Monday, March 31, 2014

Westside (Sad) Story

"What do you feel like having for dinner?" my wife asks.

"I don't know, I don't feel like driving in to town." I reply.

The look of dejection on our faces says it all. My response has seriously limited our options for a good meal. Living in the Katy area has a number of perks; good schools, a plethora of grocery store options, retail places galore. The one thing Katy has a dearth of is great restaurants. It seems the Houston dining culture's evolution from a steakhouse heavy, franchise dominating landscape has yet to reach this little pocket on the westside of town. While a number of privately owned places have struggled to stay afloat, the franchises keep moving in. There are throngs of families waiting outside of Olive Garden and Chuy's on weekends, but an 8 PM reservation at Katy's sole highly acclaimed establishment, La Balance, is not hard to come by. Some use the excuse of Katy being a family oriented community, but that doesn't answer the entire question.

Do I expect a family of four to sit down and order a frilly French meal? Of course not. But how has the barbecue revolution not reached the westside of town (Brooks' Place is the closest and even that is on the fringe of the Katy/Cypress border)? Katy has a Rudy's BBQ and Spring Creek outpost across the freeway from each other, yet the only buzz generated from a privately owned joint came from a controversial picture hanging up in the lackluster place's restaurant. Why are there no good Italian places that one could bring the kiddos along for? And if you're looking for any cuisine that derives from Asia, forget it. Again, it's chain places or nothing. I tried one Indian place in Katy upon the recommendation of a Houston food writer. Let's just say I'd rather drive the 35 minutes to Hillcroft and Highway 59.

There are a few solid food options in Katy, the aforementioned La Balance being one. Marini's Empanada House on Mason Road makes delicious empanadas and has a wonderful craft beer selection, all for an affordable price. Alicia's Mexican Grille is a more budget-friendly, less hectic Tex-Mex option to Lupe Tortilla's, and the food is consistently solid despite them having several locations in and around Houston. I've also previously sung the praises of the Peruvian inspired Pollo Bravo, which has a location in Katy. Then of course there is Mission Burrito, my favorite among the burrito chains in the Houston area. But, if not in the mood for a Hispanic influenced meal, you're mostly out of luck if you're west of Highway Six.

Hopefully the culinary growth of Houston keeps migrating to the suburbs. There is hope for the future, as there are reported plans for a permanent Bernie's Burger Bus depot in Katy in the coming years, which would be a welcome addition to a seriously lacking burger scene - Smashburger or Mooyah, anyone? The westside of town also got its own food truck park just south of I-10 on Highway Six and, while not quite in Katy, is a reasonable drive.

While I love exploring The Heights and Montrose areas and enjoying the amazing food they have to offer, it would be nice to be able to get excited about a meal that didn't require a half hour's drive each way. Hurry up suburbanites, come out of your shells and support the new places that open in your area. I promise, the endless breadsticks will still be there next weekend.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dinner from the garden, in the garden

The crack of a snow pea pod, cool and refreshing, started the evening at Coltivare. There was a vibrant, acidic pesto made from the tops of the carrots that were the snow pea's companions in this simple but excellent snack, but this particular bite was pesto-free. Like well made barbecue (an odd analogy, but one you'll come to expect from me), vegetables this fresh and well cared for need not be smothered in things to provide flavor; they stand on their own. There was the occasional brush of a carrot through the pesto, much like the dance radishes made through cultured butter and salt on my last visit, but it only enhanced these treasures from the Coltivare garden.

As I sat on the patio watching a member of the kitchen staff walk to the garden to pick some herbs that may have ended up on my plate, I couldn't help but think of how much our city's culinary landscape had progressed. Five years ago, I'm not certain a place like Coltivare could survive in Houston, much less garner the attention that would cause the infamous wait times for a table that seem to be the biggest criticism of the restaurant. For those wondering, I arrived on a weekend evening at the five o'clock opening time and the restaurant reached full capacity around 5:45, though tables seemed to turn over at a good pace.

