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A Big Taste of Houston’s Strip House

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Rank may have its privileges, but as I’ve learned more than once over the years, so does radio. Last night, as part of a taping for my show Delicious Mischief, we didn’t just get to spend some quality time with executive chef Bill Zucosky and learn about the company with only a handful of locations in New York City, suburban New Jersey, vacation Florida and downtown Houston. No, we got to taste a lot of the foods that make the whole success story possible.

Appetizers should be a favorite part of any meal, since they allow us to taste a bunch of interesting smaller things before committing to a big thing as an entree. I’m not talking silly “small plates,” mind you. Just the chance to enjoy new things, at least some of which are also delightfully old. Up top there’s Zucosky’s inspired Stonehenge of grilled sourdough bread with a dipping sauce of Italian Gorgonzola and English Stilton. And right here is what might be the best version of Italian-eatery standby clams casino I’ve ever tasted. I’m sure, somewhere out there, Sinatra is sorry he didn’t get any of these.

One of the niftiest things to happen to prime steakhouses over the past two or three decades is the explosion of terrific seafood options. As Ruth Fertel of Ruth’s Chris told me in New Orleans years ago, places like hers were losing too many parties of 6 or 8 because somebody didn’t eat meat. Even though I do eat meat, and in such large portions, I can certainly see myself ordering Strip House’s “angry lobster.” Eating it, I wasn’t angry at all.

Of all the transformations enjoyed by any type of seafood, that handed to tuna has been the most dramatic. After all, we all know what “tunafish” is like when it comes from a can. Yet at Strip House, and just about every other restaurant working above a certain pay grade, tuna is now impeccably fresh, billed as “sushi grade” and barely cooked at all. Here’s the sesame-crusted Strip House rendition. And while some may protest the veal demi glace added to the sauce, the thing sure does taste good.

While we kept our mouth full of Strip House’s lush truffled mac and cheese, we let Chef Bill tell us about his background: a childhood in the coal country of western Pennsylvania, followed by work around the restaurant business and culinary school in New York City – the latter, he boasts, a far cry from that demure, high-white-hat establishment up in Hyde Park. Work at several fine NYC restaurants pointed him toward the door of Strip House.

Needless to say, a place called Strip House does serve a mighty good steak – and that includes their signature cut in all kinds of ways, the New York strip. Chef Bill loves this cut of Prime beef, saying it’s the perfect middle ground between the tenderness of filet mignon and the marbled flavor machines of all those “lesser” cuts. The kitchen keeps things simple on this one, with only a bit of slow-roasted garlic as accessory to the crime.

Even though the original architectural notion (and the name itself) came east from Chicago, New Yorkers certainly know a thing or two about skyscrapers. Heck, at Strip House, they even apply the design to their chocolate cake. This one has 12 layers of cake, plus an equal number of icing – which makes it, by my reckoning, a 24-story skyscraper for your dessert. Chef Bill Zucosky lets on that there are few things better for the munchies at 3 a.m. than leftover cake with a tall glass of cold milk.

Oregon Pinor Noir on This Weekend’s DM

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NOW HEARD IN THREE GREAT TEXAS CITIES! 

AUSTIN Saturdays 10-11 a.m., Talk 1370

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Here in Texas, Shawn Cirkiel has risen to be one of the culinary superstars, first on the strength of his Austin gastro-pub parkside (on bar-happy 6th Street, no less) and then with his pizza-plus joint around the corner called backspace. Many of these influences come together in his new eatery Olive & June, and Shawn is here to tell us all about it. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a magical place for pinot noir (and yes, pinot gris) with winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. 

HOUSTON Saturdays 2-3 p.m., News Talk 1070 KNTH

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

As the weather heats up and baseball takes over the national psyche, it’s kinda hard not to want a hot dog. Here in Houston, we have easy access to some of the nation’s best, plus a whole lot more, at the beloved 20-location chain called James Coney Island. We hold our first-ever hot-dog tasting with no less than JCI president Darrin Straughan. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a magical place for pinot noir (and yes, pinot gris) with winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. 

DALLAS Saturdays 7-8 p.m., 570 KLIF

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Here in Texas, Shawn Cirkiel has risen to be one of the culinary superstars, first on the strength of his Austin gastro-pub parkside (on bar-happy 6th Street, no less) and then with his pizza-plus joint around the corner called backspace. Many of these influences come together in his new eatery Olive & June, and Shawn is here to tell us all about it. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a magical place for pinot noir (and yes, pinot gris) with winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. 

Our 22nd Year of Eating, Drinking and Telling You About It! 

