Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Amuse bouche: Houston's food strength

Every week, this feature will give you a quick bite to chew on. To kick it off, what is Houston’s biggest food strength? It’s hard to make the case for barbecue, since it seems like Lockhart, Texas, wins there. Mexican food? That’s more of a statewide thing. For my money, Houston excels above all else at the mid-level restaurant. These are places with entrees that run $18 to $30, give or take a few bucks. It can’t compete at the high end. But in the middle range? This is a fantastic city.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

First look: Anvil Bar & Refuge

This bar just opened up at 1424 Westheimer in Houston, and the early look has it shaping up as a solid joint. And how can you not dig the name? Anvil Bar & Refuge. To relax, it behooves folks to look for a spirited refuge. Anvil is a welcome addition to the Houston bar scene -- a scene that, incidentally, is so much more attractive since the advent of the smoking ban a couple years ago. Who wants to go to happy hour after work, only to get your suit infused with Marlboro stink?

Anyway, aside from the extreme decibel level (will someone, somewhere please invest in acoustic panels?), Anvil is a terrific, relaxing bar. A lot of reclaimed materials have gone into the bar, its decor, and the furniture. But it's a comfortable, dark, leather-sofa kind of atmosphere with plenty of candlelight. Perhaps a bit noisy for a romantic after-dinner stop, but certainly a good place to unwind with coworkers or friends anytime.

The wine list is small but intelligently selected, without ridiculous markups. For example, the excellent 2007 W.H. Smith Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast is $48. You can pick up the same bottle at Spec's for a hair under $30. The beer list is a strength. Everything is from bottle, and the selection is superb -- from a handful of the usual big brew suspects to a big selection of microbrews and genuine ales. There is even a barleywine/strong ale section on the menu.

Anvil's purported speciality, however, is cocktails. They are going for a throwback cocktail style, with current selections listed on on a chalkboard. Each of them is interesting and true to its ingredients. Some of them are intense without being overbearing. Particularly good are the Mexican Fizz, Bee's Knees, and First Growth (beware of the potent St. Germain liqueur here). They are made smartly and priced at $8 each. Not too outrageous, although per ounce of alcohol, you probably do better with wine.

The crowd was mostly professional, with a lot of sportcoats in attendance. That's kind of expected since the buzz for this place seems to have been generated mostly on Twitter. In any case, Anvil is here. It's worth a look.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

An appetizer to start the blogging meal

I dig sliders. The first time I had them was at the Cheesecake Factory during college in Baltimore. How utterly American to enable its people to have a miniature hamburger before shoveling down their bacon double cheeseburgers. This is something I can support. An important part of this blog, too, is to not just be critical. It’s to emphasize the cooperative nature of food. You can’t just be a food critic. You have to love food. It’s a participatory exercise. So here is a slider recipe, in the spirit of creating something, as well as critiquing it.

The key to a good slider is bun-to-meat ratio. Too much bread masks and dulls the beef flavor. Too little bread turns into a greasy mess. A bun on a slider, or any burger for that matter, needs to add to the overall combination; in the alternative, it needs to at least not detract. It’s kind of hard to screw up a slider, come to think of it. Cheesecake Factory always had good ones. Crystal Burger is the king of the fast food slider. White Castle belongs only in a movie with Harold and Kumar.

When doing burgers of any sort, start with whole steak, preferably New York strip. This is extravagant, but when you can pick up the entire top loin at Costco for $4.35 a pound give or take a couple bucks, it is totally worth it. Grind a couple pounds of that up with four ounces of pancetta. This gives enough extra fat content to satisfy people who complain that you can’t just grind up steak because it’s too lean. Make it into three-ounce patties, careful not to overwork the meat. Pan fry them (iron skillet, please) for two minutes on one side, then one minute on the other. Top with cheese after they’re flipped.

But what about that all-important bun? Something too yeasty can be a touch overbearing; it’s like a champagne that has yeasty overtones that stomp all over the fruit. No, you need something else. Something with substance to it but that doesn’t intrude. My solution? Turn to a master. In this case, Joel Robuchon.

If you haven’t seen it or heard about it, Robuchon has an amazing new cookbook out, The Complete Robuchon. The general idea behind this book is to provide a method of French home cooking that is doable, more or less, for us servant-less American cooks. This book is executed with passion, skill, and precision. By reading the clear recipes, you can see it is done by someone with a true love of and respect for food.

As it happens, Robuchon produces a recipe that makes the ideal bread complement for sliders. It is his insanely simple recipe for brioche. The butter and egg of the brioche provide a richness and body that enhances but doesn’t intrude too much upon the slider patty, allowing the meat flavor to sing. To cut the heavier elements slightly, add some caramelized onions, which give an earthy flavor, and a ketchup made out tomatoes slow-roasted in the oven for four hours at 250 degrees and refreshed with a little champagne vinegar, which adds acidity.

