Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wine of the moment: Siduri Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2008

The 2008 vintage posed a number of major challenges to winemakers in Sonoma County in 2008. First came unexpected and highly varied late-season frosts that crippled a number of Russian River Valley vineyards. Second, wildfires in Mendocino County crept into the Sonoma Coast, ravaging some vineyards with smoke taint. Frost will decimate a vineyard's crop yields that year, also dulling the fruit as if it has been run through the most character-stripping filtration. It can take the vines two years or more to recover fully. Smoke taint gives the grapes a true smoked quality, rendering it essentially undrinkable (or perhaps evoking enormous amounts of new oak).

In 2008, however, Adam Lee at Siduri Wines (and their non-Pinot Noir branch, Novy Family Wines) avoided these two potentially disastrous tricks from Mother Nature. The 2008 Sonoma County blend is a testament to the constant drive Adam, his wife Dianna, and the Siduri crew have for making better wine every year. The 2008 edition may well surpass the terrific 2005 and 2007, which were the product of much kinder growing seasons. Expect plenty of black cherry fruit, spice, and a bit more earthiness out of the 2008 Sonoma County. The kicker: It goes for only $19.50 on the mailing list, plus tax and shipping. There is pretty good distribution of Siduri wines in Houston, although this wine isn't on the shelf at Spec's. It's versatile, with good acidity that makes it excellent for pairing with a variety of foods, from pizza to roast chicken to pan-seared steak.

Full disclosure: Adam and the gang at Siduri are good friends. Adam and Dianna are also native Texans, creating inherent bias, right? But their wines are without question some of the best and most consistently good in California and Oregon. All my tasting notes, on Siduri and other wineries, are available here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Simplicity: Salad Dressing

Maybe the weather has turned too cold to think about crisp salads, but there are a lot of greens at the local farmers markets and, with rich holiday food lurking around every corner, plenty of incentive to eat light meals these days. Pair a salad with a warm bowl of tomato soup or some pot roast (or Houston's perennial favorite, short ribs), and you're able to lighten up a hearty, warming meal. And while you're at it, why pay $4 or more for a bottle of salad dressing? Make your own. There are limitless possibilities from any recipe, and you can control the fat content, which is another way to cut calorie corners in the Fat Fortnight around Christmas and New Year's. Here's one basic recipe:

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or balsamic or white wine or champagne ... you get the idea)
2-4 cloves of garlic, depending on your love of antioxidants and/or garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
6-8 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, depending on your preference for piquancy

Whisk all the ingredients together, and there you have it. Versatile and quite robust, this dressing can double as a sauce for pork or chicken. The mustard and black pepper also pair well with tannins in bigger red wines, so this can make a nice accompaniment to big meat dishes. You can also substitute lemon juice for vinegar or any other acid that is your preference. The mustard and relatively low oil content makes the emulsification on this dressing easy, and it holds for days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In re Guy's Meat Market

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas

Docket No. 4



Per Curiam
. In the times when the daily special was indeed special, there was a narrow window of opportunity for those who sought to partake. That is, diners and greasy spoons often rustled up a batch of something in the morning and when they ran out, they ran out. If you snoozed, then you lost. Cast in this mold is Guy’s Meat Market, located on Old Spanish Trail. Despite meeting the constitutional requirements of standing to submit a petition for review, prudential concerns predominate, and this Court declines to exercise its jurisdiction and assign a rating to Guy’s Meat Market.

Guy’s is a meat market. The number of bona fide meat markets in Houston pales in comparison to the number of “meat markets” like the Drake, Pub Fiction, and similar ilk on Washington Avenue. Aside from being a meat market, Guy’s also serves up burgers, barbecue, and certain sides. In the discussion of Houston’s best, Guy’s burgers are frequently referenced

While no hard evidence exists, it is rumored that Guy’s makes about two hundred burgers a day and sells out well before 1:00 p.m. The question, then, is why don’t they just grill up some more burgers? The answer is simple: they don’t grill the burgers. Guy’s burgers are smoked. And as any low and slow saveur understands, smoking takes time. Therefore, it is not feasible for them to just whip up burgers. Presumably the burgers are formed the night before and smoked overnight.

Smoking renders Guy’s Burgers different. Not different-bad, but different-different. The burgers are significantly drier than even those of Mel’s Country Café See Dkt. No. 1. However, Guy’s burgers are also significantly more flavorful. It is obvious that the burgers are smoked alongside the sausage, brisket, and ribs also on the menu. Traditional notions of fair char and substantial juiciness are not implicated in reviewing Guy’s burgers. Even though they are beef, Guy’s burgers are a different animal. Typical criteria used by the Court do not comport with a review of Guy’s burgers.

The Court is, therefore, left with the task of evaluating the merits of a petition without meaningful standards or relevant precedent. For example, while flavorful, Guy’s burgers lacked the texture sought after by this Court. Is it proper, though, to compare the texture of Guy’s smoked burgers with that of Lankford’s griddled-cooked samples? Further, is it proper for this Court to announce standards for review without legislative guidance? These prudential concerns, if overlooked or ignored, would unduly prejudice Guy’s.

In sum, whether Guy’s burgers pass muster is a question better suited for resolution by the other branches of gustatory governance, such as the Smokehouse of Representatives.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Red wine with fish?

"Red wine with fish. I should have known." So said James Bond to the villain Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Not to contradict the man of all men in the Bond movie of all Bond movies, but perhaps he wasn't aware of salmon with Pinot Noir? Or, more properly in the case of Bond, salmon with red Burgundy? More recently, Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews essentially gave an updated iteration of Bond's position: "I was pleasantly surprised by the way the Rioja paired with sea scallops served with chorizo and polenta," he said of a red wine a restaurant paired with his fish course. Is that such a stretch? The spice of the chorizo, richness of the polenta. A red wine doesn't seem like a stretch or a surprise.

