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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

Feast and the local cats

Today is the first anniversary for Feast. One year in business is rarely a special occasion for anyone but the owners, but Feast is a special restaurant.

Some months ago I was having a dinner at Moto in Chicago and got into a conversation with a couple from London who wanted to know if the food served at Moto was widely accepted in the US. I did my best to provide some context: Chicago may have the most progressive diners in the country, but even Alinea relies on a steady stream of visitors who specifically seek out a special occasion meal. Something they normally wouldn’t eat in their hometown.

The couple from UK was a good example. They were clearly knowledgeable about food and made it a point to arrange their travel itinerary around various restaurants. They were genuinely thrilled that Chicago had a whole street (!) full of Vietnamese restaurants and listened with a certain level of disbelief when I described Houston’s Chinatown. The food at Moto blew them away and they marveled at just how open minded US diners must be.

They were even more surprised to learn that I had been to a restaurant in their own neighborhood in London. Living in Smithfield they had passed by St John countless times, but never went in. I tried to convince them that British food is finally getting the respect it deserves, and while it may not be “new” it’s certainly new to most people, but they seemed to have their doubts. Fergus Henderson may have touched off  one of the most important cooking directions today, but even he can’t necessarily convince people in his own neighborhood that British food is worth eating.

This is what makes the first anniversary of Feast a special occasion. The restaurant isn’t merely surviving, they have a loyal and growing following in Houston -  a city with virtually no tourists. Good things are happening to the dining scene in Houston in the midst of a recession and Feast is just one example.

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I have written about Feast many times  before and not going to wax even more poetic about their charms. I do want to show a couple of exemplary dishes I had at Feast last night that highlight why it’s such a great place to eat.

IMG_1353 Rabbit Shoulders Confit

If you have had the duck neck at Feast before, you’ll recognize the the cooking method used here. This dish is easier to eat and works even better, because there is enough meat to develop a whole range of texture – from tender to fully caramelized – as it slowly poaches in oil.

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Smoked Barracuda Tail

The smoked Barracuda tail is the first smoked fish to appear on the Feast menu, but its already one of my favorite items. The meat is firm, sort of like a cross between whitefish and swordfish, but the best part is that the tailbones are coated in a nice bit of gelatinous fish fat. If you see this on a menu, order it. It will be the best $3 you have spent in a very long time.

Eating the local cats

Several days ago Randy Rucker left this comment to my post about Manresa:

guess you just forgot about “us” local cats…

I am sure Randy is only half serious – two weeks ago I had dinner at Rainbow Lodge, not once but twice in one weekend. Still, I wanted to reply in some detail.

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March 28, 2009   6 Comments

Best meals of 2008 – Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)

I’ve given up on the goofy parody of Iron Chef  that appears today on the Food Network, but last week was an exception. David Kinch was battling Bobby Flay and I was a little more than interested in the outcome. Not that a win on Iron Chef means anything, but after visiting Manresa three times in the last 12 months I am convinced it’s the best restaurant in the land, or at least one of the few that could make that claim.  Add to that the horrendous lunch I had at Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain and you have yourself an epic battle between good and evil.

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Skip to the end. Kinch didn’t as much win as he slaughtered Bobby Flay on national television. Aside from enjoying the public humiliation of someone as cocky as Flay, what really grabbed me were the dishes Kinch created for the competition. There were a few signature touches – use of subtly  seasoned raw geoduck Kinch has mastered and yet another installment in the “into the garden” series featuring edible dirt that elevates the dish from an ordinary salad to a sensory experience. But then there were the new dishes. Red cabbage borscht with pear sauerkraut and mustard cream. Cabbage napoleon. These are things I must eat. Coi and possibly Cyrus are on the agenda for my next Bay Area trip, but I fighting the urge to be at Manresa again.

This post is an amalgamation of the two of the best meals I had in at Manresa 2008 (third was a bit less successful and came in winter of 2009). The dinner in June was about as close to a perfect meal as you can get. Perfect meals are rare even at the best restaurants, so I feel fortunate to have hit Manresa at just the right moment to experience one.

Each meal begins and ends the same way – with savory (red peper and block olive) and sweet (strawberry and chocolate) petit fours that bookend each meal. Some of the amuses change from meal to meal, such as the expertly crafted golden purses filled with crab or oysters topped with Japanese sea urchin.

