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Posts from — April 2008

Good things happening at Cafe Annie

I have been mostly disinterested in Cafe Annie for the last several years. The food just didn’t seem to get quite to the level of other top restaurants in Houston and the menu was getting long in the tooth. There are only so many times you can see "wood grilled this" and "pan roasted that" on the menu before falling sound asleep.

Lately, a couple of good lunches have made me wonder if I was just making poor menu choices or if perhaps Cafe Annie is going through a renaissance of sorts. To be clear, the menu is still way too formulaic, especially so at lunch, but the flavors are brighter and the more refined. Overall, the food seems to be at a much higher level than before. Or is it just me?

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While the tortilla soup seemed perfectly average a bit less than a year ago, the mushroom soup with truffle croutons and the chilled potato with leeks and watercress I had recently were both exceptional. The potato soup today, served just a touch below room temperature over a chilled potatoes cubes, was delicate and perfectly balanced. A great spring dish. The mushroom soup a few months ago was just as good of a fit for winter – smooth, deeply flavored with actual mushrooms, rather than chicken broth and salt. Added bonus? The word "foraged" was nowhere to be found on the menu. How’s that for understated?

After striking out with lackluster entrees like buttermilk fried chicken salad, wood grilled shrimp with potato enchiladas and wood grilled skirt steak with yet more potato enchiladas (see the trend here?), I changed my strategy and started paying more attention to the daily specials instead. On both of my recent visits the specials was pan roasted sea bass, but they were served with sides and sauces interesting enough to make them stand out as distinct dishes. Both times the fish was simply prepared, with a perfectly crisp skin and very delicate texture. Reef offers a similar preparation with their Crispy Skin Snapper, but Cafe Annie seems to execute it with far more precision worthy of the acclaim the restaurant usually receives and maybe just a little beyond.

Another thing I have noticed recently (unless I just missed it before) is that every meal begins with an amuse. I know it’s not a big deal, but it’s a nice way to start anything. A good amuse bouche is the difference between a well thought out gift and a generic gift certificate – something selected for you by the chef that you might not otherwise order yourself.

The amuse for one of my lunch in February was the classic gulf crab tostada  w/ avocado relish served on a single tortilla chip. Today it was a bite sized serving of shrimp wrapped around a green chile pepper served on a bed of creamy grits, which does not appear on the regular menu. I thought the shrimp was over seasoned for a split second, until I realized that I really should be eating the whole thing in one bite. After that, everything fell in it’s place.

Another sign Cafe Annie is heading in the right direction?

April 29, 2008   6 Comments

All sizzle, no steak at Open City

Finding a restaurant that a half dozen people can agree on isn’t always easy. Open City may not seem like a great dinner destination, but the menu is full of non-threatening dishes and it was sure to draw the least controversy. I have read a few positive reviews of the place and was curious, if anything else. Big mistake.

Things went wrong before we even sat down – the hostess lost our reservation, but assured us in a rather snarky tone that she’d find a way to squeeze us in anyway. The five of us ended up being crammed into a four seater booth and a side chair. To call the whole thing unreasonable would be an understatement – we were the only people in the downstairs dining room. The vaunted rooftop had plenty of tables too, so the crappy attitude was hardly necessary.

The portabello burger listed on the menu online was nowhere to be found in print. Our waitress returned from the kitchen with the explanation that the portabello burger is on the menu at lunch, but not served during dinner. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Sad vegetarian: "What vegetarian dishes do you offer"
Hapless waitress: "Oh we can make pretty much anything"
Me: "How about a portabello burger?"
Hapless waitress: "Anything, but that"

Cue the scene where the vegetarian orders yet another house salad.

The Open Faced Lamb Slider starter was the lone bright spot. The lamb patty was excellent. Nicely seasoned, grilled to medium rare with pink center and charred crust. I could have eaten a whole plate of the stuff all by itself, especially if I knew what was coming. It was a decent enough of a dish – it just wasn’t a slider in any sense of the word. An open faced slider is already a stretch, but its a stupid stretch when the bun turns out to be a toast point.

