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Posts from — August 2008

Plinio Sandalio now at Gravitas

Looks like the talent drain from the Cordua restaurants is finally complete. You can now find Plinio and his brilliant desserts at Gravitas, which should be a much better fit for his abilities than America’s. There is only so much you can do in a restaurant where nostalgia for the “original” tres leches cake recipe dictates what happens in the kitchen.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the Cordua family at one of Randy’s dinners. Both Michael and David are clearly highly intelligent restaurateurs who care about their business and their customers. Still, I can’t stop thinking about opportunity lost here. Under JJ and Plinio, America’s was shaping up to be one of the best restaurants in Houston. What will happen to it now that they are both gone?

As I have said before, food at Gravitas has recently taken a turn for the better and I hope Plinio get’s to pull double duty and fill the pastry chef role at the Textile, when it opens. Having just completed a tour through some of the top restaurants in Europe I am even more convinced that Plinio is a rising star. Maybe Textile is just ambitious enough of a project to let him show what he can really do.

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For now, drool over these smoked brownies served at a recent Tenacity dinner, which really taste more like luscious nuggets of smoke inflected chocolate ganache.

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Ironically, these would fit right in at Beaver’s, where desserts have been very disappointing thus far.

August 29, 2008   4 Comments

Musical chairs

Seems like every six months or so chefs in Houston play musical chairs.

First, Cleverley announced that Olivier Ciesielski has left Tony’s with seemingly nowhere in particular to go. All the accolades aside, my one visit to Tony’s at lunch about a year ago wasn’t interesting enough to prompt a return for dinner. The food was well prepared, but definitely tailored for the moneyed River Oaks set who love to play it safe. Watching Olivier do his thing with Charles Clark on Iron Chef clearly showed he has more up his sleeve than feeding the rich and boring, so I hope he gets a chance to work on his own terms and do something more inspired.

Not a day passes and Alison Cook breaks the news that Jonathan Jones has left America’s in The Woodlands, where he and Plinio were doing their best to bring the aging institution into the 21st century with promising results. I am not terribly surprised. I don’t know the dirty laundry behind the scenes, but Randy Rucker’s departure some time ago hinted at poor talent management at the Cordua restaurants. I suspect dealing with creative chefs requires more A&R skills than MBA smarts, and managing talent doesn’t seem to in the Cordua dynasty DNA. I heard Randy once say more than once that David Cordua is the next Danny Meyer. This may or may not be true, but Danny Meyer has Daniel Humm. Who is going to fill that role at the Cordua restaurants now?

All of this means that America’s will be yet again relegated to mediocrity because it has always been and always will be more of a business than a restaurant. Meanwhile, the real winner here may be Beaver’s. While the bar at the ice house seems to have virtually no detractors (I am not a drinker, so I cannot judge), the food has never been a strong point. After numerous disappointing meals there I stopped going, so things can only get better.

My first dinner at Beaver’s was actually quite good. The smoked meats were serviceable, but the sausage sourced from somewhere deep in Texas was excellent. Better still, corn puppies and peppenchinis stuffed with smoked pork studded cream cheese, first beta tested at t’afia, were some of the finest examples of bar food around. The quail stuffed with the same smoked pork cream cheese was fork tender and served just pink, as it should be. The desserts were lame, but I everything else was good enough that I got over that without much trouble. Who wants to eat desserts at a Texas ice house? I sent people to Beaver’s just to see what perfect quail should really be.

Things quickly deteriorated from there. On the second visit the quail came out unseasoned and tasted a bit rubbery (it’s gone from the menu entirely now). The brisket wasn’t far behind. Worse still, almost everything I had at lunch was inedible. The tiny portion of plain pasta with a few chunks of bland ground beef, served with a similarly unseasoned vegetable ratatouille, I ordered before a flight out of town put me an awkward position of having to actually eat those nasty little Continental dogburgers soaked in processed American cheese.

On another lunch visit the North Carolina BBQ pork sandwich was so soaked in vinegar we might as well have been eating the rump of Siamese cat, instead of the advertised pork shoulder. We ordered the sausage plate just to get the taste of our mouths, but the smoked links I had on my first visit were replaced with the house made sausage that was undercooked and tasted terrible. I haven’t been back since.

I doubt we’ll see any liquid nitrogen pyrotechnics at Beaver’s any time soon, but I do hope JJ makes the menu more interesting and consistent. Beaver’s seems to be doing well despite the uneven kitchen, but an upscale BBQ joint in Houston is such a great idea that it deserves better than that. Maybe, with a steady hand in the kitchen and a bit of creativity Beaver’s may some day rival the insanely great Cochon in New Orleans. As it stands today, it’s not even a contender.

August 29, 2008   11 Comments

Houston Restaurant Week @ Whataburger

My last dinner at *17 was good, but stopped quite short of being great. Despite several execution mistakes, I was looking forward to seeing the menu evolve. Alison Cook’s positive review in June made me think it was time for another visit and the Houston Restaurant Week seemed like a good opportunity. End the Hunger, right?

