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Posts from — March 2008

Da Marco really is good. No, really. It really is.

I remember reading a piece by a guest critic in the Chronicle several weeks ago and being quite surprised. A bad meal at Da Marco? Disappointment at t’afia? Genuine excitement over Beaver’s and The Grove? My recent experiences have been almost the exact opposites. Maybe people look for completely different things in food in New Jersey and San Francisco than we do in Texas.

Ironically, my own dining itinerary included a recent romp through San Francisco and some of the very same places visited by Alison Cook’s critic friends in Houston. I found San Francisco to be a mixed bag. Local foodies were fawning all over Canteen. I loved the place, but found basic execution lacking. Quince, a highly regarded Michelin starred restaurant, was less than deserving of all the hype, in my experience. Incanto, on the other hand, blew me away and made me wish desperately that Chris Cosentino gets sick of California and moves to Houston, where his rustic food and big, bold flavors would be a huge hit. Incanto is hardly struggling for business, but it doesn’t have nearly the acclaim I thought it deserves in the San Francisco food circles.

Can palates really vary that much from coast to coast, or do restaurants just routinely have off nights when they misfire?

I stopped by Da Marco for a dinner on Saturday that was as good as ever. I kicked things off with a hamachi crudo with wasabi roe. Not exactly an Italian classic, but it was a nice way to start and the olive oil based dressing somehow grounded it to the rest of the meal quite nicely. Da Marco wasn’t all fireworks that night. My wife ordered an arugula salad, butternut squash ravioli and a side of polenta in an attempt to assemble a vegetarian meal. All three dishes were dressed in so much pecorino or reggiano that the cheese completely overwhelmed most other ingredients, but that seems like a problem that stems from a less than traditional Italian dinner progression. More important, my food was great.

It’s a bit ironic that I tried the same rabbit cacciatore dish that was panned by the guest critic the very next night and thought it was fantastic. Braised chicken and rabbit are hit and miss in restaurant, where kitchens prep everything ahead and assemble at dinner time, because they are less forgiving to over or under cooking than more robust meats.On this particular night the rabbit thighs were fork tender, yet retained their distinctive rabbit texture and rabbit flavor. The sauce, often too heavy on the wine or tomatoes, was well balanced. Combined with the fresh cherry tomatoes and polenta it made nice little clumps of rabbit flavored goodness.

The polenta, reportedly sludgy the night before, was cooked to right density and texture. Risotto, polenta and eggs are the most deceivingly difficult things to cook. Find a restaurant that can execute them correctly and it’s a sign of good things to come from the kitchen (I once read about a chef in Oakland that only cooks risotto once a year, because it requires so much concentration). Polenta sins come in many forms – undercooked grains of corn meal that retain their individual texture, polenta with consistency of runny grits or reliance on butter fat, rather than starch, to achieve creamy consistency. Da Marsco suffers from none of these flaws. I’ve had polenta at Da Marco on three different occasions now and it has been near perfect every time.

Does Da Marco’s kitchen oscillate wildly from night to night or have my taste buds have been ruined by years of Tex-Mex abuse? It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle.

March 30, 2008   No Comments

Big ass Wing Cakes @ Max’s Wine Dive

Alison Cook recommends a visit to Max’s Wine Dive for brunch on Sunday in her blog today. A few weeks ago I did just that and had a surprisingly great time (crap service be damned), courtesy of an absurdly large serving of the Wing Cakes.

The Wing Cakes are Max’s take on classic chicken and waffles – fried chicken wings atop a massive serving of pancakes. The wings are not seasoned or fried quite as well as the chicken at Breakfast Klub or the sadly departed Fusion Cafe, but they are quite good.

The real attraction here are the exceptional griddle cakes. Despite their enormous size (the photo hardly captures their mammoth dimensions) they are fluffy, yet moist enough to stand up to fried chicken and maple syrup. I hogged the chicken for myself, but everyone at the table received a big slice of the griddle cakes and I still had about 1/3 of the dish left behind when I was done.

Awesome stuff.

Fried chicken wings served atop pillows of fresh griddle cakes
with butter and Canadian maple syrup

(expand the post to see the photos)

March 29, 2008   1 Comment

Better demons prevail – no Alinea for NYC

I continue to be impressed by Grant Achatz. After flirting the idea of opening an Alinea branch in New York he decided to focus on Chicago and did it for all the right reasons.

Alinea is one of the few restaurants where reach does not exceed the grasp. The food is highly conceptual, but it works, in a way that Cubism works for Picasso, but fails in lesser hands. It’s hard to replicate what Achatz does at Alinea without losing something in the process. No matter how faithful the franchise, eventually the Xerox effect takes over – the food might even still be good, but the whole never quite transcends the sum of its parts.

New York brings acclaim and limelight that only a world megacity can bring, but that’s not where food is at it’s best. When I think of the most progressive outposts of cuisine today it’s Chicago that comes to mind, not NYC. Alinea belongs in Chicago and judging by the success of the restaurant, Chicago deserves to have it all to itself.

Beef shortrib confit, dehydrated Guinness sheet, broccoli puree,
spiced peanut pudding, pink peppercorn, micro-cilantro

March 27, 2008   No Comments

My lunch date with Karl Rove at Ristorante Cavour (HOU)

Entering Hotel Granduca is a little like following the rabbit hole – just beyond the iron gates and right past the horse mounted statue of Adalberto Malatesta Granduca of Monfallito (?) is a different world than one might find in otherwise sensible Houston.