The whole grain roll, served with disgusting sweet butter, seemed like something you’d find in a middle school cafeteria. The crab cakes were over seasoned. The steak was serviceable, but completely unseasoned. The fries were so salty that most of them remained uneaten. Images of wild baboons running the kitchen were appearing in my head.

The problems didn’t end there. My chicken fried chicken looked golden brown and crispy, but turned out to be soggy and flavorless. The side of macaroni and cheese was inedible. I couldn’t force more than a few bites of the undercooked pasta coated in a rancid combination of smoked gouda and gruyere cheese down before giving up. I’d forgotten about the entire thing, until I noticed a $4 substitution charge the waitress tacked on to the bill without mentioning it to us.

The consensus around the table was that you can eat better at Luby’s, which has a surprisingly decent chicken fried chicken that bests the Open City version by a mile. By the time we were wrapping up it became apparent that people really don’t go to Open City for the food. The bar was beginning to swell with "engineered" ladies and international male studs for action. Who cares what the food tastes like when the drinks are good and there is plenty of ass at the bar?

Houston Chronicle confirmed my suspicions a couple of days later, when they profiled Open City as the hottest scene in town:

 

Open City may draw huge crowds, but the kitchen is a mess. Does a great space and strong drinks make up for crap food? Not in my book. We’ll see what happens when the fickle party crowd finds another venue to show off their assets.

April 27, 2008   No Comments

Wild romp through Catalan

I really don’t make it out to Catalan enough. They refuse to acknowledge that vegetarians have to eat too, so my wife won’t go there. The few lunches I have had there have been hit and miss, although on good days Catalan can be exceptional, so I have been looking for an opportunity visit at dinner for a very long time. Every couple of months I arrange a business dinner, but those fall mostly on Monday when the restaurant is closed. So when a scheduling change pushed my plans by a couple of days, I jumped on the opportunity and headed down to Catalan with 10 people and an expense account.

Turns out Catalan is a great place for a business dinner. There is a private room that stays quiet even with the doors open. The wine list is more than reasonably priced and reads like a Tom Clancy novel to the wine geek. The menu is incredibly well put together. You can easily have some of the most innovative food in Houston, while everyone else gets by on well executed staples like salmon or steak. Everyone is happy.

My game plan? Order the most interesting dishes, caloric caution and logic be damned. Here’s what I had:

Foie gras bon bons served with house-made local strawberry and black pepper jelly
I have been eating a good deal of less than traditionally prepared fois lately, so this was my second fois gras bon bon dish in as many weeks. Although I have to give the "completeness of vision" nod to the chocolate covered fois bon bon at Orson that came finished with salt and cocoa powder, the deep fried version at Catalan was more fun to eat. Although the strawberry jelly is an entirely unnecessary distraction, I’d recommend starting with this as an appetizer anyway.

Right after the initial crunch, the bon bon explodes in your mouth with a shot of liquefied fois. The effect is an entirely unexpected rush of textures and flavor so intense that one of the guys that tried it said that it felt like he had just cheated on his wife (I don’t pretend to understand what that means). If you are expecting any of the adjectives normally associated with fois – delicate, subtle, velvety, buttery, luscious – prepared to be surprised. This is what food would taste like if Texas invaded France and turned it into a vacation getaway for rich oil executives.

Roasted bone marrow with Maldon salt
Probably the dish I was most looking forward to, especially since Catalan is the only place that serves it in Houston. If you love bone marrow and don’t care about living a long, healthy life, order this without any reservations. Though not perfect, this is a nice presentation with all the right things in the right places and should deliver a perfectly decadent experience. The toast was just thin and crispy enough. The big flakes of Maldon salt were superb and pickled onions were just mildly acidic enough to make this dish a winner, overall.

