RSS Feed

Category Archives: Reviews

A Late Afternoon in Provence

Posted on

It’s been a couple of years since I was lucky enough to spend time in Provence, researching a book but mostly going to open-air markets between severe bouts of eating and drinking. All those joys came rushing back to me yesterday afternoon, thanks to a late lunch with the Guy family of Houston’s Bistro Provence. Besides, any meal that starts with wine from Bandol and salad with the tres-crusty-twisty Provencal bread colorfully known as fougasse is guaranteed to remind me of something wonderful somewhere.

One of the beauties of Provencal cooking is that it doesn’t stop cooking when the weather turns hot. After all, being the crown jewel of the South of France and plugging directly into the French Riviera means the weather turns hot fairly often and tends to stay that way. On the other hand, with both Provence and Texas in mind, it’s hard to deny the good sense and great taste of this simply cooked fish served atop a room-temp, mayo-free potato salad. Did I mention that Provence produces some of the best olive oil anywhere?

Then again, here’s what I was saying about not stopping real cooking. In pragmatic terms, this roasted Cornish game hen may heat up your house a bit if you make it at home. But that’s only the cooking. As for the eating, complete with a crust of Dijon mustard and plenty of fresh thyme, this moist, flavorful bird is on its way to picnic food. In fact, chill the Tavel rose and call the outing le picnique, and I am so in.

If your taste buds insist on something with sauce whenever you hear the f-word – that being “French,” naturally – the Guys of Bistro Provence have a super-popular dish for you: honey-lavender roasted duck. Created a while back during a festival about the eight or nine different herbs in herbes de Provence, this duck has been taken off the menu once or twice, only to be returned quickly by mobs that resembled the ones outside the Bastille. Yes, lavender. Yes, honey. Two Provencal signatures. And veal demi-glace ain’t too shabby either.

By this point, just about everybody who cooks around here knows that I’m no chocoholic. Nonetheless, they also know that if their chocolate creation is intense enough, it plugs right into my love of dark-roasted coffee and chicory that I grew up on in New Orleans. Taking the bitter with the sweet, in other words. This double-thick version of mousse-meets-fudge is wonderful, especially when you get a little of the whipped cream with every bite.

Typically, a French-style apple tart is more to my liking – and the one set in front of me yesterday at Bistro Provence was to my liking a lot. It was a bit Franco-American, I’d say, since the stewed apples are enclosed as in the pie that there’s nothing more American than. Yet the flavor profile is French, as in the legendary tart Tatin. Best of all, perhaps, the usual vanilla ice cream (which I never turn down, especially this close to Brenham) is augmented here by cinnamon. Let’s keep the apple pie ball bouncing, shall we, right into this ice cream. I swear: had I dared drink a glass (or three) of pastis, I wouldn’t have needed a plane ticket to get back to Provence at all.


Burger Time: First Down and Five!

“Let the Cholesterol Begin!”

That’s the announcement I heard ringing in my ears yesterday as I embarked upon a journey for Prime Living magazine. My mission, which I chose to accept, was to taste and describe five burgers in Houston that I took to calling “sirloin skyscrapers.” Because the article is for Prime Living’s July/August issue (ah, magazine lead times!), I refuse to ruin my own suspense. But I will say the first of five burgers to be enjoyed and survived was crafted for me by chef Ryan Hildebrand at Triniti.

It’s called the Farm & Sea, and it’s only available at lunch sometimes, since the burger du jour (no, they don’t call it that, though maybe they should) changes almost every day. For sheer extravagance, though, consider a half-pound beef patty not grilled but basted with butter in a saute pan, joining forces beneath gouda cheese on the bun with house-cured bacon and even slices of duck foie gras. That’s the Farm in the title. Representing the Sea, there are thin slices of Japanese nori in lieu of lettuce, plus delightful chunks of lobster.  

As a matter of perspective, I went to downtown’s wonderful Samba Grill for a quite different burger last night, and have another stop on the mission as a late lunch today. To find out where and what, of course, you’ll need to wait for the July/August issue of Prime Living, and I suspect even I’ll get hungry again by then. As for me, I’ll just remember the vision below: Chef Ryan going all out in the middle of a busy lunch at Triniti – just to make me a burger to, I hope, live rather than die for.

