Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Belgian cuisine doesn't have to be mussels bound

To the casual observer of lesser-known international cuisines, Belgian food might appear to consist of beer, "french" fries, chocolate, and more beer. Actually you wouldn't be that far off.

Maredsous 8 beer
Maredsous 8 beer at Jeannine's Bistro

Belgian beer is consistently heralded as some of the best in the world, and the artistry of Belgian chocolate makes the confections of neighboring chocolate-mad countries like France and Switzerland seem positively pedestrian. And then there's the food. True, there's perhaps no greater outrage than the French hijacking of the name of deep-fried potatoes, a dish inarguably invented in Belgium and still one of the foods most associated with the country. But culinary kidnapping aside, frites, french fries, Belgian fries, freedom fries, or just plain fries are one of Belgium's most notable food exports.

In Houston, Belgian cuisine has enjoyed a storied history, beginning in 1999 when the legendary Cafe Montrose opened in the neighborhood of the same name. The fries made there were consistently ranked as the best in Houston, and were paired with steamed mussels in the restaurant's (and Belgium's) signature dish, moules frites. Cafe Montrose closed in 2008, but two of the original owners, the brother-sister team of Andrew Klarman and Jeannine Pettas, opened another Belgian restaurant in Montrose called Jeannine's Bistro in 2009.


Jeannine's menu is similar if not identical to the Cafe Montrose menu - a slew of mussels dishes with salads, omelettes and meat dishes also available. And with Klarman in the kitchen, the cooking is the virtually the same as at Cafe Montrose and consistently well-executed. If you've never been to Jeannine's or had Belgian food before, by all means, get the moules frites. Klarman uses Mediterranean mussels farmed in Puget Sound in Washington state - fresh, plump, sweet and perfect for soaking up the savory, rich broths in which they're cooked.

Moules marinnieres is the traditional choice - a big, steaming pot of mussels in an addictive broth of butter, white wine, onions and celery. Once you've plucked the last mussel out of the pot, use the spongy bread to sop up the remaining broth. And of course a flute of hot, crispy frites is provided with a ramekin of traditional Belgian house-made mayonnaise for dipping.

"We constantly strive to source the best potatoes for our fries," says Klarman. "Too much sugar in the potato and the fries will burn. Right now we are using a Kennebec potato that's working well for us." And in several lunch visits, I was able to confirm this. The fries are perfectly sized, golden and crispy on the outside, steamy and molten on the inside. And although the fries are great with the mussels, I've also had the opportunity to try several other Belgian dishes on Jeannine's menu. And I've come to the conclusion that although moules may be the best known Belgian dish, there are many others that can be described as the essence of comfort food.

Carbonnade Flamande
Carbonnade Flamande

A classic Belgian meat dish is Carbonnades Flamandes (Flemish stew). I've always thought of Belgian food as a user-friendly version of French cuisine (unfussy, unpretentious, big portions), and this dish is a good example. Similar to beef bourguignon but made with beer instead of wine, this dish is simple, flavorful, and filling. Big chunks of beef are stewed in a subtly-sweet sauce that includes beer, carrots, onions and brown sugar. At Jeannine's, you can get this dish with fried, mashed, or boiled potatoes. Again, I usually go with the fries. After I finish off the beef chunks, there's usually a good amount of sauce left on the plate, and if you accidentally-on-purpose mix the remaining fries with the sauce, you've got a do-it-yourself version of poutine.

Belgian beers on tap
Belgian beers on tap at Jeannine's Bistro

And then there are the beers. Mostly known for being dark, sweet, satisfying, and steeped in tradition, Belgian beer is the perfect complement to the country's food. The tradition of Belgian beer is forever tied to Trappist monasteries (a Roman Catholic religious order) in which monks help to produce the beer and all profits support the monastery and its philanthropic programs. One of the most famous Trappist beers is Westmalle, which Jeannine's sells by the bottle in dubbel (double) and tripel (triple) varieties (the naming convention loosely referring to the strength of the beer). I usually go for the Belgian beers on tap at Jeannine's, my current favorite being a Maredsous 8. Maredsous is the name of a Belgian monastery that licenses its name to Duvel, one of the biggest breweries in Belgium. The "8" refers to the alcohol by volume (ABV) of the beer - at 8 percent it's considered a dubbel.

