Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Vegan Dining to the Max

There are four reasons why I could never be vegan, and their names are Red Hawk, Milk in My Coffee, Butter, and Macaroni and Cheese... Pleased to meet you. I do, however, hold a healthy respect for anyone with willpower enough to strike these demonic joys from their lives. I couldn’t do it, for sanity’s sake, yet I envy their healthy digestion :)

I attended last night’s vegan dinner at Beaver’s to satisfy a long-standing curiosity. My concept of vegan foods had been the nasty-looking bulgur and oat cakes wrapped in plastic next to the cash register at coffee shops in San Francisco and Austin. Is that all there is to it? I was dying to see what some of Houston’s most celebrated chefs could do with the genre.

And I was not disappointed. I left the festively *rad* evening 100% stuffed and begging host Jonathan Jones to please have a similar dinner in the spring when we have entirely new crop of vegetables to choose from. Yup, my first meatless, cheese-free, all-vegan, no-butter experience was just that good. Here’s a rundown in case you’d like to satisfy your curiosity, too.

Amuse: Fantastically rich Forest mushroom shooter with soy; could have been my favorite dish... (David Coffman, Benjy’s)

1) Delicious Brussels sprouts with chestnut pesto (Monica Pope, t’afia)

2) A lightly-dressed Persimmon and radish salad, red Cerignola and green Castelvetrano olives, and arugula (Monica Pope, t’afia)

3) Creamy-without-cream roasted red pepper and garlic hummus with house-made crackers (Russell Kirkham, Beaver’s)

4) Fall-tastic pumpkin-cushaw squash and ginger risotto with smoked corn (Russell Kirkham, Beaver’s)

5) Heirloom grits cooked in corn juice (giving the dish an incredible enhanced flavor), corn ricotta, and salsify, and cooked in the style of bacon (Randy Rucker, Tenacity Supper Club)

Intermezzo: Carbonated grapes, orange ice, celery root soy bubbles (David Coffman, Benjy’s)

6) Another candidate for my favorite dish: Salt-cured smoked tofu, sloppy BBQ with wild mushrooms, crispy garlic, sweet potato vine (Jonathan Jones, Beaver’s)

7) Interpreted Fall colors of New England as described by Alison Cook: potato risotto under foam (Randy Rucker, Tenacity Supper Club)

8) Abalone mushroom “lasagna,” smoked turnip “cheese,” Texas eggplant bolognese; wins the award for most creative (Jonathan Jones, Beaver’s)

9) Savory with sweet: Roasted pear tart with mushroom iced tea (Plinio Sandalio, Textile)

10) Decadent sweet potato beignets (Plinio Sandalio, Textile)

11 and 12) Autumn cake with candied carrots and pistachio (not pictured) and an amazing I-don’t-miss-butter-at-all “Hostess Cupcake” with vegan buttercream (Jody Stevens, Jodycakes)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loves Me Some Chicken and Waffles

Without a doubt, chicken-and-waffles is one of the best inventions to come out of the 1800’s, right alongside the light bulb, the telephone, and industrialization. Seriously. More recently, this historically soulful concoction has found a little cubbyhole in my heart that I never knew existed. And while I generally don’t love mixing savory with sweet, I’ve developed a shameful lust for C-n-W that demands to be fed.

To that end, I’ve been making my way around town in hopes of locating the very best iteration. Fried Chicken? Awesome. Waffles? Awesome. Fried chicken and waffles together? Triple awesome.

It may sound obvious, but chicken-and-waffles is essentially two dishes cooked separately, then smashed together. What I’ve learned is that most restaurants place *great* emphasis on one half, while completely disregarding the other. For shame! Research below.

The Breakfast Klub
This place is firstly famous for its Wings and Waffles dish, and indeed the chefs here crank out batch after batch after batch, breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday. In terms of experience, no one beats these guys. As expected, the chicken here is 100% incredible, but they have *got* to do something about their chewy, reheated, Eggo-like waffles which do this dish a severe injustice.

