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.