Friday, February 28, 2014

My Texas Barbecue Education

A confession:

I was a reluctant Texan. A Brooklyn-raised boy, I wanted no part in my family's move to Texas. My third grade self defiantly told anyone who'd listen that I would never say y'all, and twenty-four years later I still don't. As my thawing to Texas culture was a gradual process, my foray into Texas barbecue took a long and winding path that began with complete indifference and transformed into borderline obsession.

Being raised in an east coast household, barbecue just wasn't a priority. The majority of my childhood barbecue exposure came in two forms: at a friend's backyard cookout or as an afterthought when my mom wasn't in the mood to cook and we'd pick up some completely forgettable barbecue at a local joint. These were my primary experiences until 2011. This was when I made a decision that would lead to a passion I never expected.

In the summer of 2011 my wife and I planned a weekend driving around Austin and the Texas Hill Country to celebrate our first anniversary. I subscribe to Bon Appetit Magazine, and the June 2011 issue proclaimed Franklin Barbecue in Austin as the best in America. Knowing little about the place, it seemed like a fun little food adventure. We spent the first morning of our vacation in the now infamous line (which was nowhere near as absurd as it is these days). The meal I had that morning completely transformed my opinion of what barbecue was and could be. Brisket as moist, tender and flavorful as any piece of beef I'd ever had, ribs with a beautiful bark and perfect bite of black pepper - this was not the barbecue of my youth. Plain and simple, I was hooked. We'd brought leftovers back to our bed and breakfast (where our room thankfully had a refrigerator). I continued to snack on brisket for the rest of the weekend. It made such an impression that I convinced my wife to let me drive the 40 minutes back to Austin on the final day of our vacation for a second round. We ended up being one of the first five people in line this trip, and spent that morning conversing with a group of Australian guys sightseeing around America. This is one of my favorite things about Franklin Barbecue: the people you meet in line. Say what you will about the tourist trap the line is becoming or the commercialization of Franklin Barbecue these days, but the meals I had there in the summer of 2011 were a revelation.

The legendary beef rib at Louie Mueller Barbecue (left), Texas trinity brisket, pork ribs and sausage at La Barbecue (right)

Those who know me best would tell you that when something catches my interest, I immerse myself in the subject until I can quote it chapter and verse. My mind is a vortex of useless information. It came as no surprise to my wife that barbecue became a passion after my Franklin Barbecue experience. I read and learned as much as I could about the history of Texas barbecue, visited/dragged her to countless joints (including a Luling City Market/Smitty's/Kreuz Friday trifecta followed by another Franklin Saturday excursion that she still hasn't forgiven me for), and eventually started trying my own hand at smoking meat.

In the nearly three years since my "barbecue awakening" I have sampled some of the legendary Texas joints like the aforementioned Lockhart and Luling estabishments, Louie Mueller in Taylor and Snow's in Lexington. I've also explored the new breed of barbecue with places like Pecan Lodge in Dallas (where ironically enough I ended up ahead of Aaron Franklin in line) and La Barbecue in Austin, which is run by Franklin's former right hand man, John Lewis. Of course I've run the Houston gauntlet of Gatlin's, Corkscrew, Virgie's, Brook's Place, and the newly opened Killen's Barbecue that's been garnering so much attention. Long considered a wasteland for barbecue, it appears Houston is poised for a breakthrough with these places leading the way and up-and-comers like Patrick Feges, who is going to run the pits at Killen's for a while until he's ready to open his own establishment. Adding to the excitement was the Houston Chronicle report that Wayne Mueller was looking to open an offshoot of Louie Mueller Barbecue near downtown.

Pulled pork, pork ribs, brisket and bacon mac 'n cheese at Pecan Lodge (left), Beef rib, "bacon" rib, brisket, pork rib at Killen's BBQ (right)

I've also recently dipped my toe in the water of competition barbecue. This is an entirely different world from the barbecue I've come to love. Briskets injected with beef broth and ribs caked in a brown sugary sweetness that cakes your tongue are a far cry from the simple salt and coarse black pepper rubs of Central Texas that stole my heart. I've noticed that sadly, if this is the type of barbecue you've grown up with, you may see the style for which I've sung the praises as too rich and fatty. To that I say, buy some roast beef, dunk it in Swanson's, rub it in Lowry's seasoned salt and eat until your heart's content. As for me, I'll stick with well rendered fat, a punch to the tongue of black pepper, and toss in a burnt end for good measure.