‘Jett’ on Down to Blu in Sugar Land

The sky’s the limit, we always say. But executive chef Junnajet Hurapan, of the new “Euro-Asian” eatery called Blu in Sugar Land’s Town Square, likes to insist there is no limit to the sky. Thus the blue skies high above Texas have inspired the place’s name, while the Thai-born culinarian’s years of cooking as many as 15 different cuisines in New York City have inspired the menu.

Chef Jett, as he’s invariably called, became known to many around Houston when he opened Gigi’s Asian Bistro, a see-and-be-seen upscale dumpling-with-your-martini joint in the Galleria. Now, having made the move, he insists that Gigi’s was “too limited” – being only Asian. His new home, a former effort at a sophisticated sports bar that still wonders exactly what to do with large white screens, ceiling projectors and TVs everywhere, suffers from no such limits.

The food at Blu will come as a surprise to almost anybody who doesn’t live in Fort Bend County, to those who no doubt picture a whitebread suburban sprawl filled with inoffensive chain eateries. Those it has. But according to Amy Karnani, who grew up in her family’s catering business and now owns Blu with her husband, the days of all that one-way traffic on the Southwest Freeway are ending. “We drive to Houston to try all the great new restaurants there,” Amy tells me. “It’s time for Houstonians to come try ours.” She smiles, knowing what has to come next. “And we’re only about 15 minutes from the Heights.” 

With a multi-talented chef like Jett in the kitchen, there can be no such thing as too many tastes. The menu reflects this truth, with plenty of European and Asian items listed under “Tapas – Dumplings – small plates,” and then still more under “STARTER: soups – apps – salads.” Despite the assault of uncertain punctuation, there’s absolutely nothing uncertain about the shrimp with Spanish romesco sauce at the top, or about the authentically Indian lamb samosas. Or, just above, about the shu-mai shrimp with ponzu dipping sauce alongside the Singapore satay.

For the most part, as both Chef Jett and Amy walk miles to underline, Blu is a “No Fusion Zone.” In its vision of Euro-Asian Cuisine, the Euro stays Euro and the Asian stays Asian – each, as it were, sleeping on its own side of the bed. Yet a stellar example of when these two are “protesting too much” is the Meatball Lollipops. Jett, after all, learned to make meatballs in a New York Italian restaurant. But it’s a safe bet nobody there taught him how to pull off this oh-so-Asian sweet chili glaze.

While we’re talking Italian food that’s near and dear to Texans’ hearts, how about fried calamari? At Blu, however, fried calamari aren’t just the batter-fried app with the standard (or in some cases, sub-standard) bowl of marinara for dipping. They turn up in a salad – which has to make the whole affair healthy, right? With the tossed greens and creamy dressing, it’s a winner, no matter how good for us it is or isn’t.

Knowing that Chef Jett hails from Thailand – despite his attitude and even his accent of a New Yorker – I had to try his Tom-Yum Soup. It is on Blu’s menu, after all. And while the meaning of Tom-Yum in Thai is totally lost upon me, it’s closeness to “Yum-Yum” has been clear since my first taste many years ago. It’s kind of a Thai spin on hot and sour, though Jett might argue that the Chinese learned it from them – rather spicy, rather sweet, and suffused with the intense citrus notes of lemongrass.

By the time all these variations on starters have been dutifully and carefully sampled (so, that’s the process that always leaves me with clean plates!), there’s really no need or room for a main course. We are intrigued by dozens on things on the menu, though, like the category called “GOURMET SANDWICHES – TACOS,” in addition to the one dubbed “WOK off the street…” (the punctuation festival continues). But we closed with the terrific Crispy Fish, fried whole in a circle-the-wagons position with tamarind, chili and basin. As it might (or might not) be said in Thai: Yum-Yum!


ATaste of Cozumel, One Night Only, in Texas

Sometimes in this life, as strange as it sounds, you get to go eat places that you don’t even get to go eat. That’s pretty much what happened last night, when I went to Cozumel on the Mexican Caribbean for a couple hours – by way of Chef Peter Laufer and his Table One right at the Hotel InterContinental on the traffic-snarled 610 Loop in Houston. You might say, we all pretended we were on the beach at a sister resort in Cozumel – perhaps no one pretending more than Chef Peter, who actually had to work this gig.

