Wednesday, February 28, 2007

There’s something about Whole Foods…

I’ve never been a big fan of Whole Foods, although I do admire their very successful ability to market expensive (some would say overpriced) products to an upper income demographic. This Whole Foods article from the NY Times seems to bear out alot of things I’ve suspected for years.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It’s all about the steak

Anybody who knows me knows that it’s all about the steak. There is nothing more sexy than a perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of prime Texas beef.

Yeah, I know it’s not that healthy, and it can be damn expensive, so I keep it down to one steak a week and I’m always keeping my eyes open for a good deal. Sure you can go to Central Market and get a great strip for $16/pound, but that’s $20 bucks with no sides and not even cooked. I don’t even bother checking the prices at Whole Foods anymore. Which leaves me to my humble neighborhood supermarket–the venerable Disco Kroger. Perusing the pre-packaged meats last week, I found a nice NY strip, bone-in, about 1.25 pounds, for…$4.49 a pound. You read that right. It was discounted w/Kroger Card from $9.49/pound. That, my friends, is a deal. The fruits of my labor are documented below. Before and after…

Uncooked Steak Cooked Steak


I started by taking the steak out of the fridge about 30 minutes before cooking, allowing it to come to room temperature (grilling a cold steak can be tricky). Seasoned both sides (liberally) with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Some people like to throw some steak seasoning on there, or even briefly marinate it, but consider me old-school–basic seasoning only. I got the grill nice and hot, very hot actually, and then brushed on a layer of olive oil to prevent sticking. I put the steak on. The smell and sound of a steak hitting a hot grill–there’s nothing better for a true foodie. This steak was about 1¼ inches thick, so I grilled 6½ minutes on each side for medium-rare. I removed from heat and let rest for about 5+ minutes. This is the one step alot of people skip–letting the steak rest. But it is absolutely crucial because that steak is going to continue cooking for a while after it is removed from heat. By the time you are ready to cut into it, it will be perfect…

Medium Rare Steak

And there you have it. Perfectly medium-rare. Tender as a mother’s love. Fellow Houston Foodies, if that picture doesn’t get your “juices flowing”, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Florida beats Texas? Are you kidding me?

No, not in football. In good food! Or at least in the perception of the best places to visit for culinary tourism.

According to this post on the most popular destinations for culinary travel, California, Florida, and New York all beat out Texas as a popular destination. Now I might surrender this distinction to Cali and NY, but never Florida. C’mon Houston Foodies, let’s do everything we can to move Texas up a notch!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chapultepec Lupita: No flan for you!

Chapultepec Lupita serves up great margaritas, great salsa, great food and great atmosphere. Just don’t ask for any dessert.

Tex-mex restaurants are to Houston what Ray’s Pizzerias are to NYC–seems like there’s one on every corner. So how does the typical Houston tex-mex restaurant differentiate itself from the competition? In the case of Chapultepec Lupita on Richmond Avenue in Montrose, the food is fresh and attentively prepared, the variety of tequilas is plentiful, the salsa is homemade, and the staff greet regulars with hugs and kisses (seriously). And did I mention it’s open 24 HOURS?


Food/Drink (8/10)
On a recent Tuesday evening the restaurant was about half full. As i stretched out in a booth, the server–friendly and smiling Ines–arrived immediately with the menu and I immediately ordered a Margarita. Ines recommended the happy hour special: the Charro Rita made with El Charro Silver Tequila and La Grand Marsalle liqueur. It was excellent.

Chips and salsa arrived next. One of the best ways for a tex-mex restaurant to differentiate itself is to serve fresh salsa. Middling tex-mex restaurants might underachieve and serve Sysco salsa, or overachieve with some kind of crazy pineapple salsa. This salsa was fresh and good. Like all great salsa, the base flavor eminated from the freshly chopped tomatoes, followed by a layer of cilantro, onions and jalapeno peppers. Sippin’ my maggie and munchin’ on the chips and salsa started to raise my expectations for Chapultepec Lupita.

