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Posts from — June 2008

Deep in the jungle (of Houston Chinatown)

IMG_0301I spent most of my weekend hanging out with a certain special lady, who’s recovering from  surgery, leaving the house only to get food. The Bellaire Chinatown is only a short drive from my neighborhood, so that’s where I typically end up when I don’t have to contend with friends who don’t consider trying random restaurants a competitive sport.

My lunch destination on Friday was Sichuan Cuisine, located in the Diho Square. Sichuan Cuisine has long been one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, but I never really bothered to try anything else in the Diho Square, other than Bodard Bistro and Tan Tan across the street.

On Saturday, I ended up back at Diho Square at Shanghai Restaurant, which turned out to be right next door to Sichuan. I am not the biggest fan of Cantonese food, so Shanghai Restaurant (quite a bit of the menu seems Cantonese to me, despite the name) didn’t really rock my world. The salted fish and chicken fried rice was quite good, however, so maybe it’s worth exploring the menu further.

The food at Pine Forest Garden Vegetarian Restaurant was equally bland, but had the most bewildering collection of oddball vegetarian dishes I have seen yet. Have a craving for wheat gluten imitation pork kidneys or a faux squid? They have it. How about vegetarian duck or shark fin fashioned out of seaweed? Goose? It’s all here. Wild stuff.

Wonderful/Tien Ren may have had better food and “quirkier” staff that seemed to dabble in the occult, but no one beats Pine Forest Garden Vegetarian Restaurant as far as variety goes. Or in the bizarrely long name category.

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Without a doubt, the best discovery this weekend has to be Jungle Cafe & Patisserie, again, right next to Sichuan Cuisine. I must have passed it a dozen times, but never thought to look inside. If I had, I would have found French-style pastries inflected with pokemon graphics, the likes of which I have never seen in Chinatown before or anywhere else in Houston for that matter.

Since Friday I have put down something like 5 cakes (all in the name of science), not to mention a box of very faithful macarons, and they are all great. The dark chocolate number called Madagascar is my favorite so far, but there are a number of others I would gladly order again.

Not sure Pierre Herme should worry just yet, but he might have real competition should he decide to enter the Houston market (which might happen once the price of gas hits $12), considering Jungle Cafe is serving up some serious looking pastries out of a rather unassuming bubble tea shop on Bellaire.

The national media is beginning to warm up to Houston, but they are largely missing the point. The energy industry and cheap real estate is not what makes this city such a fascinating place. If you want to see the best of Houston, spend some time in the Bellaire Chinatown. It will absolutely blow your mind. Where else do you find  Sichuan duck tongues, sushi, banh mi, bubble tea, vegetarian pork kidneys and French pastries within steps of each other? Only in Houston.

Jungle Cafe on Urbanspoon

June 30, 2008   7 Comments

Flash in the pan

I wasn’t surprised when Phillipe Schmit departed from the Legacy Group; it was a marriage of convenience from the start.  But I certainly didn’t think the Antone’s Market concept would be given up for dead so soon after opening. The Antone’s sign is gone. No one is wearing the kitchy “Fast Food for Foodies” t-shirts. Windows are covered in butchers paper.

I stopped by Antone’s shortly after it opened and thought it had some promise. The former Greenberry’s space lost none of it’s warmth and seemed more like a neighborhood cafe than a fast food restaurant.

I ordered an oyster po-boy, which was better than most served in Houston. The baguette had an excellent crust that shattered into pieces at first bite. The fixins were great, especially the house made pickles. The oysters seemed a little water logged, but were properly breaded and fried. The only thing that seemed out of place was the red cabbage, which has a bit too much resistance for a po-boy. Still, a major improvement over the mess they serve at Ragin Cajun.

While I was waiting for my po-boy to be made I spotted Schmit run in for a few minutes, review some books at the office and scurry away. A man on a mission building a fast food empire.

I ordered some take out for a pair of starving pharmacists and they found Antone’s attempts at the falafel sandwich a bit over engineered. Apparently the sandwiches and the absurdly priced roasted red peppers ($7?) were studded with a heavy doze of lemon juice and herbs to kick up the flavor.

I wasn’t sure exactly why I never made it back to Antone’s Market after that, until I remembered the pastries, which looked good, but didn’t taste like much. Maybe that summed up Antone’s best – trying to do too much, without doing anything well. You could easily find better, less gentrified versions of food Antone’s offered elsewhere. This is Houston, after all.

