Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Blog on hold / Thai Curry did me in

"I'm writing a book.

I've got the page numbers done."

-Steven Wright

This blog is going on hiatus for a while. I am suffering from a dreadful mental condition.

Writer's block

I write for a living. My law practice is writing. I teach a class on writing. I even am writing a book, which I have to finish by January.

So it makes no sense that I have writer's block. But I do.

A few weeks ago, I promised that my next post would be about Thai curry. I haven't been able to write that post -- or any post. For some reason, I lost all inspiration to write about food.

First Try: Asia Market

After starting a curry series, I knew I had to write about Thai curries. They are my favorite curry. But they also don't quite fit our concept of curry. Surely there would be much to write.

I sought inspiration in Asia Market's wonderful red curry, Kang Dang.

I planned to argue that Thai curry is not what we think of as curry. It is not a mix of dry spices. (Massamun is the exception). Instead, Thai curries are a mix of hot peppers, coconut milk, onion, kafir leaf, galangal or ginger, and other garden (or jungle) ingredients.

Thai curries are usually about the balance of the sweet creaminess of coconut milk and the heat of the peppers. They are not curries as in an earthy blend of spices, like an Indian or Pakistani curry.

Beyond that, I could not think of anything interesting to say. What to do? Maybe eat more curry?

Second Try: Vieng Thai

A curry on the menu at Vieng Thai caught my eye. Gang Pa is a "country-style red curry without coconut milk." I wondered, without coconut milk, would it still be Thai curry?

This dish was more like a spicy pepper soup. It lacked the sweet/spicy/sour balance of most Thai dishes. It was just spicy and sour, like a really peppery bowl of Tom Yum. Apart from the peppers, I couldn't decide what made it a curry.

So what is curry? Heck, I have no idea now. The word curry doesn't make any sense.

Is it a mix of spices? Not if you include Thai curry. Is it a hot and spicy sauce? Not if you include Japanese and French curries, which have little heat at all. Is it a thick Asian sauce? Not if you include Gang Pa, which has the consistency of a thin soup.

Worse, curry is a fascinating food. You could write a book about curry. But I can't. I seem to have lost the ability to say anything interesting about food at all.

Why a hiatus?

A few months ago on Technology Bytes, Jay Lee criticized Houston food bloggers. He asked what expertise they have to write about food. Is it because they eat? We all eat, Jay argued -- in his snarky way. So is everyone qualified to write a food blog?

I have no qualifications other than the fact that I think a lot about food and culture. [If I have something interesting to say, then I'm qualified.] But when I don't have anything interesting to say, Jay is right. There is no reason to write a blog.

The new restaurants are not inspiring . . . yet

Perhaps I will find inspiration in all the restaurants opening this fall. But probably not.

Straits is a good attempt at upscale Malaysian. But honestly I don't have much interesting to say about it that I haven't said about the more interesting, and cheaper Banana Leaf.

Haven might be worth a post or two - if it ever opens.

And Stella Solla is at least giving us a lot of gossip. But I don't write much gossip.

The other 10 or so high-profile restaurants opening this fall sound pretty dull, pretty mainstream.

New steak restaurants? Yawn. A seafood restaurant inspired by Boston's Legal Seafood? Yawn. A gastropub serving short ribs? Yawn. Italian restaurants by chefs or restauarantuers who peaked in 1990?

I could go on. The crop of new restaurants two years ago was fantastic, perhaps the best Houston has ever had.

This year, the bad economy means retreading, going with the safe bet, simple foods. I understand. I watch Gordon Ramsay. But I'm not inspired.

So for the next several months I am going to go to Disney World (Tim Keating is at Flying Fish), write my book (not about food), and practice law. Maybe the New Year will bring me some sort of inspiration.

Maybe we can talk more then.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Curry part 2 - Japanese curry

It may be a lowly, fast-food dish in Japan, often prepared from a sauce mix. Yet Japanese curry is one of my favorite Japanese dishes -- and one of my favorite curries.

Its personality differs from the curries of India, Pakistan, and Malaysia. The best version I have found is at Kubo's Cafe in the Bellaire Chinatown.

Is it curry or is it roux?

The word "curry" is confusing. In Japan, there is a distinction between curry sauce and roux. The roux is the base and is often as simple as curry powder and flour cooked in oil. The roux is then used to make a curry sauce which includes other, chunkier, ingredients like meat or potatoes.

Yet every version of Japanese "curry rice" that I ordered in the U.S. serves only the roux. Other ingredients -- rice, pickled vegetables and someimes a side protein -- are served on the side. At Kubo's, you can order just curry rice, or curry sauce with beef, chicken, pork katsu, or shrimp tempura.

Curry with Japanese personality

Curry came to the Japanese via the Europeans, not from India. So you might look at Japanese curry as a dumbed-down, milder version of an Indian curry that appeals to an audience afraid of too much spice.

But that is not how I look at it. Sure, the personality of Japanese curry couldn't be more different from the Malaysian dry curry I described in part 1. But the personality seems inherently Japanese.

The texture is smooth and delicate, almost creamy. There are no lumps. The roux is, more than anything else, consistent.

The flavors are beefy, mustardy, and slightly spicy. Yet no one flavor stands out. And every bite tastes exactly the same.

The flavor is unified, and distinctive. If you did a blindfolded tasting of curries from 10 countries, the Japanese version would be easy to identify.

This curry makes sense in light of the Japanese aesthetic, which values simplicity and an almost obsessive pursuit of perfection.

Why do I like it so much?

I should prefer the intense spice, variety, and earthy grittiness of the Malaysian curry. But something about Japanese curry is more comforting, almost addictive.

Perhaps it is the texture, almost exactly like my East Texan grandmother's cream gravy. But it also has something to do with that distinctive Japanese curry flavor.

Unfortunately, Japanese curry rice has been hard to find in Houston. Most Japanese restaurants don't serve it -- since it isn't sushi. I became addicted to it 18 years ago in Boston, and have had a hard time finding it here ever since. Fortunately, Kubo's Cafe now serves 6 varieties, all with that same roux.

If you like some heat, like I do, make sure you get one of the small red tubes containing Japanese crushed pepper. Ten or so dashes of pepper it just as hot as a curry from India or Pakistan.

And nothing beats a spicy, smooth gravy.

Next: Thai Curry

Halloween Quiz

I'll get back to curry later today.

For now, try this Halloween quiz: Can you guess what this dish is and what Houston restaurant was fearless enough to serve it last weekend?

When I was in 5th grade, my school had a haunted house. My job was to prepare foods, like cold spaghetti in ketchup, that felt gross. Guests would stick their hands in a hole in a box and feel the foods. Of course, the guests were told that they were feeling something's (or someone's) cold organs.

Is this dish the same sort of imitation? Or is it the real deal?

(Hint: this dish was awfully tasty.)

UPDATE: The dish, served by the folks at Feast, was "cold pigs brains on toast with green sauce."

It had a very mild liver-like flavor. The texture was glorious -- soft, moist, fluffy, almost gelatinous. It reminded me of a delicate, pate mousse.

Of course, it looked exactly like brains -- which may explain why my wife placed a bite in her mouth, but simply could not swallow it.

