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Posts from — February 2009

The mini minibar at Bazaar

I don’t travel to DC area very often. When I do, I am constantly reminded that I am within driving distance of minibar, the Jose Andres’ restaurant within a restaurant, which has been near the top of my list of places to visit for the past year.

Liquid olives

I have seen enough of the dishes created by Jose Andres to know he is a brilliant chef with an uncommon talent for using complex techniques to create simple dishes that build on natural flavors of the ingredients. The meal I cooked at home using the more traditional recipes from his Made in Spain shows on PBS was as simple to prepare as it was great; perfect for the home kitchen.

Jose Andres owns several traditional Spanish and Mexican restaurants in DC, but minibar is his personal playground where he tosses as many as 35 tiny, El Bulli inspired courses at a handful of diners each night. There are only six spots in each seating, making reservations somewhat elusive. Last time I was in the area minibar was closed for the hated "winter holiday" (damn French), making things even more difficult. The food is about as close as you can get to the progressive cuisine that makes Spain one of the most interesting food destinations on the planet.

Before Alison Cook  mentioned Bazaar, I had no idea Jose Andres ventured out beyond the DC area, much less as far as Los Angeles.  The menu read like a greatest hits collection from more traditional Jaleo and modern minibar,  which all but sealed the deal.

First surprise at Bazaar: the space is striking. I don’t really care how restaurants look and over the top interiors in LA  grate on my nerves, but the collection of spaces that make up the Bazaar designed by Phillip Starck takes hotel dining to another level.

IMG_0151_thumb[1] Moss at SLS Hotel

IMG_0153_thumb[1]Patisserie at SLS Hotel 

IMG_0144_thumb[1]Bar seating at Bazaar, jamon iberico on display

Lighting at Bazaar is especially great. The restaurant is submerged in darkness that cleverly hides all the botched plastic surgeries in the room, while illuminating the chef areas and each place setting.

Open kitchen at Bazaar

Second surprise: Marcel, the near-miss Top Chef, fills the Executive Sous duties in the Bazaar kitchen. Marcel’s cooking style and,  more important, diva attitude is a perfect fit for a restaurant in Los Angeles. When he wasn’t manning the foam siphon, Marcel was taking photos with guests. LA may not care about food, but they sure do love their celebrities. 

IMG_0127_thumb[1] Marcel, foaming and liquid nitrogenating his way to fame

Third surprise: the food is outstanding. None of the dishes felt “molecular”, nothing misfired, nothing seemed contrived. Even the dishes that weren’t as impressive as others were still fun to eat. The only dish I remotely disliked was the Butifara sausage from the traditional side of the menu and even it probably tastes exactly as it does in Catalonia. For a restaurant walking the not so fine line between modern and traditional cuisine, and a kitchen operating less than 6 months and 2,700 miles away from the chef who’s name anchors the menu that’s nothing short of remarkable.

image_thumb[3]  Olives “Ferran Adrià” old and new
liquid and traditional stuffed with piquillo and anchovies

I’ve had my share of liquid spheres, but this one was one of the best. I especially liked the traditional olives stuffed by the piquillo pepper and small strips of anchovy that tasted more buttery than brined. The only other fish I have come across with the similar texture was the needlefish at Urasawa and the herring fillets the Dutch eat on hot dog buns as street food. The liquid olive are meant to be eaten last exploding with clean, pure olive “essence” without a trace of solid texture.

image_thumb[1]“Philly cheese steak” – air bread, cheddar, wagyu

This one was featured on an amusing episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain fawns all over Jose Andres and giddily devours a minibar meal despite his insistence that his street food eating sensibilities clash with such high concept food.

The “air bread” is a hollowed out torpedo roll filled with what tastes like goat cheese (what cheddar?) and topped with a few nice slices of wagyu. My friend and I agreed that the Jose Andres interpretation does not capture what makes the Philly cheesesteak great (its Cheeze Wheez, give it up), but it didn’t make much difference. It tasted great anyway.

IMG_0092_thumb[1]Salty wrinkled potatoes , “mojo verde”

If you like aggressively seasoned starches, this dish is for you. Each potato was perfectly cooked, each had a healthy amount of salt cut by just the right amount of acidity from mojo verde. The potatoes were nice, but they didn’t really fit the modern dishes I ordered. The moral of this story is – be careful how you construct your meal.

IMG_0097_thumb[1] Ajo blanco – white gazpacho, tomatoes, grapes, raisins

Very nice mild custard of firm panna cotta consistency that carried the flavor of whatever you happen to grab from the top. My favorite was the tomato “caviar” with a few petals of flowers.

IMG_0098_thumb[1] Sea urchin, pipirrana, Andalusian vegetables

I ordered the sea urchin with steamed buns from the modern side of the menu, the canned urchin served from the traditional tapas set came out instead.  The dish was good, but the pico de gallo tasting pipirrana makes it a better fit for people who aren’t 100% sold on sea urchin.  I am not one of these people, so I asked for the right dish.