I hope Phillipe Schmit lands at a proper restaurant somewhere. He is a good enough chef to not have to be a “corporate” anything.

June 27, 2008   2 Comments

Coming to America’s, part 2 – Plini’o Desserts

In my last post I covered the food at the new America’s in The Woodlands. To cap things off, Plinio prepared a dessert tasting that turned out to be incredibly entertaining.

Quote of the day:

We (the royal "we"): So, how do you make this powdered peanut butter stuff, anyway?
Plinio: Oh, the same way you’d make powdered olive oil.
We: Um….. so yeah, how do you do that?

Plinio is a very talented chef who clearly spends a lot of time refining his craft, but that’s doesn’t quite capture what makes his food so interesting. The desserts Plinio creates could only really be made by a food geek, which is an emerging breed in the chef circles.

These guys get really excited about playing with food. I am talking Dungeons and Dragons excited. That sort of unbound enthusiasm is fundamentally changing how we eat the same way geeks in Silicon Valley changed the way we thought of computers a few decades ago. That’s what Plinio, along with a number of other talented chefs in Houston, are doing today. And it makes the driving up to The Woodlands more than worth the trouble.

The lineup:

Picaron, aji amarillo honey, peanut butter powder, frozen custard
One of my favorite desserts was served right up front. I’ve never had a picaron, a traditional Peruvian beignet that uses sweet potatoes for starch, so this was all new to me. Combined with aji chile flavored honey delivered in a tiny pipette this thing had a depth of flavors you normally don’t find with a fried ball of dough. I especially liked the aji flavored honey, which added a touch of heat to the flavor, but just enough to give the honey more dimension.

The powdered peanut butter had really interesting texture. Not quite dry, not quite viscous, but sort of fluffy, clumpy goodness in between. Combined with the frozen custard it created a really interesting flavor, temperature and texture interplay. I don’t know if this is on the regular menu, but it was awesome.

Lucuma souffle, candied bacon, granny smith apple juice
A riff on breakfast featuring lacuma – a fruit popular in South America, but not very common in the US.  Lacuma has slight maple undertones, so the souffle served in an egg shell and topped with candied bacon really is reminiscent of pancakes and bacon. I thought the souffle was a touch too sweet, until I took down the shot of apple juice and everything fell into place. The textures are new, but the flavors are familiar. Very nice.

Texas goat cheese, white truffle honey, shaved hazelnut, blueberries 
Another contrast in flavors in texture, but this time allowing very straightforward ingredients and clean flavors to carry the dish.  I especially liked the carefully chosen sprinkling of shaved hazelnuts, sesame seeds and other crunchy bits to add the necessary texture. The only thing I cannot identify from the description is the transparent gelee served with the goat cheese, which was similar to the striking dessert I had at Orson that was constructed exclusively from white and transparent elements.

Chicha morada sorbet, spiced pop corn
Another Peruvian specialty I have never heard of. Turns out chicha morada is a popular drink made from purple corn kernels, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar and cinnamon. Spiced popcorn? Another example of very subtle play on contrasting texture and flavor.

Guanaja "Torchon", chocolate pop rocks, liquid açaí, creme anglaise
Absolutely brilliant dessert and the single coolest thing I have eaten in Houston. I am going to try to describe it, but you really have to try this to get the full experience. Here’s how it goes – you cut into the perfectly shaped torchon made of chocolate and discover that the cavity (there is a cavity?!) is oozing liquid açaí. What the hell is açaí? It’s a South American superfood that tastes like berry chocolate. Apparently Oprah digs it. Just as you think to yourself that this açaí stuff works brilliantly with chocolate, pop rocks begin to explode in your mouth and send things into overdrive.  The final effect is sort of like a chocolaty 4th of a July celebration (all fireworks, no hot dogs).

I asked Plinio where the idea for this dessert came from and the source turns out to be a foie torchon with beet juice created by Wylie Dufresne at WD-50. I think Wylie would have appreciated the remix.

Oaxacan hot chocolate, vanilla meringue, alfajore
Deeply flavored hot chocolate topped with a dollop of meringue and a Peruvian Oreo-line cookie filled with dulce de leche. Very nice finish to a great meal.


