Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for February, 2009

Update on Ike closures

Posted by beer_chris on 14-February-2009

Looks like Stingaree is OPEN again! Hooray! However, reports of a demise of Tookies seem perhaps a little premature – see story at Galveston County Daily News. Sounds like some insurance wrangling to be done before the owner will decide what to do. 

Also, I’m putting ‘Daily News’ writer Laura Elder’s ‘Biz Buzz’ blog onto my blogroll – some good Galveston County restaurant news in there.

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Update on Top Chef ruminations

Posted by beer_chris on 8-February-2009

Richard Blais (S4 runner up) has a really great blog on Bravotv.com. His last post addresses much the same issues as my little relevance post from last night.

My favorite quote:

I’m shocked again at the “I’ve nevers”..Never filleted sardines..Never used za’atar spice. Never poached in oil. The I’ve Nevers from a Top Chef cast should be: I’ve never cooked a dish start from scratch in 20 minutes, I’ve never lived in a dorm with 16 people, I’ve never had a woman as pretty as Padma that close to me, etc.

It’s a good read.

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Goodness

Posted by beer_chris on 8-February-2009

Those last two posts were nearly 2400 words.

Time for sleeping now – goodnight!

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Top Chef – relevant?

Posted by beer_chris on 8-February-2009

One last post before I’m off to bed. With Top Chef being so mediocre this year, I’m left wondering if it is relevant – or if it ever really has been. I certainly have enjoyed the previous seasons, and I’m certainly still DVRing and watching this season’s eps with the same level of devotion I have in the past, but the poor quality this year has had me thinking about a couple of things. Primary among these is the measure of success for the show. Clearly, the goal is to push eyeballs to Bravo – but to do that they have to maintain some level of credibility with their viewers.  I think Top Chef should aim for three things:

  1. Have the winner acquire some level of fame and success
  2. Be an entertaining reality show
  3. Stay true to the food – be original in the challenges and encourage/require contestants to push their limits

Starting with the first criteria – Bravo has failed in all regards. One – $100K in prize money is nothing, and certainly isn’t even going to serve as ‘seed’ money for someone whose talents permit them to take 6-8 months off of their career for filming and can afford to sign all licensing rights away to Bravo just to try out (allegedly). Former winners really have achieved nothing – promotion comes only via the show, and a ‘where are they now’ overview usually includes a good bit of, “so-and-so is still cooking in the same place they were before”. Compared to how Food Network pimps the ‘Next Food Network Star’, and one sees a study in contrast. Those winners receive a show and a corner of the burgeoning pop-culture side of the industry. Argue the merits of this, but those winners become famous and, at least to some extent, rich. The Food Network seems adept at promoting its talent similarly to WWE, which is a model that definitely works. Shove something at me long enough, and although I may not like it I’ll certainly recognize it.

Is Top Chef an entertaining reality show? I think it is, but a true measure of this is really wrapped up in the quality of the cooking/originality. I think back to the first food ‘reality’ show I ever watched – it was only on for a single season. It was called ‘Cooking School Stories’, and basically followed a group of students in their final year at Johnson & Wales in RI. There was no manufactured drama, no ‘evil’ characters or romances. Just students learning and cooking together in class. There were always features where a recipe was demonstrated, and the teacher graded each students effort and provided critique. It was ‘real’, and although it lacked manufactured drama it captured the real drama of this situation. It also provided a window into what it’s like at culinary school. I loved it. Top Chef Season 1 had a similar feel. The production value was a little low, the editing was raw, I felt like I got to know some of these chefs. Although the manufactured drama was definitely there, I still felt a connected to the contestants, and I still remember many of them from that first show. Seasons 2, 3 and 4 felt similarly, although each season seemed to stray farther towards a more generalized plotline created in the production room vs in the kitchen or at judges table.  This season is the farthest of all from that standard. I don’t know what to believe. Although it’s not as bad as watching Hells Kitchen, its getting closer. The contestants are becoming more like characters, and the challenges are simply put-ons to generate more fodder for the producers to reinforce those simple characterizations. It just feels less real.

