Monday, December 29, 2008

2009: The Year of the Foodie

Tim Hayward decided!

What not to miss in 2009

" For as long as we can remember, the aspirational figures in society have been business people, shouting into mobiles, moving money around, bustling here and there and "generating wealth". They've filled our TV screens, been the dominant trope of advertising and even been co-opted by government as role models. Well, they've had a go and they've stuffed it up. No one wants a businessperson now; but someone who can make a comforting meal, can feed a family, can nurture a stockpot and convert leftovers into meals is beginning to look positively heroic. You may have noticed that some foodies quite like the idea of recession. We come into our own when people need thrift, ingenuity, nourishment and cheap comfort - in fact, we get quite unbearably smug. Oh yes, our time has come. No longer the quiet, slightly overweight obsessives in the pinnies, in 2009 we fervently believe, foodies will take their rightful place as the new Masters of the Universe. "

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Happy New Year to all,
Houston Foodie <- Tongue, as always, firmly in cheek

Friday, December 26, 2008

Link Feast: 12.26.08

Sun to set on P & G Cafe, at least for now - I used to live a few buildings down from this place and spent many hours of my misspent youth here sipping from a glass of Bass or Guinness on tap. It may live on, but can never be the same.

Food Photography for Bloggers - Everything the food blogger always wanted to know about photography but was afraid to ask. In other words, how to create high-quality food porn.

Obama Foodarama - If it has anything to do with 1) Obama and 2) food, then you'll find it here. An unexpectedly fascinating read. Kudos to you sir!

Dozens sickened at county health department's Christmas party - This can't be good for business.

American women are catching up with men in their alcohol consumption - This can only be good news for guys like me. I decided. Also, the part where the writer states "Fortunately, I didn't spend my entire sex work career in a champagne club" caught my eye and added a whole new spin to the article.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sauté Bistro: The good, the bad, and the possibilities

Sauté World Bistro is a new Houston restaurant with an ambitious menu focused on international cuisine.

Sauté World Bistro

Like many new restaurants, it is continuing to collect feedback from its patrons and updating/changing the menu as needed. On December 16, 2008, the owners of Sauté Bistro invited Houston food bloggers to a "Food Blogger's Invitational" private tasting event to showcase some of the dishes that are currently on the menu and some that are candidates for addition to the menu. The tasting would be provided free of charge (note that the owners did not ask for anything in return for the free dinner).

Because the event was free, this is not a traditional restaurant review. I attended the event and this blog post represents my personal opinions and feedback about the dishes that were presented and about the restaurant as a whole.

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As with all new enterprises, there's some good news, some bad news and some things that can be improved. I'll start with some general comments about the restaurant itself and the restaurant business in general, then showcase a few dishes. At the end I'll provide my personal suggestions on some things that can be improved.

The good news.

  • The owners are experienced local business people, Connie and Kevin Lacobie, best known as proprietors of Té House of Tea on Fairview. Connie and Kevin are fantastic hosts and are obviously committed to making Sauté Bistro a success. They should be commended for having the bravery and confidence to invite a bunch of unruly food bloggers into their restaurant to dissect their menu!
  • The chef, Garry Hollie, is a promising newcomer to the Houston restaurant scene. Recently arrived from New Orleans, Chef Hollie's influence was seen (and tasted!) in some of the off-menu items we sampled.
  • The location, on Richmond between Greenbriar and Kirby, is a well-known destination for Houston's restaurant-goers. Located in the same block as Blue Fish House and the Hobbit Cafe, there is tremendous visibility in drive-by and foot traffic.

The bad news.

  • Obviously, the economy. It's a tough time to start a new restaurant.
  • The location. What the restaurant gods giveth, they also taketh away. Countering the good news (above), this location offers a large number of choices for consumers spending their dining-out dollars. Many of the neighboring restaurants have been here for a long time and have loyal customers. It will be a challenge to get potential patrons coming to the neighborhood to bypass their usual hangouts and try something new.
  • The concept. I'm deeply sceptical about the "world bistro" concept. Who is your potential demographic/audience? I can't point to a nationally known, highly successful restaurant that has perfected this type of menu. Locally, there's Farrago World Cuisine, but honestly I don't know anyone who goes there for the food rather than the bar/brunch scene. However, it's not an impossible concept, and it can be a way to distinguish Sauté Bistro from the other restaurants in the neighborhood. It will just take alot of tweaking and testing to get it just right.

The good dishes.

    Sauté World Bistro

  • Spicy chicken pastelitos. True, I rarely meet an empanada I don't like. But still these were skillfully prepared — crispy and crunchy on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside.
  • Sauté World Bistro

  • Mexican spice cake. Very nice combo of flavors and textures. The use of chili/spicy chocolate in a dish is a stroke of genius and a perfect representation of the international menu concept. The presentation was very nice also.

The bad dishes.

    Sauté World Bistro

  • The crab salad wonton. Regrettably, I found nothing to like in this dish. Generally underseasoned and bland, the flavor of the crab meat really had to stand out to make this dish work. It didn't. The wonton was tough and chewy almost to the point of being inedible. The Romaine lettuce garnish is a big no-no in my opinion.
  • Sauté World Bistro

  • The banana split cake. I greatly appreciate the ambitiousness of this dish. But there's just too much going on flavor and texture-wise. It's a bit of a muddle. At the very least you could remove the unnecessary cherry topping. Also the cake overall was too dense. I would have preferred a better contrast between the fluffiness/lightness/moistness of the banana bread and the density of the chocolate, strawberry(?) and vanilla fillings. As it was, the layers were all about the same density. Idea: Just serve a simple, moist, flavorful slice of banana bread with a big dollop of fresh cream and a garnish of banana slices or other fruit.

The Honorable Mention dish.

Alligator Piccata. This dish was not on the menu (yet?), and obviously represented the influence of Chef Hollie's New Orleans background.

Sauté World Bistro

I really liked the Alligator Piccata part of this dish. I thought the flavors were unique and intriguing. If you told me about this dish, I might think you were crazy, but somehow it works.

A few comments about possibly rolling out this dish to customers.

  • Reconsider the visual presentation. It's gray, it's brown, it's black, it's goopy and gloppy. I know that really shouldn't matter, but we live in a world where some of the most sought after restaurant consultants work as "food stylists." Appearance matters. Find some way to add some color (beyond parsley) or other visual appeal.
  • The accompaniments need tweaking. Although the bland neutrality of the forbidden rice offset the strong flavors of the alligator piccata, it really didn't add much to the dish. Maybe some yellow (saffron?) rice to add a bit of additional flavor and visual appeal?
  • Will customers visiting a "world bistro" be predisposed to ordering alligator? For instance, if someone is in the mood for cajun/creole/seafood and they head out to a cajun restaurant, they are "predisposed" to ordering alligator. I'm not so sure about a world bistro, especially when other choices include steak, chicken, and lamb chops.

Suggestions for improvement.

  • Tighten up the menu. Currently the menu has eight — count'em, eight — sub-categories: Starters, Sides, Soup, Simple Delights(?), Salads, Vegetarian Affairs, Entrees and Desserts. You just need three: Starters, Entrees, and Desserts. No more than 8 starters, 6 entrees and 4 desserts (this also takes some pressure off the chef). Vegetarian dishes can be mixed in and noted. Daily specials can then be created to add more choice and diversity. On the back of the menu you can have sides and drinks (push the Teatinis!).
  • Punch up the visual presentations. I'm not a big fan of semi-wilted lettuce as garnish. It seems old-fashioned. Keep garnishes simple, if you have any at all. For instance on the pastelitos, instead of sitting on a platter in a bed of lettuce, have them stacked upright like soldiers in a simple round bowl lined with white butcher paper (where's a food stylist when you need them?).

