Thursday, January 29, 2009

My one-and-only burger post

Burgers and Houston food writers

To write about food in Houston, it seems you have to write about burgers.

Robb Walsh has eaten and written about many burgers. He even claims to have found the best burger in Texas.

Alison Cook writes about so many burgers that she has a column called "Burger Friday."

There is even a guy -- the Texas Burger Guy -- who has a blog about nothing but burgers.

I have a confession to make. I don't eat burgers often -- maybe 3 or 4 a year. And I have never written a post about burgers. (Well, at least not about burgers in Houston).

Life is too short -- and there is too much good food -- for me to waste time eating burgers. Plus, eating too many burgers may just make life shorter.

But to get some Houston food writer cred, I'm going to have to write about a burger -- at least this once.


Today, I found myself at Someburger. This to-go stand at 11th and Studewood is one of the oldest burger joints in Houston. It is kind of cool to stand on the sidewalk and order a burger through the sliding window that has been there for decades.

How do I describe the Someburger? It had an old-fashioned bun -- fluffy and a little squishy. The meat was, well, . . . meaty. It was thin and fully cooked, but somewhat juicy. The burger came with iceberg lettuce, limp tomato slices, and a few pickle slices.

This was a pretty good burger, better than a fast food burger. Yet it was like a lot of other burgers.

AARGH! I just can't do this. I admit it. I don't have anything intelligent to write about burgers. So I'm not going to write any more burger posts.

If I ever wanted to be a food writer in Houston, it's all over now.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cannelloni (at Sweet Temptation and Trattoria Lisina)

"while most people understand that Tex-Mex and so-called 'Interior Mexican' are two different things, the perceived differences between Italian-American cuisine and authentic Italian cuisine are far fuzzier, because you almost never see the latter in America."

Robin Goldstein, Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide

Sweet Temptation's cannelloni

Sweet Temptation is a new, cute (BYOB!) Italian restaurant near the Heights. It is on Airline across from Teotihuacan. Reader comments on b4-u-eat say that the owner-chef is related to restaurant owners in Italy and that he has cooked in some well-known Houston Italian restaurants.

When I stopped in last week for lunch, I was the only customer. "What's best?" I asked the waitress.

"Our cannelloni special is to die for" she responded.

I hadn't had cannelloni since I stopped buying microwave TV dinners -- about 18 years ago. But I decided to try it anyway.

Two squares of fresh lasagna pasta were rolled around a filling of chicken and ricotta cheese. These were topped with a classic tomato basil sauce.

I was most impressed with the fresh pasta. It was toothsome and chewy, not crispy nor over-baked. The flavor in the dish was provided, not by the bland ricotta filling, but by the bright and tangy tomato sauce. The fresh basil provided aromatic notes.

I enjoyed my lunch. And I left the restaurant pondering cannelloni.

Why cannelloni makes me suspicious

Something about cannelloni strikes me as inauthentic. It is served at most Carrabba's and Macaroni Grills. Yet I have not seen it on the menu at Da Marco or Arcodoro. More importantly, I have eaten in dozens of restaurants in Italy. I have never seen cannelloni on an Italian menu.

Cannelloni has all the ingredients of inauthentic American Italian food. Pasta. Cheese. Tomato sauce. These classic American-Italian ingredients define the cannelloni.

Plus, it looks just like an enchillada. Ultimately, Americans will turn any food into a wrap.

Yet the cannelloni really is authentic. A restaurant in the tourist town of Sorrento claims to have invented the cannelloni at the beginning of the 20th Century. The restaurant's photos of the cannelloni look a lot like the cannelloni served in Texas.

Cannelloni may look like Americanized Italian food, but now I know it comes from Italy.

Cannelloni Lisina

As a twist of fate, I encountered a second cannelloni in the same week.

I found myself last weekend with a large group in Driftwood, Texas. Someone suggested we eat lunch in a trattoria that had been built in a middle of a vineyard. I had visions of a Tuscan outpost serving authentic Italian food.

