Sunday, April 26, 2009

Amuse bouche: Real BYOB in Texas?

There was a tremendous steak event up in Dallas this weekend -- more on that later. While there, someone mentioned what's been dubbed the "Dewhurst bill" in the Texas legislature. This would allow BYOB at all restaurants in the state. Current law makes BYOB an option only at restaurants with either no liquor license or a beer-and-wine-only license. Those with full licenses (beer, wine, and liquor) cannot legally allow BYOB. The merits (or lack thereof) of the current state of affairs will be the subject of a full post later this week. But this bill would be a major step forward for Texas restaurants. Why would anyone oppose it? People will eat out more. Is there any good reason supporting the oppostion? Nothing too legitimate comes to mind.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: Topolobampo

This is the best Mexican food in the country. That’s quite the statement to make for a purportedly Houston-centric blog. Mexican food in Chicago? But you probably have heard of Rick Bayless or seen his cooking show on PBS. His restaurants, the casual Frontera Grill and upscale Topolobampo, are benchmarks for authentic Mexican cuisine. That’s right. Cuisine. Not just food. This isn’t your E-Z Melt stuffed inside corn tortillas. That isn’t meant to come off as condescending as it sounds. To put it another way: this isn’t Tex-Mex.

Perhaps that’s a distinction that isn’t quite clear. Here in Texas, when we talk about “Mexican food,” it’s tacos, quesadillas, and fajitas. It’s Mama Ninfa and Joe T. Garcia. That’s Tex-Mex. And it’s awesome. One of the great things about living in Texas is that it’s so easy to be spoiled by the ready availability of marvelous Tex-Mex. There’s the queso flammeado at the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation or the fajitas at Lupe Tortilla or the margaritas at El Tiempo.

There is another type of Mexican food out there. In Houston, we are blessed with an excellent example of it, Hugo’s Restaurant. Along with Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, these three restaurants stand for a kind of authentic, creative, inspiring cuisine that honors traditional Mexican food. It goes beyond the stable, predictable, and delicious standard dishes we think of as “Mexican food.”

From Topolobampo

The most defining thing about Topolobampo, reinforced in no uncertain terms on a recent visit for dinner, is that regional Mexican cuisine is a bountiful source of creative and cutting edge cooking. The food at Topolobampo stands in line with the finest American cuisine. It is executed with the greatest skill, and the love of Rick Bayless, chef de cuisine Brian Enyart, and their kitchen brigade is evident in each dish. But the way Topolobampo achieves it results is unique in certain ways compared to its peers.

At many fine dining restaurants — the French Laundry, Daniel, Le Bernardin, Alinea, and its brethren — the buzz word seems to be “purity.” That is, the food is founded on the principle that the ingredients (often many in each dish) complement each other, allowing the components to stand out in their most pure, delicious form. This is indisputably a winning method and combination, one that has taken root at the core of American food. It is not a bad thing at all; honoring ingredients and letting them speak for themselves by expressing pure, true flavors is a noble task that produces stunning results.

At Topolobampo, however, the fundamental methodology is somewhat different. Instead of combining ingredients, often in novel ways, that allows the purity of each component to stand out, Topolobampo places greater emphasis on compound flavors. The interplay of the ingredients, combining to produce the unexpected, is the order of the day. This isn’t opposed to the method of the standard-bearers of contemporary American cuisine. It merely is a change in focus. The French Laundry, for example, doesn’t only allow individual flavors to stand out. There are creative, even counterintuitive, flavor combinations that cause an eater to marvel. But the primary emphasis is on purity of flavor.

From Topolobampo

Topolobampo offers three tasting menus, in addition to an a la carte menu, each of which stands out for the unique fusion of ingredients. The individual components are featured in their glory, but it is the interplay and strength in combination of the ingredients together that is the cornerstone of Rick Bayless’s food.

This dedication to lifting ingredients to greater highs when put together — the temptation to use the word “synergy” is embarrassing — was apparent from the first course in the Adventurer’s tasting menu available February 24 through March 21.

It began with a Ceviche Rosa de Kona Kampachi, easily the most creative and delightful ceviche I’ve ever encountered. The fish, of the finest quality of course, was marinated in lime and ancho chile. Slices of baby blood oranges gave a fuller, sweeter citrus flavor. Flanking the fish on either side was an almond-infused shaved ice, which simultaneously kept the fish cold and gave a subtle sweetness that played off the hint of spice in the ancho chile, and ancho-candied kumquats, which stood up to the spice and brought out the sweetness of the fish. This dish was a revelation and set the tone for the entire meal.

Next came Chilpachole de Jaiba, a chipotle-lobster broth soup with king crab and small masa dumplings, with epazote and charales. It was a wonder how the lobster flavor came through so singularly in the broth, bolstered by the smoky and sweet chipotle and underscored by a subtle spice that belatedly came from the back of your tongue and lightly coated the palate. The masa played into these flavors perfectly, of course, a strong yet adaptable flavor. The king crab refused to get lost in these strong flavors, bolstered and carried on the strength and purity of the lobster broth.

Third, a play on traditional Mexican pibil, which is made with pork. Tonight, the Pescada “Pibil” was a black cod roasted with achiote in banana leaves, with pureed white beans, a fruity guero chile jelly, and habanero-pickled red onion. Without a doubt, this is one of the finest fish dishes in the world. With a simple pan sauce, the black cod sings. With a bit of crispy skin and a texture and flavor so buttery and decadent, it was enhanced by the earthy achiote and acidic verve and spice of the pickled onions. This dish is a profound achievement; one not to be lost in memory; one to build a menu around.