The growing Coltivare garden. Snow peas and carrots with carrot top pesto. Grilled broccoli salad.(all photos courtesy of my wife, who is a much better photographer than I)

This was my second visit to the small, Italian-inspired place in the Heights, the first since they got their liquor license. I imagine customers not being able to bring in multiple bottles of their own wine lessened the average meal time, and the quaint patio added space for ten additional tables. Coltivare's wine list is growing and the cocktail list is well thought out, employing the same Italian inspiration reflected in the food. My wife ordered a Park Slope, which consisted of brandy, an Italian vermouth, and lavender bitters. I chose the Ava Crowder and would be lying if I told you that decision wasn't made in part due to my affinity for the television show Justified that inspired the drink's name. It consisted of bourbon, amaro, sorghum vinegar, lemon and bitters. After taking our first sips, we decided a swap was in order. Ava Crowder was a bit too sweet for my taste, and the Park Slope a bit too bitter for hers. Both drinks were well executed, though my personal preference would have been for a bit less lemon in my original drink.

The menu at Coltivare changes frequently with season and product availability. We decided on a dish of mussels cooked in garum, garlic and capers and a grilled broccoli salad that our server informed us had just been added to the menu. It consisted of pickled kohlrabi, pecans, croutons and Brussels sprout leaves. The mussels were fragrant and flavorful, and the garum added an unexpected depth to the dish. I did, however, regret that we had not ordered any focaccia to dip into the broth (this problem was later rectified by pizza crust). The broccoli salad was tremendous, with the brined kohlrabi offering a great contrast to the grilled texture of the broccoli. This salad was equally as impressive as the fennel salad I loved on the first visit. Coltivare shines with both its use of vegetables and straight-forward approach to maximizing their flavors. The flash fried cauliflower dish that has received a great deal of praise certainly delivered on this night.

Mussels garnished with parsley

We chose to skip a pasta course this time in favor of pizza. Many claim that Coltivare serves the best pizza in the city right now, and for good reason. Their crust is unique, thick and hefty, flying in the face of the Neapolitan craze that is sweeping the country. The first pizza I tried at Coltivare had lemons, olives and goat cheese, and while interesting, didn't quite deliver the wow factor for which I'd hoped. I felt the crust was a bit too thick, which robbed it of a chance to crisp up in the oven and withstand the weight of its toppings. There was no such problem on this trip. The crust was a perfect thickness, with a slight char. The toppings this time were slow roasted duck, squash puree, pickled red onions, sorrel and pesto. I am not sure if the chef was a bit heavy handed with our pie in particular, or if it was by design, but the pesto was the dominant ingredient of the pizza, relegating the duck to supporting actor status and the squash but a nice piece of set decoration.

Cauliflower with pine nuts, raisins and tarragon

While still not ready to profess my love for their pizza, what separates the Coltivare menu from so many in the city is its delicate balance of creativity and restraint. Chef Ryan Pera seems to know which risks to take and when to take them, tinkering with spice, sweetness and acidity until a dish has reached its full potential without becoming muddled. A small bowl of well pickled, spicy gairdiniera pickles may not seem like a revelation, but how many restaurants have such confidence in their product to present it in such pure form? The Revival Market team was part of a wave of culinary talent that began showing this city what could be achieved with commitment to ingredients and respect of their origins, and they have continued that vision with this restaurant. The future is bright for Coltivare, and the city's dining culture is better for it. It was and is worth the wait.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thali, Curries, Kebabs & Naan! Spending Time in the Mahatma Gandhi District

As I read on Twitter recently that Himalaya, one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, was turning ten years old, I thought it only fitting that I pay homage to the area of town where I spend most of my lunch hours. I work smack in the middle of Houston's Mahatma Gandhi District, which affords me the opportunity to explore the diverse options this little pocket of Houston has to offer. If you're reading this and have not given much of a chance to the various ethnic cuisines of the Middle East, I highly recommend spending some time in this part of town and seeing what it has to offer. Here are a few places I recommend:

Himalaya Restaurant - Only fitting to start with the inspiration for this post. Himalaya, despite its no-frills decor in a nondescript strip center, serves dishes that burst with flavor and is adored by industry insiders who sing the praises of animated chef/owner Kaiser Lashkari. One complaint I've heard from diners is the a la carte nature of the menu. Unlike many Middle Eastern restaurants, Himalaya does not include rice or naan with most of its entrees. Adding a small rice and naan to make what many consider a complete meal can push entrees into the $15+ range, which can certainly be considered a bit high for a "strip center" restaurant. I could wax rahpsodically about how the care, effort and from-scratch preparation put into Himalaya's food justifies the price, but I won't. If you're just looking for a good portion of delicious Indian/Pakistani cuisine, you don't need me to try to give you a hard sell on something out of your budget. Besides, I'm wordy enough! The best value on Himalaya's menu is at lunch. Their daily lunch special is $12.50 and consists of three curries (typically two meats and a vegetable), one appetizer that changes frequently, rice and naan. It is presented with each component neatly compartmentalized on a school cafeteria-style tray. It's a great way to get a true sampling of what Himalaya has to offer.

Chicken Tikka Masala at Himalaya

Bijan Persian Grill - Specializing in flavorful chicken, beef and lamb kebabs, Bijan has a great patio upon which to sit, snack on the complimentary naan-like flatbread (known as taftoon) with herbs, radish and feta, and wait for whichever menu option you've chosen from their vast menu. Most plates land in the $10-12 range and come complete with rice, charred tomatoes and onions. If you or one of your parties requires a Halal diet, Bijan is an excellent option as they serve exclusively Halal meat. They have also recently opened a location in Sugar Land, though I've yet to make it there.

Maharaja Bhog - A meal at Maharaja Bhog is truly an experience. A vegetarian Indian thali style restaurant, the dishes here are flavorful and vibrant. For those unfamiliar with thali, it is usually a meal of several small dishes that are replenished by attentive servers at the diner's request; a sort of sophisticated hybrid of dim sum/buffet if you will. The menu changes frequently, but you will usually find a dal dish, tremendously flavorful paneer, and some of the most interesting Indian desserts in town. Though not located in the center of the Mahatma Gandhi district, they are one farther exit down on Highway 59 on Gessner. One criticism I've seen of the restaurant is a varying price depending on weekdays or weekends. If you're looking for a special lunch, their $12.99 lunch thali is worth stretching your budget for every now and then.

I've encountered so many people who have so many misconceptions about the food from this part of the world. I must admit being skeptical myself at first, but there are many wonderful flavors and preparations in this type of cuisine and a unique mixture of textures and flavors. Don't take my word for it; experience it yourself.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Gift of Taste

Which would be worse: being blind or deaf? Most of us have thought this or even had the question posed to us by friends, often leading to spirited debates as to which would be the bigger loss. While a loss of either of those senses would come with enormous every day obstacles, something I did not personally consider until recently - and I'm embarrassed to admit that this never occured to me given its importance in my life - is what it would be like to live without a sense of taste. Although not nearly as challenging as losing one's sight or hearing, something that is a huge part of my world would be taken from me.

So many of the happy, small moments in my day-to-day life revolve around my use of this sense. I recently received one of life's cruel reminders to appreciate what you have: a close family friend is fighting a difficult battle with cancer that robbed him of his ability to taste. A man who loves a great meal, the last time I saw him he told me that he has dreams of certain foods and how they taste. I have a strong suspicion similar dreams would come to me if I lost the ability to taste, like the phantom twitching of an amputated limb. I'm not normally a fan of list posts, but this got me thinking about some flavors I would miss the most should the sense of taste be taken from me. In no particular order:

The smoke and pepper on a well rendered fatty slice of brisket: That unforgettable flavor of bark mixed with buttery fat, it would be heartbreaking to be able to smell this Texas barbecue staple and not taste it.

The spicy, fish sauce-y goodness of som tam: While I love the fragance and complexity of Thai curries, the green papaya salad popular in several countries across Southeast Asia is a must order at the better Thai restaurants in Houston. Thinly sliced green papaya is tossed with a mixture of sugar, lime, fish sauce and chilis. The combination of sweetness, acidity, spice and the terrific funk of fish sauce, each bite of som tam is a different experience. Vieng Thai's version is excellent, as discussed in this Kaitlin Steinberg article.

