Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for October, 2008

New blood at Rainbow Lodge

Posted by beer_chris on 31-October-2008

Wow – Randy Rucker is taking over at Rainbow Lodge. I have not been to RL since they moved, and I’ll admit had lost interest since Lance Youngs left for Dallas a few years ago.

The debut menu sounds pretty exciting!

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Another chance for Cullen’s

Posted by beer_chris on 28-October-2008

Went back to Cullen’s Wed for Jim’s birthday. I’d been pretty clear in my own mind that after four mixed visits this was it – if the service was still so edgy I wouldn’t be back.

Entering the restaurant didn’t give me hope. It was 6:30, our reservation time, and our table needed to be ‘prepared’. I took the opportunity to visit the really cool bar and take a look at the music venue, Cullen’s Live, which had opened up since our last visit. The bar was relatively busy. I was pleased up see Maudite & Saint Arnold Christmas Ale on tap. With all the TVs going and the little crowd buzzing the bar was downright cool. Cullen’s Live is equally nifty, with a stage big enough for a moderate-size band and a two tiered seating area that was still really intimate – maybe seating 100 people maximum.

I’ll be back to see a show.

I returned to the hostess stand to happily find that my party had been seated. I showed myself the dining room and found our five top seated along the inside wall. The restaurant was maybe 30% full, and nobody was seated in the aisles of the kitchen. I mention this because many of the b4ueat reviews have complained about being seated at these heavy traffic tables in an otherwise empty restaurant. Although those complaints are warranted I tend to think the approach of seating in that manner was to try to show off the kitchen, since those are the only seats where one can get a good view of the brigade in action through the room-length glass wall. Clearly they were responding to this complaint, at least on this evening. Service was still strange – almost nervous. 2 Christmas Ales were ordered and the assistant manager (Chase) came over and introduced himself, and said he was also the wine steward. This was the same person that had dressed down the hostess in front of me a few trips before. I tried to strike up a conversation with him- I noticed his large Texas Tech football ring, and so asked if he was a happy guy after Saturday’s win (over UT). Although he seemed reasonably happy to talk to us, he still seemed uncomfortable – perhaps better said – not relaxed.

He disclosed that his 25’th birthday is in 2 weeks. Wow. That seems awfully young to be running the floor at what appears to be a 500 seat fine dining room.

Menu has changed it’s layout significantly. Dishes are pretty much the same, but are presented in very simple terms – fish, chicken, duck etc. Pizzas have been moved to the appetizer section. This evening the special was a huge tomahawk cut ribeye. Jaime ordered it, and the waiter appropriately warned us it was priced at $115. At 2+ lbs of prime house aged meat this wasn’t all that surprising – but I was happy to be told and not surprised at the end of the meal.

I got the rare prime rib, which was OK. Not nearly as good as last time. Also, my roasted new potatoes were crunchy. I sent them back, and got a replacement set – also crunchy! The waiter asked at the end of the meal if I liked the replacements – I hadn’t touched them – when I told him they too were underdone, he chuckled and said there was a new guy in the kitchen and that they had been after him all night to cook the potatoes correctly.

ME: “So I’m not the only one sending the potatoes back?”

SERVER: “Oh, no. Everyone is!”

Wha?

The tomahawk steak was awesome. The sides were Ok. We got the grits again, and although less overwhelmed in butter and cream, the stone cut grits were just a hair undercooked. The truffle mash was not ‘truffly’ enough. The butternut squash soup was really nice, filled with bits if duck sausage. The grilled mushrooms were also excellent – the normally pedestrian side wonderful with a mixture of porcini, straw and button mushrooms in a nice uniform mix. Every bite was a medley of mushroom flavors.

Dessert, as usual, was a high point. Raves again for the strawberry symposium and the fudgy brownie, which was topped with a huge browned house-made marshmallow (yum).

At this point, for seated dinner I think it’s back to Perry’s. However, I’m going to give dining at the cool bar a try. Hopefully the full menu is available there. After 5 visits to the main dining room over the past approximately 8 months, I’m left with the frustrating conclusion that Cullen’s is sometimes great, but often hit or miss for one reason or another. At this price point sometimes just isn’t good enough.

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Reviewing the same place – problem or postive?

Posted by beer_chris on 28-October-2008

Alison Cook posted today in Cook’s Tour that she had just submitted her review for a Brazlian style rotisserie restaurant (Fuegovivo). Robb Walsh published a review of this same restaurant in the Press last week. A commenter to Cook’s post took Alison to task – both for reviewing a Brazilian style steakhouse as well as for replicating reviews of such a place.

