Houston food, restaurants and dining review. Urban living, travel, thoughts and other randomness.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Snacking Houston

This morning, Rekha was intent on purging our closet of clothes. As usual, I woke up too late to be of much use. I did, however, wake up in time to go with the in-laws to the International Festival. This year's theme was India. Pretty exciting considering where Rekha's family comes from and last year's trip to Southern India.

Quite a few people go to the International Festival for the music. We go for the food. Every year, they have the usual fajitas, sausage on a stick, Chinese food, turkey leg, and funnel cake. Although eating outdoor festival food every now and then really makes me feel American, this time we went for the theme food--Indian. We tried the mushy bhel poori, a type of snack consisting of a mixture of puffed rice with potato, onion (not with grandma though!), tamarind chutney and cilantro. Simple and delicious, I can usually down more than a rice bowl full. Not this time. It was too mushy.

We also tried samosa so bland, not even the the chutney could help. We ended our food draught with kulfi, an icecream made from evaporated and condensed milk. Rekha adds cardamom to hers, adding complexity and much needed nuttiness to the flavor. No such luck here. Instead, we accompanied the passable kulfi with bland blood orange tea. Before we knew it, $40 of tickets had gone by, and we had yet to taste good food.

Sad and wet (it rained) from the festiveal, we went home and editted our clothing--ultimately donating four large garbage bags of clothing. After the edit, we got hungry. More snacks!!! Since we needed to go to Hong Kong Supermarket on Bellaire (the one oustide the Beltway), to pick up Shaolin Soccer at one of the video stores in front of the grocery store, we drove for half an hour to our favorite food geography.

We were going to pick up the Nha Trang spring rolls and special dipping sauce from Brodard Bistro, but instead got interested in the kim chi infused noodle soup at Happy Valley in the Hong Kong Supermarket food court. If you haven't tried Happy Valley, you're missing the experience of always flavorful food--if not always perfect. For $4.60, we got a large bowl filled with red broth, one shrimp, some fake crab meat, and what might have been squid. But ignore the seafood. Concentrate on the broth that tastes like it could accompany any noodle and was probably infused with untold of crawfish carcasses. Concentrate on the medium sized brown noodles that match the broth perfectly. Concentrate on the taste of kim chi in what we briefly thought was a Chinese dish. Enjoy the dish with fresh watermelon juice from the stall just steps away from Happy Valley. What a snack!

After our noodle snack, we came home to watch the Rockets game. Rekha had purchased some cut unripened mango, pineapple slices and dipping powder from the vendor right next to Happy Valley. You dip the pineapple or mango into a mixture of salt and red pepper flakes. The spiciness and saltiness accompany the sour flavor of the pineapple and mango magnificently and worked perfectly as a substitute to peanuts for the game.

After watching the Rockets lose a heart-breaking game, we went to console ourselves with antipasto from Grotto. It infuriates me that this bastion of great atmosphere and sometimes great food is owned by Landry's. We tried to drown my sorrows (Rockets game and Landry's imperialism) with a bottle Pelligrino, and a large antipasto plate filled with aged feta cheese, buffalo mozarella, sausage and peppers, whole green olives, garlic spinach, cooked sweet carrots, and asparagus. We wallowed in our misery with the laughter from the tables nearby, the high energy decor of Grotto, the beautiful people everywhere, and the warmth of the fire next to our bar table. We were so distraught we even had to have the brilliant, not-too-much sweet, coconut cream pie.

If you're not looking for a meal, Houston has a fine selection of dining establishments where you can turn the menu into a tasting party. Pull up a chair at bar area of any good restaurant and try their appetizers. It's an inexpensive way to enjoy good food and try new food without gaining too much weight.

Friday, April 29, 2005

McCormick & Schmick Seafood Restaurant !!

One of a handful of restaurants where I can order any seafood item on the menu without worrying too much about whether that item is in season or not is McCormick & Schmick. They print the menu daily and so can add and remove items according to freshness. The restaurant is "old school" with tables set into dark wood enclaves. They have a huge bar that sees its share of the happy hour crew and they have a staff intent to please. All-in-all, not a bad way to serve seafood.