That’s a lot of words. This wasn’t meant to be a full-bore recipe or detailed overview of these sliders. It’s supposed to be an appetizer. Let’s let a couple pictures do the talking and then get to the meal that is this blog started.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Do we really need another food blog?

That question is the most appropriate place to start. The Internet has become a haven for, among myriad other things, food blogs. Some of these are the products of amateurs with dreams of becoming the next Julie Powell, skyrocketing to fame and a cushy life writing and wearing pajamas. Others perhaps want to be the next Ruth Reichl or Jeffrey Steingarten or Molly O’Neill or Anthony Bourdain or Frank Bruni. Well, maybe not Frank Bruni.

In any case, there has been a proliferation of online food discussions, rants, and information. Why not get in while the getting is good? No, just adding another voice to an expanding chorus isn’t reason enough. The quality of food writing on the Internet is increasingly good. Every new entry must have — and should have — something worthy to offer.

My desire to start this blog stems from two central complaints about a lot of today’s food writing, on the Internet and beyond. First, and this is a grievance surely shared by many, is that food writers tend to not be much on the writing part of their jobs. No, that puts too fine a point on it. Auberon Waugh would not approve. Far too frequently, food writers are like hobby writers who thought being an English or creative writing major in college was a good idea but never had the dedication to craft that it took to truly succeed. As a result, food writers, along with other critics, have garnered the (sometimes deserving) stereotype that they are talentless, arrogant hacks more interested in being an adversary, judging what they themselves cannot do. Naturally, as with all stereotypes, this classification of critics is both overbroad and frequently unfair. Nevertheless, the complaints against food critics aren’t entirely without substance, as a few examples illustrate:

“Chef John DeLucie is doing some of the best tuna tartare in town (all that creamy avocado and zingy heat!), plus a hefty and juicy pork chop, a classically blissful Dover sole, an addictive clam chowder, a gorgeous fillet of wild salmon (with those adorable little beluga lentils) and . . . feloniously fatty short ribs . . . .”

Or, “There’s another tension at work, too: the contrast between the crisp, highly structured grid, singed by the waffle iron, and the tender, steamy, nursery-time interior.”

Now, who wrote these particular passages is irrelevant. That isn’t the point; the point is that food critics habitually overwrite their prose. They are bakers of prose frosted in adjectives — those adorable little adjectives. It can reach the point where the writing overshadows the content, where observation is subordinated to language without due attention paid to the meaning words convey. Take “feloniously fatty short ribs.” I would think “felonious” amounts of fat in short ribs would mean that they aren’t good, rather than indicate admiration. And descriptions like “nursery-time interior” make me want to enjoy some nursery time so I can fall asleep rather than figure out what the words try to convey.

You likely have noticed that this complaint is rooted in writing. I don’t mind that restaurant critics often are adversarial or judgmental. That comes with the territory. Something would be wrong if critics hesitated when confronting their subjects. But overwritten restaurant reviews thrust the language (and its writer) to the forefront of the piece. (I realize that, writing in the first-person here and thrusting myself into the forefront of this post makes me look hypocritical. So be it; I’ll use as my defense that this is an introductory post meant to clarify this blog’s goals.) This confuses what food writing is truly about. The food. The service. The atmosphere. The wine. It’s not about ego — although sometimes there is something undeniably delicious about seeing an egomaniacal chef being cut down to size. In the end, however, that appeals to base emotions. It subordinates the important core, the food and wine. The writer and his writing has to be cloaked to the extent possible.

As for the second complaint, it involves the virtually invisible role of wine in food discussions. Too much food writing is just that — purely about the food. Perhaps you might take this opportunity to point out that, like a nincompoop, I am writing about food here. Where does the wine come into play? To me, food and wine is inseparable. To divorce them — or shortchange one at the expense of the other — is the equivalent of requesting Spam substituted in the meat course at the French Laundry. You shouldn’t think of it, and even if you do, decency forbids you from acting on the thought.

Much of the food writing I read makes no mention at all of wine or, if it does, the discussion is cursory and amateurish at best. It’s hard to even know what to say about that. Wine is food. If you’re having a serious meal, in a restaurant or at home, you’ve got to have wine with it. (Medical conditions and religious objections excepted, of course.) Yet there is a strange dichotomy in gastronomic writing that separates the two. You have food critics (Frank Bruni and his ilk) and wine critics (Robert Parker and his disciples). It is rare to find someone who unifies passion for both in a single medium, yet I can’t think of a single gourmand who willingly gives up pairing wine with food.

In any case, the goal of this blog is two-fold, as you might have guessed given the complaints explicated above. First, I want to take back the realm of food writing from the traditional critic. I want this site to be about the food (including wine), with minimal intrusions of self-serving and heavy-handed wording. This will not be a site that’s the product of a creative writing masters program Second, I want the posts to honor the interaction of wine and food. As James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Above all, this blog intends to be a celebration of food and wine. No frills. No snobbery. And certainly fewer adjectives.