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Posts from — May 2008

Sydney notes: Emperor’s Puffs

Via Alison Cook news service is a link to a great listing of fried dough creations around the world. I’ve had about a dozen of the varieties on the list and a good number they have not listed yet.

Not on the list are the emperor puff’s, which I have only came across in Sydney so far. These things are cheap, addictive and quite excellent. The texture closely resembles a soft doughnut, but the flavor is that of a vanilla pudding snack. A blistering hot vanilla snack.

More at Grab Your Fork, a great Sydney based food blog.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterbug 

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May 29, 2008   6 Comments

Um… lame?

I didn’t really think much of Bistro Toulouse on my first visit when I had a soggy mac and cheese overloaded with stringy cheese and heavy cream, but completely changed my mind several months later when I stopped by again and had the stellar Pear-Y Winkle sandwich. 

Irritating name aside, this thing was absolutely awesome. More of a burger than a sandwich, it was built around a perfect medium-rate lamb patty with a good bit of crust as a centerpiece and finished off with a goat cheese, poached pears and field greens. All the flavors combined in a really nice way, blowing away countless burgers with far more serious names and intentions. 

Within days Bistro Toulouse was closed, to be replaced with yet another Barnaby’s. As if what Houston needs are more restaurants named after deceased dogs that serve badly prepared food.

Meanwhile, Michael Scott Castell, the chef who owned Bistro Toulouse, has taken a job as a head chef at Brenner’s Steakhouse. The same Brenner’s bought out by Tillman Fertita as he continues his push upmarket, assumingly to wash away the sins of Joe’s Crab Shack and Rainforest Cafe.

So I am having trouble deciding. A great independent spot closes, an insipid mini-chain takes it’s place and the chef/owner is now grilling steaks for Tillman Fertitia. Is the world really a better place? And where am I supposed to get my lamb burgers now?

May 29, 2008   5 Comments

Food in Houston sneaks into Feast for another taste

The stealthy food guy over at Food in Houston made another incognito visit to Feast and he likes it even more than before. Naturally, I couldn’t stop myself from whipping out yet another set of Feast photos.

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to appear slightly less Feast obsessed than I really am, but it’s proving difficult. Maybe it’s time to start a booster club. This is what happens when a restaurant doesn’t require a dress code (a rather idiotic concept in hotter than hell Houston) and serves up a constantly changing menu put together by people who really care about food.

Feast has finally began to tweak their original concept and it’s heading in the right direction. Lunch now offers 3 courses for $22, which speaks right to my sensibilities. I am utterly unable to order in moderation, so I end up with these massive lunches, simply because there are so many things I want to try on the menu. Now I can go to Feast even more frequently and not go broke or have a heart attack in the process. 

Better still, at least at lunch the giant entrees have been sized down a bit and lighter dishes are beginning to appear more and more. I was really worried what would happen to this restaurant when people refused to eat pork cheeks and braised lamb shanks in the middle of the summer. Apparently they are going to eat skate salad and stuffed squid. Brilliant!

 

On the menu:

Spicy Lamb Sausage Cous Cous – I thought a larger variety of cour cous or grain might have worked slightly better in this dish, but the lamb sausage was stellar.

Whole Shrimp with Garlic and Butter – full of flavor and very teder, but a bit hard to peel; doesn’t the book say you have to shock shellfish after cooking?

Squid stuffed with chorizo – cooked whole and stuffed with cured Spanish chorizo, this thing looked glorious on the plate and was absolutely delicious.

Beef Braised with Steelcut Oats and Chocolate served with Potatoes and Carrots – I got to try a bit of this and it was quite good and had an unusual taste I have never encountered before. Much closer to some of the flavors you find in roux-based Louisiana dishes, than Mexican mole’s made with chocolate.

Skate Salad with Caperberries – excellent dish, very simply and lightly dressed with a vinaigrette and flavored further by pickled caperberries, which I have never had before in this particular form. I don’t know if people consider this a summer dish, but I have no trouble eating this as a starter or a main this time a year.

Pork Cheeks, Pierogies and Red Cabbage – more cheeks with that peculiar cross cut the Feast guys seem to love, but the pierogi stuffed with cheese and pan roasted were the real deal. The guy who ordered it wasn’t really into them, so I ended eating most of what was left. Our waitress quite pleased with her self when she came by and found me fighting over the scraps with one of my other friends.

Turns out she made the pierogies using an old family recipe from her Polish grandmother, which had a different texture and filling to dough ratio than  the more traditional version served at Polonia. Dumplings are a staple of eastern European cuisine, but in the US you rarely come across the full range of what you mind find in Polish, Ukranian and Russian homes that use recipes handed down through generations. Yet another reason I love Feast.

Maybe they can do some sour cherry stuffed vareniki for an encore? I NEVER see this stuff stateside.

Desserts – good, but no major fireworks here. I had Spotted Dick with Custard, my friends had Bread and Whisky Pudding and Honey and Cinnamon Ice Cream.

May 26, 2008   6 Comments

Gravitas

It wasn’t my original destination, but I ended up having a great dinner at Gravitas (although it would have been better had the waiter not forgotten we ordered a cheese plate). It has been about a year since my last visit and the menu has gotten a bit more interesting.

