Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Soma revisited

I was wrong

I thought I knew Soma's storyline:

•Owners of upscale sushi chain (Azuma) start restaurant and hire star chef (Robert Gadsby) to run kitchen.
•Star chef's dishes are fantastic. Sushi bar is mediocre. Star chef leaves.
•Restaurant goes downhill.

The problem is that last part. I assumed Soma's food had gone downhill . I was wrong.

This weekend, I learned that Soma's sushi bar has improved. Sure, most dishes are not traditional sushi. And the fish is not in the same category as Teppay or Sushi Jin. But Soma's sushi fusion creations place it at the top of Houston's ever-growing heap of Americanized sushi restaurants.

firecracker tako

Our best 3 dishes were monthly specials. The first was called firecracker tako - diced octopus in a spicy sweet sauce on a bed of cucumbers and masago.

The octopus was spicier than I expected. It had a firm, but tender texture, which isn't always easy to get with octopus. The cucumbers made a refreshing foil for spicy seafood.

kaiseki roll

The second dish had little to do with the word kaiseki. Kaiseki is a Japanese multi-course dinner, much like a French tasting menu. Instead, this was an over-the-top Americanized set of 3 maki rolls:

1 - Spicy tuna wrapped in salmon and topped with chopped scallop and peppers.
2 - Tuna and shrimp tempura topped with tuna and king crab.
3 - Shrimp tempura wrappedn in avocado with crispy unagi (pictured below).

One of my biggest complaints about American "sushi" is overly complicated rolls that mix too many flavors and overpower fish with frying, pepper, and sugar. Yet somehow,these complex sweet and spicy rolls actually worked. For instance, a sweetened unagi balanced nicely with fresh avocado and a crispy tempura shrimp.

seared escolar

Fortunately, Soma also does simplicity. A seared escolar was served with a slightly sweet garlic sauce. The contrast of fatty fish with browned garlic was delightful.

I feared that the soma shrimp roll might fail from the weight of fried tempura shrimp, sweet eel sauce, and spicy yuzu wasabi. Yet the tempura was delicate and the eel and wasabi sauces modst enough to taste the shrimp.

I haven't tried cooked dishes from Soma's kitchen, now under the leadership of Gadsby's former protege, Philippe Gaston. We tried ordering a few kitchen dishes, but were told they had run out of the ingredients.

Soma still has that annoying meat-market atmosphere. And the Memorial-Day service was poor. The waiter repeatedly apologized throughout the meal for being short staffed.

Yet the food from the sushi bar was remarkably good -- much better than I expected.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tenacity revisited

Last year, Randy Rucker did a series of Tenacity dinners at his home. The food was pretty far out. So now that he's head chef at Rainbow Lodge, has he gone conservative, lost his chops, sold out?

Of course not. These are a few highlights of the Tenacity dinner at the Rainbow Lodge, last Thursday:

uni custard, salsify bacon, creamy miso

"Uni isn't for everyone," Randy announced when he brought out this:

I adore good uni because it captures the essence of the sea. Some people don't like sea essence. (Like my mother told me yesterday, "I don't want my fish to taste like fish.") So Rucker wisely toned down the sea-foam quality of uni by pairing it with a light miso cream.

The most unusual part of this dish was the dried, smokey strips of salsify. Salsify is a root that, when cooked, usually tastes like an oyster. In this dish, it tasted more like bacon. It made a good contrast.

salad of shark ham, running squirrels wild greens

Few chefs get their hands on Running Squirrel's hand-foraged greens. Running Squirel is a 75-year-old Native American who gathers wild greens near Fort Hood, Oregon. The flavors of these herbs, greens, and flowers range from floral to bitter. Every bite is intensely interesting.

Randy made it even more interesting with foam and bits of shark ham cured in toasted kombu. The bits of cured shark tasted salty and smokey, like a good smoked trout, but better.

fricassee of burgundy snail & snapper roe

Rucker has been playing with snails. A week earlier, his steak special was a filet mignon with a Bordelaise sauce and snails. He has a good snail supplier. These snails are firm, meaty, delicious. Here he paired them with smoked toast and an orange sack of smoked snapper roe.

