anniversary. Many restaurants were closed, but some were open. We found ourselves at Mockingbird Bistro.

It is just not fair to review a restaurant when you have been eating hand-to-mouth for a week. Last night, Mockingbird was fantastic. They had a full menu. Every ingredient was fresh.

Mockingbird's beef tartar is a delightfully retro dish topped with a raw quail egg and served with toast and olive tapenade. A nicely seared filet of king salmon was served with a twice baked potato, brocolini, and a beef reduction sauce. A flourless chocolate cake was delicious.

Others fared worse

Before the power went out, I heard the tragic news about Brennan's. It was at Brennan's that I learned to love turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish, and bananas Foster.

I never wrote much about Brennan's. Perhaps I took it for granted. Now, I miss it terribly.

Yes, Brennan's was retro, still serving food two or three generations behind the times. But most dishes were good, and some were fantastic. The only good news is that most of the wine cellar was saved because the restaurant had iced it down with dry ice before the storm, which became a fire.

On Monday, I traveled east to rescue my elderly uncle from Sour Lake, Texas. I drove by Baytown and Nome and a lot of small towns on the coast between Houston and Beaumont.

I saw a house blown onto the middle of a service road. I saw mobile homes flipped over. I saw power lines scattered in fields like matchsticks. I saw large homes crushed by trees or wind. I saw a damaged world with few traces of civilization. I was reminded of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

I saw misery that utterly dwarfs a broken window, some leaks, and a week of camping out with the neighbors.

Monday, September 01, 2008

17's Wesley Morton and the new minimalism

17 Restaurant in the Alden-Houston has a new executive chef, Wesley Morton.

17 has had a string of talented chefs come and go. That isn't a bad thing. The frequent infusions of new blood let us see what is going on in that national food scene.

The national hotel chef scene

The American restaurant system is a lot like the hierarchical French model. Baby chefs come out of culinary school. Then they train as underling chefs at many different restaurants as they slowly rise up the ranks. Many of these restaurants happen to be in hotels.

The result of all this moving is that the top young chefs get to know each other. They all speak the same language. They follow many of the same trends.

Take Wesley Morton. After culinary school, he worked in D.C. at Circle Bistro, Cityzen Restaurant, and Citronelle (D.C.'s best restaurant). He last worked in Half Moon Bay, California at the Ritz Carlton's restaurant.

The next step is natural. For your first exec chef job, you start in a small, elegant hotel restaurant in some backwater market, or in this case, downtown Houston.

Morton's stated themes

17's website lays out Morton's themes, which happen to be many of the current culinary trends:

•local foods: "his passion for bringing the 'farm to the table'"

•seasonal ingredients: "his philosophy of creating dishes that are at their seasonal peak in terms of flavor and eye appeal"

•organic: "I hope to play an instrumental role in helping change the way Houstonians eat in terms of local, fresh, and organic."

The unstated theme: minimalism

17's website doesn't mention the most accurate description of Morton's approach -- minimalism. His dishes focus on simplicity, with remarkably few ingredients and basic flavors.

Consider Morton's ceasar salad, called "gita's baby romaine." Under Chef Ryan Pera, 17 served a wacky, fried ceasar salad. [Correction: the fried salad was prior chef Jeff Armstrong's creation, even though it was served for a while under Pera]. Morton returns it to basics: large strips of romaine leaves stacked in neat rows, with a light dressing on each leaf, a few crutons scattered around the edge of the plate, and a single large anchovy draped across the middle.

Similarly, "crudo of kona kampachi" is a beautifully simple dish raw fish, dressed with lime juice and sea salt, and served with thin slices of cucumber and baby shiso leaves. The lime and granules of salt highlighted the flavors of this fish, making it much more interesting than the sashimi version served in many sushi restaurants. But it was the spirit of minimalism that guided the appearance, distinct flavors, and small size of this dish.

My only question: if Morton is so high on local foods, why use a Hawaiian kona kampachi, a type of amberjack, when we have outstanding amberjack right here in the Gulf?

Under the header "local market fish," the special was king salmon. Again, king salmon is hardly a local fish, but I guess you can buy at "local markets." The waiter said it would be served with morels. I told him, "Morels, really? those are my favorite mushroom." He assured me it had morels. When it arrived, it had a completely different kind of mushroom, probably a chanterelle. Deprived of morels, I still enjoyed the dish. The salmon was thick and cooked rare. It sat atop a small bed of soft potato gnocchi and mushrooms. On the side was a small dab of tartar sauce -- not the kind you get in Luby's, but a delicious, smooth, herbed tartar sauce.

Perhaps the best dish of the night was an heirloom tomato salad. The tomatoes were a mix of different sizes and colors, all tasty. They were served with baby arugula and burrata cheese, from Puglia, Italy (hardly local). If the dish had stopped there, it would have fit perfectly into Morton's minimalist aesthetic. But it was topped with a delicious, fried squash blossom stuffed with a soft cheese. This one excess made the dish a home run.

The verdict

Morton undercuts his "local" theme by serving salmon from Alaska, amberjack from Hawaii, and cheese from Italy. But the truth is, Houston does not have a wealth of great local ingredients. And the market for good local ingredients may have been locked in by Monica Pope. So in Houston, unless you are Monica, you almost have to ship in some non-local foods to make a good meal. [Correction: Ok, that was a silly exaggeration. But seriously, in Houston good local foods take a lot of work to find.]

Morton's real theme -- minimalism -- works. Minimalism is hard to pull off. You have to have great ingredients. You have to use smart techniques to highlight an ingredient's flavors without changing them. And you have to have thoughtful ingredient pairings. This type of approach is hard work.

But when it does work, minimalism can bring out the pure flavors of distinct ingredients. It can make you look at an ordinary ingredient in a new light. And it can make you feel good because you know exactly what you are eating.

I recommend that you try Wesley Morton's minimalist cooking at 17 before he moves on to bigger and better things.