She missed out.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Curry part 1 - dry Malaysian curry

Thinking about curries

This is the time of year for spices. In summer, I avoid spice. It overpowers the garden flavors of summer vegetables and fresh herbs.

But when the weather starts to get cold, I hit the spice cabinet.

Last weekend, I did my annual spice cleaning and replacement. I noticed some spices that I had used very little -- fenugreek, turmeric, coriander. Those spices started me thinking about curry.

As much as I love curries, the word curry is troubling. It raises a lot of questions:

What is curry? Is it a blend of spices (or is that masala)? Or is it just a word for certain Asian sauces? If so, what is common to curry?

Is the word just a Western oversimplification of flavors we don't quite understand? Or is there really a category of food that is rightfully called curry?

I don't know the answers -- at least not yet. But I am going to try to find out.

Malaysian dry curry

Perhaps the best place to start thinking about curry is Malaysia.

Malaysian dry curries strike me as the essence of curry. The gritty curry you get on beef rendang looks like coarse spices resting in a small amount of oil. The flavor is full of intense spices, but not particularly hot spices. Malaysian curry tastes primitive; it tastes of-the-earth.

But the reality is a little more complicated than that.

At Banana Leaf in the Bellaire Chinatown, I ordered Banana Leaf Curry Chicken. The plate consists of hacked up chunks of bone-in, dark meat with a rendang-like sauce.

It is a dish that makes you focus on spice flavors. At one moment, the flavor is cardamom. Then ginger and garlic. And more than anything else, I taste the earthiness of cumin.

This curry looks like a simple mix of spices cooked in in oil. But it is more complex. The base is coconut meat -- an ingredient whose flavor I don't detect in the final sauce. But coconut meat may explain the gritty texture.

It also is not a simple dish. Malaysian curries are often cooked for a long time, sometimes hours.

The curry's personality

My theory is that every curry has a personality. Sometimes the personality reflects the culture. Sometimes it may not.

The personality of dry Malaysian curry is deceptively simple, basic, and masculine. Its texture is oily, gritty, primative. It changes from bite-to-bite as different spices step forward to assert themselves. Yet it is not a curry that allows any other flavor to dominate the raw earthiness of the spices. There is no sweet coconut here, no peppery heat -- just spice.

This is a curry that demands one thing: "The spice must flow."

Next: Japanese curry

Thursday, October 22, 2009


popping up everywhere

I had never heard of tiradito before summer 2008. Randy Rucker had returned from Peru and served this tilefish tiradito with lemon verbena, fennel blossoms, and kimchee consomme.

Since then, tiraditos have been popping up on menus around Texas. At Reef, Bryan Caswell has made famous this tiradito of sea bream with blackfin tuna bacon, green apple, and avocado:

In Dallas last week, Stephan Pyles's menu offered three tiraditos, including these two: scallop and Spanish mackerel.

Several Dallas restaurants now serve tiradito. That makes sense. Dallas has one of the many outposts of Nobu. And Nobu has a lot to do with the history of tiradito in America.

what is it?

Tiradito is a Peruvian raw seafood preparation that lies somewhere in between South American ceviche, Italian crudo, and Japanese sashimi.

Typically, the fish is sliced thinly and marinated with lime juice, sometimes ginger, and sometimes hot pepper. Unlike ceviche, it does not use onions. Compared to ceviche, the flavor is delicate, and doesn't overwhelm the fish.

a little background

Tiradito is relatively new. Although the Peruvians traditionally had access to fantastic seafood, they did not like it and rarely ate it. Only in the last half century has any seafood, much less raw seafood, starting appearing on Peruvian menus.

In the early 1970s, Nobu Matsuhisa left his sushi apprenticeship in Japan to help run a sushi restaurant in Peru catering to Japanese immigrants.

It was Nobu who helped popularize the tiradito. And it was Nobu who introduced it to the U.S. when he started opening restaurants here. Ever had that popular dish of yellowtail sashimi with citrus and japalapeno? You can thank Nobu and his brief Peruvian interlude for it.

Unlike most of the U.S., Houston's connection with tiradito is not through Nobu, but direct from Peru. A few years ago, Michael Cordua took some young chefs, including Rucker, to Peru to learn about Peruvian cuisine. Those chefs returned with a lot of ideas about tiradito.


There is not much of a tiradito orthodoxy. So you see a wide range of styles.

The Stephan Pyles's tiraditos were minimalist. The fish was treated delicately, with only a hint of other flavors. It worked, especially with the scallop.

In contrast, Rucker and Caswell's tiraditos are more complex, and perhaps slightly more interesting. In their dishes, the marinated fish is only a component, combined with other ingredinets and flavors.

Like ceviche, most tiraditos highlight raw fish with citrus. But unlike so much ceviche, a tiradito preparation does not use too much onion or sauce to cover up the fish. Tiradito preparation is better than ceviche, and is an interesting Latin alternative to crudo and sashimi.

leche de tigre

At least one other idea Randy Rucker brought back from Peru was leche de tigre. Not for the faint of heart, leche de tigre is the juice byproduct from making a tiradito or ceviche.

Leche de tigre is citrusy, fishy, and spicy. It is rumored to be a good cure for hangover, as well as a boost to, um, potency. It is the kind of drink that will grow hair on your chest. I wish more of these Texas chefs serving Peruvian raw fish also would serve us a shot of this wonderful juice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reef photos

I signed up for the food photography course when I learned it would be at Reef.

I'm no photographer. But I couldn't miss the chance to shoot a few dishes at Reef during the day. At night, Reef may be Houston's worst restaurant for photos. Something about the lighting blurs every shot.

Yet in the afternoon, with lots of natural light, Reef makes photos easy, even for a point-and-click novice like me.

So here are some of Brian Caswell's greatest hits -- plus the man in the orange cap himself.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Foam at Catalina Coffee

More outstanding cappuccino foam

Waldo's foam impressed me with it unruly, cotton-candy texture.

Catalina Coffee's impresses with a different style of foam -- tightly focused and dense, with artistic patterns.

The whole operation at Catalina Coffee on Washington Ave. is a little more serious, a little more sophisticated than Waldo's counter-culture aesthetic. Catalina's counter even features baked goods and a CD on display -- just like you-know-who.

But like Waldo's, Catalina isn't Starbucks. The baristas are artists -- and individuals.

Will it be art?

Catalina's web page shows foam in the pattern of a heart. As you can see from the 1st photo, this morning, I got a leaf. Two days ago, there was no pattern other than a carefully constructed cylinder topped with a perfectly flat plateau.

If I go to Catalina often enough, will I get the same pattern twice? Or is every drink an individualized creation?

Sure, visual patterns don't change the flavor. But they can make the coffee better. Drinking is a visual experience too.

Why independent coffee houses matter

We shouldn't hate corporate coffee. American coffee is far better after Starbucks than it was before. Even McDonald's now serves decent coffee drinks.

But every Starbucks cappuccino is essentially the same. As is every McDonald's cappuccino. They are assembly-line product that customers value for consistency.

Wildly different, a cappuccino at Catalina or Waldo's is going to be the creation of an individual. It probably will taste a little better. Its beauty may even approach art.

