Saturday, March 9, 2013

The improbable genius of 6-minute microwave brownies

There's a recipe making the Internet rounds these days for 6-minute brownies cooked in the microwave. When it comes to cooking, taking shortcuts in many instances is an invitation to disaster generally, but disaster always seems particularly imminent when it comes to involving the microwave. Microwave cookbooks are largely (and rightly) banished to their fate as garage sale novelties and used bookstore castoffs.

At the same times, there's just something about brownies. They might be near the top of the dessert throne, in part because they're so simple: a handful of ingredients, stirred until just combined, but maddeningly difficult to get to come out perfectly. There has to be just that balance between goo and bite. Even most professional bakeries crank out dry, listless, not chocolatey-enough brownies and try to mask their flaws with toppings like frosting or cream cheese.

The paste-like batter for 6-minute microwave brownies.
This is where the appeal of six-minute brownies comes. They're seductively easy and eliminate the normal brownie wait of 35 or 45 minutes of baking. Impulse indulgence, with little mess. This is America. But a microwave couldn't possibly be the source of moist, tasty brownies. Could it? But what's the worst that could happen? A tragic loss of 12 tablespoons of butter, sure, but maybe ten minutes of your life? Minimal risk considering the delicious jackpot of the potential reward.

Here's the bottom line: the recipe is legit. There's a genius about it. The amount of butter and sugar gives the batter a consistency similar to paste. This high moisture content guards against drying out.

A little Blue Bell vanilla. Served hot. Six minutes to heaven.
There are, however, two important refinements to take when making these miracle brownies. First, use an 8x8 pan. This further protects the edges from drying out. Second, the recipe does not call for salt. Use some -- a quarter or half teaspoon should suffice. But without it, the chocolate will seem dull.

The end result is a fast and indulgent dessert that is made to accompany Blue Bell ice cream.

It's pretty darn tasty indeed. But, as the final line of the recipe suggests, these brownies are best served warm. Once they hit room temperature, the edges do show signs of drying out. The next day, while the flavor is still good -- how could that much butter result in full flavor betrayal? -- the texture is less compelling.

So are microwaves completely useless as a primary method of cooking? Quite possibly. Because these brownies might be the exception that proves the rule.

Friday, January 4, 2013

20 Things Everyone Thinks About Houston Food (But Nobody Will Say)

The "Eat" section of First We Feast recently published a list of of things everybody knows about food but up until then people have been afraid to say. This spawned interesting debate on Twitter, including the question of what a Houston things-nobody-will-say list might look like. With all the biases inherent in a single viewpoint, here's a stab at it. This is not meant to be an end unto itself; it's a starting point to stimulate discussion about a few areas where Houston could use some honest talk.

1. Houston hasn't yet reached adolescence in its development as a food city.
Close your eyes and think about Houston restaurants ten years ago. What was hot and exciting? Don't remember? What were the hot openings? Who's left? Mark's, Da Marco, Tony's, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Brennan's, Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe? Yes. They truck along and do so brilliantly. The larger point is that Houston has barely begun to expand beyond a handful of establishments that are interesting. But it's easy to get carried away and think, "Houston has arrived!" If you think that, however, it'll be gone in a flash, and you'll have never gotten there. Transforming Houston into a really meaningful culinary destination will take a lot of time. Don't jump to the conclusion because it's way more fun to enjoy the ride. Think about it. Houston had maybe a dozen really notable restaurant openings last year. In the San Francisco area? They're talking about ten this month. It'll be fun to watch Houston grow into a city like that.

2. Money talks.
The big money being spent on dining out in Houston still flows from the expense account/oil and gas sector. Hipsters and fadists are on the cutting edge, but they generally don't have the means to sustain institutions or trends. There's a reason why certain restaurants stay in business. People vote with their wallets and, bottom line, this is something you can't forget. Eating out is fundamentally a consumer product, and those with the bucks can be king-makers. So it's important to have a big-tent theory of food and bring everyone into the flow so the city can sustain the best restaurants.

3. Institutions matter.
This notion is linked to everything on this list. Think of any great culinary city, and you can instantly name institutions, restaurants you can't imagine the city without. New York and Peter Luger Steakhouse or the Carnegie Deli. Paris with Taillevent and Latour d'Argent. They don't have to be the best places, necessarily. But they've been there and done that for a very long time, and by and large they do it well. That matters -- because you can't live on constant innovation alone. You need to find and embrace as a city the restaurants that will become reasons for people to visit. These are restaurants that become part of the city's fabric.

4. Houston does have good barbecue.
This is one of those things people like to fight about because the amount of contested ground is so slim. Barbecue is like Tex-Mex or hamburgers or pizza. It's something whose inherent qualities are so good that, even when it's mediocre, it's pretty darn good. Gatlin's is good. Goode Company is good. You don't have to drive into Lockhart to get a fix on some nice smoked meat. It's fun to talk about what's better or best. But with something as joyously delicious as barbecue, there's no reason to go apoplectic over comparatively small degrees of separation.

5. Houston needs more good "daily" restaurants to form a culinary backbone.
Restaurant across the city in 2012 were events. There was a proliferation of places that, over time, could become flagship restaurants of a great food city. But great food cities need infrastructure in the form of tasty, serviceable, and simple neighborhood restaurants. These places don't require a reservation. They aren't see-or-be-seen establishments. They aren't a big production. They're comfortable. They cultivate clientele. They make you feel at home, whether you come in for a glass of wine and an appetizer or stop in late for a night cap or dessert. In short, the city needs more places like Poscol.

6. Food trucks are nice, but they don't compete with restaurants.
There's some quality stuff coming off of food trucks. But, on the whole, food trucks are more like diners or dive bars than they are trend setters. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but it's instructive to look at how notable food trucks like the Eatsie Boys and Modular are turning to traditional restaurant models for long-term success. This isn't about city propane regulations or anything else. Food trucks are an inherently limited medium. Good Dog Hot Dogs and Bernie's Burger Bus are delicious, and it's great to see an increase in the number of places where you can find good food carefully prepared. There's a role for food trucks to play, but they're not a threat to the traditional restaurant -- they're a complement.

