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Posts from — April 2009

Pico’s Bakery and Taqueria

Alison Cook posted a first look at Pico’s Bakery and Taqueria, which has become a regular destination for me since it opened a few weeks ago.

I am slowly working my way through the menu, but breakfast and Katz’s Coffee is still the best reason to visit Pico’s Bakery, at least in the morning. Along with the chilaquiles and eggs platters at Gorditas Aguas Calientes about a mile away on Bissonnet they make for one of the best Mexican breakfasts in town.

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The tinga and chilorio meat was as expertly crafted as the cochinita pibil at Pico’s the restaurant, but lack of anything other than meat in the burrito and the generic tortilla didn’t hold my interest. I suspect I’ll get more mileage from the tortas and tacos.

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What Pico’s Bakery does exceptionally well at night are the desserts. Like Alison Cook, I am not the biggest fan of Mexican pastries, but the cakes at Pico’s can be truly outstanding.

For some reason Houston has a dearth of independently owned bakeries. For a while, Rustika turned out some of the cakes in town, but seemed to have lost it’s way a few years ago. Turns out there is a reason for that.

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According to Arnaldo Richards, who owns Pico’s, the woman who did most of the baking at Rustika left around that time.  After some time away from a commercial kitchen, she has partnered with the Pico’s crew to open a bakery. And that’s how Houston got one of it’s best cake masters back.

If you see the chocolate tres leches, grab a few slices. It’s unbelievably good.

April 28, 2009   10 Comments

Brisa Cocina Mexicana

I was irritated with Frank Bruni. How could someone with so much insight about food be so obviously pig headed?

Bruni’s enthusiasm for Bazaar may have matched my own when he named it one of the best new restaurants in the country, but I was stunned when Feast became his next pick. I am huge Feast fan, but Houston is not entirely visitor friendly and many restaurants deserving national attention are often overlooked as a result. It was great to see NY Times venture outside of their familiar stomping grounds. The only thing that really bugged me was that Bruni pandering to his base when he described Houston as the “land of big steaks and bold Tex-Mex”. Is the elitist attitude really necessary?

Every time someone makes such a sweeping generalization, I want to show them what the real Houston looks like in just one part of the city – the new Chinatown. Not the usual collection of pseudo-Chinese restaurants and gift shops that occupy a tidy span of 7 or 8 city blocks, but an entire city where real people live and eat. A place where pho, pupusas, boiled crawfish, dim sum and beignets very naturally occupy the same stretch of the road.

176 Vietnamese and cajun cultures collide at Boiling Crab

Frank Bruni, in particular, could also use a visit to Rainbow Lodge, so he can see the formation of the wholly new brand of Gulf Coast cuisine created without the benefit of fanfare that surrounds young NYC wunderkinds like David Chang. Great food is becoming as much the foundation of this city as oil and much of it is grounded in the diverse cultures of it’s residents.

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April 19, 2009   7 Comments

Komi (Washington, DC)

Restaurants live and die by the personal ambitions of their chefs more than they care to admit. Some aim to be the best in the city, content with the reward of perpetually packed dining rooms, while others push on to compete on a national stage. Komi aims to occupy this space and Johnny Mannis’ obsession with perfect execution and purity of ingredients earns his restaurant the right to be mentioned in the same conversation with such names as Manresa and Vetri. While Komi is clearly a work in progress, few restaurants in today can make such claim.

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Since opening in 2004, Mannis has halved the number of seats to 38 and doubled the prices. The cost isn’t extreme, you can easily spend twice the amount at Citronelle, but few can afford to make dinner here a regular affair. None of the changes, not even an economic recession or a new administration in the White House, has made a dent in the restaurants’ popularity – Komi is still booked solid weeks in advance.

Komi hopes to provide an elevated experience and the uneasy showmanship is perhaps the singular weakness at Komi. The candle lit dining room set in an old brownstone looks theatric (direct throwback to Vetri), but hides the visual dimension of the food. The wait staff warn that photos of the food are not allowed, lest they spoil the surprise for future diners. I find this trend of self-aggrandizing chefs dictating what I do with my food highly annoying. After sampling the food at the photophobic and photoloving restaurants alike, I’ll go out on the limb and say that the creations they are trying hardest to protect are not all that unique. Meanwhile, the unreasonable rules imposed by the restaurant leave more than a slight bitter taste in your mouth.

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I stopped my whining as soon as the first few plates of mezzethakia, Komi-speak for a progression of small tastes before the main courses, began to arrive. I couldn’t figure out  why the two nearly identical sashimi ribbons of aji and kampachi seemed so familar at first. Turns out Mannis spent some time working for Michael Kraemer at McCrady’s, who uses the same preparation to this day at Voice.