When we walked in to this small-town trattoria, I was shocked. It looked just like a Maccaroni Grill, but was twice as large. It was nearly full. And it was owned by the Mandolas.

Trattoria Lisina sits in the middle of the Mandolas' winery. On Saturday afternoon, it was packed with more customers than people who live in Driftwood. This was an extremely successful, crowd-pleasing operation.

Of course, I had to order their specialty pasta -- Cannelloni Lisina.

The Mandolas' cannelloni had all the basic cannelloni elements. But the filling had much less ricotta and much more ground meat -- chicken, veal, and pork. On top was not just tomato sauce, but also a creamy bechamel.

Compared to Sweet Temptation, Lisina's cannelloni was much meatier and creamier. (The Mandolas know what Texans like). But the pasta was a little too baked and did not have that fresh-pasta texture of the pasta at Sweet Temptation. The dish at Sweet Temptation had been much lighter, and did not cause me to fall asleep. Lisina's cannelloni caused an afternoon nap - during a business meeting.

Authentic Italian food?

Authenticity may be overrated. But I can't help thinking about it. The cannelloni at both Texas restaurants -- particularly Sweet Temptation -- looks like the cannelloni on the website of the restaurant in Sorrento, Italy. So they must be at least somewhat authentic.

Still, I would be willing to bet that cannelloni is much less popular in Italy than in Texas.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Houston food blog explosion

My list of links is growing.

Houston has had an explosion of food blogs over the past year. Three years ago, you could count on one hand the number of blogs that discussed Houston restaurants. Now we have over 20. It seems like I have added at least 5 new blogs to my links in the last week.

What is the explanation?

These are a few possibilities:

1 - Jenny did it. She has jump-started the Houston food dialogue in a way that no one else has. She started the Houston Chowhound web board less than a year ago. She also has organized countless meals where bloggers mingle with other food fans, many of whom were inspired to start their own sites.

2 - Everyone wants to write a blog. There has been a lot of discussion about blogs for the past 5 or 6 years. But now, a much wider group of people know how to do it. And they believe they have something to say.

3 - Food flavors have become a topic of conversation. For years, wine writers such as Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson have engaged in a dialogue about wine that focuses on texture and flavors. "This medium dark ruby-colored effort reveals soft, berry flavors with steely/mineral-like notes in the background." For the most part, no one wrote that way about food. Sure, restaurant critics wrote about dining and chefs talk about cooking. But there was a lack of conversation about flavors. Food blogs focus more on the minutiae of flavor.

4 - Gladiator chefs. Do you remember the thrill and excitement of the first time you saw the original Iron Chef? The idea was so audacious -- turn chefs into gladiator heroes and pit them in battle against each other. Five years later, we are inundated with chef challenges and battles and contests. Cooking has become a gladiator sport. And the equivalent of the sports spectator blogs are the food blogs.

Recommended blogs

My list of blogs on (on the right side of the page) is democratic. If I hear about an active blog that addresses Houston food regularly, I include it. If you have a blog and want to be on it, just mention your blog in a comment.

Still, I have several favorites. To me, these blogs epitomize the diffent types of food fans:

Tasty Bits. Misha puts Houston in an international perspective. He travels around the work on business, and eats very well. So when he talks about a Houston restaurant, he really can compare it to places like French Laundry, Brasserie Roux, and Alinea. He's been there.

She eats. This is perhaps our most casual, funniest, and most personal food blog. Who else could create an hour-by-hour account of every weekend -- and actually make it interesting? The number of posts are down recently because the author has been writing slightly more serious pieces for the the Houston Press blog (below).

I'm never full. Houston's best-named blog. Great photos. Some of the most authoritative writing about Houston's Chinatown. The author has exposed me to more restaurants than anyone else in town.

Texas Burger Guy. There is nothing better than a healthy obsession. Ok, maybe not so healthy.

Eating . . . Our Words. The Houston Press's blog has a great collection of writers, from Jay Franciss to Katharine Shilcutt to Robb Walsh. There is no betters source for food news.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

10 Resolutions for the New Year

Yes, this is 21 days late. I took my time.

New Year's resolutions should not be adopted lightly.