This time, Rekha and I ordered the Little Chill that is not on the menu. Essentially, it's half of the Big Chill, an appetizer that can feed four to six people. Our Little Chill came with smoked salmon, trout (?), mussels, and scallops. It also came with two huge shrimps with cocktail sauce, rock shrimp, three oysters, and crab meat. In other words, perfect for two or three people to share as an appetizer. Since Rekha doesn't do raw oyster, I got to taste all three. Two were the same and tasted mildly of the West Coast; whereas, one was definately from the Gulf Coast.

I followed the Little Chill with their special seafood corn chowder soup. There were bite-size pieces of scallop, fish and other seafood in the small cup. Although the soup was entertaining, it didn't taste nearly as good as the lobster bisque we had last time.

For our main course, we had the steamed dungeness crab. These crab taste like a combination of the Gulf Coast's blue crab and the Alaskan king crab. The meat is salty like the king crab, but has the flakiness of blue crab. I generally don't like a lot of dressing on my crab, so the dungeness steamed in garlic infused broth was perfect. The meat tasted perfect.

I do, however, recommend that you you concoct your own dipping sauce. The melted butter just doesn't add much flavor to the crab. Combine generous portions of pepper, a quarter as much salt and make the mixture swim in lime--or lemon if lime is not available. Dip all your crab meat into the sauce. Yummy!

As for dessert... It's always a bad sign when the waiter says, that they had to dig around the freezer to find the last helping of three berry cobbler--a dish that wasn't even on the menu. We ordered it only because of how spectacular it tasted last time. This time, the berry part was the same (minus the ice crystals still in the berries), but the crust was some sad piece of crust from some savory dish. It wasn't the cinamon infused crust we had in our last meal. That said, I'm going to have to blame myself for this dessert. It wasn't on the menu for a reason.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Bistro Moderne (Lunch) !!!

We went to Bistro Moderne the first week it opened for dinner. At the time, the manager told us they would eventually open for lunch. That night, we enjoyed our dinner in front of the bar overlooking the kitchen--separated by a glass that doesn't contain the shouts from Chef Philip Schmit to his assistants. Dinner tasted as delectable as the modern decadent decor.

Today, in celebration of a rare opportunity to have lunch with Rekha, we decided to try the long-promised lunch at Bistro Moderne. Located inside Hotel Derek at one of the busiest intersections, Westheimer and 610, you can get free valet parking by pulling up to the restaurant's modern entrance right past the hotel's entrance.

The menu is a nice combination of redone classics like hamburger or croque monsieur as well as high-end specialties like the cheese souffle (20 minute wait). I had the hanger steak with twice baked potato. The menu listed the item in french, "l'ongle de bouef au poivre," but this is Texas, and I feltl ridiculous trying to speak french to my Latin waiter. Rekha had the business lunch. Since I frankly don't know what soup she had or what her main dish consisted of, I won't comment on the taste there, but I do remember, it cost a very reasonable $20.

As for my hanger steak, the lunch crew cooked the meat perfectly--seared on the outside and perfectly reddish/pink on the inside. Placed inside a delectible liquid peppercorn sauce spiked with whole peppercorn, the meat didn't last long on the table.

Overall, the ambiance and quality of food make this lunch a well-deserved treat for friends or lovers. Check out what Robb Walsh has to say about this restaurant.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Kubo's Sushi Bar & Grill !!

Located on the second floor of the Rice Village Arcade, Kubo's serves up often inventive, sometimes fantastic sushi. This month, the specials consist of crab. Since, Rekha and I visit Kubo's primarily for their raw fish, we didn't order crab. Instead, we did our usual sushi warm-up with her getting the salad with ginger dressing and me getting the miso soup. Nothing particularly stunning there.