Max’s Wine Dive
The Sunday brunch menu is where you’ll find Max’s Wing Cakes, an enormous plate of beautifully seasoned fried chicken waaaangs served over pancakes. Not surprisingly, the chicken here is great -- golden, spicy, and without grease oozing out everywhere. But the pancakes are just average. Also? They’re not waffles. And honestly? It seems semi-wrong to eat soul food in a wine bar. Just sayin’.

Dry Creek
Dry Creek’s brunch menu features crispy wings over Grandma’s Waffle. This was, by far, the best waffle of the lot -- airy, thick, and golden -- but the fried chicken was an overly-breaded salty pool of grease. Yikes! If we could only get the waffle peeps here to meet the chicken peeps at The Breakfast Klub, we’d be in Wings ‘n Waffle heaven. Only I don’t think that’s happening this century. Poochie.

This new Heights diner serves chicken-and-waffles all day. I went in with low expectations (Lola is new, after all), and was pleasantly surprised by the gold-medal goodness. The fruit-laden waffle is nicely crisp and the chicken is expertly breaded, then fried without a mess of excess grease. While the waffle, itself, is a bit chewy, this dish is great. Theo didn’t like his, but I truly enjoyed mine.


Sparkle’s hamburger joint has exactly the ambiance you seek for chicken-and-waffles. It’s a run-down shack on a run-down corner south of downtown. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high when I laid eyes on the place because I was severely disappointed with the food. The chicken was *beyond* salty and the waffle, tough. They are not afraid of the butter (as noted in the picture below), but even that godly substance couldn’t jack the love.

Despite their ups-and-downs, I’ve enjoyed most iterations of the dish, at least to some extent. However, I definitely haven’t found the golden standard. Any suggestions?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Shame of Our Schools

You might already know that I teach 10th grade English at a rigorous, low-income charter school called YES Prep. What you might not know is that more than 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced meals -- and what you almost assuredly do not know is what “free and reduced lunch” looks like.

Well, here you go. It looks like this.

Students qualify for free and reduced lunch, of course, because their families cannot always afford to pay for or provide regular meals. Oftentimes this lunch is the only meal of substance a child receives in a day. And when that “substance” consists of an off-color hot dog plus a few tarnished pieces of canned pineapple –- or about 350 calories total –- we’ve got a problem. It’s called Hollow-Eyed, Malaisical, I-Have-No-Energy-to-Pay-Attention disease. [Sigh.]

This problem is not new. Plenty of people are loud about the fact that school lunches absolutely blow. Chef Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady, is one of them. A few weeks ago, Cooper came to town to tout the School Lunch Revolution, an idea she successfully implemented in Berkeley, CA. This plan seeks to make lunches healthier and more substantial, yet still tasty: Whole wheat crust and veggies on pizza, roasted potatoes instead of French fries, baked chicken instead of mystery meat. In short, her idea looks like this meal, sponsored by Whole Foods and served to us at the info session.

Chef Cooper has even put some numbers behind her idea: She says that 25% of our country’s healthcare spend goes to obesity/diabetes (that’s $260 billion of $1 trillion). And her solution is simple: We currently spent $8.5 billion on school lunches, and we need to up that number to... $14 billion.

I’m sorry, what?

It’s a great idea in theory: We can pay for better, healthier food now, or we can pay even more for fancy-pants healthcare treatments later. And where do we get all this unaccounted-for money? Easy, she says -- We need $1 more per student per day, so quit funding money-suck initiatives like Cash for Clunkers and the Iraq War.

The simplicity is *almost* refreshing -- yet also completely infuriating.

There’s no one out there that’s opposed to serving healthier, more substantial lunches in schools. But the question remains: If you had $5 billion to spend on education, would you put it towards food?

Consider the alternative.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pumpkins at Canino's...

Are just .25/pound! And man, are they gorgeous.

