Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wine of the Moment: Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen Riesling Eroica 2008

Riesling from the United States tends to be a bit devoid of character. Sure, they can be pleasant, but it is fairly rare to find one possessing meaningful personality. Actually, New York State produces some of the most consistently quaffable Riesling in this country. But in a popular wave of Chardonnay and Merlot drinkers, Riesling largely has been left behind. It's a shame, too. Riesling rocks. Germany produces phenomenal Riesling, in the well-known sweeter style. Alsace continues to churn out drier examples of the grape that are attractive and crisp. And now Austria has thrown its hat into the ring as a producer of less sweet styles of Riesling that receive well-deserved international attention.

If you're from Houston, you need to know Riesling. As Scott Spencer, the kind and knowledgeable owner of the Houston Wine Merchant has correctly proclaimed for years, Riesling is the perfect wine for the weather here. It is refreshing, crisp, delightfully cooling, and pairs marvelously with many foods (including spicy ones, which Houstonians have been known to favor from time to time).

For everyday drinking, you can pick up a bottle of the excellent Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen Riesling Eroica 2008. This wine, made from Washington State's Columbia Valley, is a partnership between the large winery Chateau Ste. Michelle and the famous German producer Dr. Loosen. It is done more in a German style, although on the drier side of the sweetness scale. (That would be kabinett in German wine nomenclature. German wines are labeled by how sweet they are, but that tends to be pretty confusing, so set it aside for later explication.) In plain terms, this is a wine that comes off as a hybrid of the German and Austrian styles. It has the hint of sweetness you find in German wines, but its peachy fruit is carried along by a slightly tart edge and plenty of minerality.

The Eroica Riesling is a wine that is made to slice through the debilitating humidity of Houston summer and transport you to a land of refreshment and enchantment. You might call it the San Diego of fermented grape juice. And at about $15 at your local Costco, you can drink up without a guilty conscience.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In re Hubcap Grill

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas

Docket No. 5



GUTTING, J. Before the Court is the submission of Hubcap Grill ("Hubcap") on a petition of certiorari from Houston's food critics and bloggers. After a thorough review of the record of courts below, we hold that Hubcap serves very good hamburgers that merit a B+ rating.

It is difficult to find a louder chorus among the burger faithful than that of Hubcap Grill proponents these days. Located downtown on Prairie (the second location on South Main having recently closed), this Court determined Hubcap merits review because (1) it has had the support of numerous amici and (2) serves as one of, if not the only, quality burger spot for those who work in downtown Houston. Seating is sparse but generally available. The line often stretches down the block, meaning advance planning may be in order in the event of rain or, of more frequent concern in Houston, summer.

Hubcap's menu consists of a litany of creative burger choices, as well as a handful of chicken sandwiches. French fries and sweet potato fries are the limited side selections. Drinks come in cans or bottles. The Court entertained two Hubcap offerings: (1) the Hubcap Decker, a Big Mac-style double cheeseburger with the patties separated by a piece of toast, Swiss and American cheese, and a mayonnaise-based sauce and (2) a double hamburger.

The Hamburger
Hubcap uses hand-formed beef patties. The menu advertises that they are comprised of 100% chuck. The patties generally are too thin to proceed with anything less than a double burger. The meat is high quality, with a pure beef flavor, although the seasoning has a pronounced influence from thyme -- an influence that too frequently is out of balance with the ground beef. Thyme is an excellent complementary flavor to beef, as a general rule, but it must be used sparingly. Overuse of it is Hubcap's greatest sin. There is no need to mask terrific, freshly ground chuck. Second, this Court has noticed on multiple occasions the tendency for Hubcap burgers to arrive overcooked and slightly dry. There remains good juiciness because of the fat content, but the "ooze" of these burgers is too dependent on mayonnaise and melted cheese in order to reach the level of the truly elite.

The bun at Hubcap is worth note. It is sturdy, with good bite and flavor. It genuinely adds value to the experience, although its size and thickness means a double patty is necessary in order to maintain an appropriate meat-to-bun ratio. The other toppings of the burgers are worth mention for their freshness and quality.

Amici offered a muffaletta burger for the Court's consideration, but we declined to do so, preferring instead to tackle Hubcap Grill on its (not insubstantial) traditional merits.

Hubcap, to its credit, offers only limited sides. The French fries are forgettable, usually being a bit undercooked and soggy. The sweet potato fries, however, tend to be flavor and tender, a worthy accompaniment to the burgers. The lack of fountain drinks is not a hindrance, although the prevalence of outdoor seating and lack of ice for drinks may present difficulty in summertime.

In the final review, Hubcap uses quality ingredients and, despite eminently correctable flaws, makes flavorful and worthy hamburgers that are welcome on the Houston scene. In particular, this is a strong choice for those who work downtown and would like a sturdy lunch before an afternoon nap. Due to the over-seasoning with thyme and reliance on cheese for oozing juiciness, Hubcap Grill warrants a B+ rating.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Amuse Bouche: Ode to Spring

Sometimes there isn't much you can say. Sometimes you just have to realize that it's 67 degrees outside, pleasantly sunny, and that there is an invigorating lack of humidity in the air. It won't last long. This is a time to rejoice. It is a time to go outside and drink some Pinot Noir.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In appreciation of Waffle House

The food-erati don't give much attention to the likes of Waffle House. Eh, and maybe they shouldn't. It's a chain. A large one. That automatically gives rise to consistency issues. It's in with the NASCAR crowd, which likely is one of the least interested in foodie things like white truffle season, eating local, slow food, and wines that aren't made out of beer.

But this is no reason to entirely scoff at Waffle House. There are positives: the exceptional people-watching, the myriad 80s and hair band hits on the jukebox, the late hours, and the omelets. Yes, Waffle House is truly a temple for omelets. Even good diners could learn lessons from a well-prepared Waffle House omelet. Heck, even foodie-friendly brunches could learn from the sheer fundamental competence and purity of flavor of Waffle House's delicious ham-and-cheese omelet.

Okay, so perhaps the foodie ship has sailed on Waffle House. After all, Saveur, currently the most excellent of food magazines, published a piece on it last year. Maybe it's cheating to put the eggs in a milkshake blender to make it more fluffy. But when did cheating in food become taboo? What else are other (welcome) intrusions of technology in food, such as the mandolin, sous vide, and Silpat? No, you cannot fault Waffle House's use of the milkshake blender to produce an omelet more fluffy and tender than most experienced and skillful chefs can produce. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to screw it up: you have to find the appropriate balance of fillings and, most importantly, you can't overcook it (though the blended eggs are more forgiving than hand-whisked, it seems).

A well-cooked Waffle House omelet is a thing of beauty. Tender, cloud-like eggs encasing ham and oozing with cheese. It is simple. And few things are more delicious than simplicity itself. So let us celebrate Waffle House for what it does so well. Those soggy, inconsistent waffles are another story . . .