Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Cost of a Second Chance

As the check was brought to the table, I knew the moment of truth had arrived. The plates had been cleared, the offer of dessert declined. In fact, dessert at another destination had already been planned once my wife and I resigned ourselves to the disappointing truth: this meal was not in any way what we'd hoped it would be. We'd read the reviews and heard from our trusted food sources around town that told us this place provided superb food filled with its style of cuisine's signature bursts of flavor. So in to the city we went, as we do on most weekends to experience the best of what Houston's culinary landscape has to offer. Most of our ventures are aedquate, if not overwhelmingly successful. This meal, however, completely missed the mark. The internal problem I faced when receiving the bill was something I imagine a number of non-paid food writers have encountered. Is this place beyond my price point for a second chance and, if so, is it unfair for me to write my opinion on this establishment's food when my thoughts were based on a single visit? The first part of the question was answered quite easily; the latter required more thought.

While I may dine out as though I have an endless budget, I assure you I do not. I tend to stick to more afforadble lunches and, as my wife would eye-rollingly admit, the vast majority of our disposable income is spent on dining experiences. Our bill for this dud of a dinner, which included two drinks, an appetizer and two entrees, came to $76.00 after tax and tip. While not a king's ransom, that is the type of pricetag that will give someone like me pause before making a return trip when the meal fell as flat as this one had. During the car ride from dinner to our chosen dessert venue (I freely admit dessert was consumed at the newly opened The Honeymoon in Market Square - an interesting place with promise) it had been decided that, while we might be open to happy hour or even a solo work lunch for me, we would not pay for dinner at this place again. That choice made, I had to decide for myself whether I should write about this experience. After some debate, I came to the conclusion that I needed to tell the full story. It is important that I make it clear that this was one experience at a place that has received much praise from far more established writers than myself. But I don't want to be one of the food voices in Houston that only writes about their best experiences. I don't fault those that do write only positive reviews, as that is their personal choice, but I believe if I'm going to share my food experiences on a public forum they should be as complete and honest as possible. So, without futher ado, I present you my Saturday night at Cuchara.

The murals at Cuchara, splendid displays done by the hand of Cecilia Beaven, immediately catch your eye when you walk through the door. We were seated toward the back of the main dining area, a good place to people watch and take in the full scale of the restaurant's unique decor, and quickly perused the cocktail list. While I am normally one to try a house margarita at a place that bills itself as authentic Mexican cuisine, I was compelled to give a try to the Paloma, a tequila based drink with fresh grapefruit juice, grapefruit soda and chamoy. The drink was well made and had a great balance of fruit flavor without losing the presence of its alcohol base. My wife inquired about the margarita of the day, which the server had to go back to the bar to learn about (he would later explain the ceviche of the day as simply "Tilapia," which explained little about the dish. Uninformed servers are a personal pet peeve of mine). She eventually decided on the regular house margarita, which was also well executed and not overly sweet. Cuchara does seem to have a talented bar staff.

For our appetizer we shared the quesadilla de huitlacoche, which wasn't a bad dish but lacked the beautifully funky flavor one would expect from the "Mexican Truffle." The tortilla was unfortunately the dominant flavor of the dish, which struck us both as odd. The one thing I can usually count on in traditional Mexican cuisine is pronounced flavors, but the boldness was missing in this dish. The introductory course would prove to be the theme of the night.  Having heard a lot of talk about their enchiladas, I couldn't have my first Cuchara experience without trying them. The enchiladas were stuffed with panela cheese (think paneer or perhaps a distant cousin to mozzarella if you're not familiar) and coated in three different salsas. I have to assume these enchiladas were supposed to have but a light smattering of cotija cheese on top and that the bombardment bestowed on the plate I'd been served had been a mistake. Surely this was not by design. I quite enjoy cotija - the salty bastard offspring of Parmesan and Feta - as a nice accent to Mexican dishes when used in moderation. Sadly, the heavy hand that drowned my enchiladas in this cheese ruined any chance I might have had to distinguish the flavors of the salsas. There was also a textural problem with the dish. Soft cheese inside of soft tortillas that have been made soggy with salsa, served with a side of refried black beans did not provide much in the way of contrast. This could be partially forgiven if the dish had not become the salty cheesy mess that overtook my palate.

