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.


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

Notes 2

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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?