Finally, staying true to the food. This season has unleashed two things that I think have had devastating consequences. One, (and this is simply a rumor, but I’ve had it confirmed verbally in a couple places) requiring the chefs at regional tryouts to sign a waiver allocating some portion of all future earnings to NBC/Universal. Two, bringing in corporate sponsorships in a large portion of the challenges.

First, the requirement to sign over future earnings simply chases away the talented chefs – those that are really right on the verge of leveraging their creativity and starting a new restaurant. What remains are (1) inexperienced chefs just getting started and (2) longtime ‘cooks’ and caterers looking for a break. This is a recipe for the status quo, in my opinion.

Second, the corporate sponsored challenges strip away even more originality. Having a chef forced to use diet Dr Pepper isn’t a challenge, that’s lunacy. Forcing someone to ‘reinvent’ Quaker Oats is a little better but not by much. This raw branding smacks of a desperate attempt to leverage the pop culture angle that the Food Network has seemingly mastered, but all it really does is dumb down the food and further encourage the chefs/cooks to do more of ‘what works in my restaurant’ rather than making them step outside that box. When I think about the dichotomy between some of the quickfire challenges this season and one of my all time favorites – the season 3 quickfire with the seafood tank – it’s just shocking.

So what is Top Chef and Bravo to do? It’s headed downhill, but I think it can be saved. If the waiver process must remain, then the show needs to recruit young chefs who have a vision – something more then ‘I cook fish’ or ‘I know asian’. The only chef with vision on this show is Carla – and regardless of her skill level or ability to execute, I would much rather be watching a show full of Carlas than Leahs and Jamies. Talent is important too, along with skill, but ultimately its that vision (and a confidence in it) that really drives a chef to be original and push the envelope.

Second, the show must let the challenges dictate the drama. Ever since Tre jumped on Marcel we’ve gotten way more of the apartment drama than I can really bear. I would much rather see an “I’m not your bitch, bitch” in the pressure cooker then two tired, drunk, lonely contestants making out on a couch. 

I like Top Chef, I really do. I think it can be a relevant show again, but if it simply tries to Gordon Ramsey or Food Network itself, it’s going to fade into obscurity.

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The Houston Chowhounds and Me – Clear Lake edition

Posted by beer_chris on 8-February-2009

I’m a little late on this update, but last Monday I met up with a group of Houston Chowhounds for a lovely day of stopping among some of my favorite places in the Clear Lake/Bay Area. I joined this little group back in late November, ostensibly to get plugged into the miracle berry tasting, but really because I was making a real effort to identify with and get more involved in the rapidly growing online food community in Houston. I dove right in – organizing an event within a week of joining, but I’ve always been a little worried that I am in over my head. After all – I thought everyone was honest to goodness writers and restauranteurs, certainly capable of outstripping my tiny modicum of  ‘aspiring’ knowledge at every turn. In short (I worried), could I really expect to add anything to the conversation or was I going to be a groupie – just getting in the way?

After this last event, I’m convinced that this is a group of people that I ‘fit’ with, and I’m done asking the self-doubting questions and ready to just enjoy being part of the community.

So – to the event: I was overdue a day off, having previously planned on MLK day – Jaime is off that day so I try to take it if I can. As it turned out I had to spend that Monday in the office, so a quick scan of the calendar to replace it and it was obvious – the day after the Super Bowl was downright inviting me to add ‘VAC’ to it.

So I started to plan. Since I’m not going to be in town for my birthday this year I’ve been really lamenting not being able to do my usual tradition: all-day Houston pub crawl. Coupled with some recent discussions with my HouCHie brethern on some yum-tastic places out near my house and I was inspired – lunch at Gilhooley’s in San Leon, followed by a pint or three at the Bayview Duck (with some Scotch eggs of course). Mix in a fantastic spicy bloody mary and some crawfish at Outriggers in Seabrook and wind the day up with All You Can Eat lobster at Cullens.