I am a new fan of smoked roe sacks. (The first I tried was a few months ago at Feast). The flavor combines a salted fish flavor, like anchovies, with a bacon flavor. I hope to see more of this ingredient.

bison liver, barbecued morels, sour ketchup

Although liver may be my least favorite organ meat, this one was light and airy. The bison liver tasted a bit sour, perhaps from the sour ketchup.

Yet I enjoyed this dish because of an over-the-top barbecued morel mushroom. Morels have a complex, pourous texture that allows them to soak up flavors. Here, the giant morel soaked up quite a lot of barbecue sauce. The flavor was sweet, sour, and decadent.

These 4 dishes are just a sample. Rucker served 12 courses over the space of several hours. The dinner was consistently interesting.

Has Tenacity changed?

At Rainbow Lodge, Tenacity is a little more expensive. The crowd is a bit older. And the wine and service are better. But Rucker's dishes remain just as avant garde.

I hoped Rainbow Lodge would bring him to a larger audience. It has. I worried it might dull his edge. It hasn't. Yes, he does a great job with a mainstream beef filet. But he has kept in touch with his more radical roots -- even salsify.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Empanadas Part 3 - Hempenadas at Ruggles Green

Much ado about hemp

A commenter suggested I should try "hempenadas" at Ruggles Green, the new certified green restaurant on Alabama.

The dish comes with 3 empenadas made with "High-Protein Hemp flour" and "Nutty Hemp Seed." Depending on your view, the hemp ingredients may sound a little goofy, or even a little subversive, given social attitudes toward hemp's psychoactive variant, marijuana.

The truth is, I didn't taste anything uniquely goofy, subversive, or hempy about these empanadas. Of course, I couldn't tell you what hemp tastes like. But I expected something grassy, nutty, or weedy. I just didn't taste it.

What is the fascination with hemp and hemp products? Maybe it has health benefits. Or maybe if you eat a dozen, you might feel light headed and get the munchies. But after three greasy, fried hempenadas, I just felt full.

So how do they taste?

The crust tastes much like the fried empanadas at Marini's. If anything, the Ruggles' version tasted a little greasier. And, yes, it had that same frozen-burrito-like flavor.

But Ruggles does a lot to cover up that flavor. The tasty filling includes ground beef and raisins. More importantly, the hempenadas come with two very Ruggles-tasting dipping sauces - garlic and cilantro. The delicious sauces kept me from tasting the off-putting flavor of the crust.

With the great sauces, I enjoyed the first hempenada. But an order includes three. I tried to pawn the others off on my family. After taking a bite, my daughter made a disgusted face. After just a smell, my wife turned up her nose.

So I was left to eat all three grease bombs, which left me too full to enjoy my "hydropnic" butter lettuce wedge salad.


1 - At this point in the empenada wars, the baked empanadas at Manena's reign supreme.

2 - For now, I reserve judgment on Ruggles Green. The few dishes my family tried here were not as good as similar dishes at Ruggles Bakery in Rice Village -- a restaurant we enjoy frequently. Plus Ruggles Green seems unnecessarily pricey for such casual food. Yet so many dishes on the menu sounded delicious. Kudos to the menu author(s). I suspect that next time we will order better -- and maybe skip the hempenadas.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Empanadas Part 2 - Manena's and Rustika

Battle empanada

Apparently, empanadas inflame passions. The commenters to my last post seem to care a lot about the Marini's vs. Manena's comparison, even before I finished making it.

Perhaps that should not be a surprise. Marini's Empanada House and Manena's Pastry Shop are destined to be competitors. They have similar names. They are both on Westheimer, about 2 blocks apart. Marini's is just inside the Beltway, Manena's just outside.

The feel is completely different. Whereas Marini's feels at home in its suburban strip mall along side chain restaurants, Manena's feels like a real bakery. Much of the staff and many customers were Latin.