So after consuming copious amounts of delicious sauces, meats, mussels, and frites, and all of it washed down with rich, highly-alcoholic beer, you will naturally want to partake of Belgian chocolate. Jeannine's offers an exceptional chocolate mousse, as well as a dish of profiteroles drenched in Callebaut chocolate. And in addition to Belgian restaurant desserts, Houston is fortunate to have one of the best retailers of Belgian chocolates in Texas - Chocolat du Monde in Rice Village. Owner David Heiland carries exclusive Belgian chocolates such as Neuhaus and Leonidas. These chocolate pieces, known by the Belgian term praliné (not to be confused with the candy associated with New Orleans), are traditionally a chocolate shell filled with a paste of nuts or cream. Now if we can just get Belgium to make a chocolate praliné filled with Trappist monk beer.

Jeannine's Bistro
106 Westheimer Rd.
Houston, TX 77006
(713) 874-0220

Chocolat du Monde
5302 Morningside Dr.
Houston, TX 77005
(713) 520-5600

This blog entry was originally posted 12 October 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fried Shrimp with a Side of Texas History

The substance seeps from every crack and crevice of the ground that surrounds the confluence of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou. The air around here - humid, often filled with mosquitoes and the sound of ship horns - is permeated by it. It's one of the biggest industries on this patch of land and swampy bayou in far east Houston.

Fried Seafood Platter
Fries Seafood Platter at the Monument Inn Restaurant

And I'm not even talking about petroleum.

I'm talking about history.

The Lynchburg Ferry has been running almost continuously across Buffalo Bayou (now, the Houston Ship Channel) since 1822. The tiny dozen-car ferries scurry back-and-forth across the channel, dodging and weaving among colossal oil tankers and container ships - every one of which must pass through this narrow strait to get to the refineries and bulk cargo terminals farther up the channel. Think of it as Houston's own Bosporous Strait, but instead of connecting Europe and Asia it connects Baytown (technically Lynchburg) and La Porte. And although the two channels can't compare in the sheer sweep of history, they are, at least to Texans, easily matched in historical significance.

Lynchburg Ferry
The Lynchburg Ferry prepares to take on tanker traffic

The southern terminus of the ferry is a plot of land best known as staging area for refugees of the "Runaway Scrape" of 1836 - Texian colonists and settlers fleeing north from the advancing Mexican Army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Some 5000 refugees camped and waited for passage across the channel on a small flatboat powered by hand-pulled rope. Reinforcements for General Sam Houston's gathering army came back in the other direction.

Legend has it that Nathaniel Lynch, the operator of the ferry, raised the crossing price when overwhelmed by the refugees and soldiers, only to lower it again when ad interim President of the Republic of Texas, David G. Burnet, threatened to commandeer the ferry for government service.

On this same plot of land (4406 Battleground Road) today stands the Monument Inn, a restaurant with its own long and storied history. The tradition of a family-style seafood restaurant in this part of Houston started in 1918 when local resident Jack Sanders and wife Bertha opened the San Jacinto Inn on the north side of the ferry landing. The plentiful catch of the nearby bays and bayous established a tradition that lives on today: all-you-can-eat seafood. The original inn burned down in 1919 and relocated to the south side of the ferry - on land that is now adjacent to the Battleship Texas historical site. Throughout the 1920s, the price of all-you-can-eat seafood was $1, rising to $2 in the 1930s. Another fire in 1927 leveled that building, and a new two-story structure opened and served the area until it closed in 1987. Although primarily known for seafood - especially shrimp - the San Jacinto Inn was also known for fried chicken and biscuits whose recipe is still used today.

The San Jacinto Inn
The San Jacinto Inn

In 1974, a new seafood restaurant called the Monument Inn (named, obviously, for the nearby San Jacinto Monument) opened further south down Battleground Road. It was part of a local chain of seafood restaurants owned by restaurateur Richard Tannenbaum that included Atchafalaya River Cafe and at least one other Monument Inn location in the Galleria area. In July of 1990, one of Tannenbaum's longtime employees, Ann Laws, along with her husband Bob, bought the Monument Inn at 2710 Battleground Road from Tannenbaum for almost $1 million. The restaurant did its normally good business until New Year's Eve 1990 when the Laws received a late night phone call from an employee that the restaurant was on fire. The fire, accidentally started by a busboy, burned the restaurant to the ground. The Laws had owned it all of six months.

