Thursday, April 30, 2009

Recent Photo Favorites

Tempests and flooding and flu, oh my! Don’t let the current state of outbreak hysteria get you down. After all, like a motherly hug after a skinned knee, there’s always food. Oh, that sweet, sweet savior.

Here are a few untheme’d recent faves. Enjoy!

House-cured meats at Vinoteca Poscol

JJ’s sweet cornbread at Beaver’s

Why can’t this be contagious?

Custard-filled pastries at a food stall in SF

A blur of Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista

Torta con barbacoa at Taqueria del Sol

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Barbecue Inn

Hold onto your cholesterol as you step into the Barbecue Inn and warp through time all the way back to 1946. That’s how little this place has changed since the year it opened, and they’ve got the original menu on the wall to prove it.

So. What do you order at a place called the Barbecue Inn? Certainly not the barbecue. No joke. While the brisket and ribs are decent, you can find better in this meat-obsessed cow town. There are brighter sides to the menu. Salads are standard fare made with iceberg lettuce, but the dressings are made fresh from scratch in house. Honey mustard, Ranch, Blue Cheese, Thousand Island... Each one tastier (and creamier) than the last.

But homemade salad dressing does not longevity make. What keeps this underdog afloat? Simple: The Barbecue Inn has -- hands down -- the best fried shrimp in town. Fresh, jumbo shrimp nicely battered and deep fried, served with homemade tartar sauce. Fried chicken, too, is one for the record books, served piping hot alongside gloriously crispy French fries and a leaf of kale posing as a vegetable. And don’t forget the third element in the trinity: chicken fried steak. This one sits pretty under a blanket of cream gravy. Man, if only Elvis were alive to see this place.


Despite its shortcomings, the Barbecue Inn has been a family favorite for years. So much so that you can expect a line at peak weekday hours. Final verdict? Your heart wouldn’t survive a weekly visit here, but it’s certainly worthy of an annual pilgrimage.

Barbecue Inn - 116 W Crosstimbers (at Yale)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Little Tokyo Sushi

Last week I got my sushi groove on at Little Tokyo in Pearland. Among the 300+ rolls on the menu were the delicious Mango Roll (below, center) and a Cajun Roll made with spicy softshell crawfish. Mmmm, mmmm good. Each roll was massive and beautifully presented, and while I’m not a fan of adding bunches of oddball ingredients, this place has something for even the most finicky of Picky Patties. A tasty evening indeed.

I am still prowling for the best and most perfectestest sushi place in Houston, though. I can’t seem to wrap my heart (or my loyalty) around any of them. Thoughts?

Little Tokyo - 8201 W. Broadway (in Pearland)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Vinoteca Poscol

The venerable Marco Wiles (of Da Marco and Dolce Vita fame) expands his repertoire with newcomer Poscol, a casual wine bar serving small plates and pastas, cheeses, and house-cured salumi. The space that once held the Montrose Café is airy and fresh, welcoming, and decidedly unfussy. Hooray!

Not surprisingly, the menu features unique combinations, preparations, and Italian libations. Fried spaghetti, for example, offers an interesting texture and wonderful flavor, especially when topped with the tremendously awesome, semi-sweet, chunky delight of a tomato sauce served alongside.


The favorite of the night was the valpolicella risotto made with chicken, beef, and veal stocks. We scraped up every bite of this creamy goodness and considered ordering more. A close second was the beet and chickpea salad en papillote. The soft, fresh beets paired perfectly with the crispy chickpeas, and the warmed goat cheese was almost like a sauce. Skip the bruschette, but do try the distinctive Italian sandwiches -- like the one we tried with asparagus and egg.


I won’t claim to know a whole ton about Italian wines. OK, fine, I know next to nothing about them. But the selection is nice. Or if soda’s more your style, you’ve got your choice of RC Cola, Diet Rite, Squirt, and Big Red. For reals!

What’s not to like about this fun and fresh new place? Not much. I filled my belly with a nice amount of delicious vitals and a glass of prosecco, and was out the door in $25. Jackpot!

Vinoteca Poscol - 1609 Westheimer (at Mandell)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chez Panisse's Non-Glory

Houston Foodie just posted the list of the Global 50 Best Restaurants, which jogged a memory about my most recent meal at Chez Panisse. This, for you newbies, is Alice Waters’ formidable restaurant and café in Berkeley, just east of San Francisco, and receives nearly constant attention as the original home of the local food movement.