And it almost certainly will be more . . . human.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Houston's new peasant food

Vinoteca Poscol surprised me.

I expected a trendy tapas / wine bar. I expected a cheaper casual version of Da Marco. I expected what Alison Cook called a "useful restaurant" with modest portions.

And I expected more of a crowd.

What I found was something far more interesting. Along with Feast and to a lesser degree Dolce Vita, Poscol is an example of a new type of food in Houston -- a revolutionary style that overturns our preconceptions about food.

But with all the excitement, where are the masses? On recent Friday and Saturday nights, we easily got a table at 8 p.m. at Poscol with no reservation.

Like Feast, a lot of people don't "get" Poscol. It doesn't match their idea of great cooking or fine dining. In fact, it goes against our culture's idea of fine dining.

This isn't a review of Poscol. It is an argument for what I call new peasant food. And it's something of a manifesto. (Sorry.)

What is new peasant food?

"Peasant food" may not be the best phrase. It may sound derogatory. It may unfairly suggest authenticity. But it is uesful for a related-set of ideas:

1 - Under-appreciated, inexpensive ingredients. Peasant food is inherently cheap. Like poor people anywhere, European peasants made do with the ingredients they had -- left-over animal parts, easy-to-grow vegetables, simple grains. No precious ingredients. The feudal lord ate those.

2 - Traditional preparation. The focus is often roasting, braising, cooking over a fire. (I suspect the guys at Feast, like Marco Wiles, know some pretty advanced techniques; you just don't see signs of it on the plate.)

3 - Modest presentation. No abstract art here. Peasant food is usually slopped in a bowl or on a plate. It often isn't pretty.

Examples? Bacala may be Poscol's best dish -- a gooey, unattractive casserole of salt cod served with toast. Salt cod is a cheap way to preserve a once cheap fish. It's a pre-modern version of canned fish. Yet this cheap dish explodes with flavor and a rich, creamy texture.

Poscol's beet and hazelnut salad - These aren't expensive multi-colored baby beets. They are simple chunks of soft, red beets, simply roasted, and mixed with nuts and goat cheese.

Poscol's Bruschetta - Poscol's offers 5 toasts topped with simple ingredients -- chicken liver, fava beans. Feast does something similar -- topping toast with chicken hearts, and chicken liver.

Feast's roasts. Feast is the place in Houston for simple roasts with cheap cuts of meat (lamb leg, roasted pork belly) and cheap veggies, like potatoes and kale.

Why peasant food?

I can see a lot of arguments for this type of food.

One is environmental and economic. If you eat meat, it is cheaper and greener to eat the whole animal. Cheap produce has benefits too. Fava beans, potatoes, and rutabagas are less costly and environmentally damaging to produce -- and ship -- than black truffles or even California heirloom tomatoes.

Another is argument is cultural. Modern cooking -- from standard cooking-school techniques to molecular gastronomy -- may be too far removed from our primal activity: foraging for food, cooking it on a fire, and eating.

But for me, the real argument is this:

It's all about the Revolution

The best argument for new peasant food is its deconstructive/revolutionary effect. American fine dining is still too constrained in its choice of ingredients. We still expect great restaurants to serve the same set of items: lobster, fillet mignon, sea bass, truffles, foie gras, morel mushrooms. So pricey restaurants almost all focus on these types of ingredients.

Expensive ingredients are expensive because of supply and demand, not necessarily quality. For instance, in 19th c. New England it was a sign of poverty to eat lobster. In the 1970s, sport fishers in Canada would dispose of blue fin tuna after getting their photos taken with the fish because it had no market value. These ingredients are no better now than when they were dirt cheap. Similarly, cheap ingredients taste no worse simply because they are cheap.

Expensive ingredients are a tool to fleece the customer. Because there isn't a huge supply of Hudson Valley foie gras, restaurants can charge us more for it. Pricey ingredients prop up the entire price restaurant cost structure. Sure, foie gras is really good. But so is chicken liver.

Pricey ingredients are what customers have been conditioned to expect. That may be why some people have such a hostile reaction to Feast, and why Poscol isn't getting the crowds it should.

When great chefs focus on cheap ingredients, it is an act of revolution. It is a way of opening our mind to foods right under our noses -- brilliant foods we have ignored because they lack social status.

So please keep showing me what you guys can do with cabbage, turnips, and fava beans. As you drive around throwing bricks out windows, I am having a great time just being a passenger.

And if some of you still don't get it, let me paraphrase George Clinton: "Free your mind and your palate will follow."

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Food Media

A few recent developments in Houston food media:

Southbound Food Radio

Would you believe the best new source of information about Houston restaurants is on . . . AM sports radio?

Southbound Food is a weekly radio show about Houston restaurants with three great hosts:

Bryan Caswell: chef and co-owner of Reef and Little Bigs
Lance Zierlien: Houston's best am sports radio host (I'm a longtime listener)
Jenny Wang: the shining star at the center of Houston's Chowhound and blogger scene

I just discovered Southbound's podcsts, which include Randy Rucker explaining why he left Rainbow Lodge and new restaurants by John Tesar and Tony Vallone.

These are not only informative. They are a huge amount of fun.

Fearless Critic's new restaurant guide

A few years ago, I mentioned the first Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide. Its reviews were mostly written by local chefs.

The new 2010 edition has just been released. This time, the new reviews were written mostly by Houston bloggers -- with a serious amount of editing.

Disclaimer: I was one of those bloggers. I will not make any money off the book. But it would be unfair for me to review it.

I'll leave you to decide: are reviews better written by professional chefs or amateur bloggers?

Houston's food blogs: dying or just changing?

Last year, Houston food blogs exploded. As Fearless Critic editor, Robin Goldstein, told me, Houston had the most exciting food blog scene outside of New York. And Houston's scene was more of a community than New York.

This year, the air seems to be rushing out the bubble. Many amateur food blogs have gone silent. Others are published less frequently. And they are less adventuresome.

Some of the bloggers have gone professional. The Houston Press hired several oustanding bloggers -- which is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, the Press's Eating our Words has frequent posts and is a great source of information. It may now be Houston's best food blog. On the other hand, you can feel the corporate control. Writers have to write a minimum number of posts. And the style is not as idiosyncratic as an amateur blog.

Of course, the same thing has happened to me. Although I'm not paid, I put more energy this year into Fearless Critic than this blog. The Fearless Critic had style guidelines. And my style changed to comply.

One by one, the bloggers have been co-opted by for-profit ventures. And the blogs have changed.

The energy also has diffused because so many bloggers now spend their time on Twitter. Twitter makes blogs seem wordy, old-fashioned, and old media.

Worse there has been a lot of public criticism about food blogs in Houston, including a rumor that food bloggers demand free food from restaurants. I seriously doubt that rumor is true, but the charges hurt the community.

Our food blogs have lost the high energy, DIY ethic of 2008 when we all did it solely for the love of food.

Perhaps food blogs will continue in a style that is more informed, restrained, and mature. Or perhaps the halcyon days of Houston's amateur blogs are over.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Zoe's Kitchen and a rant about BS chicken breasts

Zoe's Kitchen

Zoe's Kitchen is a chain with over 25 locations across the South. They have two in Houston: Washington Ave. and S. Shepherd near 59.