1 - "Eat food . . . mostly plants." Michael Pollan's reasons are ethical and health-related. My reasons are more aesthetic. Plant foods are fascinating, and do not get enough respect. For instance, in restaurants, dishes are typically organized by the meat. Yet the quality of a dish more often turns on the sides, and not the meat.

2 - Go to good local restaurants that might be at risk in the bad economy. It helps the restaurants stay open. And it means more meals there before they close.

3 - Host one dinner party each month. Invite at least two guests I don't know. Food is a great way to meet people. And meeting people is a great way to enjoy food. See this guy who says eating with others is the key to success in business. That should make Jenny, the organizer of all those Houston Chowhound meals, the most successful person in Houston.

4 - When eating meat, eat the strange parts. It is a more sustainable way to eat meat. It is also cheaper -- and more interesting.

5 - Avoid the center aisles. That is where grocery stores sell all their industrially processed foods.

6 - Shop at local farmer's markets at least once a month. Sure, the cost of transporting the small quantities of produce sold in farmer's markets may outweigh any environmental benefits of locally-grown food. But much of this stuff is more flavorful, and stranger, than anything in stores.

7 - Eat Mexican food where the recent immigrants eat. I have had enough Tex-Mex for a lifetime. Where is the real Mexican food?

8 - Figure out Italian wines. They go well with food. Many are earthy and complex. Most are not over-oaked. And the price isn't bad. They are just so darned hard to figure out.

9 - Take food trips to San Antonio and Dallas. Four reasons: Le Reve, York Street, Nana, and Abacus.

10 - Lose 10 pounds. Sure, everyone says this. I really mean it. I also put it last on my list, which means I have my priorities straight.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Menu at the Rainbow Lodge

The menu

In November, Randy Rucker became the Rainbow Lodge's new head chef. Last week, he unveiled his new menu.

I have been anticipating this menu. It presents an interesting challenge for Rucker -- the balancing of two very different crowds.

Crowd 1 are the traditionalists. They are the long-time fans of the chops and wild game at the Lodge. And from the look of the crowd last Saturday, most are over 50.

Crowd 2 are the fans of Rucker's innovative and creative cuisine. Three years ago, I called him Houston's the most revolutionary chef. Since then, he has developed a following of local foodies. And they expect some fireworks.

So last Saturday I snuck in with my wife and daughter, hoping Rucker wouldn't see me and offer up some fabulous tasting. After all, I wanted to try this new menu. Until the end of the meal, my plan worked.

Balancing act 1 - charcuterie and sausage

We started hardcore. Rucker offers an amazing cold charcuterie plate for only $12. The meats include foie gras, pancetta, and terrines of pork, duck, and lamb. Rucker told me later that the Lodge had a lot of wasted meat - pieces that were not the most prized cuts. What better way to use it?

The variously-textured terrines highlighted the flavors of the meat, but added complimentary spices and flavors. The meats were accompanied by "seasonal marmelade" and large chunks of grilled sourdough bread.

One of my favorite breakfasts is bacon and jelly on toast. This is sort of like that. But better. In fact, for fans of charcuterie, I know of no better dish in Houston.

A more mainstream dish (technically, also charcuterie) consisted of roasted rabbit sausage, smoked bacon, green apple, cabbage and a creamy mustard. I liked the combination of savory, spicy sausage with tart, sweet apple and the spicy mustard. The sausage dish was a winner - even if it could not quite compete with the stunning charcuterie.

Balancing act 2 - trout tartare and duck breast

For our second course, my wife ordered still another daring starter -- Tasmanian sea trout tartare. The trout was served with watercress, avocado, and a creamy miso dressing.
The raw trout had a thick, salmon-like texture and a remarkable fresh fish taste. The fish was far more flavorful than most sushi. The creamy, meaty trout and avocado contrasted with the sharp bitterness of watercress. For me, my wife, and daughter, this delicious fish may have been the dish of the night.