    Same with the thin-sliced, wagon-wheel citrus garnish placed on top of dishes. I realize it is meant to convey to the diner that there is citrus in the dish but it still seems old-fashioned. Some alternatives to achieve the same effect: use a microplane to add a light dusting of lemon zest on or around the edges of the dish. Or just a shapely lemon twist.

  • Find a signature dish. Find a dish that will cause people to say, "I've got to go back to Sauté Bistro for that ______ dish!" The spice cake is a good candidate, but people aren't going to come just for the dessert. Empanadas are a possibility. The alligator is also a possibility if you can make it work with the overall concept.

I greatly enjoyed the "Food Bloggers Invitational" at Sauté World Bistro for many reasons. Meeting Connie, Kevin, and Chef Hollie. The camraderie of other food bloggers. The ambitious tasting menu. Some things worked, some didn't. But with continued testing, feedback and updating, Sauté has the potential to be a successful addition to the Houston restaurant scene.


My original notes are below:

Notes 1
876KB PDF

Notes 2
864KB PDF

Friday, December 19, 2008

Link Feast: 12.19.08 (Cheese bail-out edition)

Bail-out fever has crossed the pond. If the price of a Parmesan wheel is so low, why am I still paying $20/pound at Central Market?

Hard Times for Parmigiano Makers - The Parmesan cheese industry is not too big to fail, it's too important to fail.

Italy's "king of cheese" in crisis plea on prices - Interesting economic analysis. Costs ~$6/pound to produce? And retail price is $20/pound? And they still can't make money? Where's all that money going?

Rules for making Parmesan cheese - The Italian government decided. Those are some happy cows!

An Italian cheese war has broken out - The Times of London frames it as another example in a long-running north-south Italian feud.

Il governo acquista parmigiano e grana - The original report (in Italiano).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Foodie Movies: Mostly Martha

Mostly Martha is the quintessential foodie chick-flick. Lots of warm-and-fuzzies. It's kind of the anti-Sideways. And it's a great movie.

Mostly Martha

I went to a college known for its film school. I did not attend film school, but many of my roommates did. We spent nights around a dorm room table discussing movies. Picture the scene in the movie Swingers where the boys are sitting in the diner debating the derivative nature of Tarantino films. That was us. Right down to the late 80's hipster outfits. We were money.

One of our favorite debates was this: Without seeing the credits, can you watch a movie and then guess if it was directed by a man or a woman? This was a great challenge for myself and these wannabe Steven Spielbergs. Turns out I was very good at watching a random movie and correctly guessing the gender of the director. Call it a stupid human trick.

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So I dropped the Mostly Martha DVD into the tray and fired it up without knowing anything about the film's cast and crew. It's sub-titled so I didn't pay much attention to the opening credits. About half-way through the movie I knew a woman had directed it (and a woman director is almost always a very good thing. Name one Hollywood boxoffice bomb directed by a woman). There were a few clues. The lead character, a woman chef, is strong and independent and likes to be in control. But the biggest clue was in the male supporting actors. They are:

The therapist. Even this capable and experienced psychologist can't penetrate the emotional complexities of our heroine!

The neighbor. A handsome, patient and understanding architect, divorced with children.

The co-worker. A talented and entertaining Italian chef with unsurpassed charm and people-skills.

The mystery man. An Italian truck-driver who apparently owns a Medici-esque Villa in Tuscany.

Only a woman writer/director would come up with these Dreamy McDreamies! Somehow Fabio did not get cast. Of course I'm being facetious. The story, plot, and characters actually work very well.

So yes, this is a foodie chick-flick but it is very enjoyable for both male and females alike. It follows along the lines of the "food-as-therapy" story line. And guys, the director, Sandra Nettlebeck, did not forget about you. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, just when guys watching the movie start nodding off, the lead character (a hottie by the way) starts walking around her apartment in her underwear. Time to wake up, Greg! This is not a coincidence. Take it from somebody who somehow knows.

Monday, December 15, 2008

My Houston Press Blog Posts

November 2009

Ceviche at El Sinaloense

October 2009

Mojarra Frita at Cocina de Colima

Beef Cheeks at Gerardo's Drive-in

Lamb Shank at Niko Niko's

Food Photography Workshop with Penny De Los Santos

Pumpkin Pie Blizzard at Dairy Queen

Landowner's Challenge at West Alabama Ice House

Top 5 Cheesiest Soft Drink Commercials

Checking in at Stanton's City Bites

The Tavern Declares War on Limp Dick (Pizza)

Top 5 Creepiest Halloween Candy

Chef Rick Bayless: Reluctant Rock Star

Roasted Pig Snout

September 2009

Outstanding in the Field Dinner at Jolie Vue Farms

Hubcap Grill Opens New Location

Top 5 Fast Foods That'll Do in a Pinch

Natto from Nippan Daido

Top 5 Most Bizarre Food Movies

Juan Mon's International Sandwiches

Chocolat du Monde in Rice Village

Lunch at Le Mistral

Bento Box at Nippon Japanese Restaurant

New Chef at The Tasting Room at Uptown Park

August 2009

Cafe Zol Gets a Makeover

Texas BBQ Day Tripping

Tex Chick Puerto Rican Restaurant Lives On

Nutella® vs. Gianduia vs. Kroger Hazelnut Spread

Gyro Sandwich at Al's Quick Stop

Lunch at Tiny Boxwood's Cafe

A Return to Falafel Frenzy...err...Factory

Restaurant Bill Padding: How Often Does It Happen?

BBQ Crab at Floyd's in Webster

July 2009

Forno a Legna Pizza in Italy

Cafe Montrose Reborn?

Menu Flashback: Don's Seafood 1972

New Burgers at Hubcap Grill

3-6-9 Oriental Bistro

Dessert Gallery's New Digs

Community Bar Food

Do-It-Yourself Taco Burgers

June 2009

Iranian Cuisine at Darband Shish Kabob

The Foie Gras Problem

Boudin Balls with a Gooey Surprise

Tintos Stakes a Claim to Inner Loop Tapas

The Acadian Bakers in Montrose

Goat Brains Masala at Indika

Felix's Queso Makes a Comeback

Building the Perfect Pizza

Stingaree Music Festival and Texas Crab Festival in Crystal Beach, Texas

May 2009

Stuckey's: The Travel Center That Time Forgot

Oaxaca Meat Market in Dickinson

Kiko's Mexican Cafe

Let's Spread the Restaurant Wealth

From Sea to Shining Seafood Platter

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Menudo

April 2009

Stingaree Rising

The Thing About Frito Pies

Molecular Madness at Max's Wine Dive

March 2009

You've Got Crabs! Of the Soft-Shell Variety

Houston's Best Recipe for Success

Carnivores Behaving Frugally

More Sex! Less Food! The Eggheads Proclaimeth

February 2009

Chicken-Fried Steak With a Side of Kiss My Grits

Culinary Schadenfreude Comes to Houston

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Darwin!

Wine Trends for 2009: Quality and Value

January 2009

Alcohol-Free Wine: Poorly Conceived Dreck

How to Cook a Corn Dog

A Foray into Locally-Grown, Grass-Fed Beef

Japanese-Brazilian Fusion the Next Big Thing?

"Chili When It's Chilly" Chili Cook-off

Traditional Sunday Roast at Feast

Food & Foreign Policy

Beware the Mongol Invasion! (of BBQ)

Chocolate Chip Cookie Redux

December 2008

Chicken & Sausage Gumbo at Al-T's

Football Star Sausage Smackdown!