The main course was the Chapultepec Special: Shredded chicken enchilada, beef tamale, ground beef crispy taco, queso chip, rice and beans.

When the plate arrived, a couple of things portended a special experience–the giant queso super chip and the screaming-hot plate. So hot that the main plate sat on a stack of about 15 paper plates (presumably so as not to burn the lovely Ines), and so hot that the overflowing enchilada cheese was crusted and bubbly along the edge of the plate.

I’ve had queso chips before, but this monster covered half the plate, was perfectly crisp and crunchy, and the thin layer of queso was smooth and spicy. The highlight of the dish was definitely the chicken enchilada. The shredded chicken was moist, tender and well-marinated, wrapped with tortilla and cheese that acted as a worthy complement. The tamale was 80% masa and 20% beef, but that was OK–the masa was smoky and moist with a silky/buttery texture. The beef was almost an afterthought but added just enough zing to counter the earthy masa.

The rest of the dish was serviceable. The taco part of the crispy beef taco was crisp and fresh like the queso chip, but the ground beef was somewhat flavorless. The rice and beans were standard-issue–but again, better prepared than most and completely enjoyable.

Impressed so far, I thought I’d go for the hat-trick and try the homemade flan for dessert. And that’s where the problems started. Read on.

Service (5/10)
Service was great until the dessert course. Normally I wouldn’t get a dessert but the food up to that point was so good, I had to try the prominently displayed homemade flan. I placed the order with Ines and waited expectantly. Ines returned with a sheepish grin and some bad news. No flan for you! They had not made any flan for the day. Maybe dessert courses aren’t very popular on Tuesday night? They did have New York Cheesecake, but I passed.

Atmosphere (7/10)
Located in an old house in Montrose, dining rooms are scattered throughout the house with an enclosed patio tacked on to the front. Pictures of Lupita along the walls and neon shrines to the Virgin Mary add to the quirky atmosphere. The jukebox played (not too loudly) groovy 70’s tunes.

The eclectic crowd on this Tuesday night reflected the Montrose neighborhood. The table next to me was a young family, with the older child maybe 11 or 12, sporting a fabulous mop of dreadlocks. I knew that made him either the most popular kid in school or the biggest outcast. It didn’t take long to figure out which.

“Everbody hates me!” the child tearfully mumbled. The dad was having none of it. “We don’t hate you! Stop whining and start talking!” Conversation ensued and the child was mollified. After the food arrived the table became curiously quiet.

Value (8/10)
The value is excellent. Chips and salsa, Margarita, and a big plate of food for $16 drive-out. There were a few main courses in the $15 range–steaks and fajitas and such–but if you stick to the tex-mex basics there are few better deals out there.

The Bottom Line (8/10)
Chapultepec Lupita offers fresh, inspired, and attentively prepared tex-mex food at reasonable prices in a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. And it’s open 24/7.

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cafe Montrose: Pulling mussels from a shell

That perennial understudy of Gulf Coast seafood, the lowly mussel, takes center stage at Cafe Montrose and turns in a command performance.

Pity the poor Texas mussel. Constantly playing second-fiddle to other more popular molluscs like clams and oysters, not to mention its crustacean cousins like crawfish, shrimp and crab, it’s fair to say that the unassuming mussel just doesn’t get any respect. Sure, it will turn up in a bowl of bouillabaise or a platter of paella, but rarely is it showcased as a dinner “main event”. Unless you visit Cafe Montrose, that institution of Belgian cuisine on lower Westheimer. And as any good international foodie knows, the Belgians are famous for two culinary distinctions: “moules” and “frites”, i.e. mussels and french fries. Oh and beer too. Stella Artois to be exact. But let’s start with the moules.


