Thursday, December 23, 2010

State of the City: 2011

I’m sorry to see 2010 come to a close. It was the year I got both engaged and married and switched from teaching high school English back to full-time copywriting. I traveled, I lived, I lounged, and I ate. But I’m certainly excited to see what 2011 has in store.

Houston tends to fly under the radar of the national food scene, but that’s alright by me. Yes, I loved seeing Bryan Caswell on The Next Iron Chef this year, and it’s cool to see Houston on John Mariani’s list of Best Restaurant Cities, but I think our food scene rather benefits from the relative national obscurity. After all, the Bayou City has been setting off culinary fireworks left and right this year, thanks to generally amiable attitudes from kitchen compatriots and diner darlings alike. No pressure, little drama; just a friendly competitive spirit.

Here are a few reasons I enjoyed the 2010 culinary air around town.

In one especially eclectic week last summer, I ate Serbian, Filipino, Moroccan, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mediterranean food... in addition to my usual fare. Recently I had Ethiopian food for the first time in eight years, and then went next door for a post-meal pupusa with bubble tea. Friends like Dr. Ricky and Jay Rascoe introduced me to Hot Pot, Peking Duck, and the wonderous array of taco trucks. Maybe the diversity, itself, isn’t new, but perhaps our growing desire to seek it out is.

Wine is typically the chosen buzz agent at fine-dining establishments, but this year the beautiful brewsky stepped into the foreground. We began flocking to beer-loving places like Petrol Station and Liberty Station, and restaurants began offering fancy-pants beer dinners. I attended the Southern Star beer dinner at VOICE in May, but was sorry to miss those Stone Brewing beer dinners at Vic & Anthony’s, among others. Perhaps this also reflects our growing preference for casual dinners and comfort foods.

It’s not just restaurants and breweries working together... Chefs are sharing kitchens, too, wowing eaters by combining culinary repertoires. There was the Lazy Summer Repast featuring chefs from Chez Roux, Bootsie’s, and the Just 8 Project. Shortly after that came the 10-10-10 dinner: 10 courses and 10 drink pairings from Seth Siegel-Gardner, Justin Yu, and David Buehrer, held at Paulie’s in Montrose. Pastry chefs Plinio Sandalio and Rebecca Masson even held their own collaborative dessert tasting.

Houston has never been known as a local food mecca, but that’s starting to change as restaurants citywide are spotlighting our local bounty on their menus -- or even growing their own. Eh, we’re no California, but Texas does have a surprising girth of local foods in the form of Gulf seafood, local cheeses, area beers, and Texas tomatoes, peaches, and grapefruits. Look for them on menus citywide, area farmers markets, or at the soon-to-open Revival Market. Hooray!

The City of Houston is notoriously hard on food trucks, but the community is beginning to prosper despite the strict regulations. Now that a few are up-and-running, they’ve created a kind of support group for one another, offering tips and advice to the newer ones making a go. Everyone’s a winner now that we have stands like Melange Creperie, the Eatsie Boys, and Oh My Pocket Pies. Even some of the brick-and-mortar restaurants are going mobile -- like Hubcap Grill, Armando’s, and Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen.

Yes, it’s been a banner year for lovely H-Town. And my calendar’s never complete without a list of selfish requests for the year to come.

1) A continuation of the trends from above. Why not? I like where we’re headed.

2) A return to dessert. With all the savory hullabahoo this year, we seem to have forgotten about dessert. Gone are the days when I checked out the dessert menu first to decide whether or not I needed to save room.

3) More pop-up restaurants. The Just August Project opened our eyes to culinary possibilities, creative cheffery, and a new type of dining. More, please!

4) More vegetables. Some of my most memorable dining experiences this year (in Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver) included vegetables in starring roles. I want more of this in Houston, though places like Haven, The Grove, and Bootsie’s are close.

(A plate at OIMBY, a feast made almost entirely from locally sourced foods.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Culinary Camaraderie at Kata Robata

It’s fantastically awesome to see that there’s so much *fun* going on in the kitchens around town. Truly, the restaurants are thriving these days are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously and continue to step up their games by playing with flavors and techniques. They love it, we love it; it’s textbook win-win. One only need follow Randy Rucker (of Bootsie’s CafĂ©) or Carlos Rodriguez (of Vic & Anthony’s) on Twitter to see an endearing sort of kitchen camaraderie going on... It’s the kind that spills from the kitchen to the dining room via a freight train of fabulous food.

I wouldn’t have pegged Seth Siegel-Gardner and Manabu Horiuchi to have that sort of Be/Fri relationship, but the pair is making sweet, sweet gastronomy together at Kata Robata. Hori is a classically trained sushi chef from a small town outside Tokyo. Siegel-Gardner is a Houston native who has honed his cheffery at next-level places like the Fat Duck in London at C-House in New York. Each is a culinary genius in his own right—and now they’re combining their knowledge and packing a serious one-two punch for Houston diners to enjoy. For a limited time.

Below are some photos from my omakase experience at Kata Robata last night. All of these items are from the recently overhauled menu, which you should try as soon as is possible. Siegel-Gardner will be sharing the spotlight at Kata Robata for the next few months before possibly moving on, so the time is now.

Honey mussels from British Columbia. The one on the left has a light citron vinaigrette and char roe; the one on the right has a cucumber vinaigrette and ponzu. Simple, smooth, and totally flavorific.

House smoked salmon served with puffed salmon skin, thin sliced pickles, and a purple cabbage reduction. The puffed skin adds a nice measure of savory.

My favorite dish of the night: Grilled sushi rice topped with smooth uni and a rich togarashi lardo, served with a poached quail egg. Mega flavor fireworks with every bite.

A paper-thin slice of dehydrated short rib. Below is the rest of the dish: Perfectly hydrated Akaushi beef short ribs with broccoli stems and toasted nori yogurt. Amazing.

Barbecued unagi under a pile of powered bone marrow snow. Supine in the background is a slice of foie gras studded with stripes of unagi sauce. Pure decadence.

Fresh toro tar tar with wasabi vinaigrette, kumquat cream, and crunchy gobo chips. Simple and light, a beautiful mix of textures, served with just the right accoutrements.

Salmon and lightly fried softshell crab studded with Korean barbecue powder and togarashi. On the other side of the plate was the pork belly roll topped with hardboiled egg and a seedless slice of jalapeno.

Shockingly light puffs of doughnut: A coconut one lies in the foreground. The ones in the back are filled, one with sweet potato and the other with red bean paste. A stunning way to end a stunningly delicious meal.