This Week’s Delicious Mischief Recipe

COZUMEL TORTILLA SOUP

Presidente InterContinental Resort & Spa 

A couple weeks back, I went to a dinner at Houston’s Hotel InterContinental recognizing the GM from its sister resort in Cozumel on the Mexican Caribbean. Though the executive chef couldn’t make the trip, his impressive recipe for Tortilla Soup certainly did. A great big gracias to chef Daniel Lentz.                                                                

1/3 cup vegetable oil

7 Roma tomatoes, cored and quartered

1 white onion, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

4  guajillo chiles, seeded

2 pasilla chiles, seeded

3 tablespoons fresh epazote

2 tortillas, fried and quartered

1 ½ quarts chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups diced cooked chicken breast

Fried corn tortillas

Grated fresh cheese

Diced avocado

Sour cream 

 Heat oil in pan large enough to accommodate all ingredients. Saute all vegetables, chiles and epazote until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add liquid and tortilla chips, season with salt and pepper, and simmer  for about 30 minutes. Puree in blender and strain. Serve in bowls. Garnish each potion of soup with diced chicken breast, fried corn tortillas, grated cheese, avocado and sour cream. Serves 12-14.

 

 

The Burgers That Ate Houston

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As any private eye from 1930s’ noir will tell you, there are some days you regret answering your office phone. More specifically and more colorfully, there are days you regret leaving your office door unlocked so a gorgeous dame can step inside, cry on your rock-hard shoulder and beg you to help locate her missing husband. Updated to 2012, and into my own work and world, there are days you regret that some magazine editor asked you to taste Houston’s super-stacked burgers. Even when the assignment lets you tear into this Big Mac-inspired double-decker at Haven with chef Randy Evans looking on.

Evans’ new burger, which I have rechristened the “Farm to Table Big Mac,” completely mimics the high-volume, near-mythical original down to the sesame seed bun; he just does it better, with better stuff. The patties add up to three-quarters of a pound of beef, but even that isn’t the best part. That’s an honor reserved for his version of the Big Mac’s “special sauce,” here named for Avery Island in southwest Louisiana because of the Tabasco mash adding plenty of zing.

So, you’re surely asking yourself: How hard can this really be? Tasting five burgers already selected from photographs by the editor and publisher of Prime Living magazine? I mean: you go, you take a couple bites, and then you write a hundred words about each. Sure. Well, that’s before you face the likes of Max’s Wine Dive’s Kobe beef burger (shown here) with an “upgrade” of sliced avocado, cotija cheese and habanero salsa. And that’s definitely before all the other burger-loving restaurants in Houston find out what you’re up to and then insist you come try theirs. I’m sorry, you try to explain, we’ve already got our five. Come anyway, they all say.

Directly above is chef Rolando Sosa’s terrific new burger creation at CityCentre’s Bistro Alex. The 8-10 ounces of grilled Kobe beef rest on a jalapeno cheese bun that’s been slathered with mayo and pungent New Orleans-style Creole mustard, then covered in Texas-made cheese, caramelized onion and sliced avocado, followed by an egg fried in clarified butter and a green tomato salsa verde. By the way, the “fries” are panko-crusted avocado.

The new Houston Texans Grille at CityCentre, all themed-up and official, wasn’t content to serve me their Ginormous BLT Double Grilled Cheese Ranch Burger requested by the editors, who by the way didn’t dare show up for one of these tastings. Oh no. The Grille had to also bring me their Soon-to-be-Famous Deep Fried Cheeseburger, as grand a tribute to state-fair-meets-rodeo-carnival cooking as I have ever tasted anywhere. The whole cheeseburger gets made and set inside a bun with spicy ketchup, mustard and mayo. Then the entire affair gets dunked in tempura batter and deep-fried. Out of sheer spite, it shows up wearing a healthy leaf of lettuce on top like a silly clown suit.

A burger implies an all-beef patty, right? Well, at Houston’s ever-popular Rainbow Lodge with owner Donnette Hansen and chef Mario Valdez, that’s not an assumption you ought to make. Burgers turn up at RL just once a week, on Fridays, and only as long as the dozen they make hold out. That typically doesn’t take long, since the patty itself is formed of some ever-changing percentage of venison, bison and wild boar, all in need of a boost from a little pork belly. One of Chef Mario’s best variations is this multi-meat patty on a Slow Dough challah bun, with melty pimento cheese and fried cornmeal-crusted avocado. Those housemade pickles – bread and butter-style, but with an extra kick – are amazing too.

With his French accent and legendary good looks, chef Philippe Schmit seems the last person you’d expert to catch “flippin’ burgers.” As it turns out, even at his fine-dining Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, there’s demand for a burger and fries done right. The experience starts with 8 to 10 ounces of organic, hormone-free beef grilled somewhere between medium-rare and medium (to your taste), then set on an olive-oil brioche bun baked by Philippe’s own pastry chef. The pickles are housemade, as is the mayo and mustard, as is the North African-style harissa that provides a kick to the ketchup. The molten cheese is mild gouda, the chef explains, so as not to distract diners from the meat and the bun.