What the sentiment of Matthews suggests is that the old stereotypes about wine and food remain strong. Of course, certain traditional pairings of wine and food attain that status because they work so well. Have an excellent, well-aged Bordeaux with a roasted rack of lamb, and you'll be transported to an ethereal plane. Find a slightly funky, simple, cheap red Burgundy to pair with sottocenere, the delightful cow's milk cheese with black truffles, and you'll gain full understanding of what people mean when they talk about the mushroom characteristics of Pinot Noir.

Traditional pairings aren't bad. Nor are they, however, sacred cows. The wine world has been expanding exponentially over the past few decades. Experimentation has increased on numerous fronts. Winemakers have achieved greater understanding. Quality has increased. Value remains in many respects, as up-and-coming regions reach new levels. In the realm of wine and food, this spirit of experimentation that winemakers have embraced with such gusto needs to make greater inroads when it comes to food pairings. Old ways need to be rethought. Take, for example, the notion that wine goes with cheese. In some cases (see the sottocenere example above), this works out beautifully. Port or Sauternes and Stilton. Parmesan and an earthy Italian red. But for the most part, cheese and wine pair terribly if you eat them together, to try to mingle their flavors. Cheese sticks to your mouth and dominates most of the time. Eaten separately, they can be delightful, but not in the usual "pairing" sense.

A smart winemaker from Sonoma County, John Holdredge, imparts great wisdom in this arena. It applies to wine snobbery in general and the thicket of food and wine pairings in particular. Wine is like food, John says. No one has ever taught you to eat. You either like it, or you don't. If you like it, eat it. If you really like it, eat some more. If you don't like it, eat something else. Wine is just food: if you like it, drink it. If you really like it, drink some more. If you don't like it, drink something else. The same attitude should apply to wine pairings: eat what you like, drink what you like.

The simple truth is that most people don't actually drink wine with their food. They tend to eat with the occasional sip or, at least, don't drink the wine in a way to try to meld its flavors with those of the food. That only provides more reason to maximize your personal pleasure in choosing your food and wine. If you want something non-traditional, go for it. You shouldn't worry about the wine geeks, but if you do, score points for going for contrasting pairings. Have Pinot Noir with grilled steak because you want the acidity to cut the richness of the fat. Drink Syrah with halibut because it's cold outside, and you want to. It doesn't matter. Fight the rules. People tend to still be too uptight about wine. It's just another citizen of the dinner table, like the salt or pepper shaker. Don't let it rule you.

So in the spirit of doing what you feel, here are a few adventurous examples:

1. Roasted chicken with California Syrah
Syrah tends to be a bit fat, and the California incarnations often are big, brawny, and full of forward fruit. Chicken normally would thought to be too delicate, but it also takes on an earthy, herbal quality with common preparations, such as with herbs de provence. This can be really nice during cooler weather.

2. Popcorn with aged Cabernet Sauvignon
Popcorn has become pretty chic in pairing with things like Champagne and Chardonnay. But try it with a Cabernet that has some age on it. It's a tasty way to focus on the wine without tiring out your palate.

3. Filet Mignon with Rose Champagne
A simple filet mignon, pan-seared or broiled, has a delicate flavor but also the unavoidable richness of beef. The sturdier fruit of rose Champagne is enough to stand up to this more delicate steak, and the wine's crisp acidity will help cut the richness.

4. Indian food with Pinot Noir
Often you hear of pairing wines that work well with spicy food with Indian cuisine -- Gewurtraminer, Riesling, Champagne, Zinfandel, Malbec, and the like. But Pinot Noir works exceptionally well with many dishes, particularly if the wine emphasizes the Asian spice quality you can often find in Pinot. Russian River Valley does this quite well, pairing nicely with ginger, mace, saffron, anise, and other commonly found spices. You'll want to avoid very spicy (in terms of heat) dishes, though.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Amuse Bouche: The comforts of fall

The current string of weather in Houston conjures up the feel of California wine country in a cool vintage. Highs in the mid-70s. Lows down around 50. If grapes could carry out a full growing cycle in two weeks, there would be real hope for the wine industry in Texas. In the photo below, three of the great pleasures at this time of year:

First, coq au vin, always a warming and delicious fall dish. Second, wine, during the peak of harvest. This particular one? Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Wren Hop Vineyard 2006, made by one of the most delightful and personable fellows in Sonoma County. Third, in the background, playoff baseball. Even if the Mets aren't playing, it's a terrific time of year. Life is good.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Simplicity: Cream cheese tart

Cheesecake is a comforting, if heavy, sort of dessert. But it's more versatile than that. With a little creative thinking, it can have sweet or savory possibilities with the addition of Grand Marnier and chocolate or chives and herbs de Provence. The difficult is that cheesecake also is very involved. It requires a special pan. And lots of cream cheese, butter, and eggs. It's a profound undertaking, which is no small thing. You might be tempted to actually eat the whole thing, facing potentially unlimited calorie intake until the entire delicious thing has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

But you don't have to resort to a full cheesecake in order to get that cheesecake flavor and feel. This is essentially a cream cheese pie. It's lighter and simpler than full-fledged cheesecake but every bit as versatile.