I ordered a more traditional second course - duck breast lacquered with smoked honey, sweet potato puree, braised endive, and candied orange. Again, Rucker did a nice job of balancing flavors - meatiness, sweetness, and earthiness. This is a full flavored dish winter that would please both of Rucker's crowds.

The rest of the menu reflects this careful balance. The menu retains some Rainbow Lodge classics, like the wild game appetizer and beef tenderloin. It also has some highly creative dishes that we have not yet tried, such as oyster bisque with salsify noodles and poached egg.


For dessert, we started traditionally -- a vanilla bean creme brulee that was remarkably by-the-book. It was appropriately littered with black specks of vanilla bean, and had a textbook crust.

Decadent chocolate involved fudge-like chunks of chocolate with a blood orange syrup. The intense fudge may be too much for some.

At that point, Rucker emerged from the kitchen, and I waved him down. He insisted on bringing an off-the-menu dessert. It looked like a bowl of granola topped with cream and mint -- not very exciting. But after a few minutes, we discovered the surpirse, a layer of smoked chocolate granules on the bottom. I'm not sure how chocolate can be smoked, but I love the flavor. Ultimately, we found this new dessert much more interesting than the other desserts we tried from the menu.

So far, Rucker's new menu looks like a success. The Lodge has given him freedom to boldly go forward with new dishes. He has the wisdom to use part of the menu to please long-time customers. Plus, everyone benefits from his recent focus on the pure flavors of ingredients.

Based on one lunch and a dinner, it appears that the Rainbow Lodge under Randy Rucker is not likely to become Houston's most revolutionary restaurant. Given its size and the nature of its crowd, it can't be. Yet I would argue that the local game and seafood emphasis of the Lodge puts Rucker in a unique position to help define our local cuisine, in a way that Cafe Annie did 20 years ago. Will this be one of Houston's best restaurants? I certainly think so.

On this Saturday night, I carefully watched the older diners as they left. Most looked quite happy. And so were we.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Seco's Latin Cuisine - a Mexican food road not taken

Seco's Latin Cuisine is a Mexican/European fusion restaurant in Rice Village. The cozy house used to be Cafe Europa. And Chef Seco Moran used to be at Jalapeno's on Kirby.

I like the freshness of Seco's ingredients. I like the idiosyncrasy of Seco's cooking style. But Seco's is most interesting because it represents a road not followed.

Seco was one of the pioneers of a unique style of Houston Mexican food in the late 1980s. Then, it looked as though other restaurants would follow a similar path. They did not. Now Seco stands alone, continuing to cook in a style that others have abandoned

Healthy Mexican-Euro fusion - 80s style

A meal at Seco's starts with the obligatory basket of chips, and Seco's distinctive vinegary salsa -- identical to Jalapeno's. But after the chips, it can be easy to forget you are in a Mexican restaurant.

Seco's Calamari al ajillo doesn't taste like other restaurants' al ajillo dishes. At most restaurants, al ajillo is a thick sauce of olive oil, garlic, and peppers. Seco's version is much lighter and ethereal. The juice seems to be a blend of cooking liquid and a flavored oil other than olive. I pick up a hint of Chinese flavors -- perhaps sesame oil?

There are a few "Mexican" aspects of this dish -- red onions, cilantro, and peppers. And it is spicy. Yet it hardly tastes Mexican.

Another interesting dish is Snapper Seco. This type of preparation was popular 20 years ago -- a fillet of fish topped with a mound of veggies -- here, red onions, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro, capers. On the side are al dente green beans. Again, apart from the jalapeno, there is little to peg this dish as Mexican rather than European -- more specifically, Italian.

Seco continues to serve many of his classic dishes from Jalapenos. His spinach enchiladas covered in a light cream sauce may be the best in Houston.

His menu includes a variety of grilled chicken breast dishes. The most famous, Pollo Moran, is topped with a sautee of mushrooms, onions, and poblanos in a light cream sauce. Interestingly, when Alison Cook reviewed Seco's, she was most intrigued by the healthy, light cream sauces.

A cuilinary dead end?

Seco's food is very fresh and flavorful. And he has some die-hard fans, mostly from Jalepeno's days.