Food/Drink (8/10)
At Cafe Montrose, you can choose to have your mussels served up in a variety of preparations, from good old-fashioned steamed mussels in white wine, to mussels in a tomato sauce, and my choice, “Moules au Gratin”, mussels in a cheesy Parmesan sauce. For me, Parmesan cheese is one of those ingredients you can add to any dish and it will make it taste like a million bucks. Kind of like bacon in that way. But I digress. The Moules au Gratin appeared before me fresh out of the oven, in the gratin dish it was cooked in (hot to the touch), with that unmistakable fragrance of baked Parmesan. The mussels remained unseen, swimming in a creamy cheese sauce hidden just under the thick, crispy crust of baked Parmesan. Taking my spoon and cracking the Parmesan crust, creme brulee-like, exposed the cheese sauce and mussels below. The savory Parmesan crust was a nice complement to the briny, metallic taste of the mussels. The neutral cheese sauce acted almost as a go-between, setting the stage for the interaction of the Parmesan and mussels. The texture of the mussels varied widely, from an almost buttery consistency (good) to stringy and chewy (not so good). But that is to be expected in the world of seafood, and a small sacrifice to make for the overall high quality of this dish.

On to the frites. What can I say? The french fries at Cafe Montrose are the best in Houston. THE BEST. And I know that over the years many people and institutions have come to the same conclusion. Well, we’re all right. Perfectly crispy and crunchy on the outside, moist and steaming on the inside. The golden brown color is emphasized by a thin sheen of cooking oil. A liberal dose of salt and ketchup makes for a perfect plate of French…er, Belgian…comfort food.

And to complement all this degustational goodness is a vastly underrated Belgian beer (at least in the US)–Stella Artois. One of my favorites, it is a smooth and mild lager that only reinforces the unassuming quality of Belgian cuisine.

One minor consideration. I live near Cafe Montrose and frequently see its (catering?) van puttering around the neighborhood. In the mornings I see it parked at a neighborhood bakery, presumably where it gets its daily bread. It’s a well-regarded bakery, so I can only assume the spongy and plastic baguette slices that were served as a complimentary appetizer did not come from that bakery. I once worked in a high-end French restaurant with outstanding food about which our customers raved, but every one of those customers complained about the quality of the bread. It wasn’t bad, just kind of chewy and dry. The owner courteously listened to the complaints and assured the diners he would take it under consideration. But it never changed. Why? He believed, and rightly so, that diners should not “fill up” before the main course on bread and butter. I’d like to think that the quality of bread at Cafe Montrose is governed by the same philosophy.

Service (6/10)
This is obviously a family-run establishment, and the staff and service reflect that. Efficient, workmanlike and attentive.

Atmosphere (7/10)
I could see where the atmosphere at Cafe Montrose would not be suitable for everyone’s taste. From the dark, low, narrow space, the dingy ceiling tiles, the kitschy European background music and posters, the funky roller chairs and the Dr. Evil action figure sitting next to the cash register, some people may find the restaurant to be a bit “cheesy”. But not me. All of these quirky qualities, combined with the family service and comfort food, work together to create a unique, warm and familiar atmosphere.

Value (7/10)
Although the cost of the typical entree here is moderately expensive, between $10 and $20, I think the value is still very good. Ingredients such as fresh mussels and Parmesan cheese are not inexpensive, so I think they are doing a good job at holding the line on customer prices.

The Bottom Line (7/10)
The dark, quirky atmosphere, the satisfying comfort food, and the familiar staff all combine to make Cafe Montrose a unique dining experience, worthy of its namesake Houston neighborhood.

Update 11/9/08
Cafe Montrose is reportedly temporarily closed. Hopefully they will reopen soon. But in these tough times who knows. I'll miss the frites.

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Julia’s Bistro: Mmmmm…cactus!

On a cool, lazy February evening, Julia’s Bistro underachieves in the kitchen, overachieves in the dining room, and commits a management faux pas.

Alley Cat and I took our time perusing the handsomely designed menus. After all, with only two other tables seated, we weren’t in any hurry.

Food/Drink (4/10)
AC suggested that a complimentary plate of munchies would be nice–some plaintain chips or tasty bread might set the mood (but no chips and salsa please). Alas none arrived so we ordered a bottle of the Tintara 2004 Shiraz, a nice choice from an excellent wine list. The rich/smooth taste did not disappoint.