The Laws were determined to rebuild until they realized their insurance only covered $1 million in damages. To rebuild would cost at least $1.5 million. So they turned to Tannenbaum who owned an old restaurant property back up north on Battleground Road that was previously called the Lynchburg Crossing Restaurant. On January 20th, 1991, they leased the building with an option to buy in 5 years (they did eventually buy it and own the property today). After alot of work and remodeling, the new Monument Inn reopened on March 18th. Although they were still paying off the loan on the old site, the new restaurant was a financial success. The Laws had to admit that the new location was a big improvement - the views of the ship channel, ferry and endless parade of ships added to the unique atmosphere of the Monument Inn.

Monument Inn Restaurant
The Monument Inn Restaurant

Twenty years later, it's this same building, on this same historical ground, that still stands and serves customers seven days a week. "We're still busy and still going strong," says owner Bob Laws, although he notes the recession has had an effect on business and a tenuous supply of oysters is currently hampering their availability at the restaurant.

The most recent challenge was Hurricane Ike, which damaged the lower part of the building. According to Laws, "The day before Ike, I handed a check to my contractor and told him to be here the day after the storm. The upstairs dining room was open two weeks later when the power came back on, and the lower rooms were open a month later after remodeling."

On a recent Tuesday evening, the spacious, simply decorated upstairs dining room was about half full and filling up fast. Container ships cruised past just beyond the reach of our booth, and the ferries plied away on their usual, unchanging route. The menu continued the tradition of all-you-can-eat seafood with a $28.95 option that's billed as "We serve until you say stop!" Cold boiled shrimp, raw oysters (when available), fried just-about-everything (shrimp, catfish, oysters) are all included.

I decided on a fried seafood combination platter - shrimp, catfish and stuffed crab. All excellent with some of the best fried catfish I've had recently. My friend got the shrimp étouffée - one of the best versions of this dish I've tasted in Houston. Cold beer, a classic iceberg lettuce salad, and a basket of old-school cinnamon rolls completed the dinner.

Standing in the parking lot of the Monument Inn Restaurant, you can't help but imagine all the natural and man-made disasters that have plagued this small area of Texas - wars, hurricanes, fires, floods. And through it all, the legends, the ferries, the monument, the memories, the battlefields, the battleship and the Monument Inn have all endured.

Monument Inn Restaurant
4406 Independence Parkway South (formerly Battleground Road)
La Porte, TX 77571
(281) 479-1521
Sun-Thurs 11am-9pm
Fri-Sat 11am-10pm

This blog entry was originally posted 6 October 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pierson's BBQ just keeps on smokin'

"Trinity Plate!" shouted the lady at the pickup counter at Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que in Houston's Oak Forest neighborhood. Five minutes before I had stood at the adjacent order counter and requested a three meat plate: brisket (loose cut), ribs and sausage.

Brisket, Ribs, Sausage
Trinity Plate at Pierson's BBQ - Brisket, Ribs, Sausage

I looked up at the lady and she looked back, blinking and thinking, I'm sure, "What's this guy waiting for?" Then it dawned on me: Trinity. Three meat plate. I stood up and meekly gathered my plate. The lady smiled knowingly. I've been to alot of barbecue joints, but I've never heard a three meat combo called a Trinity Plate. I liked it. It's one of the many endearing eccentricities at Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que that keeps me coming back.


Of course it all makes sense. Brisket, pork ribs, and sausage is the holy trinity of Texas barbecue. Every barbecue joint worth its salt is judged on those three dishes. When you talk about barbecue in Houston, Pierson's is always mentioned as one of the best when it comes to "the trinity." By some counts, there are over 200 barbecue joints in greater Houston. As I sat in the mesquite-drenched air of Pierson's small dining room, working my way through generous portions of fatty brisket, fall-off-the-bone ribs and meaty, spicy sausage, I thought about the other reasons I keep coming back to Pierson's, and why it's held in such high regard in a crowded field. Of course, you consider the food. And you also consider the people who make the food.

The barbecue at Pierson's is often described in the context of the East Texas/African-American tradition of barbecue, that is, with a focus on a sweet sauce as a complement to the meat (often chopped instead of sliced). This is certainly true, but I would also argue that Clarence Pierson, the owner, is a quintessential pitmaster, a smoke man, very much in the tradition of the legendary Central Texas pitmasters. In fact, when someone asks me where they should go to get Central Texas-style barbecue in Houston, I usually refer them to Pierson's.