Chez Panisse offers almost no choice in the menu. Waters and her staff design one fixed-price menu for the week, and that’s what they serve. You may select the vegetarian or pescatarian options, but there are no substitutions otherwise. Waters bases her courses on seasonal foods, relying almost entirely on fresh, local ingredients, rather than on technique. This is a great idea. In theory.

When I lived in San Francisco, I dined at Chez Panisse thrice, each time enjoying my meal immensely. I visited again this past March and had the complete opposite reaction. My gripe? The menu seemed fine in writing, but turned out flat in taste. Check it.

Course One: Tempura fried squid, calamari, and oysters. Sounds like something I might order regularly, so what’s the problem? It’s that I don’t go to Chez Panisse for fried seafood. Really, I don’t. So while this dish was very much OK, there were no fireworks. Like, at all.


Course Two: Vegetable soup. I love soups -- especially brothy ones -- and I loooove vegetables, but this one lacked flavor. Even *I* can figure out what’s in season, steam it, and add it to a bowl of flavored water. Hmmm. Still waiting to be impressed...


Course Three: Pork loin. What can go wrong here?! It’s PORK LOIN for Pete’s sake. Truth be told, this was the best dish of the evening, yet lacked a punch. Telling me that the meat is grass-fed, local, and organic can’t hide that it’s also cold and gristly.


Course Four: Apple turnover. Meh. But sure was pretty :)


Previous Chez Panisse experiences notwithstanding, this one left me flat angry. I’m all for fresh, local, and seasonal -- but not for plain and boring. Again, I’m glad you grew the vegetables in your own garden, but that’s not a silver lining when they don’t taste good. Monica Pope is an Alice Waters disciple, and she manages to embody the same philosophy without leaving her patrons hungry. Perhaps the student has become the teacher.

And this, my friends, is why I was surprised to see Chez Panisse occupying the 59th spot on the list.

A little long-winded for me, no?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Raindrop Chocolates

Raindrop Chocolates is such a happy place. Indeed, your spirits rise just walking into the well-lit store. But nothing compares to the elation you feel upon biting into one of the decadent desserts.

Truffles are bite-sized bits of heaven in flavors like salted caramel, malt, sweet curry, lavender, chipotle tequila, and a variety of fruits. But don’t overlook the gelato, dense and creamy in flavors like fig, coconut, dark chocolate blood orange, almond, and tiramisu. And everything -- truffles, gelatos, cakes, and other chocolate-covered treats -- is handmade in house from the finest ingredients. It is true, unadulterated, concrete bliss.

But wanna know something sad? Raindrop Chocolates is closing on April 26. You’ll want to stop in beforehand.

Raindrop Chocolates - 810 Waugh (near W. Dallas)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Adventuring Out: Crawfish!

It’s back! After a long hiatus which included Spring Break and a week-long visit to several colleges around the South, Foodventure Nights are on the docket once again. We’ve already dabbled in Indian, Vietnamese, and Greek, so last night we wrangled 15 students down to Floyd’s Cajun for crawfish, gumbo, and etouffee.


Floyd’s features a Happy Hour special of 5 pounds of crawfish for $3.95/pound, and despite early hesitations, most students found the courage to share some mudbugs with their buddies. Our math teacher and resident crawfish expert offered a step-by-step tutorial on how to twist-n-peel the little guys, and then let the kiddos have at it.

The scene was hilariously fun. Students loved the eclectic process and strange new spices, and were -- of course -- shocked by the minute amount of meat that accompanies such gruesome work.


After the crawfish samplers, we moved on to massive plates of Cajun classics. Creamy jambalaya with Andouille sausage was a definite hit, as was the seafood gumbo and anything fried. We ate to our limits, and nearly everyone went home with a doggy bag.


The entire evening was a fantastic success, but I find myself with one lingering question: What kind of teacher encourages her students to suck the head? Please, YES Prep, don’t fire me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mid-Range Lovin': Where Do You Go for $25?

Congratulations to our fair city, now basking in the national spotlight for our kickin’ food scene! It’s truly fantastic to see others heap praise on Bryan Caswell (who was just named to Food & Wine’s list of best new chefs), on Feast (which received a stellar write-up in the New York Times), and on Textile, VOICE, REEF, and Feast for their spots on Travel + Leisure’s list of the 50 Best New Restaurants.

Indeed we get much recognition for our awesome-n-expensive... and plenty of accolades for our awesome-n-cheap. But where, prey tell, are the awesome in-betweeners? Are they lost in the shuffle -- or do they not exist at all?