In this short amount of time I've gone from someone who barely knew what they were ordering at a barbecue restaurant to someone who can smoke a decent brisket and damn fine ribs (ribs are much easier to get right). There's an allure and culture around barbecue that I find so appealing. Whether you're a born and raised Texan or recent transplant from across the country, I can't recommend exploring the Texas barbecue community enough. If you're in Houston, be sure to check out the 2nd annual Houston BBQ Festival on April 6th. Or simply take a drive early one Saturday morning, make your way up to the small town of Lexington, Texas and try Snow's BBQ for the first time. They open at 8 in the morning, just in time for breakfast. Leave some room though, because Louie Mueller Barbecue, the Saint Patrick's Cathedral of our state's smoked meat tradition, is only a 30 minute drive away. Your lunch there awaits...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The latest food trend to hit Houston

Most people in the food community recognize trends. From rustic tableware to "throw a fried egg on it" options on menus, Houston is not immune to such trends. While some may seem gimmicky and others downright annoying, there is a trend I've seen in the city over the last year that I must admit gives me some mixed feelings. The newest foodservice item that's all the rage these days seems to be important restaurant staff members leaving high profile positions at a faster rate than what many consider normal.

The goal of most restaurants, other than of course serving great food, is consistency. You want every plate to look and taste the same each time it goes out to a diner, every night you're open. As a patron, there is little more deflating than loving a dish on one visit, ordering it again on another visit - or even talking up this dish to a friend who later orders it - and it being less stellar than you remember. I always feel the need to apologize when I recommend a dish or restaurant to someone and they have a poor experience. That may be my own neurosis; I didn't cook the lackluster meal, but I apologize anyway. These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to be able to depend on some of Houston's prominent restaurants to produce consistent results as the turnover rate for both the front and back of house staff has increased. In the last few months alone, some of the Houston area's most prominent and promising restaurants have seen some eye opening departures.

La Balance in Katy, which received rave reviews, lost its co-owner and executive chef Jose Hernandez due to reported differences of opinion with his business partner. I was fortunate to dine there on Chef Hernandez's last weekend running the kitchen, and was blown away by the meal. Having been trained in French cuisine, I had avoided French restaurants for years due to burnout on traditional French fare. My meal at La Balance, however, reminded me of how simple and comforting these dishes could be when executed properly. Sadly, I've hesitated to go back since the chef's departure out of fear that the kitchen cannot replicate my memory of the last visit. Vallone's opened with substantial hype due to the restaurant's legendary namesake as well as much ballyhooed chef Grant Gordon taking the reigns of the restaurant. Shortly after opening, he has left the restaurant along with its beverage director, Evan Turner. These are just a few of a growing list of talented people that includes Ryan Lachaine (formerly of Underbelly), Erin Smith (who left her post at Plonk, spent a year as culinary director for The Clumsy Butcher group and has now taken on the role of executive chef at the Marriott in downtown that's set to open this year),  and Chris Leung (pastry chef at Kata Robata who left to open the magnificent Cloud 10 Creamery).

The exquisite boeuf bourguignon at La Balance

I tend to view our culinary landscape through two sets of eyes, the first being that of a diner, which is ultimately what I am. The diner in me can't help but feel a sense of sadness that some of the talent has left my favorite kitchens. Will the food suffer? But then there's the part of me that was taught by chefs that kicks in and sees another side to the situation.

During some portion of my schooling, one of the instructors took my class to a hotel to see the operations. There we met a chef, a man likely in his fifties, who carried on about the challenges of hotel foodservice. One thing he told us towards the end of the day stuck with me for a long time and ultimately gives me hope for this new food trend. He told us that the worst mistake he made in his career was staying at this same hotel for so many years. He said that the way to become the best chef you can be is to work for many different types of chefs in many different environments, so that you can hone your skills, learn different techniques, and become a more well rounded chef. This gentleman (and I am truly sorry that I do not remember his name) told us that if you stay in one place for more than a year or two during the early part of your cooking career, you're doing it wrong. I think ultimately that I agree with this sentiment. While the selfish diner in me wants every chef in every restaurant I love to stay and prepare the same style of food for my dining pleasure each time I come in, I know that is a disservice both to them and the diners who could be enjoying even better meals from them for years to come as they better themselves as chefs.