7. Houston's ethnic restaurants are some of the best in the United States.
This is possibly the least controversial statement here. The breadth and quality of Houston's ethnic restaurants, particularly with Asian cuisines, is astounding. Food has a remarkable quality of allowing you to travel while staying put, and Houston does an admirable job of this. Keep spreading the word.

8. Most people don't understand tasting menus.
The current "backlash" against tasting menus seems like manufactured drama, though a kernel of truth lurks there. That's because so many consumers and, more importantly, chefs don't understand what a tasting menu is all about. Tasting menus are the ultimate, novelistic test of chefs: Can they create a cohesive, meaningful narrative, skillfully executed over a set number of courses that fills up a diner to just the right level -- full but not overly so. Thoughtful tasting menus take you on a culinary journey; they aren't just a restaurant's greatest hits or a mish-mash of unrelated dishes. They have form. This is a common misunderstanding, and sloppy execution of tasting menus causes frustration and unfulfillment. But the highest culinary highs come from such menus, so it's worth learning about them and seeking out fine examples of them.

9. Da Marco, Mark's, and Tony's still define "fine dining" in Houston.
They're here. They're successful. They've done it for a long time. They might not always be on the cutting edge of innovation -- although the exceptionally talented Grant Gordon at Tony's contradicts that statement -- but they do it well, and they will keep doing it. These are important restaurants, and just because they aren't as trendy with the foodie crowd as they once were doesn't mean they're devoid of influence. This is the level the hot new restaurants of 2012 should aspire to become.

10. Underbelly does not tell the story of Houston food.
Underbelly is a terrific addition to the Houston food scene. Chris Shepherd is a fun chef who has admirable passion that normally translates to the plate. But Underbelly does not tell the story of Houston food, and more importantly it does not have to. To think that a single establishment could articulate the diversity found across this mammoth city is shooting for the impossible at best and arrogant at worst. If it were possible, it would mean our city's food scene is far too limited. It's not the job of one restaurant to encompass all of Houston, and no restaurant can do it.  

11. Houston needs more good sommeliers.
Great restaurant cities have numerous restaurants that provide a complete dining experience. An important part of that experience is having a sommelier who can provide beverages that enhance every dish you eat. The best example in Houston of a complete sommelier who provides a 360-degree experience for his guests is Sean Beck at Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's. He's unpretentious yet knowledgeable. He stays in tune with the customer's taste. He knows his menus and wine lists backwards and forwards, so he can be sure his recommendations go with the food. There are always interesting and unexpected wines, thoughtfully chosen and not haphazardly selected for their esoteric qualities, on the list. This is what you would expect of any sommelier at a minimum, yet so rarely find in Houston. At the same time, he also has an obsession with ensuring guest experiences are as good as they can be. This is how valuable a good sommelier can be. Houston restaurants should take note.

12. Fawning over obscure drinks masks true and thorough knowledge of wine, beers, and spirits.
Forget piling a dozen sherries on your wine list. Forget trying to dazzle customers with wines you've never heard of but whose presence on the wine list are to show off what a geek you purport to be. Just as developing into a great restaurant city takes years of hard work and lots of sweat, so does becoming a sommelier or skilled mixologist. This doesn't happen overnight, and there's no substitute for the hard work that comes in gaining the depth of knowledge of Houston's great sommeliers like the crew on the floor at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. There is great virtue in getting a handle on all the fundamentals before forging into the esoteric. Too frequently these days, however, Houston restaurants feature odd wines and beers and spirits simply because of their novelty, and it comes off as an attempt to cover up a lack of genuine knowledge. Booze is fun. Take the time to learn it in-depth and provide customers the best experience possible.

13. Service at restaurants needs drastic improvement.
Even in the best restaurants in Houston, you can't assume you'll receive skilled service. Walk into any very good restaurant, and you are quite likely to be the recipient of service foibles, such as food coming out incorrectly or at the wrong time or getting your meals while waiting on silverware. Like all things restaurant, cultivating a serious culture of service and staffing it with professionally minded individuals is a monumental task. But a world class restaurant city cannot fall down on something as important as service, and nothing spoils a good meal faster than crummy service.

14. Houston is at a precarious time in its restaurant growth.
Don't buy your own press. Don't live in a bubble. The way you achieve greatness is by constantly striving toward perfection that, in almost every instance, you will not achieve. Houston's food scene has shown a dangerous proclivity toward bullying those who criticize and buying its own self-created hype. That's not the thing to do. Be proud of what the city achieves, but always strive to be better. Houston is still but a glimmer on the national map. It's a growing glimmer, but one that could be gone in the blink of an eye without ceaseless dedication to improvement, learning, and creativity.

15. Houston is insecure about the status of its restaurant and food scene.
Keeping an insulated community, buying your own press, and having an immature reaction to criticism are hallmarks of insecurity. Remember when Houston hosted the Super Bowl? There were so many big showings of how great and cosmopolitan Houston was. Cities that are great and cosmopolitan don't have to go out of their way to tell you that. They're confident in it. Houston needs to learn that. The acceptance the city craves so much will come with hard work. The dining scene here isn't as exciting as San Francisco or New York. But it's more exciting than ever. Enjoy that and keep focused on reaching the point where it can play with the big boys.

16. Central Market is better than any farmers' market in town.
The proliferation of farmers' markets over the past five years is a great development, in particular because it has consumers focused on quality first. But the simple truth is that Houston and its surrounding area aren't an agricultural green belt like the Midwest or California, and it's a challenge to find really good quality ingredients. Central Market, however, provides a reliable source of very good produce and other ingredients. An important part of sourcing ingredients, for any cook, is finding products of consistent quality. This isn't to say farmers markets are bad. They're awesome. But Central Market is the most reliable source in town.