For the first course we shared an order of the Emapanadas, or “Empanaditas”, always a good measure of a Latin American menu. We chose the mixed plate–one each of pork, chicken and beans. They arrived crisp and golden brown a bed of spinach, with a cilantro/cream/garlic sauce on the side. For me, all empanadas are measured by THE Gold Standard of empanadas–the famed La Cupertina in Buenos Aires. Julia’s empanadas held up very well indeed with the crispy, steamy empanadas perfectly matched with the smooth/spicy sauce. The pastry crust was perfectly cooked, obviously from fresh dough, and the fillings delicious and fresh. The only misstep was the lack of distinct flavor of the individual fillings–the fried crust and cheese tended to muddle the taste of the pork/chicken/beans fillings to the point we were debating which was which. All-in-all a good start though.

For the main course I chose the Patito al Horno, or roasted duck in a mole poblano saucenserved with carrots and grilled nopalitos (that’s cactus for all you non-foodies). What words do I use to describe the dish that arrived? Uninspired. Underachieving. Lackadaisical. Let’s break it down. The baby carrots were crisp and fresh–no complaints there. But the duck, well, it just laid there. From the pallid grey/pink color to a texture that ranged from mushy to stringy, the chef on duty obviously was having an off night on this one. Admittedly, slow and lazy weeknights can be a challenge for restaurants to keep the focus on quality, but I thought the effort was poor. This may be a great dish on a busy night when the head chef is working, but tonite it didn’t work. As for the napolitos, after setting the plate down, our server assured me that if I didn’t like the cactus I could swap it out for something else. Ha! Our server did not know that we were foodies, and foodies eat cactus dammit! And it was good. I agreed with the server’s assessment that cactus is a bit like okra in its bitter taste and gooey texture. Fortunately the grilling preparation added a layer of flavor that made the taste unique if not completely pleasurable.

Service (6/10)
Our waiter was unfailingly polite and attentive, if a bit lethargic and inexperienced. Refreshingly, when we asked what was good on the menu, instead of the expected “Everything’s good!” he actually told us what he thought was good and maybe not-so-good. Kudos to you my friend!

At the end of the meal AC noticed a problem with the check. Specifically we were undercharged by 4 bucks on the wine. For a restaurant reviewer this is a dream come true–you can always tell alot about a restaurant based on their response to a problem. And AC, being the saucy vixen that she is, jumped all over it. “What if,” she purred, “we tell them there is a problem with the wine charge, but don’t tell them it was an overcharge or undercharge?” And that is just what she did. Experience would suggest that the waiter, eventually noticing the undercharge, would return with the check and an accommodating smile informing us that “It was undercharged, my bad, don’t worry about it.” But when the check returned it was 4 bucks MORE! D’oh! It’s not that big of a deal but I would expect a more seasoned service team to eat that charge.

Atmosphere (7/10)
Julia’s Bistro offers one of the truly urban experiences in Houston dining. With full-length windows on 2 sides of the perfectly proportioned main space, and the Metro Rail trains humming past on a regular basis, it is a comforting and enjoyable atmosphere. On this Tuesday night the noise level was quiet, although I wonder what it’s like in a full restaurant with a concrete floor and lack of sound absorbing fabrics on the walls. Lighting for the dinner hours is inviting and professionally done. It works even better from the “outside-in”–driving past the restaurant, the big picture windows frame the glow of the soft interior lighting that beckons the hungry foodie to come and bask in the atmosphere.

Value (3/10)
$100 for two people is certainly the going rate for a nice restaurant in Houston, but for this meal, the value was poor. On Julia’s best night the value will surely be good, but on this night were felt that our Benjamin could have been better spent.

The Bottom Line (4/10)
Julia’s didn’t have it tonite. Our solicitous waiter and the fantastic room were not enough to overcome the underachieving preparation of the cuisine. But I got the feeling this was just an off night and Julia’s Bistro has the potential for a more inspired effort. We will definitely dispatch a Houston Foodie reviewer for a follow-up visit sometime in the future.