Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: Glass Wall

Glass Wall opened in the Heights in 2006. That makes it the dean of the recent explosion of restaurants and other hot spots in the Heights and along the Washington corridor of Houston. From the beginning, Glass Wall has been trendy, and so it remains today. Big crowds come from the neighborhood, along with some of those wrap sunglasses-wearing, pinky ring-wearing, blueberry Stoli-drinking hipsters from the Washington scene who are looking for something “old school” like a three-year-old restaurant.

The best thing about Glass Wall hits you immediately upon walking in. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, inspired by chef Lance Fegen’s passion for surfing. A large (what else?) glass wall separates the bar from the main dining area. The room is colored in cool shades of blue, green, and white. The ceilings are high. And the worst thing about Glass Wall hits you at the same time: the noise. When will successful restaurants bother to invest a pittance in a few acoustic panels that would make it comfortable for a table of four or more speak in indoor voices?

In any case, Glass Wall doesn’t let its popularity and trendy reputation go to its head. The staff plays it cool, which is the best part of the restaurant’s personality. Everyone, from the put-together hostess and co-owner Ross Shepard at the front of the house to Chris the excellent bartender and the wait staff, keeps Fegen’s laid back, surfer mentality in mind.

From Glass Wall

The menu changes a couple times each quarter, keeping it in tune with the variety of seasonal produce. But the menu doesn’t have a heavy-handed seasonal overtone, which is emphasized by occasional inconsistency from the kitchen. There tend to be staple dishes offered, with a seasonal bent to them. Appetizers will include a play on a fried junk food; entrees choices will feature pork tenderloin, short ribs, grass-fed steak, and a white fish.

Fegen has a nice flair for the creative, jiving subtly with the surf theme of the restaurant. He’ll toss in a dash of exotic fruit unexpectedly or do something a little wild, like crust tenderloin in jalapeno potato chips. There is a kind of casual fearlessness about the food that jives with the surfer mentality.

At its best, Fegen’s dishes are some of the most imaginative and skillfully executed comfort food around. His oyster beignets on top of a candied bacon pancake with hollandaise and hot sauce syrup from the winter was one of the most inspired dishes in town. Fegen isn’t afraid to take risks with flavor combinations, as the current menu’s chorizo mashed potatoes demonstrate with glorious success. The chicken fried steak — in whatever form it takes on the menu — contends in “best of” discussions. He also makes good use of lesser known cuts like the flat iron, creating solid, tasty dishes that are reliable standbys.

Not every move by the kitchen is a hit, though. The pork tenderloin tends to be overcooked and boring. The recent preparation of short ribs has been dry, a bad misstep for meat that is difficult to overcook; it allows them to be overshadowed by the excellent gouda grits that share the plate.

From Glass Wall

Where Glass Wall tends to be weakest is when it makes efforts to go more upscale. The best example is the bread service. Having someone come over with a selection of bread feels out of place, and the constantly awkward demeanor of the server underscores that. The poultry dishes are more pedestrian, coming off as an exercise in the mundane and seemingly prepared out of obligation to expectant diners.

The wine list is fairly limited but, in comparison with its peers, smartly chosen. The prices are decent; you can usually find something worth drinking. Kudos to them for suggesting a wine pairing with each dish on the menu, even appetizers. These tend to be the most interesting wines they serve. Glass prices are the now-standard $9 to $14 range.

The noise level can be blistering, which makes sitting in the bar an attractive option. It is quieter there, and it’s also a great place to watch sports. Given this, Glass Wall really succeeds in being a better version of Max’s Wine Dive: smart comfort food done in a laid back atmosphere, rather than the arrogantly in-your-face flavors you find at Max’s that are too obvious to merit serious interest. Glass Wall has a terrific ability to cut down your craving for greasy comfort food in the way a great diner does, and it will make you feel slightly cool at the same time. A bit sharper focus and consistent execution on the more complex, ambitious dishes, and it would rise up another notch.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Amuse bouche: What's with the savory desserts?