Cream Cheese Tart
1 8-ounce package cream cheese or Neufchatel
1 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
Vanilla and almond extract to taste
Zest of one lemon (optional)

1 pie or tart crust, using your favorite recipe (but even a store-bought one works fine)

This is about as easy as you get. Beat together the cream cheese, butter, and sugar until combined well, about one or two minutes in a stand mixture. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond and mix together. You won't want to beat this mixture more than 30-45 seconds. Add to your crust and bake 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. It'll puff slightly and get a few brown spots. This is a fluffy, delightful, and much easier substitute for cheesecake. And it makes a great, guilty-pleasure breakfast the next day.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Amuse Bouche: The almost-chill of Houston fall

Autumn in Houston isn't so much autumn or a cooling off as it is a lifting of humidity. But it's good enough to reintroduce terms like "roast" and "braise" into the culinary vocabulary again. You also get those excellent fall ingredients, like butternut squash, fresh (not stored) apples, kale, figs, and pears. Seeing all the legitimately autumn weather on TV makes you want that cold-weather comfort food that seems to stay on Houston restaurant menus year-round but always feels out of place during the six months of oppressive summer. Houston's second spring is most welcome. This is a good week to hit the farmer's market of your choice, pick up some seasonal ingredients, and get down with the soothing flavors of fall ... while still eating on the patio.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In re Sparkle's Hamburger Spot

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas

Docket No. 3



Opinion for the court filed by LAHAD, J, in which JJ. GUTTING and BRINKMANN join.

LAHAD, J. Before the Court is the submission of Sparkle’s Hamburger Spot (“Sparkle”). We hold that Sparkle, despite its nearly unconscionable sides, serves a flavorful and well-made hamburger thus warranting an A- rating.


Sparkle petitioned this Court in forma pauperis but declined to have counsel appointed. After the required Faretta colloquy, this Court granted Sparkle’s request to proceed pro se. Located on the corner of Dowling and Jefferson streets in Houston’s Third Ward, Sparkle consists of a small blue building that serves as the kitchen and front desk. Seating is limited to a pair of picnic tables that have seen better days. Based on discovery obtained, no one actually eats at Sparkle’s location. Rather, food ordered and taken to another location for consumption. The picnic tables provided at Sparkle, then, are primarily used to wait for one’s order.

The extensive menu at Sparkle includes single and double versions of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, the expected sides, as well as some interesting fare like “pork chop sandwich.” Indeed, several amici have pointed to such unique menu elements, real ice cream shakes and local flair as factors. Pork chops and ice cream aside, this Court limits its holdings and reasoning to genuine burger cases and controversies. Petitioners and amici would do well not to view dicta within our case law as advisory opinions about sides, shakes, or scenery. However, it is emphatically the province and duty of this Court to say what the burger law is.

The Court reviewed three Sparkle offerings: 1) a double hamburger; 2) a cheeseburger; and 3) a double cheeseburger. The aforementioned lack of seating and the steamy weather forced the Court’s conference to Justice Brinkmann’s chambers.

The Hamburger

While waiting for the burgers, this Justice observed a gentlemen in the kitchen grab hunks of ground beef and roll them into baseball-sized globs of meat. The resulting burgers indicated that these meat baseballs were the patties’ progenitors. Simply, the patties at Sparkle are, to use the parlance of our times, large and in-charge. Transporting the meals back to chambers constituted a workout sufficient to offset a few of the burgers’ calories. The fear, however, is that such large mounds of ground beef will have charred skin yet raw centers. At Sparkle the adept grill-mistress knew exactly how to handle the patties. Despite easily crossing the half-pound threshold, the patties on each burger were well-cooked to medium.

Similarly, often the larger a food item, the less flavor it has. Grapes are a prime example. Fortunately, the patty at Sparkle does not fall into this category. The patty was not too salty or peppery. Rather, it had a welcome beefy flavor, perhaps enhanced by its sheer mass. It would have been a major disappointment had Sparkle’s beefy patty been bland or tasteless. Special mention should be given to the temperature of the patties. The patties were piping hot even after the additional time from receipt to conference.

In a world of brioche and where custom buns are nearly as prevalent as custom wheels, Sparkle’s bun exemplifies ordinary. Of the three burgers, only the double-hamburger’s bun integrity failed. The other two pairs of burger buns held up to the patties. The potential culprit could be the additional patty on the double- hamburger. This is, however, difficult to reconcile with the fact that buns on the double-cheeseburger maintained their structure.

A continuing debate among members of the hamburger bar concerns onions. The question is not whether onions should be include, for it is well-accepted that onions enhanced flavor and freshness and add moisture. Rather, the debate surrounds whether those onions should be diced or not. This Justice’s hamburger had a single large ring of onion – about 4 inches in diameter and about ¼ inch thick. Regardless of one’s position about onions, it is evident that a single fat onion ring on a burger results in the awkward pull-the-entire-ring-out-in-a-bite situation. Highly disfavored.


Sparkle offers the basic side items as well as chili-cheese variants of each. The approach to sides at Sparkle is the exact opposite of its approach to burgers. The French fries were an odd consistency conservatively dusted with some kind of seasoning. The curly fries almost eluded review for lack of sufficient fries to review. The $2 order of chili cheese curly fries lacked the chili and cheese and maybe came in at 1 oz. Poor form on two counts.

As this Court has made clear, a party is reviewed on burger alone. Suffice it to say that this standard has benefitted several parties. In sum, this Court finds that Sparkle burger serves a large juicy hamburger, well seasoned and cooked, that warrants an A- rating.