Will Blog for (Free) Food?

Coming Soon: Juan Mon's International Sandwiches

Friday, December 12, 2008

Link Feast: 12.12.08

More great writing from the Guardian, and then a couple of random links.

Helene Darroze at the Connaught - When a critic compares a meal in your restaurant to being leg humped by a sex-starved terrier for three hours, um...that's a bad review.

Africa's hungry tribe - Not all great food writing is about truffles and fois gras. Nor should it be.

Dinner party? Don't make me laugh ... - Two of my favorite subjects — food and Ricky Gervais.

Lunchbox Auction by Gourmet - Groovy celebrity lunch boxes by the likes of Mario Batali and the Beastie Boys.

Le Tour du Chocolat - Both the content and style of this article make it a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mexico's Deli

The holy grail of a food blogger is to find and write about that one undiscovered restaurant about which no one else has ever written.

It will have such great food and atmosphere that once your ground-breaking blog post is made public, you will forever be honored and revered for your culinary-investigative abilities.

Yeah, right. Problem is, there are very, very few restaurants in Houston that have not been written about. But my curiosity implores me to forge ahead. One way I track down unknown restaurants is simple: I ask people. So a couple of weeks ago at the Greek Festival, in between scarfing down spinakopitas and sipping overpriced and complexity-challenged Greek wine, Alley Cat and I chatted up a couple of nice fellows standing at the same table. Turns out they worked at the Mexican consulate here in Houston.

Mexico's Deli

After the obligatory musings about politics, I rolled out my usual query to someone who might know a good "ethnic" restaurant: If your family from Mexico came to visit you in Houston and after a week of BBQ and chicken fried steak and buffalo wings they were craving an authentic Mexican dinner just like they would get at home, where would you take them in Houston? My question was answered with another question. "Which family from which part of Mexico? There are many different areas of Mexico and many corresponding cuisines," they asserted, eyes widening and voices deepening. This was getting interesting. I think my mouth started watering. Could I be on the verge of an unknown find? Read on to find out.

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We agreed on Mexico City. "Then," they whispered, "you must go to Mexico's Deli."

After a nightcap of beer and football at Griff's, I stumbled home and did the Google. "Mexico's Deli." The usual Citysearch and Yelp results. Then there it was: a review of Mexico's Deli by the indefatigable Robb Walsh at the Houston Press. Bloody hell! That guy's been everywhere and reviewed everything in freakin' Houston. My dreams of food blogging fame dashed, the next day I pulled on to the brand-spanking-new Katy Freeway and charged west to this highly recommended, Mexico City-inspired emporium for tacos and tortas.

Food/Drink (6/10)

Mexico's Deli offers tortas and tacos using meat cooked on and cut from a "trompo," or vertical spit, Mexico City-style. Similar to the vertical roasters you see at Greek and Mediterranean restaurants, the meat here is actually pre-cooked due to Houston health codes. For details on the preparation, see Robb Walsh's article above and an in-depth report here.

My first dish was pambazo, a torta with chorizo, potatoes, sour cream, cheese and lettuce. The bread is soaked in a Guajillo chile sauce and toasted.

Mexico's Deli

On my first bite I discovered the chorizo pork nuggets were inedible chunks of rubbery gristle. Seriously. INEDIBLE.

WHY CAN'T I GET TENDER, GRISTLE-FREE SLICES OF PORK OR BEEF AT MEXICAN RESTAURANTS ANYMORE? ARRRGH!

Maybe due to higher costs restaurants are buying crappier cuts of meat? Maybe it's the supplier cutting corners? I just don't know, but it's killing me.

Eating the sandwich usually involved the following process: take a bite, chew a couple of times, locate the rubbery nuggets, and then spit them out, machine-gun-like, into a discreetly placed napkin. It was like eating a watermelon and spitting out the seeds.

The good news is that once you got rid of the gristle nuggets, the sandwich was spectacular. The soft, toasted, smoky, peppery, drippy bread was fabuloso.

On the next visit I ordered the tacos al pastor, or tacos "shepherd style."

Mexico's Deli

This included a triumvirate of multi-layered corn tortillas piled high with roasted pork, fresh cilantro, onions and pineapples with jugs of green (tomatillo/avocado) and red sauce (something really hot) on the side. Oh dear lord this was a wonderful dish. How often do you find anything this authentic inside the loop? A pile of cilantro and pineapples? Most Americans wouldn't go near it. But it was oh so good. Even the pork, still a bit chewy in places, helped make this dish great.

Mexico's Deli

On my last visit, having never tried a torta there, I ordered one to go. This ginormous Mexican sandwich contained chorizo (still gristly, but a bit less so from the previous visit), cheese and mushrooms. Giving off an overwhelming fragrance and flavor of cumin, this is a sandwich that would most likely have to be "Americanized" (i.e. tone down the cumin and other spices) to work in a conventional Mex-Mex or Tex-Mex restaurant.

Mexico's Deli

Service (6/10)

Counter-service. Friendly, efficient. Seat yourself. Once prepared, your food is brought out to you along with the jugs of green and red sauce.

Atmosphere (4/10)

Although Mexico's Deli may transplant authentic Mexican food to Houston, it's location and surroundings do not inspire visions of bustling market stalls in Mexico City. Rather, it sits in the most non-descript of strip centers on S. Dairy Ashford. At night, it's the only store open in the center. But it is strangely welcoming, this oasis of light on a darkened strip of boulevard in Houston's exurbs. The first time I visited, late in the evening, the store was brightly lit but completely empty. Normally not a good sign, but as I settled in there was a steady stream of Mexican-Americans (very good sign for a Mexican restaurant) ordering take-away at the counter. I can safely say that I was the only gringo there for the duration of my visit.

[If you've worked up an appetite to this point, you may want to skip the next paragraph.]

Unfortunately the restroom, though not completely squalid, left much to be desired. Not quite bad enough to be a deal breaker for me, but the floor was wet and littered with toilet paper, the toilet wouldn't flush completely (both visits) and the dispenser was out of soap.

Value (8/10)

The tacos al pastor at $4 is one of the single best food deals in all of Houston. The prodigious tortas, half of which would make a meal and the other half good for the next day, are also a great value at $6-$7.

The Bottom Line (6/10)

I really like Mexico's Deli. If just for the uniqueness of the dishes and flavors. It is true that the food at Mexico's Deli has not been "Americanized." Eating and savoring the tacos al pastor, ladling on generous pools of red and green sauce, smelling the roasted pork and fresh corn tortillas and cilantro — you do feel like you're in a different place. Now if they can consistently serve up good quality meat and keep their bathrooms clean, I might be tempted to trek out to S. Dairy Ashford on a regular basis.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Foodie Movies: 301/302

Back in 1995 the "foodie movie of the year" was a little flick called Big Night. Or was it?

That same year, another foodie movie was produced in South Korea. It was called 301/302. The fact that both are foodie movies produced in 1995 is, I can assure you, the only similarity between these films.

301,302

With regard to 301/302, I don't even know where to start. This is not a warm-and-fuzzy feel-good movie. It is not a date movie. You will laugh during this movie, but not because it is funny. This movie is best watched after drinking several glasses of wine. This is a difficult and disturbing film that only the most dedicated foodie-movie buff should watch. If rated in the US, it would most likely be NC-17. You've been warned.

Plot-wise, this is a movie about two women who are obsessed with food in different ways and for different reasons. Beyond that, I really can't describe the movie any further without giving it away.

Did I like this movie? I did, if only for the fact that it is so completely unexpected, original, and uncompromising. On the downside, I'll never eat Korean food again.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Link Feast: 12.5.08

Just a grab bag o' links this week.