Even if the intended arc of the mezzethakia doesn’t always come together, the individual parts can be outstanding. The two small quenelles of hanger steak tartar and black truffle ice cream are a nod to French Laundry and other European inflected, but decidedly American restaurants, in terms of flavor, form and flawless execution. The salmon tartare required a little editing to eliminate the overwhelming sweetness of the candied pine nuts, but the rest of the dish, finished with sea urchin vinaigrette and frozen shiso leaf sorbet, brought a remarkable dimension to one of the most overused fish varieties today. Similarly impressive were the sashimi of diver scallops served in two preparations, one with black truffles and the other suspended in gelee and finished with sea urchin, seamlessly blending the best tastes of the earth and the sea. The fried Caesar salad taken in one bite may not have delivered much of the anticipated anchovy or Parmesan flavor, but the steamed brioche with Meyer lemon mousse and trout roe was as ethereal as it was stunning.

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April 12, 2009   7 Comments

Little Big’s man getting his due

It’s odd to call someone with as much experience as Bryan Caswell a new chef, but that’s exactly what Food & Wine magazine did yesterday when they chose him as one of the 10 Best New Chefs of 2009.

I don’t take awards very seriously, but this one seems to be the real deal. The 10 Best New Chefs chosen annually by Food & Wine tend to have real talent and usually go on to have stellar careers for years to come. Most tellingly, Food & Wine editors somehow avoid the coastal trap James Beard Awards so predictably fall into every year (Caswell was bounced out from the list of final nominees to make room for chefs in Las Vegas who share the Southwestern region with Houston – WTF?) and go out of their way to find truly great food around the country.

IMG_6766 Carnitas, cooling raita at Reef

In a lot of ways the “new” designation makes perfect sense. Caswell spent years working in the Jean-Georges Vongrichten empire, but Reef is where he really began to cook his own food. Reef channels Houston at it’s best – an effortless blend of Gulf Coast ingredients and cooking traditions inflected with international flavors found in all corners of this giant city.  Visitors may never truly get a feel for the real Houston the way the locals do, but restaurants like Reef, Catalan, Rainbow Lodge, Beaver’s and soon to be open Haven give them the best chance to get a taste. There are a handful of chefs defining Gulf Coast cuisine in Houston and Bryan Caswell is right in the thick of things.

IMG_6757 Jalapeno mint jelly at Reef

Peel away the layers of national recognition and Reef’s critical acclaim and you find a guy who spends his free time in the Gulf Coast waters, obsessing about often overlooked local fish species. Or opening unassuming burger shacks that show an uncommon understanding of what really works in Houston.

IMG_6760 Sweet potato and bacon ravioli, 
Oloroso sherry, green apple at Reef

Reef is a great place to eat, but few restaurants have become instant classics as quickly as Caswell’s latest venture – Little Big’s. The slider shack has only been open for a few short months, but on a recent night during March Madness a large crowd was gathered around a rear projection TV on the patio. It looked as if Little Big’s had been a fixture on Montrose for years. The night I picked up my very tired new puppy from the airport, Little Big’s seemed like the most natural place for a late night dinner.

IMG_1322 Zoe’s first night at Little Big’s

The sliders at Little Big’s are a mirror image of the ones served at Reef. Given all the things to sample on the Reef menu, I never paid much attention to them until my company booked our holiday party at the 3rd Bar. I ended up eating four that night. I have always thought the concept of tiny burgers was a little silly, but for me the perfect burger comes down to good meat and the right beef to bread ratio. Little Big’s nails it on both of those counts with freshly ground beef and big yeasty rolls.

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Little Big’s is almost universally loved – the only complaint you ever hear is that the beef sliders sometimes come out a little dry; most likely a side effect of the Big’s kitchen running at near capacity at all times. I found little to complain about on my first visit strategically timed at 6pm to avoid the rush. The fries are some of the best in town, walking a fine line between being crisp and hopelessly over fried. The chocolate milk shake was exemplary. The staff at Big’s were already overrun with orders that night,  but my sliders were  cooked to medium and still made a respectable mess.

IMG_9985 Slider trio at Little Big’s

The beef was a bit more dry on the second visit, but even though I prefer burgers medium rare, the meat is of high enough quality that it tastes good even when cooked a bit beyond ideal temperature. I think at this point it comes down to figuring out just the right combination of toppings before these things are perfectly tailored my tastes. Jalapeno, Sriracha mayo and processed American cheese? If Big’s only served processed American cheese…

In any case. The Food & Wine blurb on Caswell mentions that his dream is to open to 2,000 sq foot oyster bar. Given his successful interpretation of Houston’s fast food with Little Big’s, I for one hope he takes on the taco truck next instead.

April 2, 2009   4 Comments