The chain's "philosophy" is "simple, close-to-the-garden ingredients."

Great idea, right?

On my first two visits, I read the menu and left. Nothing sounded interesting. It was filled with chicken salad, chicken salad and fruit plate, grilled chicken kabobs, grilled chicken pita, grilled chicken dinner, and "protein power plate" (with grilled chicken).

Finally, a friend drug me here, and I found something I liked well enough -- grilled chicken breast with sides of grilled vegetables and white beans.

It is rare to find fast-food white beans. These were full of flavor -- garlic, rosemary. But the beans had been cooked too long. Imagine the texture of runny mashed potatoes. Still, they tasted pretty darn good.

The grilled vegetables had a smoky flavor and an al dente texture. They had not been cooked too long.

The center of the dish was Zoe's "power protein" -- a grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast. Or as I call it, BS chicken. It was coated with olive oil and some flavorful herbs. As BS chicken goes, it isn't bad.

The problem with BS chicken breasts

This dish left me wondering: why do so many Americans prefer BS chicken breasts?

If you care about flavor, and you have cooked many chickens, you learn a few things:

1 - Dark meat has more flavor. Ok, I understand that the world is divided between white meat fans and dark meat fans. But it is beyond dispute that dark meat have more concentrated chicken flavor. If you want to get "close to the garden," that is what chicken tastes like.

2 - Chicken tastes better when cooked on the bone with skin. Even if you don't eat the skin, cooking with skin and bone improves flavor. They add meatiness, protect the meat, and prevent drying. If you take off the skin, then you need to compensate with a lot of oil.

In short, BS chicken breast is chicken without all the flavor.

Why BS chicken?

Sure, a lot of people argue that BS chicken breasts are healthier. But I doubt the difference is very significant. I also think there are two other real reasons Americans prefer BS chicken:

1 - BS chicken fans are afraid of meat. They are the same people who don't eat a fish with the head. They fear body parts like skin and bone.

2 - Many BS chicken fans think of meat as "Protein Power" -- a industrially-produced substance divorced from the animal that created it. These are often the same people who drink protein shakes. The blander the better. For them, food's sole value is nutrition -- not enjoyment, not art.

BS chicken fans might as well be eating soylent green.

End of my rant

For a chain, Zoe's isn't bad. Some side dishes are pretty tasty.

I only wish that more restaurants would at least give us a choice:

Can't you at least offer dark meat?

And can't you serve some chicken that isn't BS?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mole loco

Mole: a recipe for creativity

At some point, my favorite sauce became mole -- but not all mole.

The problem is that mole is something of a generic term that refers to a wide variety of Mexican sauces. For instance, Pico's serves 3 moles, all very different. Pico's mole negro may be the best version of Mole I have found in Houston.

The most common mole here is mole poblano. It typically mixes dozens of ingredients -- almost always a variety of chile peppers, and sometimes dashes of exotic elements like peanuts and chocolate.

Perhaps because of the variety of ingredients, there are an infinite number of mole recipes. For most Mexican chefs, the goal is a mole that is not dominated by any one ingredient. Rather it is a balance, with a flavor all its own.

Mole gone wild

Of course, strange things happen to a dish in America. Many Houston restaurants are pushing the mole envelope, adding more sugar, more peanut butter. For instance, Teala's mole tastes like Thai peanut sauce. It's not bad. But is it mole?

So we all knew what would inevitably happen: someone was going to push the envelope with chocolate.

Cielo Mexican Bistro - Downtown on Main - serves a chocolate mole sauce. Note that the word chocolate is first.

I hadn't noticed mole on the menu. But when I ordered a spinach and sweet potato enchiladas, the waiter said I had a choice of three sauces. One of them was "chocolate mole."

The problem with giving a choice to guests like me is that we don't always make good choices. I chose chocolate mole. For some reason I thought it might work with sweet potatoes.

In fairness, these enchilladas might appeal to some people -- such as people who have a huge sweet tooth. The filling was heavy on sweet potato, and very sweet. The mole was also sweet. Really Sweet. Really Chocolatey.

It tasted like a chocolate rugelach -- or the inside of a chocolate croissant. Only a few slices of raw red onion cut through the overwhelming wave of chocolate and sugar.

This was, without a doubt, the sweetest, and strangest, mole I have tried.

Then the irony. After I pushed the remainder of the dish away, the waiter asked me if I saved room for dessert.

"Dessert? I just ate it."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lola at breakfast

Ken Bridge

Houston is going be hearing a lot about Ken Bridge.

Another blogger recently called him "a genius." Of course, he's not a genius like Marco Wiles or Scott Tycer. He's more a genius like Tillman Fertito -- but in an Inner Loop sort of way.

There are 2 secrets to his success.

1 - Bridge knows his target: the Inner Loop's mid market. His restaurants -- Dragon Bowl, Pink's Pizza, and now Lola -- identify under-served niches and exploit them. His food is rarely great, but almost always good.

A few years ago, I called Dragon Bowl's dishes "clueless" but "fun." Yet now I eat there at least once a month. It isn't authentic Asian food, but it has the flavors to make me return.

2 - Bridge believes in hard work. I've seen him stir frying veggies at Dragon Bowl, spinning pizza dough at Pink's, and now manning the griddle at Lola's. When he opens a restuarant, he becomes a line cook. And he stays until he knows everything is going just right.

So this morning I found Bridge flipping pancakes at the newly opened Lola. A bead of sweat was dangling from his chin. His nearly shaven head was glistening. He was working hard, really hard.

Lola - pricey diner food

At Yale and 11th, Lola is Bridge's diner-concept restuarnat -- imagine something in between Houston's cheesy 59 Diner and San Francisco's upscale Fog City Diner.

Or think of it as an Inner Loop Denny's -- just a whole lot better.

The breakfast menu is exactly what you expect: omelets, huevos rancheros, pancakes, chicken fried steak. Dinner includes meat loaf, flank steak, braised pok ribs, and miso sea bass. And lunch runs from burgers to a roast-beef-debris sandwich.

The pricing is aggressive. An omelet is $11. Pancakes, $9. A burger, $10 -- plus an extra buck for cheese! Dinner prices are closer to what you might expect -- $12 - $18.

At first the pricing surprised me. But then I thought Bridge must know what he is doing. He knows that people will pay a 50% mark-up for higher quality. And Lola may be his highest quality venture yet.

A plate of eggs

"Breakfast Lola" is the basic Houston breakfast -- eggs, bacon, grits and bacon ($11).

I was most impressed with the grits - consistently textured and flavored with parmesan. Grits work best with some salt and and a little fat. Some of Houston's better grits (for example, Breakfast Klub) do that with butter. But Bridge does it with parmesan. It is one of the best bowls of grits in town.

The eggs were good quality, but too watery for my "over easy" order. Of course, it is hard to fault a kitchen serving a huge crowd after having been open for two days.

Applewood smoked maple bacon was far more flavorful than most diner bacon. And the sourdough bread was better than most diner toast.

Even the coffee was noticeably richer, smoother, and higher quality than the vast majority of Houston breakfast joints.