Gordon is using me...so I will use him - Gordo can have any woman in the world to screw around with and he picks this??? Oy vey.

A slow food tour of Turin - I really, really want to go on a foodie tour of Europe. So much food, so many places, so little time.

Home dinner clubs build friendships through food - There are foodies everywhere in Houston.

Wurstküche, downtown L.A.'s new sausage-and-beer kitchen - What a freakin' brilliant idea. Beer. Sausage. 'Nuff said.

The Ultimate Reservation - Students spend their whole young lives working to get an acceptance letter from an Ivy League school. Foodies spend their lives waiting for an acceptance letter for a reservation at El Bulli.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why do they hate us?

There has been alot of hand-wringing over the last few years about America's standing in the world. Is there anything can we do about it?

Fortunately, American culture is thriving overseas. And it's good news when a large American consumer products company goes to the farthest reaches of the earth to spread the gospel of American values, right? Right?

Well, maybe not. At least when the company is Burger King and the American values (value meals?) being spread are...wait for it...the Whopper and the Big Mac.

And so the Whopper Virgins viral marketing campaign began.

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This is of course a marketing campaign conceived in controversy and aimed at the YouTube generation. Burger King did not just "overlook" the fact that, at a time when America's reputation in the world is at historic lows, it might not be a good idea to send "emissaries" to seek out "indigenous peoples" on whom to perform "taste tests" that the "elite media" would find crass and exploitative.

As BK insists, this might just be a harmless marketing stunt. But it can also be argued that BK is introducing inherently poor eating habits and nutrition to an otherwise healthy people. Ironic considering that American policymakers are up in arms about the literal poison that China is shipping to America in its exported foodstuffs. Someone with a vivid imagination might even see parallels with the Spanish conquistador's introduction of foreign diseases that wiped out large swaths of indigenous peoples in Latin America. I can see the headlines now: The Whopper Virgins Sacrifice. Whoppers of Mass Destruction.

In any case, the purpose of the marketing campaign has been achieved — people are talking about it (e.g. this blog and many others). I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing turned out to be a big goof and the indigenous peoples are really actors. And if it is real, so what if a couple of Transylvanian farmers got indigestion from eating a Whopper? It won't be the first time Americans have been accused of "bad taste." So no worries. Right?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chef Olivier Ciesielski wine dinner at 13 Celsius

Being a foodie is kind of like being a junkie — you’re always on the make for your next big score. So it was with great interest that I became aware of a French wine pairing dinner at Houston wine bar 13 Celsius.

This 6 course dinner had all the makings of an exceptional culinary experience. With limited seating and for one night only, a young and talented local chef would collaborate with a creative and inventive Houston wine bar.

Preparing the dinner would be Chef Olivier Ciesielski, formerly of Tony’s and an October ‘07 appearance on Iron Chef America (as part of Charles Clark’s team) against Mario Batali in "Battle: Halibut" (they lost to Batali by one point!).

Pairing the wines with Ciesielski’s menu would be proprietor Mike Sammons of the highly regarded Houston wine bar, 13 Celsius. The dinner would take place at 13 Celsius’ midtown location: a circa-1927 Mediterranean-style building that has been immaculately restored by 13 Celsius partner Ian Rosenberg.

So the stage was set. And yet I had … misgivings. Why? First and foremost, wine pairing dinners are always hit-and-miss affairs. It is both difficult and easy to pull off a dinner of this type — easy because you can put good food and wine in front of most people and they will be happy. Difficult because without a clear vision of the dinner there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Additional doubts arose from the fact that this would be a sophisticated dinner created in a place with no kitchen. And how would the service be in an improvised dining room?

These were all legitimate doubts and questions whose resolution I greatly anticipated upon arrival at 13 Celsius for the second, 9pm seating. Was this ambitious French wine pairing dinner a hit or a miss?

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This wine pairing dinner was most definitely a hit, a great success.

By all indications this event was conceived with a sweeping, challenging palette of flavor, texture, pacing, and presentation in both the food and the wine. There was clearly a vision established first by the fall-inspired menu of Chef Ciesielski, and then that was “riffed” on by Mr. Sammons in the wine pairings. With a wine dinner like this the individual success or failure of a dish or pairing is unimportant. This dinner demands to be evaluated as a whole, rather than as a succession of individual parts. I’ll first describe the individual dishes and then try to bring it back full circle with an evaluation of the dinner as a whole.

Food/Drink (8/10)

1st Course

Food: Seasonal hors d’oeurves

Wine: Phillippe Foreau Vouvray Brut

The 1st course was a rapid-fire succession of eclectic amuse-bouches. There were hits and misses. Fortunately the misses were slight and the hits were out of the park.

Legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has said that “The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his big ideas in small bites.” How perfectly applicable to this occasion. Chef Ciesielski was clearly foreshadowing the future courses in the diversity and balance of flavors and textures, particularly the combination of sweet and savory dishes.

Amuse-bouches

The dishes included a gazpacho of tomato and butternut squash, proschiutto and melon skewer, crostini with truffle oil and cherry tomato, a liver and fennel tart, pepper-crusted tuna with goat cheese skewer, and climaxed with a fois gras and bacon lollipop (yes, you read that last one right, more on this in a moment).

The gazpacho was a “noble failure,” mostly in presentation. The luminescent fall-orange liquid was served in a clear, thin test tube. Presented to the guests in a test tube rack rather than a traditional (and useless in this case) serving tray, this was a provocative start to the dinner experience. Alas, the presentation proved the dish’s downfall. How exactly do you eat out of a test tube? You could not “drink” it because the liquid, both chilled and viscous, wouldn’t budge. A straw was not part of the place setting, so sucking it out like a milk shake was apparently not intended. We resorted to upturning the tube over a plate and waited for the liquid to slowly glide out (Carly Simon’s song Anticipation playing in my head now). A few timely shakes helped, but the gazpacho was still dribbling out when the next dish arrived. We spooned up what gazpacho we could get out — it was fresh and well-prepared — and moved on to the next offering.

The highlight of the 1st course was undoubtedly the fois gras and bacon lollipop. This was a round, half-inch scoop of fois gras coated with fresh, crumbled bacon chunks and then impaled onto a toothpick. The salty-meaty flavor and the buttery texture of the fois gras, combined with the crunch and smokiness of the bacon bits, was hedonistic. If there is a foodie heaven where you never get fat, never get tired of eating the same thing, and never worry about daily nutrition, then it would probably feature a never-ending buffet of fois gras coated in bacon chunks.

I suspect the wine pairing choice for this course was particularly challenging. There is just too much going on flavor-wise to choose a traditional “pairing” of wine. So I think Mr. Sammons did something both clever and obvious: choose a traditional aperitif in a sparkling Vouvray Brut. There is enough balance here to work with all the 1st course dishes, but also enough complexity to possibly pick up on some of the dish’s flavors. And although I may be reading too much into this choice of wine, the Vouvray with its sparkling, crisp, and fresh (sometimes called “lemony”) character could almost be interpreted as a palate cleanser between the many and combative flavors of the 1st course dishes.

2nd Course

Food: Tropical ceviche with scallop, shrimp, citrus and serrano

Wine: Henri Bourgeois Sancerre d’Antan ‘05

Ceviche is a dish that often separates foodies from non-foodies. Like many ethnic dishes — sushi, mole, natto — it can be an acquired taste. The typical American diner who frequents restaurants like Outback, Chili’s or even Red Lobster will surely never be presented with ceviche as a menu option. It is a challenging dish both in its consumption and preparation.