But we don't go to this slightly expensive sushi restaurant for the ho-hum soup or salad. No, we go for the sushi. Today, we ordered their Yellowfin Tuna Tataki, Hon Wasabi, and Kubo's Sushi Platter. The tuna tataki consists of diced tuna mixed with avocado in a light soy/oil based sauce. The meaty flavor of the tuna works very well with the rich avocado.

The sushi platter had the usual sushi consisting of tuna, eel, salmon, sea bass, shrimp, and sea urchin. (Yes, I used the English terms instead of Japanese, but I really didn't want to look up the spelling). Like every other visit, the sushi was fresh--but unlike the last visit, nothing tasted stunning. We have enjoyed two dishes here of particular note. If the restaurant ever has tuna or yellowtail available as a special, grab two plates. When Kubo's says something is available as a special, it isn't because they need to get rid of rotting food.

For me, what makes Kubo's is the hon wasabi. In their picture menu, they display the $2 order as something looking like a piece of asparagus. In reality, it comes just as your normal wasabi--in a paste. The similarities end there. The hon wasabi is mellow, sweet, spicy and dramatic all at once. This stuff tastes so good, I'll take a drop, put it on my tongue and let the taste develop. It starts slightly sweet, builds into a radish flavor and ends exploding in your sinuses. Amazing! I love it so much, I'll actually put small drops on my tongue between pieces of sushi.

The normal wasabi you get at most Japanese restaurants in Houston, including Kubo's (unless you pay the extra $2 for the hon wasabi), is prepared from dried horse-radish. The hon wasabi, on the other hand, is supposed to come from a real root. It's the rhizomes that give the wasabi the amazing flavor. Special graters are required to extract the taste. Some sushi chefs will only use sharkskin graters. I don't know what Kubo's uses, but know that I haven't tasted this kind of wasabi anywhere else in Houston.

The hon wasabi is probably indicative of the nature of this restaurant--unabashedly Japanese. Kubo's name is derived from its original chef, Hajimi Kubokowa, who trained many of Houston's sushi chefs. Kubokowa has now left, leaving the task of keeping his name in good order to Manabu Horiuchi. Even the owner is Japanese. All these Japanese elements bode well for a sushi restaurant dotted with Chinese-owned sushi restaurants.

Corelli's (Sugar Land) !!

Corellli's Italian Cafe has a good lunch menu. Most dishes fall in the $9 range. I usually get one of two--the shrimp diablo or the chicken picata. Both share the excellent trait of coming with quality ingredients cooked perfectly. But between the Westheimer location and the Sugar Land location, the Sugar Land location wins hands down.

The shrimp diablo is prepared with a chunky tomato sauce infused with basil, red pepper flakes, mushrooms, oil, onion, and thinly sliced garlic. The sauce is used as a spicy dressing for the large plump shrimp (de-veined and cooked until just done) and the al dente linguini. I have had the shrimp diablo at Vincent's and Fred's and without doubt Corelli's Sugar Land is the best version--just be sure you eat it at the Sugar Land location, the Westheimer location slightly burns their shrimp and overstirs their sauce.

Kim Son (Sugar Land) Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio

Lunch at Kim Son is about as interesting as any Chinese restaurant around the corner from your house. They have the usual kung pao this, and orange-glazed that. But if you turn the lunch menu around, you'll find a lunch portion of dim sum. Since dim sum on the weekends at the Kim Son in Sugar Land is probably the best dim sum in Houston, it's one of the things I get for lunch on a weekday. Curious for a Vietnamese restaurant, but true.

The good Chinese dim sum at this Vietnamese restaurant, might be the result of what I understand as a split kitchen. The way an employee at this restaurant explained it to me, when an order is brought in, an expediter splits the order into its Vietnamese and Chinese components. The Vietnamese kitchen and Chinese kitchen will prepare their respective specialties and then the order is brought together before the waiter brings it to your table.