Most of the staples, the gruyere spatzle, the weekly blue plate specials and pastas are still there. Better still, the excellent caesar topped with a poached egg is still served as well. But there also seem to be a few a more appealing entrees, too. Enough so that it definitely warrants a few return visits.

The onion bread pudding, one of my favorites from the Pic menu, is now back at Gravitas. I wouldn’t mind trying the duck legs with roasted beets, either. Beets are appearing in all sorts of places all of the sudden, which is one food trend I can live with long term. Beets taste good and the more people realize it the better humanity will be as a whole. 

I still think Gravitas plays it too safe, but maybe they are close to striking a good balance between having a menu that’s both constantly changing and consistently reliable at the same time.

My whole roasted snapper, served with incredibly sweet tomatoes, was very good, but the Atlantic salmon was the best entree I tasted. Fish dishes too often rely just on quality of the product alone to carry the flavor, but this dish had a most intense interplay between the acid from the grapefruit, the olive oil dressing and the texture of the crisped salmon skin. Definitely worth trying if you want to experience Gravitas at it’s best.

Some photos from tonight:

An interesting aside. Shortly before I left I noticed a couple unceremoniously push their way towards the kitchen and proceed to pepper the staff with questions. Turns out they had met either Scott Tycer or Jason Gould in Aspen at some point and felt like they needed to announce themselves to the chef. I wonder if people who cook for a living wish for simpler times when could work in peace… I don’t know how I’d react if someone got in my face like that.

BTW, the Gravitas wine guy has a blog. You can find it here.

May 25, 2008   5 Comments

Why I am going to Gravitas instead of America’s tonight

The plight of vegetarians and people who live with them is a personal issue for me – I happen to fall into one of these two categories. So, yes. I care. Even if it’s for purely selfish reasons.

I have been looking forward to visiting America’s in the Woodlands for weeks now. While I have no desire to go to America’s next to my office, there are plenty of reasons to drive an hour just to have dinner in the Woodlands. First, combining a talented chef like Jonathan Jones with the South American leaning (and slightly tired) theme of America’s has potential to produce some really interesting results. Looking over the menu I am still worried that the relentless drive to preserve the America’s brand might get in the way of great food, but I have hope.

More important, Plinio Sandalio takes deserts to the new level and the only way to sample his creations is to trek all the way up to America’s in the Woodlands. The three desserts I sampled while he was at Soma were outstanding, rivaled only by Elisabeth Faulkner in originality and flavor. Desserts are often overlooked at restaurants, so you rarely see something that breaks convention. Nana in Dallas does a good job of this. Alinea in Chicago pushes the envelope more, though not always with great results. So America’s really did sound seem worth the drive.

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Despite only being open a few weeks the restaurant is regularly booked out for dinner, so my first few attempts failed. I finally got a reservation this weekend and convinced 5 friends to go with me, but things came to a grinding halt when I looked at the menu. Not only are there no vegetarian options on the menu, but when I called the grilled vegetable plate described to me on the phone seemed like one of those things vegetarians loathe to eat. So now I am going to Gravitas instead.

Last time I bitched and moaned about this, Chris Shepherd from Catalan took time to comment. Here’s what he said:

We don’t have a lot of vegetarian options on our menu, but not many restaurants do. We will actually go out of our way to make sure that each individual will get everything they need, just ask. We are one of the largest supporters of our local farmers and are at the markets 2-3 times a week. We always have amazing locally grown vegetables in house. We don’t want to give you a steamed veggie plate like most will. We like to do different things for vegetarians, don’t feel that your options are limited. Just ask to talk to me, I will work an entire menu around you.

I believe Chris when he says that he will go out of his way to accommodate his diners. And he is absolutely right, the steamed veggie plate is a bad cliche that allows places with crap food to be in business simply because they don’t treat vegetarians like lepers. But in my experience, showing up on a random night and directing the chef to whip something great with no notice is not the best way to guarantee a great meal.

More often the not, you do get the grilled or steamed veggie plate. Sometimes an undressed pasta (I am not making this up) with a couple of hunks of steamed broccoli. At Restaurant August, the kitchen sent out what looked like a collection of sides off every dish on the menu, which seemed like some macabre combo plate you’d get at a really upscale homeless shelter.

Perhaps more important, no diner wants to design a dish when they go out for dinner. When you go to a place like Catalan, America’s or Reef, you go there because you want to experience something created by the chef, rather than a random veggie surprise of the night you have to design yourself.

Working without a protein that used to walk or swim is an under appreciated art and something mostly uncommon in restaurants until very recently. It is happening in very few places, but vegetables are taking center stage in dishes. My experience at Manresa was exceptional all around, but it was the vegetable dishes that really blew me away. At French Laundry I was presented with a printed vegetable tasting menu that made me seriously consider ordering it over the main tasting. In hindsight, I should have made the leap. At least one highly ambitious restaurant in Bay Area is focusing exclusively on vegetables (notice I didn’t say vegetarians) and receiving critical acclaim.

If Ferran Adria can deliver an absurdly complex multi-course vegetarian tasting at a place like El Bulli (yes, I have looked into it and it’s a standard option), why can’t we have just a couple of non-meat dishes at a restaurant in Houston?

Update: Plinio just wrote to tell me that they were making a special vegetarian entree for us tonight. Now I feel like a total pain in the ass. Sorry guys. I really appreciate it.

May 24, 2008   7 Comments