Gutting, J., concurring. I join the Court's opinion but write separately to explicate on Sparkle's side dishes. Deplorable, though inexpensive, they are, it is virtually impossible to judge what, if any, merit they have. The sample size simply is too small. Eating an order of Sparkle's fries is like taking the slightest gasp of air. It is essentially without substance. Or sustenance. It is fortunate for Sparkle's Hamburger Spot they make such outstanding and generous burgers. This Court cannot and should not allow itself to be distracted by lesser subject matter in its pursuit of burger justice, as the final (and correct) judgment of Sparkle Burger has been rendered today. I applaud my learned brethren for this judicious evaluation of an excellent hamburger.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Cyrus

Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, California, has played a leading role in making Sonoma County in general and the Russian River Valley in particular the trendy pick in wine country since it opened in 2005. In 2006, it became one of four Bay Area restaurants to garner two Michelin stars in the guide’s first San Francisco rankings. It’s a restaurant with flair — from the Champagne and caviar cart to the formal service — and a compelling narrative. Chef Douglas Keane, a protégé of Gary Danko, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004 during the planning of Cyrus. The tumor turned out to be benign, and Keane has blazed the trail of success since.

Cyrus stands out in Sonoma County’s casual answer to the more showy grandeur of Napa Valley, because it is so formal. At the same time, it is just the sort of standard the area needed to be taken seriously at the highest levels — plus the magnificent wines of Sonoma deserve a restaurant that is a showcase.

In its earlier days, Cyrus suffered from occasional variability. But the past two years, it has been consistently excellent and quite worthy of its two stars. A recent visit confirmed Keane and his staff have settled in nicely, comfortable with the style and striding forward with marvelous creativity.

The meal began with a tower of canapés, each showcasing a different flavor: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and that ill-defined but popular umami. It was an almost Alinea-like focus to begin the meal and quite interesting. The main event began with an amuse bouche of gorgeously fresh kona kampachi topped with a extra small fried shrimp that added texture.

Next, a Keane signature: Thai-marinated lobster with avocado, mango, and hearts of palm, topped with a Thai basil sauce that brings the entire refreshing dish together. It is so alive and delightful, complemented beautifully by a dry German Riesling from the Pfalz, Okonomierat Rebhold “vom Rotliegenden” 2005.

The lobster, perhaps the high of the meal, preceded a choice between torchon of foie gras or gnocchi with morels. The torchon, salt-cured and accompanied by tamarind and dates, got a terrific acidic bite from pickled onions and a reliable German wine, Selbach-Oster Riesling Spatlese Zeltinger Scholossberg from the excellent 2007 vintage. The gnocchi also shone, tasty pillows with bite, but the fresh morels stole the show.

Up next was a delightful scallop dish with a Spanish touch. Cooked skillfully and crusted on one side with chorizo, it was complemented beautifully by a mussel broth and fresh cockle. The downside was the wine pairing, a Manzanilla sherry from Hidalgo that did nothing for the food. What is with the trend toward pairing sherry at least once during a tasting menu? This could have been such an opportunity to complement the scallop and chorizo with the spice of Tempranillo or Garnacha. Or just stick with the classic scallop pairing, Albarino. Sherry overpowered the delicacy of the scallop and didn’t mesh with the chorizo.

Keane’s Asian influence came through in the fourth course. Crisp duck breast came atop a scallion rice cake with maitake mushroom and ponzu. The duck was delightful, but the rice cake was tough and chewy, like a Rice Krispie treat that has been left out on the counter overnight. The marvelous sauce and mushrooms cancelled it out, as did a terrific Camus-Bruchon Savigny-les-Beaune 2006.

Up next, a magnificent wagyu beef with burdock and shiso with a remarkable, richly flavored oxtail umeshu consommé. It is possible the wagyu was one of the most tender and delicious pieces of beef in human history, rivaling even the awe-inspiring product of Bryan Flannery. Almost as good, however, was the other fifth-course choice: lamb roulade with celery root, parsnip, and turnip. A slice of black truffle in the roulade cut the lamb flavor slightly, adding an earthy note that played well with the root vegetables.

The cheese plate is notable, although not as profound as Tru in Chicago, but it was complemented by a tremendous 2006 Vouvray from Champalou.. There is a variety of selection, including a sheep’s milk cheese that betrays no sweat-sock notes. To cleanse the richness of the meat dishes and cheese, Keane goes beyond the usual sorbet. Out comes a verjus sorbet, with a crisp, palate-sharpening blood orange and Riesling soup. It’s served with a piece of crystallized picholine olive brittle. This was supremely refreshing, clearing the way for dessert.

Dessert was a bit hit-or-miss. Each choice contained excellent elements, but each also included an unsuccessful flirtation with savory flavors. There was a remarkable, classic tiramisu with a spoonful of cappuccino foam and a surprisingly delicate espresso gelato. The dish suffered from out-of-place caramelized fennel sprinkled on it. Then there was a terrific five spice cake with a passion fruit macaroon, each of which stood out for its flavor and execution. But a Thai basil-coconut milk gelato was bizarre, sticking out as inappropriate on the plate. This was a fine example of the need for serious reflection before pastry chefs make forays into sweet-savory interplay. Such experimentation isn’t required. Sometimes a sweet dessert is enough, and the night’s efforts underscored that fewer elements would have been more. Fortunately, each dessert came with an interesting and tasty wine. The tiramisu showcased the viscous and surprisingly acidic Maury Roussillon Mas Amiel 1990, while the five-spice cake provided a nice foil to the tropical richness of another German 2007, the Weegmuller Scherebe Auslese Haardter Mandelring.