I just finished writing a comment back basically defending Cook and her work. My fundamental points that having two educated palates looking at the same place from time to time is only a good thing for readers, and what follows – that a little competition never hurt journalism. Granted, restaurant reviewing is more pure writing than pure journalism, but being aware of a professional peer cannot be a negative.

I’m curious to see if she approves my comment 🙂

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So how many chances does a restaurant get?

Posted by beer_chris on 25-October-2008

In general, I’ve been wondering for some time how many ‘chances’ a restaurant should get before it can reliably be written off. As a study in contrasts, I’ve been thinking about my recent experience at Catalan against a previous visit to The Grove.

I’ll return to Catalan – I’ll bookend this negative report with that comment – but my first meal there is one that at any other restaurant would likely have me never return. I ordered a seafood special – loaded with fresh gulf seafood: amberjack, shrimp, lump crab meat and a super tasty andouille sausage. The sausage, though, was chopped and mixed into a jambalaya which was the base for the rest of the food. I have described the dish to others as a celebration of a return of local seafood to Houston after hurricane Ike – the fish and shrimp were delicious – but ultimately it didn’t really come together as a coherent course. The cooked to-order jambalaya was too spicy and overwhelmed the amberjack’s flavor, and the arborio-like rice was downright crunchy.

In fairness to Catalan, I ate every ounce of the seafood and the andouille before I even said anything to the server, so I certainly didn’t expect a replacement dish. The server said he would let the chef know it had happened, and then – nothing. I honestly expected something small – a tasting portion of the jambalaya cooked correctly, a little cheese plate before dessert, even a visit from the floor manager to offer some type of simple apology.

That nothing happened was not a big deal. The evening was still very enjoyable, and as I said before we’ll definitely be back to try more of the fantastic menu. However, I couldn’t help but think about experiences like this I have had at other restaurants – places I’ve never returned to – and why I feel differently about Catalan.

Take The Grove for instance. I took my team there for a celebration luncheon. It was roundly disappointing. I had a shrimp burger, expecting something a little spicy, and got a flavorless patty made with overcooked shrimp pieces. No one else at the table was especially happy either, and I’ve never been back. However, when I consider the situation, Grove had just opened, as it was just weeks after the Discovery Green grand opening – and the menu had just changed completely prior to our visit. Since that visit The Grove has been lauded as one of the best restaurants in Houston, and yet I’ve not even considered going back.

Why? Why am I so certain to return to Catalan and so doubtful on Grove? Part of the reason is Chris Shepherd, whose personality I came to enjoy at a chef’s table dinner at Brennan’s. I don’t know the man, but for whatever reason I’m simply confident he can do better, and I’m willing to give him the chance. I suppose I’ve always been cool on the Cordua restaurants in general, and so that poisons my opinion of the Grove (I’ll save that for another post :-). Catalan was starting from a position of strength in my mind, and The Grove had some apologizing to do, all before I walked in the door the first time.

So, what does this tell me on my question, just how many chances should a restaurant get? I think all of this context plays a role. I’m probably just now ready to go back to the Grove, and I’ll also likely return to Cullen’s even after a series of mixed results with my visits there. I think it comes down to choices. If I’ve had a negative experience at a restaurant, am I likely to choose to return there or go somewhere ‘new’ or ‘better’ – whatever that might mean. Obviously the negative experience poisons the liklihood of a future visit, but it doesn’t completely co-opt it.

I do certainly think it is important not to judge a place on a single experience – even if that experience is profoundly negative – but that may not even be a hard and fast rule.

This would be an interesting research topic for a gastro-economist or some other type of made up profession – analyzing decision making in restaurant likes and dislikes, and the factors and choices involved.

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My name is YTEE and I like American Ale

Posted by beer_chris on 24-October-2008

I’m on record. I’m a beer snob and I like Budweiser American Ale. It has flaws – it’s not 100% malt and has some slghtly cidery qualities out of the bottle (pasteurization?), and it’s certainly not ‘hoppy’ by any means (like the label claims). However, it’s just a good drinkin’ beer. Ultimately I think it could be a lasting beer for me – something to replace the budweiser cans as my lawnmower beer.

Hopefully it will get cheaper – as right now InBev is cashing in on those of us who regularly pay $7+/sixer. However, unlike the Michelob specialties, which are really marketed only to snobs like me, this beer has some serious marketing power behind it, and it is getting taps all over town. The Michelob specialty beers are better – the all-malt porter may be the best brew AB makes currently. However, I appreciate that AB finally realizes that there are customers absolutely begging for good tasting, good drinking beer. Here’s hoping a truly new American style develops – and American Ale is the beginning of it.