17. BYOB should be standard.
This transcends Houston, but great food cities embrace wine and beer as much as possible, and BYOB should be allowed at the discretion of every restaurant. It's an incentive for people to eat out more. Arguments that BYOB is a threat to restaurants that serve wine, beer, and spirits have no merit. Look no further than cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The sad thing is that Houston's and Texas's alcohol wholesale, retail, and distribution networks are near-monopolies that are bad for consumers, and this extends to the choices restaurant patrons find on most wine lists and in BYOB prohibitions.

18. A sustainable food scene cannot be based on trends or fads alone.
You see it if you follow the club scene -- Richmond strip to Midtown to Washington Avenue. Trendy restaurant-goers are the same. They hit the Next Big Thing in droves, then move on. Fads and trends are fickle by definition and are no way to build long-term success. At some point, Alinea in Chicago will not be considered avant-garde. There is a process of natural selection for restaurants, and at some point, you have to begin building a canon of bedrock institutions. Remember that Chumbawumba was popular once. The hope is for exciting new restaurants to open every year in Houston, but just because something is new does not mean it's better.

19. Longevity matters.
This is closely related to No. 18. Remember in April 2011 when the Houston Press pronounced Stella Sola, open about a year, a Heights "institution"? Yet, only a year later, Stella Sola closed with no fanfare or farewell party. Meanwhile, unheralded-but-delicious neighborhood joint Glass Wall across the street trucks along to packed crowds. Running a restaurant is a business, and regardless of how cool or fun or interesting what you're doing is, making it work is essential. So before pronouncing Oxheart or Uchi or Underbelly or The Pass the new standard-bearer of all things Houston food, remember to add "potential" in front of all that. Because it only matters if they can do it over time. This is one part of what makes places like Brennan's so important.

20. If it plays its cards right, Houston can become a nationally relevant, vibrant restaurant town for decades.
One of the great characteristics of Houston as a city is that it is swift to embrace success. You can make a name for yourself on your own merits here more easily than in other cities, and that's an admirable quality. As a result, having open arms is in some ways already inherent to Houston's culture. Fostering success and driving competition to push the good to very good and the very good to great are what will propel Houston to the next level. So much of the food and restaurant scene today is concerned with sustainability -- from green architecture to sources of ingredients. But another type of sustainability -- of talent, creativity, and a drive for success -- are essential for Houston to reach its full potential.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Does every palate matter?

At a recent dinner with several Houston-area wine bloggers, an interesting aphorism came up: Every palate matters. Does that hold when it comes to opinions about wine? As with almost anything, the answer is somewhere in the middle, but overall the notion that every wine drinker's palate matters is a valuable concept.

What wines go off in your head like a light bulb?
The easiest way to understand that is to concede that we live in the information age -- or at least during an epoch in which information, its volume, and its accessibility are of central importance to our society. Indeed, the very notion that more-is-better when it comes to information seems to be hardening into theorem. Setting aside the need to sort through various degrees of how reliable that information is, there is undeniably something appealing about the information economy. You can crystallize this in a way easily understood during this election season: we like polls because they let us know with a reasonable certainty what likely would happen were voting to take place on any given day. The more data a poll has, in theory, the more accurate it is. And the same is true for this information society. Dump everything into a central input -- the Internet, broadly speaking -- and you're going to get an increasingly accurate read on things the more good information you include.

Obviously, the paragraph above is an over-simplification. As acknowledged, it doesn't account for bad or blatantly misleading or false information. (One might argue the Internet excels at the blatantly false.) But drilling down on this idea a bit further reveals that it is useful. We like to rely on experts in this country; you might argue we're obsessed with doing so -- in politics, when it comes to advice on parenting, in litigation, in almost every life situation you'll find an expert telling you what to do. What you don't often get, however, is a meaningful glimpse of the raw data that lie behind the opinion. And that's where the pure-democracy free-for-all of the Internet is such fun and holds so much potential.

Large-format bottles at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.
To bring the focus back to wine, you can readily see how the proliferation of information enhances and frames expert opinions. Many wine consumers are familiar with the 100-point-scale of ratings employed by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator. And a portion of those consumers are lashing back against the "tyranny" of slapping a purportedly objective number on wine, a beverage lauded for its nuance and singularity of expression. Of course it's silly to think that anything as subjective as wine could be reduced to a number. It's also silly to think that an "expert" taster's opinion, such as that of Robert Parker or James Laube or James Suckling, should be given dictatorial deference. Each of them is, however skilled, just one taster. And it is the Internet and the ease with which it allows information proliferation that has enabled consumers to make terrific inroads against this tyranny of experts in the wine industry.


The best example of this CellarTracker, Eric Levine's invaluable web-based wine software. (Though it is worth noting that bulletin boards such as Wine Berserkers -- although not Parker's miserable online forum -- are also worthy venues.) Apart from being an intuitive and comprehensive tool for managing your wine cellar, CellarTracker allows user to post public tasting notes, and it has become the single finest repository of data on individual wines in the world. It also tethers in various expert reviews -- either automatically, in the case of the International Wine Cellar, Burghound, and others -- or via manual input for Parker and Spectator.

Riesling at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is one of life's pure pleasures.
To understand why this is part of CellarTracker's genius, you have to understand generally why wine tasting notes matter. Rarely do two wine drinkers' palates mesh perfectly, if at all. As a result, when you read a tasting note, you have to calibrate your own palate to that of the writer. One person's "black cherry" might be another person's "blackberry." One person's perception of sweetness or tannin might differ dramatically from that of another. When widely available tasting notes were relegated to a handful of critics, it was difficult to calibrate your palate to that of a critic (not to mention the lingering fear that disagreeing with a critic's expert assessment might make you "wrong") because drinking a wine and comparing it to a single, fleeting tasting note is perversely inexact. Believe it or not, critics like Robert Parker get wines wrong; they have off days; they don't like certain wines or styles. These are biases inherent in every wine drinker, so the margin for error with fewer voices in the tasting note chorus is much greater.