Ceviche

Chef Ciesielski’s ceviche was particularly inventive, mainly in presentation. The ceviche was served in a funnel-shaped dish that rested on a circular dish below. The lower dish contained dry ice in liquid that accomplished two purposes—one practical and one for presentation. First, it kept the dish chilled — essential for ceviche. Second, the dry ice made for a swirling, “steaming” presentation at the table. Coming after the test tube gazpacho, I began to think there may be a mad scientist theme to this dinner! The “steam” coming from the dry ice was reminiscent of sizzling fajitas brought to the table at a Mexican restaurant. I half-expected the server to say “Be careful, plate’s hot!” But of course this is a cold dish. I have no idea of Chef Ciesielski meant to elicit such a clash between expectation and reality, but I found it to be unique and creative.

video

The ceviche itself was of the tropical variety, containing scallops and shrimp, citrus and serrano. The citrus marinade contained lemon, lime, mango, orange and pineapple. The shellfish were properly marinated/cooked — tender and fresh. The citrus was overly sweet — I thought it could have used a bit more tartness for balance. I tasted no flavor of serrano. The wine, a Sancerre known for its tropical notes, was well matched.

3rd Course

Food: Baby pumpkin with crab, green onion, mushroom and red burgundy sauce.

Wine: Camille Giroud Santenay ’05

This dish represented the first overtly fall-inspired dish of the dinner, both in presentation and in the use of a baby pumpkin as the main ingredient. The pumpkin was cooked until sweet and tender. The mixture of Burgundy sauce, mushrooms, crab and green onion was spread on top. The deep, earthy richness of the Burgundy sauce worked well with the sweetness of the pumpkin. The crab meat was an intriguing choice for this dish. I did not taste the flavor of the crab meat. It seemed to be overwhelmed by the Burgundy sauce. But the crab meat introduced an interesting texture to the mixture, adding a firmness that balanced the softness of the mushrooms. My portion lacked in green onions, which would have added a welcome “snap” or “tang” to the earthiness of the Burgundy sauce.

Baby Pumpkin

Also included as part of this dish was a jumbo shrimp on a rustic skewer. This seemed like an afterthought. I imagine that after plating the baby pumpkin for the first time, the dish appeared lacking and the shrimp was brought in to punch things up. I don’t think it hurt or helped the dish.

The real standout for this course was the wine. The Santenay Burgundy was off the charts. It paired well with the Burgundy sauce, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the sweetness of the pumpkin.

4th Course

Food: Beef medallion with butternut squash and yukon gold potato, with a shallot pepper sauce.

Wine: Chateau Franc Patarabet, St. Emilion Grand Cru ’05

This course, the “entrée” of the dinner, marked a shift in pacing. After the mad scientist fireworks of previous dishes, this dish offered back-to-basics comfort food — good ol’ meat and potatoes. But if you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed a few details. First, the beef medallion was properly seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium rare with nice caramelization. A well-executed steak is not always guaranteed even in the best of restaurants. It is even more impressive here given the improvised kitchen. Similarly well-prepared, the potatoes and squash were crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. But what really pulled it all together was the classic sauce of garlic, shallots and cracked pepper. There was a subtle depth and balance here. The sweetness of the cooked shallots and garlic combined with the spice of the pepper worked well with the beef.

Beef Medallion

The choice of wine matched the dish perfectly. In some wine pairing dinners the knee-jerk choice for any beef dish would be a monster Cabernet Sauvignon. Fortunately, that was not the choice here. A restrained but still full-bodied St. Emilion was well-conceived.

5th Course

Food: Blue Cheese Terrine with dried apricot, fig and pecan

Wine: Les Clos Sacres Savennièrres ’05

Blue Cheese Terrine

After the relative restraint of the previous course, Chef Ciesielski once again amped up the dinner with a terrine of blue cheese (Roquefort), nuts, figs and dried apricots. Once placed in the mouth, the uber-savory blue cheese just went to war with the laid-back sweetness of the nuts, figs and apricot. But the extreme contrasts of the ingredients, both in flavor and texture, ultimately combined into a provocative and successful dish. This culinary détente was helped along by the inspired choice of wine — a Savennières from the acclaimed Nicolas Joly.

6th Course

Food: Apple tart with vanilla ice cream

Wine: Chateau Guiraud “Oriel” Sauternes ’02

For the final course, Chef Ciesielski returned to a familiar, comfort-inducing crowd-pleaser — apple tart with vanilla ice cream. Nothing fancy, nothing tweaked, nothing elaborated upon. As it should be.

Apple Tart

The crust was crisp, flaky and sufficiently carbonized. Proving his French background, Chef resisted the ever-present American temptation to over-sweeten the apple filling, rather letting the natural sweetness of the apple and caramelization do the job. The vanilla ice cream, reportedly made from scratch, added a nice counterpoint to the acidity of the apples.

The accompanying Sauternes dessert wine was an excellent match to the sweetness and acidity of the tart.

Service (7/10)

The service, carried out by 13 Celsius staff, was smooth, skilled and unobtrusive. The smallish, eurocafé-style, round tables were elegantly appointed and mercifully uncluttered. There were a couple of details that could have been improved upon. Not unexpectedly for a one-time, multi-course dinner, the servers were not as familiar with the dishes as they would be in a restaurant. Questions about the food often involved back-and-forth trips between the table and chef. Also, a nicely printed menu would have been a good reference for the guests. And this becomes not only a souvenir for the guest, but also a promotional tool for the host — many foodies will even frame these menus, or at least prominently display them in a scrapbook, diary, or blog.

Atmosphere (10/10)

13 Celsius is one of those rare establishments where once you get in and sit down, you feel like you've left Houston and been transported to a different city or country. For this dinner we could have been in a small café in the Marais district of Paris, sitting at tables pressed against windows overlooking the boulevard outside, dimly lit, with an attentive and harried chef working from a small galley kitchen (I realize that comparing midtown Houston to Le Marais in Paris is a stretch but, hey, I'm a romantic!).

Value (7/10)

Can a $110 wine dinner be a good value? I think most people would say it’s extravagant. It’s both. The same 6 course dinner at any high-end Houston restaurant would cost at least $200. In NYC, probably $300. And those are just the cold, hard numbers. When you factor in the convivial atmosphere, a creative and detail-oriented chef cooking for a small group, and an inspired sampling of low-production, high-quality wines, this was an extravagance at a very reasonable price.

The Bottom Line (9/10)

This wine dinner was successful because the chef put together a menu with an overall vision in mind, balancing and alternating between the sweet and the savory, the traditional and the experimental, the familiar and the unfamiliar, hot and cold, bold and subtle. Similarly, the wine pairings were chosen deliberately and thoughtfully. There was clearly a “method to the madness.” A few things did not work. But that doesn't matter. It only matters that Chef Ciesielski and Mr. Sammons were willing to take risks, to try interesting and creative things, and execute them with care and precision.


My original notes are below:

Notes 1
940KB PDF

Notes 2
880KB PDF

Friday, November 28, 2008

Link Feast: 11.28.08

Gordo has been making waves (more than usual) across the pond this past week. Anyone surprised by this?

Gordon Ramsay's sly trysts - The newspaper exposé that started it all. Gordo hearts Rupert. More from Rupert.

There are three people in this marriage - Detailed account of Gordo's intertwined family and business dealings.

The repercussions of Gordon Ramsay’s alleged affair - Will Gordo's domestic shortcomings effect his business? No! I decided.

Affairs don’t have to mean the end - While every other Brit media outlet is in a tizzy over the possible downfall of the Gordo's biz empire, the Liverpool Echo has the audacity to consider Gordo's marriage and family. Quaint.