As a whole, however, the tasting menu at Cyrus is well worth the trip. It is thoughtfully constructed and well-executed. The service is smooth, with enough casual touches to remind you you’re in Sonoma. Additionally, it’s worth remembering what a young restaurant this is. Open for a little more than four years, it’s astonishing the level Keane and his staff operate at. This is a worthy dining experience and an attraction worth seeking out. Cyrus hasn’t even reached its adolescence, yet it already hits high notes worthy of some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. With supreme focus and continued dedication, it’s plausible, if still a long shot, to see how Keane and company might give the French Laundry and its ilk a run for their money.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: The French Laundry

The French Laundry has a tough job these days. Its reputation is so established, legion of fans so large, and margin for error so non-existent that it’s an easy target. Food is a deeply personal thing. A restaurant can be even more so. Chefs, like writers, put forward an intimate, creative side of themselves for public judgment. If that’s the case, then Thomas Keller is the cooking equivalent to Phil Jackson coaching in the NBA finals. He just doesn’t lose. He takes what he’s given, adapts to it, gets the absolute most out of it, and leaves you astonished.

The French Laundry is a restaurant that doesn’t let you down. It is the place that encompasses the evolution and ascendancy of restaurants in the United States over the past forty years. It harnesses the power of Alice Waters’ emphasis on fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients, couples it with the very best in formal service with an influence of American casualness, and incorporates an elegant dedication to classicism for the food and décor. In short, the French Laundry is the restaurant that tries — and succeeds — at pleasing everyone. Or at least coming close.

Two recent trips to the French Laundry confirm this is the best restaurant in the country. Period. But to bestow such a sweeping superlative on the place undermines the true pleasure of the experience. Make no mistake, though, a meal here is a pure luxury. At $240 (service included) for a nine-course tasting or nine-course vegetarian menu, you’ll be lucky to make it our for less than $500 per person once wine comes into play. But it is the meal, if you have deep-seated passion for food, you owe to yourself at least once. Give up your Starbucks or Chick-Fil-A habit for a year. You won’t regret it.

The first impression of the restaurant is how unassuming it is. You won’t notice it if you just drive down Washington Street in Yountville. Inside, the restored building is magnificent. Refined rusticity might have been invented here. The tables reflect the restaurant’s name: crisp, white linens; the napkin secured to white plates, shimmering from the soft light given off by wall sconces, with an old fashioned laundry pin.

For an establishment that attracts such zealous lovers of food, the atmosphere is so relaxed and unhurried, you can’t help but feel at ease. It’s a remarkable feat, really, considering the ratio of servers to diners. With room for about sixty customers, the two-story dining room also accommodates seemingly forty staff. The remarkable thing is you can’t really tell how many servers there are because they are simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. To create a pleasant, quiet environment while lavishing each table with attention is a remarkable feat. The only potential issue in the dining can be temperature: in the summer it can be stuffy, compounded by the jacket requirement for men.

Really, though, it is wasteful to spend so much time on the “experience” of the French Laundry because the last thing it aspires to be is an “experience” place. Nothing distracts from the food. The dining room isn’t flashy. The service, while impeccable, takes a back seat. This is all about the food, but recognizing the unmatched efforts that come from everyone at the restaurant would detract from the marvelous, leisurely perfection of a meal at the French Laundry.

The starter rarely changes: two amuse bouche, the cheese gougeres and salmon tartare with red onion crème fraiche in a sesame tuile. This is an important first step. The gougeres show remarkable execution of the pastry, while allowing the gruyere to shine through clearly but not overwhelmingly. The salmon “ice cream cone” is legendary for good reason. It’s refined, playful, and delicious. The red onion crème fraiche provides a refreshing burst, and the tuile is so delicate you wonder how it can support the weight of the teaspoon of salmon. These are classic amuse, executed marvelously and betray that you are in for a treat.

The first course also usually is the same: “oysters and pearls.” It’s essentially decadent tapioca pudding, delicate and flavorful with no shortage of butter. Two lightly poached oysters sit on top, with a generous dollop of California caviar. With Champagne, this dish simultaneously transports you to the good life and makes a resounding case for simple cooking. And the domestic caviar is a testament to efforts in this country to develop top-quality ingredients.

Next up is foie gras, if you choose, or a salad. The salad is always interesting and generally made from fruits or vegetables grown in the French Laundry’s garden, which sits across the street. The foie gras is well worth the $30 supplement. A terrine of pillow-like softness and elegance is enhanced by a celery branch and tart rhubarb that cuts the richness. Toasted brioche — a warm piece traded out for a fresh warm piece a few minutes later — leaves you smiling, another classic executed perfectly. The theatrical replacement of the brioche partway through the course is handled so matter-of-factly that it diffuses any possibility of pretentiousness.

Third is the fish course. On the March visit, sous chef Corey Lee’s influence showed in a brilliant Japanese big fin squid dish, with pasta, green garlic, chorizo, sweet peppers, Spanish capers, and Swiss chard. You know the French Laundry can cook any piece of fish, and one of the choices will showcase that, but this squid showed such imagination, with the earthy kick of capers and chard to complement the fresh (and not tough) squid and slight spice of the chorizo. A dish ordered out of a desire to sample everything on the menu became a memorable standout.

The first half of the meal rounds out with the lobster course. Normally you get mitts or tail poached in butter. Occasionally, they’ll be poached in olive oil. There is an inherent risk of lobster being slightly chewy, even at the best restaurants, and that was the case on one visit. But the complements in the spring — avocado, radish, fresh fennel, and niçoise olive — came with a cool citrus broth that allowed the lobster mitts to be a vehicle for a refreshing, invigorating dish.

