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Posts from — February 2008

The California Connection

This week I am heading out to San Francisco with planned stops at the Manresa, Quince, Incanto (to feed my growing obsession with nasty bits), and a possible detour to Bacar for some mid-afternoon bone marrow snack. It’s an ambitious itinerary, but I am on a mission. San Francisco has always puzzled me as a city considered in the top echelon of restaurant destinations. I’ve never had terrible food there, but it was never especially memorable either. It all seems to taste safe, healthy and full of Zen. Something you eat on your way to yoga class. I am hoping this, heavily researched, trip will set me straight.

Last time I was in the Bay area several years ago I visited a Mexican restaurant called Colibri Mexican Bistro, which was similar to Hugo’s in Houston and Frontera Grill in Chicago in aspirations. I was interested in seeing if California was going to infiltrate the central Mexican dishes on the Colibri menu. Only later did I realize that the chef at Colibri had a strange connection to Houston, but more on that later.

Colibri is a popular spot in San Francisco, with a good review from SF Chronicle and top honors in the Mexican category on Citysearch for a couple of years running. Although Colibri wasn’t quite in the Hugo’s or Frontera league, it was better than most Mexican restaurants I encounter outside of Texas. The salsas served before the meal had a good chile flavor, but lacked a deep kick of heat or seasoning. My wife hated her Chile Relleno, which came out tasting rather sterile, but my Pipian was good. The chicken breast was poached to right consistency, green mole had good texture and pumpkin seeds were roasted just enough to bring out their flavor. Although the dish was under seasoned, it was generally executed with competence and care.

I walked away with a feeling that Mexican food at Colibri was made by a classically trained French chef with a major crush on Diana Kennedy. The ingredients and preparations were Mexican, but the soul and flavors were somewhat French.

I was surprised to hear that a new head chef from San Francisco named Alex Padilla was taking over the kitchen at Ninfa’s on Navigation. Surely, we have enough proper Mexicans and Texans to cook our Tex-Mex. Turned out Alex learned to cook from his mother, who cooked at a local restaurant called "Nympha’s" in Houston. Alex Padilla, it seems, has come full circle.

I was even more surprised that in San Francisco, Alex Padilla trained in classic French technique under Nancy Oakes, of Boulevard fame, and was the man behind Colibri Mexican Bistro before heading back to Houston.

Ninfa’s food under Alex Padilla has mostly taken a turn for the better. I have visited the original Ninfa’s several times over the years and had very uneven meals. Some were good, some were as lackluster as what you expect from Serrano’s. Under new ownership Ninfa’s has added some new dishes, mainly seafood, which seem to coexist with the old time favorites quite nicely.

Padilla’s best move was making no moves at all – most of the old menu is intact and the off-the-menu specials that only regulars knew about are now on the menu in full view. Best of all, the ingredients seem to now be carefully sourced and the kitchen is a lot more consistent. You can taste the difference in everything from tortillas to the green salsa, which has finally lost its mild soapy aftertaste.

In my several visits to Ninfa’s since Alex Padilla took over I detected no hint of French or California influences, so the sovereignty of the Texas republic is secure. The only major misstep is the Chile Relleno. The pepper is now roasted, as it was at Colibri, rather than fried in egg batter. The result is rather limp and cali-fresh. I hope Alex Padilla comes to his senses soon and realizes he is back in Texas, where we like our Chile Rellenos as unhealthy as possible.

February 25, 2008   1 Comment

Obama in Houston: the final "change" count

Number of times Obama used the word change in his speech in Houston, not including climate change? 29.

What a letdown. Where’s the mass jingoism the press gives Obama so much hell about?

Toyota Center was packed to capacity and almost as loud as at the Rockets playoffs last year. Hope Obama can do better than the Rockets and get past the first round.

February 20, 2008   No Comments

Grimaldi’s coal fired pizza coming Houston

Grimaldi’s Pizzeria is due to open a location in First Colony Mall, which should be the first coal fired pizza oven to the Houston area, by my count. Grimaldi’s has long been one of the top pizza spots in Brooklyn and might be just interesting enough to make me drive down to Sugarland for the first time since the Burning Pear self destructed so spectacularly several years ago. I am an admitted Tornado Burger addict, but that’s not quite Sugarland.