The increase of restaurant turnover is also a sign that the Houston dining landscape is undergoing its baby boom. So many talented chefs are popping up all over town and are taking advantage of the opportunities our city is providing thanks to its ever expanding culinary prowess. Despite our personal gripes, this is a good problem to have. Chefs aren't compelled to outstay their welcome due to a lack of options, or worse yet, having to leave the Houston in search of greener pastures.

                                               Who wants to think of a world without this biscuit?

If you are one of those diners like myself who sometimes pines for our restaurants to go back to the way they were, remember this: If Chris Shepherd never left Brennan's, we would never have had Catalan. If he had never left Catalan, we would not have Underbelly and perhaps Brandi Key doesn't get her opportunity to run the kitchen at Coppa. Similarly, if Brennan's had held Randy Evans captive, Houston could be deprived of Haven. The aforementioned Erin Smith could never have given Blacksmith its signature biscuit had she been confined to the Plonk kitchen. Some of tomorrow's signature Houston dishes will likely be created by a departing chef you and I may be fretting about today.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Oxheart: A Blueprint for the Modern Restaurant

The diners next to us receive their first course, a visually stunning dish whose centerpiece is a custard that emits the licorice bouquet of fennel. Ultra-talented (and now two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist) Chef Justin Yu explains the dish while pouring what he describes as a citrus consomm√© around the outside of the custard. My wife and I give it a sideways glance so as not to intrude on the other diners’ privacy, what little there may be in the close quarters of the Oxheart dining room. Having chosen the winter menu on this visit, this is not a course we will receive but of course are curious nonetheless. Why am I discussing another person’s food? Well, because my party had yet to receive our first course. The first wine pairing had been poured, a prosecco that I’d later opine did not enhance our first course, but this realization would not come for some time. As our dining neighbors received their second course, as did the diners next to them, we sensed something had gone awry. No sooner had we quietly voiced this to each other when one of Oxheart’s two incredibly gifted servers came to us and apologetically explained, “We mistakenly gave your first course to another party. Please feel free to finish your wine and we’ll top you off and have your first course out promptly.” Alas, after so many critical ravings (not to mention my own positive experiences), a chink in the armor! Other than one overly salty mushroom stew on a previous visit, the restaurant had been flawless for me.

Oxheart has received many an accolade in its short existence, both locally and nationally. There seems to be a new school “hipster culture” that tends to turn on things once they gain recognition. This thinking, which I once thought was exclusive to the music community’s outrage from the “Dylan went electric? Corporate lackey!” days of the 70’s through to the “Metallica cut their hair? Sellouts!” proclamations of the 90’s, has recently permeated the Houston food scene. Part of me thinks it is a badge of honor, proving that our city has arrived as a culinary heavyweight. But I’m not here to be the contrarian, to rage against the popularity of Oxheart. I’m too old and too lazy to be a hipster. Plus, I live in the suburbs and thrift stores are far away. I began this post with the service hiccup not to chastise Chef Yu’s restaurant, but to praise it. The rest of the night was simple proof that the team Justin Yu and Karen Man have assembled simply get it. The foodservice industry is rife with ups and downs and turnover, both in the front and back of the house. Oxheart itself had its sommelier, the incomparable Justin Vann, depart for a new venture last year. But to me, the mark of a truly special dining experience, other than of course the food, is the way a restaurant treats its patrons. Particularly when something goes wrong.

The savory courses (clockwise from top left): Carrot dish, bread course, Beef dish with the divine sausage, Swordfish with shaved pickled cauliflower and rolled cabbage.