Today, I decided to skip the dim sum and get the bun thit nuong cha gio, otherwise known as vermicelli with barbecue pork and egg rolls. If you're used to Chinese cooking, you'll get the completely wrong idea about this dish. First, the Vietnamese vermicelli, unlike Chinese noodles, is made from rice. Second, the barbecue pork is not the thick roasted pork with a sweet brown-red glaze. Instead, the barbecue pork is grilled, thinly sliced pork seasoned with a little brown sugar, light soy sauce or fish sauce, and some garlic or lemon grass. Third, the egg rolls don't have thick covering, but a thin rice-paper skin covering cellophane noodles, mushrooms (preferably woodear), onion, egg, pork, and a few other ingredients and spices. Finally, all of these ingredients are placed in a bowl with fresh bean sprout, greens, and carrots placed through a mandolin.

The bowl is brought out with nuoc cham. Nuoc cham literally means "dipping water." There are many variations to the recipe, but the basic version calls for the dilution of nuoc mam (fish sauce) in equal parts water and vinegar,and the inclusion of ground garlic, chile, and sugar into the liquid mixture.

The recipe from restaurant to restaurant is remarkably similar for this dish. So, the entire taste relies upon the quality of the individual ingredients. Kim Son does not use bad produce and usually hits with its nuoc cham, but the egg rolls left something to be desired. So too did the barbecue pork. Both the egg rolls and barbecue pork tasted like they had come out of a microwave or were overcooked. The egg rolls had no crip and the pork tasted a bit like beef jerky.

But in the end, it's the cold vermicelli slathered in the nuoc cham that makes this dish for me. Since the vermicelli did taste cold and they seemed to hit on the nuoc cham today, I'm not going to complain too much.


Monday, April 25, 2005

La Madeleine (Sugar Land)

La Madeleine is a chain restaurant started in Dallas that now has 62 locations across the country. In 2001, Groupe Le Duff, who also own the ubiquitous Brioche Doree brand in Europe, purchased a controlling interest in this french-style restaurant. I know, this is yet another chain restaurant I'm reviewing, but frankly, it's getting pretty hard for small local restaurants to match the quality, atmosphere, and service of chain restaurants. So, despite my desires otherwise, you'll see me at quite a few of these restaurants every week.

A group of us went to lunch at this busy location. If you've never been to one of these restaurants before, then you'll probably want to know that the service is cafeteria style for most dishes. I like ordering the Croque Monsieur or the chicken friand and accompanying either dish with a Ceasare Salad. The Croque Monsieur is often nicely prepared with enough egg and ham to satisfy protein cravings. The Ceasare Salad has no anchovies, so it's not my favorite, but it does have real parmesan cheese--though I usually ask for an extra portion of the parmesan.

Today, I ordered the Duet Magnifique, which allows you to get half a sandwich and some soup or salad for about $8. I had the Chicken Parisien, a hot sandwich with some melted cheese. I happen to prefer hot sandwiches, so it's always a satisfying meal--if not ever memorable. I also ordered the French Onion Soup. It used to be that they served this soup piping hot so that when they threw the cheese and croutons on top, the cheese melted and formed a nice shell over the soup. Not anymore. The last few times I went to La Madeleine, the French Onion Soup wasn't hot enough to melt the cheese and the staff didn't know that they need to put the cheese on top of the croutons. Still, the soup is good and acceptable when you get that craving.

What I really think gets people to get up off their butt and go to this restaurant is the free bread, butter and jam. It's nice to order a reasonable amount of food and supplement it with some bread and jam if you're still hungry after the meal. It's also nice to go to a place with that french feel. The service, quality, and consistency of this restaurant has gone down in the past few years, but it's still your best bet when you've got picky eaters who need a decent lunch.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Tila's Restaurant and Bar

Tila's is somewhat of a mystery. It has very good recipes with inconsistent execuation. They add to the tension with consistently slow service. I usually order the chicken glazed with rasberry and jalapeno sauce. The glaze is a nice contrast to the sligh jalapeno flavor and keeps the chicken nice and moist. This time, I ordered the pork medallions in some sort of purple sauce. Rekha tells me the purple probably came out of a wine sauce mixed with cream. Whatever it was, I wouldn't order it again.