IMG_0122_thumb[1] Sea urchin, avocado, steamed buns

The dish I actually ordered turned out to be spectacular – the steamed buns and thinly sliced avocado is a perfect complement to sea urchin. The only regret I have is that I didn’t order this last. It would have made a perfect dessert.

My friend dislikes sea urchin, but was determined to try it again he came across a specimen of superb quality (this was it) and loved it as well.  I have seen uni conversions at serious sushi bars before, but witnessing it at a Spanish restaurant was unexpected.

It didn’t occur to me until I saw the photo, but this is essentially an uni slider. Coming soon on the menu at Little Big’s?

IMG_0105_thumb[1] American caviar cone

A perfect bite of waffle cone filled with creme freche and caviar. This would have been better had it been an unexpected amuse or if I had actually ordered the dish. I was hoping for caviar with steamed blini instead, but it never came.

To be honest, I don’t get the fascination with ice cream cone dishes. It was cute when Thomas Keller did it at TFL. Time to move on.

IMG_0108_thumb[1] King crab, raspberry vinegar

Great dish from the canned tapas set that requires a little bit of care. Take a bite of the crab and raspberry together and all you taste is the berry. Eat them separately and the raspberry vinegar works quite nicely to accent the crab with acidity and slight notes of fruit.

IMG_0109_thumb[1] Not your everyday Caprese 
cherry tomatoes, liquid mozzarella

Along with the olives and sea urchin this was one of my favorite dishes of the night.  The tomatoes are real – pristine cherry bombs that explode with tomato flavor under slightest bit of pressure. The mozzarella is a not – another liquid sphere that delivers the intense burst of cheese flavor without the texture. This one works best with all ingredients eaten in one bite.

I had a version of this staple last time I visited Alinea. The frozen mozzarella foam served over liquid tomatoes and basil spheres tasted like a bland V8 flavored snow cone. The dish was a disaster.

In contrast, this was one of the finest Caprese salads I have ever eaten, mainly because Jose Andres knows when to stop before science becomes weird science. Much respect.

IMG_0112_thumb[1] Cotton candy foie gras

The famous minibar dish was everything it’s meant to be – silly, fun, delicious. Yes, the foie got lost in the candy, but there is still something really satisfying in biting into a childhood classic and finding a hunk of chilled liver.

Taking a slight detour, a few other foie dishes you should try – the pop rocks crusted foie lollypop at Graham Elliot in Chicago, foie gras club sandwich at Le Reve in San Antonio, foie bon bons at Catalan in Houston and my personal favorite (if you can convince him to make it) the cocoa dusted pave of foie and foie gras milkshake dessert from Randy Rucker, now at Rainbow Lodge in Houston.

IMG_0117_thumb[1] Tortilla de patatas “new way”
Warm potato foam, egg 63, caramelized onions

The server failed to tell us how to eat this one, so the first few bites were a bit like eating salty potato porridge. Not good. Once we dug in deeper to broke through the yolk however, the salt balanced out and this turned out to be an excellent dish.

This is the Spanish version of the L’Arpege egg. Highly recommended. 

IMG_0125_thumb[1] Paella-style pasta, monkfish, shrimp, seafood broth

Surprise hit from the traditional side of the menu. The taste was classic  paella, but the texture was that of light strands of pasta. Add a dollop of garlic aioli to each spoonful and this is a great, great dish.

IMG_0132_thumb[2] “Butifarra” pork sausage
white beans, ceps Senator Moynihan

The only dish I didn’t care for. The white beans were nice, but I thought the sausage tasted like a run of the mill frankfurter. I think Texans are forever ruined by German influence to appreciate something like this.

IMG_0137_thumb[1] Hot chocolate mousse, pears, salty hazelnut praline

My dessert was good, not great. Don’t think I’d order this again.

IMG_0136_thumb[1] Nitro coconut floating island, passion fruit, vanilla

If you roll your eyes every time a restaurant goes overtly molecular, use of liquid nitrogen is more than a gimmick here. The dome acquires shape and texture – frozen at the top, perfectly soft and fluffy in the center – without giving it the vile gritty texture of hardened meringue.

Traditional floating islands are a sugary mess. The version served at Bazaar is a huge improvement – icy meringue, acidic passion fruit and bananas make turn this dish into throwback to ice cream sundaes, of sorts. I like.


Full set of photos from Bazaar. Well worth a repeat visit and then a few more after that.

February 17, 2009   9 Comments

First look at Grimaldi’s in Houston

The same week Robb Walsh was in Brooklyn trying the pie at the original Grimaldi’s, I stopped by the newly opened location of the Grimaldi’s chain in Sugarland. My pizza didn’t look quite as awesome as the one Robb’s picture, but it was every bit as good as the location in Dallas I tried on my Ike induced hurrication.