CellarTracker, however, provides more data points for wine drinkers than ever before and, as a result, makes this "palate calibration" easier because the amount of data significantly reduces the prospects that information about the wine will be an outlier. (Naturally, when CellarTracker has fewer data on a wine, the less reliable it is.) The net result is that wine drinkers win because there is a more transparent, democratic community. Expansive forums like CellarTracker also enhance the usefulness of professional critics by giving them greater context -- it's easier to see when they get wines wrong or how they compare to someone whose palate coincides more closely with yours. This helps break down a lot of the old snobbery that has intimidated people from appreciating wine and have remained obstacles for too long. And, yes, it also means that every palate matters.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

How much money is wine worth?

How much is that wine in your glass worth? Seriously. Cover up the label. Wipe away the memory of what you paid for it. What is it worth to you? If only it were that simple. From the objective standpoint of pure dollars, wine is grotesquely overpriced. Wine costs, roughly, between 20 cents an ounce (for a $5 bottle) and $100 (or more) an ounce. To put that in context, organic milk at Central Market costs roughly 4 cents an ounce. Fancy bottled water might run as much as 15 cents an ounce. The most expensive beers at Spec's here in Houston might tip the scale at 50 cents per ounce (with the usual Miller Lite or Bud Light coming in at about 8 cents per ounce in a 12-pack).

Before going further, however, a preliminary note: this isn't one of those screeds about "authentic" wine or excoriating those who pay a lot for bottles of wine. Those are traps. Terms like "authentic" and "a lot" are so relative, they have little fixed meaning. At the same time, the "worth" of wine isn't necessarily as simple as the cost of the grapes, oak barrels, bottles, labels, corks, etc. that go into making the wine.

So where does that leave the question: How much is that wine in your glass worth? Probably never more than about $50. At that point, other factors start playing havoc with the amount you pay. Chief among those are prestige and scarcity. That is easily enough understood. There are roughly 500 cases of Domaine de la Romanee Conti's Romanee Conti made each vintage, centuries of legend behind the wine, and tens of thousands of people who would gladly pay to drink perhaps the greatest trophy among all wines. Put that all together, and you can grab a 750-milliliter bottle of 2009 Romanee Conti for $10,000 if you're lucky (almost $400 per ounce).

That's an extreme example, and the slope of prestige and scarcity that reaches its apex at Romanee Conti is much more difficult to discern at its earlier stages of incline. But here's an example you may have encountered: Have you ever drunk Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio? If you drink wine, you probably have tasted it. Six or seven years ago, it retailed for $15. Today, you're hard-pressed to find it for $20 or less. On a restaurant wine list, you might have found it for $25 to $30 in 2005. Today? Try more like $40 to $60. The wine hasn't changed. Its rapidly increasing popularity has. You're paying 30% more for the same wine. (Or, some may argue, lesser wine, as production of it has increased steadily over the years, too.)

In any case, it's not difficult to understand that prices increases with popularity. That's simple supply-and-demand. Pinot Noir prices in California jumped after the immense popularity of the movie Sideways. Popularity is only one factor in the price, but this doesn't tell us much about how much wine is worth.

The real bottom line here isn't existential or even complex. To determine what wine is worth to you, ask  how much you are comfortable paying. It doesn't matter if you're willing to spend $5 or $10 or $20 for a bottle. Whatever fits in your budget and tastes good to you is what wine is worth. The larger point here is that more expensive isn't always better. You pay for a lot of things besides what's inside the bottle as prices increase. Today, there are more higher quality wine options across the board, which means there is even less reason to have label envy.

One final note: this shouldn't be taken as a condemnation of expensive wines or trophy bottles. Splurging can be fun. But wine connoisseurs have a terrible habit of making less sophisticated drinkers feel inferior or inadequate by showing contempt for less prestigious wines or those that have some esoteric point of interest. That can be intimidating, but it's a silly game to play. Not every occasion calls for a trophy bottle -- a hot day on the porch with a $10 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is a recipe for a good time -- and just because a wine is rare and prestigious doesn't always mean it's the best. There are dozens of $100-plus Napa Valley Cabernets to prove this point.

There is nothing gained by drinking wine to impress others. You should drink for yourself.
You don't drink wine for the pleasure it gives others; you drink it for the pleasure it brings you. So the wine that fits your budget and makes you happy? However much it cost, that's how much a wine is worth.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Houston, we have a problem ... with criticism

Most of what's happening on the Houston food thing is positive. The Houston Dairymaids greatly extended their warehouse hours, further expanding this city's most important cheese source. Underbelly just opened to great fanfare. Uchi has arrived from Austin. Oxheart joins the fray next week.  There's real buzz around new restaurants here. But let's not forget that traditional favorites, such as Da Marco, Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, Tony's, and so many others keep on trucking along. This is a vibrant, even burgeoning food metropolis that has legitimate potential to become a culinary destination in the next decade.

The sad thing is that Houston faces a serious threat to its ascent up the national food ladder. A startling number of those in the restaurant, bar, and beverage scene here apparently believe they are immune from criticism. Recently, newly opened Liberty Kitchen got in a flap with Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle's long-time and well-respected food critic. (After Cook had been tossed, seemingly with provocation, by another restaurant owner in 2010.) Just a short time ago, Hubcap Grill's owner went ballistic over a tepid review from a Dallas critic, in a torrent of profanity and violent threats. Regardless of the subsequent apology, this sort of behavior makes Houston's restaurants come off as immature, petty, and, most important, unwilling to strive for the improvement that will allow them to shine on the national stage. And these incidents have not been relegated to professional critics.

Look no further than the lightning-rod of the Houston food community's ire -- Yelp -- and the vitriolic, out-of-hand dismissals of it to understand that Houston's restaurant scene, evolving each day, is in the midst of adolescence. And there is a lot of growing up to do still.

Before going further, however, all the Yelp critics can just take a deep breath. The point here is not to say Yelp is the end-all, be-all. Or that there aren't tons of unfair comments and reviews on Yelp. (Just go look at one-star reviews of the French Laundry to see preposterous unfairness.) It's important to realize the fundamental positive that Yelp represents. For the first time, the Internet and its accessibility affords restaurant owners, chefs, staffs, and anyone involved in the industry with an unprecedented reservoir of data. As with any significant amount of information, there will be outliers. In the realm of Yelp, these outliers are mean-spirited reviews of whatever ilk or sycophantic raves. There is worthwhile information in places like Yelp, even if it isn't written in the most articulate way, and this information isn't worthy of outright dismissal. The restaurant-going public is a massive, diverse body, and doubtless the Wisdom of Crowds applies to some extent. Recurring themes in reviews and feedback, regardless of the source, should make a restaurateur perk up his ears.