Following the mix up that started the evening, the rest of the meal ran smoothly. We received our first course, a carrot dish presented in the chef’s signature “stem-to-tip” philosophy towards vegetables. The dish as a whole worked, with purple carrots cooked in an onion bouillon delightfully balanced with thinly sliced raw carrots and crunchy carrot top fritters. A bright green dill puree, intensely concentrated in flavor, provided balance with the sweetness of the carrots. While it may have lacked some of the wow factor I’d grown accustomed to from previous visits, it was a good start to the meal. The effervescence of the aforementioned prosecco provided a nice contrast to the smooth quality of the dish, but the dry finish distracted from the flavors. Of course this is the opinion of a confessed wine novice, so your experience may be different.

Next up was the bread course, which my wife and I have come to anticipate like children on Christmas morning. What will they have for us this time? English muffins served with herbed lard on our first visit are still a culinary moment often discussed in our household. The bread on this night was a sourdough roll with housemade butter. It had the perfect amount of salt and did not disappoint, though the muffins still come to me in dreams.

The fish courses at Oxheart are always memorable, as the kitchen seems to know as well as any when enough is enough and doesn’t overcrowd your palate with competing flavors and textures. This night was no different. A wonderful swordfish was smoked and touched with just enough cane syrup to provide some sweetness to the meaty fish. As is often the case with Oxheart, the vegetables on the plate elevated the dish to another level. Cabbage, carefully rolled with mustard, was a brilliant touch that took this course from pleasing to memorable. Thin slices of pickled cauliflower provided the perfect amount of acid.

I was curious to see what Chef Yu would do with red meat, as it is not normally the focal point of an Oxheart meal. While the roast sirloin was cooked to a beautiful medium rare, it lacked the sear a converted Texan has grown accustomed to. The sausage, however, was a revelation. A beautiful combination of beef and beets, it was wonderfully textured and had a flavor I’ll be comparing other sausage to for a long time to come. There was a sauce of beef stock and dried offal powder that provided a wonderful salty punch to the dish that was offset with a beet puree. All components were in perfect harmony. The amount of thought that goes into each dish on the menu is undeniable.

The dessert course was a chocolate lover’s paradise of rich chocolate mousse with a bit of currants laced into the dish that was a welcome break from the intensity of the chocolate. There was an olive oil ganache that lightened the dish and made it sing. It was what came next, though, that helps turn a meal into memory.

As we ordered coffee, we were informed that the kitchen would like to bring us another dessert that Chef Man had been contemplating adding to the menu. It was a honey cake with sliced carrots, candied pecans, and whipped cream cheese. My wife, a chocolate fanatic, claimed this as the best dessert she had ever had from Oxheart. I am inclined to agree. It was paired with a fortified muscadelle that acted almost as a molasses to wake you up when the airy sweetness of the honey cake and cream cheese put you at ease.

Chocolate mousse on the left, honey cake dessert with whipped cream cheese on the right.

At the end of the meal, what stuck in my head for days and ultimately lead to me writing this, was how we were treated at Oxheart. The thing that sets this restaurant apart is the approach they take to service. Every diner is treated like they mean something, that their presence in the restaurant is appreciated by each staff member they encounter. It sounds simple, but is so rarely achieved. Make no mistake; this is not an accident. This is an attitude that is put forth from the top down. There is an aura of respect that permeates from chefs to servers to patrons that makes Oxheart such a treasure. My wife, as she so often does, said it best: “It says something that we’ve spent fifteen minutes discussing the meal, and the mess up on the first course is the tenth thing we talked about.” So many restaurants could learn a lesson with that. And no, to the cynics out there, my opinion was not swayed by a “free glass of wine and dessert.” It was the genuine care, service and commitment to a pleasant evening that the staff at Oxheart provided that made this and every meal I’ve had there an experience to be remembered.  In an era where diners pay for things that were once free (bread), wait an exuberant amount of time for tables (ahem, Coltivare – I do love you though), and have an increasing number of options to spend their respective dining allotments, things like this stand out. To have a staff as knowledgeable, friendly, and committed as the crew at Oxheart is to creating an atmosphere of home is the best compliment I can pay their talented staff.

While the Houston dining culture continues to evolve, and places like Oxheart and The Pass help pull us out of the quantity equals quality mentality that still exists in many Houston diners, I hope that more people realize how special it is to have a restaurant that cares.