The disconnect was pretty extreme: six of us sitting in the tiny room off the InterCon’s busy kitchen (as a banquet for 600 trundled ahead somewhere that seemed far away). Though Table One is no Caribeno Palapa (pictured above), the Houston chef did his best to transport us by way of his food. We also got to swap war stories with two essential representatives of the Cozumel resort – Swiss-born GM Henry Walther, plus his Guadalajara-born director of sales and marketing, Martha Paredes. The menu carried us through tortilla chips with fresh salsa and guacamole, ceviche, a very classed-up version of tortilla soup, snapper roasted in banana leaf with guajillo sauce, and a dessert letting arroz con leche share a plate with fresh tango and a super-crispy sopaipilla.

And while it seemed an even longer leap of faith and food, we talked about the resort’s own edition of Alfredo di Roma. Years ago, I became friends with a polished but now-deceased gentleman named Guido Bellanca, who had somehow talked the heirs of Alfredo’s in Rome (that’s right, the place that invented fettuccine Alfredo in 1914, only to see it bastardized almost everywhere) into letting him open the real deal in New York City and in the World Showcase at Disney’s EPCOT. Someday, when I actually make it to the Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa in person, I won’t only feast on chips and salsa,  ceviche, tortilla soup, snapper roasted in banana leaf and some kinda tropical dessert. I already have my order in for some fettuccine that Alfredo di Lello would recognize as his own.

Sushi on a North Texas Country Highway?

In a world in which Japanese sushi is urban, urbane and expensive – especially at places like Uchi that expanded into the Houston market from Austin and Katsuya from Los Angeles – is it even possible that some serious versions of the stuff can be found at a general store that may or may not be a gas station outside Ennis, TX? The sign has trouble holding onto letters, obviously, but you catch the drift quickly and turn in off the winding highway through the bluebonnets. Talk about… Only in America!

Only after lunching and leaving the Bristol General Store and Grill (Bristol being the nearest town, or village, or hamlet, or whatever) did a local suggest the gas pumps weren’t actually functioning anymore. And that seemed a  shame, since “sushi at a gas station” was about as dramatic and unexpected as life can get. One of the employees was trying to jump-start someone’s car out front, but I suppose it may have been a family member’s.

So… you enter this little country store that may or may not pump gas, and if you forgo the pleasures of tortilla chips and canned ravioli, you step up to the counter and order from a picture book of entirely legitimate sushi and sashimi. Having pictures is a plus around here, apparently.  In this part of the country, a lot more sushi things are fried than we’re used to – batter-fried in the holy name of “tempura” – but otherwise the sushi tastes fresh and delightful. You can do takeout or eat from styrofoam at comfortable shaded picnic tables outside. We’ve traveled a long, wonderful road from brisket and beans, let me tell you!

Steak Dinner to Die for at Wildcatter Ranch

In a lovely area of north Texas rich with a history of gunfights, cattle drives, and Injun violence, dinner last night was pure steak. Even better, it was served at the steakhouse at Wildcatter Ranch Resort & Spa, a destination about two hours west of Dallas that’s more relaxing than anything that happened nearby at the start of the fabled Goodnight-Loving Trail.

With something over 30 rooms, in cabins where I’m staying but also in the Hotel, Wildcatter Ranch is definitely a surprise out here in this rugged section of Young County, which combines rolling green hills with unexpected outcroppings of rock. Also unexpected, a little bit anyway, is the seriousness about food and wine of the resort’s F&B manager Bob Bratcher. To say that beef is “what’s for dinner” at Wildcatter Ranch is an understatement worthy of John Wayne.

Here, for instance, is my T-Bone before I attacked it with all the ferocity of Quanah Parker, before the area’s last great chief made his peace with the white man and decided Theodore Roosevelt was a great guy to have over for dinner. The beef at the ranch is amazing, and sometimes the sides are even better. The potatoes in that bowl with lots of molten cheese are actually one of the best steakhouse sides I’ve ever tasted. I declare them “potato lasagna.”