 

Grimaldi’s has long carried the torch for the coal fired oven movement, making them a favorite target by pizza purists. Only the interstate BBQ wars seem to fan the flames hotter than pizza cooking techniques. On one end, the authenticity-nazi Vera Pizza Napoletana association goes to the extreme of dictating the exact cooking rules and ingridients, certifying only those willing to conform to the traditional definition with German precision. On the other are the irreverent immigrant types that dare to challenge the pizza establishment by tweaking the heat source and introducing illegal toppings.

 

While the traditional Neapolitan pizza is made in a wood fired oven, New York immigrants that opened some of the earliest pizzerias in the US claim that coal ovens produce a better pie. Coal generates a more intense heat that chars and flavors the crust, while wood fired ovens seem to give more of a balance between the crisp edge and chewy crust. Results can be surprisingly different when the technique is changed in even the slightest way.

 

In recent years, just to make things interesting, Mario Batali became hell bent on making the pizza at Otto on a griddle, setting off the ultimate heat source flame war in NYC once again. Most of this drama has completely bypassed Houston, where pizza doesn’t quite occupy our Texan psyche as much as smoked mead. Otto may have inspired Marco Wiles to open Dolce Vita, but he uses a wood burning oven and makes a better pizza than Mario Batali, so there isn’t much controversy there. Maybe the opening of Grimaldi’s will set a stage for a good old fashioned food fight in Texas.

 

Grimaldi’s web site lists a couple of remote outposts, which seem to be operated by franchisees, rather than the original owners. No word on who owns the Houston location or why they are here in the first place. I question the logic of locating a pizza restaurant that holds ingredients and cooking technique in First Colony Mall. Tom Delay may have left town and a few good restaurants are reportedly doing well in Sugarland, but it’s still a suburban wasteland populated by robots that value “value” more than the nuances introduced by a coal fired oven. Still, a similar location recently opened in Dallas and seems to still be open, so it should be worth a try.

 

February 13, 2008   17 Comments

Cafe Zol

Maybe I jumped the gun with Cafe Zol. I had heard that the dormant building that housed Crostini had been remodeled into a Scandinavian restaurant. Prior to Cafe Zol, the closest you could get to Scandinavian food in Houston was the completely random meatball stand at Ikea. Real viking food in Houston? Sign me up!

I did virtually no research on the place, beyond the location. The restaurant opened sometime in January, so going in February I was hoping to find Cafe Zol kitchen just hitting it’s stride. George Bush spent less time thinking about invading Iraq, so what’s the worst that could happen?

From the moment you drive up to Cafe Zol and see the green dinosaur on the sign (sadly, there is no dinosaur meat on the menu) you get a feeling that you are entering an alternate universe. I am not talking about Denmark or Sweden, but another dimension entirely where things look right but everything is out of place and people talk backwards. At noon the place was deserted and the host seemed surprised to see us. One of the tables was occupied, but it turned out to a public relations consultant explaining her plan to make Cafe Zol a runaway success to the first time restaurant owners (you can see their handy work at Citysearch).

Things went rapidly downhill from there. The menu explained that Cafe Zol offered an array of “Scandinavian tapas”. I was fairly certain that there would be no fresh whale dishes, but you can readily get deer, elk and various sea creatures in to pull off a Scandinavian concept. Worst case scenario – I could make stupid Viking jokes and feast on smoked salmon and herring. Unfortunately, none of those things were on the menu, which read like it was put together by Aramark. Salads, sandwiches, burgers and items you don’t often find on Scandinavian tapas menus.

Right around the time we stated looking for an escape hatch a bread basket arrived with some pink whipped butter. The bread tasted like a frozen Pepperidge Farms loaf that has been undercooked in a barely warm oven. It was too late to leave, so we decided to tough it out. Cheese rolls (Danish specialty?) turned out to be to be of the same variety as on every Thai menu in Houston. The meatball sandwich looked perfectly edible and my friend, who was the only one wise enough to order it, thought it was pretty good, as far as cold meatballs go.