The Bravo sauce at Pollo Bravo: If you've yet to make it to Pollo Bravo, the small Houston chain known for their rotisserie chicken, you're missing out on a great experience. The chicken, with its beautifully seasoned skin and juicy white and dark meats are exactly what a rotisserie chicken should be but so often isn't at your local grocery store. Their sides and desserts are tasty as well, but what keeps me coming back to Pollo Bravo is the delectable green sauce served as an accompaniment to the chicken. One small cup is never enough, as I will mix it into the Mexican rice and dip almost anything else I'm eating into it.When picking up a to go order, one of my favorite things to do is order an extra bravo sauce and mix it into omelettes later in the week. The mayonnaise based sauce has a touch of lime and healthy dose of chili peppers thrown into the mix that make it a creamy, spice tingling addition of which I cannot get enough. To lose the ability to taste this would truly hurt.

Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout: Much has been said about this Colorado brewer's popular beer. I contemplated putting one of the specialty release or seasonal beers I enjoy on this list, but decided to stick with Nitro Milk Stout, my favorite year-round drinkable beer. I know some may say this should be a cold weather beer due to its dark, full-bodied flavor, but it has such a smooth finish that I enjoy it no matter the season. Would I drink it poolside? Perhaps not, but my house has air conditioning.

Perfect chocolate chip cookies: Few foods on the planet are more satisfying than a warm, soft, chocolate chip cookie. A personal favorite spot is Ooh La La Dessert Boutique. They make a splendid chocolate chip cookie, though cupcakes are this popular westside bakery's calling card.The cookies are perfectly textured with the butter and brown sugar flavor always present but never overpowering, and the quality chocolate they use for the chips takes them to another level. Not in the mood to drive out to Katy? Their location in Town and Country Village is a bit more convenient for the inner loopers.

There are so many flavors whose loss I would mourn if my sense of taste were to leave. In a number of ways, it would alter my life almost as drastically as would the loss of sight or sound. The next time you sit down to a meal, whether at a Beard nominated restaurant, fast food parking lot, or from your own kitchen,  I hope you can take it in with every sense you've been gifted. I'll try to do the same.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Standing the test of time: the food of my youth

Yesterday's post put me in the mood to reminisce and got me to thinking of the food I grew up with and if it holds up to my memories. Luckily for me, I have family still on the east coast and get to visit the areas of my childhood where my earliest food memories were created. One of these early treasures was the magic of Thrasher's French Fries. If you've never partaken in the Thrasher's experience, let me enlighten you. Thrasher's French Fries are the simplest but most perfect snack: buckets of french fries sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar. They don't carry ketchup and offer no items other than soft drinks. There are Thrasher's French Fries stands on the boardwalks along the east coast in cities like Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. In peak tourism times, lines can stretch down the boardwalk for these golden brown pieces of heaven. As a young boy, I stood in these lines on many a summer afternoon. I didn't know it at the time, but I suppose it was training for my barbecue days. After a twenty year absence from my life, I was able to rediscover Thrasher's a couple of years ago on a trip back to the east coast. They were just as magnificent as I remembered. And in case you were worried that this was simply my nostalgia talking, my Houston born and raised wife had her first Thrasher's experience on that trip as well and still dreams of them. If you ever find yourself within reasonable distance of a Thrasher's, be sure to stop by and get a bucket. Piping hot from the fryer, perfectly crisp with a wonderful vinegar tang, they are not to be missed.

Another memory of my youth, as an outside observer only of course, was the local bar. I grew up in an old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. As most who grew up in one of the New York City boroughs will tell you, every neighborhood has a distinct personality. My neighborhood was blue collar average joe types. Policemen, firemen, brown bag lunch sort of guys who went down to the watering hole at the end of a hard day for a beer. Of course as a child, I'd never been inside our local haunt, but the allure of it had me enchanted. To me, it was a mystical place that the adults go to do grown up stuff. I recently went back as an adult with my dad, and boy was it an awakening. Upon arrival, we ordered drinks next to a man who chose to tell my father how he was once stabbed near his nipple by a Puerto Rican. In case we didn't believe his tale of misfortune, he took the liberty of lifting up his shirt and showing us the battle scar. The rest of our time there was filled with unease and, for myself, the sad realization that the fantasy was gone. This wasn't Grown Up Disney World; it was a smoke caked tomb of sad stories and stereotypes. Not all of our childhood fantasies are what they're cracked up to be.