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The lavender lemonade with a sprig of garden mint was one of the most simple and interesting first courses I have seen in a while, served with what looked like a soap bubble that covered the top of the glass. Pull the mint sprig and the bubble bursts. Interactive food au naturel, no iPod required.

imageCarrot "white satin" and foie gras royale

The foie gras royale is one of the Manresa signature dishes that makes an appearance at many meals. The royale has the texture of mousse and richness of a custard, with a subtle foie gras flavor that seems the build towards the bottom of the cup.

image Arpege farm egg

Another signature amuse with vertical construction – eat it layer by layer and you may find yourself tasting jarring amounts of sherry and maple syrup. Drive the spoon all the way to the bottom of the shell and all the flavors magically combine with the soft coddled yolk to produce one of the finest dishes ever conceived. The original egg at L’Arpege in Paris is slightly better than the version served at Manresa, but it doesn’t make me love eating this dish any less every time I visit.

imageSea bream with shellfish, bonito broth,
golden raspberries, green curry oil

Every time I taste the stunning crudo preparations at Manresa I am reminded just how wide the gap is between truly fresh seafood and what your find in your better than average sushi bar. The portions at Manresa may be small, but the fish is good enough to reset the idea of what “fresh” really tastes like. Geoduck, especially, tastes dramatically different here – tender, yet crisp texture with a slightly sweet finish. I’ve had geoduck in other places, but it just doesn’t taste the same.  

image Horse mackerel, ginger, seaweed ice, lemony herbs

The incredible aji I had at at Sawa Sushi just weeks prior to this meal was of better quality than the mackerel at Manresa, but what really made this dish was composition of flavors. Kinch has a singular talent for creating conceptual dishes that allude to the environment of the main ingredients. This dish achieves that with a bit of seaweed flavored ice slushy. 

image Kindai tuna cheeks, roasted peppers,
sweet garlic, crispy potato

There is nothing remotely conceptual about the Kindai tuna cheeks at Manresa – just the the most intense tuna flavor I have ever encountered. Explanations of dishes at Manresa always seem to be muddled, so I completely tuned out when the server went into a long story about universities, fish farming and rare tuna varieties that are somehow going to save the wild tuna populations some day. *Yawn.*

After the first bite I wished I had listened to the whole story. The taste of Kindai tuna cheeks is difficult to describe – imagine the texture of barely cooked high grade wagyu (to be honest, the threads of the top end of BBQ brisket are a better proxy, but that makes me sound like such a Texan…) with the flavor of the some exceptionally expensive toro. You’re getting close.

Turns out Manresa is one of a handful of US restaurants to serve Kindai tuna – the first farm raised bluefin tuna in existence. You can read more about it here, but to the best of my knowledge all the available Kindai cheeks go to Manresa. And they are absolutely stunning. 

image Into the vegetable garden…

Into the vegetable garden… is one of the most famous Kinch creations and for a good reason – it’s a remarkable dish for it’s simplicity, depth and conceptual design.

If you have a concrete mind with a pragmatic bend, this is going to be one of the best salads you have ever had. Manresa is famous for quality of its vegetables and the seasonal produce here is either barely poached or completely untouched, preserving as much of the natural flavor as possible. I am pretty certain the dish is seasoned with nothing more than the poaching jus. As with any garden, you are just as likely to find a perfect carrot that tastes as if it was pulled from the ground minutes before it hit your plate, as you are to stumble onto weeds or flowers many of us don’t associate with salads.

If you fancy yourself as an abstract thinker, this dish will really surprise you, because the composition actually creates the imagery of a vegetable garden. The edible dirt made from parsnip and roasted chicory root plays a sensory role by emulating the environment of the garden. Two of my Manresa meals were eaten alone, allowing my mind to wonder if this is the way garden bugs perceive their natural habitat – eating their way through vegetables, weeds flowers  with a little bit of grit in their teeth from the dirt. Sounds a little far fetched, but you have to amuse yourself somehow when you eat alone.

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Abalone, garden basil, courgettes, slow egg

Abalone has appeared in each of my dinners are Manresa and has never disappointed; a rarity for this ingredient. I don’t have a photo of my favorite abalone dish (grrr poor lighting), but you can see a nice shot of it here

The Autumn “Tidal Pool”: Foie Gras, Abalone, Uni in Mushroom Dashi sounds like a total mess of flavors that do not belong together. In truth, eating it as a soup I thought the dish was offensively strong. I like food aggressively seasoned, but the amount of salt in the “pool” was high even for me, clobbering the foie gras, uni and anything in between. The dish tasted harsh.