Why Lola will do well

I will report again after I eat some lunches and dinners here. But this one simple breakfast plate proves to me that Lola will be a hit. There are times when everyone -- even funky Heights residents -- craves basic diner food.

Most Heights residents won't eat at Denny's. And most Heights breakfast joints are lousy. So Lola fills a gap.

Bridge is pushing simple, comfort food to a crowd who is hungry for it. He knows that if he increases the quality, he can get people to pay a lot more for it.

Bravo, dude.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fish heads, almond soup, cheese or font

Looking dinner in the eye

A few years ago, a reader asked where to find whole fish in Houston. Historically, Houston restaurants have limited themselves to filets of fish - with good reason. Some people freak out when they are served anything that still has eyes.

My thought? If I am going to eat a creature, I need to be willing to look it in the eye and cut it up myself.

Ibiza - stand-up fish

Last weekend, Ibiza served a Mediterranean fish (bream?) with a fascinating presentation. They managed to use the fish collar to prop it standing up on the plate.

Not only was this visually striking, but it avoided the problem of having to flip the fish over midway through the meal. Architecturally, this may be the best way to serve a whole fish - so long as you can keep it standing up.

Feast - giant fish head

It is one thing to eat a fish with a head attached. It is another to eat a fish with a head as big as yours.

Feast, as always, raises the presentation stakes. Last night, they served a roasted pompano head. The giant head took up a whole plate. It's giant eye stared at me.

Although it was a starter, there was enough meat in the cheeks and top and back of the head to make a whole meal. The deliciously oily fish was accented with lemon and sprigs of thyme.

Almond soup

Feast also is serving a fascinating chilled almond soup. Although it tastes creamy and decadent, there is no cream. The secret is almonds and high-quality olive oil -- with a few sliced grapes and a hint of garlic. This Spanish dish is as tasty as it is beautiful.

Cheese or font

Think you know cheese? Can you tell which words are cheese names and which are the names of type fonts? Then see how well you do with this time-consuming game.

Transitions and Turmoil

I have heard a lot of restaurant news and rumors lately:

-Jason Gould left Gravitas.

-Bedford closed.

-Brian Caswell and the owners of Reef are opening a new Italian restaurant in Bedford's location. Jason Gould is rumored to be involved.

-Randy Rucker left Rainbow Lodge.

-The owners of Glass Wall are rumored to be opening a burger shop in the Heights possibly named Burgerzilla.

-Randy Evans' Haven is coming soon.

-Ken Bridge (Dragon Bowl, Pink's Pizza) is opening a new restaurant called Lola at Yale and 11th. I heard it opened today.

It's going to be an interesting fall.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Foam at Waldo's Coffee House

I finally found the anti-Starbucks.

Waldo's Coffee House on Heights Boulevard is as un-corporate as you can imagine. From the front door, you walk into a living room with tables, chairs, furniture. To order, you have to find your way through the house back to the small kitchen.

Good Foam

I asked the barista what she does best. "Cappucino. I make good foam."

Sure enough, she makes a very interesting cappuccino -- about 1/2 foam. It's thick, really thick. Nothing like Starbucks - or any other mega-chain.

Unlike a lot of independent coffee houses, this is not a work of art with designs like fern leaves. No, this is clumpy, almost cotton-candy like foam. The appeal is not visual, but textural. The thick foam may not appeal to everyone, but I like it.

A question of technique?

I quizzed her on about her foaming technique. "It's in the wrist." She grinned facetiously, then tried to give a few real answers. First she explained that she was trained by an European chef who knew how to make good cappuccino. Then she said that she experimented with technique for a while to get the best texture "because I know what I like."

If I were in her shoes, I would narrow it to just one good story and run with it.

Because a lot of people are going to be asking how she makes this foam.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chez Roux - elegance in an inelegant land

A beautiful restaurant on Lake Conroe?

When I think of Lake Conroe, I think of beer joints and all-you-can-eat buffets. The last thing I think is fine dining.

Perhaps that is why it took me a year to go to Chez Roux - a restaurant full of contradictions and surprises. The restaurant is in a gorgeous new structure next to the La Torretta Del Lago Resort.

The design is contemporary -- and focused on the product. The first thing you see in the center of the room is a giant, glass-enclased room with floor-to-ceiling wine racks, filled with wine. The next thing you notice is all the activity in the open kitchen. You can see parts of the kitchen from almost anywhere in the restaurant.

It feels like a high-end restaurant in London or New York. It feels like the last thing you would ever find on Lake Conroe.

Minimalist preparation, concentrated flavors

The food is contemporary, simple, and ingredient-focused. Most impressive is the concentration of flavors. The kitchen must have a Wonkavision device that shrinks big dishes to tiny bites, concentrating the flavor.

Consider this tiny pork belly beignet with grain mustard ice cream and turnip salad:

The cylinder of pork was about the size of a silver dollar. Yet the pork flavor was intense and accentuated -- not overcome -- by cumin. Similarly concentrated was the mustard flavor of the ice cream.

My wife passed me her Peeky Toe Maine stone crab with an asparagus and pea salad. She wanted to see if the crab "tasted ok." It was some of the most flavorful crab I have tried. She was concerned because it had a strong sea flavor -- and so much of the crab we have in Houston is bland and flavorless.

She was tasting the real flavor of crab for the first time.

Despite a few dabs of foam and chives, the crab was served without any accents. It didn't need them. Nor did these beautifully seared Massachusetts sea scallops:

Sea bass was nicely prepared with flaky flesh and crispy skin. But the flavor star of the dish was a "fondue" of green olives and vanilla gastric. The simple, punget flavors married well with the interesting textures of the fish.

Where the heck are we?

As I ate these dishes, I kept having to pinch myself as a reminder that we were still on Lake Conroe -- not transported by magic to London or Paris.

Yet there were reminders of Lake Conroe.

As we entered the restaurant, a noticeably drunk group stumbled in behind us. They carried plastic cups full of beer. Their shirts were untucked and they were red-faced from a day of golfing, boating and drinking Bud on the Lake. They slurred their words with boozy Texas accents. Then the bedraggled group was seated at the best seat in the house -- the Chef's table ($800 minimum).

Our charming waitress had a thick Texas twang, which she tried to cover with some faux European pronunciations. I thought she might be from Louisiana. It turns out that she was from Montgommery, Texas -- a small town on the banks of Lank Conroe.

The tables near us weren't ordering the same delicate dishes of crab and sea bass. No, they ordered the $96 Black Angus rib eye, more than 2 lbs. of thick meat.

It fit the stereotype: rich Texans without taste who love a giant steak.

I'm no snob. A giant steak can be glorious. It just isn't what I would order here.

The only thing wrong is the place

Chez Roux is one of the best restaurants in the Houston area. But it doesn't fit. It belongs in the middle of one of the world's great cities. It appeals to the sensibilities of that audience.

But these fancy ingredients cooked in French style ain't ever gonna appeal to the Lake Conroe crowd. And it is hard to see the restaurant changing the crowd that goes to Lake Conroe.