Our journey ended last night more or less where it began, with one beloved Houston chef wowing me with how far he could carry the burger from its mostly humble roots. Except, of course, the end came 11 burgers spread over 10 days after it began – three over a single painful lunch period – with any and all the added waistline those 11 burgers entailed. At RDG + Bar Annie, Robert del Grande applies the same Ph.D. in biochemistry to his burger that he applies to, well, everything else. 

The bun from Slow Dough, he tells me, has to be a little sweet (with the slightest dusting of chestnut flour after toasting in the kitchen) and, while puffy, able to be squished down to fit into the average human mouth. The half-pound of beef is USDA Prime, from the flavorful shoulder cuts, and grilled over an oakwood fire. Del Grande’s “secret sauce” involves a mayo, ketchup and mustard base (“like every secret sauce,” he says) with layer after layer of smoked gouda cheese, smoked chile (chipotle), steamed garlic, roasted shallots and what he, in highly technical Ph.D.speak, calls “a whole bunch of stuff.” Honestly, if I had to eat one burger in farewell – I DO think I’ll swear off the things for a while, and maybe get back to the gym – I can’t think of a better burger to remember them all by.

A Late Afternoon in Provence

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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.

It’s Springtime at Rainbow Lodge

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Donnette Hansen has hired her share of chefs at Rainbow Lodge, starting with Lance Youngs what feels like a million years and at least one location ago. That time, I remember it was cold and rainy outside, but owner and chef conspired to warm me up with gumbo and wild game dishes fit for, well, a hunting lodge on the banks of a bayou. With warm temperatures getting even warmer and young chef Mario Valdez in the kitchen, I can’t think of a better time or better excuse to reacquaint yourself with a three-decades-plus Houston favorite.

My lunch today was a definite case of  “something old, something new,” though not exactly in that order. My mission was to taste items from Chef Mario’s new springtime list, starting with a super appetizer (pictured up top) made with fried green tomatoes from Donnette’s several gardens. In this case, the fried green slices were topped with a delightful ceviche of sea bass, grouper and snapper. No matter how hot it gets in Texas this summer, however, I can’t see myself  going to Rainbow Lodge and not begging at least a cup of their exemplary smoked duck gumbo, which has outlasted several chefs and just may outlast us all.

Another nifty spin on spring is provided by the Rabbit Boudin Balls. Much lighter to eat than they are to think about, the balls have found an audience both as an official appetizer and as a snack in the Lodge’s oh-so-popular, fly fishing-themed bar. The shredded rabbit confit inside each ball is enhanced with pork butt and belly, while the choucroute garni (a kind of mild French sauerkraut) is sweet-sour with red wine vinegar and molasses. The squirts around the dish are Tabasco aioli.

As in the classic movie about baseball “It Happens Every Spring,” a number of things happen in the kitchen and garden as well. And several of them end up on this plate. Yes, that’s a chop of terrific Colorado spring lamb, which kind of speaks for itself. But underneath you’ll locate paper-thin slices of spring potato and roughed-up editions of English spring peas. There’s a spicy touch of Moroccan-style harissa waiting at the bottom of the pile.

Since Chef Mario doesn’t like the word “deconstructed” – and I don’t either – my lips are basically sealed. It is undeniable, though, that Rainbow Lodge’s latest desserts are lighter versions of heavier things, all-American favorites all. For instance, who would guess that the mound on the left is carrot cake…- de-, well, at least divided into elements like carrot cake and cream cheese mousse. Moving to the right is a memorable lemon meringue in a jar (it’s usually bigger, but the chef was having mercy on me) and a chocolate torte with espresso creme anglais. For a decade or more, I’ve always longed for Rainbow Lodgfe whenever the weather turns cold and rainy. Obviously, based on today’s tasting, I’ve been missing out on a lot.

The 26th Annual Sandestin Wine Festival

There’s nothing quite like a wine festival at the beach. And while I’ve heard of one or two others across the country, for the past two decades I’ve been a zealot for the Sandestin Wine Festival – held at the golf and beach resort of that name on the lovely piece of northwest Florida known as the Emerald Coast. That name, of course, is inspired by the see-through Gulf water that, at almost any time from sunrise to sunset, takes on a shimmering blue-green hue.

This festival was, is and perhaps always will be about wine – unlike many that weave the magic words “Wine and Food” or at least “Food and Wine” into their names. There’s even a “retail tent” for buying bottles to take home after you’ve wandered up and down the aisles for several hours of dedicated tasting. This year, however, there was the strongest presence I’ve seen yet for edible as well as drinkable goodies.

Borrowing a page from other successful wine festivals, Sandestin has also added a “reserve tasting” and wine auction to raise money for local charities. I attended this event for the first time yesterday, and with food from area restaurants (including familiar names like Carrabba’s and Ruth’s Chris, as well as the eateries on the Sandestin property), it was a great way to while away an afternoon heated by bright sunshine but cooled by delicious spring breezes.

