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Swan song at Gravitas

I have nothing new to say about the very public feud between Jason Gould and Scott Tycer. Plenty of ink has been spilled on this topic already and none of it changes the fact that this is a sad story with no winners (as is often the case when McKinsey consultants are involved).

What I will say is that today is Jason Gould’s last day at Gravitas and you should consider going in for dinner.

Gravitas isn’t closing, but it’s certainly not going to be same after Jason Gould departs this week. More so than ever before it has become his kitchen and the more uniquely Australian touches I saw on the menu the more I was wanted to return.

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I visited Sydney twice, but somehow some of the best Australian food I have had has been in Houston, at Gravitas. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find kangaroo on the menus in Sydney. I raced over to Gravitas when I heard Gould put skippy on the Queen’s birthday menu and it was more than worth the trip.

Same visit also gave me my first taste of a pavlova, another dish that I never came across in Australia, despite their proximity to New Zealand (they do have a Krispy Kreme, however).

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This week I returned to try the Gravitas Aussie burger, which was another Australian specialty that left unfulfilled. My first Aussie burger was at Hungry Jacks, an Australian version of Burger King. Not even the canned beets and a rubbery fried egg could overcome the fact that I was essentially eating a Whopper. Still, the prospect of beets on a burger is irresistible to someone of Eastern European background.

The second time was in an Australian “steakhouse”, which makes Outback look like a pantheon of prime beef.  Thanks in part to the awful beef, the burger somehow turned out even worse than the one at Hungry Jacks.

Gould’s version served at Gravitas isn’t perfect, but it is a huge improvement over the Aussie burgers I had before and definitely worth ordering. I can do without the pineapple that interferes with the pronounced beet flavor I was seeking, though I am sure that violates some sort of “authenticity” laws. I also wish the bread was less bready so it would be possible to eat the burger without fork and knife, but the combination of beef, fried egg and beets is undeniably great and really delivers a whole new burger experience.

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Don’t miss the roasted red pepper and corn falafel that may appear on the prix fixe menu tonight. It’s the best falafel preparation I have had since I was hooked on the soft, almost creamy version served at Las du Falafel in Paris and it’s very different than the dry hockey pucks we’re used to in Houston.

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I really like the way the orange creamsicle, from Rebecca Mason’s new dessert menu, glows like a geometrically correct iceberg in the photos. Thanks to the bright flavors and a contrast in textures, it tastes pretty good too. May want to order that one as well.

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Public drama aside, I like the food at Textile and Gravitas enough to wish that both restaurants do well. I also hope that Jason Gould finds a place in Houston where he can cook his food on his own terms. He is clearly a gifted chef and I think his Australian departures at the “American Bistro for Houston” really gave the place a distinct character that will be missed when he leaves.

Mean, you can catch Jason Gould doing his thing one last time at Gravitas on Thursday, August 27th. Go.

August 27, 2009   1 Comment

Good food day in Texas

A few days ago there was a lot chatter about an article published by the Dallas Morning News critic (and recent LA transplant) Leslie Brenner that went into a long list of deficiencies she sees in the Dallas restaurant scene. Houston eaters piled on and quickly adopted her gripes as their own. I had to disagree.

I may be a merciless bastard with an obnoxious streak, but I also love living in Texas and find this a thrilling place to eat. It’s not that don’t enjoy my dining  adventures in supposed “great restaurant” cities – I do. It’s just that by the end of the trip I usually wonder how the locals manage to survive without the wild range of cuisines and flavors I have such easy access to in Houston, and Texas in general.

I could go into a protracted explanation, but maybe the best way to illustrate my point with a few photos of what I ate today.

My day began in San Antonio with a decidedly Tex-Mex rendition of a chilaquiles wrapped in some of the finest flour tortillas in the state, at Blanco Cafe.

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OK, so maybe my day didn’t really begin at Blanco Cafe, but it should have and it did last week. Plus today I had the time to swing by the City Market in Luling on the way home, which has some of the best BBQ in Texas (and therefore the Universe). 

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The historic pit room at City Market has many charms, but I like it most because it makes my clothes smell like smoke on the way home.  Smelling like wood smoke beats smelling like a great restaurant city any day of the week.

You just know you’re about to eat something sublime standing in line at this place and once you unfold the brown butcher paper bag, this is what you find (no further explanation or sauce is necessary):

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At dinner time I found myself back in Houston, at Beaver’s. Apparently some people find this place overrated, but I keep finding excellent, creative dishes built around the best local ingredients there that makes me think that maybe Beaver’s is in fact underrated and maybe a bit misunderstood, instead.

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Tonight’s special was absolutely stunning – raw Gulf Coast escolar with cucumber essence, few citrus slices, julienne of radish and pickled chili peppers. The dish was kicked up to a whole new level by the addition of black garlic, which has an earthy pungency that  black truffles can only dream of.

Retrace my steps through Texas and you may find yourself wondering why anyone would complain about the restaurants in Texas.