Craig had the carne asada--richly seasoned and yummy tasting. Like the combination platter his wife received, my pork medallions, and Rekha's chicken, it comes with grilled vegetables and a grilled scallion. Combine the scallion with the red pepper spiked salt and you get an excellent flavor. After finishing dinner, we considered dessert, but after waiting 15 minutes for the waiter to show us the dessert menu, we decided to pass. I'm still wondering if I should have ordered the sometimes excellent dulce de leche crepe.

So the food was good, but the service was once again slow. From what I hear, the service is always slow. I don't know if it's the size of the kitchen or staff, but they have got to solve this problem if I'm to recommend the food. Also problematic are the margaritas. Often weak, never frozen and always late, these are supposed to be one of the special drinks.

I think of this restaurant as my slice of New Mexico and Mexico fusion. I go for the flavors and the hot chips and salsas. I wait so long between visits because of the parking (you have to do the free valet parking) and service. When the weather is as beautiful as today and you have time to wait for food, spending a couple of hours at Tila's isn't so bad.
On another note, we saw Kung Fu Hustle. Very fun movie to watch. It inspires me to go check out Shaolin Soccer. One of these days, I'm going to put together a list of my favorite subtitled movies. I suspect this movie will make the list.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Bistro Provence !!

Bistro Provence is located on Memorial, just outside of Beltway 8. I tend to think of it as a more regional Cafe Rabelais. After watching the Rockets kick the Mavericks' ass, we trucked it to this little bistro that doesn't take reservations for less than six people. Like Cafe Rabelais, we often find French speaking couples dining at this bistro. Tonight we saw such a couple conversing with a waiter in French. The only downside? Your own mangled pronunciation of items on the menu.

Between the French conversation, the tables smashed close together, the dim lighting and the small tables, we had a perfect receipe for an intimate and delightful dinner. Bistro Provence did not disappoint.

We started with an excellent country pork pate. I love chewy outer skin of this country pate as much as I love the cornichons they include. The cornichons help the pate, acting a little bit like the gari (pickled ginger) for sushi.

Last time, we tried the French Onion Soup. Most good French Onion Soup I like tastes the same, and there seem to be a plethora of places to get that soup, so instead I ventured out and tried the bouillabaisse. Every time I have ordered this dish at other restaurants, it has come to disappointment. Not this time!

The taste brought me right back to Brittany, just outside of St. Malo. I know, I know... Brittany for bouillabaisse? What about Provence? Well, I tried several bouillabasse concoctions in Provence and somehow managed to miss all the good places that make the dish. So, for me, it is Brittany that sets the standard for this dish. Bistro Provence's bouillabasse lacks the large croutons, the rouille (a doctored-up mayonnaise), and a shellfish, but what it lacks in ceremony, it makes up for in flavor. The broth had that taste of oversaturation with shrimp shells, fish carcasses, garlic, onion, and whatever other magic you put into the broth. Thankfully, they didn't ruin that flavor by leaving in overcooked shrimp or fish. Instead, it appears Bistro Provence cooks the shrimp and fish separately, until just done, before plating it. I slurped up every last drop.


Rekha had the beef stew, Shamaa had the duck, Dave had the cream chicken stew, and I had the civet de lievre. Civet de lievre is essentially rabbit stewed in red wine and other herbs. The total effect of the stew is to make the meat so tender it falls off the bone. It also adds incredible flavor to the rabbit. Like many stews, the chef forgot that as the liquids reduce, the stew gets more salty. So, like many stews, the civet de lievre had a bit too much salt. Alas, who can complain when the meat falls off the bone, the decor reminds you of another country, and the tastes complement the environment?

Ahhh. A good meal in a beautiful restaurant. Move inside the loop Bistro Provence! We need you here.