Granduca was made to look like an Italian villa, complete with armored knights, medieval weapons on the walls, and little touches like wood beams laid into plaster and freshly distressed furniture in more "rustic" parts of the hotel. Like everything else at the Uptown Park, Granduca it feels more like Las Vegas than old Europe.

I was always curious about the people who pay $1,300 a night for a hotel suite in Houston. Who are they? What do they eat? I got my answer as soon as I arrived and saw Karl Rove waiting to get picked up in the lobby (sulfur, smoke, instant drop in temperature, and all). For a split second I thought about inviting him to join us for lunch. It’s not often you are in the presence of one of the more diabolical political minds of our generation.

Ristorante Cavour is an odd place. I counted maybe 20 seats total in the mostly empty dining room and with the prices more than reasonable for the quality of food, I couldn’t figure out how they make money ($5 Cokes, that’s how). I don’t get a sense Cavour gets a whole lot of business other than soon to be indicted Republican operatives, either. When we asked our waiter to replace our strangely sweet salt – which immediately made me think of weaponized Anthrax – he came back to tell us that our salt shaker was filled with 50% salt and 50% sugar combination. I am not sure how that happens in a place where people eat regularly, but still, the kitchen is run by one of the best chefs in town and you can find great food here if you order right.

We started with a Ceviche-Style Roulade, Lobster, Cucumber, Cilantro and Lemon Mousseline, which turned out to be the best dish we tried. Except for a couple of problems, some of the lobster was unevenly seasoned, it was a knockout combination. It’s rare that on a plate with high quality lobster and 25 year balsamic it’s the cucumber that stands out, but Cavour apparently sources their produce carefully enough where the vegetables were the best thing on the plate. Good sign, overall.

I wasn’t thrilled with my meat dish, but it was well put together, if anything. The chicken scaloppine was fine, but the sauce was something you’d expect to find at the River Oaks Country Club, frequented by a more conservative audience. I suppose I should have known better when I ordered Chicken Scaloppine, Pinot Grigio Caper Italian Parsley Sauce and Zucchini Beignet, but it seemed more exciting than seared tuna, shrimp skewer flambée and filet mignon. I took a look at the dinner menu to see if there were more exciting options, but it was no less tame (lame?) than lunch.

The surprise was, again, the vegetable. All sorts of things can go wrong with a zucchini beignet, but I would have gladly eaten a whole heap of this stuff. The zucchini slice had that farm fresh sweetness, that dissipates when you refrigerate produce, and wasn’t overwhelmed by the oil or the batter. I found myself scraping the inferior sauce off the beignet just so it wouldn’t ruin it.

The Apple Beignet (again, best thing available) was decent, but not great. A steaming hunk of fresh apple battered and fried just doesn’t work all that well. I think I’ll skip the dessert next time.

I think at the very least Ristorante Cavour deserves another look. Even if the meat dishes are underwhelming, you may be able to put together a good meal from appetizers and pastas. It beats eating at Grotto any day of the week. And you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with someone like Karl Rove, if you’re lucky.

March 26, 2008   1 Comment

Coming soon: Feast

One of my most memorable meals last year was at Taverna Restaurant, which served up rustic food with big, uncomplicated flavors. Taverna got great reviews when it opened, but driving out to Conroe for dinner seemed rather impractical. I changed my mind after I came back from London, where I discovered that, contrary to popular belief, British food does not suck.

If anything, I found British food to be a breath of fresh air from the monotony of menus excessively dominated by French techniques and preparations. A little Calfs Liver with Black Bacon at Rhodes W1, where Gary Rhodes is doing his part to bring respect back to British cuisine, a spectacular dinner at St. John anchored by brain terrine and deviled kidneys, a surprise find of salted braised beef cheeks at The Ivy (yes, the very same Ivy where celebrities go to binge and purge), and I was convinced that detractors of British food were hopelessly confused.

Remembering that one of the chefs at Taverna had a connection to St John I finally decided to make the trip and was very glad I did. I didn’t find a true faith "nose to tail" outpost, but the food was great and menu was clearly put together by people who respect the beast. Sardines, liver pate, stuffed orchids, pork belly, tart tatin. No artsy fartsy presentations, no conceptual hubris, no trendy excess. Just food that makes you happy.

The only problem with Taverna was that it was not destination dining. You don’t want to drive an hour to have comfort food in a casual setting. You want to pop in after (or during) work, dig into whatever the daily menu brings you and head home. Turns out I wasn’t the only one that got that point.

Within a few days the former Taverna team will open Feast in the space once occupied by Chez George and things look promising already. The menu even has vegetarian dishes, which means I can drag my wife there when ever I am damn pleased. Brilliant!

What do I hope to see from Feast?

  • Lunch. Please let there be lunch.
  • More small plates
  • More offal tasty bits. Give me tongues, lips and assholes!
  • A blog with daily updates about the daily menu. I’d clear my social calendar if I knew there was a market special that just had to served that night and that night only.
  • An occasional whole beast dinner event

March 25, 2008   5 Comments