I have to admit that I expected a deeper flavor from the marrow. I can’t quite put my finger on what went wrong, but it could have been the cooking temperature. The bones came out in a pool of fat and one had to be sent back to the kitchen because there was nothing left in the cavity. I am only guessing, but there is a good chance the oven was running too hot to deliver the optimal marrow consistency and flavor. I don’t have the Whole Beast to reference, but some of the recipes I have come across confirm my suspicions.

Crispy lamb sweetbreads tossed with tomato, cipollini onions and mint emulsion
This was probably the best dish of the night. The mint emulsion had a pronounced green color, so I was worried that the mint would overwhelm everything else. In fact I tasted very little mint and the emulsion combined seamlessly with the tomato and onions. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked and became part of the dish, rather than just be a hunk of fried protein dressed up with irrelevant sauces. The dish is a winner on every level.

Crab and grits, fried crab claw
This was an off the menu special, so there is a good chance I botched the description. I am not even sure what I was eating were really grits, but it tasted like crabmeat folded into a perfectly cooked corn meal, with a fried crab claw perched on top. I know it’s not supposed to be cool to eat dishes made with cream or butter, but I thought the dish worked quite well.

C5: chocolate panna cotta, chocolate milkshake, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate ganache:
No description of this on the online menu either, so this may not be 100% accurate. If I was a prick judge on Top Chef I’d say that there was no continuity here, but individually everything tasted great, so who cares? One thing I really appreciated was that, though served with a trendy drink in a shot glass, no one told me which order I should eat the dessert in.
Great way to finish a meal at Catalan? $12. Being treated as an adult? Priceless.

Few logistical and execution issues can take away from the experience at Catalan. Overcooking is sometimes a problem. A tuna requested medium rare came out medium well. I’ve had the same problem myself when I ordered a salmon in cauliflower puree that was overcooked at the edges, yet quite nice in the middle. The bone marrow comes with a teaspoon that doesn’t quite fit the bone cavity. If wrestling with a greasy bone isn’t your idea of a good time, you might get pretty ticked off.

It sounds as if I am complaining, but hear this – Catalan is one of the best places to eat in Houston. You can find a better dining experience elsewhere, but good eating is what Catalan does best. I’d be there several times a month working my way through the fascinating menu if they didn’t ignore the 2.5% of Americans who don’t eat meat. Here’s to hoping that situation is remedied soon.

April 26, 2008   11 Comments

Dao xiao mian action shot

Yesterday I wrote about Paradise Cafe, which serves hand made noodles called dao xiao mian, made by rapidly shaving strips of dough into a boiling pot of water.

Here’s an a live action sequence of dao xiao mian preparation.

Fracking awesome.

(you’ll have to expand the post until I replace this idiotic theme)

April 22, 2008   2 Comments

Hand chopped noodles at Paradise Cafe

I came across Paradise Cafe several weeks ago after a lunch at a nearby Fu Fu Cafe that left me wanting more. My beef tendon and pork dumplings at Fu Fu were pretty good, but you can find better cooking in the Bellaire Chinatown. While many cities struggle with too few choices, our problem in Houston is exactly the opposite – the choices are too many.

Within feet of Fu Fu Cafe are something like 7 or 8 eateries offering a bewildering range of options in just a single shopping strip. The gelato shop is right next to a bakery that sells French desserts, Chinese pastries and rice cakes that look like guerilla hand grenades. A restaurant a few doors down serves Braised Lion Head, a Shanghai pork meatball specialty cooked with Napa cabbage I have never come across and have yet to sample (no, it’s not made with real lion meat, I checked). Noodle House 88, which Robb Walsh swears serves some of the best Indonesian food in the country, is in the very same strip. If Indonesian food doesn’t suit you, you can order sushi from the same menu. A new dim sum place opened just days ago and already looks packed.

One of many hidden treasures in the food
shops surrounding Fu Fu Cafe.