I only hope that time proves me wrong.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

tacos a go-go

Tacos A Go-Go is a little taco shop next to the Continental Club on Main. It has been getting a lot of attention in the press. Like its neighbor, the interior tries hard to channel an Austin vibe -- colorful decor and kitschy artifacts, including a shrine to the virgin surrounded with Christmas lights, and a giant bust of carmen Miranda.

When a place looks like that, I get suspicious about the food.

Fortunately, the food turns out to be pretty tasty. A chorizo breakfast taco was loaded with a generous serving of egg and sausage. For lunch, a carne guisada taco had large chunks of tender, stewed beef in a light-textured gravy.

I have had more flavorful chorizo elsewhere. And the guisada could have used some more cumin. Yet the quality of both tacos was far above average. And the hot red and green salsas will help if you are looking for more flavor.

The big surprise is barbacoa. After one bite I knew the flavor wasn't beef. It was my favorite meat -- lamb. It has the texture of the best taco-truck tacos, yet it is the gamey flavor of lamb that takes it over the top.

For my admittedly warped palate, this is as good as barbacoa gets.

Friday, August 14, 2009

tall sandwiches, egg on top

If it happens once, it is an oddity. But when it happens twice, it's a movement.

Gravitas and Beaver's are serving narrow sandwiches that are so tall -- at least 5 inches high -- that neither will fit in your mouth. And both are topped with a messy fried egg.

Gravitas's Aussie Burger

Gravitas's Aussie Burger comes on a thick but narrow Kaiser roll, with a thick but narrow meat patty. Then it is stacked high with lettuce, tomato, beets (!), pineapple(!!), and an sunny-side-up egg (!!!).

I wasn't sure how to eat this burger. It did not come close to fitting in my mouth. So I tried cutting it with fork and knife. But that created an unwieldy mess that wasn't really a burger. Ultimately I had to eat the component parts separately.

The combination of flavors was intriguing, even if it was difficult to eat them all at the same time. The meat was juicy. And the whole thing looked stunning. But architecturally, it was a mess.

Would I order it again? Heck yeah.

Sadly, Gravitas's chef, Jason Gould announced his departure last week on Twitter. I hope he isn't leaving town and taking his tall burgers with him.

Beaver's Pit Boss Chickwich (pictured above)

This sandwich is almost as tall, topped by a fried egg, and extraordinarily messy. But the very architecture is an admission that you can't eat this one by hand. And that's ok.

Jonathan Jones' chickwich mixes shredded chicken with a spicy barbecue sauce. The bottom bun lays on top of a layer of sweetly dressed cabbage slaw. The chicken is topped with slices of jalapeno, an over-easy egg, and some thin, crunchy onion rings.

This sandwich simply can't be eaten by hand. The bottom bun is soaked by dressing from the slaw on one side and the sloppy chicken on the other.

Unlike the Aussie burger, this one was easier to eat by fork because the component parts were smaller and soggier. You could get a bit of chicken, slaw, egg, bun, and jalapeno in every bite.

A philosophical movement?

What's behind these impossibly tall sandwiches topped with an egg?

These chefs, like me, may be sick of the tiny little sliders, which are so cute and can be popped in your mouth in one bite.

In contrast, these behemoths aren't cute. And they can't be popped in your mouth. You can't even get your mouth around them. They are an argument for the sandwich as a manly, messy monstrosity that refusees to be reduced -- in size or flavor.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Restaurant closings

Like everyone, I have felt a little pain from the recession. I have lost some income. My savings have been cut in half.

But I am lucky that nothing truly terrible has happened. I haven't lost my job. And none of my favorite restaurants closed.

That is, not until now.

Goodbye Mint Cafe, La Jaliscience

Mint Cafe was one of my favorite casual restaurants. The food was simple, Middle Eastern food, with a few interesting surprises.

Mint was run by a family. And the more we went, the more we felt like family. That makes the closing even harder to swallow.

La Jaliscience on Yale was one of my two or three favorite places to eat Mexican food. Like Mint, it was nothing fancy, just simple, inexpensive Mexican food. It also felt like family. And I felt like the crazy gringo cousin who could speak just enough Spanish to get by.

In the past few weeks, I have gone to both restauarants and found them shuttered.

The economy and restaurants

For the most part, restaurants in Houston have faired ok in this recession. Most of my favorite restaurants inside the Loop have stayed afloat.

Yet the Greater Houston area has had a lot of closings. Many of these are listed at b4-u-eat.

This lists suggests that the suburbs have been hit hard. Sadly, the end of nationwide recessions is often the hardest part for the Houston economy -- and for restaurants struggling to stay open.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Pho Binh 3

Who makes Houston's best pho?

That is a question food bloggers can debate endlessly. In Houston, right now, the debate centers on 3 contenders:

-Pho Danh
-Thien An
-Pho Binh

The debate is complicated by the fact that Pho Danh has 3 locations, and Pho Binh has at least 7.

Pho Binh 3

Yesterday, I finally made it to Pho Binh's Mangum location. Apparently, it was the 3rd Pho Binh opened, but it is also the headquarters. So I thought it was a good location to sample.

The restaurant is a collection of smart business ideas:

1 - focus on only two Vietnamese dishes that every likes: Pho and grilled meats;
2 - open only for lunch;
3 - give a choice of exactly what meats to include (so the less adventurous can avoid tripe and tendon); and
4 - make the pho cheap ($6.45 for a generous "regular" bowl; $7.50 for a large).

It works. The dining room was packed by noon. And the crowd was diverse -- although about 80% were guys. (There is something manly about noodles).

Pho details

I tried a traditional version with rare steak, brisket, tendon and tripe:

The ultimate test of pho is the broth. This broth is much better than the average pho because of its spices. Pho almost always includes star anise and cinnamon. You might also find cloves, cardamom, or ginger.

This pho smelled and tasted like a spice market. It may be the most concentratedly spiced pho in town. I suspect this is why some bloggers think it is the best.

I sllightly prefer for Pho Danh for a few reasons. First, its broth tasted more complex, like it was cooked longer, even if the spice wasn't as strong. Second, Pho Danh provided a wider selection of accompaniments, including a variety of herbs. At Pho Binh, you only get one herb, plus japalenos, sprouts, and lime.

Still, these are minor quibbles. Pho Binh, Pho Danh and Thien An all make pho that is far, far better than your average soup with noodles, including all the swill that is often passed off as pho.

All 3 contenders demonstrate why pho is one of the world's great soups.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Venezuelan empanadas

Empanadas again

In May, I started hunting for good empanadas. I didn't like strange crust flavor of the fried Argentinian empanadas at the Original Marini's. The fried hemp empanada at Ruggles Green were a little too greasy. The baked Argentinian empanadas at Manena's tasted best. Still, I had a feeling that I could do better.

Then a good friend offered to make her favorite empanadas from a Venezuelan recipe.

Feast of empanadas

When Lizzette brought out the platter of fried empanadas and arepas, I was a little overwhelmed.

Fried empanadas are usually heavy. So it is hard to eat more than one. Yet within 30 minutes, 5 people devoured the entire plate. Strangely, these fried empanadas almost tasted light.

There is no question. These empanadas were far, far better than the fried empanadas at Marini's and Ruggles. They didn't have the frozen burrito flavor. The crust had a clean, light flavor and a crispy texture.