The meat courses rotate frequently. Chicken, pork, duck, beef, veal, and lamb all make appearances, in various cuts and preparations. Duck is a particular treat. This March, a duck breast served with English peas, turnips, mache, and intense black truffles made for a dream pairing with red Burgundy. As with each course, the individual ingredients shine through beautifully and complement one another; there isn’t interference. These flavors work together and aren’t shouting over one another, competing for the spotlight.

It’s at this point in the meal that you wish the French Laundry offered wine pairings. The rationale for only offering the wine list is that the menu changes daily, so keeping up with pairings would be arduous. The reality is that, while the menu will change daily, there is a spectrum of dishes the kitchen works with. Flavors change, but the core of the menu is constant enough to allow a course-by-course pairing. It is the one way the meal could be taken to greater heights, not that the wine list lacks in selection that’s perfect for the food.

The beef course on both visits was the cap of the ribeye, roasted to medium rare. Deeply flavorful and with the fat melted in, it’s a delicious canvas for bluefoot mushrooms and a San Marzano tomato compote that, after you finish relishing the intensely pure flavor, you realize is essentially the best ketchup you’ve ever encountered.

The cheese course always is a simple affair, showcasing a single cheese that is worthy of solo attention. It is followed up with a sorbet or sherbet. After the richness of the middle section of the meal, a buttermilk or fruit sorbet is just the ticket, like the acidic backbone of a wine keeping your palate refreshed. Buttermilk sherbet with sour cherries and a black tea foam — showing you foam may be passé but not necessarily boring or uninteresting when properly prepared and used — emphasizes how the menu plays with sweet and savory, refreshing and rich, and the earthy side of food.

Dessert tends to walk the classical line, with chocolate mousse that reminds you why classics are just that, or lemon parfait that hits tart and sweet notes with equal force. So skillfully executed, it makes you feel like a kid again, bringing back memories of timeless favorites.

There's also a secret at the end of the meal. Ask if they have any "coffee and doughnuts." They do. But you have to ask. If they're available still, you will get the most delightful cinnamon sugar doughnut and espresso semifreddo.

The French Laundry isn’t a meal that reads well. It’s something you must experience to realize the sheer perfection and enjoyment of it. Nothing is out of place. There are no missteps. Needs are anticipated; requests are met immediately. When a restaurant approaches every day with impossible expectations, it’s remarkable enough for it to meet them. At the French Laundry, Thomas Keller has assembled a brigade that routinely blows those expectations out of the water. There is no better restaurant in the country. Few even come close.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Amuse Bouche: Guilty pleasure

Canned nacho cheese at the Astros' game. 7-Eleven spicy bite hot dogs. Hostess cupcakes. Fried turkey legs at a county fair. Chex Mix. Soft Batch cookies. Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits, fresh from the microwave. Taco Bell Meximelts. Everyone has his delicious-yet-embarrassing food secret. Is it some connection to childhood that does it? Some crack added during the process that creates trans fat? Whatever it is, perhaps a connection of some kind to childhood (well, maybe not for the Double Whopper), these guilty pleasures exist, just like reality television on VH1. Anyone want to top my inexplicable cravings for lukewarm Chick-Fil-A nuggets off of their catering trays?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In re Lankford Grocery

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas
Docket No. 2
HEARD JULY 14, 2009

Before GUTTING, BRINKMANN, LAHAD. for the court filed by GUTTING, J, in which JJ. LAHAD and BRINKMANN join.

GUTTING, J. Before the court is the submission of Lankford Grocery and Market of Houston, Texas (“Lankford”). A long-time leader in the Texas burger culture and recently recognized by Texas Monthly magazine as the 39th best burger in the state, a recent circuit split has emerged regarding Lankford. To resolve this dispute in extremely important area of burger law, we granted certiorari.

We hold that Lankford provides an exceptional burger, worthy of special effort to seek out and enjoy, and merits an A rating. The opinion of the Texas Burger Guy is affirmed; Alison Cook's Burger Friday review is overturned and cited as erroneous precedent.

Lankford is a shack in a strange corner of mid-town, surrounded by new townhouses that should only be so lucky to reach the age of the Lankford building in any shape at all. Inside, you always get the feeling Lankford might come falling down on you at any moment, leaving you to find the most convenient escape route that also will allow you to emerge with a burger in hand.

There's no lack of local color about the place, and the burgers reflect a simplicity that is so easily forgotten in this day of American kobe burgers and sliders. You can go single or double. Maybe some chili. Perhaps the Soldier burger with its fried egg on top. Nothing fancy. Everything delicious.

The Court reviewed three burgers: (1) a double with cheese; (2) a double without cheese; and (3) a Soldier burger.

The Hamburger
These burgers were glossy, sexy pieces of ground beef. The moment they arrived, fresh off the griddle and projecting steam, you could feel as if something magical might be happening this day. An initial sample of the patty alone heightened expectations and senses even more: juicy, rich, an archetype of what a burger should be. Not too much salt. Not too much seasoning. Just the purity of beef that is too often lost by purveyors who don't have the courage to stand on the quality of their ingredients alone.

The patties are hand-formed and roughly a half pound. The double was a candidate to give diners lockjaw due to its height, which was enhanced by a stack of lettuce, tomato, and chopped onion. On the cheeseburger, American slices oozed nicely, but the hamburger also seemed as juicy overall. The Soldier burger achieves a mayonnaise-like quality to its toppings with the over-easy egg. There were plenty of pickles on each patty, a welcome thing with such pure beef flavor. Mayonnaise was appropriate, and the mustard -- too often prone to taking over and dominating the flavor -- used judiciously. Too many burgers suffer from excessive mustard. This is a hamburger, not a musburger.

