Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My (overdue) Favorite Bites of 2014

Have we all had our fill or everyone's "best of" lists for 2014? I can pretend that it was by grand design that I've waited nearly a month into 2015 to post my personal greatest hits list, that I wanted to give everyone a chance to get over the deluge of lists before unleashing mine, but let's be realistic: I was just being lazy. So, after a nudge from Culturemap's Eric Sandler to get this posted, away we go with my ten favorite foods for the year:

10. Sweet Corn Pansoti from Ciao Bello:
What's not to love about a perfectly cooked pasta? The pansoti (sort of a cousin to a ravioli), filled with lightly charred sweet sumer corn and a light shaving of black truffle, was a standout from a summer meal at Tony Vallone's Galleria area eatery. Exquisitely toothsome pasta and incredibly fresh corn made for a great start to a splendid meal.

9. The Banana Split from Cloud 10 Creamery:
The dish that helped launch Chef Chris Leung's Rice Village ice cream wonderland, the banana split is a revelation. Three different types of ice cream, house whipped cream, Nutella powder, caramelized bananas, candied pecans and magic shell work in perfect harmony to give the diner such a wonderful contrast of flavor and texture that makes each bite a childlike adventure. It's like no banana split you've ever had, and will instantly become the only one you'll ever want.

8. Biryani from Great W'Kana:
One of the less talked about Indian restaurants in the Houston area, Great W'Kana always delivers a flavorful, pleasant dining experience. Arriving piping hot under a bread dome with a side of raita, the biryani for me is always the star at Great W'Kana. Be sure to request it be served (there are vegetable, goat and chicken options of the biryani) at a moderate spice level. If you ask for it mild you're missing so much flavor, but going full spice can be overpowering.

7. Potatoes from Oxheart:
By now there is not much that can be said about Oxheart that hasn't already been written, so I will make this brief. Chef Yu is so masterful with extracting flavor and displaying technique with vegetables that the meat dishes at Oxheart are almost an afterthought for me. No better example of this came than on my last visit, where I happily traded my fish course for my wife's potato dish. Soft, tender potatoes with a hint lemon, crispy shallots and a sauce of roasted potato skins, the dish epitomizes Oxheart.

Cloud 10 Creamery Banana Split | Potatoes cooked in different ways from Oxheart 

6. Garden Snacks from Coltivare:
One of Houston's most anticipated restaurant openings in 2014, Coltivare did not disappoint. Co-owners Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber's commitment to in-house and local cookery has made every Coltivare experience different and interesting. While their house-made pastas and pizzas are wonderful, the dish that stood out to me was one of the simpler menu items. Backyard carrots and snow peas served with a carrot top pesto embodied the spirit of the restaurant. Sitting in a restaurant's garden, snacking on the bounty it provides is a dining experience Houston had been lacking. Coltivare provides that.

5. Creamed Corn from Killen's Barbecue:
From day one of Ronnie Killen's pop-up, expectations for his new barbecue venture were sky-high. To say he delivered would be to put it mildly. Since the permanent location opened, Killen's has added a wide array of specials and menu items rarely seen at a barbecue joint. While Killen and company continue to produce excellent smoked meats, the one thing my mind keeps coming back to is a side dish. But the creamed corn at Killen's is not just any side; it is a full flavored treat that could be eaten by the bowlful. Sweet corn, a touch of spice and more than a touch of cream, this is easily the best barbecue side I've ever had.

4, The Husk Burger at Underbelly:
I feel slightly guilty adding this to the list as it may never be on the menu again, but seeing as it was easily the best hamburger I had in 2014, it must be included. Chef Chris Shepherd decided to pay homage to Sean Brock's popular Charleston and Nashville restaurant, Husk, by adding the Husk burger to the lunch menu for a week. The patty, a mixture of Benton's bacon and ground wagyu, was served with comeback sauce (similar to a remoulade) and American cheese. It was a flawless burger, and one I hope makes a reappearance at Underbelly sometime in the future.

Garden snacks from Coltivare | Two-meat plate with the famous Killen's creamed corn | Husk burger at Underbelly

3. Hot Guts from La Barbecue:
The one non-Houston entry on the list, the hot guts sausage from La Barbecue in Austin is the perfect barbecue sausage. House made, it's a wonderful blend of beef and spice, with a perfect snap. All of the smoked meats served at La Barbecue are stellar, but it's the hot guts that I crave.

2. Cochinita Pibil from Hugo's:
Few dishes in Houston are as much of a treat to dig into as the cochinita pibil at Hugo's. Slow roasted pig is cooked in a banana leaf and arrives at the table wrapped in the leaf, with refried black beans, rice, and pickled onions. Hugo's give you a couple of tortillas to make the world's most indulgent taco with your plate of treasures. Unwrapping the banana leaf, you're immediately hit with the wonderful aroma of the meat, which is tender and delicious.

1. Brisket from Corkscrew BBQ:
Prior to 2014, I had made a few trips to Corkscrew, but had not been blown away. While the barbecue was very good and clearly one of the better around Houston, it just had not given me that wow factor that enticed me to make the long trek up I45. That all changed shortly after Corkscrew installed new pits. I made the trip up north to see the effects the new smoker had on the meat, and the results were astounding. Perfect moist, smokey brisket with flavor that rivaled any place in the state - I was won over. I have since made over half a dozen return visits and have been greeted with the same impeccable beef each time. Both the quality and consistency with which Corkscrew is cooking these days is remarkable.

Hot guts sausage from La Barbecue | Cochinita pibil at Hugo's | Brisket from Corkscrew BBQ

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