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...


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.


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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Food Network in HD

I finally took the plunge and bought a nice, big HD (high definition) TV. I've got Comcast which is relatively limited on their HD channels (don't believe their commercials), but in general the HD quality is spectacular.

Of course I bought it for sports — college football mainly. Two other sports which I normally wouldn't be caught dead watching — NASCAR and golf — are strangely fascinating to watch in HD.

Food Network HD

But the true revelation is the Food Network in HD. Once you watch the Food Network in HD, you will never go back.


Who new Ina Garten had freckles? And Giada, yes she has flawless skin to go along with everything else. Alton Brown? He does some strange things to his hair, or what's left of it. And Emeril. That man just does not look healthy. I have to think the rise of HD had something to do with his show getting canceled (he's not even listed on the website). Kind of like all the local news stations getting rid of the old anchors and replacing them with the equivalent of fashion models.

But I digress. The best part is of course the actual food in HD. If you're like me, I mainly cook dishes whose preparation I can watch on a TV show. When the recipe says "Cook onions until transparent," what the heck does that mean? I have to actually see it to know what I'm doing. Actually seeing the color and the texture, not to mention the finished product, is essential for me to be satisfied I prepared it correctly. Now if only they could come up with Smell-O-Vision...

And the downside? Honestly, I think I've gained 5 pounds since I started watching Food Network HD. When they zoom in on the steaming, finished dishes my mouth starts watering and I start planning a big dinner. Gives a new meaning to the term "TV dinners."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Luby's raises prices...again

It must suck to own Luby's. On the one hand, management must deal with downward pricing pressure in a hyper-competitive market. On the other hand it is certainly dealing with spiraling costs for raw materials and employee benefits.


And then there is that pesky fight for control of the company between the Pappas Brothers, who are the majority shareholders, and other large shareholders. To put up with all that, the Pappas Brothers must really love Luby's.

And so do I. But my life-long affection for the Lu Ann platter continues to be challenged by what seems like a never-ending series of price increases at Luby's. Just last week the price of the Lu Ann went for $7.69 to $8.09. With all the competition out there for my food dollar, not to mention the option of cooking a pleasurable meal at home, can Luby's survive when a basic meal there is pushing 10 bucks? Maybe. Here's why.


I've been a loyal customer of Luby's since I was old enough to sit in a high chair. You could say I've seen the good and I've seen the bad over the years. The bad? The aforementioned price increases. It wasn't but a few years ago that the Lu Ann was $5.99. And staffing issues. I've seen long time employees who I've become friendly with choose to leave, presumably due to negative changes in their work agreement. That of course makes room for younger and more inexperienced (and more inexpensive) staff. The Luby's staff at the location I frequent, on W. Gray and Waugh, is invariably friendly and helpful. And yet some of them are so inexperienced it is obvious they don't even know how to calculate change on the fly. And I always--always--check my order before leaving with a to-go order.

Lu Ann Platter

And the good? First and foremost, the quality of the food at Luby's (at least at my location) is consistently above-average. The management is obviously hands-on when it comes to quality control. From what I've observed, the managers at my Luby's location take their job seriously and work very hard.

And that's what keeps me going back. Frankly, $8.09 for a good quality, as-close-to-a-home-cooked-meal-as-you-can-get is still a very good value. Unfortunately I'm not sure everyone will agree with me or be as loyal as me.

Here is what worries me about Luby's. The Pappas Brothers have zero margin for error, specifically in the quality control area. Personally, if I ever felt the quality of the food was declining, I would be out of there in a heartbeat. 30 years of loyal patronage be damned. But if the Pappas Brothers were indeed faced with the decision of either raising prices or decreasing quality, they have made the absolute right decision in raising prices. So, at least for now, I'll head to Luby's for lunch--Lu Ann Fried Fish this time probably--and pray for it to be as good as ever.