Granted, any sort of feedback open to the public, such as Yelp or Google reviews of the Chowhound board, provides unfiltered information. You'll run into various types of criticism, running the gamut from constructive to unwarranted, even malicious. It's serious work to filter through the feedback you get and determine what can make you better, but that is the nature of a service industry. It's a positive thing that the amount of information you receive from customers is at unprecedented levels. It's hard enough to just run an establishment, much less figure out how to improve it. Your customers are giving a torrent of information that is readily accessible. Why reject any avenue that might provide hints on how to get better?

Restaurants are humbling. That's the nature of putting yourself on the line, every day, in an endeavor as personal as food. In many ways it is like art or writing. But if you want to be the best -- or simply better than you are now -- how do you expect get there if you turn your back on people who care enough to tell you what worked and what didn't? As it stands right now, Houston's food community is defined by the largely (at least publicly) friendly relations among its members. But given how violently a surprising number in this community have reacted to criticism, one has to wonder whether Houston's ascendant food scene believes it is beyond reproach.

Naturally, it's good to see people have a positive attitude and build up one another, rather than fall victim to petty in-fighting and cynicism. Constructive criticism, though, is an essential part of a positive environment. Offering it means you care enough to want someone or something to get better. Being called names, shouted down, or shooed away as if you don't know anything gives a clear sign not that a reviewer was unfair but that an establishment is too scared to improve or more interested in resting on its laurels.

If you close off to constructive criticism and only respond to positive reviews or feedback, the only thing you have to rely on to reach that elite level of restaurant greatness is your internal drive. It goes without saying how few people can achieve greatness alone. What's worse, though, is that a dismissive attitude like that shuns the larger group that wants to see you succeed. It also creates an us-versus-them mentality that runs contrary to the collaborative spirit cultivated among so many in Houston's industry.

At the same time, there is the difficult problem of dealing with unwarranted and malicious criticism or even outright lies. As said previously, restaurants are a service industry. Interactions with customers, regardless of how wrong they may be, must be handled with decorum. Show fundamental respect and be professional. Don't let emotions dictate your response, no matter how tempting social media might make it. Handling obstreperous customers with tact will always earn you more points with the restaurant-going public.

Elevating Houston as a culinary destination is a collaborative effort. And that effort extends to patrons, regardless of the venue in which they voice their opinions and regardless of whether they are articulate or knowledgeable enough to be considered "foodies." Customers who take the time to come out for a meal or drink speak with the most important voice: their wallets. That's worthy of respect, just as the passion, time, and creativity those in the industry is worthy of appreciation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A beginner's guide to flawed wines

Sometimes, the bottle of wine you open at home or order at a restaurant is flawed. That doesn't mean you made a poor choice and bought a crummy wine. As a delicate, living product, wine can go bad, like milk, produce, meat, or anything else. People feel enough anxiety about wine to begin with, and deciding whether a particular bottle may be flawed could enough to induce a panic attack. But just as drinking wine is as simple as going with what you like, picking out flawed bottles isn't too tough. While there are a litany of possible defects and, as with anything involving wine, geeks can parse the nuances of each flaw until it induces you to drink even if the wine is spoiled, it is worth being familiar with a handful of common signs that a wine is defective. You'll grow more comfortable once you've encountered some of these bad characteristics, but hopefully you don't run into them too often.

1. "Cork Taint"
This probably is the most common flaw you'll run into. You may hear it called "TCA," which is an abbreviation for the chemical compound that causes cork to ruin wines. No need to bore you with the science; you can read more in-depth information for general audiences at the Wine Spectator. "Corked" wine is also among the easiest flaws to pick out. Have you ever smelled a cardboard box that sat in a garage during the humid, rainy Houston summer? That is basically what cork taint smells like. It makes the wine smell musty or like damp, moldy cardboard.

Your first indication that a wine might be corked is by smelling the cork itself. It is that plug of cork bark itself that imparts the TCA bacteria on a wine and ruins it. (A side note: it is possible for a cork to smell corked but for wine to be untouched.) If you smell that musty aroma coming from the wine in the glass? Send the wine back at a restaurant, which should bring out another bottle at no charge. Or put the cork back in and return it to where you bought it. Any self-respecting merchant will honor your return, even years after a purchase. You should get your purchase price refunded, receive store credit, or take home a replacement bottle of the same wine from a recent (if not the same) vintage. This is the same resolution a restaurant, retailer, or winery should give you for any flawed wine.

2. "Brett"
"Brett" is short for "brettanomyces," which is a bacteria that, not to be rude about it, makes a wine smell like crap. Literally. Some diplomatically refer to the aroma of brett as "barnyard," but make no mistake: brett is, at its core, a flaw. Some might argue a bit of brett in wine adds complexity -- and, indeed, it can be nice to have a hint of brett in wine. The French wines of Burgundy and the Rhone are most commonly linked with (and even renowned for, in some cases) moderate brett levels.

But brett is, without a doubt, a bacteria that can destroy wine. Perhaps you have a threshold for enjoying brett, which is most often found in red wines; perhaps you are as intolerant to it as you should be of cork taint. If a wine is too full of brett for you? Send it back.

3. "Cooked"
Cooked wine is a unique problem among wine flaws. This is one instance where, in most cases, you can't blame the winery. Whereas cork taint, brett, and the other faults listed here are without a doubt imparted at the time the wine is made or bottled, a wine is cooked somewhere in the supply chain -- either during delivery or storage. When a wine is cooked, it takes on aromas and flavors that are stewed and, yes, cooked. This can be somewhat difficult to ascertain in an era when wines are riper than ever before, but a wine that is cooked as opposed to simply overripe will display a dull, blunted palate presence.

