Monday, November 9, 2015

food for thought: where I've been from August through October, 2015

Slacker over here, haven't posted in far too long though I've done plenty of eating since I last wrote. As any single-month recaps are long overdue, here are a few highlights of where I've been eating from August through October.

I promise there is a very good hot dog underneath all of that.

The best thing I ate in August: This month's favorite dish was Good Dog Houston's ridiculously good Southern Comfort dog. A huge amount of house-made chow chow, collard greens, mustard, and bacon tucked into a great bun don't distract from the quality frank. It sounds like a lot going on - and it is - but the ingredients work in concert to make for a great bite.

Beautiful potato and sauerkraut dumplings from The Progress.

The best thing I ate in September: I have to go away from my beloved Lone Star State this month due to a great vacation my wife and I went on to Northern California. There were plenty of great bites (and wine) on this trip (which will probably make for a separate post eventually), but my favorite dish this month came from The Progress. It was the best meal I've had all year. The Progress, a new restaurant from the State Bird Provisions owners, opened late last year to much fanfare both in San Francisco and nationally. While I could easily pick a few things from this one meal to debate as my favorite September food, I'm going to go with a dish that we did not originally intend to order.

The Progress has a menu which changes based on local seasonality and availability, and the entire table decides together on six plates that are served family style. One of the benefits of The Progress' menu structure is that if a server recommends a particular dish to you, it's truly not upselling. The diners' food tab is set the minute they sit down. That said, as my wife and I made our menu decisions, we were torn over a couple of different dishes. Based on the server's strong opinion of the potato and sauerkraut dumplings, we made those our final selection.

To put it mildly, they were stunning. The dumplings themselves, which are so often served as merely a gummy vessel for whatever filling is inside, were a vital component of the dish. Toasted outside to give some textural difference to the softer potato and kraut filling, these dumplings were a revelation. The filling had a comfort food appeal due to the potatoes, but the sauerkraut woke you up before this started to feel like a "safe" dish. A smattering of plum preserves on the plate gave a bit of tartness that rounded out the dish. This was the best server recommendation I've ever encountered and I have a feeling I will be comparing far too many dumplings in the future to those.

Shrimp a la plant from State of Grace - admittedly not the best photo.

The best thing I ate in October: It took me until the last day of October to eat my best bite of the month, but it was worth the wait. My wife is a Halloween baby and was interested in trying somewhere new for her birthday dinner this year; it was not hard settling on new River Oaks restaurant State of Grace. Opened by well-known Atlanta chef Ford Fry (a Houston native) with a kitchen lead by Ciao Bello veteran Bobby Matos, State of Grace opened in October with plenty of buzz. Based off of our first meal, the talk was justified.

State of Grace's menu is a mish-mash of cuisines and culture that may seem odd to some but I found delightfully fun. My favorite dish on this night and of the month of October was the shrimp a la plancha. Large, head on gulf shrimp were served in a flavorful Thai style lime broth with a slice of toast to soak up the juice. The shrimp were wonderfully cooked and well-portioned, and kudos to Fry, Matos, and company for having the confidence to serve hands-on food to a River Oaks crowd.

Beef belly burnt end with grits, collard greens, and cane syrup.

August newcomers: As you know if you live in Houston, new and exciting restaurants are popping up seemingly by the day. I visited a couple in August with somewhat mixed results. I very much enjoyed Southern Goods; those pig wings and beef belly dishes you keep seeing on Instagram are stellar and I'm very excited to see how the menu evolves. Houston needed a place like Southern Goods.

Another much anticipated and well received opening was Helen Greek Food and Wine. While I went in with high hopes and perhaps overly lofty expectations, I left underwhelmed. Portion sizes and price seemed a bit off, and service was slightly uneven. There is such a lack of Greek food in Houston that I want Helen to be great, but the dishes I ate on my first visit did not blow me away. The restaurant was in its infancy at the time and I keep reading glowing reviews of everything, so I'll likely be back at some point. My first visit quite easily could have been early opening growing pains that all restaurants endure.

Texas Trinity courtesy of Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew.
August BBQ Tour: My barbecue friends and I set off on another adventure in and around Austin, visiting some old classics as well as some newer joints. Misty Roegels from Roegels Barbecue Co. joined us for this tour, as did Bryan's son Wyatt. A larger group helps spread out the cost and keeps the three of us from eating too much at the first few stops. I think most of us agreed that Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew had our favorite brisket of the day. Some may remember our first visit to Stiles Switch was not a home run, but it just goes to show how difficult it is to serve every single customer great barbecue every single day. The slices we ate on this most recent trip were stunningly good with a great rub and perfectly rendered fat.

One trip through the line at Hugo's brunch buffet. As you can see I choose quantity over plating.
A farewell to brunch: As has become a tradition with my wife and me, we indulged in the great Hugo's brunch Labor Day weekend. Football season marks the end of brunch season in my household, so we like to go out with a bang. Hugo's did not disappoint.

A rare find: Indian food in Humble.
Suburban ethnic food: Living in a suburb can be tough on someone who enjoys food as much as me. The Humble, Kingwood, Atascocita (HKA) area I live in is rife with chain eateries and I've seen too many family owned places struggle to get open and/or stay open. Tipico Café, one of the few non-chain places in my area that I enjoyed, recently had to close up as the cost of business was too great for them to stay afloat. I was given a bit of hope in September with The Curry House opening just off of Highway 59 and FM 1960. A well priced Indian buffet, Curry House also serves only Halal meat which must be welcome news to Muslims in the HKA area. The standard buffet items such as butter chicken and vindaloo were served, but I was impressed by the spicy goat curry as well as the beetroot masala. My first visit was a success and I hope the owners get the support they need to thrive in the area.

The Halloween special from Pizaro's Pizza.
Scary good pizza: It had been a long time since I'd been able to get to the original Pizaro's Pizza location on the west side, and it did not disappoint. On Halloween weekend they featured a great spicy pizza with sausage, black olives, ghost peppers, and basil. It was unique with an unforgiving heat level. It may not be for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.

Chocolate kouign amann, plain kouign amann, and chocolate bana croissant from B. Patisserie in San Francisco.
A bounty of pastries: While I'm not there as frequently as I once was, Common Bond still makes the best croissants in the city, and I did get to enjoy one in September. It held its own with the one I enjoyed at the famous Tartine Bakery in San Francisco a few weeks later. Blasphemous as it may be to say, the pastries I had at Beard nominee B. Patisserie in San Francisco the following morning may have topped them both. The kouign amann were perfect and the chocolate, banana and almond croissant was such a unique and tremendously good bite that I have difficulty accurately describing it. If ever in San Francisco, this is the bakery I'd recommend to start with.

Full disclosure: August had 33 dining stops, September topped out at 40 (not counting wineries), and October finished with 29. As you can see I'm still dining out plenty; I just need to get better about documenting it!

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