What I’m looking for is a simple, nice night out with friends for about $25. I could do well for $15 or $50, but that elusive mid-range is where we fall short, methinks. I *love* Backstreet Café, Shade, and Café Rabelais, but always end up spending well more than intended. Am I looking for value in all the wrong places?

Here are five faves...

Dolce Vita – No surprise here. Dolce Vita cranks out amazing apps and some of the best pizza around. And while they only take reservations for parties of 6+, the cozy bar offers decent people watching, as well as a nice selection of reasonably priced wines. The prosciutto pizza is a long-standing favorite, as are the amazing green beans (fagiolini).

Seco’s – This place is a bit of a paradox. It’s an upscale Mexican joint with crazy-fresh ingredients, yet the price is beyond reasonable. Truly it’s the restaurant trifecta: great food, great space, great service. Spinach enchiladas are epic, and the fish dishes are outstanding as well. Actually, I dare you to find something you don’t like.

Shandy’s – This tiny café on Memorial at Westcott serves terrific sandwiches, soups, burgers, and salads with absolutely zero pretense. Menu items are homemade with fresh ingredients and served up by Shandy, herself. When you go, be sure to note the amazingness of her arms. Also, fyi, there’s a small wine list, and I’d like to re-nominate Shandy’s BLT as the best in the city.

Oporto – I both love and hate the small plates concept, but they work well at this semi-swanky wine bar. One-and-a-half or two tapas and a glass of wine does the trick here, all for about $25. The Oportobella (a marinated portobello baked with a spinach and artichoke gratin) is fantastic, as are the piquillo peppers. Oh small plates, why must you taunt me so?

Tiny Boxwood’s -- Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Thompson + Hansen’s beautiful café achieves an enviable mix of comfort and style. Beautiful simplicity reigns when it comes to both food and setting, but not price (why does simplicity always cost so much?). Anyway, I luuurve the Pizza Bianca, and the turkey/avocado club on sourdough ranks high, too.

Your turn! What are your favorite mid-range spots?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dinner at Catalan

Year upon year Catalan lives up to its reputation as one of the best restaurants in the city. And not surprisingly. The good people at the upscale bistro have not only captured a winning formula, they also make it look easy. Servers, chefs, and sommelier slide gracefully around the low-lit room, maintaining their equanimity despite a packed house and crowded kitchen. Truly this is beautiful food in a beautiful space. But it’s also exceedingly loud. You’d be wise to ask for a table around the perimeter.

At Catalan it’s all about technique. As far as appetizers go, you won’t want to miss the roasted pork belly topped with a pure cane syrup; this dish will have your mouth singing in sugary seconds. The fresh and crispy crabmeat croquettes are certainly worth a try. Even the “redneck” mac and cheese, in its creamy splendor, could find a spot on the best dressed list.


While the entrees aren’t always perfectly executed, they don’t ever miss by much. The crabmeat crusted grouper ruled the table, beautifully prepared in that melt-in-your-mouth kind of way, although the adjoining Israeli couscous offered too many flavors at once. The local triggerfish (which gets top billing by the chef, himself) arrived lukewarm and lacking the expected fireworks.


There’s even a section of the menu for all you “Houston radicals.” It’s called the Chef’s Playground, so named because it contains a handful of the chef’s most rambunctious and inspired dishes, like barbecued head-on shrimp and housemade corned beef. P.S. you can add foie gras to anything; it says so right on the menu.

Not like I need to tell you, but don’t skip dessert. The peanut butter bread pudding is a perfect end to a near perfect evening.

Catalan - 5555 Washington (at TC Jester)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Po' Boys at Jazzie Cafe

Sometimes you just need a good po’ boy, and despite Houston’s proximity to New Orleans, that’s not always the easiest thing to do here. Enter Jazzie’s.


This flamboyant shack on 19th Ave west of Durham makes one of the best po’ boys in town. Started by two Katrina transplants and later sold to the current owners, the place stays true to its N’Awlins roots with pillowy bread, fresh meats, and plentiful toppings. You can’t go wrong with the shrimp version, which is so packed with the little guys you have to shove ‘em back in there. But the oyster is my personal fave; it arrives piping hot and teeming with perfectly breaded, lightly fried critters just begging for a splash of hot sauce.


Jazzie’s is tiny with little indoor seating; they’ve recently added a covered outdoor area with 4 picnic tables, though, where you can take in colorful views of the surrounding auto parts facilities. Or you can order your sandwich to go. Either way, service is hilariously awesome.

Avoid the boudin balls. Seriously. But go for a po’ boy.