Another sign that a wine may have been cooked somewhere between the winery and your glass again comes from the cork. When wine heats up, as with other liquids, it expands. Sometimes, the wine will saturate the cork or even seep out the top of it if the wine has been exposed to extreme heat -- like you might remember we get in Houston on occasion.

You can avoid cooked wines by paying attention to whether wine has seeped out of the top of the cork or capsule. In addition, think twice if you walk into a wine shop, and they're touting a "new arrival" in the summer months. Ask if the distributor or winery shipped the wine using climate-controlled delivery methods. If not, you may be set up for a cooked wine. Also, if buying wine direct from the producer, they should not ship when temperatures are 80 degrees or warmer. As a courtesy, most wines will hold your wine for shipment until the weather is suitable.

4. "Premature Oxidation"
You might also hear the term "maderized" to describe a wine that essentially has aged before its time. Maderized white wines -- the most common victims of this flaw -- are easy to spot. They'll generally have a surprisingly dark yellow or even brown color. And they will smell and taste like Madeira. This flaw is a particular problem in the white wines of Burgundy from 1996 to the present, but any wine can suffer from oxidation. You shouldn't have to drink a wine that has died before its time, so send it back.

5. "Reduction"
Have you ever stuck your nose in a glass of wine only to be greeted by an unpleasant burnt rubber smell? That is reduction. Often a side effect of a wine not being exposed to enough oxygen during the winemaking process, reduction also seems to be more pronounced in wines sealed under screw caps. Screw caps seal the wine almost flawlessly, causing reduction to take much longer to resolve. (And most of the time it does resolve with time in bottle.)

But the truth is that a reduced wine is as much fun to drink as a grilled tire is to eat. Reduction dominates a wine's bouquet and blunts the palate. It makes it undrinkable, and you should send it back.

How to handle returning the wine
It's understandable that you might feel apprehension if you believe something is wrong with a wine. If you're at a restaurant, you should be able to consult a sommelier for his opinion. Be mindful, though, that sensitivity to cork taint, or any other flaw, is individualized. Even very experienced, passionate, and knowledgeable wine drinkers may have less keen sensitivities to these flaws. Trust your own palate. If something seems amiss, ask for a second or third opinion.

You may encounter an unprofessional wine shop or waiter or sommelier who refuses to acknowledge an obvious flaw or tries to belittle or bully you about a bad bottle. Good wines are sometimes bad. Anyone in the business consumer knows this. Flawed wines also are returned or sent back with regularity. Depending on which estimates you trust, between 3 and 8 percent of wines are faulty, and wineries, wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants know that dealing with flawed bottles is a cost of doing business. Ultimately, it is your discretion and any important circumstances on a given occasion that determine how hard you push the issue, but bringing an establishment's attention to flawed bottles is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Houston Restaurant Weeks: More than just food

You find a number of divergent opinions on Houston Restaurant Weeks. The hip position seems to be one of begrudging acceptance mixed with condescension. It's easy to pick out the event's weaknesses -- a gimmick to lure customers during a traditionally slow month for restaurants, getting them to eat high-margin meals. But, aside from the notably worthy purpose of supporting the Houston Food Bank, some restaurants and consumers miss the tremendous opportunity that this high-profile event presents.

From a food standpoint, the benefits are obvious. Chefs get to show off their ability to craft cohesive menus -- something that's too rare in Houston, even if only for three or four courses. A restaurant also gets the chance to showcase its food to parades of new customers with limited risk. The set menus are designed for easy success; they're short and sweet and ought to be easy for a professional kitchen to crank out consistently. HRW has the hallmark of a golden opportunity to expand the customer base of Houston restaurants for the long-term.

As a result, the hemming-and-hawing about HRW is head-scratching. Recent debates online have focused on whether HRW customers deserve the same level of service as those ordering off the regular menu or whether it's valid to base a Yelp review on a HRW visit. That's the wrong discussion. There is nothing to be gained in knocking an event that brings new customers in the door and, therefore, creates an opportunity for a restaurant to show its best.


A more valid criticism, however, might be that some Houston restaurants don't embrace the potential value of HRW. Plenty of keen observers have noted a few half-hearted menus. Other restaurants simply lack imagination. What is often missing are respect for HRW customers and, more frequently, smart beverage pairings. An important way to view HRW is that it showcases the whole restaurant, not just a chance to come in and eat a set menu at a value price. Wipe that feeling away -- a paying customer is a paying customer. What's more, this month provides a superb opportunity to educate new diners and turn them into regulars.

What better way to educate than with showing off how complete the restaurant experience can be? Houston has been full of craft beer and cocktails dinners in recent months, but only a handful of restaurants have bothered to devise beverage pairings with their HRW menus. This is a missed opportunity to showcase an imperative skill for restaurants and their staffs: to come up with wine, beer, and cocktail pairings that enhance and elevate their food. Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe have come up with menus where complementary beverages are an integral part, no surprise given the deft skill of sommelier Sean Beck in elevating food by finding the right drink to go with it. Mockingbird Bistro and the Glass Wall, along with too few others, also offer thoughtful pairings with their HRW offerings.

The bottom line, simply put, is this: Restaurants in Houston offer more than just food. They offer an experience, an escape from your own kitchen, and a chance to enjoy one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the country. In the first tier of restaurant cities in the United States -- New York, San Francisco, Chicago -- part of the joy is that you bask in the escape of the full dining experience, of which food is only one (very important) part.

To maximize a customer's exposure, Houston establishments need to put their arms around HRW and give it a big bear hug. Ensuring service is spot-on and the talents of their beverage experts, in particular, would be a good start. Show off the menu you've put special thought and effort into and get customers to come back by making them feel at home and, maybe more importantly, help them carry on merrily with the right glass of wine or other drink in their hands.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lessons from Paris

It's easy to get caught up in the humdrum of everyday life, getting tunnel vision and too comfortable in your daily existence. Every once in a while, it's essential to get out and remind yourself what the world at large has to offer. It's easy to forget in a food city as diverse as Houston that there is much to learn from the broader globe. A recent trip to Paris reinforced that. Here are some lessons learned, perhaps running the danger of veering into generalities. For ease, exceptions to the general rules are left out.

