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.

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