Due to the mysteries of the county being “dry,” you have to join a private club to buy anything alcoholic at Wildcatter Ranch; but considering the quality of the wine program, I’d suggest you pledge allegiance to whatever it is right away. Bob took me through his wine room, and I was impressed by not only the vintages he carries but by how well he describes their various charms. Not inappropriately, reds rule the school.

I’m not sure “The Sons of Katie Elder,” made famous by a Hollywood shoot-’em-up starring John Wayne and Dean Martin that’s based on something that happened near here, ate a whole lot of creme brulee. But the dessert  turns up in high style at the steakhouse. The creme is creamy and the brulee is crisp, and yes, all’s right with the world. Note the big-city squizzle of chocolate sauce.

Still, I have a single favorite among the desserts at Wildcatter Ranch Steakhouse, and it’s the slightly different bread pudding. All the great flavors are right, as we’d expect after growing up in bread pudding-crazed New Orleans. But instead of a single, tightly pressed loaf or square, this bread pudding is a series of individual cubes, each of which gets a bit crispy and caramelized. Like the old cattle drives organized here by Charles Goodnight (whose first name put the “chuck” in chuckwagon) and Oliver Loving, this bread pudding is an idea whose time has come.

And finally, in the photos above and below, here’s a look at Wildcatter Ranch itself. Above, this is the other bed in my cabin named after the Marlow Brothers, the figures in local history who inspired the movie “The Sons of Katie Elder.” And below, that’s the shortly-after-sunrise view from my veranda, hopefully looking down on terrain I will cover shortly during the resort’s daily trail ride.

Umami in Nine Courses by Four Chefs

Without even the much-ballyhooed “magic of television,” I went to dinner last night at two of my favorite Houston restaurants. The chef and sous chef of both Kata Robata and Haven got together (that’s a quartet of chefs, if you’re counting) to prepare something called an Umami Dinner. And while the dictionary does us no favors by defining/describing umami as “savoriness,” the four chefs went the extra mile to help us understand.

“Chef Hori” (Manabu Horiuchi) was the gracious host on behalf of Kata, but it was hard to forget Randy Evans of Haven was in the kitchen when these Texas Gulf Coast oysters showed up with a minimum of camouflage. Yes, there was something on top called “ghost pepper caviar” plus a very simple mignonette. But mostly what was waiting on these half shells was a glistening, salty-clean taste of the sea. The oysters were expertly paired with some bubbles, California’s Domaine Carneros Brut Rose.

These days, fusion or no fusion, so many culinary threads come together over uncooked fish. This ceviche, for instance, was pleasantly citrusy, complete with the surprise of the “olive oil sorbet.”  At the tables, words like ceviche were awash among other words like sushi and sashimi. All in all, the Umami Dinner had nine courses, so each tended to be small and tending toward light.

While cooking definitely understands the concept of “top billing” – which of course goes to the chef-owner or executive chef of each restaurant – there was a good deal of attention paid to each sous chef: Mark Gabriel Medina of Kata Robata and Jean Philippe Gaston of Haven. This, for instance, was Medina’s reinvention of the salad, with grilled leeks, gruyere cheese, mustard seeds, spiced walnuts and a balsamic glaze.

Almost as though this were an Italian dinner, it definitely had a “pasta course” –  the pasta made with the fennel Italian cooks use as often as possible. Still, what happened to this pasta after that wasn’t Italian, starting with something called “karasumi,” plus Meyer lemon zest, pine nuts and olive oil. The wine paired with this was the lovely De Westhof Bon Vallon chardonnay.

Mackerel remains something of an acquired taste, whether we euphemize it as “full-flavored” or call it what all old-time Gulf fishermen always call it, “oily.”  Still, Chef Hori turned to mackerel for one of the most traditional Japanese dishes of the evening, braising the fish in miso before pairing it up with frisee, kumquats and an intriguing “espuma” tinged with mustard. True to tradition, the dish showed up with a glass of sake, the Kanbara “Bride of the Fox” junmai ginjo.