One of the culinary highlights was provided by a young chef who works for the resort, serving up gumbo he said was made with duck confit and garlic andouille. Now I’m pretty picky about my gumbo, not least because I love my gumbo best, but this stuff was amazing. I almost regretted all the room I’d “wasted” on sliders, sushi, ceviche and grilled scallops, when I could have simply declared it the Sandestin Wine & Gumbo Festival!

And just when the late afternoon temperatures were peaking beneath the tasting tent, along came the San Gelato Cafe. While a simple-enough food and drink outlet with three locations (the Village at Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin, the Silver Sands Factory Stores and the Boardwalk-Okaloosa Island in nearby Ft. Walton Beach), the real Italians behind San Gelato actually make the stuff  masterfully enough to sell to national Italian restaurant chains. Yum!

When you get right down to it, though, I always love hanging out with the chefs best. This year, for the first time ever, there’s an impressive Culinary Pavilion staged by the folks at Coastal Living, which along with Saveur is one of the few magazines I actually read. Here we see chef Johnny Earles, who for 20 years ran his own place called Criolla’s on fabled Highway 30A, doing a demo for his current home, Seagar’s Steakhouse.

And while I’ve known Johnny Earles for years and remember his Louisiana-Caribbean food at Criolla’s very fondly, I’d only heard about and read about but never met chef Irv Miller – until I interviewed both chefs together for my radio show. They’d cooked here and there together and separately, like neighbors, for many years – and like most chefs who’ve shared trenches and tuna, they were even more fun together than separately.

After several legendary stints around Destin, including the beloved Bud & Alley’s, Chef Irv moved to Pensacola in the late ’90s to open Jackson’s Steakhouse. And he’s been going great guns there ever since. In the land of Gulf seafood, the two chefs I admire most find themselves “beefing up” the seafood selections… at prime steakhouses. Go figure! But quickly, thanks to the wonderful Sandestin Wine Festival, I finally got to catch these two great chefs in the same place at the same time.

‘Eating It Forward’ to Haute Wheels

These two guys with the popular food truck Coreanos – motto: Mexican with Korean in between – are waiting to feed you at the second annual Haute Wheels Festival in Houston, along with 33 others interesting trucks. And if I were you,  I’d buy my tickets now. Last year, too many hungry people showed up, so this year the organizers are fielding more trucks, trimming their menus and selling fewer tickets. And with chefs like Angel and Luis waiting to cook for you, you won’t want to miss out.

One way never to miss lunch or dinner, I’ve learned over the years, is to show up a few weeks early. That’s what I did yesterday in the parking lot of HEB’s Montrose Market. And since HEB is one of the big sponsors of  Haute Wheels, that little placement made all the sense to get this mention, right? Four different truck chefs cooked so we could record a radio show; but the first thing I tasted was The OG from Coreanos (that’s “Koreans” in Spanish, of all things), a super-spicy meat wrap that brings its own French fries inside.

Chef Jerry Jan was also on hand for our Delicious Mischief – which was delicious, by the way, even more  than usual. Though long of RA Sushi, first the location in Highland Village and then the one out at City Centre, Jerry served me a dazzling shrimp taco from his food truck, Kurbside Eatz. For anyone afraid that a sushi veteran had somehow “gone Mexican,” the proof was in the taco. It tasted very Asian, and showed up in a bread more similar to Indian roti than to a typical tortilla.

Representing the “local, seasonal” food movement was chef James Ashley of Bare Bowls. At this “bowl concept,” every dish not only arrives in a (biodegradable, oh-so-sustainable) bowl but represents a clear, if multi-ethnic, presentation of protein-vegetable-starch. Pictured here is the Jamaican jerk chicken  that Bare Bowls will be serving at Haute Wheels. All the vegetables and even the basmati rice underneath are local. Basmati from Beaumont? I mean, who knew?

Also, who knew that HEB would field a food truck of its own – an extremely colorful affair known as Fork in the Road? We were quick to get our forks into several items whipped up by chef Sheryl Johnson, though she insisted everything was finger food anyway. Not surprisingly, this burger used to be billed as “Over the Top,” but I think it’s now called simply “Deluxe.” And considering the egg fried in duck fat and the truffle salt sprinkled on top, I think that’s a totally appropriate name.

What could be better than mac and cheese? Well, according to Sheryl, maybe mac and cheese with green chiles, formed into a ball, coated with Japanese panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried for dipping in a sweet-creamy sauce. Eating light again, I see? I suspect there will be little eating light at Haute Wheels Houston, May 12-13 at the HCC Southwest West Loop Campus. The $16 admission tickets include $5 worth of sampling and drink. If all this sounds like you, buy your tickets now at www.hautewheelshouston.com.