In the Central Texas barbecue joints that evolved from meat markets run by Czechs and Germans, it's all about the meat and the smoke. Side dishes like beans and potato salad are secondary; barbecue sauce is an afterthought. Heck, most of the big traditional joints like Kreuz and Louie Mueller don't even provide plates or utensils. Smoked meat is served on sheaths of butcher paper. You eat it with your fingers.

Clarence Pierson
Clarence Pierson

It's this almost religious devotion to the infusion of meat with smoke that sets Pierson's apart. Pierson smokes his meat for fourteen hours using mesquite wood that's fed into a mammoth David Klose-built upright smoker (David Klose is the pre-eminent maker of barbecue rigs and smokers, and is headquartered in Houston). After three years of continuous smoking, the inside walls of this smoker are incredibly well-seasoned. You can taste it in the barbecue here. "When I had David build this smoker for me, I had him add a gas-fired heat source to the fire box. That was a waste of money. I never use it. A pile of coals and four pieces of mesquite is all that's needed to fire it up."

Similarly, there's a devotion to and respect for the meat, especially the brisket. A brisket is basically two slabs of meat (the "point" and the "flat"), one on top of the other, separated by a layer of fat, with the outside surface covered with another layer of fat (the "fat cap"). Some barbecue joints consider this fat a nuisance and trim it off; Pierson trims off very little of the fat and this ensures the moist, smoky and flavorful brisket for which he is known.

Now, you'd think that this devotion to smoke and meat would be de rigueur in Houston (or all) barbecue joints. It's not. Through some process of devolution or just plain carelessness, many barbecue joints will trim almost all the fat off the brisket before cooking, and then only smoke it for a few hours. This results in the dreaded dry brisket with a "roast beef-y" flavor. Of course, if you're just chopping the brisket into sandwich meat and dousing it with sauce, this may be okay. But it's not great Texas barbecue. It takes an individual with single-minded devotion to the art of smoking meat to make great Texas barbecue.

Native Houstonian Clarence Pierson came to barbecue almost by chance. After high school, working as a machinist, he frequented a barbecue joint tucked away in an alley near the intersection of 19th Street and Shepherd in The Heights. It was called Po-boy Joe's Bar-B-Que and the pitmaster was a man from New Iberia, Louisiana named Joseph Bourda. Clarence and Joe became fast friends and Clarence eventually became a partner in the business. Joe taught Clarence everything he knew about smoking meat.

Po-boy Joe's closed in the 1980s and Clarence went back to conventional day jobs for the next decade or so. But his skill at smoking meat did not languish and was not forgotten; over the years he continued to perfect his technique by cooking for family and friends. In 2007, having "gotten tired of working for other people," Clarence resurrected the memory of Po-boy Joe's in his own barbecue joint on West T.C. Jester: Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que.

Today, the Pierson's operation is run by Clarence who prepares and cuts the meat, his sister Diane works the pickup window ("Trinity Plate!"), and his niece Britny takes the orders. On a recent afternoon, Diane and Britny were bemused that a writer was interested in taking pictures of their brother/uncle, and asking him alot of barbecue questions. But in Texas, whether east, west, south or central, if you stake a claim to smoking meat and creating the best barbecue that Texans love to eat, you will be recognized.

Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que
5110 West T.C. Jester
Houston, TX 77091
11am - 7pm Tues. thru Sat.
If you're going late, call ahead to make sure they still have BBQ available.

This blog entry was originally posted 29 September 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bandeja Paisa: South American Sampler Plate

In the pantheon of international cuisines that grace Houston's culinary landscape, Colombian food often gets short shrift. Not unexpectedly. The starchiness of Colombian dishes dominated by staple crops like beans, rice and potatoes looks positively stiff compared to the salsa and salsa-dancing flavors of spicy Tex-Mex.

Mi Pueblito - Bandeja paisa
Bandeja paisa at Mi Pueblito

Thai food? Rightfully celebrated for the fireworks of spice, flavor, color and diversity of ingredients. Japanese food? A balletic combination of raw and cooked fish, meat and vegetable. In a neighborhood of flashy ethnic food competitors, Colombian food may seem like a dreary storefront, a single neon "Open" sign flashing longingly, beckoning passers-by to step inside and give it a whirl.