From Topolobampo

The main protein consisted of two beef preparations: slow-cooked oxtail that was then seared, giving it a deeper, caramelized richness, and braised short ribs. It was accompanied by hominy, beauty heart radish, Napa cabbage, bone marrow, and lime — the presentation was similar to that of a coleslaw, with the ingredients placed together in a way that made it unavoidable to eat them together, the Napa cabbage the conduit for the flavors. But the accompaniments were sidelights; this dish embodies the term “beefy.” The beef itself, grass-fed, had terrific texture and flavor. But the sauce, a simple jus, was pure intensity, showing all the nuance of the best beef. It was a purist’s moment in a meal of combinations, a solo by an ideal ingredient in a meal of duos and choruses.

The beef was a hard act to follow, but pastry chef Melissa Novak wasn’t about to be left out of this party. A trio of ice cream sandwiches: (1) Negro Modelo chocolate ice cream with cacao nibs; (2) buttermilk-tangerine ice cream with brown-butter pecan crunch; and (3) pistachio ice cream with pistachio-chocolate brittle. The portion was large. Each ice cream came sandwiched between triangles of chocolate cake. Normally, eating a dessert like this, I’m inclined to sample each in turn. With this, I dug into the buttermilk-tangerine and was hooked. It was impossible to stop eating it. The succulent sweetness of the tangerine got a slightly sharp note from the buttermilk, with the chocolate supporting nicely without overshadowing the more delicate flavors. The Negro Modelo was tasty, deep and rich, almost a chocolate overload. But then in swooped the pistachio, a handful of bites capping an extraordinary meal on an extraordinary high point. The gorgeous nut flavor enhanced the creamy texture of the ice cream, complemented by the slight bitterness of the chocolate. It was an inspired combination.

From Topolobampo

There is no doubt that Topolobampo, routinely mentioned among the handful of best restaurants in Chicago, surely deserves those accolades. But it is clear that the kitchen if operating at the height of its powers. Any serious nationwide discussion of best restaurants should include it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amuse bouche: The best beginner's wine?

It's appalling to watch people who aren't into wine order things like young Cabernet Sauvignon. There are few things that are going to turn someone off of the most heavenly of beverages more than a confusing, tannic wine like that. People sometimes ask what the best thing to give a wine novice to drink is. That's easy. Start with Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. The fruity and acidic profile appeals to anyone. They taste good and are generally easy to understand. American tastes have trended so intensely in favor of tannic reds being drunk far too young that even wines like Sauvignon Blanc have gotten an unfair label of being "sweet." Disagree?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Amuse bouche: Why must they foodgasm?

Food Network isn't what it used to be. No more Ming Tsai. No more Anthony Bourdain. Barely any Tyler Florence. Tons of Guy Fieri, the man who believes every dish must have sausage and cheese mixed in it and probably can't even spell "subtle." The most troubling trend, however, is that all the hosts, when they taste their food, go into hysterics at their own cooking efforts. They have a foodgasm. Giada is a horrendous offender, as is Paula Deen. No one is immune. There is no humility in tasting anymore, only shameless self-aggrandizement. Give me Jacques Pepin or Julia Child -- chefs who frequently went on camera and admitted their food needs a dash of this or pinch of that. Even the best don't always get it perfect the first time; why pretend?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Little Bigs

You can hardly walk inside a restaurant without being accosted by a plate of sliders these days. It’s hard to understand where this started, but it’s not the most horrific trend to come about in food. What could be bad about adding more ground beef to the table?

What could indicate that sliders have arrived on the big, trendy stage better than Bryan Caswell, chef at the much-acclaimed REEF, has given Houston its very own slider-only restaurant named Little Bigs. Bryan Caswell is an excellent chef. REEF is a terrific place: their menu is fresh with solid creativity, and the wine program is one of the top three in the city in large part because of its eminently reasonable pricing.

The concept of Little Bigs is quality. Take REEF’s signature dish — reserving for a later time the discussion of beef being the most famous thing on the menu at what allegedly is the best seafood house in the country — put in fresh fries, milk shakes, a nice wine list, and an attractive patio, and there you have it. Late-night eats for the trendy.

There is one problem. The beef slider isn’t all that good. The bun is terrific, baked on-site, and adds value to the sandwich instead of just serving as a bland meat-holder. The caramelized onions are done well, and the Sriracha remoulade is a nice twist. That’s all well and good, but such things are sidelights.

The problem is the patty itself. While it’s great that they grind their meat fresh daily and never freeze it, a half dozen encounters with Caswell’s sliders over the past several months confirm that the patty need improvement. The meat routinely is overworked, making it rubbery, chewy, and tough. The texture ends up making the burgers seem too greasy. And the sliders also never have the proper seasoning; they are either oversalted or undersalted. That is a mortal sin for any dish.

On a higher note, the chicken slider is pretty good. They do a nice job making a crispy, juicy hunk of chicken breast on that tasty bun. The fries are terrific, some of the best in the city. They are properly double-fried giving a nice crunch and pure potato flavor.

The atmosphere is also good. It reminds me a touch of the phenomenal Taylor’s Automatic Refresher in the Napa Valley, although the burger quality at Little Big’s isn’t in the same league. The outdoor area is laid back. The wine list is smart and reasonably priced. It’s open late and better than Taco Cabana or Jack in the Box. And, most importantly, the sins of that slider patty are easily correctable. The only fear is that because of Caswell’s success and the acclaim the sliders have gotten, he won’t bother to make them better than they need to be.