Yet this style of Mexican food didn't stick for long in Houston. We moved on to authentic interior Mexican food (Pico's, Hugo's, Otilla's). We moved on to grilled foods from Northern Mexico (El Tiempo, Guadalajara, Lupe Tortilla, Teotihuacan). And we stuck to our basic Tex-Mex (Tony's, Spanish Flowers).

Seco's reminds me of Daniel Wong's , a Chinese restaurant on Bissonet. In the 80's, Wong's cooking -- a unique, healthy fusion of Chinese and American ingredients and techniques -- was hailed by many as the best Chinese food in Houston. Yet today, in the age of the Asian bistro, Wong's fusion food is as outdated as it is delicious. It missed the Zeitgeist. It is a direction Chinese food in Houston could have taken, but did not.

Why didn't Seco's healthy European fusion style stick? I suspect Houstonians want Mexican food that is more festive, and not elegant (i.e. European). I suspect Mexican restaurants are most crowded on Friday nights because folks want to drink and forget about calories.

So we did not find much of a crowd at Seco's on a Thursday night. But we enjoyed our food a great deal.

And after dinner, we felt good.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lunches at Voice, Beaver's, Pho Nga

It is time to clean old photos from my Blackberry. They remind me of good meals I never had time to write about -- meals such as these three lunches.

Voice box lunch

Voice continues to impress. One of my favorite Voice experiences is the box lunch. It comes with choices, but the basic idea is a salad, sandwich, soup, and dessert.

Back in late October, I ordered this lovely box lunch.

Time passes. Memory fades. Especially mine.

I believe the tasty sandwich was ham and brie on a baguette with some sort of sweet, spicy mustard. I do remember enjoying the texture contrast of cruncy bread and creamy, melted cheese.

The soup was Chef Kramer's mushroom cappucino -- one of the best soups in town. The salad was light and simple. But the short cake -- infused with something like lavender and topped with berries -- may have been the star of this lunch.

Voice's box lunch are a fun break at midday and a great 4-course deal at $15.

Beavers' Buffaloaf

I continue to reserve judgment on Beaver's. The idea of a Monica Pope barbecue restaurant is great. The atmosphere is cool. The cocktails are interesting. Yet the food has not grabbed me yet. But with the addition of Chef Jonathan Jones, I fully expect that it will grab me -- at some point.

The only JJ creation I have tried at Beaver's is the Buffaloaf Sandwich -- buffalo meatloaf topped with a mushroom sauce. I appreciated elements of this dish, especially the crusty French bread and the delicious homemade potato chips. On balance, it was a good sandwich, but the ground buffalo and slightly sweet mushroom sauce reminded me somewhat of Sloppy Joes from elementary school. At $12 for just sandwich and chips, it seemed a little pricey.

I hear such wonderful reports about Beavers from foodies who I trust. And I have tried great creations from JJ at other restaurants. So I need to try more.

Pho Nga's special vermicelli with barbecue pork

Some of Houston's best barbecue is served in Vietnamese restaurants.

A reader asked a few weeks ago what restaurants serve good Vietnamese food near downtown. Sadly, with the exodus to Chinatown, Midtown has lost many great Vietnamese-owned restaurants (like the original Givral's, Le Bec Fin). And Vietnamese food fans debate about some of the remaining restaurants, like Mai's and Van Loc, which are popular with a mostly non-Vietnamese crowd.

The one Midtown restaurant that retains a mostly Vietnamese crowd is Pho Nga a/k/a Nga's Restaurant. A Vietnamese friend tells me that Nga is the only Vietnamese restaurant inside the Loop where she will eat.

At lunch last Friday, I had special vermicelli with barbecue pork. The dish is served with thin noodles, pressed flat on the plate and topped by marinated, barbecue pork with green onions and fried onions. On the side is a mountain of fresh greens, cilantro, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and a bowl of strongly flavored fish sauce.

There is something magical about Vietnamese barbecue. I suspect the secret is the marinade, which includes fish sauce, garlic, chili pepper, lime juice, and sugar. The mix is assetive, yet balanced and even mysterious.