Not quite.

By the end of the night I was wolfing down Whataburger chicken strips on the hood of my car at a local Shell station. Judging by the comments around the table last night, I wasn’t the only one who left *17 hungry that night.

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Amount of food isn’t always important. Despite the number of dishes, Tenacity dinners trend on the lighter side, but given the quality of the cooking and ingredients no one seems to mind and people keep coming back. Trouble is the food at *17 just isn’t all that spectacular to begin with, so leaving hungry just adds insult to injury.

The amuse might have been the best thing I ate at *17 that night. Not that it was particularly special, but it was better than the rest of the meal. First course was the roasted tomato soup, which nearly everyone at the table ordered because was (supposedly) served with pork belly. The soup wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. A marginal improvement at best on the Campbell’s original, which might have been much better had the advertised pork belly actually made an appearance.

Main courses were rather institutional. The halibut was not of particularly high quality, not was it cooked well enough to get the best out of the fish. The portion served to Ruthie had broken in half, but somehow made it out of the kitchen anyway, which is indicative of the level of attention the kitchen pays to detail. The smear of “corn pudding” seemed like a feeble attempt at creativity, but tasted flat and added an unpleasant sweet overtone to the dish. I did not try the NY Strip, but most people at the table agreed it didn’t taste much like a strip.

There are plenty of high end hotels in Houston, but the restaurants attached to them deliver a largely a sub par experience (Voice is a notable exception). If a restaurant like McCrady’s located in a small market can overcome the departure of Michael Kramer by bringing in a rising star chef like Sean Brock, surely well funded hotel restaurants in Houston can do the same by bringing in top culinary talent that can raise the game. So far that hasn’t happened.

*17 will continue to do decent business, but it’s going to remain a slightly above average hotel restaurant at best. If you plan to go there for the Houston Restaurant Week, save yourself the trouble. Head straight for Whataburger and donate what you save directly to the End the Hunger network. The chicken strips are actually quite good and you won’t find yourself cursing the chef for screwing you out of pork bellies. (<– my homage to Robb Walsh)

August 12, 2008   12 Comments

more miracle berries bollocks

Jenny, who has cornered the Houston flavor tripping market, has dug up  a very amusing video of Gordon Ramsay doing a miracle berry taste test. Needless to say, results are “mixed”.

Clearly, people with superior palates and acerbic personalities are impervious to this miracle berry nonsense.

August 7, 2008   4 Comments

Houston Restaurant Week picks

I am sure this isn’t news to people reading this blog – Houston Restaurant Week starts on Monday and is a great opportunity to try some of the better restaurants in town and donate a little for a good cause while you are at it.

I am going to be out of town for most of the Houston Restaurant Week, so here’s my absentee ballot for best bets:

  • 17 (the new chef isn’t knocking it out of the park yet, but definitely has promise)
  • America’s – The Woodlands (the carnitas sound really nice; skip the generic tres leches and go for the Plinio original)
  • Arcodoro (when it’s on, Arcodoro is very good. stick with the Sardinian specialties and pasta)
  • Cafe Annie (I am really starting to warm up to this place. get the potato soup and striped bass)
  • Gravitas (I run hot and cold on Gravitas. it has been rather good lately)
  • Voice (if you aren’t sure about doing a full boat tasting, this might be a good way to do a test drive. then go back and do the tasting menu.)

Arcodoro in action

Honorable mentions

  • Jasper’s (could well be a gimmick, but kent rathburn sounds like a good chef)
  • Bistro Lancaster (never been, but have always wanted to go)
  • Le Mistral (another place I haven’t been to, but comes highly recommended by people I trust)
  • Gigi’s Asian Bistro (a lot of the dishes are generic pan-Asian fare, but the chef really does a nice job on the Spice Market section. their green curry chicken dishes are outstanding.)
  • Glass Wall (so maybe they botched my steak when I went a year ago, but maybe it was my fault for ordering steak?)
  • Kiran’s (HRW menu sounds dull, but Kiran’s is a great restaurant. honestly, you can score a better deal on the same dishes at lunch)
  • The Grove (I find the food boring, but reasonably well executed. I think I keep going back just because I like the dining room.)
  • Max’s Wine Dive

As for me, I plan to forget everything I know about exchange rates and self control in Europe. Amsterdam doesn’t have a whole lot of interesting food destinations, but I am really looking forward to a kaiseki menu at Yamazato. I also plan to stop by the Sea Grill, while I am in Brussels. The restaurant seems a bit more formal than I normally enjoy during a 24 hour stay in a city, but it will be interesting to see how it compares to a fish focused L2O in Chicago. 

Being in Paris in August (beyond my control) is pure torture if you are mainly interested in eating, but overall things are looking good. L’Arpege and Le Bristol are already booked. I will likely find myself at the Ze Kitchen Galerie and Le Chateaubriand as well.

Any other stops in Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels I should consider?

August 7, 2008   4 Comments