Although we had a few varieties, my favorite had a filling of queso blanco and sugar cane. It was a striking contrast of sharp cheese flavors and with the sweetness of the sugar cane.

The secret - masa

Lizzette let me in on the secret of why these Venezuelan empanadas were so much better -- the crust is not made of flour, but masa corn meal.


The last batch was a real treat. Lizzette tired of rolling out and folding empanadas. Instead, she used the same masa crust to make arepas.

We cut open and stuffed our own arepas with guiso de pollo, a stew of chicken, raisins, and spices. We then topped them with a fabulous green sauce called guasacaca -- made with a pepper called aji dulce, avocado, onion, bell pepper. tomatillo, garlic, parsley, and cilantro. The sauce was mild on pepper but heavy on wonderful garden flavors.

In both the arepas and empanadas, the masa added a texture of grainy earthiness. It also soaked up less grease than fried empanadas with flour crust. This crust was far superior.

Where to get Venezuelan empanadas?

Although you might not get the chance to have Venezuelan-style emapanadas at my friend Lizzette's house, I hear they serve them at Tuttopane bakery. I can't wait to try them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Uni pics (uni dinner at Rainbow Lodge)

I have written too much about Randy Rucker and the Rainbow Lodge. So I am not going to write about Randy's uni dinner at the Lodge a few weeks ago.

Instead, here are some photos.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Boston report

The Boston food scene

When I lived in Boston in the early 90s, the food was dull. Upscale restaurants served "Continental" food, old-school Italian, and unseasoned seafood.

The city seemed afraid of flavors, paralyzed by its Puritan antipathy to pleasure.

But over the last 15 years, I had heard Boston's food was getting better. Several farmer's markets opened. And some innovative chefs set up shop.

Last week, I tried some of Boston's top-rated restaurants. The food was better. But it wasn't New York or Chicago. Heck, it wasn't even as good as the best in Houston and Dallas.

One restaurant was an exception. This little Japanese shop was serving food much more exciting than any Japanese food in Houston, or even Texas's best Japanese restaurant - Uchi in Austin. In fact, it may have been the best meal I have had in the past year.

Boston's amazing little Japanese restaurant is called O Ya.

O Ya

O Ya isn't glitzy. Its 37 seats are tucked in an old firehouse in a dead part of town. Many customers wear jeans and shorts, even though it is hard to eat for less than $150 a person.

Tim Cushman's dishes succeed with top-notch ingredients and brilliant flavor combinations.

Take for instance the scarlet scallop above. The impossibly large scallop is marinated in beet juice and sliced thinly to curve around sushi rice. It is topped with yuzu and tobiko. Scallop has such a delicate flavor that you don't want to tinker with it much. These light accents of citrus and earthy sweetness bring the scallop to life.

Sometimes, though, Cushman's accents get most of the attention. His best-known dish is hamachi served with a banana pepper mousse. The dab of green pepper is surprisingly spicy, and at the same time garden-fresh and delicate.

Cushman realizes that food's visual appeal is almost as important as flavor. These fried Kumamoto oysters had a perfectly thin, crispy shell - probably a tempura batter. They became a work of art when topped with squid ink bubbles (foam).

The same Kumamoto oysters show up in a completely different sashimi presentation -- in the shell with watermelon pearls and minced cucumber. This version was even more mind blowing than the first.

Cushman's flavors are surprisingly international, unbound by tradition. For instance, shima aji (amberjack) was served with Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin), ceviche vinaigrette, and cilantro.

In the hands of a lesser chef, this mixing of cultures can be vulgar, sensationalist, inauthentic. But this food was the product of a world-class chef, unconstrained by a particular tradition.

O Ya is part of Boston's thriving community of contemporary sushi fusion restaurants. Others include Ken Oringer's Uni, Oishii, and Oga's in Natick, MA. This is one food genre -- perhaps the only food genre -- in which Houston's scene just doesn't compete at the same level as Boston.

Other Boston restaurants

Boston's best-known chef is Barbara Lynch. We tried three of her restaurants -- No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and the new Sportello.

At No. 9 Park, I appreciated the intellectual combinations and artistic plating. Sometimes, the combinations were almost too brainy, such as lobster paired with monkfish -- a fish with a lobster-like texture once known as "poor man's lobster." These were served with chorizo and fennel. I liked the artsy combination, but the flavors were too restrained.

Perhaps the best dish was salade de courgettes, a playful assembly of different summer squash.

Park's much cheaper B&G Oysters was a fairly ordinary, but good quality seafood bar.

I was much more impressed with Lynch's newest casual restaurant -- Sportello. Instead of tables, the restaurant uses a lunch counter concept. You sit on a stool, watching all the cooking happen just feet away.

Dishes were simply prepared, market-based Italian food. The best dish was a remarkably simple salad of raw shavings of fennel and celery dressed with only olive oil and lemon. I also enjoyed a crispy-skin salmon dressed with summer beans and bacon. It is rare to find a restaurant that makes minimalism so appealing.

Finally, Kenneth Oringer's Clio was an interesting fusion of French and Asian cuisine, much like Jean Georges Vongerichten's restaurants. Oringer's dishes had a lot going on -- perhaps too much going on. The dishes do away with Boston's suppression of flavors, but they go in so many directions it is hard to keep track.

I'm not complaining. Given Boston's sad culinary past, creative restaurants like Clio and O Ya are what the city needs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anvil - Houston's best bar

The problem with cocktails

I rarely drink hard liquor. But when I do, I want to taste it.

Perhaps that is why I never understood vodka -- booze without flavor. Or fruity rum drinks -- booze disguised to taste like fruit and sugar.

The sad fact is that most Americans who drink are not drinking for the flavor. They want a buzz. They want to lower inhibitions and meet people. Or just get drunk.

So I stopped going to bars. When I want to drink, I want an artisinal gin or small production American whiskey. I want it neat. I only want a little. I want to focus on it. So I drink at home. Alone.

Until now.

Anvil - temple to the cocktail

Anvil is not really a bar. It is a temple devoted to the art of the cocktail.

The priests behind the counter do rituals. The rituals take some time. You have to wait a while before you drink.

Last night, the man behind the counter selected an old-fashioned glass. He inspected it. And then he began to assemble. He carefully stirred some rye with large ice cubes. Slowly. Then he strained the rye into my glass. He poured absynthe over a small spoon letting it drizzle slowly into the drink. He carefully rubbed lemon peel around the outside. He occasionally sniffed the drink to check his progress.

He asked me whether I wanted the lemon twist in the drink. It looked so stylish that I said yes. I detected a slight grimace. Wrong answer.

The sazerac is America's first mixed drink, from pre-Prohibition New Orleans. It tastes like a liquor, not fruit juice. I was amazed by the quality of the rye. It was accented -- not disguised -- by bitters, absynthe, and a slight essence of lemon peel.

It reminded me of the product of a great sushi chef. No sugary sauce. No fried bits. Just high quality fish with wisely chosen accents.

Next I ordered an old fashioned. He prepared it with the same ritual and care. I felt honored.