Pho Nga is known for both its grilled meats and its pho. As much as I want to try Nga's pho, I can't seem to convince myself order anything but the barbecue.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A few global food trends (2 of 2)

Food trend #2: The villagers eat meat. The urban rich eat peasant food.

In the U.S., we take meat for granted. Yet, for most of the world, meat has long been a luxury product consumed infrequently. Our trip to a small Spanish mountain village suggests this is changing.

Going to eat with the villagers

Cartajima is a village near Ronda with about 100 residents. It is a typical "white town" of Spain. Every house has a red-tiled roof and whitewashed walls. The architecture is inherited from the Islamic Moors who once ruled this region.

Cartajima's local industry is chestnuts. The fuzzy balls litter the roads leading out of town. In the last 20 years, Spain's economy has improved dramatically. I suspect Cartajima has more money now. But the steady decline in population suggests that it is poorer by comparison than urban Spain.

On the surface, Cartajima feels ancient, pastoral, rustic. As I drove into town, I wondered what wonderfully authentic foods might be prepared in its kitchens.

There is only one place to buy a cooked meal in Cartajima -- Balthazar's Bar. Balthazar has a big screen TV, and about half the town gathers there for football matches. Two of his kids have gone on to bigger and better things. His daughter works in England and even did a stint at the world's highest-rated restaurant, the Fat Duck. His son is a famous Spanish chef.

But Balthazar's food is nothing fancy. I had the sense that we were eating exactly what the locals ate.

More money, more meat

After a decent salad with very white lettuce, we were served a collection of fried foods and meats -- french fries, fried ham croquettes, fried shrimp (with more batter than shrimp), beef stew, and grilled pork.

The next day our innkeeper explained that, as the Spanish standard of living has risen, the villagers are eating more meat and less produce. Produce is a sign of the peasant past. Meat is a sign of prosperity. When they can afford it, the villagers eat meat.

Death of the market; the rise of the supermarket

Our innkeeper also explained that there are no more local markets. Even nearby Ronda, a town of 40,000, does not have much of a market. Instead, everyone buys food at supermarkets.

Curiously, larger cities, such as Sevilla and Jerez, do have markets. They are filled with produce and the exotic sort of ingredients that many American foodies would love to buy.

But the folks in Cartajima have little access to markets. They travel to Ronda's supermarkets and buy industrially processed food. So when we ate like the locals, we ate the same food sold in American supermarkets.

Spain is not alone. Many countries with emerging economies are eating more meat. This is especially true of the Chinese.

As I ate my plate of American-style french fries, I noted the irony. Here, in a beautiful rural setting, in a town known for farming chestnuts, I was eating American-style freezer food and grilled meat. These villagers in rural Spain have less access to rural produce than I do in urban Houston.

Peasant food for rich urbanites

In contrast, the finest restaurants of Jerez -- a larger, richer city -- served plenty of fresh produce and fruit. For instance, even a meat dish, such as this Andalucian pork , was served with purees of red and green peppers and grapes.

Even in Cartajima, we were served a more produce-based dinner by our worldly innkeeper -- a British expat who has traveled throughout Africa and Europe. Her meal reflected the food philosophy summed up by Michael Pollan:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants."

The innkeeper gave us a choice of delicious peasant soups: lentil and spinach or potato and leek. She then served a plate of Moroccan-style couscous, grilled red peppers, grilled eggplant, a few bites of grilled chicken, and a bowl of yogurt and herbs.

The meal focused on grains, legumes, and produce. The few bites of meat were just flavoring -- an added bonus of protein.

Although this meal was inspired by peasant food, it reflected the diet of an emerging food elite. As the world's middle class turns to processed foods and industrially-produced meats, the elites may be turning away from meat toward classing ingredients of peasant food -- beans, grains and locally-grown produce.

In terms of social class, the world of food is turning upside down.

Postscript: my kitchen resolutions for 2009

For several years, the food I have cooked at home follows a pattern: large salad, bread, and grilled or simply prepared meat or fish. Yet good fish is getting expensive. And I have been eating too much meat.