Every time I go to Canino’s I kick myself for not going more often.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ciao Bello

Tony Vallone hasn’t gone out of his way to promote his new restaurant, Ciao Bello, yet it’s near-packed early on a Wednesday night. Sheesh. Given the stature of the Vallone name around town, this is not a big shock. Also not surprising is that Ciao Bello is another gold star on his already dazzling resume.

Walking in you’ll notice that the place is a near replica of the restaurant’s previous iteration, complete with high ceilings, beautiful bar, and a window into the kitchen. It’s a nice enough space, but prepare to get a little cozy -- the dining room is so crammed with tables, so you’ll need to think thin if nature calls.

Once your food arrives, though, you’ll immediately forget about the vociferous neighbors only a forearm’s length away. The caprese salad is standard at best, so start with one of the more creative options... Like the antipasti, a gorgeous selection of stuffed mushrooms, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, eggplant, salami, and more, each tastier than the last, perfect for sharing.

The much-touted osso bucco ravioli meets its delicious expectations. Tender, disintegrate-in-your-mouth strings of buttery osso bucco hide inside a glorious pasta pillowcase, topped with a rich and meaty sauce. Totally dreamy. The Chicken al Matonne, too, is a win -- a lemony poisson, seared, pressed flat, and cooked under a brick. Moist and satisfying from the first bite to the last.

Finally, save room for the Zeppole Zia Maria, warm, beignet-like doughnuts topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of pastry cream. These puppies top a crazy-enticing list of meal-enders.

Ciao Bello is touted as a casual Italian place. And that’s true in the sense that you can leave your tux at home. But when the median pasta costs $17, I’d say you’ve moved right on into the upscale. However, the food is outstanding and the service supreme. So as long as you don’t expect to get outta there for less than two or three Jacksons, you’ll come out seeing stars.

Ciao Bello - 5161 San Felipe (at Sage)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Lola in the Heights

The Heights may be ablaze with a local arsonist, but one new restaurant has also sparked interest: Lola, the diner-style new offering from Ken Bridge of Dragon Bowl and Pink’s Pizza fame. Housed in a remodeled building at the corner of 11th and Yale, Lola meets the mid-range restaurant need for an area dominated by low-end taco shops and high-end eateries.

Upon entering, you’ll notice first that the interior of the building lacks cohesion. Like, really. A beautifully shellacked traditional wooden counter immediately draws the eye, which is then *blinded* by the surrounding fluorescent walls. When your head spins, you’ll be smacked by the industrial open metals of the front wall. It is as if Cyndi Lauper, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the father from “A Christmas Story” were unable to decide which style to use, so they compromised and each took a third. True, it’s a nice conversation piece, but it also left me wondering if the restaurant’s interior was actually completed.

The menu is similarly disjointed -- but it’s less noticeable. Breakfast items, served all day, are anchored by egg dishes (like the ubiquitous Huevos Rancheros) and a Chicken-n-Waffles plate that puts the Breakfast Klub to shame. The fruit-laden waffle is golden crisp and the chicken is expertly breaded, then fried without a mess of excess grease. The Day-After-Thanksgiving sammich falls way short, though; the turkey, stuffing, and flavorless gravy each miss the mark, leaving bites bland and mushy. But do not pass up the near-perfect French fries. Dinner items are a hodgepodge: salmon, meatloaf, and the like.

I’ve heard the gripes about the pricing, and indeed it is high for diner-style food. However, Lola is no greasy spoon. Chefs use quality ingredients and portions are huge. And it’s early, yet. I have no doubt that the menu and prices will improve with time.

In short, Lola will succeed because there are enough people that want it to. Ken Bridge has the experience and know-how to run a successful restaurant, and local Heights patrons are happy to have a novel and decently-priced addition in the ‘hood. So even though I’m not enamored of the place as is, it has the potential to become a regular stop. And that, my friends, is upside.

Lola - 1102 Yale (at 11th)