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Ikesbock

Posted by beer_chris on 24-October-2008

There’s a beer style known as Eisbock. It’s a German bock beer that is frozen during the lagering process, with the resulting water ice removed. The ultimate brew is stronger and more concentrated – higher ABV.

Ikesbock is a tasty homebrewed German bock that underwent a forced diacetyl rest due to a power outage caused by a category two hurricane named Ike. Mix in a stuck fermentation (FG near 1.030), a little fear that the beer would be totally ruined, keg, carbonate and relax, don’t worry, have a slightly sweet but intensely malty homebrew.

Seriously, the bock is AWESOME, although it’s not quite alcoholic enough to be within style. It tastes more like a sweet dunkel – as if that’s a bad thing! It’s got the bock dryness – we had some chocolate malt in there – but the hops, malt and basic character is just about perfect, 1.030 be damned.

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Thoughts on Bolivar and Crystal Beach

Posted by beer_chris on 23-October-2008

I really can’t get Crystal Beach out of my mind, and it’s primarily the food memories I am missing so much. I just hope beyond hope that the crab festival comes back – the mix of cajun festival food, fresh seafood and some of the best gumbo I’ve tasted is so unique, and I even got to judge it a few years ago – chosen out of the crowd because “I looked like somebody that was enjoying myself but didn’t know nobody in the competition like the rest of us” My picture is on the festival website, and I have saved it here in case that site is no more.

 

That's me with the beer

That's me with can of hard work in my right hand

 

 

I love going to the intracoastal side, buying fresh 10-12 count shrimp on the dock and having the owner pull the heads off with his thumbs for an extra dollar – using a technique I’m sure I could never master. I’ll even miss the herd of 8 toe’d cats wandering around on that same dock just waiting for those shrimp heads to fall on the ground. The taste of those shrimp boiled up fresh is a flavor that’s the essence of the TX Gulf Coast.

I close my eyes and am still at Stingaree restaurant eating crawfish and downing Lone Star longnecks with some of my closest friends, or I’m back there getting crab squirted all over me by Susan during another trip to the all you can eat crab restaurant.

Even the terrible drinking water on the Rancho Caribe golf course is on my mind – which Keith and I were warned off of by the pro because it would ‘make ya’ sick’. Also there were the daily trips to the ‘Big Store’ – a place where I think I have at one time or another probably purchased every product they sold. Every trip I left  amazed to find just exactly what I needed at a glorified Shell station (capers? no way – um, here they are).

I’m sad about what Ike did to Crystal and I miss it – maybe more than a person ought to miss a place. Oddly, that ‘countrified beach’ is somehow a part of me, and I just want it back the way it was.

http://bringbackbolivar.com/bbb/

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A little more detail on tenacity

Posted by beer_chris on 22-October-2008

Some detail on the 20-October tenacity menu and my beer pairings. Courses listed in order, by sin 😉

WRATH – Atlantic razor clams marinated in togarashi oil, young lemongrass & frozen jalapeno water.

I really liked this. It was the fave dish of many at the table. Randy warned us that the jalapeno granita was quite assertive, and it didn’t disappoint – although I think the togarashi oil (there was at least a teaspoon of it at the bottom of the wide mouthed clear juice glass-like serving dish) was the real culprit. I had a Rogue Chipotle Ale – which I also had been enjoying before dinner. The smoky and slightly hot character really balanced nicely, and the nutty quality of the base American Brown ale was quite nice.

PRIDE – wild guinea hen, japanese long onion, sprouting peas and pinenut-miso tapenade

This was probably my second favorite dish, although the long onion wasn’t especially unique. It tasted like any type of green onion to me. The guinea hen, which Randy said was the ‘proudest’ animal he could think of, was prepared as a sort of terrine. Barbara McKnight, my neighbor at the table for half of the night and the owner of Culinaire, the host establishment, commented that pea shoots are simply not used enought and are exceptionally tasty. I couldn’t agree more. The tapenade was magical. I paired this with a Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA, and it balanced well – the hops didn’t overwhelm the other flavors too much, and I thought if any beer was ‘proud’, it was one that was continuously hopped for an hour and still could be enjoyed with dinner.