Chef Randy made a heartfelt joke to the 30 lucky diners, something about not wanting to “mess up” seafood in front of a sushi master like Chef Hori. As big fans of Haven, we’re sure Evans would have done seafood fine. But we were more than happy with his quail “Scotched” eggs, meaning stuffed into a sausage ball, and especially with this veal with beat puree, crispy fried kale chips and unexpected (though unsweet) cocoa nibs The veal dish showed up with the delicious Z Blend from Paraduxx.

When you reach the ninth course of any menu, it’s kinda hard to guess what – if anything – the folks out front want for dessert. Hint: They want something. And second hint: it’s almost certainly chocolate. The four umami dinner chefs came up with a pound cake of dark chocolate and coffee, with a mildly bizarre trio of sesame sherbet, orange marmalade and tamarind curd. Whatever that sounds like to you, it produced nothing but empty dessert plates in Kata Robata’s dining room.

Latin Bites: The Next Generation

If you were among “the few, the proud” to embrace the original Latin Bites Cafe in the tiny corner space that once was Dharma Cafe, then you’re likely to find the new Woodway location bigger, better – and, happily, exactly the same. That’s what I caught myself thinking during dinner last night, in some ways missing the BYOB status of the old joint but rooting for chef Roberto Castre and his partners to make lots of money selling us  wine, beer and cocktails. Heck, when the manager brought us a Pisco Sour, the national drink of Castre’s native Peru, I raised a toast to the joys of capitalism.

I’m guessing you know enough about food history to know that potatoes hail from Peru – no, not from Ireland. And that, while most of us think of potatoes as a single thing, there are hundreds if not thousands of types of potatoes grown in Peru to this day. All shapes, all colors, all textures. Which helps explain how potatoes can anchor the Peruvian appetizer above, called causitas. Three little mounds or cakes of whipped potatoes support various salads plus a host of very different Martian-colored sauces that all feel like mayo on your tongue. The one with shrimp escabeche is our favorite.

Let me count… the menu at the new Latin Bites features no fewer than 14 spins on ceviche – here spelled cebiche and logically more in the Peruvian than the Mexican mold. Several of the most popular cebiches feature mixes of seafoods- fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, you name it. But the mood was upon us for shrimp, and this dish did not disappoint. Yes, there are excellent marinated shrimp under all that taste and texture, plus sweet potato, white Peruvian corn and a crunchy roasted version thereof.

Yes, even the main dishes that come with rice on the side come with potatoes in the middle – like this seafood entree called pescado a la chorillana, the pan-seared fish ending up tasting a bit Chinese in spite of itself. Fact is, there are tons of delightful Asian touches in Peruvian food, a “fusion” brought about naturally by millions of immigrants from China and beyond over the decades. To be Peruvian, I gather from Chef Roberto, is to embrace your inner fusion.

There are several dazzlers among the desserts at the new Latin  Bites (which, by the way, is at 5709 Woodway, a location that most recently attracted attention as the gutsy but shortlived Rockwood Room). Our favorite finale, though, has to be the Latin Bites Terrine, a frozen layering of mango, chirimoya and white chocolate served with dulce de leche truffles and that glistening tire tread of raspberry coulis.

Terrific Tapas at Austin’s Malaga

Posted on

I tasted my life’s first tapas in Spain four decades ago – I loved them then, and I love them now. In the interim, tapas have been the “next big thing” in food several times, without ever actually becoming the next big thing. Yet the basic concept – tasting small plates of many foods instead of one big plate of one thing – has worked its way into our ideas about eating. Yes, even here in Texas. Especially at the 13-year-old Austin tapas destination called Malaga.

With Central Market chef-instructor Nancy Marr at my side – she who makes even me look like I know what I’m doing when I teach cooking classes there – we settled in for a long night of radio, eating, drinking and visits from Malaga executive chef Alejandro Duran. Born in Spain to a Spanish mother but dragged through many regions of Mexico as a kid by his Mexican-agriculture official father, Duran seems the best of both Old World and New. And the tapas he served Nancy and me did too.

This metal tower, usually reserved in fancy seafood houses for those $75 shellfish samplers, here delivers my oldest and most favorite traditional tapa along with, as though to underline my point, something the chef probably thought up day before yesterday. Without a Mexican tortilla in sight, the tortilla Catalan (his version of tortilla espanola) is an omelet by way of a frittata. An egg thing, in other words. The bottom dish offers fire-roasted Spanish piquillo peppers stuffed with fresh goat cheese and capers.