Everywhere you look at fine dining restaurants nowadays, it seems you run into desserts that flirt with the line between sweet and savory. The extremely talented Plinio Sandalio of Textile may be the current Houston leader in this regard, with some interesting results. But it's a fad that needs to end. They've been doing it at Alinea since the place opened and on Iron Chef for years before that. The sweet-savory exploration has taken longer to throw roots in Houston, as is so often the case with culinary trends. Most of these forays seem to revolve around the interplay of sweet and salty. That's a good but limited medium. It's summertime. We don't need spam ice cream and its ilk. We have a bounty of fresh Texas peaches and scorching heat to squelch.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Foibles of Houston wine service

It’s hard to come up with a more relaxing, enjoyable scene: sit down at a nice restaurant, white table cloth, carefully set table, bustling scene, tempting menu. You look over the wine list, but this is one of those grand days where you don’t want to think too much about it. You want to offer yourself up to your host entirely. Sadly, in Houston, the chances are leaving yourself in the hands of a restaurant for wine selection and service will result in disappointment.

Wine service in Houston is sorely lacking. One might argue service generally, even in the best restaurants in town, is the greatest weakness in this city’s dining scene. When it comes to wine, at least, the situation is annoying but fixable. A few simple rules and an attitude change is all it would take.

1. The pour

This is, without a doubt, the biggest foible and easiest to fix. Almost without fail, waiters and (inexcusably) sommeliers pour your glass too full. Most of the time it’s halfway up the glass, just enough to prevent you from being able to swirl it effectively and unlock all the wine’s aromas. You end up being forced to drink a third of the glass before being able to really appreciate and evaluate it.

Usually this isn’t a huge concern with wines by the glass, which are served out of bottles that have been open for quite some time and don’t always require the same amount of aeration. But when you purchase a bottle, and the server pours the whole thing out in four glasses, it substantially inhibits enjoying the wine. What’s worse is that there is no clearer sign that a restaurant is trying to force you into buying a second bottle immediately. It starts the meal on a rushed note, trying to get you to commit to more wine before the food arrives (if you’ve even ordered at all).

Pouring doesn’t need to be like this. Indeed, it isn’t always. There are a few notable exceptions in Houston, namely Ibiza, Catalan, Voice, and Hugo’s, Backstreet CafĂ©, and Prego, where wine service falls under the tutelage of Sean Beck, easily the city’s best sommelier. These are restaurants where proper service show attention to detail and enhances the atmosphere of a meal, and it is an easy standard to live up to.

2. Poor stemware

What difference does the glass make? It can make you think one wine is actually two completely different ones. Proper stemware allows more surface area of the wine to be exposed and a well-designed glass funnels the bouquet to your nose, allowing your olfactory to maximize its essential role in tasting.

Perhaps more disconcerting, good stemware is relatively inexpensive. You don’t need the Riedel Sommelier Series to enjoy any wine. The Vinum series is great; Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau both make excellent and affordable glasses. While some of the design intricacies, such as creating special Oregon Pinot Noir glasses are going overboard, good and basic glasses for white, red, and sparkling wine are essential.

Fortunately, for the most part, Houston’s better restaurants have invested in adequate stemware. But several exceptions are shocking; when that’s the case, go ahead and bring your own glasses or forego wine altogether. Yes, what you drink your wine out of is that important.

3. Lack of knowledge

This is a two-pronged issue. First, servers far too often are completely at a loss when it comes to wine. It’s not general wine knowledge they need; it can be fine if they lack that. But wait staff needs to at least have familiarity with the restaurant’s wine list. They must grasp some fundamentals about some bottles that will complement the menu, and it is a poor reflection on the chef and sommelier when waiters don’t.