Every drink comes with a large glass of water. The point is not to drink alcohol because you're thirsty. The only point of the alcohol at Anvil is flavor.

And Beer?

I can't imagine ordering anything at Anvil other than a cocktail.

But last night, another local blogger told me that he was a beer fan. "Where," I asked "can you get the best beer in Houston?" I was surprised at his answer:


I never noticed any beer at Anvil. Yet apparently, it has an excellent selection of small-production beers on tap. Just as importantly, Chris said, they swap out the taps frequently. He explained that this prevents the beer from becoming stale. He told me that Anvil respects the beer better than anywhere else in town.

Maybe I will try a beer at Anvil someday -- after I work my way through Houston's best selection of American whiskey:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Austin's Mighty Cone

There are two Austins.

One is new, corporate, industrious, and utterly without character. It is the new McMansions. The new chains of restaurants littering the suburbs. The cluster of highrise condos, with sleek trendy restaurants underneath.

The other is older, slower, anti-commercial, and wierd.

Guess which one I like?

The Mighty Cone trailer

Last Friday, my nephew walked me a mile down South Congress to a block of food trailers. Mighty Cone has set up in this "permanent" spot within the last year.

Despite the new location, Mighty Cone it is part of the Old Austin. The trailer is owned by Jeff Blank, the Chef/Owner of Hudson's on the Bend. Hudson's is one of Texas's best restaurants.

The trailer's origins are earlier, in 2002, when Blank took it to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. With each festival, the cones became so popular, that Blank decided to open the trailer permanently on South Congress -- one of the few areas that still feels like old Austin.

So what is a Mighty Cone?

The cone is a flour tortilla wrapped around fried chicken, fried avocado, mango-jalapeno cole slaw, and an ancho chil aioli. But that doesn't begin to give a hint of how good it tastes:

It is difficult to pinpoint what makes the Mighty Cone so great. Perhaps it is the texture of the unique breading made from nuts, seeds, corn flakes, sugar and spices. It creates a remarkable crunch, especially when you bite into a creamy slice of fried avocado.

Or perhaps it is the spicy, sweet sauce. It has a combination of peppers and sugar, which reminds me more of Thai peanut sauce than an ancho mayonaise.

The trailer also serves some other items -- sliders with "fois gras", a venison cone dog, and chili-dusted fries. They sound awfully good. But I was advised that I had to start by trying the Mighty Cone.

It was good advice. The Mighty Cone captures the feel of old Austin. Plus, I can't think of any better trailer food in Texas.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

San Antonio's Le Reve

As I bit into caramelized onion tart, something came over me. I wanted to say how good it tasted. But I found it hard to speak. I noticed a strange sensation in my eyes.

Was I tearing up? Surely not. Food doesn't make me emotional. But I almost felt like Proust and his madelaine.

The tart was amazing. A thin, flaky crust was topped with a layer of goat cheese and creme fraiche, and the sweetest onions I have tasted. Swirls of sauces on the plate included an unusual, translucent onion sauce and a lively basil puree. Together, they created magic. Art.

Le Reve

Gourmet Magazine has listed Le Reve in the top 10 American restaurants.

It is the finest dining experience I have had in Texas -- from the delicious tasting menu to precise service to brilliant wine pairings.

Of course, all of that comes at a cost. The dining room is small. Jackets are required for men. Dinner lasts about 3 hours. And the price of a tasting menu is $105, or $175 with wine pairings.

In New York, those prices would be a steal. But by Texas standards, it isn't cheap. The next day, I ate at Whataburger.

The full French tour

The tasting menu may not sound interesting on paper. Descriptions are brief: "Scallops" "Foie Gras" "Asparagus salad" "Line caught fish" "Beef."

It sounds standard. It sounds French.

And it is. But the beauty is in Chef Andrew Weissman's details. Foie Gras is served as a club sandwich with lettuce, bacon, jelly, and slivers of mango. It was an ultra-rich version of my favorite breakfast -- bacon and jelly on toast.

It was fun to watch other tables discover the foie gras club for the first time. A couple next to us look puzzled. Then, after a bite, they grinned. Within a few seconds they were laughing and gesturing, absorbed in the experience of the sandwich.

Almost as fun were scallops. Actually, it was only 1 scallop. Perched on a firm corn souffle that was exactly the same size and shape. Surrounding both was a sweet corn puree.


One of the most enjoyable parts of our meal was the Sommellier Fabien Jacob. He brought us tastes of 12 different wines, sometimes two different wines with a single course. And he discussed them all.

Jacob talks wine with animation. His mission as to inform guests about flavors and why pairings work.

And his pairings work quite well. Most wines were not pricey, and some perhaps not so interesting by themselves. But every one came alive with the dish they were picked to accompany.

If you like to talk wine, try going early or late so he can spend more time with you.


Even spaced over 3 hours, the 8 to 11 courses (depending how you count) were a little too much. We neared our limit with a plate of beef tenderloin and scalloped potatoes -- perhaps the least interesting dish.

But that was followed by a cheese plate, creme brulee, a lemon cake with chocolate mousse, and a plate of mignardises.

The desserts were delicious. Too delicious.

So as we left to wander down the Riverwalk, we were a little too full, and a little tipsy. But we knew we had eaten our favorite meal yet in Texas.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tapas at Tintos Spanish Restaurant

Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar is a new Spanish restaurant in the River Oaks Shopping Center. It serves mostly tapas.

My first visit was promising. The restaurant channels a Spanish vibe -- art featuring bulls, wines racks on the wall, with flashes of modern design. The wine list has a very good selection of Spanish wines. Plus the sherry list is much better than most Spanish restaurants. Sherry, after all, is the wine best suited to this food.

And the food is quite good.

Delicious small plates

The best dish I tried was caracoles andaluzes -- snails in a creamy broth along with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. The broth was full of flavor. And like a bowl of mussels, we couldn't stop dipping in bread. The snails were not served with shells. They had a nice, slightly chewy texture.

Pinchos de ternera were better than I expected. I am a fan of lamb, but so often skewers are dull. Yet these were served with a bright and delicious cilantro mint sauce.

Even a house salad, arugula with figs and cabrales cheese, was an interesting mix of flavors.

I also enjoyed a mixed plate -- the Montadito plate -- which includes toast points with various combinations of Spanish ingredients, such as quail egg over chorizo and piquillo pepper with blood sausage and spinach.

Is it authentic?

The menu has a wide variety of dishes Spanish ingredients that attempt to invoke the flavors of Spain.

Yet, like other Spanish restaurants in Houston, this is not a real tapas bar. That's not a criticism. Most, but not all, tapas bars in Spain are dives with a small menu. Most focus on drinks more than food. Many have a handful of great dishes. But some serve crap.

Houston's tapas restaurants -- Tintos, Rioja, Mi Luna -- are more ambitious. They have large dining rooms that seat dozens of people. Their menus try to encompass the full range of Spanish foods in a giant tapas menu -- something most real Spanish tapas bars would never do. They also try to appeal to Houstonian tastes. Most of the time the food works. Sometimes it doesn't.

My first impression is that the food at Tintos works. It might even rival Rioja, the best Spanish restaurant in Houston..

Just don't call it a tapas bar.