Tucked in at the end of the strip Paradise Cafe looks almost impenetrable to a non-Chinese American. Other than the name and descriptive signs such as "noodles" and "soups", the only real clue as to what is inside is a magazine article pasted in the window showing a chef pulling noodles by hand. I got a blank stare when I asked for a to go menu, making me even more curious. For all I know the article could have been about the importance of keeping a tidy kitchen, but the promise of hand made noodles was too much to ignore, so I made it my mission to figure out what was behind the iron curtain.

I finally arrived at Paradise Cafe last week after being turned away on my first attempt to come in on a Wednesday, when the restaurant is closed for a day right in the middle of the week. Inside, the restaurant looks more like a smoothie shop than anything else, with the entire menu on the wall dedicated to drinks. Smoothies, coffee, juices, fruit cocktails, tapioca drinks. The whole spread. Expecting to finally find some answers about the food at Paradise Cafe on the menu, instead all I found were more questions

The much smaller section of the menu dedicated to food was confounding, to say the least. Noodle dishes, soups, fried rice and several hot pots, right next to Americanized standards you might expect to find at Gen. Joe’s Chopstix, plus a selection of more exotic sounding Chinese specials AND a few Japanese selections, just to make things interesting.

Undeterred, I decided to go for the noodle dishes and ordered two entrees to take home, along with an order of vegetable dumplings. Although the filling was overwhelmed by what tasted like orange rind, the dumplings were serviceable. The two noodle dishes were far more interesting.

Both dishes had noodles I have not come across before. Not exactly the type of stuff you expect when a guy pulls dough by hand, as I imagined, but clearly freshly made and with a lot more character than what you find in a typical noodle shop.

Mutton La Noodle, a last minute addition to the menu scribbled in pen, came with a deeply flavored beef broth and noodles of uniform length and somewhat uneven edges. I’d guess they were hand made and cut earlier in the day, and starting to dry out a little by the time they were cooked. The width and thickness was close to a slightly wider fettuccine and stood up nicely to other ingredients – steamed bok choy, pickled ginger, cilantro and hunks of braised mutton.

I was prepared for the mutton to be tough and stringy, as it often is in Chinese soups in Houston, but it was excellent. Instead of badly trimmed cheap cuts sold in many Asian groceries, these were carefully cross cut with just enough meat and fat to produce good texture after long cooking without giving you a mouth full of sheep grease. After steeping in the hot broth for a few minutes all the flavors were fully activated. Mutton La Noodle a hell of a dish.

The strangely named House Special Hand Chopped Noodles were even better. Although the dish came with a typical "house special" assortment of shrimp, pork and chicken, the meats were not very interesting; mostly an unnecessary distraction. The noodles were the real star of the show – soaking up the soy based sauce they formed a delicious gooey mess. I’d love to see these noodles in capable hands served up with a more collagen rich meat, such as pork knuckle, veal cheek or beef tendon.

Nothing about these noodles was uniform. These things were shorter, thicker and more dense than the noodles served with the mutton. Looking like a sliced up dumpling on the plate and peeled apart layer by layer they resembled jaggy edged, irregular blades of grass made of dough. Best part about this dish was the incredible texture – glutinous and sticky enough to carry the sauce, chewy and tender enough for a great mouth feel. As good as my mutton noodles were, I completely forgot about them once I dug into the hand chopped noodles.

I know very little about Chinese noodles, but my guess is that hand chopped noodles at Paradise Cafe are of the "dao xiao mian" variety. Dao xiao mian are fresh noodles made of wheat and prepared by rapidly slicing slivers of pasta into boiling water off a ball of dough. Paradise Cafe just might be the only place that makes this stuff in Houston, or LA or Ontario, for that matter.

Dao xiao mian preparation in action

Paradise Cafe is an interesting place. Dishes are cooked with care, the ingredients are fresh, noodles seem to be hand made and the menu looks delightfully offbeat. I think I’ll play the field for at least a few more visits to see if anything else pops out. If nothing else, I now know where to get some of the best chopped noodles in town.

Mission accomplished.

April 22, 2008   3 Comments