But the difference that matters is in the empanada.

Manena's empanadas

Unlike Marini's, which serves dozens of international varieties, Manena's only serves six traditional varieties. And Manena's price is a little cheaper. I ordered a beef and a spinach. I hat to take them to go because all 10 tables were full.

The beef filling had the same ingredients and flavors as Marini's gaucho empanada. The big difference was the pastry crust.

Manena's empanadas have a more delicate, baked crust. It is toothsome and it holds the empanada together, without falling apart. The crust's flavor compliments, rather than distracts, from the filling.

Yes, I realized, I really do like empanadas.

In Argentina, empanadas may be baked or fried. Typically, restaurants and bakeries bake them. At festivals, they are fried.

One commentor said that Manena's empanadas were greasier than Marini's. I found the opposite to be true. But more importantly, it was the flavor of the Marini's empanada crust that completely turned me off.

Ultimately, it may be a matter of personal preference. Some folks may prefer Marini's. That burrito-like fried flavor may not bother them.

To me, there was no competition. Manena's serves the best empanadas I have tried in Houston -- so far.

[Update: I just noticed that Katharine Shillcutt wrote a much longer report on Manena's last week in the Houston Press. It is worth reading.]

Rustika Cafe & Bakery

Rustika, on Southwest Freeway near Buffalo, deserves an honorable mention. Their empanadas are also baked. The breading is thicker and grainier. It tastes like whole wheat flour.

The ground beef empanadas have slightly different fillings -- ground beef, corn, carrots and no egg. The flavor is good, if not quite as exotic. The chicken mole empanadas are even better.

My only complaint was the method of re-heating. Rustika's empanadas sit in the bakery counter from breakfast time. They are re-heated by microwave. As a result, the grainy crust tends to get soggy and fall apart. You really need to eat these with a fork, which takes away some of the fun.

I would love to try a Rustika empanada right out of the oven. That might be a worthy competitor to Manena's.

More empanadas?

A lot of commenters have suggested I try other empanadas-- Tuttopane, Americas, Catalan, and Ruggles Green's "hempenadas."

I can't wait to try them all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Empanadas Part 1 - The "Original" Marini's

An empanada quest

I'm trying to find Houston's best empanadas.

Why empanadas?

It goes back to my childhood. In 1970s Houston, I was not exposed to much ethnic food. Houston had some Tex Mex, bad Chinese food, some Swiss fondue, Antoine's Imported Foods, and a creperie. Not much else.

At a time before Hot Pockets and Calzones, and before South American food ever came to Houston, an empanada was an exotic thing.

The place to get emapanadas was Marini's Empanada House in the Montrose. Opening in 1971, it was a funky, bohemian joint that served exotic South American food for cheap. Marini's was pretty cool.

The original location burned in 1985. The family did not reopen for years.

When I started to research emapanadas, I learned Marini's has returned.

The new "original" Marini's

The new Marini's has a confusing name -- The Original Marini's Empanada House. It may be operated by the original family, but it is not the original "house."

The new version is a lot less funky. Two locations include Katy and far West Houston on Westheimer. Given its popularity, I expect to see more.

The Westheimer location is in a typical suburban strip center with a Chili's. Inside, this Marini's feels a lot like a Chili's. The walls are covered with chotchkies and brightly colored photos. Or if you have ever seen Office Space -- "flair."

The feel was oddly corporate, like a protype chain restaurant ready to spread nationwide. The clutter on the wall seemed calculated to convey an atmosphere of fun. Just like Chili's, it doesn't work on me.

Yet it must work for some people. On a Tuesday at lunch, Marini's was crowded.

The menu tries to offer something for everyone. There are dozens of international varieties, including Italian Marcello (with pizza sauce, sausage, and mozarella), English (ground beef, peas, worcestershire sauce), and poblano (chicken with mole). There are even more than 20 dessert varieties.

