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2009 – a year in photos (July-December)

2011 is one hour away and everyone is finished with their illustrious 2010 retrospectives at this point. Me? I march to the beat of a different drummer. He’s the second part of my unfinished ‘2009 in photos’ post (a promise is a promise).

I found this scared crawdad on a floor of a grocery store in Houston, where more crawfish is consumed than in any city in US (according to Jim Gossen). It’s odd how protective you can feel about a creature that you’re consume without giving it much thought under different circumstances. That didn’t prevent me from demolishing at least 60 pounds of crawfish that year.

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This shot is from the uni dinner Randy Rucker hosted while he was still at Rainbow Lodge. Big lesson – sea urchin is amazingly briny and bright directly out of the shell. Give it a few hours and the flavor becomes muted. This is why sushi in US will always have a tough time coming even remotely close to what you find in Japan.

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The pork belly at Feast in Houston is one of the best preparations of this cut I’ve ever encountered, owing to skin that’s crisp enough to shatter on impact. Proof? My most recent meal at The Sportsman included a similar pork belly dish prepared by a chef I consider one of the best in the world (Stephen Harris), but not one as good as what you find at Feast.

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In summer of 2009 I made the first of many visits to Pho Binh Trailer, which became an instant Houston classic for me. This is one of the top 3 dishes I recommend to food obsessed visitors to the city. It never fails to make a huge impression and continues to be on my “must have” list for Houston.

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In August I had the honor of judging the Pork Belly Throwdown at Catalan. It was a total blur and the first time I really understood just how big the Houston grassroots food community has become. 

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Also in August, first edition of the Chicken Fried NY Strip at Beaver’s (now considered a classic), which is perfect example of flavors that define Houston cooking – big, bold flavors channeling the South and Gulf Coast.

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Of all the meals I had at Catalan in 2009, this slightly chewy, intensely flavored grilled pork on the meze plate  inspired by Chris Shepherd’s trip to Turkey stood out the most. Catalan remains one of my favorite restaurants in the city, because nearly every dish is a testament to just how much Chris loves eating Houston. If you love food, you can’t help but find his enthusiasm infectious.

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Late summer 2009 – one of the most surreal meals of my life. There was a lot of tension at Rainbow Lodge that night, Randy was obviously going through a rough time and yet the kitchen crew cooked one of the best meals I had at Rainbow Lodge.

I could tell that the entire kitchen crew was on edge, but this dish built around duck breast, buckwheat pasta, mushrooms and dashi was as good as anything you find in some of the most progressive kitchens in the world. In 2010, the same crew re-united at Bootsie’s and is already turning heads on the national stage. Expect big things coming from Tomball as Restaurant Connate launches in Spring of 2011.

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In September I finally figured out how to eat in Las Vegas without disappointment. Aburiya Raku (off the strip and infinitely affordable) is the best izakaya I’ve found, including in Japan. Best item on the menu is what I consider a reference version of agedashi tofu, made in house and stunning in every way.

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By the end of September I was in Paris, where I finally got to try Pierre Herme, which was closed on my first trip. Highlight of this trip was a visit to Le Chateaubriand, where Inaki Aizpitarte is creating a brand of cooking entirely different than what you typically find in France. In 2010 I revisited Le Chateaubriand and had an even stronger meal than in 2009.

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This is one of the worst dishes I had in 2009. The meal at Pierre Gagnaire was as stunningly disappointing as it was expensive. Gagnaire was in the kitchen that night, but much of the food was erratic, pointless and over-manipulated. Desserts were stunning, however.

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This is one of the best dishes I had in 2009. Noma was more than worth a trip to Copenhagen and proof that Scandinavia is at the forefront of where food is today. By 2010 it was named the best restaurant in the world.

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When I arrived in Copenhagen, I had no idea it was the Olympic city decision weekend, which meant that Michelle Obama and Oprah were causing massive traffic delays. Tokyo was eliminated first, rendering their fans only slightly subdued. They were dressed like Picachus. 

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The best thing about London may be it’s relative proximity to Seasalter, the most beautiful setting for a restaurant I have ever seen. The c0-owner of The Sportsman (chef’s brother) spent many years in Texas and believes Houstonians are some of the nicest people in the world. In kind, I think this is one of the most essential food experiences in the world, so the admiration is mutual.

Somehow between Europe and Japan I found myself in San Francisco… home of surprisingly good Cajun food (?!). These savory beignets at Brenda’s French Soul Food are filled with crawfish and dusted with cayenne.

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My trip to Japan in November has redefined the way I view food and purity of ingredients. These intensely flavored micr0-tomatoes at Sawada are of many reasons why.

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The visit to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo was one of highlights of my trip to Japan. I was only beginning to grasp the special relationship the Japanese have with food. Being able to shadow Masahiko Kobe (original Iron Chef Italian and an incredible cook) as he shopped for his dinner service and allowed the market to shape his menu really brought it home.

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A week later I was in New Orleans, consuming obscene amounts of while Alba truffles at Scott Boswell’s Stella!. Truffles were everywhere that night, including in this dessert course of deep fried truffles perched on top of truffle ice cream. It’s was as good as it sounds.

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It snowed in Houston right before Christmas. I headed straight for Feast.

No better place to spend a snowy day than Feast. No better dish than Bath Chaps.

And that’s how 2009 ended.

There is a chance I’ll do one of these for 2010. In 2012. We’ll have to see how the year unfolds. xz

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