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Thursday, September 30, 2010

A symphony in 21 acts: Overture

I recently has the pleasure of dining at the Chicago based temple of molecular gastronomy, Alinea. This was a special occasion, as I don't indulge restaurants with as onerous as dress code as requiring jackets on their male diners, but having tried to cook out of Grant Achatz's cookbook at least once, I figured it was worth the sacrifice. The meal came in 21 courses, and I won't attempt to detail them all in one post. This will be a series, roughly in temporally congruent order, and I hope to convey some of the experience.

Just stepping into the restaurant is a bit of a surreal experience; motion activated Star Trek-esque doors are the portal to the bar and waiting area, and a glass wall ensures a display of active kitchen/industrial laboratory.

The staff was cordial, attentive, and somehow detached enough to convey an air of knowledgeable snobbishness. Not unpleasant. The dining area was on the second level, and small touches abound that try to ensure focus on the flavor and the food. For example, water was served sans ice, and just chilled enough not to numb taste buds, and overhead vents have diffusing plates to dissipate unwanted drafts.

With so much focus on flavor, let's get right to the dining experience, then. First, a decorative place setting was put in front of us.

It appeared to be a tapioca sheet embedded with herbs and flowers, and suspended pinched between a pair of chopsticks. Meant to scent the table, my impression was less floral and more medicinal. The server came by to confirm my dietary restrictions: notably no alcohol or shellfish. Which figures in greatly, as the first course was a series of solid cocktails.

In order from from to back, these were to represent a Pisco sour (reinterpreted as a lemony frozen marshmallow), a mojito, and a Manhattan. Or in my version, a lemonade, a virgin cucumber mojito, and a root beer. So, with a kampai (or should that be itadakimasu? Very clever, Mr. Achatz.), I toss back my chewy lemonade - only to choke as the unmistakable sear of ethanol runs down my throat. I push away from the table, gather my composure, and inform one of the roving waiters that perhaps someone at the kitchen made a mistake. As they took away the remaining unconsumed cocktails, I was rather tersely informed that the kitchen didn't make a mistake, but they will re-make my course just to be sure.

I was willing to chalk it up to a simple bit of confusion in the hubbub of creating a customized change in a complex dinner seating, but I could really do without the subtle implication that I was simply being difficult. After all, the remade cocktails owned up the promised nonalcoholic versions.

So, Alinea flubbed the first bite (which says a lot, as most of the courses of this tasting menu are no more than a few bites at most). An account of the next courses are in future postings.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Six times better?

I was walking by Kraftsmen bakery, and saw a sign advertising their new line of bagels, so I popped in to try one or two. I asked for a couple of bagels, which were sitting in a case on the counter, and lovingly wrapped in a paper bag. And then I found out that they were $2 apiece.

Considering that Randall's sells six decent bagels for about the same price, the markup appears usurious. These were unwarmed, sitting on the counter bagels without so much as a pat of butter, not even sliced open. Then again, these are artisinal crafted bagels, perhaps worthy of the higher price.

So I bought them anyway, and ate one. To be honest, they were good bagels, a scotch better than supermarket bagels.

But nowhere near even twice as good. I don't think they sell plain cold bagels even in Manhattan for this price - how much are H&H bagels nowadays anyway?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Invest in the simplest thing

As diners and cooks, an activity we must all judiciously participate in is washing our hands. Be it dining on Ethiopian food, or making futomaki, ensuring clean hands can make the difference between an enjoyable experience or a life endangering one. But even hand washing has a number of myths involved, and centers around two intersecting options:

1. Hot water vs cold water
2. Paper towels or air dryers (like the fancy new Dyson model pictured above)

There are remarkably few unbiased independent studies on the most effective way to wash hands, however, the consensus is that the temperature of the water does little to the microbes on your skin, although it can affect how much longer you are willing to keep washing. For the most part, using water heated to high enough temperatures to actually kill germs will likely cook your hands as well. Moreover, the use of antibacterial soaps is not really that useful, as the basic action of plain soap and moving water has the highest effect. What is happening is that the most common antibacterial compound, triclosan, isn't readily biodegradable, and ends up being distributed everywhere, thus bacterial resistance to triclosan is now very high in the wild. But that is probably a topic for another day.

There is an urban myth about the use of blower dryers only serves to spread bacteria around. This Snopes article on the myths of hand washing should help settle that. In effect, most studies that purport to demonstrate the increased effectiveness of paper towels are funded by paper towel companies, and vice versa for studies advocating hand dryers. The few independent studies point to the fact that as long as your hands are dried, each method is about as effective as the other.

In short, it's a wash.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Oh, the things one could do with a whole boneless pig. From the wall of Cochon Butcher, New Orleans, LA.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

It's about the amount

There's this trend recently of products being marketed as free of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the name getting so stigmatized that the corn syrup manufacturers of the USA are trying to rebrand the product as "corn sugar". For some (rather vocal) folks, the very mention of HFCS elicits visceral reactions of disgust coupled with exhortations of the virtues of cane sugar.