Empanada details

I ordered the most traditional kind of empanada - the "gaucho" which includes ground beef, hard-boiled egg, and olive. And I also ordered one of the fusion empanadas - barbecue beef.

I liked the subtle, unusual flavors inside the gaucho. But I did not like the flavor of the pastry crust. The taste reminded me of fried burritos in elementary school, the same sort of flavor you get from some frozen burritos in convenience stores.

The crust of the savory empanadas does not look very fried. But it has a distinctive fried flavor. Don't get me wrong. Fried foods can be great. But this was a particular kind of fried dough flavor that I have been trying to escape ever since those burritos in 1st grade.

The barbecue beef was a little better, but only because the strong sweet and tangy flavor of the barbecue sauce overwhelmed the flavor of the crust. Yet I did not find much to recommend it over a frozen Hot Pocket.

The dessert was easily the best. It was a tiny, over-the-top, deep-fried empanada with lots of sugar and cherries and a little chocolate. Yet it hardly made up for the main courses.

There is nothing worse than returning as an adult to iconic memories of youth, and then having them smashed. What went wrong? Were Marini's emapanadas better in the 1970s? Or have my tastes have just changed?

Whatever the reason, I am no longer a fan.

Marini's leaves me with questions

As I left, I couldn't help but wonder:

-Do all empanadas have that icky fried flavor?

-If I don't like Marini's, would I like empanadas elsewhere?

Next: These questions are answered at Manenas Pastry Shop and Rustika Cafe & Bakery.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Louisiana in Houston (Calliope Po-Boy, Catalan)

As oyster season ends, I have been searching Houston for a real New Orleans oyster po-boy. Nothing quite worked -- too much batter, the wrong bread, the wrong sauce. It all confirmed an old complaint.

Apart from Brennan's, Houston never has had much good Louisiana food.

Then, in one surprising day, I found five great Louisiana-style dishes.

Dish 1 - Calliope Po-Boy - boiled crawfish

This one was a freebie. Calliope Po-Boy had a one-day special of all-you-can crawfish for $26. It was mid-afternoon. Few customers had taken the deal. After I ordered a po-boy, the Asian woman behind the counter asked if I would like a few crawfish.

Boiled crawfish are almost always the same. Everyone uses one of two or three standard boils. Yet these were different.

First, they were big and beautiful. Second, they smelled of curry or herbal lemon. I asked the woman, "do these have lemongrass?"

"No," she grinned. "Sometimes we use lemongrass in crab boil, but we're out today."

"So what's in it?"

"It's a secret." She grinned even bigger.

The crawfish had the usual spicy, salty Louisiana boil flavor, but something exotic and Eastern in the aroma.

Dish 2 - Calliope Po-Boy - Soft Shell Crab Po-Boy

I came to Calliope to order an oyster po-boy. But I didn't. It was May 2. May has no "r." So I knew the season was winding down. And I had been on a run of bad luck with oyster po-boys. So I ordered one with soft shell crab.

This was as I remembered the best New Orleans po-boys. French bread that is crunchy outside, soft inside. Lightly battered, yet crispy seafood. Shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo. The crab po-boy was a mixture of the fresh garden and briny sea, a play of contrasting textures.

Dish 3 - Catalan - Crawfish and Biscuits

I didn't go to Catalan to find Louisiana food. But it found me.

Apparently, two of the kitchen's chefs have background in creole restaurants. Without knowing this, my wife and I unintentionally ordered 3 dishes inspired by creole cuisine.

The first was a biscuit filled with a thick brown sauce with crawfish and andouille sausage.

This was a complex dish of fabulous flavors -- meaty, spicy, sweet. Yet the grainy biscuit made it southern comfort food.

Dish 4 - Catalan - Crab belly, argugula, tomato

In a great day of food, this dish wow'ed me more than any other. The thick, sweet crab was battered similar to the soft shell crab earlier in the day. It rested on a firm, full-flavored tomato, nestled in a bed of bitter arugula with a sweet dressing. On the side was the a splash of the spiciest remoulade I have tried.