As well we should. Far from being a one-dimensional cuisine, Colombian food represents a rich mix of cultures, ingredients and preparations. Colombia is blessed with a diversity of regions and ingredients, from the seafood of the coast to the staple crops of the Andes mountains. A melting pot of indigenous Colombian traditions, African/Caribbean influences, and Spanish colonial techniques fuses into a rich comida criolla ("mixed cuisine").


There are many typical dishes of Colombia, all vying for the title of the country's national dish. There's sancocho, a hearty soup made of potato, yuca, plaintain and corn with a meat component of chicken or beef. Ajiaco is a potato soup traditionally made with three types of potatoes, chicken and the herb guasca (known as "gallant soldier" in the United States). Arepas are the fried or grilled corn cakes that accompany every Colombian meal. Tropical areas of Colombia provide a rich palette of fruits that form the basis of traditional fruit juices made from blackberry (mora), mango, passion fruit (maracuya) and soursop (guanabana) to name a few.

But arguably the best-known of Colombian dishes is bandeja paisa ("platter of the paisa people"), a colossal plate of meat and starch that is often served at lunch, traditionally following a long morning at work, and then followed by a siesta before resuming work in the afternoon. Originating from the Antioquia region of the Andes mountains (where the local population are known as "paisas"), this South American sampler plate combines many of Colombia's most popular dishes and ingredients. Recipes vary by region, but the basic components include red beans, rice, chorizo sausage, chicharonnes (fried pork rind), grilled flank or skirt steak, fried plaintains, avocados, arepas, a fried egg and a salsa-type condiment (usually a hogao sauce made of tomatoes and onions).

Certainly an ambitious dish worthy of national recognition. Indeed in 2005, the Colombian government under the administration of Álvaro Uribe (perhaps not coincidentally born in the Antioquian city of Medellín), decided to make bandeja paisa the official national dish of Colombia. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well with the population in other parts of Colombia, who argued that the dish represented only a small fraction of the country. In a somewhat clumsy compromise, the government offered to rename the dish bandeja montañera ("platter of the mountains"). Many believe it's just a marketing gimmick to raise the profile of Colombian cuisine, much like the fabled Juan Valdez did for Colombian coffee. Protestations aside, bandeja paisa is now generally recognized as the national dish of Colombia.

In Houston, bandeja paisa is featured prominently on most Colombian restaurant menus. On a recent lunch visit to Mi Pueblito, one of Houston's best known Colombian restaurants, I sat down with a dining companion at a small table by the window. Surrounded by photographs of Botero sculptures and a wait staff wearing starched blue shirts sporting the restaurant's logo, we told the server we wanted to order the bandeja paisa. With a straight face that would make Roy Scheider proud, he replied, "You're gonna need a bigger table." Relocated to an adjacent four-top, we sipped our Mexican cokes (we'll get the fruit juices next time) and waited for the bravura feast to begin.

The size, quantity and quality of food was excellent. The platter covered a good quarter of the table surface, steaming and piled high with the traditional ingredients of bandeja paisa. A pool of red beans with an adjacent pile of rice was delicious and perfectly cooked, worthy of any Cajun red beans and rice recipe to which it might be compared. A generous slab of thinly tenderized flank steak lined the bottom of the platter, nicely marinated and flavorful. A sinuous strip of pork rind was scored into bite-sized chunks and then deep fried into knobs of pork "candy" that could be snapped off and popped into the mouth. The chorizo sausage was diminutive and overly pungent with cumin, really the only misfire of the dish. Pucks of fried white corn meal - the arepas - were included, along with a garnish of fresh avocado and an over-easy fried egg piled on top for good measure. A saucer of aji, a chimichurri-like condiment was also provided.

The bandeja paisa at Mi Pueblito comes in two sizes - "medium" and "regular." The medium size is clearly meant for one person, the regular size is meant for two, and indeed my dining companion and I easily finished off the regular size. At $13.45 split between us, this giant plate of food was a delicious bargain.

And really, this type of dish is meant to be served family-style, with each diner picking and choosing from the components, combining them in different ways, adding garnishes and sauces here and there. It's not a coincidence that bandeja paisa is served on (and named after) one big platter. Individually, the ingredients and components may seem dull, but it's really how you blend and mix them up that makes this a fascinating dish, both culinarily and culturally.

This blog entry was originally posted 21 September 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.