Is the new America’s a bastion of progressive cuisine? No, its still a populist restaurant with an established brand at the end of the day. Is it chef driven? I sense that it’s not entirely – yet. Somehow I think that given free reign over the menu, you’d see an even more radical departure from the original concept than it already is. It would be a positive turn of events as far as I am concerned, but I am not sure how long time American’s patrons would feel about it.

I am not sure I care about any of those things too much. I had a great time at America’s. By the time we were done, 3.5 hours had passed and I hardly noticed. The experience was good enough that I cannot wait to come back to explore more of the menu, which builds on flavors I have not come across anywhere else in the US. Not bad for a place deep in the suburbs.

The most exciting thing about what JJ and Plinio are doing at America’s is that it’s an opportunity to establish Houston at the forefront of culinary progress, rather than an also ran. The notion that we have to "compete" with other cities by emulating hyper fine dining in New York, farm to table eating in Bay Area or spacelab cooking of Chicago is patently absurd. It ignores the unique advantages awarded by our own geography and demographics.

Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the US. Besides creating our own indigenous regional cuisine (similar to Louisiana) and being a gateway to Mexico and South America, this is a true international city. I don’t mean international the same way United Nations makes NY international or the way proximity to Canada makes Seattle international. Houston is an immigrant city, where immigrants work with each other and cook for each other, rather than serve red wine reduction sauces to the highly educated elite class that frequents restaurants in leading cities in the US. The range of flavors you can experience here every day is mind blowing.

America’s is one of the best examples of highlighting Houston as a gateway to Latin America and creating something truly new – a place where you can taste flavors you have never seen before. Yes, they use progressive techniques when appropriate. But it’s the ingredients and flavors that are really exciting.

Go check it out for yourself. It’s worth the trip.

June 20, 2008   12 Comments

Coming to America’s, part 1 – The Food

Some weeks ago I ventured out to America’s in The Woodlands to see if Jonathan Jones and Plinio Sandalio were able to drag this aging Cordua flagship into the new millennium. I ended up walking away thinking "this is one of the most interesting restaurants in Houston and of course it’s not even in Houston". Eventually, the new talent will take charge of the America’s on Post Oak as well, but for now the only way to sample their new creations is to drive down to The Woodlands.

I took 200+ photos and only recently got them down to a more manageable set of just under 100. By the time I started writing about the food I realized that I was generating far too much prose for a single post, so look for part 2 tomorrow. The dessert tasting Plinio staged for us was spectacular and really deserves it’s own post anyway.

The Woodlands location walks the line between the need to preserve the established corporate brand built by the Cordua family and a much needed update to the menu that has made the original restaurant such a coma inducing bore. Plenty of dishes still follow the "grilled protein with a starch or veggies" formula. The astronomically priced beef dishes designed for the moneyed oil set are there too, which must be a comforting thought for the Anadarco and Huntsman execs that work nearby.

But even when the menu plays it safe, the ingredients are sourced more carefully and execution seems a lot tighter than on Post Oak, so you aren’t left wondering why you just paid a lot of money for a botched dish.

Starters, salads, ceviches and desserts is where the new America’s menu is really at its best. Here’s the lineup:

Asparagus, tomato, hearts of palm salad
Not something we ordered, but I am really glad Plinio insisted we try this. An absolutely stellar salad with a bold acidic flavor and pristine vegetables.

Everything on the plate had touches of execution and technique you normally only find in the much more upscale restaurants. Asparagus was perfectly cooked and had uniform texture all the way through the stalk. Hearts of palm tasted as if they were cut and poached right before they hit the plate. They might have even come from a can, but I don’t care. They tasted great. The tomatoes were shocked and peeled to remove the skin. Neatly trimmed cippolini onions, cut in half and either poached or marinated to the point where they became mild and sweet. Few kitchens pay this much attention to a salad.

Kona kampachi ceviche – citrus seared kampachi with serrano chile and crispy corn
Another exceptional dish we would have missed had Plinio not "forced" it on us. Houston has several Peruvian restaurants that serve excellent, but this was in a different league, entirely.

Fish in ceviches is usually marinated for several hours. The America’s version used higher grade of fish marinated just long enough to give it citrus flavor, but before the acid burn sets in. The kampachi tasted like Peruvian crudo topped with a fine dice of Serrano chiles, which added a nice bit of heat without rough texture or harsh chile flavor. The marinade has was dotted with little droplets of flavored oil. I couldn’t identify the exact flavor, but it added a nice mouth feel and helped carry the flavor. Add freeze dried corn kernels and you have yourself a whole symphony of flavors and textures.