Just as I gave up and tried to fish out the edible  bits, all the flavors came into focus. All it needed was careful calibration of amount of sea flavored dashi in each spoon. Another example of Kinch’s ability to weave the environment into a dish or a mistake in the kitchen?

image Kokotxas, stewed smoky white beans, country ham

Where the tuna cheeks  cheeks are all about intensity of flavor, the standout element of kokotxas at Manresa is the ethereal texture of the cod cheeks. Country ham is used more like fat netting here, lending richness and depth to the cod.

image Wood Pigeon

I get less and less enthusiastic as the most epic meals get closer to meat courses. More often than not, they don’t measure up to the rest of the dishes and Manresa was no exception. The meat courses at my first Manresa dinner were good, but unremarkable.

On my second visit, just as the meal was hitting what I thought was the absolute high point, David Kinch exceeded all expectations and delivered what I still consider to be the best meat courses I have ever had. It all started with the tableside presentation of the salt roasted wood pigeon, which then took a detour to the kitchen for carving.

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Wood pigeon, apple puree, sorrel, ramps, morels

It’s difficult to describe the flavor and texture of this dish without resorting to banalities. The flesh was perfectly rare and cooked with remarkable consistency throughout both leg and breast cuts, but the flavor was close to what I imagine Lilliputian lambs would taste like if they have been fed of milk and honey most of their short lives. Which is to say, really fracking good.

If you visit Manresa, call ahead and beg them to prepare the wood pigeon for you. It’s worth the indignity.

image Roast saddle of lamb with turnips

Just as I was trying to re-calibrate my new standard for perfectly roasted foul, another meat course appeared. The dish was giving off such intense aroma that I knew it was lamb long before it reached my table (this is a good thing). As perfectly as the wood pigeon was cooked, this lamb somehow matched it.

I had a similar lamb preparation on my third visit to Manresa and it didn’t have nearly as intense of an effect, so clearly things were firing on all cylinders in the kitchen on this particular night. Though another explanation is that we perceive food differently when we dine alone, versus meals we share with dining companions who compete with food for attention. This is a topic for another post, but for some reason my solitary meals often end up being the best meals.

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Comte de garde exceptionnel 2003 (Bernard Antony)

Few cheeses I have sampled match this extraordinary cheese course. Deep bursts of flavor (and sound effects) from crystallized lactic acid.

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Chocolate, blackberry napoleon,
cucumber sherbet, shiso leaf

Desserts are not a strong point at Manresa, but this combination of chocolate, cucumber slices and cucumber sherbet really grabbed me. I really didn’t think the combination would work, but the chocolate actually amplified and complemented the flavor of the cucumber. And as all the best dishes at Manresa, it showed that ingredients we often take for granted can be used in new and unexpected ways.

San Francisco 146

David Kinch may be the prototype for the new generation of great chefs. Spanish name aside, the flavors seamlessly span the globe without ill effects. The food incorporates touches of modern techniques, but they are used to carefully enhance natural flavors, rather than defy the laws of physics. Some of the best dishes have a conceptual arc, yet never cross the line between food and post-modern art.

Most important – produce at Manresa is unlike any I’ve ever had (that includes L’Arpege), except for a select few Tenacity dinners, making Kinch’s efforts in sourcing and growing his own produce an example of what we will all expect from the best chefs and  restaurants in the future. Quality of the ingredients makes all the difference at Manresa, elevating it far above any other restaurant I have come across.

 

  1. Petit fours – red pepper and black olive
  2. Lavender lemonade, garden mint
  3. Golden purses
  4. Sweet corn croquettes
  5. Carrot "white satin" and foie gras royale
  6. Arpege farm egg
  7. Sea bream with shellfish, bonito broth, golden raspberries, green curry oil
  8. Horse mackerel, ginger, seaweed ice, lemony herbs
  9. Kindai tuna cheeks, roasted peppers, sweet garlic, crispy potato
  10. Into the vegetable garden…
  11. Abalone, garden basil, courgettes, slow egg
  12. Kokotxas, stewed smoky white beans, country ham
  13. Wood pigeon, apple puree, sorrel, ramps, morels
  14. Roast saddle of lamb with turnips
  15. Comte de garde exceptionnel 2003 (Bernard Antony)
  16. Cherry sorbet with reine de pres, noyaux, almonds
  17. Apricot, fig leaf
  18. Chocolate, blackberry napoleon, cucumber sherbet, shiso leaf
  19. Petit fours – strawberry and chocolate

March 26, 2009   13 Comments