I’ll concede that this may not be happening in Dallas, but in Houston we get to witness a quiet emergence of a whole new direction of Gulf Coast cuisine, driven by the up and coming chefs at Reef, Rainbow Lodge, Beaver’s, Catalan and several others. These chefs will be shaping the direction of cooking in this region for years to come. How can eating here be any less than thrilling?

August 21, 2009   No Comments

Undisputed Top Chef

About a year ago I visited Frontera Grill in Chicago with some ill intent. My earlier visit to Topolobampo was less than thrilling and I thought I had to at least try Frontera Grill before I declared Hugo Ortega the real king of modern Mexican cuisine in the US. In a mind of a committed narcissist, such declarations actually carry weight and I had to be sure.

For one reason or another, Topolobampo failed to capture my imagination. Coming from Houston, the Mexican flavors seemed far too timid and got lost in technique that was unnecessarily French. The meal was a disappointment to my Tex-Mex bred table mates as well. Add to that the Bayless mania in the media, the cookbooks, the grocery store salsas and you have yourself a better than average celebrity chef target that deserves to be taken down a notch or two.

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I was wrong. From a trip that took me through a bewildering number of courses at Alinea, L2O, Graham Elliot and Moto, the dishes I remember most vividly came from Frontera Grill. After spending a night ingesting otherworldly foams, gels and aerated frozen solids, the mouth feel of a chili, tomatillo and lard laced tamale felt like food therapy.

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Unlike what I found at Topolobampo, the relatively simple dishes at Frontera were bold, bright and complex.These were some of the best executed renditions of these Mexican dishes I’ve ever had, prepared with the higher quality ingredients and precision uncommon in other Mexican restaurants (unfortunately, this includes Hugo’s, which at the time took a walk on the dark side and had serious consistency problems). Flying back home all I could think about was that I really should have gone to Frontera for dinner, too. 

Watching Rick Bayless stun the judges on Top Chef Masters, I am not at all surprised they recognized him as an enormous talent and I no longer feel the need to question whether he is unfairly recognized by the media. Anyone who cooks Mexican food with as much confidence and skill as Rick Bayless deserves all the praise in the world.

I only wish he’d open a restaurant in Houston…

August 20, 2009   3 Comments

Houston dives for Sandra Lee to poop on

Those on the Houston Chowhounds mailing list have recently been following the dramedy that has become the Food Network  search for locations to film an episode of Diners, Dive-ins and Dives in Houston. I’m not a fan of the show and Guy Fieri doesn’t seem to be the type of guy I’d share a meal with, but I can appreciate a good train wreck when I see one.

The “creative process” apparently goes something like this: a hapless Food Network scout does a Google search for Houston food blogs, picks one at random and asks for a list of recommendations. The blog owner enlists a few other natives to toss around ideas and together they generate a list. Not every recommendation is a great fit for the show, but you could do far worse with Yelp, so it’s not a bad way to narrow your search in a city as large and unfriendly to outsiders as Houston. This is where the whole thing comes off the rails.

Houston may not be an undiscovered country, but we have our own cultural barriers here. Some of the restaurant owners barely speak English, while others simply told the producers to take a hike. Not all were entirely convinced that providing photos to the scouts was worth the effort,  narrowing the list further and further. In the end the Red Lion Pub (a dive with a publicist!) and Himalaya made the list. That is, until the Food Network inexplicably cancelled on Himalaya, leaving  the Red Lion and maybe a couple of other places who’s clientele is mostly white and English speaking (rumored to be Taco’s a Go Go and Kenny’s & Ziggy’s).

If you’re wondering what makes someone pick Red Lion over Himalaya, you’re not alone. I’ve been to Red Lion a couple of times on various work functions and even forced myself to eat a few things. The menu reads like a lively collection of British pub staples, but it tastes… semi-homemade.

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Not sure I fault the owners. No one comes to Red Lion for the food -but they do come for the rowdy atmosphere. It’s the type of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to find a couple of “regular gals” like Sandra Lee and Rachel Ray pouncing on prey like a pair of drunken cougars. The grub is mediocre, but is what the new Food Network demographic expects these days.

There was a time when the channel had real chefs cooking real food and exploring interesting places around the world, but the Food Network has long ago ceded that sort of programming to the Travel Channel and Bravo. The new Food Network seems to target people who watch their television in giant blocks of morning shows, soaps, self improvement programs, feel good stories and “cooking”.

I can only assume that is the reason why the Food Network chose a faux-British pub, a faux-NY deli and a relatively good taco joint, but one where you’d rarely see an actual Hispanic person. These places generate business through their heavily stylized “character” as much as their food.

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In contrast, the only things at Himalaya with real character are the food and Kaiser, the charismatic chef/owner who somehow finds the time to run the front of the house and turn out the best Pakistani food in the city. The restaurant seems to have gotten a splash of paint and a few pictures on the walls recently, but it still maintains it’s clinical feel with it’s metal chairs and glass topped tables.

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June 16, 2009   20 Comments

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