Sunday, March 29, 2015

food for thought: March 2015

In what was one of my busiest months of dining out in recent memory, there were plenty of memorable food experiences. My barbecue intake alone this month provided for some great fodder, but for anyone curious if this is going to turn into strictly a barbecue site, don't fret. In between all of those smoked meat stops there were Indian, Pakistani, Persian, Chinese, Greek, Cuban, Mexican, Korean and southern food meals. Suffice to say I love many types of cuisine- Texas barbecue is just one of them.

shrimp and grits at Kitchen 713.
The best thing I ate: This was harder to pick this month as there were so many standouts. The most exciting meal I had in March was dinner at the most bare bones of restaurants. There are no table cloths, patrons order at the counter, water and sodas are self serve, and college basketball played on a television in the small dining room. While this may sound like a night at Cafe Express, the restaurant I'm referring to is Kitchen 713 in the East End. The staff is so minimal that the chefs bring the plates to your table, but you're left wanting for nothing. What they serve is an eclectic mix of southern food with upscale touches and nods to ethnic cuisines that have influenced both our city's dining landscape as well as the chefs' own careers. While everything I ate was impressive, my favorite dish was the stone ground grits with shrimp and house-made shrimp chorizo. The chorizo was stunning in its ability to provide the spice and feel of a traditional chorizo all while maintaining a great seafood flavor. A hint of white wine and cheddar balanced the dish. I've had some truly subpar interpretations of shrimp and grits and some solid straight forward versions of the dish, but none was more unexpectedly great and finely executed than this one. I cannot recommend this place enough. In a city that is becoming increasingly filled with hotly buzzed about restaurants that have PR firms behind them orchestrating some of that chatter, Kitchen 713 is garnering attention the old fashioned way: by producing food as interesting and flavorful as any place in Houston.

A baker's dozen: Or, the number of barbecue stops I made this month. There were some of the old staples like Corkscrew BBQ in Spring, a Houston newcomer with Pinkerton's Barbecue that had its first pop-up in anticipation of a late summer opening, and multiple visits to the ever-improving Roegels Barbecue Co. I don't know if there is a pitmaster around more dedicated to improving their product than Russell Roegels. Each meal I've had at the South Voss eatery since the Roegels family broke away from the Baker's Ribs chain has been better than the last. The crunchy bark on their brisket is hard to beat, and I'm excited to see the product continue to evolve. Houston's barbecue scene is growing by leaps and bounds. There was also another barbecue road trip out of town that provided some nice surprises. The winner that day was the brisket at Freedmen's.

Clockwise from top left: interior of Levure Bakery, clever light fixture, French toast with preserves and fruit, plain croissant.
A new bakery in the 'burbs: Levure Bakery and Patisserie opened this month in The Woodlands, providing the burgeoning suburb with a legitimate pastry destination. While my first visit there had some of the first week service issues common to any new opening, a recent return trip was more steady and the food was good on both occasions. Levure has a modestly-sized dining area with clever decorative touches like a light fixture adorned with Einstein equations. The croissants have the classic flaky, buttery texture, and the almond croissant is a less conventional offering that is crusted with slivered almonds and has a subtle hint of orange in the filling. The prices at Levure are great, and they will start offering their full savory menu of hot options in April.

Old faithfuls: One of my favorite places in Houston is Mala Sichuan Bistro in Chinatown, and one of my favorite things to order there are the red oil dumplings. Perfectly chewy dumplings filled with garlic and soy paste and topped with chili oil, they're a must order. Another lunch staple for me is the lunch special at Himalaya. Always featuring chicken curry, lamb curry and a vegetable portion of some sort served on a cafeteria tray with basmati rice and naan,  it's a vibrant array of flavors for under fifteen dollars.

empanadas, croquetas and tamal at Cafe Piquet with killer spicy salsa
A revival: We've all seen this before. A restaurant you frequent and enjoy for awhile starts showing signs of decline. The service gets slower, the food is increasingly hit or miss, and you eventually lose interest in returning. This was Cafe Piquet for me. The Bellaire area restaurant had long been lauded as some of the best Cuban food available in a city that was (and sadly still is) lacking in Cuban options. I had gone there with my family for years, but the last few years I'd noticed a real decline in the restaurant. Roast pork would come out dry, beef would be lacking in flavor. It was disappointing to see a restaurant I had an affinity for lose its way. Due to its proximity to my office, I would pop in every once in a while in hopes of recapturing some of those great Cuban flavors. My last few visits to Piquet have given me hope. Back are many of the flavors that made their food a destination for me. My most recent outing affirmed my belief in Cafe Piquet's continued ascent back to quality. Lunch there this month included some perfect picadillo filled empanadas and beautifully seasoned croquetas de jamon. While I do wish they had a true lunch menu more financially palatable to diners, one can still find some affordable options, or just go for dinner.

Full disclosure: This month included 40 stops covering midtown, downtown, the Heights, Montrose, Cypress, Spring, The Woodlands, Humble, Bellaire, Chinatown, River Oaks, Bryan, Austin, and many points in between.

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