Jazzie Café -- 1221 W. 19th Avenue

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Perfect Week for the Grove

Two weeks of blissful weather. That’s all we get a year, and it’s right now. ‘Tis the season, then, for The Grove, one of three restaurants on the new Discovery Green downtown.

Encased in a beautiful glass-and-steel space, The Grove embodies the simple elegance required of an entity that fills so many needs... It’s the kind of place you hit before a Rockets game, on your way to the Alley, or with a date. Got a free afternoon? Sit on the shaded wooden deck for a snack while you marvel at a vibrant outdoor display unlike anywhere else in Houston. You won’t regret it.

Lunch offers a little more consistency than dinner, yet both menus feature interesting flavors at OK prices. Of the appetizers, the deviled yard eggs with chorizo arrive in a gorgeous presentation, yet lack the flavor punch you expect. Moist rotisserie chicken adds an extra umpf to an already nice Caesar salad. Last Sunday’s tomato and chorizo soup was dynamite as well.


A closet hit is the grilled cheese sandwich off the double-secret kids menu. Seek it out. And the clear favorite is the shrimp burger with spicy avocado mayonnaise and fennel slaw; served with crispy fries, this beauty tops an already outstanding sandwich list.


When you’re done, head upstairs to the Treehouse (open Thursday through Saturday) for a creative cocktail while you bask in the shadows of the skyline. Or grab a few made-to-order doughnuts from the stand across the way. They’re hot, they’re fresh, and they’re little pillows of heaven.


Is this the most amazing meal you’ll have downtown? No, but it’s fun, fanciful, and consistently fine. Plus, you can feel good knowing you’re patronizing an eco-friendly venue in Houston’s prettiest new locale.

The Grove - 1611 Lamar (on the Discovery Green)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sugar Salad from a Lady Who Lunched

I inherited my grandmother’s massive recipe box after her death in 2007. She was a prolific cook, using her joint Serbian-Southern heritage to dazzle and inspire. I love pouring through her recipes and notes to see just how meticulous she was in the kitchen, but one card has always puzzled me:

~~~~~~~

Cinnamon Stars Salad

6 apples
1/2 cup red cinnamon candy
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups water
Cream cheese
Chopped walnuts
Chopped celery
Mayonnaise

Pare and core apples. Cook candies and sugar in water until dissolved. Add whole apples and cook slowly until translucent, but not soft. Chill. Cut apples in sixths to within 1/2-inch of bottom. Combine cream cheese with chopped walnuts and celery, and add enough mayonnaise to moisten. Stuff apples with mixture and top with chopped nuts.

~~~~~~~

OK. Three things confound me about this recipe. First of all, the title. The “cinnamon” and “stars” I get, but can anything with candy dissolved in sugar-water really qualify as a salad? Second, neither my mom nor her three siblings remember this dish. Third -- and perhaps strangest -- this recipe does not show up in Google. Like, anywhere. I have exhausted all efforts to locate something similar.

Are there other folks out there searching for specific enlightenment? Has anyone heard of or (better yet) eaten it? Is anyone else picturing my grandmother looking down at me with a “joke’s-on-you” expression? Someone help me out, here!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Bryan Caswell and the Key to the City

Hip hop hooray for Bryan Caswell, who was just named a Best New Chef from Food & Wine Magazine! Though Caswell may not be “new” to the Houston food scene, his impact has certainly evolved over the last year. There’s so much to like about this unassuming guy who continues to wow critics with the far reaches of his influence.

TECHNIQUE-DRIVEN
Last Saturday at REEF I firstly fell in love with the tempura soft shell. Lightly fried with a batter rich on flavor, REEF’s version is exquisite -- not mealy, which is easy to do -- underscoring Caswell’s emphasis on technical perfection. The perennial favorite crispy-skin snapper over tomato brown butter only reinforces this idea.


INVENTIVE
Caswell’s menu is stylistic without trend. The tuna bacon with sour apple appetizer explores the reaches of our palates, combining sweet, sour, and savory into a combo that somehow clicks. The jumbo lump lollipops always impress, and last summer’s beet ravioli was certainly the talk of the Web.


FOR THE PEOPLE
Thank you, Bryan, for bringing us Little Big’s, the acclaimed slider joint in Montrose! It is just what we needed: A simple menu made from quality meats and veggies, all in a space that’s casual, welcoming, and fun. But please add more heat to the crispy chicken :)


Congratulations, Chef Caswell -- We are ever-impressed, excited, and appreciative! Don't. Ever. Change.