Lack of server knowledge perhaps is forgivable because they should have been trained better. And this is the second problem: sommeliers in Houston with disheartening regularity come off like novices. This is particularly evident when they recommend wines that supposedly work with the restaurant’s food and in their ability to translate a customer’s articulated preferences to wines on the list. A sommelier needs to be able to take a description of a wine and match it to something she has available. This is a difficult but necessary skill; it is the hallmark of a wine professional.

Perhaps this is too harsh a critique. It is possible that restaurants are just responding to what their clientele demands. Maybe the Houston wine consumer is too unimaginative to allow restaurants to come up with great wine lists, leaving us with a proliferation of boring Chardonnay and Cabernet. Even Ibiza, one of the best and most creative lists in town, is stocked with loads of Napa Cab that doesn’t suit its menu. Even if this is the case, however, sommeliers should be doing a better job of teaching. They should be providing more variety and better pairing possibilities.

Again, there are exceptions worth noting. Despite that head-scratching Cab-heavy list, Ibiza always offers a few interesting and crisp Spanish whites. (They easily could expand their New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc selection.) Catalan is marvelous in pushing grower Champagne, as well as the occasional Savennieres or lesser known Spanish wine. Voice deserves kudos for its thoughtful wine pairings to complement excellent tasting menus. And the aforementioned Sean Beck is a true master of finding wines that work with difficult cuisine. You only need to sample a few of his extraordinary Pinot Noir pairings with the Mexican food at Hugo’s to see he has a complete understanding of the intricate dance between the flavors in wine and food.

As Houston’s food scene matures, with more professional service staff and more sophisticated palates on diners, the knowledge gap can be closed rapidly.

4. Briskness

Speed is also a misstep that is easily addressed. Too frequently, servers refill your glass after you’ve only had a few sips. This inhibits seeing how a wine evolves in a glass. It messes up the temperature of white wine. It destroys the pacing of the meal, subtly trying to get you to speed up. For what? The restaurant wants to sell you more wine.

That, in essence, is the true failure of the Houston restaurant wine scene. Wine and other alcoholic beverages, as a general rule, are seen as profit centers. If they get you through one round of drinks, they can move you on to another. Of course, that opens a massive can of worms: the ridiculous price of wine in restaurants, but that is worthy of in-depth discussion at another time. For now, it is sufficient to say that subordinating an essential part of dining enjoyment is not in a restaurant’s best interest.

The old liquor store in Chicago, Zimmerman’s, used to have a sign that read, “Drink fast and hurry back!” It’s a chuckle-inducing sentiment but, drunk driving concerns aside, one that doesn’t have a place at the dinner table.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Amuse bouche: Any escape from the heat?

This week has been a jarring reminder of the wickedness of Houston summers. Is there any way to escape the heat? Can't someone invent some sort of cooling unit that will allow us to enjoy patios even in the throes of this swamp, like an air conditioned or ice-lined shirt? Apparently none of that is in the cards in 2009. So that means we're left with the traditional standbys: cold beer in frozen glasses; bottomless pitchers of margaritas; chowing down on Five Guys with your feet dangling in the pool; and doing anything possible to avoid setting foot outside to begin with. Summer is a great time to familiarize yourself with how to navigate downtown Houston's tunnel system. Anyone with novel ideas on how to beat the heat?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wine of the moment: Joseph Swan Pinot Noir Russian Rivery Valley Cuvee de Trois

Simply put, you will not find a better Pinot Noir for the price than this wine. The price is $28 direct from the winery. You can pick it up at Spec’s in downtown Houston for $31.82. The 2006 is the current release, but the stunning 2007 is around the corner. Each year, this wine epitomizes the profile of the Russian River Valley: elegant, filled with red and black cherry fruit, bright acidity, and a gentle baking spice/cinnamon component. It's a refreshing style of wine, lovely on warm (read: muggy and unbearable) Houston summer days and also the perfect complement to food.

Full disclosure: Rod Berglund and the folks at Joseph Swan Vineyards are good friends. You can check my tasting notes on Swan wines here. This is unambiguously delicious juice.