The burgers came out a barely medium-well, with plenty of retained juice and no signs of dryness-inducing griddle-pressing that lesser establishments insist upon to speed cooking. A solid crust formed on the outside of the patties. These were burgers that begged to be eaten. This was ground beef in excelsis, enhanced by light salt and pepper.

The bun isn't artisan or fancy. This is the style of bun that is meant to create a neutral canvas for a burger, and it can be used to excellent effect in a case such as this, where the meat needs no supporting cast. Bun integrity was strong on the double burgers. Perhaps they are a touch airy for some, but this was not a detriment in the opinion of the Court.

On this day, the Court declined to hear evidence on side dishes. We deemed the Circuit split to be of such high importance that all efforts must be concentrated on strict scrutiny of the burgers themselves. In accordance with our prior precedent, see In re Mel's Country Cafe, supra, we decide the case of Lankford Grocery on the merits without consideration of side dishes. The Court does take judicial notice that Lankford's fries are generally average to slightly above average, while their onion rings are above average.

The Court would like to make special mention of the cherry cobbler ordered this day. While the issue of cobbler need not be reached in order for the Court to render judgment, this cobbler cannot go without discussion. The Court expressly notes its willingness to dismiss with prejudice any claims of merit advanced by the Lankford Grocery cherry cobbler, which contained precisely one cherry in an entire bowl that more resembled a Hostess fried pie crumbled up and put in the microwave. This abomination is unworthy of an establishment of Lankford's stature.

Lankford Grocery produces a burger that is worthy of Best In Houston consideration. It will be difficult for any restaurant to top the merits of this burger. As a result, we award Lankford an A grade. The opinion of the Texas Burger Guy is AFFIRMED. The opinion of Alison Cook is OVERRULED and the case remanded to her for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


LAHAD, J. concurring. I concur in the holding announced today but write separately to admonish Lankford Grocery's appalling cherry cobbler. While none of the parties in the case at bar moved to sanction Lankford, and my brethren on this Court persuaded me that it would be unnecessary judicial activism to act sua sponte, the cherry cobbler offered by Lankford would warrant hefty sanctions and possibly a contempt order. As an officer of this Court, Lankford has a duty to provide accompaniments that meet both gustatory and ethical standards. This alleged "dessert" fails to meet either; Lankford's cherry cobbler is, simply put, the pits.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: Textile

Textile opened in Houston last fall to much fanfare. Scott Tycer has garnered an ardent following here, and Textile is intended to be his crowning achievement. This was to be the restaurant at the top of the city's fine dining scene; a legitimate destination at the high end, something Houston sorely lacks. Is it? The answer is full of qualifiers: Maybe yes, but, if yes, then only in one respect. It will take some doing to explicate that answer, and perhaps the lack of a simple answer should indicate the true answer itself. But there is one area in which Textile succeeds in throwing Tycer's hat into the highest echelon of chefs: price.

Textile is spendy, and it's worth taking some time to discuss that. By virtue of price -- $85 (plus $55 for wine) for a five-course tasting and $115 (plus $75 for wine) for seven courses -- Textile is playing in the big leagues. Prices for non-paired wines, though mostly well-selected, are exorbitant. (The list at Gravitas always seems to have a couple $10 bottles for $45+, implying wine-as-profit-center is a Tycer tradition.) That means big league expectations and razor-thin margins of error. You can go to Tru in Chicago, for example, and have their eleven-course Chef's Collection for $135. The $125 to $175 price range is fairly standard for degustation menus at the top restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. So $115 in Houston, with our lower cost of living, is a bold move. It's a price that allows no room for disappointment or average or lapses in execution when it comes to food or service.

The space at Textile is lovely. There is a calm, cool feel about the room, and the kitchen and service areas are removed, keeping even the usual bustle from reaching the dining room. It's a pleasant atmosphere and is a key contributor to the experience at Textile feeling more enjoyable than just the sum of its parts. It’s relaxed, not stuffy or aloof.

At a restaurant like this, however, ambiance and service must be a given. It cannot get by on anything but the strength of its food. And this is where Textile falls down, excepting the dessert discussion below. Purely in terms of food, this isn't one of the top five places in Houston. It might not even be in the top ten, but that may be a result of sticker shock. The creativity is interesting at times in Tycer's food. The execution is maddeningly inconsistent, reminiscent of the same struggles Robert Gadsby has at Bedford.

The meal started with a solid dish of pickled white asparagus with dilled kefir. It was a crisp, tart, and refreshing opening, paired beautifully with the citrus-tinged and creamy Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs NV. But here began the rollercoaster ride.

The second course was unforgivable: bay scallops and wheat pasta in a celery broth. The scallops were not fresh, with an intensely fishy flavor that screamed of being a couple days' old at least. This sin was amplified by the neutral celery. The pasta was al dente but had an odd, soft, almost slimy feel on the outside, as if it had been cooked short and left to sit and never properly reheated. Whatever happened with this dish was a mistake. Mistakes can happen. They can be corrected. But at a restaurant with Textile's aspirations? A plate like this never should have reached a customer. It indicates a failure of execution in the kitchen and quality control. There was, at least, a surprising and superb Meroi Pinot Grigio 2007 to sip until the waiters cleared the plate.

From that low, the meal reached its apex, an inspired smoked kielbasa with pork belly and goat’s eye bean. The sausage was excellent, meaty and flavorful, complemented by the succulent richness of the pork belly. It was easily the best dish of the night, and it had the best wine of the night, as well, Bergstrom “Dr. Bergstrom” Riesling 2006 from Oregon. It was a real surprise and made this inspired course a great domestic representation of food with such a German feel.