Now I sense my cooking habits change. Last week I stocked up on beans, grains, and produce. Last Tuesday, I cooked curried lentils. On Friday, Indonesian noodle soup. On Sunday, a cassoulet with far more beans than meat.

This is not trying to be more like the innkeeper than the villagers. It is about eating foods that the world can sustain. It is about preserving seafood by eating it only on special occasions. It is about promoting a viable market for locally-grown produce.

It is about eating food that is healthier. And better for the planet. I am just lucky that I can choose what I eat.

A few global food trends (1 of 2)

This is a modest essay about a few global food trends.

I have been reading media reports about overfishing, rising global demand for meat, and environmental damage resulting from the way we eat food. All these ideas seemed abstract.

Over the holidays, my family traveled a second time to southern Spain. Our travels helped me understand some of these food trends better.

Trend #1: scarcity is making seafood a luxury food in Europe

The Mediterranean is where civilization began. From the time of the Phoenecians, these people have eaten seafood. It is hard to emphasize how important fishing and seafood is in southern Spain and Italy.

In Southern Spain, we found seafood much more central to the diet, particularly in fine restaurants, than here. And restaurants serve a much wider variety than we see in Houston. For instance, I have a hard time imagining the Sevillian sea snails above on most Houston menus.

The death of the Mediterranean

Like many of the world's seas, the Mediterranean suffers from overfishing. It's serious. Overfishing may soon extinguish local stocks of tuna, mackerel, cod, and swordfish. According to the Independent, overfishing and pollution are turning the Mediterranean into a "graveyard."

We found that the price of wild seafood had increased dramatically since our last visit four years ago.

The rising price of European seafood

This bowl of monkfish in a thick egg-based soup was one of the least expensive seafood dishes at El Caballo Rojo in Cordoba. It cost over $30.

In Sevilla, we returned to La Isla -- a restaurant known for wild-caught seafood delivered fresh from Galicia and Huelva. We ordered a platter of simply grilled seafood including swordfish, monkfish, salmon, squid, clams, shrimp, and a few other shirmp I can't translate. It costs around $60.

The real shock occurred in the small port town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Casa Bigote is a seedy sailors' bar with a small restaurant attached. It is a foodie destination known for langoustines -- small lobsters that seem more like very large shrimps.

The menu did not list the langoustines' price. When I ordered in beginner's Spanish, the waiter tried to communicate with me about the size of the order. I made the mistake of ordering "la plancha."

The enormous platter that arrived was one of the most decadently wonderful seafood dishes I have eatern. And, as I learned, the most expensive.

Words can't describe the salty-fresh sea flavor of these creatures. As the rest of my family carefully fished out the meat, I was grabbing the heads to suck out all the delicious juices.

Overwhelmed by the plate, I tried to tell the waiter that I had ordered "demasiado" and to cancel the other dishes we had ordered. But we still received some deliciously crispy small fried "gambas" or shrimp. They were fried whole, which is exactly how we ate them.

Finally, we received te bill. The langoustines alone cost $150. I have never paid that much for any plate of food.

After this inadvertent splurge, our food budget was exhausted. For the rest of the trip, we stopped ordering seafood. And as we switched to meats, vegetables, and grains, our meals became cheaper.

The future of American seafood?

In the U.S., we have a greater supply of seafood. And prices are lower. Yet a report in Science suggests that, if current trends continue, there will be virtually nothing left to fish from any of the globe's seas by the middle of this century.

In short, even here, wild-caught seafood will soon be a short-supply luxury item. In ten years, it may not be that rare to find a $150 plate of seafood in Houston.

This is my ethical dillemma: do I try to do my part to conserve and eat less seafood? Or do I eat as much as I can now, before prices go up more?

This plate of fried sardines from Sevilla isn't making my choice any easier:
Next: The villagers turn to meat. The urban rich turn to peasant food.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

halcyon days: a dinner at Textile

When Scott Tycer's Aries closed two years ago, I was mad -- so mad that I brought this blog out of hibernation. I was mad because the Houston food scene had not supported the work of one of our formost geniuses.