Honestly, I expected a couple people at Gilhooleys, and then to be on my own for the rest of the day. I was even planning on taking a book to read – like my pub crawls, it  was my event, I was doing it to enjoy myself – so was totally doing it whether I had people with me or not.

Needless to say, I underestimated the tenacity and committment of the Houston Chowhounds. V, J, J, S & C stuck with me the whole day, and we had a great time. From introducing San Leon first timers to the wonders of the boudin balls and the namesake smoked oysters at Gilhooleys all the way to the crusty pizza at our final stop, these folks stuck with it and we had a fantastic time.  A couple thoughts:

  • I was kinda worried about Gilhooleys being open for lunch on a Monday. Turns out they were hopping. V asked me about this – based on the number of guys in nomex it was snap to figure it out – these were plant operators coming off of their 12s and eating lunch before heading  home for bed. I even met an XOM employee (Brent) from the Baytown refinery eating with his son (who worked at Chevron as an engineer)
  • Oysters are definitely off of what they can be. The oysters Gilhooley were great, as usual, but the raw were just not as sweet as I am used to for February. Also, although they were good size they weren’t OMG huge. Ike is definitely affecting the oyster harvest – quality and quantity.
  • Fried chicken livers were not a huge hit with the table, but I LOVE ’em.
  • Patty melts are apparently for quick consumption 😉
  • Fullers ESB is really tasty at the Bayview Duck. Easily the best and freshest English beer in town – even beats Brewery Tap. I had three (or was it four?) pints, and they went down fast. However, Alec (the owner) has me worried. Glazers is getting out of the beer business, and he told me he is going to have to find a new distributor for his beers. Since he is in Galveston County and is one of the only places handling these beers it may be a challenge. Here’s hoping I don’t go back to find only Guinness and American Light Lager on tap next time.
  • Alec can fry a perfect scotch egg (for a whopping $5 each!!) but other items remain a challenge (sorry Alec, but the seafood chowder and Yorkshire pudding were not so great)
  • I’m so happy that Outriggers is A-OK and rebuilding after Ike. The bloody mary there is really the best I’ve ever had, and with the outdoor deck up and going again I am really hoping they are headed for a great summer season. Seabrook really needs a comeback. They need to get the Saint Arnold (and everything else) back on tap though!!
  • Tookies appears dead. RIP squealer and Dr. Pepper in a carafe. I’ll always love you.
  • So far this season (2 meals), crawfish remain a disappointment. While not as bad as the ones I had at Ragin Cajun a few months ago, the ones at Outriggers were still way too small. I was happily surprised to find them freshly boiled for us in the middle of a weekday with no one else in the place.
  • AYCE at Cullens was scrapped in favor of a trip to a place I had never been. On Cs recommendation we went to the Turtle Club in Seabrook. It took some work to find this place – it’s right on the water at Lakeshore Drive off of NR 1. However, it was worth it. Beer only in cans. Dive quality setup – mens restroom didn’t have a door – just those big heavy plastic strips that usually block off grocery store cold boxes. Clearly full of regulars on a Monday evening. After sitting at our table for a few minutes an crusty looking biker guy came up to our table – and promptly began doing slight of hand magic tricks, culminating in a card trick that had a card face up reading ‘magician works for tips’.  ROFL. We did as we were told.
  • I ended up convincing a few of my compatriots to go to Boondoggles with me for some wood-fired pizza and some great beers. We asked them to leave the pizza in a little longer to really blacken it – and they COMPLIED! It was a nice endpoint to a really fun day.

Bottom line – drinking and eating your way from lunch to the end of happy hour with the Houston Chowhounds is downright fun, and I’ve finally met a group of people in this town that enjoy this type of day as much as I always have. We all kept looking at one another at every stop and saying, “This is GREAT! What a DAY!”

What a day indeed. Methinks I’ve found some kindred spirits.

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