The final stop on the nostalgia tour takes us to my home in Houston. One of the first places my family found when we moved to Texas was Brother's Pizza. Back then, Brother's was located in the food court of West Oaks Mall. This was before the days of First Colony Mall, Katy Mills, or anything near the west side of town. If you were an outer looper on the west side, West Oaks Mall was where you went. With its large, greasy slices, Brother's was the best food replica of the world we'd left in New York. A few years later, they escaped the mall for their own storefront on Highway Six just north of I-10. In sad "out of sight, out of mind" fashion, I forgot about Brother's. This all changed when I became an adult and realized they were still around. I rediscovered my love for their classic New York style pies and they are once again a part of my dining rotation. They've since added locations in the Cypress and Garden Oaks areas. While I can't vouch for the quality at those locations, old faithful on the west side of town still delivers fantastic fold-in-half slices of caloric bliss. While places like Pizaro's and Dolce Vita have become critical darlings (and for good reason - they're phenomenal), Brother's has in large part flown under the radar. They don't import extravagant ovens or have a well known chef creating buzz. They simply do what they've been doing here for nearly 35 years: churning out floppy, thin crust pizza that remind this New York kid of his past. And that's just fine with me.

Nothing is set in stone as it pertains to growing up. Tastes change, thought processes evolve. But I've found nothing that makes me feel like a kid again quite like the sensation of rediscovering an old food memory.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

When a meal becomes a memory

Yesterday I read something by Christina Uticone on Houston Press' food blog, Eating Our Words, that made me revisit one of my favorite food topics. I can talk your ear off for hours about the technique, execution and history of food. I love these topics. I could tell you about why something is prepared a certain way, where this type of dish originated from, and entertain or bore you to death with the details. But my favorite thing by far when it comes to a meal is the story behind it and the memories it creates. These memories don't have to be created by rock star chefs for me personally; my wife and I's first date was at a now defunct Champps on Westheimer (don't judge, we were young!). I can still remember the face she made while trying to eat "properly." Conversely, the dinner directly following our engagement was at a restaurant by legendary French chef Alain Ducasse. A Michelin decorated establishment, I can scarcely tell you what we ate or how it tasted. My point is, sometimes the simplest restaurants can provide vivid memories. Don't get me wrong, I love many of the "it" establishments, but they are not a necessary backdrop for the dining experiences that mark the milestones of my life.

I've had the good fortune to have had many memorable meals in so many different settings. One of my favorite memories was a fantastic dinner served by "celebrity chef" (that term bothers me, but that's for a later date) Kevin Gillespie while he was still at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. An impeccable meal from start to finish, my wife, sister and father sampled almost the entire menu that night, expertly described by a fantastic server and executed brilliantly by the talented kitchen. I visited one of Jose Andres' world of pure imagination restaurants with é in Las Vegas that I'll never forget, but it doesn't take avant-garde technique to make a meal memorable.

Similarly to Mrs. Uticone, my family's restaurant is also a small Italian eatery that does not have any critical recognition. It is in a suburb of Houston and has been serving its diners for 15+ years. While it will never be confused with Da Marco, it is the place that marked so many different ocassions in my life. My mother's memorial service was there, and they served the last meal of my single life at the rehearsal dinner the night before my wedding. Along the way there were family celebrations, reunions, and just because meals served. These places are important. Food critics talk ad nauseam about the latest big name chef's food venture, and rightfully so. But the neighborhood haunt is an essential part of our dining culture. While the only time I go back to my old neighborhood stalwart is when family comes to town, it never ceases to satisfy my craving for culinary nostalgia. When they finally close the doors, I suspect I'll feel the same odd sort of loss discussed in the Eating Our Words article. I grew up in this place and, while my personal palate may have evolved to the point where the food there doesn't knock my socks off, a part of me will always be the kid staring at that menu, wondering which of three dishes I may choose. The decision is never the important part; the people who mean so much to me that fill the seats at the table are the memories I'll hold on to for as long as I can.