GREED – Black truffle, malabar spinach and king oyster mushrooms

A little disappointing. Truffle had been slightly ‘cured’ by heating very slightly with a small batch EVOO, such that the earthiness of the two ingredients would work together. I found the heating and the oil diminished the richness of aroma usually experienced with black truffle, especially shavings as large as what was served. I didn’t even try to pair a beer with truffle. I was too scared 😉

LUST – Tennessee hackleback caviar, carbonated gulf oysters, shaved radish & foamed rice

This was the strangest dish of the evening, and although I liked the components, they simply didn’t come together coherently. The carbonated oysters were a play on champagne – going for champagne and caviar with the roe – but because it still summer the oysters really lacked the sweetness that come when they are in season. The ‘carbonating’ (which I described yesterday) had the effect of creating a smooth mouthfeel for the oysters, almost like pate.  Ultimately this removed the ‘chew’ from the oyster, something I really like. The rice foam really didn’t serve a purpose I could figure out. I tried to pair this with a saison – a belgian one, Saison Dupont. It didn’t work. The fruity esters simply fought with the salty seafood flavors.

ENVY – watermelon imitating tuna, agua fresca & nasturtium leaves

Pretty good – massive slices of top grade hamachi balanced on pressed watermelon, served on top of a smear of watermelon agua fresca. The tuna was awesome. The balance against the watermelon was interesting, but I’m not sure it worked. I did appreciate the use of tuna as a ‘salt’ on the watermelon, but the agua fresca needed to be in a shot glass or something – I had to mop up the smear with my spoon, and barely got a flavor of it. I tried the saison again with this – not at all working with the salty tuna and sweet watermelon.

SLOTH – Sea snails grilled slowly over oak, smoky pineapple, garlic nage and molasses

This was my fave dish. The garlic nage, which had molasses mixed in it was absolutely ethereal and a flavor combination I will always remember. I wanted to lick the bowl. The sweet pineapple was topped with thin slices of fennel root. I paired it with Guinness (in the bottle – no widget), which proved to be absolutely perfect. Without the nitrogenation of the widget the stout was even dryer and more bitter than normal, and it balanced so well with the garlic flavors and the nuttiness of the sea snail. It was an inspiring combination.

GLUTTONY – Foie gras milkshake, rich butterscotch and pave of foie gras

I was not as afraid of a foie milkshake as perhaps I was supposed to be, but then again I like strange things. It was darn tasty, and something everyone should try. The pave was well executed and really great, but after such a night of challenging dishes this well-executed foie seemed almost pedestrian by comparison. If only every night could be like this one! I paired this with Fullers ESB, which I had placed out on the table to warm after the LUST course. The nuttiness and slight malty sweetness paired perfectly with the foie milkshake, and was a nice crown to my beer pairing night – I can now say with absolute truthfulness that I have sucessfully paired beer with foie gras and chocolate in the same course.

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First time at Tenacity

Posted by beer_chris on 21-October-2008

Did my first trip to Randy Rucker’s Tenacity supper club. It was held at a catering company just outside midtown called Culinaire – to be accurate, at a restored home that the company intends to use as an event venue. It was really beautiful.

The menu was a 7 course tasting menu inspired by the 7 deadly sins. As it was BYOB, I tried to pair the courses with beer – and had some success.

There were maybe 30 people there, and probably half were first-timers. I sat with the mother of the owner of Culinaire. Chef Rucker introduced each dish with an explanation, talking specifically about the techniques used and his inspiration for the dish.

Rucker’s goal was to experiment – to introduce techniques and ingredients/flavors to Houston diners. He certainly met his goal. Dishes ranged from a surprisingly tasty fois gras milkshake to a distinctivly odd combination if freshwater caviar and ‘carbonated’ oysters – raw oysters pressurized in CO2 overnight to infuse them with bubbles.

It was a fun experience. It was not so much a meal as a show – or perhaps better said – a study in culinary experimentation. A good night and one that expanded my mind and palate.

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Back to posting – first try at adobo chicken

Posted by beer_chris on 20-October-2008

My goal this week is a post a day. I’ve definitely gotten out of the habit of writing in this blog of late, but I definitely have topics bouncing around in my head – just like always.

I’ve been enjoying the online work of Alison Cook over at the Chronicle, as well as the Eating… Our Words blog at the Houston Press, which includes postings by Robb Walsh among others.

My latest recipe musing is focused on adobo chicken. I marinated chicken thighs in a white wine vinegar, olive oil, cumin, salt and adobo mixture overnight and grilled the result. It was pretty good, although my ultimate goal is to come up with a low fat and low Weight Watcher point Tex-Mex dish.

Tonight is my first trip to the Rucker dinner. I’m definitely looking forward to the strange menu. Since it’s BYOB I’m going to try and make beer pairings as best I can.

Jaime and I ate at Catalan for the first time Friday night – mixed experience, although we’ll certainly go back, since both of us wanted to try the entire menu.

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