The cheese and toppings are definitely of higher quality than Russo’s ( my more recent visit in January was my last) and the crust has a much better chew, perhaps as a result of the process our waiter called “reverse oxmosis” that brings the water used for the pizza dough as close to Brooklyn quality as possible.

The only possible problem with Grimaldi’s is the layer of slightly gummy dough beneath the toppings, which may be a side effect of the crust being just a little thicker than it should be. I actually like the texture, but not everyone is a fan. Better stay on the safe side and order your pizza with only one meat topping if you want to avoid liquid runoff from vegetables that adds to the gooey mess. 

Last time I was in NYC I couldn’t resist  trying Angelo’s Pizza on West 57th Street, which was about 8 blocks from my hotel. To my surprise I found that I prefer Grimaldi’s, chain restaurant guilt not withstanding. 

Angelo’s is considered to be one of the best coal fired pizzerias in NY and the pizza I had there was good, but the crust lacked the character of the pies served at Grimaldi’s. The terrible caprese salad didn’t help things either (in all fairness, salads at Grimaldi’s are equally bad).

I’ve never had the pizza at the original Grimaldi’s (we’ll have to wait for Robb to find out how the chain compares to the real thing), but this is definitely the best way to get your hands on NY style pizza without buying a plane ticket.

February 16, 2009   3 Comments

Sticking it to the French

Staying with the “French food isn’t always all its cracked up to be” theme from the last post

In Paris this summer I could not resist going to Au Pied de Cochon. A fixture in Les Halles that has stayed open around the clock for decades the place was dripping with gaudy history and had a menu where hamburgers shared space with steak tar tar, foie gras and pigs feet. It was perfect for a late night food run with a large group of people.

The house specialty of stewed calf’s head seemed too good to pass up in the late hour, so that’s what I went with. 

What I got was a copper pot fillet with something resembling thoroughly overboiled soup meat in a thin broth. It tasted fine as far as boiled meat goes, but nowhere near calf’s head potential. The rest of the food my friends got didn’t look much better.

This is where charm of the place began to wear thin. I thought about telling the guy who spent the entire night crying and begging his girlfriend to take him back to stop being such a pussy (that’s him in the 5th photo). Instead I paid my bill and left quietly, directing my thoughts to a happier place.

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February 10, 2009   4 Comments

Mollejas @ Taqueria Tacambaro

While I am recovering from a flu, almost 50 people from the Houston Chowhounds list are recovering from a taco truck crawl. Their first stop is my favorite eat spot in Houston – the Tacambaro truck behind Canino Produce.

Robb Walsh first wrote about Tacambaro in his excellent article about taco trucks in Houston (I hoped for a regular taco truck feature in the Press, but it hasn’t happened yet).  I’ve been making regular trips to Tacambaro ever since and every time walk away convinced that this Mexican preparation of sweetbreads is superior to the French.

The French version of sweetbreads is quite pre-processed – the glands are cleaned, soaked, poached, pressed and peeled, before being dredged in flour and sautéed. The Mexican version seems a lot simpler. The taco lady simply peels off enough meat to make a taco from a big bag full of poached sweetbreads, then throws them on the griddle and pan fries in some mysterious grease.

The sweetbreads come apart in all the right places along the membrane lines and eventually look like broken down cauliflower florets, each individually fried until they have a perfect ratio of crispy surface to creamy interior.

Combined with a salsa verde, a few chopped onions, cilantro and an avocado wedge, these tacos are far better than any French sweetbread dish I have ever tried. Order it with a Mexican Coke in a glass bottle, if you want to get the complete experience.

More images from Canino’s Produce and Taqueria Tacambaro.

February 7, 2009   16 Comments

POD: Pork Belly @ Lilette (New Orleans)

Today’s photo comes from a question asked on the Houston Chowhounds mailing list about Lilette in the Garden District of New Orleans as a potential site of a special occasion dinner.

I stopped by Lilette about a year ago and while it’s not a restaurant I’d choose for an epic meal you will remember for the rest of your life, it was one of the best French bistros I have come across last year. Lilette a perfect lunch stop before a walk through dozens of antique stores on Magazine street or a quiet dinner away from French Quarter madness at night.

braised pork belly with tomato, cucumber, basil salad

My friends weren’t that enthusiastic about their lunch selections, but I loved my braised pork belly, which had spent some quality time under a broiler. More impressive still were the immaculate cucumbers and tomatoes that tasted as if they had come directly from the field and had never seen the inside of a fridge. Sometimes a simple dish with perfect ingredients is better than an overwrought culinary creation and this seems to be what Lilette does best.

Desserts were simple, classically French and very well done (try the poached pears). About as good as lunch gets, overall.

February 3, 2009   5 Comments