Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kata Robata

While Houston lacks not in sushi joints, it does suffer from a dearth of high-end Japanese restaurants. Thankfully Kata Robata has stepped in, offering its breathtaking Asian dishes in the revolving door of a restaurant space at the corner of Richmond and Kirby.

The chefs at Kata Robata play with flavors and textures to create a deliciously outstanding set of dishes that’s as appealing to the eyes as it is to the belly. Case in point: The uni and king crab spoons with black caviar have become the menu’s most popular offering, and with good reason. In a gorgeous presentation, tender and fresh crab lightly topped with the butteriest of uni marinates in a tangy sunomono broth. The caviar adds a savory bite, making the entire spoonful an Excalibur of a combination. Hot damn!

Anyone shocked that the foie gras is good? Didn’t think so. Sittin’ pretty atop a daikon radish, the velvety foie has an unexpected smokiness to it, and the juxtaposition of textures is incredible. Lobster ceviche is yet another excellent starter; the mango sauce brings out the sweetness of the lobster, avocado adds to the creamy texture, and a sprinkle of red onion adds the right amount of crunch.

Nigiri shines with complex flavors hidden in a simple shell. Glory goes, not only to the exceedingly fresh fish, but also to the impeccably cooked rice. Meatily-rich toro, soy-marinated tuna, hamachi with mint, Sweet shrimp with uni... each better, prettier, and more enticing than the last.

The regular menu at Kata Robata is, hands down, the most creatively diverse Japanese menu in town. But for a real treat, sit at the bar (weeknights only) and order your meal omakase. After setting a course load or price, the chef will choose what you eat, based on the best and freshest ingredients he has available.

In its short history, Kata Robata has already found a place among the top restaurants in the city. Go for a date, go for a splurge, go for a wonderfully delicious, custom-tailored symphony of a Japanese experience from some of the best sushi chefs around. Just go.

Kata Robata - 3600 Kirby (at Richmond)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Huynh for President!

Good news, team -- I found my new favorite Vietnamese spot in the whole entire mother-freakin’ world! Relatively speaking, of course. It’s Huynh, a remarkable lil’ place brightening up a strip center on St. Emanuel, caddy corner to Warehouse Live. As you enter, don’t let the modern decor fool you into thinking it’s a poser. Quite the contrary, my friends. Huynh is as authentic as it gets, and full-on fantastic.

As is often the case, I was shamelessly enamored of the appetizers. The crispy summer rolls wrapped in lettuce are a dream. And the duck salad, too, is to die for: pieces of tender duck atop a bed of shredded lettuce, shrouded with a thin, tangy sauce. But the real highlight is the dish #5... Slick little spring rolls that slip-slide down with the greatest of ease, a fascinating study in the interleague play of various textures. Inside you’ll find crispy chargrilled pork paired with a flavorific combination of mint, cilantro, and lettuce, all wrapped loosely in thick, chewy noodles.

The Bun Bo Hue, a vermicelli soup with pork, beef, and lemongrass, is decent -- be sure that it arrives warm enough. Sautéed tofu in a sweet-chili sauce was yet another highlight, as was the tender chargrilled beef sittin’ pretty on a lettuce throne.

Dish after dish after dish, I fell more and more in love with the simple preparations and clean flavors. Who’s a happy little eater?! This girl!

Huynh - 912 St. Emanuel

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Taco Tuesday: Bodegas

There’s no worse way to end an enjoyable morning at a world-renowned museum than by clouding it with crappy, artless food -- which is exactly what Houstonians have been forced to do for so many years. Despite the presence of 15+ respected attractions, the Museum District has traditionally been a black hole of culinary decency. Until now. Enter Bodegas Taco Shop.

Tucked into a nondescript office building at Binz and Caroline sits the newest taco shop to grace our fair city. If you’ve been to any other taco/burrito joint in town, you know the drill: Choose your vessel (burrito, tacos, nachos, tostada), add your protein (rotisserie chicken, fajita steak, ground sirloin, carnitas, or veggies), and then stock it up with any number of the 30 toppings, sauces, and salsas.

Be sure to show up hungry. Hulking nacho bowls will feed an army of angst-filled teenagers, fresh from the latest IMAX at the HMNS. Art-gawkers will love the symmetry of the fish tacos, not to mention the outstanding coleslaw on top. There’s a full kids menu for any post Children’s Museum meltdowns. And Rothko Chapel fans will probably head straight to the bar. Not that I blame them -- the margaritas are dazzling. Stick with the on-the-rocks classic, though. Made simply with tequila, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar, these puppies are among the best in town. Avoid the sticky-sweet fruit margaritas -- they’re just the regular ones with added powder flavoring.