1. Seasonal still rules the day, from Michelin Three Stars to bistros

Paris in April? Prepare for showers of morels and asparagus. But the refreshing thing is how deeply entrenched seasonal eating is in this culture. Restaurants don't trumpet the fact that they're serving what's local and of-the-moment. It's understood. This is the level of food appreciation -- an innate devotion to the freshest and best -- that has defined French food since the time of Marie-Antoine Careme and even earlier. (For a terrific discussion of this subject, and generally good writing on an array of topics, consult Mike Steinberger's excellent book Au Revoir to All That and his blog.)

This dedication to seasonality and freshness is the foundation of an admirable respect the French have for their food and the act of dining. And it is this fundamental and powerful building block that arguably is France's greatest culinary export right now. Take, for example, the two dishes pictured below. First, a glorious salad of fresh morels and asparagus from Le Bristol, the stunning three-star Michelin restaurant on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It is a testament to seasonality, the finest ingredients, and artistic presentation.



Second, an equally delicious and seasonal preparation of morels, this time from the superb Bistrot Paul Bert. It's nothing more than fried eggs with morels and mushroom cream. Simplicity on a plate, yet providing a depth of flavor that, without supreme freshness of ingredients, would come across as heavy and plodding. Seasonal cooking doesn't only allow a chef to honor place and freshness; the right ingredients at the appropriate time inform the texture and weight of dishes.



2. It's about technique, not gimmicks
Look back at those stunning fried eggs from Bistrot Paul Bert above. It's all well and good to have the best ingredients, but they won't be worth a damn if you can't cook them properly. To cook simply and to showcase your ingredients is a risky proposition because, without expert technique, the food doesn't stand a chance. One striking thing about restaurants in Paris is their unwavering adherence to technique. You expect and demand perfect execution of basic preparations in high-end restaurants like Le Bristol, but the high quality of technique across the board is impressive. Just because a dish may be humble doesn't mean it isn't worthy of respect that borders on reverence.

Take boeuf bourguignon, the king of peasant dishes (now that's a paradox). Shown here in a faultless preparation from Christian Constant's inviting Les Cocottes, there was notable care in crafting a pure sauce that spoke of the beef without being tarted up with any gimmicks. The meat was cooked to that easy-to-know but hard-to-reach point of being fall-apart tender without the chuck toughening up again. Too often, simple dishes like this come out with tough meat, as if the cook has assumed he could braise it indefinitely without fault. Or by needlessly cooking the beef sous vide for days to make a splash by writing "72-hour boeuf bourguignon" on the menu -- there are places for advanced techniques, but they aren't always necessary.



Another good example of the triumph of technique over gimmicks comes from Chef Jean Louis Nomicos, whose Les Tablettes recently opened in the 16th arrondissement. This appetizer course has several moving parts: a glorious mushroom puree that relies on just a hint of richness that doesn't interfere with its pure flavor, perfectly sauteed white asparagus, freshest morels, and gloriously crisp sweetbreads.



3. A meal is an opportunity to be exploited, not an obstacle to overcome
How many times have you eaten a bowl of cereal or a sandwich while standing up? Maybe had lunch at your desk? That's not enjoying your food. Sure, sometimes it might be necessary, but it is hardly any way to live. It's important to realize that just because you won't necessarily eat high on the hog doesn't mean you can't eat well. The dish pictured below, "Best of Cod," is another superlative creation from Le Bristol. Essentially a sauteed piece of fish with a bit of citrus over it, this is an over-the-top example of how basic food can become a celebration, even an exercise in genius. The cod was cooked perfectly. A parsley jus and shellfish surround the plate. On top? Nitrogen-frozen pearls of lemon and orange and slices of spring onion, which give the dish an uncanny bit of texture and temperature -- all simply enhancing the fish as easily as a squeeze of lemon would.



Meals are a great social occasion. You can spend twelve hours at the office, but at least do yourself the favor of, once a day, sitting down to a proper meal to reconnect with friends or family. Shoveling in a bowl of pasta or wolfing down a 24-ounce steak to refuel the system isn't living anymore than eating a sandwich standing up. Take a moment. Have a pan-seared filet mignon with a slice of lightly sauteed foie gras on top and savor the people around you. You don't have to geek out about the food. Use the food as a vehicle to connect with those you love and your own life.



4. Like writing, food needs editing
So many dishes suffer from too many flourishes -- a gastrique that muddles the overall flavors of the food, an extra dose of potent and unnecessary ingredients give a plate an overinflated sense of self-importance. Too many ingredients in a sauce end up competing with one another, rather than allowing the sauce to sing and complement the food. There is a powerful temptation to believe more is more, particularly in this Super-Size-It society. Once again, Christian Constant -- this time at his Cafe Constant -- demonstrates the opposite is true. A simple roasted chicken with sauteed potatoes and a bit of lettuce as a garnish is satisfying, utilizes the best ingredients, and doesn't try to be more than it is: good, hearty food that lets you nourish yourself and enjoy the company around you.



More to the point, if you are cooking with the best ingredients, they need very little to bring out their finest qualities. Bistrot Paul Bert again serves as a fine example, with the roasted root vegetables and braised beef cheek with bearnaise pictured below. Basic, even humble, ingredients cooked with fine technique. You rarely need more ... well, maybe some wine.



5. Humble wine is just fine
The American wine press always seems to be abuzz about the next "cult" wine from California or futures prices of increasingly out-of-reach classed growth Bordeaux. There is talk about value, but it's surprising how few true value wines come out of California. When is the last time you had a meaningfully good wine for $10 that was produced domestically? It tends to be the exception rather than the rule. There's Two Buck Chuck and Gallo plonk that predominates supermarkets. But why isn't there something the equivalent of French vin de pays coming out of American wine regions? Even reasonably good, less expensive wines on Houston wine lists tend to be from Spain, New Zealand, and Italy.