Gordon Ramsay Holdings - Nice website.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's either really smart or really stupid for a food blog to completely ignore Thanksgiving.

But that is exactly what I'm going to do. Why? Because virtually every other media and food resource is wall-to-wall, 24/7 Thanksgiving food coverage. The Food Network? It's all Thanksgiving, all the time. Mainstream newspapers? I've never seen so many ways to carve a Turkey. So I'm going to take a break to plan future Houston Foodie topics. So enjoy your Thanksgiving and check back this weekend for new foodie posts.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Handy Seasonal Food Chart

The busy food writers at the Guardian continue to impress with this simple and comprehensive seasonal food resource.

Seasonal Food Chart

Seasonal menus and seasonal cooking are more popular than ever, which can occasionally challenge even the most dedicated foodie. What should we expect on a seasonal menu? What is traditional, what is provocative? Allegra McEvedy at the Guardian has created a simple, well-designed seasonal food cheatsheet (1.1MB PDF) any foodie can sneak into even the most august of restaurants.

Now if we can only get her to add crawfish (or crayfish as they are more popularly called in the UK) to the Spring Seafood column!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Link Feast: 11.21.08

Foodies Make Me Sick - Few blog posts have ever stirred more controversy in the foodiesphere. Don't be hatin' on foodies!

Chicken McNuggets turn 25 - Become a Nuggnut!

Yorkshire pudding must be 4 inches tall, chemists rule - They ruled decided.

What does the menu for a $1500, 20-course dinner look like? (PDF) - You'd have to work a few hours overtime and run a couple extra laps to pay this one off. Some background here.

A Interview with Alain Ducasse - Amazing how some of the best chefs in the world never actually cook anymore.

Just when you thought it was safe... - To eat pancakes.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Canino's Market: Open for Business

NY may have Union Square Farmer's Market and LA may have the pseudo-farmer's market in the Fairfax district, but Houston has Canino's.

Fall is a great time to head over to Canino's market on Airline Drive just inside the North Loop. Although a bit the worse for wear after hurricane Ike, Canino's is still going strong. Combining a dizzying assortment of produce, spices, herbs and even eggs with a rich Mexican-American atmosphere, Canino's is certainly one of the best places for a foodie to spend a crisp fall Saturday morning. I love this place.

Even our foodie friends over at the Houston Press have been transformed into weedeaters after an enlightening visit to Canino's.

Below are a few pics I took on a recent Saturday morning. Enjoy.

Canino Houston

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Canino's is currently set up in the smaller "barn" next door to the larger one it is normally in.

Canino Houston

Inside, bins are filled to the brim with fall produce.

Canino Houston

This is a Chayote Squash, prickly variety.

Canino Houston

Peppers, we got peppers!

Canino Houston

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

McRib is Back!

There are many unexplainable phenomena in our world — UFOs, Bigfoot, Carrot Top. But perhaps none more unexplainable than that culinary equivalent of a Jerry Springer show — McDonald's McRib sandwich.

The McRib sandwich has a long and storied fast food history. It originally test-marketed well in the Midwest, bombed in its national rollout, was taken off the market, and then returned to the market under the guise of no-less than 3 separate "Farewell Tours." Well it's back, as a national TV advertising campaign has made so perfectly clear.

McRib

The McRib inspires passionate acclaim from its supporters (here, here and here) and virulent criticism from its detractors. I suppose that provides some explanation for its yo-yo marketing campaign. A visit to www.mcrib.com website provides further clues as to this current marketing campaign. Proclaiming "saucy love is back," the sandwich is being promoted alongside online music downloads provided by Pandora (shame on you Pandora!, although I suppose you have to make money somehow). With the website featuring a "McRib DJ" and a strong mobile phone marketing camgaign, the current promotions are squarely targeted to teenagers and young people.

So what is an intrepid Houston Foodie to do when confronted with such a peculiar culinary phenomenon? That's right: Taste test!

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Let me start by saying I have not been to McDonald's in several years. The way I see it, a foodie setting foot in a McDonald's is kind of like a politician patronizing a titty bar — there's nothing really wrong with it, it just looks bad. So I donned some sunglasses and a baseball cap, pulled down low, and drove to my neighborhood Mickey D's. I ordered the McRib meal (4 bucks and change). I drove home with all 4 windows down, otherwise the McDonald's smell lingers forever. (Side note: Years ago I had a vegetarian girlfriend and on the rare occasion I would sneak in a McDonald's run, the next time we got into the car she would wrinkle her nose and proclaim indignantly, "You went to McDonald's!" I couldn't tell if she was offended or jealous).

Back at home, the evaluation began. Digging the paper-wrapped sandwich out of a clot of bag fries, the first thing you notice is the overwhelming smell of liquid smoke. There is nothing subtle about the BBQ sauce that the McRib sandwich is drowned in. Aside from the standard-issue bun, pickle, onions and sledge-hammer BBQ sauce, the McRib's focus is the "processed pork patty."

McRib

This processed pork patty is a wonder of engineering. Processed into a perfect oval shape with fake horizontal bumps representing either grill marks or ribs, it has a similar external texture as a hamburger patty, except the McRib patty has a duller, sicklier gray color.

Biting into the sandwich reveals a texture and consistency like no other worldly substance — variously described as "fluffy" or "mealy". The pork particles (?) seem to be bonded together in a thick, rubbery, gelatin-like suspension. Yummy!

So far, so weird. But what about the taste? Not unexpectedly, the actual flavor of the patty does elicit the slightest pork rib flavor. But after a few bites all you taste is the BBQ sauce. Overwhelmed by the liquid smoke, the patty just becomes a delivery mechanism for the BBQ sauce.

I would venture to say that the real reason hardcore fans of the McRib love it so much is simply the BBQ sauce. It's like a nuclear explosion in your mouth. The pork patty, essentially flavorless, acts as a filler with a unique "mouthfeel."

This may explain some of the unusual geographic marketing of the McRib. McDonald's only makes it available in some areas of the country. Perhaps they focus the marketing in areas that do not have big BBQ traditions so that the McRib BBQ sauce offers a more unique experience? That of course does not explain its presence in Houston, but maybe it does in Omaha. Anyway, just a guess.

After finishing off my McRib, I did indeed feel like I had just watched an episode of Jerry Springer — while it was on I was marginally entertained in an hypnotic, "watching-a-train-wreck-in-slow-motion" sort of way. But then when it was over all I could think was "What the hell was that?!"

Update 12/5/08: The New York Times has a lengthy piece on the McRib and its (un)availability. When it comes to the McRib, if you live in NYC then you're SOL.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The New Yorker finds its Texas BBQ Religion

The New Yorker Food Issue is out and Texas BBQ is front and center.

New Yorker

The New Yorker dispatched none other than the esteemed Calvin Trillin to report first hand on Texas Monthly's BBQ issue. It's an interesting read, although I get a bit nervous when New York or Hollywood types start sniffing around Texas institutions. Heck, half of the Hill Country is now owned by Hollywood folks (thanks for nothing McConaughey!). Fortunately, all the New York hedge fund managers are going bankrupt so even if they did decide to dabble in Texas BBQ they probably don't have the coin to do so. But I can see the headlines now: "Disgraced New York hedge fund manager used embezzled bailout money to buy up top 5 Texas BBQ joints."

My favorite takeaway quote from the article, via former Texas Monthly editor Greg Curtis: "All barbecue experts are self-proclaimed." True, true.

