Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Not many gifts

It started at work. Like me, few Houston office workers received the usual gift baskets this year.

Then it happened at home. Like many Americans this year, my family negotiated treaties for no adult gifts. My wife's side of the family limited themselves to a lottery-drawn gift exchange. But even with these detailed arrangements to avoid spending, a few family members insisted on opt-out clauses.

The gifts I did receive were outstanding:

Flavored olive oils, a new sauce pot, and a bacon-chocolate bar.

My family understands me.

Merry Christmas

I leave town this afternoon. So these pages will be quiet for a few weeks.

I leave you with this scene from somewhere in Briar Grove.

See you in 2009.

-Anonymous Eater

Friday, December 19, 2008

local food at Avenue Grill

For a food philosopher in Houston, one of the greatest quandries is this:

What is our local food?

All the pricey restaurants talk about local ingredients. But usually their "local" means locally grown, by small-production farmers. It rarely means indigenous ingredients. (Apart from Gulf seafood, we don't have many). And it rarely means local-style cuisine.

Does Houston even have a local cuisine? You might say that Houston's local cuisine is the diverse cuisine of its many immigrant communities.

Yet there are older food traditions here that date back to the 19th Century. As a sixth generation Texas, I should know. At family reunions and Baptists churches in rural East Texas, I have encountered local food.

This kind of food is dying out in Houston. But you can still get it at a few places. One of them is Avenue Grill.

Avenue Grill

This little steam-table cafeteria near the corner of Washington Avenue and Houston Avenue has been serving local dishes for years. It has a faithful crowd of police, traffic court employees, traffic court jurors, and the kind of lawyers who don't wear expensive suits and ties.

Yesterday, I had lunch at Avenue with two other lawyers. Let's call them "Bob" and "Jim." None of us wore expensive suits or ties.

Bob ordered chicken fried steak and gravy. Jim had beef enchilladas. I got chicken and dumplings. Avenue makes a quintessentially East Texan chicken fried steak, fried in the manner of fried chicken. The chicken and dumplings had a wonderfully gummy texture and a strong, chicken-broth flavor.

Somehow, we all ordered greens. I assume they were collard greens, but the chalk board did not specify. Greens are very local. Although cooked a little too thoroughly, they had the correct earthy, bitter flavor of good East Texas greens. My side of pinto beans also was sufficiently Texan.

Avenue serves a generous basket of yeast rolls and unsweetened cornbread. This is exactly the sort of bread I remember eating on the lawn of small churches in East Texas.

Can our local cuisine ever get respect?

I enjoy Avenue Grill. I wish Houstonians would take this sort of food more seriously.

I asked Bob and Jim why East Texas food has been relegated to cafeterias, steam tables, and cheap cafes. I wondered why no one will open a high-end restaurant that combines local produce, contemporary techniques, and traditional East Texas recipes? Bob mentioned Ouisie's Table. It dabbles in local cuisine. Yet its menu includes just as many non-Texan dishes like rare tuna, curry, veal picatta, and crepes. (Crepes? Get a rope.)

Then again, maybe this sort of food simply can't be fine cuisine. Maybe it belongs in little joints like Avenue Grill, Barbecue Inn, and This Is It.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hollywood: capitalism and Vietnamese food

The rise of Hollywood

When I returned to Houston in 1993, I noticed that Montrose was dominated by Hollywood food stores. Hollywood offered convenience food, cigars (in a humidor!), and a wide diversity of porn.

Some years ago, Hollywood opened a superstore of sorts behind Cafe Noche. The signs advertised "hair and nails", "real estate and investments", and "cafe." Wow: one stop shopping for a manicure, a bowl of pho, a new house, and maybe even a dirty magazine.

The Restaurant

Last year, Hollywood took over the old Cafe Noche building on Montrose. It advertised its food as "Vietnamese and Chinese." It put up etched glass drawings of a pirate ship and a panda bear.

I confess, I was drawn in by the quirkiness of it all. I wanted to try the food produced by this empire of cigars, porn, land, real estate, pedicures, and pho.