Rejoice Chocolate

After lunch at China Bear, I joined Rekha, her sister and husband at EatZi's Market & Bakery on Post Oak Blvd. I enjoyed an Orangina and some New Tree chocolate. These chocolates are intriguingly designed by "chocolatiers, nutritionists, and biochemists." Even at over $4 a bar, I thought a new chocolate experience might be worth the insane price. The Rejoice style I chose contains orange and crisped rice. I thought it might taste like a sophisticated Nestle Crunch bar. I was right about the depth and wrong about the enjoyment. Rejoice did taste like a sophisticated Nestle Crunch. It had more depth of flavor (problably helped by the extracts of lime blossoms in the ingredients). Unfortunately, it tasted too sophisticated--losing some of the chocolate taste in the translation.

Once again, a beautiful package tricked me into spending money. Stick with Nestle Crunch. It tastes better and you can get four of those for the price of a single Rejoice. Too bad. I like the concept of these chocolates. I like it so much, that I'll probably try one of their dark chocolate flavors next time. How can you resist the flavor names: Pleasure, Renew, Vigor or Forgiveness?

New Tree's Rejoice Chocolate

China Bear (I-45 North)

A meeting with Shiyou, Zhia and Kamy saw us at Shiyou's favorite class of food--Chinese. We met at the newly minted China Bear. At 11:45 the restautant had more empty waiters than customers. Shiyou got us a more private table inside one their group rooms This place had two very long rows of fried, stir-fried, steamed, and baked foods. I tried the fried rice, lo mein, general tso's chicken, wanton soup, unagi, salmon, crab claws, king crab, and pastry puff chicken. Only the last one had an interesting taste. The rest of the food tasted much like every other Chinese buffet--oily and fried. I think these Chinese buffets have only three or four sauces and drown all of their food in one of those sauces. The result is a consistency of taste between the chicken, pork, and beef.

Shiyou's choice of this restaurant surprises me. He cooks excellent Chinese food and Szechuan in Nacogdoches (his favorite) is one of the better Chinese restaurants I eat at.


Friday, April 22, 2005

Buca di Beppo

We tried making reservations at Maggiano's for dinner, but the earliest reservation was 10:00 p.m.. So we skipped this family-style Italian restaurant and chose its less sophisticated competition, Buca di Beppo. As we learned from our loud and perfectly friendly waiter, the name means Joe's Basement. The restaurant has over 2500 interesting photos (including large nude women and baseball mug shots), no windows (mimicking a basement), and a very intimate friendly atmosphere. They advertise themselves as a bastion of immigrant Southern Italian cooking and the fake dust-filled flowers in the planters at the entrance to the restaurant speak to the pedigree.

We started with the small Hot Antipasto Platter. The small can accommodate 4 people, but not quite our 6. Fried mozarella, potato filled fried balls, and other goodies came in pairs on the plate. The slightly spicy and very salty marinara blended the tastes very effectively.

Next, we tried their small Di Beppo "1893" salad. This time the small provided just enough food, though I would have enjoyed more salami and cheese. I also wish I had remembered to dress the salad with the oil and vinegar.

We followed the bland salad (my fault completely) with the Chicken Cacciatore: seven pieces of chicken placed on a bed of country garlic mashed potatoes. The chicken was too salty. On the other hand, the mashed potatoes swam in butter and made our taste buds tingle with appreciation.

At some point during the chicken cacciatore (or what I'd like to think of as a mashed potato dish garnished with chicken), the thin crust spicy arrabbiata pizza came out. Soggy with oil and putrid with blue cheese, it couldn't compare to California Pizza Kitchen's Sicilian pizza. Fortunately, Buca di Beppo's square pie comes on a wooden plate placed on top of tomato cans: you can't beat the kitsch.

Finally, we ended the meal with not-homemade spumoni barely enough for 6. Though they served it appropriately--sliced and not scooped--the manufacturers (not Buca di Beppo) forgot to make sure that the different flavors could each hold their own in the 4-color symphony.