Update 12/11/08: Food fight! Robb Walsh calls into question the BBQ bona fides of both Trillin ("...a Kansas City barbecue fan") and Texas Monthly ("...a magazine run by a vegetarian from Queens"). Oh SNAP! The NY Times wisely withholds judgement on Texas BBQ but throws gasoline on the (mesquite) fire with a mention in the Diner's Journal blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Food Fight 24/7! Biba's vs. Katz's

Biba's One's A Meal lands right in the middle of lower Westheimer, taking on not just one, but two, neighborhood heavyweights.

Biba's One's A Meal

What's not to love about Biba's One's A Meal? It is, after all, a Houston institution. John Katsimikis has been serving up gyros, pizzas, pancakes, opinions, and personal advice to generations of families, hipsters, neighborhood miscreants and drunken party-goers for what seems like forever.

Of course the W. Gray location was showing its age for some time. The announcement that Biba's would be moving to 812 Montrose, in the old Rouge restaurant space, was met with great anticipation by Biba's many regulars.

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It seems to be a successful move. A recent Saturday morning visit found John presiding over everything and the tables filled with regulars.

The new location, when considered by itself, looks like a great move. Montrose and Westheimer is a great place for a 24-hour diner. But when taken in context, the location proves to be quite interesting. Not 200 feet away, of course, is the 500 pound gorilla of 24-hour Houston diner/delis — Katz's. Is there enough of a market in this area for two 24-hour diners side-by-side? Probably. Anyway, it should be interesting to watch this competition play out.

But Biba's is not just a diner, it's also a Greek restaurant. And again, the new location is provocative to say the least. Not 2 blocks away is the 500 pound gorilla of Houston Greek restaurants — Niko Niko's. Is there a big enough market for 2 Greek restaurants in such close proximity? Very probably, considering the ubiquitous long lines at Niko's.

Update 11/17/08: Today Alison Cook added Biba's chili cheeseburger to her ongoing list of burger reviews.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Link Feast: 11.14.08

The High Price of Cheap Food - Ironically, high food prices makes Americans fat, not skinny.

Chocolate-covered Bacon - 'nuff said.

Chocolate in the Boondocks - This has foodie road-trip written all over it.

Best Seafood Restaurant: Reef - So says Bon Appetit. They decided. And an excellent decision it was.

Houston-area Restaurants Tightening Their Belts - Pun intended?

Stealthy Shrinking of Containers Keeps Prices from Rising - Just confirms what many of us suspected already.

Grotesquely Overpriced Bunny-food Emporium - Hilarious, Brit-style send-up of Whole Foods.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sartin's gets a shout-out from the Dirty South

Errr, I mean the "New South" as defined by the provocatively titled Garden & Gun Magazine.

When I got a tip about an interesting new Southern lifestyle magazine called Garden & Gun, I immediately envisioned big...haired women in American-flag bikinis posing with assault rifles. But to my surprise it was a nicely-designed website with professional features and copy. Promising.

Garden and Gun

Of specific interest was a feature called 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Positively Must Try Before You Die. It's a groovy interactive map of the South spotlighting foodie joints. And not just the usual, expected highlights of Southern cuisine, but some real unexpected finds.

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Of personal interest to me was one of 3 entries for seafood in Texas: Sartin's in Nederland, home of the all-you-can-eat Barbecue Crab platter. For anyone who grew up in deep Southeast Texas, the name "Sartin's" has a special meaning. Starting with its slogan "Giving people crabs since 1971," the often colorful and always delicious history of Sartin's belies a dedication to a unique culinary art that originated in the tiny town of Sabine Pass, Texas.

A "Barbecue Crab" is, of course, a misnomer. There is no smoke or grilling involved. Back in the 1940s a cook at Granger's Restaurant in Sabine Pass had the inspired idea to take a cleaned blue crab — plentiful along the Gulf Coast — smother it in a dry rub traditionally made up of Sexton's Alamo Zestful Seasoning, and then deep fry it to crispy perfection.

Sartin's Sign

Many years later, in the 1970s, Sartin's Seafood restaurant in Sabine Pass took up the cause and perfected the BBQ Crab with their own secret rub. From there, Sartin's restaurants opened throughout Southeast Texas, including Beaumont where I grew up and came to love the heapin' helpin' of all-you-can-eat BBQ crab.

In the ensuing years, hurricanes and family squabbles have divided Sartin's into the Nederland Sartin's and then a number of Sartin's around Beaumont and Houston. Not unexpectedly, litigation ensued over the Sartin's trademark (if any city has more lawyers than Houston, it's Beaumont).

Business Plan

The original Sartin's Restaurant in Beaumont on the Eastex freeway was toppled by Hurricane Rita in 2005. Many memories of my misspent youth were toppled with it. I remember the long picnic tables decorated only with rolls of paper towels, paper plates, and plastic bibs, with the young waitresses in t-shirts and shorts carrying towering trays of BBQ crabs to your table. Of particular note: this is where the plan for my first business was hatched on November 26th, 1994. Sketched up on the back of a paper plate (rather than on the back of a napkin — it's a SE Texas thing), the presentation didn't exactly impress any VC's so we ended up bootstrapping it. That business is still around today.

If only the original Sartin's could have lasted as long.

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Foodie Destination: Lone Star Culinary

This self-proclaimed "spice market" is a great new resource for Houston's foodie culture.

Lone Star Culinary

Lone Star Culinary
2503 Link Rd. (at Airline, across from Canino's)
Houston, TX 77009

So I was walking back to my car at Canino Market this weekend and glancing across Airline Drive my eye caught the words "spice market." For a foodie, the words "spice market" are always a good sign. Visions of frankincense and myrrh, Marco Polo and the spice road, the Grand Bazaar in Instanbul, spice-laden camel caravans in Yemen all come to mind. OK, this wasn't quite so romantic, but Lone Star Culinary, as this spice market is called, is a great new destination for vicarious foodie travel.

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Lone Star Culinary

Once inside, one whole wall of the store is given over to powdered spices. It's an impressive lineup. The store has only been open for about a month so some of the containers have yet to be filled, but the breadth and depth of this spice collection is great.

Lone Star Culinary

The opposite wall of the store is home to an encyclopedic collection of dried herbs, spices and teas. What wall space that's left over is filled with a flat screen TV tuned to the Food Network. Nice touch.

Lone Star Culinary

The center of the store has shelves containing interesting foodie gewgaws and knickknacks, many of an Hispanic and Mexican-American variety.

I encourage all my fellow Houston Foodies to patronize Lone Star Culinary. This is a great addition to the Houston Foodie scene.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Whole Foods gets a bailout; Luby's doesn't - yet

Not unexpectedly, the economic tough times are taking a toll on high-end supermarkets like Whole Foods. But there's always someone willing to throw good money after bad.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods had a bad quarter. No big surprise. Fortunately a sugar-daddy stepped in with a wad of cash to provide the "financial flexibility to manage through these difficult economic times." We'll see.

For a hilarious take on the Whole Foods phenomenon including the recent troubles, check out Tim Hayward at the Gaurdian. He actually called Whole Foods a "grotesquely overpriced bunny-food emporium." And I thought I was hard on Whole Foods!

Meanwhile, Luby's reported a 3.7 million dollar loss for the quarter. Ouch. I guess the price increase hasn't kicked in yet.

Link Feast: 11.7.08

Eat and Tell - Lengthy article about Yelp but nothing we didn't already know.

Regis Philbin as Gordon Ramsay? - One of the more bizarre foodie videos you will ever see. Hey Reg, you could at least use a British accent!

A waiter's tips to New York - Some things never change: Scarfing down a Bistro burger after a late night waiting tables in NY.

Presidential Polling Through Food and Drink - Rumor has it that these polls were more accurate than Fox News polls! Ha!