When I finally stopped in to Hollywood, the menu was disappointing. Although large, it listed all the ordinary dishes you find in Americanized Chinese restaurants. The Vietnamese dishes were fairly standard too -- chargrilled meats with rice, lemongrass chicken, hot pot fish, vermicelli bowls, and pho. I could not find any dish that I had not tried somewhere else.

My chargrilled pork lunch was decent. I started with a vegetable soup. It had an oddly chemical taste, not quite like vegetables. The pork was served with long-grain rice instead of the crushed rice I prefer for this dish. The fish sauce was watered down and sugared up.

But the pork had a delicious, smoky, chargrilled flavor. I have tried making this dish at home, and just can't do it. I suspect it requires a high heat. Regardless, this chargrilled pork was much better than average.

Ho Chi Minh wouldn't like it

I made a bad assumption: A business that sells everything from porn to investments to Vietnamese food does not do it to be quirky or funny. They do it to make money.

Hollywood has discovered formulas for making money. It is not going to make money in mainstream America by producing something authentic and edgy. It is only going to profit by giving people exactly what they want.

And when it comes to Vietnamese food, Americans prefer grilled meats, carbs, and lots of sugar.

So if you live near Montrose, and are not a Vietnamese food snob, Hollywood makes a pretty good version of chargrilled pork with light, sugary fish sauce. You should buy it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Houston restaurants in the eyes of Dallas

Here is a fun article. Bill Addison is a food critic for the Dallas Morning News. He identifies 10 great restaurants that define Houston's diverse dining scene.

News Flash: Houston and Dallas are different

Addison says dining in Houston and Dallas is different. Yes, our restaurants are different. And our food writers are different. Addison writes that his "recent sprint through the gamut of Houston restaurants illuminated just how different its culinary canvas is from Dallas'." I can't see a pretentious sentence like that being written by Robb Walsh or Alsion Cook.

Despite his florid prose, Addison says some nice things about Houston, so I should say nice things about Dallas. Dallas has some excellent restaurants -- world class restaurants even.

I just have one complaint: when I am in most Dallas restaurants, there is nothing to remind me that I am in Dallas instead of New York or Chicago. That makes sense. Dallas likes to think of itself as a smaller version of New York or Chicago. It isn't. But it likes to think that.

Houston is happy to just be Houston.

Do these 10 restaurants really tipify Houston?

Addison concludes that 10 restaurants tipify Houston. Let's see how he does:

Chocolate Bar
Que Hong

I seriously disagree with three choices:

1 - The Chocolate Bar is great. But how does it tipify Houston? Addison tries to explain, "A city as sultry as Houston needs a fantastical retreat." What in the heck is he talking about?

2 - Pizzitola's serves decent barbecue. But it does not tipify the barbecue of the region nearly as much as Thelma's, Burns, Goode Co., or even Luling City Market. Plus, I am not sure I would include any barbecue joint on this list. There are plenty of Texas towns better than Houston for barbecue. (Blame air quality regulations).

3 - Irma's is quirky. But I have been disappointed at my last several meals there. Houston has far better Mexican food, and plenty of restaurants that better tipify the local scene. For instance, I would pick a representative of the Ninfa's school of grilled Mexican food that began here in Houston. Probably the best current example is El Tiempo.

I have not eaten at Que Hong or Textile yet. But there is no question that some Vietnamese restaurant belongs on the list and that Scott Tycer's cuisine belongs on the list. So I'm cool with those choices.

The rest of Addison's list is excellent. There are few better examples of the diversity of Houston dining than Catalan, Feast, Hugo's, Indika, and Reef.

I might round out that list with a few suggestions of my own:

Fung's Kitchen or Szechuan Cuisine (representatives of the amazing area near Chinatown)
Vieng Thai or Asia Market (deeply authentic Thai and Laotian food)
This Is It or Alameda Cafeteria (East Texas soul food)
Frenchy's (fried chicken) or Barbecue Inn (fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and stuffed crabs)

Addison's list is pretty good, especially for a food critic from Dallas. Plus, I have to give him credit for recognizing the best aspects of Houston's food that set it apart from Dallas -- Houston's breadth and diversity.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bedford - Robert Gadsby's new restaurant

Chowhounds at Bedford

Bedford is a new restaurant in the Houston Heights. I shared a 7-course meal there with 24 Chowhounds on Monday night. We had the restaurant to ourselves. Although no one knew we were Chowhounds or bloggers, we were given special attention.