Then the inconsistency resurfaced for the next two dishes. First, quail stuffed with sage bread pudding with porcini and summer truffles. The stuffing was light and airy, but its quantity overwhelmed the subtle quail meat, and the sage neutralized any hint of truffle. The flavors didn’t coalesce. Not even the tasty Faiveley Bourgogne 2006 could bring out any hint of truffle in the dish. Second, a roast leg of duck with forbidden rice had a lovely, crisp skin, but it was overcooked and dry. The forbidden rice was mushy, with a texture like refried beans and with none of the nutty flavor it should have had.

A refreshing cherry and gianduja float preceded the dessert, honeydew and melon soup with goat cheese and brioche. It would have been a refreshing cap to a quite rich string of dishes, but the soup came out room temperature, not chilled. The flavors fell a bit flat.

The dessert, which must have sat too long waiting to come out of the kitchen, underscored the deep problems with service at Textile, an all-too-common problem in Houston. The waiters were awkward and seemed uncomfortable and hot. Each course delivered to the table -- a five-course and a seven-course -- was flip-flopped. Even after being brought to the attention of the maitre d', it continued through the meal's conclusion, reaching the point of being laughable. Wine service from sommelier Frank Moore, though, was superb. He is a knowledgeable, passionate wine steward whose pairings generally are smart and appropriate. His trips to explain each pour were a highlight of the evening.

So far, it is hard to reconcile all this with the "maybe yes" answer above. Isn’t Textile just overrated and overpriced? Well, yes. But it also has Plinio Sandalio, the pastry chef. What is clear about Textile is that it is the best restaurant in Houston -- for dessert. And it does have the best chef in town -- Sandalio.

The dessert tasting at Textile, offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays, is the thing to get to find value and inspired creativity. It is a glimpse at special and rare talent over eight courses.

To start one recent evening, out came two crisp matchstick French fries, with a dollop of potato chip-crusted mayonnaise that was deep fried. It showed that, in this frying-crazed era, there are still interesting things to be discovered.

The tasting itself was split into savory and sweet halves. The savory began with the much-ballyhooed “corndog”: a slightly sweet corn fritter, mustard ice cream, and ketchup with ground hot dog into it. Each element was tasty, but the flavors melded together in impressive harmony that worked in conveying the best of sweet-salty-savory interplay. Less successful was the okra ice cream and andouille caramel that followed. The ice cream was delicious, something like creamed okra, but the andouille caramel didn’t quite gel.

The savory segment closed on another high, a lemon tart with candied olives. The olives, the harshness of their flavor eviscerated, made an interesting pairing with a superlative lemon tart. This showed Sandalio at his greatest skill and gave a glimpse at a possible weakness. The tart shell was exquisite, light and crisp. The lemon filling was perfectly executed and avoided the pitfall of so many lemon desserts, which become too sweet and mask the lemon flavor. Not here. It was piquant and captured a juicy lemon’s refreshment. Sandalio’s fundamental skills are without doubt; he ensures that you can see all the classical techniques he has mastered, giving him more leeway to be creative. With this dish, however, the olives seemed superfluous and unnecessary. They were interesting, but you can’t help but wonder if one fewer element would have given the overall dish a greater stature. With his skill, however, you are likely to write it off as minor.

Between the savory and sweet halves came a watermelon and feta “intermezzo.” The compressed watermelon was crisp and ripe. A small feta cheesecake opened your mind to new dimensions of the line between savory and sweet.

The sweet segment showcased Sandalio’s creativity within more a more traditional realm. The coconut cake was delicious and perfectly executed, although the accompanying avocado ice cream, while nice texturally appealing, brought out an odd side to avocado’s earthy flavor. The peach sorbet was the essence of a favorite Texas summer ingredient, and the white chocolate mousse maintained elegance. This dish actually seemed somewhat out of place it was so traditional, though perfectly executed.

The last course was a substantial bittersweet chocolate torchon, filled with cherry and complemented by “pop rocks.” As a cherry cordial, it didn’t quite work, and it was rather heavy, but the chocolate was beautiful. There’s no denying the skill that went into the dish.

The final touch, a series of mignardises, left a lingering impression of Sandalio’s impeccable skill in the kitchen: a perfect hazelnut tart, sumptuously rich brownie, and shortbread that will make you spontaneously renounce all others. And that, in essence, is the contrast between Textile at dinner and at dessert. The main courses suffer from lapses in execution and occasionally questionable choices, such as the superfluous black truffles on the quail. At dessert, it’s a bit like watching Jimmy Page play the guitar. All the fundamentals are there, and you’re constantly aware of that basic skill, but you’re always teetering on the edge of disaster in a flurry of creativity and experimentation. It makes the food fun, but it only works because Sandalio hits more than he misses.

As a result, the lingering impression of Textile is mixed. You want to like the place more than you intuitively should. The atmosphere is pleasant. The wine pairings are thoughtful and appropriate. For every miss of a course, you’re reassured by the atmosphere. And you get the wonderful memory of the desserts. So the bottom line requires sober reflection. At easily more than $200 a person for the seven-course tasting with wine, $140 for the five-course with wine, and limited a la carte selections, liking the place doesn’t make up for relatively uneven food. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the Houston dining scene because it’s serious. But the prices need to reflect the reality of the food (and, perhaps, the economy) or sloppy execution and service must be stamped out permanently. In the meantime, take less risk and go on a weeknight for the a la carte selection or go ahead and have dessert for dinner.