Campaign Cuisine: See Obama And McCain Eat... A Lot - Can you look presidential while eating porkchop-on-a-stick?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Foodie Movies: Big Night

Few movies speak to the inner-most passions of the true foodie like cult favorite Big Night.

Big Night Movie

In addition to being an insightful and entertaining film, Big Night, the story of Italian restaurateur brothers in 1950s New Jersey, is loaded with memorable quotes.

"Bite your teeth into the ass of life!"

"A guy works all day, he don't want to look at his plate and ask, 'What the f--- is this?' He wants to look at his plate, see a steak, and say 'I like steak!'"

"Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want."

All of these quotes and many others help to define the many plot twists, themes and messages of this classic Foodie Movie.

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This movie does not reinvent the wheel when it comes to plot and story. It addresses the usual subjects: human relationships between siblings, lovers, husbands, wives, artists, businessmen. However its genius comes from the way it represents those relationships — always within the framework of food, cuisine, cooking, and by extension happiness, pleasure, and passion.

The eclectic but perfectly chosen cast includes the legendary Isabella Rossellini, a then-unknown Marc Anthony, pre-Monk Tony Shalhoub, and the incomparable Ian Holm.

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Honeycrisp season is here!

The perfect fruit, perhaps the perfect food, and certainly the perfect apple, is available for a couple of months in the fall.

Honeycrisp

Honeycrisp apples are now in season and available for a limited time at many local supermarkets. Although my opinions about Whole Foods are well documented, I have to recommend going to the Whole Foods on W. Alabama to get the best honeycrisp apples. Specifically it is the only location I know of that has organic honeycrisps. Central Market did not have any available today but the manager said they were on the way. Disco Kroger had a basket of apples with a honeycrisp sign in front of them, and they looked like honeycrisp, but they were individually labeled as Jonah Gold. Go figure. I'm going to try and make it out to Canino Market this week to see what kind of selection they have.

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So what's so great about honeycrisp apples? Basically, they are the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness, with a wonderfully crisp flesh. Extra juicy too. The most common description of these apples is that they "pop" when you bite into them. The skin is a mottled red and green, representing a symbolic combination of Red Delicious (sweet) and Granny Smith (tart) apples. But unlike Red Delicious, whose skin is often thick, waxy and chewy, the honeycrisp skin is thin and tender. All-in-all, just about the perfect snack food.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Day In The Life Of The "World's Best Restaurant"

The grand guru of Foodie culture, Ferran Adria, is out with a new book containing 30 recipes from his landmark restaurant and food lab El Bulli. However there is one caveat: Do not try these recipes at home!

Ferran Adria

Several years ago, before the popularity of food blogging and food tourism, I came across a book called El Bulli 1998-2002. I had heard of El Bulli and Ferran Adria, but did not know the details of his "high-end gastronomy." Well I had to have that book. The only problem? It cost $300! Seriously. A book. One book. But I had to have it...

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So I recruited the only other foodie crazy enough to spend $300 on a book: Kenorwox, my NY correspondent for Houston Foodie. So we both ponied up the cash and a few weeks later a package arrived from Spain (at the time it wasn't even available on Amazon — you had to order it from the source). What an eye opener. Food wasn't just food. It was a "cinematic experience" created through "molecular gastronomy" etc. Sure, this kind of thing wasn't for everyone, but it was fascinating none-the-less. Kenorwox even took some classes on how to make the signature "foams" using all the wacky tools and gadgets.

El Bulli Book

So now a new Ferran Adria book is out (mercifully priced at less than $40) called A Day at elBulli. Ferran is making the rounds to promote the book and NPR has some great coverage.

If there are any other Houston Foodies willing to make the pilgrimage to El Bulli, let me know. Reservations are taken at least one year in advance!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pizza Napoletana: When in Naples...

Let's face it — Houston is not a city known for its pizza. At least not compared with the big boys like New York or Rome, and certainly not the holy of holies — Naples, Italy.

Pizza after

And neither should it be compared to these pizza capitals. But I have always felt that Houston is a bit underachieving in the average quality of its pizza joints. This can of course be attributed to the ubiquity of pizza chains like Cici's, Dominos, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut. And when it comes to pizza chains, there is good news and bad news. The good news is they are consistent. The bad news is they are consistently bad.

So what's a pizza lover like me to do? In situations like these I always follow the old adage "If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." And that is how I came to make and bake my first pizza from scratch.

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What kind of pizza? Deep dish, thin crust, chewy, gooey, crispy — there are lots of choices. To help me with my decision I first considered my own past experience with pizza. Then I looked to those few shining stars of pizza craft that call Houston home.

Growing up in Southeast Texas, even before Dominos and Papa Johns, there was Pizza Inn. All-in-all a serviceable pizza experience for a young man who did not know any better (I was just a chowpup back then). But my real revelation came in my late teens backpacking through Europe. Arriving at Rome's Stazioni Termini after an overnight trip from Paris, my first goal was to find Roman fast food. After a week of baguettes, crepes, croissants and Burghy burgers, I was ready for a change. And Rome delivered in spades.

The typical Roman pizza joint offered pizza rustica with a kaleidoscope of toppings, sold by the rectangular "slice." But the pizza I always came back to had a thin, crispy crust, a restrained amount of tomato sauce and melted, gooey dollops of fresh mozzarella cheese. It was during this time in Rome that I was introduced to "real" pizza — Pizza Napoletana.

And I have been eating — worshipping — it ever since. Living in NY I split my time between the traditional (original) NY style pizza — floppy, foldy, gooey, drippy with grease — and the traditional Pizza Napoletana. Back in Houston I found both. Great NY style at Romano's Pizza. Pizza Napoletana-style at Dolce Vita (wood-fired) and Russo's (coal-fired), and Kenneally's (not brick oven but still good).

But even these local pizza havens somehow paled in comparison to my memories of Rome. And even though I wasn't in Rome, I decided to do as the Romans and Neapolitans do — make my own pizza.

Remembering an old Molto Mario episode for Pizza Napoletana, I pulled the DVD and grabbed the recipe from the Food Network website.

First up was the dough. Since I do not possess the Popeye-like forearms necessary for manually kneading pizza dough for 10-15 minutes nonstop, I enlisted Big Momma to do the heavy lifting kneading. The great thing about this dough recipe was its simplicity — a traditional yeast dough flavored white wine, olive oil, honey and salt. After kneading, the dough was allowed to proof for a good 45 minutes. And, voila!

Pizza dough

It has risen! I cannot accurately describe the fragrance emanating from this ball of goodness — earthy, bready, yeasty. So far so good.

On to the sauce. Again, simplicity — olive oil, onions, garlic, fresh thyme, shredded carrot, and hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Combine and simmer for 30 minutes.

Time for assembly. I cut the dough ball into 4 equal parts and individually wrapped 3 of them for freezing and later use. I flattened and kneaded the remaining dough into a thin platform for the sauce, oregano, fresh mozzerella, and fresh basil leaves:

Pizza before

This looked promising (if you hadn't noticed, these are the colors of the Italian flag — red, white and green). Now onto a pre-heated pizza stone for 10-12 minutes:

Pizza after

At this point it looked good and smelled good. And after digging in, it tasted...great. Absolutely fresh. The flavors married perfectly. The crust, essentially a structural support for the sauce and cheese, was crispy on the outside but soft and steamy once you but into it.

I can't say this pizza was better than the brick-oven Pizza Napoletana from the best Houston pizza joints. But it was somehow different. Fresher. More authentic maybe? Combined with a fresh green salad and a glass of Italian red wine, I thought I was back in Rome.