But now, Tycer has opened Textile. And I finally tried it tonight. My wonderfully psychedellic evening at Textile convinced me that Textile is not the work of a single genius. It is the work of at least four geniuses.

Genius #1: The Bartender

We had a 9:30 reservation. Our table was not ready for almost an hour after that. Ordinarily, that is a prescription for disaster.

But Textile has a sympathetic, creative genius behind the bar. He took care of us. My wife was struggling with severe allergies. So he made her a drink involving ginger beer, whiskey, and honey. He made me a classic Manhattan (easily the best I have ever had). Then he made me a gin drink involving lemon juice and pomegranate seeds. The bartender also brought us some spears of endive with crab meat, avocado, and herbs.

None of this -- not the 3 drinks, not the endive dish -- showed up on our bill. The waiting may be the hardest part. But Textile made a virtue of it. Bravo!

In our hour at the bar, we learned a lot from the bartender about bitters, vanilla bean syrup, aged rye, gin, and absynthe. I recommend asking him to just make you something interesting. He will comply. You will not find a more interesting mixologixt in Houston.

Genius #2: The Chef

Scott Tycer still has the chops. A tart was served with bacon, basted quail egg, wilted bitter greens, and balsamic vinegar. Nothing is better than great-quality bacon and bitter greans. This dish was outstanding.

Black cod is my favorite fish. Tycer's cod came with a crispy skin. The meat of the fish was strangely mushy -- not flaky. Yet the taste -- mixed with caulifower -- was salty and fascinating. The fish texture bothered my wife. I couldn't decide whether the texture was intentional, but with the oustanding flavor, it did not matter. A veal breast was served with leek sausage and truffles hollandaise. The flavorful dish was certainly in the style of Tycer.

Genius #3: The Wine Guy

Textile's wine guy is a classic wine nerd. And he's brilliant.

He started us off with a Sancerre with strong flavors of mineral and slate. It was a remarkable pairing for a salad of hydro lettuce, blue cheese, and an onion struedel. He served a brilliant Montrachet with the cod. It was bursting with fruit flavors such as apple and banana.

He served an Italian (!) pinot noir with the bacon egg tart. By itself, I did not like the slightly vegetal wine. Yet with the dish, it transformed into something crisp, dry, and delicious. The veal breast arrived with a rich cab franc. And the dessert course arrived with a 30-year-old Pedro Ximinez - a divine nectar.

Every wine was an intelligent pairing with the flavors of Tycer's food. He described the flavors in more detail than you usually get from wine guys. For a wine pairing fan, this wine guy is easily one of Houston's best.

Genius #4: the pastry chef

I have said it before. Plinio Sandalio is Houston's best pastry chef. His dishes redefine what we think of as dessert.

For my tasting menu, Plinio created a liquid pumpkin pie with brown butter ice cream. The pumkin liquid that oozed out of the soft crust was beyond description.
For my wife, I told the waiter that she "needed" chocolate. Plinio complied with rich pieces of chocolate mixed with sweet nuts and a banana puree - a delicious combination.
We also received a plate of intensely chocolate bon bons.

Halcyon Days

We were at Textile very late. The music started to warp. First I heard the dub sounds of King Tubby. Then Sonic Youth. Then Panda Bear -- the singer from the Animal Collective. Then Wilco.

My mind started to bend. Perhaps it was the ginger/whiskey drink. Perhaps it was the remarkable food. Or maybe Plinio's chocolate. Or the glorious P-X. Or the psychedellic music. My thoughts began to swirl with a rapture of flavor, alcohol, and sound.
This certainly was not Aries -- a great restaurant that was a bit too stuffy. This was a restaurant comfortable enough with itself to take its customers on a wild ride without having to assume pretensions or justify itself.

Even for the price (one of the most expensive meals in Houston), I wondered whether this was too much genius for one night. I wondered whether this experience is better than Houston deserves, and whether it can last.
In short, Textile is one of our best restaurants. Right now, perhaps our best restaurant. It took me too long to get there. But when I finally did, I was overwhelmed.