Overall, Buca di Beppo is trite, the service is inconsistent (but friendly), and the food is pedestrian. Still, I would go back in a heart-beat. Why? Because the way you eat lends itself to overly loud and engaging conversation. We haven't had such a nice dinner with my parents and two cousins in a long time. The conversation ranged from astrology to Manh's girlfriends. We laughed naturally and lingered long after the food disappeared. A dining room that can augment laughter will win my food dollars every time. Buca di Beppo accomplished that happy sound and will likely see me again--even with the fake flowers.

Brookstreet BBQ

The usual lunch crew and some newbies made it out to Brookstreet Bar.B.Q. on Highway 6 out in Sugar Land. It's probaby the second best barbecue I go to outside of Goode Company. Brookstreet serves a sometimes good and sometimes dry pulled pork plate. On days they have it as a special (seemingly most of the week), it will cost you just $7.95 for a drink, two sides and some pulled pork. I usually get the soggy and sweet yam and the dry jambalaya. I ended my dry pulled pork lunch with the usual less-than-frozen icecream. Why do I keep coming back? Because even bad pulled pork is still pulled pork.

They also have the usual sliced beef (again inconsistent) and chicken. But why go out to Sugar Land if you're just going to get something that's better at Goode Company?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Vincent's and Grappino's

I had planned on sitting by myself at Grappino's drinking iced-tea, eating the pasta alla vodka, listening to local musicians butchering famous songs, and reading the latest issue of Business Week. Alas, Jim, who teaches at an HISD middle school called for dinner. So we walked to Vincent's where I had the Pasta Julia. It's a marinara based pasta with spinach and roasted chicken thrown in the mix. Good, but the chicken was over-cooked and the Spinach clumped together like drowned wet napkins. I managed to resist the iced-tea for all of 10 minutes before calling the waiter over and giving in to my addiction.

After dinner, I fulfilled part of the weekly (as of last week) ritual, and wandered to Grappino where I polished off the creme brulee. Today's custard wasn't as good as last week though--not enough real vanilla bean flavor. One of the things I really like about the creme brulee at this Mandola bar is the darkness of the caramelized (or really burned) glaze. Too many restaurants are afraid of that burned sugar flavor. The bitterness matches well against the sweetness of the creme brulee. Tasting Menu has a really good example of a nicely caramelized creme brulee

Schlotzky's (Sugar Land)

Lunch at Schlotzky's today. I know, you think they're closed all over the place because of the beautiful one that they shut down on Kirby and because of their bankruptcy, but they're still blowing and going at the Sugar Land Location. Out of all the items on the menu, my favorite, what I got today, is the Original. It has a bit of everything from the melted mozarella and cheddar cheeses to the two kinds of salami and ham. This sourdough miracle goes great with Dr. Pepper and cracked black pepper chips.

Although you won't be able to tell because of the frequency with which I eat at franchise restaurants, I actually dislike going to them. Their only saving grace is the consistency of the food between locations. But don't tell my wife that all franchisees are created equal: she has a rating system for every Sonics based primarily on their cherry lime-aid.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

California Pizza Kitchen

Went to the California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) with Rekha today. I haven't been there in so long, I forgot how stuck in the 1980's it looked and how big the interior was. We ordered the Sicilian pizza--extra crispy with a CPK Chef Salad smothered in blue cheese. Blue cheese should smell bad, hit you in the nose like your dirty socks, and otherwise make you want to gag. The blue-chees dressing had none of those mold qualities. I don't know if it was a Stilton or Gorgonzola but it lacked umphhh.

On the other hand, the pizza blew us away. Almost a cracker for a crust, it had that pizza oven smell of boiled cheese. It had Canadian bacon and bits of basil. Overall, a very satisfying meal. I don't understand all you people who like the American pizza--thick crust and loaded with cheese. How can you taste anything over the grease and the dough?