My wife chose the pork tenderloin in mole verde, which came with sides of refried beans, rice and white corn puree (again with the soft textures Cuchara!), a dish I had to force myself to avoid ordering. I'm a notorious sucker for a well made mole. While the presentation was amusing if a bit campy (all components arrived at the table in individual mini crocks), the dish as a whole was poorly executed. The mole had none of the complexity one would expect in Mexico's mother sauce and the pork was terribly overcooked. Add to it the under seasoned refried black beans that I was familiar with from my own plate, forgettable rice and an utterly unnecessary white corn puree, the dish was as uninteresting as it was disappointing.

I genuinely hope we came on a bad night for the restaurant, that the problems we saw with Cuchara were a series of hiccups and not inherent issues. With such a broad range of restaurants around the Montrose area, neighborhood residents surely wouldn't continue to patronize a place if they'd been served similar dishes to the ones we received. But for fellow suburbanites who travel twenty-five miles into the city and devote portions of our budget to eating great food, we simply cannot justify repeat visits based off of subpar experiences. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying Cuchara - decide for yourself - but it's not a second chance I can afford.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Food Traditions

Perhaps it just speaks to my peculiar nature, but I have never been a big fan of traditional foods or meals. Sure, I'll eat turkey on Thanksgiving, but I don't think I'd miss the old bird should it go away. I don't need it to be July 4th to consume copious amounts of barbecue; anyone that has followed along on this blog or my Twitter can see that's a regular occurrence no matter the date on the calendar. What I have noticed, though, is that my wife and I have started forming our own food rituals.

  • Pre-football Sunday brunch at Hugo's: the Sunday before Labor Day also happens to be the last Sunday before the NFL season begins. My wife knows that once football returns to Sunday, the chances of getting me to brunch drop below zero. Thus, we celebrate the end of "brunch season" with the splendid feast at Hugo's. We sip cafes de olla and overindulge on all of the savory and sweet offerings the Ortega family has to offer.
  • First football Sunday crab boil: This one is a solo venture as the wife detests most things shellfish. The first Sunday of the NFL season, I boil some blue crabs, lay out some newspaper across the dining room table, pop open a couple cold beers and crack crab until I can eat no more while watching the games. Pro tip: shrink wrap the remote before you begin this feast or face the wrath of an angry spouse later.

I normally prefer a more full bodied beer such as Saint Arnold Santo, but any Texas beer will do.
  • The Austin Bluebonnet trip: One of our new favorite rituals is to take a weekend trip to Austin in early to mid-April to enjoy the best weather Texas has to offer and the wonderful view of the bluebonnets. This has also become my pilgrimage to Franklin Barbecue time of year as 70 degree weather is the only time I can stomach the increasingly long line.
  • Pre-winter break custard at Ritter's: One of my Katy favorites is Ritter's Frozen Custard on Fry Road. Often my family's go to treat, we make a point to get in one last visit before they close for their annual winter break in early December. Weather be damned, you'll find us there on their final day of business before the holidays, gleefully savoring our last frozen fix.

Ritter's spicy chocolate custard in waffle cones.
  • Christmas marshmallows: Yes, you read that correctly. A tradition we've started with my wife's family is roasting s'mores outside during the Christmas season. My wife and I make an obscene amount of marshmallows, do our best not to hoard them for ourselves, and bring them to her parents' house for the annual roast.
  • Work Buddy Appreciation lunch: My good friend in the office and I go out to lunch constantly, usually to one of the more affordable, quality places close to work. However, every six months we treat ourselves to what he deems an appreciation lunch as a thank you for helping one another out with some of the craziness around the office. These lunches are usually a little pricier and a little more out of the way than our usual spots. One appreciation lunch was Dolce Vita, one at Haven, another at Underbelly. It's a welcome treat to have a couple times a year.

The beautifully charred pies at Dolce Vita.

While not your normal traditions, these are the ones that work for me. When food is such a big part of your life all year, it's the special moments with those you care for that turn the ordinary into an occasion.