Bodegas truly gets it right on every aspect, except one. And it’s a big one. Meats are high quality, moist, and fresh, but have little flavor of their own. We’ve all heard the gripes about over salting, but come on. Give it a sprinkle! Oh, they try to hide the seasoning dearth with snappy lettuce, juicy tomato, and some addictively fantastic salsas, but it’s there. Watching, waiting, begging to be remedied. Carnitas, chicken, fajita steak, fish... All the same.

Despite its lack of signage, limited parking, and saltless meats, Bodegas provides a satisfying lunch in an area of town with museums a plenty, but limited culinary reach. I hope this one -- like so many others -- is not a traveling exhibit.

Bodegas Taco Shop – 1200 Binz (at Caroline)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hank’s Ice Cream

Well before the deluge of commercial manufacturers, ice cream was an extravagance, made in small batches through an achingly slow, labor-intensive process. Today, ice cream is king. Little kids long for it, summer virtually belongs to it, and other desserts are even sauced with it. But where can you go to avoid the corporate mongers and find the ice cream of your youth? Simple: Hank’s.

A Houston institution for 20+ years, Hank’s has always produced ice cream the old-fashioned way: slowly, by hand, using fresh ingredients. The bright and humble parlor showcases eighteen delicious flavors each day, rotating from a list of nearly 100. Devotees swear by the butter pecan -- but really, you can’t go wrong with any flavor. I love the dulce de leche, cake batter, and chocolate chip. Beyonce always gets banana pudding :)

Bluebell is good, yes. But Hank’s is a true ice cream experience: An intensely creamy, achingly rich, addictively tasty dessert served with a side of nostalgia.

Hank’s Ice Cream - 9291 S. Main (near Reliant Stadium)

Yup, that’s Hank on the right!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Channeling My Internal Pollyanna

I’ve been moderately quiet lately. And here’s why: I haven’t had anything that makes me run to the keyboard with delight. Nothing that inspires comparisons. Not a morsel to sing about. I’ve lost my muse! [Rehhhh-Rerrrrrrr.] Among the mediocrity, though, a few things stand out. And here they are...

Sautéed squid at t’afia
While I haven’t been overwhelmed by t’afia in recent visits, the summer squid sauté is a dream: massive tubes and tentacles with an enchantingly chewy consistency, topped with a spicy chili sauce. Light and airy, deliciously hot. This? Is how squid should be. The avocado sashimi also tickled the buds.

Waffles ‘n wings at The Breakfast Klub
Excited was I to dine at this Houston institution with some close friends Friday morning. We scraped in just before the massive line appeared, which seemed like a serendipitous start. But the bubble burst as soon as our food showed up. Yikes! The Wings-n-Waffles dish is great—especially the “wings” part—but the remaining offerings there... not so much.

Salmon tartar at Gravitas
Now that Scott Tycer is fully committed to his latest upstart, Textile, his old haunt Gravitas has lost its punch. The menu sounds enticing enough, but the preparations, themselves, have no soul. What’s a hungry diner to do? I'll tell you: Stick with something easy. Like the salmon tartar, mounds of fresh salmon flanked by chopped cucumber and dressed lightly with a chili-soy sauce. Hard to beat.

Raw mackerel at Nippon
A friend and I dined at Nippon’s sushi bar omakase last week. The chef was clearly hesitant to break outside the boundaries of rolls and nigiri, until we chastised him into giving us this: a gorgeous presentation of raw mackerel lightly drizzled with lemon and soy, then topped with smattering of green onions and sesame seeds. Once we downed the lightly sweet cubes of fish, he whisked away the filet, deep fried it, and then returned it to us. Paper thin and golden, it had the consistency of a cracker and the taste of a dream.

Don’t worry. The dearth of culinary inspirations has not deterred me at all, fearless readers. It just means I’ll have to look harder. Onward!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Taco Tuesday: La Jalisciense

In a colorful freestanding building on Yale in the Heights sits Taqueria La Jalisciense. The windows are jam-packed with bright writing announcing the delicacies you’ll find inside: Homemade tortillas! Tasty menudo! Chicharrones and tripe! Breakfast starts early here and is served all day long, always a good thing in my book. When we got there around noon, the place was crowded, but not packed.

La Jaliscience is a true taqueria complete with salsa verde that will have smoke pouring from your ears, carrots soaked in jalapeno juice, and a beautiful selection of agua frescas. Tacos arrive in the authentic Mexican format topped simply with onion and cilantro.

The restaurant’s shining star is the deliciously picante housemade red salsa, which can hide many sins. Fill up on it. Or throw it on a breakfast taco to take advantage of the restaurant’s one true calling.

But the fun ends there... La Jalisciense, you see, starts at a disadvantage. Tortillas -- the foundation of any good taqueria -- are brittle and taste of grease. Add to that flavorless meat (lengua and tripe, I’m lookin’ at you), and you’ve got a meal that’s hard to salvage. Shrimp tacos are a safe bet, though still uninspiring.

Ay ay ay.

La Jaliscience - 1307 Yale Street at 13th in the Heights