As if great flavor isn’t enough, the dish is served with dramatic flare I have only come across at Alinea before. One waiter places the ceviche in front of you, while the other opens a thermos and scoops out corn kernels onto your ceviche. I can only guess that the thermos contains dry ice liquid nitrogen, because your plate is enveloped in smoke for a few moments while you are trying to figure out what’s happening.

Apparently the ceviche is handled by a new Peruvian chef who recently arrived to America’s to work with Jonathan Jones, who has a very deft hand with flavors. Very impressive. Update below

Picapiedras – slow cooked Berkshire pork “ribpops” with tamarindo barbeque glaze
Another first course, another killer dish. Picture the best BBQ rib you’ve ever had in a lollypop form factor. These things were so good I actually considered ordering a whole plate.

The meat was far more tender than what you can achieve in a conventional oven or even using traditional Texas BBQ methods, but also had an intense crust. I asked Plinio how it was made and turns out that the ribs are cooked in a immersion circulator and flash fried before serving to give them a crisp texture. I think a hint of smoke would really put the flavor of these ribs over the top.

Salmon Ahuacatl – crisp roasted wild Coho salmon, ceviche beurre blanc, grilled romaine, and avocado mousse
Kampachi a la Plancha – Hawaiian kampachi , tamale gnocchi, fresh corn, and
smoked tomato jus

Both the fish courses were good, but to be honest, after the bright flavors in the earlier courses, these dishes felt a bit muted. The mains were closer to food I normally associate with America’s, but with a couple of interesting touches. The avocado mousse was quite nice with the salmon and the tamale gnocchi added a really great texture to my dish kampachi dish. I do think fish of high enough quality (and it is at America’s) can be served a touch more rare, but then again I take my fish much less cooked through than most people, so take that with a grain of salt.

Torta la Cubana – roasted achiote pork loin , jamon serrano, local provolone,
house made pickles
Off the lunch menu. Very nice flavors, but the jamon serrano made it quite difficult to eat.

Sopa Cubana
Didn’t have any of this, but reportedly an outstanding black bean soup.

Unfortunately, I visited America’s on a day Jonathan Jones was not in the kitchen, but there is plenty more to explore on the new America’s menu, so I definitely plan to come back for dinner. A few people I have sent after my original visit were quite impressed with the meat courses, but the starters are what I am really interested in. The "neo-traditional" chicken wings, the carnitas, ahi tuna brulee, not the mention a whole range of ceviches all look good enough for multiple visits.

As for the dessert tasting we had, that’s a story for another post.

Update from JJ:

The ceviche is actually a combined recipe from the R&D days when Randy R and I were locked away together. My serum, his fish technique and his knowledge of liquid nitrogen. The tuna brulee is his as well. He has had a profound effect on the restaurants evolution as well as my own.

June 14, 2008   8 Comments

Cloak and dagger eating

Paris is so jam packed with restaurants and extraordinary chef talent that anything that breaks status quo instantly catches fire. Last year Spring, a tiny 16 cover restaurant run by a young American chef (faint, die), was the hottest reservation in town.

This year the American trend is still going strong, but the momentum shifted to bistronomique restaurants – casual spots with high end cuisine at moderate prices and no fuss. Ze Kitchen Gallerie, despite being open for 8 years now and recently earning it’s first Michelin star, is an example in Paris. Not to be outdone, Graham Elliot Bowles left Avenues earlier in the year to open his own "bistronomic" spot – the first in Chicago.

So, what’s more exclusive than a hole in the wall and subversive bistronomique outpost? Underground, invitation only dinners. Suck on that.

The Hidden Kitchen is the new hotness in Paris. It’s exclusive. It’s subversive. It’s run by Americans. You don’t even know where you’re going until the day before the dinner.

No, you don’t need to go to Paris to be trendy and cool. Randy Rucker, the local renegade chef badboy, is doing a secret dinner right here in Houston. He’s subversive.  He’s never seen a food trend he hasn’t liked. And he’s from Tomball.

It should be a lot of fun. I am going. More information here.

June 13, 2008   2 Comments