Thankfully tending toward the mild side, goat cheese is a favorite for just about any use at Malaga, including contained in these fried cakes served atop some wonderful sweet red onion marmalade and then drizzled with honey. Atop that is something of a surprise, a few crumbles of dried lavender – like the cheese itself, nothing too overpowering. Duran has a real flair for combinations done with equal parts surprise and restraint.

You know your half-remembered high school Spanish is in over its head when the menu promises calcots y setas a la parilla, beyond guessing that something is going on the grill. The dish is actually a symphony of different tastes and especially textures: grilled asparagus, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, fire-roasted piquillos and spring onions, all done up with toasted Marcona almonds, Cabrales bleu cheese and a bit of Romesco vinaigrette for dipping.

I am definitely one of those guys, as I explained to Nancy with some trepidation, who never met a meatball he didn’t like. So of course I dove head-first into Duran’s albondigas en salsa brava. According to the chef, for every one customer who finds these rounds of beef and pork not fried or “Sicilian” enough, hundreds of others keep coming back for more. The tomato sauce is kicked up with cumin and coriander, definitely putting the brava in this salsa.

In a tapas bar like Malaga, it isn’t about the traditional progression from little appetizers to big entrees, since all the plates are small and intended to gang up on you. Still, I did find one of the things I most wanted to gang up on me: the so-called empanadas Salamanca, named after the fascinating ancient university town. Light years removed from familiar Mexican empanadas, these are light turnovers stuffed with spinach, Mahon cheese and mushrooms. There’s roasted garlic-herb aioli drizzled over the top, plus spicy roasted tomato sauce on the side. In an instant, I who was in Spain forty years ago and Nancy who was there a few months ago both found ourselves in the passionate heart of Spain once again.

Fab Food and Fab Five on Kemah Boardwalk

Posted on

The concept of Sunday Funday is alive and well, and – especially during these glory days of spring and presumably fall – living on the Kemah Boardwalk. With temperatures mild during the daylight hours and turning chilly only after dark, the destination on Galveston Bay that used to be for bikers-only has been turned into a kind of Magic Kingdom for restaurants associated with Tilman Fertitta. And in the spirit of a lovely afternoon, that’s not a bad thing.

The modern version of Kemah lets you know it’s a Magic Kingdom because you have to get there by boat – if you want free parking, that is. The lot that doesn’t charge is connected to Tilman’s Boardwalk Empire by a “boat shuttle” that, instead of a 30-minute ride across a lagoon to Mickey’s place in Orlando takes about four minutes to cross maybe 30 feet of not-so-open water. Best of all, the boat deposits you and yours on the boardwalk beside (or maybe behind) the Aquarium Restaurant.

Appropriately on the waterfront, almost every eatery on Kemah Boardwalk serves seafood in some form, much of it delightfully deep-fried. There’s a Landry’s, of course, the place that launched a thousand concepts, in addition to the Aquarium – where you actually watch fish swim around even as you eat their kin. Still, the idea of Tex-Mex sounded right to our little group, launching us in the direction of Cadillac Bar. And that launched us in the direction of this Tortilla Soup, some of the best we’ve ever tried.

The thing about Tex-Mex: it always tastes a lot better than it looks. Here, for instance, is the cheese enchilada plate named for the border town of Laredo – and since the original Cadillac Bar was born on the border, it just kinda made sense. There are several types of enchiladas offered with several types of sauces (including the chili con carne with chopped onions so beloved here in Texas), but this one had more of a red chili (or chile) gravy bookended by rice and refried beans. 

And oh yeah… we shouldn’t forget the reason we thought of this Sunday Funday on Kemah Boardwalk in the first place. We wanted to see the Fab Five, one of the better Beatles tribute bands around. In the course of their almost four-hour set (after a performance by Elvis impersonator Vince King, who we want to catch next time), the Fab Five played not only the Fab Four but lots of non-Beatles British Invasion plus even some hits from Motown. Long after the sun slowly sank in the West, folks were dancing and clapping their hands, no doubt feverishly trying to work off the all-too-edible handiwork of Tilman Fertitta.