One of the beauties of restaurants in France is that, for 15 to 20 euros, you get a solid wine with genuine varietal character. It's not laden with oak or trying to pretend to be more than it is. Sometimes it comes to the table in a multi-use bottle that has no label and no cork. It's refreshing and enhances the food -- and epitomizes that wine is an indispensable part of the meal.



There is a beautiful sense of security about wine consumption that the French have on a daily basis. Wine is part of setting the table, like a knife and fork, a social lubricant and celebration all in one.

It is the ease with which the French still approach their meals that can give Americans a goal to strive for: slow down, enjoy your food. It's a good thing to appreciate your food -- the quality of what you put in your body and also the manner in which you consume it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wine of the Moment: Numanthia Termes

Spanish wines have gotten a pretty good amount of press the past few years. There are those, like Alice Feiring, who push the supremely traditional wines of the Rioja made by Lopez-Heredia -- and very few others. And there are those like Robert Parker (or, more truthfully put, his ethically questionable employee, Jay Miller) who trumpet highly modern, highly oaked wines from the Priorat, Ribera del Duero, and Toro.

Spanish wines can be hit or miss. You definitely get a lot of value in them -- particularly the whites, such as Albarino and Verdeho. But often the reds shoot too high and miss, like a cheap California Cabernet. One of the most standout wines of Spain's new school, missing all the pratfalls of the heavily oaked, high extraction crowd is the Numanthia Termes. Current release is 2008, and it's a steal at $24 or so. You can find it at Spec's quite readily and, also most of the time, at Central Market in the Houston area. It's a wine that gives a bit of a nod to Russian River Valley Zinfandel: pretty, spicy fruit flavors with ramped up acidity and noticeable tannic structure. It will satisfy those who crave nice fruit and the drying sensation you get from the young Cabernets that are so popular yet so heavy for Houston's brutal summer.

Termes is aged in once-used oak barrels, meaning there is less toast and vanilla for the wood to impart on the wine. The result is a surprisingly fresh, vibrant red that stands up well to the grilled red meat and barbecue that comes across summertime tables. Have at it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What will be the ultimate legacy of the "local" food movement?

You can't pick up a fork without tripping over the hottest buzz words in food today -- the "local" food movement or "eating local" or any of the myriad variations on the theme. The essential elements of eating local seem to include (1) eating as much food as possible (not only vegetables, also meats, cheese, bread, etc.) from "local sources;" (2) preparing food that is seasonal; (3) purchasing food that is sustainably and/or organically farmed; and (4) placing a premium on knowing the sources of what you consume.

Obviously, there are a number of threshold questions to overcome in order to begin this discussion. First and foremost, how do you define "local"? Is it a 10-mile radius? 25? 50? More? Until the Industrial Revolution, this was easier to answer. Modes of transportation were much more restrictive, forcing food to come from relatively nearby. Railroads and airplanes have changed all that. Now you can get organic asparagus year-round, either from a farm down the road, California, or Peru.

But there are larger questions at hand, too. Is food sourced from a local source necessarily good simply by being local? What if you live somewhere without the possibility of thriving local agriculture; are you left out of the local movement entirely? How will "local food" evolve and sustain itself? In essence, what will the lasting impact of this local emphasis be?

It is that last question that holds the most interest. Fundamentally, the "local" movement, in part, is chasing a myth. It isn't practical -- perhaps, isn't even possible -- to return the United States to an agrarian ideal. That Jeffersonian moment has passed. So what, ultimately, will this movement become? This question is worth exploring because the local food movement has genuine value and will leave a meaningful impact on the way this country eats.

At some point down the road, looking back on what started as a revitalization of boutique food sources, these times will mark the true beginning of when Americans started truly caring about what they eat. For most of the twentieth century, culinary history in the United States was marked by technological advances: frozen foods, the microwave oven, fast food, ways to engineer "natural" flavorings, and other things that were meant to make eating easier. The problem with emphasizing technology in this way was that it resulted in the consumption of unhealthy, poor quality food. Instead of enjoying meals, they became obstacles to be overcome, met and discarded in the fastest, cheapest way possible. That results in a lot of issues, including creating a culture that doesn't value the food it consumes -- an odd situation when food, when it comes down to it, is the fuel to make our bodies go.

This lack of appreciation for food -- taking the easy way out -- has offered the local movement its greatest opportunity and in which lies its greatest hope. Eating well is not something for "foodies." It is not something for the rich. It is not something for the person who saves just to experience one meal at the French Laundry. It is for anyone who's willing to embrace it. Good food takes care and attention, which are two things that precisely are hamstrung by the prevalence of technological food, with its dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.

How does the local movement become the savior, pulling the country out of its grease-laden, deep fried, engineered obsession with packaged food? For starters, locavores care about what they eat. That is not a hallmark of technology foods, to put it mildly. With reflection, this desire to do well with good ingredients is the logical progression from Julia Child's grand (and deserved) legacy. Julia frequently preached doing better with what you have -- even if you had to use frozen spinach or come up with a substitute for French flour. Locavores, more so than foodies as a class, do not tolerate compromise. They are specific and passionate in their desire to acquire the best ingredients available.

At this point, you could run into road blocks. What if the best ingredient isn't available locally? Do you really have to stay within a 5-mile radius? Ten? More? To a certain extent, those issues are semantics. It's about what "local" means to you. But this emphasis on quality ingredients and caring about food are the the true heart of the local movement. It is about finding the best ingredients from people who are passionate and skilled. There's no need to go furtherthan that. The essential step is eating well and putting love and attention on your food. This is about rejecting the technology food culture that has given us blue raspberry flavoring, cheese in a can, and Kraft avocado-free guacamole.

Doing so pushes American food culture in a better direction, largely rejecting a look-what-we-can-do infatuation with technology (molecular gastronomy saved for another time) and toward an emphasis on quality and good food. Regardless of anything else, this is a genuine revolution and may determine the most significant legacy of the local food movement -- and a glorious one it would be. A country that embraces meals as an opportunity to be exploited, to bring people together on a daily basis and not just at Thanksgiving or Sunday supper? That is worth striving for.