But scientifically, any evidence linking health problems to specifically to the nature of HFCS vs cane sugar (sucrose) has been tenuous at best; unambiguously, the issue is in the total amount of sugar consumed in either form. Unfortunately, almost universally, processed products that advertise removal of HFCS continue to promote the consumption of high amounts of simple sugars, simply swapping out the form for a more expensive version.

But people see going to continue to preach about the better tasting sodas made with cane sugar (I suspect that blind tastings will demonstrate that most people cannot tell the difference), even though demonstrably, health benefits come from cutting down all sugary drinks. Artificial sweeteners are no panacea either - but that's a topic of another post.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pretty little macarons

The creamer container added for scale. The chocolate flavor was quite good, the hazelnut flavor used the same chocolate buttercream. A simple indulgence on a cold rainy morning.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Appreciating the bedrock

"What did you think of the tres leches flavor?"

My companion and I looked at each other as we slowly discarded the sampling spoons, thanked the gelato vendor, and walked away from the colorful freezer case. We had intended to get some gelato from an inviting display, and after tasting five different flavors, came to the same conclusion: the actual gelato cream base had too much overrun. The flavor didn't matter, the resulting product was an insipid castle built on quicksand. And I sadly find this situation, when the accouterments overshadow the fundamentals, occurs rather frequently in American mainstream cuisine.

Take pizza crust, for example. Most often, when people speak of liking a particular pizza, they speak of what it was topped with, be it fontina cheese or "Thai" chicken or 25 different options. The crust itself is lost in the equation, mentioned by pizza aficionados but a discarded nuisance on paper plates for most of the public. Sandwiches can come in ridiculous overstuffed versions, piled high with meat and cheese, but the nature of the bread is taken for granted, as one of the generic products of the industrial sliced bread regime.

And bread itself is spoken of by what is added to the base component of "white", turning it into whole wheat, cinnamon raisin, but one of the wondrous things about bread baking is the near alchemical variety of types one can generate from mixing flour, salt, yeast, water and technique, ranging from baguettes to bao. Sadly, rice is in the same camp, even as it comes in a range of varieties and cooking styles, it is often relegated as an unappreciated and abused backdrop of boiled white rice (don't even bring up the boil in the bag variety).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Duck loaf

Recently, I had the pleasure and privilege to help organize Battle Peking Duck for the Eating Our Words blog over at the Houston Press. Of course, after two sumptuous meals of whole duck, debate over which one is better or worse came down to minutiae and personal preference.

Then again, there are other ways of preparing duck. The much beloved Fufu Cafe opened a new outpost called Fufu Restaurant, and carries menu items distinct from the parent. In the past, I tried their sea cucumber and tendon clay pot, this time, I decided to order crispy duck with taro. Listed alongside Peking Duck (yes, Fufu offers their version of that same festive dish), it sits like a poor unnoticed cousin to the belle of the ball.

What arrived resembled a small loaf cake rather than a roasted poultry. But it was a remarkable dish: a deboned duck was cooked skin side down to ensure crispness, and then the flesh side is thickly coated with mashed taro, and the whole thing deep fried, resulting in this multi textural affair. Frying mashed taro produces this feathery light crust enveloping a fluffy and slightly sweet starch that matches the rich duck quite well. The whole thing is brought together by the thick (I think too much cornstarch, though) savory mushroom and stock based sauce. The combination really does work.

Crispy duck with taro, at Fufu Restaurant, Bellaire near Beltway 8. Approximately $12.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

One missing item

I seem to have forgotten to return to one item in yesterday's posting about the soft opening at The Burger Guys. And that's about the fried egg option.

No doubt putting a friend egg on foods will be a popular choice, people are already raving about the Sydney burger (roasted beets, grilled pineapple, melted cheese and a fried egg). And at The Burger Guys, they are kicking it up a notch by offering the option of a fried duck egg. Duck egg yolk on akaushi beef - if you think you've had rich food before, you got another thing coming.

But I really think The Burger Guys are missing out on a real creative opportunity here. You have fried eggs, hamburgers, and chefs with a global perspective - where's the gourmet take on a loco moco? We are pretty deficient on good loco moco in this city.

Good luck, Burger Guys. Their grand opening is today, on Rosh Hoshanah.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

As the rain lashed the city, I was invited by the owners of The Burger Guys, a soon to open gourmet burger restaurant out by the West side of Houston, to a soft opening preview of the restaurant. Details about the preview have already been photographed and written about over at I was impressed with the progress of the project, having gone from concept to opening in about two months. They are hoping to leverage many modern innovations in restaurant technology, from iPad based point of sales software to social media advertising to bring success to their business.

But for the purpose of the occasion, the chef/owners were generous and gregarious hosts of a party, showering their guests with abbodanza. What kind of ungracious guest would even be critical of the food served?

