Friday, May 30, 2014

Recent Bites

It's been awhile since I posted here, so I figured I'd give a quick hitter of what I've been eating lately. And by quick hitter, I mean strap yourselves in because I don't summarize well.

Common Bond Bakery: Both the hype and the gripes are justified. Yes the pastries are beautifully constructed. Yes the ever-changing hours that Common Bond has employed has frustrated patrons (or wannabe patrons if you caught them during an unexpected closing time) is a problem. It is difficult to open a new, much buzzed about place these days. We're in the age of social media, so hopefully Common Bond begins using these platforms more frequently to update the masses. It sure appears the frustrated diners use twitter, as any search for @wearecommonbond on Twitter will tell you.

The fantastic - The croissant at Common Bond is everything you could hope for in the French pastry. Crunchy, flaky, layered in texture and beautiful to look at, this is something I didn't know our food landscape was missing until I ate it.

The addictive -The kugelhopf. This talked about pastry heavy on the orange zest and laced with raisins didn't wow me at first. However, the complex texture and lasting flavor have kept me craving it.

To be continued - A big cookie fan, I wanted to love the chocolate chip cookie at Common Bond. Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat. While there was a nice crunch and high quality chocolate, there was a soft interior missing in the cookie. I would love to be able to snag one fresh from the oven one day.

One last thing - I'm still trying to figure out why the staff uniform at Common Bond makes them all look like they belong in The Lumineers.

Almond croissant from Common Bond

Revival Market: Little can be said about this Heights gem that hasn't already been written far more eloquently than this writer could convey. Without simply echoing others, I will say that Revival Market may make the best cup of coffee in Houston right now, and that's saying something. A bit more affordable than Blacksmith, the coffee here is always spot on. And you have to love any place where you can sip a flat white while The Wire theme song "Way Down In The Hole" plays.

Underbelly: They've won a Beard, they helped usher in a new era of food in our city, they're one of the springboards for the much maligned Bobby Heugel's career. All of this is common knowledge in our food community. But did you know the talented kitchen staff at Underbelly can pay homage in one hell of a way? Underbelly paid tribute to the Charleston, South Carolina and Nashville, Tennesee restaurant Husk by putting their burger on the Underbelly lunch menu for one week, and my oh my was it delicious. Truly one of the best burgers I've enjoyed in awhile: a wagyu beef patty ground with bacon, served with pickles, remoulade, and smothered in American cheese on a benne seed bun. This burger came to the table with the most wonderful bacon aroma and was incredibly juicy. The bacon always let you know it was there without ever kicking the beef off the dance floor.
The Husk Burger, which needs to appear on the Underbelly menu more often
Brooks' Place BBQ: Having gone awhile without a true barbecue joint visit, I stopped at Brooks' Place for a quick lunch. A simple two meat plate with solid sides, the ribs arrived nicely smoked but a bit sweeter than I'd prefer. I've come to expect this from Brooks'. This is more a matter of personal preference than complaint. Having ordered all fatty brisket, I was eagerly looking forward to the indulgence. I was surprise to find that the meat had been sliced with the grain. This is usually a bad sign. The meat, though, was incredibly tender and delicious, with perfectly rendered fat. While the slicing error did require more of a pick and pull than true brisket eating experience, it was still very well cooked smoked meat.

Brooks' Place brisket, ribs, coleslaw and potato salad

H-Town Streats: Sometimes you have to go back to the one you love. I had not eaten at the food truck affectionately referred to as "Dingo" by its owners in quite some time, and they did not disappoint. The shorty mac (a short rib/mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich to those unenlightened) was what I remembered, though probably would have tasted a bit more fresh if I'd come closer to the 11 o'clock lunch shift than the 7 pm evening dinner they stayed for at the food park on the west side of town. The cuban sandwich, however, was one of the more solid I've had in this city in a long time. H-Town Streats remains one of  the best food trucks in this city. I expressed my despair over losing the truck to their upcoming Heights donut shop, but the guys set my mind a bit at ease stating that they didn't plan on fully retiring the truck, also hinting they hoped for other brick-and-mortar opportunities in the future.

My Own Barbecue Adventure: I volunteered to contribute barbecue for 50 people on a Memorial Day weekend BBQ and crawfish boil party, despite my wife's pleading that I don't overextend myself. Having a smoker with limited space, I wasn't sure how to get the timing just right to serve everything at proper doneness and temperature. Thanks to helpful tips from up and coming pit master Patrick Feges, I was able budget my time to make sure everything was served at the right time. The end result was two briskets and three racks of ribs that came out well, the brisket being the most tender I've made to date.

Fatty brisket, smoked by yours truly

All in all there has been a lot of good food in my life these days, but it would take too many words to give you all of the details on everything (apologies to Fu Fu Cafe, Alicia's Mexican Grille, Siphon Coffee and all other meals that didn't get their due on this post!) . I'll try to keep those informed that read along.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

There's more to come

I flipped open the book cover revealing the night's menu - I believe it was a Julia Child cover on my first visit for Underbelly's opening weekend - and knew things were changing in my fair city. Grilled steaks and wine based sauces that had long been many people's view of fine dining were replaced with an eclectic and vivacious mix of cuisines all blended together to illustrate Chris Shepherd's vision. It was his way of putting Underbelly's mission statement on full display for the diner: the story of Houston food. The tale was told in the menu: from the family style dishes on the menu's left side that were elevated comfort foods such as pork roasts and whole bycatch fish that arrived steaming at the table to the right side of the menu that was a melting pot of smaller plates that consisted of Indian, Cajun, Thai and Korean influences. These cultural twists elevated simple vegetables and familiar proteins in ways many Houstonians had not experienced. It was cutting edge, but so rustic and unfussy that the diner in me delighted, and the cook in me appreciated.

Long respected in the industry, Chris Shepherd had built quite a reputation as a chef who could extract full flavor out of every ingredient while running the kitchen at Catalan. When he announced plans to open his own restaurant, the industry was abuzz with anticipation of just how far he'd push the boundaries of what most thought of as Houston's culinary limits. There were talks of in-house butchering, meat curing, and vegetable pickling. Were these going to be just rumors or lofty goals upon which Chef Shepherd and staff could not deliver? The answer provided to me on that first visit and in the two years since is a resounding no. Underbelly remains dedicated to their craft, and the results speak for themselves. Have I had underwhelming plates on a visit here or there? I have. But even the misses come from some such a dedicated core of quality that I can still appreciate the effort.

Underbelly is not without its critics, and I do not mean for this to sound as if they invented farm-to-table cuisine or were the first to cure meat. There have been restaurants across the country and in Houston employing these practices long before Shepherd and crew set up shop at Westheimer and Waugh. But where Underbelly has stood out from the crowd is in their dedication to product and the tribute they pay to the diverse ethnic cuisines that make up our city.

 Last night as Chris Shepherd accepted his James Beard Award for best chef in the southwest region, I along with many other Houstonians with a passion for food couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride. This was a big step in the progression of Houston's dining scene, shining a bright light on the culinary landscape that continues to evolve and impress even the most discerning palate. The last few years has seen an explosion of talent in our city's foodservice industry being recognized nationally. Houston had to wait 22 years between Beard winners, but I think our next win is not far off. Fellow nominees Hugo Ortega and Justin Yu are knocking on the door, with a slew of young up-and-comers nipping at their heels. It's an exciting time to be in this city and be a fan of great food. The future is bright.