These are my initial impressions.

It's the chef

Although Bedford has a beautifully ornate bar, and an attractive chef's table, the dining room feels cavernous, cold, disjointed and incoherent. I spent a long time staring at the walls, ceilings, and fixtures just trying to figure out the design concept. I never did.

The service and wine list are not great just yet. Servers wear uniforms that look like gas station attendants. Although they were trying hard, it does not flow well, yet.

The wine list is standard. It is hard to for a restaurant to get a deep list with interesting wines when it opens. But the wine guy was very insightful in pairing wines with Gadsby's complex dishes.

Despite all that, Bedford has the potential to be one of Houston's best restaurants for one reason -- Robert Gadsby.

The arc of Gadsby's short career in Houston

Gadsby moved here from L.A. and blew us away with his innovation and distinctiveness.

At Noe in the Omni Hotel, his signature style was maximalism -- the combining of as many as 20 or 30 disparate ingredients in a dish. His style was an ecclectic blend of Asian and European cuisine. For many Houstonians, Noe's location in the Omni Hotel was too hidden. And it was perhaps too elegant and expensive for Houston.

At Soma, Gadsby employed a similar style in a more causal, less expensive location. Some dishes continued his maximalism, especially salads. Yet other dishes, particularly the Japanese-influenced dishes, were simpler. The problem was that Soma was operated by the owners of Azuma, who ran the restaurant and the sushi bar. Gadsby's contribution was brilliant. In other respects, Soma was just a sushi restaurant, with a noisy nightclub crowd.

This one meal at Bedford reflected elegance and restraint. The Asian influence is still there, but muted. His style shows some experimentation, but more tradition. Bedford is not as exciting as Noe and Soma when they opened. Yet this new phase of Gadsby's cooking may taste even better.

The seven courses

An amuse bouche was a Thai-inspired mushroom risotto with pomegranate. This bit of rice was served in the tiniest skillet, about two inches wide. The mixture of pomegranate, mushroom, and some hot spice was intriguing. But a layer of flour tortilla on the bottom was just odd.

Tuna tartare was topped with an avocado fondue, a quail egg, sesame seeds, and cauliflower foam. I think I tasted wasabi too. Raw tuna is everywhere now. Yet the combination here was unique.

Perhaps the most unusual dish of the night was a hot pot soup served in a tea pot. We were instructed to first drink the broth, which had an intense, tangy, complex flavor. Rarely have I been so excited about broth. Inside the pot were nicely cooked bits of tofu, sea bass, scallop, and hazelnut.
As an alternate, some of us recived a gingery butternut squash cappucino. The high quantity of ginger made this normally bland soup spicy hot.
Perhaps the best dish was foie gras served with bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and a dash of truffle oil. The eggs were scrambled French style -- constantly stirred while cooking over low heat. Because it takes a lot of effort, few American restaurants use that technique. Sure, the foie gras was great. But it was the finely textured eggs that pushed this dish over the top.

A "Shanghai style" duck ravioli was topped with firsee, vegetables, and a bechamel made with duck fat. It was a small bite of Gadsby's old signature maximalism.

In tasting meals with wine pairings, I begin to lose focus after four or five courses. Gadsby served some sausage rigatoni with the best Italian sausage in Houston -- even better than Candelari's. And dessert included carmelized pear and chocolate "sticky loaf" with Bailey's sauce, a chocolate pistachi nut cookie, and an orange chcolate truffle.

A caveat: I have heard, but cannot confirm, about service issues at Bedford on weekends. For now, go on a weeknight. And don't expect Tony's-like service anytime soon.

Never Eat Alone

A final note: The Chowhound group reminded me of the value of dinner conversation. I sat with seven other delightful people who I barely knew. Our only connection was a love of food. Yet our conversation took unusual turns, ranging from profound to silly but always fun.

A friend wants me to read Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazi. Ferrazi talks about dinner parties as a way to experience a "fast and meaningful" slice of intimacy. You don't have to know your companions to achieve that slice of intimacy. There is something about great food, and wine, and folks who enjoy it that makes it possible.