Pauline Kenny wrote in Slow Travel Italy that:
Pizza in Rome has a thin crust and not much cheese. You will not find as many toppings as we are used to in the US. The pizzas are lighter and simpler. Rome pizza is my favorite pizza. You can find this style of pizza in other parts of Italy too - I have had similar pizza in Tuscany and in Liguria.
I agree one-hundred percent. pizza shouldn't feel like a used tire in your stomach. It should refresh your vitality and your taste-buds. For those searching for the perfect pizza see what the Italian government thinks is a perfect Neopolitan pizza. The Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Politics thinks that a pizza should have a crust no thicker than 0.75 inches and a center no thicker than 0.1 inches. Go Italy!!! Are you listening Pizza Hut?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Nippon Japanese Restaurant

It seems I go to Nippon Japanese Restaurant on Montrose every time my wife is away. With her pastry classes three nights a week, I'll be going there quite often. Although the sushi there is good, I go for the Japanese Ramen. This authentic little (and I do mean little) restaurant is hampered by limited parking, slow service and dingy decor. But it more than makes up for it by its steaming hot bowl of Japanese ramen.

For those of you who don't know, real ramen tastes very little like the ramen noodles you boiled up throughout college. Chinese egg noodles are used. The broth is dark and delicious: flavored by the boiled egg, pork, and seaweeed. There are different kinds of ramen, and I haven't tried them all, so I can't tell you if they serve miso, tonkotsu, or shoyu ramen. I suspicion the tonkotsu since they do serve it with pork, but I really can't tell, other than to say that I think the miso is creamier than the one served at Nippon. My one complaint? Too much bean sprout. I keep forgetting to ask them to go easy on the stuff.

Compare the following recipe for instant ramen noodles we enjoyed in college:
Boil water for ramen and cook until the noodles are almost done. Drain green beans (do not save the water) and add to ramen. Microwave for approximately 90 seconds or until desired temperature. Drain liquid and add seasoning packet.

with the following INGREDIENTS for real ramen from Bob & Angie:
1kg chicken bones for 1.5 liter chicken soup,1 white onion (leek), 30 grams ginger, 2 liters water, 4-5 tablespoons soy sauce, 3 tablespoons sake, 1/3 teaspoon salt, a little pepper and sesame oil, 4 balls of chinese noodles, 8 pieces yakibuta (chinese pork ham), 4 pieces naruto, 1/2 bunch spinach, 1/2 sheet nori, 1/2 green onion, a little shinachiku (chinese flavored bamboo shoots)

Which would you rather have?


Monday, April 18, 2005

Arby's (S. Shephard)

Today, I left work early to attend a reception for Yoshio Tanagichi who did the redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Asia Society has hired him to design the Asia House in Houston. The guy looks perfectly chic and surprisingly athletic for such a slim man. The Omni Hotel hosted the reception in their Green Room where the relentless hotel staff pushed hors d'ouevres on us with reckless abandon. Prosciutto wrapped asparagus, salmon or cracker, uninspired eggrolls, and the ubiquitous grilled chicken-on-a-stick. I tried none of of the food, instead using the act of getting food as a shield to get away from conversation. I also used the Perrier at the open bar for the same absconding purposes. Like many food items, I've come to realize I like the idea of Perrier (high quality, carbonated, natural drink) better than the actual product. Put some of that stuff in a glass and I'll ask for lemon or lime to spice it up every time.

So I went to Arby's for dinner. More accurately, I went through Arby's drive-through on S. Shephard to get an Arby's regular roast beef sandwich. It cost $2.35. Excellent value considering the Omni just took $6 for parking. The Arby's guy who took the order actually asked me if I wanted the Arby's sauce. You mean it doesn't come with the sandwich!!!! What's the point of an Arby's meal without the Arby's sauce? When I came home to open up the sandwich bag, I noticed the smell of boiled meat--not a good sign. I slathered on the Arby's sauch (original according to the label) and took a bite. It was as if I got the microwave dinner version of an Arby's sandwich. Where was the Arby's sauce punch on the sandwich? Where was the falling-out-of-the-sandwich meat? Where was the salty flavor I remembered from Lufkin? Each bite seemed like a prelude to what would be the Arby's taste I know and love--it never came. Alas, the regular roast beef at Houston Arby's is the lame cousin to the Lufkin Arby's. Next time, I'll have to order the Big Montana or Giant Roast Beef.

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