Apparently a food blogger. This is not a restaurant review, I hope to return in the future as a paying customer, but I did want to write about my impressions of the previewed food. The menu offers a range of adorned akaushi beef hamburgers, most of them named after locations in the world (I wonder how the average customer will be pronouncing the Phuket burger), as well as enormous Kobe hotdogs. Sides consist of duck fat fried french fries, and battered onion strings, and a whimsical range of homemade breakfast cereal flavored ice creams and milkshakes (applejack milkshake can be interpreted as adult or kid friendly ;). And you can put a fried egg (chicken or duck) on any sandwich, but I'll come back to that later.

I managed to sample three different sandwiches. The Havana takes its inspiration from the Cuban sandwich, layering pickles, mustard and Swiss cheese on the burger. The Saigon smears on pate, pickled daikon, and cilantro to pay homage to the banh mi. While I give good points for intense flavor (the horseradish tang of the Havana cuts through the richness of the meat and cheese), the egg buns of both these sandwiches don't hold up to the flavors. As the toasted soft sweet roll evolved to match the juiciness of a nicely grilled burger, the flavors of a banh mi cry out for the robust crustiness of a french roll, just as the Havana misses the caramelized oomph from panini grilled Cuban bread. But the chefs are obviously masters of making beautifully medium rare crusty hamburger patties, just a tad aggressively salted, which form the canvas for their inspirations.

Oddly enough, perhaps the best sandwich I tasted was the veggie burger, here taking it's base not from beans, but eggplant. The crisp exterior gives way to a creamy patty that plays very well with the grilled potato bun, and the herby mix of flavors allow it to stand up well to the beefy atmosphere. The only accoutrement I would have requested is a splash of tahini.

Speaking of sauces, our hosts were justifiably proud of their house made sauces, from ketchup to a range of flavored aoili meant to complement their well made fries. Perhaps they'll go in the direction of Belgian or Dutch patat purveyors, who offer fries with a mind boggling range of sauces. No matter, I thank them for a very nice party, and wish them much success in the future, and look forward to trying the other creative items on their menu

The Burger Guys formally open on Sept 9, 2010, at 12225 Westheimer Suite G.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Inspiration to fusion

I paid a visit to the new Phoenicia Deli this weekend. Well, I was in the area for a different reason, but I thought I'd drop in. The place is bright and shiny, with an area for the savory foods, as well as a separate seating area for coffee, pastries and gelato, complete with comfy seating and board games. I'll have to check that out in the future. But I decided to look into their main food line.

I was impressed by what looked like a custom built brick oven, the kind that accumulates the blistering temperatures needed to make amazing pizzas and flat breads.

I hope I was able to hide my disappointment when, on closer inspection, I discovered that it was simply a facade built around a standard conveyor belt oven, akin to the ones in typical fast food sandwich shops. I did find on the far end, rotating on vertical spits, are no less that four different kinds of shawarma. And what assuaged my disappointment was the discovery that they'll sell shawarma meat by the pound.

But what to do with shaved shawarma meat but no pita bread? Why, stuff it into french bread, more accurately, the crusty rolls proferred by our local Vietnamese bakeries. I toasted the bread lightly, stuffed it with the shaved meat, some mixed Lebanese pickles, carrots, and tahini sauce.

Behold, the banh mi shawarma. Actually, they should use tahini more often on this type of bread.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chilling from the subcontinent

The many diverse cultures living in Houston have to find ways of dealing with our sometimes oppressively hot summer weather. The option of imbibing a cold beer at local ice house isn't available to observant Pakistani Muslims, but they find their way to some of the juice and snack bars around the city, as the Ramadan fast comes to an end, to indulge in freshly squeezed juices, shakes, smoothies, falooda, and maybe ice cream.

Pictured above are kulfi setting up in their molds. Kulfi are a non whipped ice cream, made by cooking milk so long that the concentration of solute is high enough to prevent hard ice crystals from forming, and are often flavored with rosewater, pistachios or saffron. The Pakistani tradition freezes them in these long conical molds with a stick, resulting in these extra long creamy popsicles.

But then I noticed that they carried paan flavored ice cream. Paan are a packages of areca nuts and calcium hydroxide wrapped in betel leaves, often flavored with various spices, sugar, and even tobacco, popularly chewed in south and southeast Asia, recreationally, medicinally, or often offered as a digestive aid. The chewing of paan stains one's saliva red, and compounds in paan are also suspected of being mildly carcinogenic (tobacco is a recent addition, and with that, paan chewing is definitely carcinogenic). People are known to chew six or more paan packages a day, and vendors of various paan types, from the hardcore to dessert paans (filled with coconut and sugar and fennel) are ubiquitous in India and Pakistan.

Then again, paan can also refer to just the betel vine leaves only.

So, I had to taste the ice cream. I discovered that in this case, the ice cream was not flavored just with the leaves, as I chewed on fennel seeds.

And that I don't like paan ice cream. At least, not this version.