Everyone else at the table ordered chicken and dumplings, so terrible a dish that I could not eat more than two spoonfuls. The broth was completely unseasoned and slightly sour, even after we began dumping life threatening amounts of salt and pepper into it. The sour taste was a lot stronger in the dumplings, which tasted like Ethiopian injera bread that has been left out in a warm, damp place for a couple of days then molded into dense little balls. As we tried to figure out how to get out of Cafe Zol without having to explain why we aren’t enjoying our Scandinavian tapas the owner came by to tell us that the soup is one of the best dishes on the menu and her personal favorite. By the time we paid our bill, another lunch party had arrived and proceeded to tell the waiter that the food was terrible.

Driving away, the only thing I could think of was the disappointment the Cafe Zol owners would soon feel when the place inevitably fails. Will it happen before or after they spend much of their life savings trying to live out their dream? It happens to much better restaurants than Cafe Zol, such as the excellent La Posada del Inca that recently went up for sale after the owners found they were not cut out for the demands of the restaurant trade.

Maybe Gordon Ramsay will read this post and decide to visit Houston to help turn Cafe Zol around…

February 12, 2008   3 Comments

Vin bites the dust

Alison Cook reports that Vin has finally decided to do the right thing and go out of business. Excellent news. Now Tilman Fertita can open a Babins in it’s place and begin to purge the Bayou Place of crap food karma.

My first and last visit to Vin was on my birthday last year and it was a complete disaster. Vin got almost universally positive reviews and seemed like a good choice, but somehow managed to turn out to be one of the worst meals I have ever had. By the time the whole ordeal was over I was imagining a kitchen staffed by young baboons pretending to be cooks for a new Ashton Kutcher pilot on Spike TV.

We kicked things off with frisee salad that looked promising enough. The dressing had a bitter vinegar kick that tasted almost rancid. To balance it out the kitchen crew spiked the dressing with enough salt to make us worry about going insane from sodium poisoning. I typically season my food aggressively and stayed with it longer than anyone else at the table (I picked the place, after all), but finally threw in the towel after I noticed individual salt crystals were coating my teeth with every bite.

The waiter described the soft shell crab with risotto as the restaurant’s signature dish, which seemed like a safe choice for a first time visit. The crab, unlike the salad, was bland and failed to stand up to the Shiner Bock batter. The risotto was both overcooked and had a faint alcohol flavor at the same time, as if someone in the kitchen forgot to add the wine at the right time and decided to splash it in at the last minute. The flatbread came out pale and under cooked. The chicken dishes the rest of the table ordered looked boring. No one noted any unpleasant flavors, but no flavors of any other sort were reported either.

Desperate to rid out palates of all things savory we decided to overlook the fact that the world’s tiniest deserts is an incredibly idiotic idea and ordered them anyway. The baboons in the kitchen, as it turns out, saved the best for last.

I noticed the bitter flavor shortly after I cracked the crust of the molten chocolate cake, but kept chipping away at the center hoping that I was being treated to the worlds most exotic chocolate from a remote part of the world only accessible by a canoe. The outside was edible enough, but the molten chocolate lacked any sort of moltiness (no, thats not a real word). After 30 seconds of torture I finally realized that I was eating charcoal.

For days I could not get the worlds tiniest desert disaster out of my mind. How exactly do you insert a lump of coal into the center of a a perfectly edible cake without doing a stint at the Fat Duck to learn the proper technique first? The only way I could think of would be to bake a perfectly ordinary molten chocolate cake, then microwave it on "high" just long enough to turn the liquid center into charcoal. It’s a tricky maneuver, because left in the microwave too long the center of the cake could turn into a diamond, all but guaranteeing a bad dining experience. Thankfully, the primate staff at Vin were up to the challenge.

Some people may say that Vin closure is a loss for the Houston dining scene. The city, after all, doesn’t appreciate inventive restaurants quite like other cosmopolitan hubs. I have a slightly different view. Other than a nice looking dining room, Vin had no business being in business. Good riddance.

Yes, I am still bitter.

February 6, 2008   1 Comment