Dish 5 - Catalan - Black cod in a crab & corn bisque

Black cod, with its firm large flakes, may be my favorite fish. This piece had been lightly charred, almost caramelized - a nice touch. But the meat was slightly dried, perhaps from a few seconds of overcooking. The dish was saved by the delicious bisque under the fish. Small bits of crab floated along with remarkably sweet kernels of corn in a delicate, creamy sauce.

The dish was more subtle, and perhaps less exciting than anything else that day. Yet it made a elegant end to a glorious day of big flavors.

Yes, I decided, it is possible to find a little Louisiana in Houston.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Cyclone Anaya's - margaritas and memory

This post is about food, drink, and memory.

The original Cyclone Anaya's

I have good memories about the orignal Cyclone Anaya's on Durham. Yet I remember very little about its food.

As a college student in the late 1980s, Cyclone's had certain benefits. It served delicious margaritas. My friends and I were never carded. And as college students on a budget, we appreciated the giant margaritas. They had a generous alcohol-per-dollar ratio.

Yet that was also a problem. After two Cyclone's margaritas, I never remembered the food, nor for that matter, the rest of the night. At best, I had vague, impressionistic memories of grilled meats and chile rellenos. I recalled struggling to calculate the tip -- and not much after that.

Was the original Cyclone Anaya's the best Mexican restaurant of its day? I can't tell you. I don't remember.

New Cyclone's, same old margarita

After closing for some years, Cyclone Anaya's has reopened in multiple locations. Recently, I found myself at the location on Woodway.

Apart from Cyclone's giant photo, everything feels different. The crowd is not the inner-city cool, but Memorial-area families. The restaurant feels like a chain.

Yet memories flooded back when I tasted a margarita. My brain instantly recognized that recipe -- sending conflicting signals of pleasure and danger. The margarita is full of flavor, and full of alcohol. It is the first margarita that I ever grew to love, and one I will never forget. (I felt like Proust biting into the madeleine and experiencing the rush of memory.)

Before food arrived, I already had finished my large margarita. I faced a hard choice. "Would you like another?" the waitress asked.

My brain raced. On one hand, this may be my favorite margarita anywhere. On the other hand, if I had a second, I might not remember the food. I might not ever know what Cyclone Anaya's tastes like.

No, I decided. Now I am an adult. Tonight, just one margarita.

Finally, I eat and remember Cyclone's food

Enchiladas Anaya's grabbed my attention. The menu describes them as "gourmet enchiladas." They include chicken or beef with chile ancho sauce, cheese, and mushrooms.

I liked the strong, earthy flavor of the ancho chiles. And I thought mushrooms worked surprisingly well in an enchilada. But something struck me as wrong.

After a few bites, it hit me. The sauce had a lot of sugar. Then I began to notice sugar in other parts of the meal. The beans tasted sweet. Even the salsa tasted sweet. Was the kitchen trying to pander to the American palate, like so much industrially processed food?

Sugar has its place. But not in enchilada sauce. I remember a California-based fast-food Mexican chain from the 1980s (Del Taco?) that served a sweet sauce. I never liked it. In Tex Mex, even in "gourmet" Tex Mex, sugar just seems wrong.

My wife ordered ceviche.

I asked her what she thought. She shrugged. I tasted it. I shrugged.

The fish was fresh, and the lime was strong. But nothing about this simple dish grabbed us. Perhaps we are jaded after eating such fabulous ceviche recently from chefs like Randy Rucker and Bryan Caswell.

Since the kitchen liked sugar, we thought they might make a great dessert. Tres leches had a texture more like "una leche" -- a lot of creamy icing, but a comparatively dry interior. Yet we did like the cinamon flavor of the cake.

No dish was bad. Yet no dish was memorable. Nor did they trigger any memories about how Cyclone Anaya's food may have once tasted.

Did I have these dishes 20 years ago? What did I think about them then?

I haven't a clue. All I remember is the margaritas.

And perhaps the margaritas are the best thing to remember about Cyclone Anaya's.