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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorite food experiences of 2011

Writing a blog is often akin to the modern diary. One is able to look back and see how things changed. 2011 was quite an interesting year in food, both in travel and domestically. Even late in the year, I continued to experience some notable culinary items. I share my remembrances of the most notable restaurant experiences I had, as we all look forward to what 2012 offers. These are the dishes that I would be happy to return to, and have again. I hope you'll get a chance to try them, too.

Miso Butter Ramen, Cafe Kubo, Houston. Rich, flavorful, and not what most stereotypically think of Japanese food in Texas. The pat of cold butter that melts as you mix the hot broth up is key. It is comfort food, with just a touch of the exotic.
Taiwanese Lucky Cake, Six Ping Bakery, Houston, TX. Salted duck egg yolks, raisins, and pork fat combine in a riotous combination of flavors and textures. This is one of the pricier options in this otherwise inexpensive bakery, but well worth getting. Also, it's seldom labelled in English. Don't miss out on the quail egg bao, though. 

Fish Tamales, Hugo's, Houston, TX. Takes guts to put something as delicate as fish into the robust masa package of a Mexican tamale, but Hugo dares. 
Crispy fried intestines, Mala Sichuan Bistro, Houston, TX. At the moment, Mala is the focus of quite a bit of foodie buzz, and well deserved. The young restaurant has already tweaked its menu with some unique offerings, and is quickly introducing the Houston public to the maddening pleasures of the Sichuan peppercorn. Though I've tasted some amazingly well seasoned dishes here, from duck to konjac, the intestines surprised me with its delicacy and texture. 

Mangalitsa pork chop, braised fennel, blue cheese mash, Max's Wine Dive, Houston, TX. A special creation by Steve Marques, then sous chef at Max's, he has since moved on to Tasting Room Uptown. By combining all the components in a bite, the melange elevates beyond the sum of its parts.

Spicy Spinach, Peppersoup Cafe, Houston, TX. We may be encountering a growth of African cooking in Houston, spearheaded by idealistic entrepreneurs wanting to evangelize the cuisine. While I enjoyed the fritters and signature pepper soups here, my mind remains on the spinach. Humble in appearance, it packed a flavor punch the stands up to the heat of the feast. 

Crispy beef cake, Yummy Kitchen, Houston, TX. Fetishists of Taiwanese cooking tend to focus on stinky tofu (chou doufu), and Yummy can deliver on that front. In fact, newcomers are often alarmed by the acrid aroma usually not associated with freshly cooked food. Those that persevere, however, are awarded with some delicious creations. Don't overlook the funnily named crispy beef cake, which layers braised seasoned beef and scallions in crispy fried thin pastry. A savory creation, it affords the textural and flavor diversity that is addictive and substantial. 

Sadly, I don't have much in the way of desserts to report in the Houston area. It's a plight that I am not alone in bemoaning. But did have a couple of notable sweet items this year outside of the city.

Burnt marshmallow and nutella liquid nitrogen milkshake, Flipburger, Atlanta, GA. The use of liquid nitrogen was pretty much just eye candy (and this photograph has superior eye candy already), but the flavor combination of nutella and burnt marshmallows is enlightening. 

Pinoy flavor macarons, Bagoong Club, Manila, Philippines. The restaurant scene in Manila has ballooned, and truly great fusion concepts converging in the megalopolis. Flavors here included ube (purple yam), tablea (raw chocolate), calamansi, and toasted coconut. The texture was spot on, and the flavors bright and sparkly.  

I do have a couple of beverages to share with you. I think these are under appreciated gems. Move aside, champagne.

Mint tea service, Casbah Couscous Grill, Houston, TX. Perhaps the last remaining Moroccan restaurant in Houston, Casbah serves up a traditional mint tea, poured with a flourish from tea pots. One finds oneself unable to stop drinking this stuff, shared among friends, wiling away the time over tagine and couscous. It's hospitality captured in a cup, refilled over and over again. 
Drinking Chocolate, Cafe Luz Houston. The scientific genus of the cacao plant is Theobroma, which is Latin for "food of the gods" - and the smooth, subtly sweet concoction holds true to that appellation. Using single source chocolate that is locally roasted and ground (very local - in nearby Spring), the different batches reflect the complex personalities of the beans and methods chosen. Chocolate with character and depth - what better way to welcome hope for the year to come. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pet Peeve: Healthier

As we roll into the thick of the "festive" season, not only are people eating with greater abandon, but the backlash with regards to nutrition is building. And this question of "healthier" eating picks out pariahs and saints of food.

I've witnessed parents pick out Gatorade(TM) and other "sports drinks" as "healthier" to drink for their children over soda. But this stuff was formulated for athletes under high exertion. Many who quaff the artificially colored salty sugar water is doing sports mostly through TV console avatars. 
But what's missing here is the issue of amount and circumstance. Very few things are universally "healthy" - the question of nutrition and how it affects health is a dynamic one, and can be influenced strongly by lifestyle choices.

Packaged pre-sliced apples. Healthier? Depends. More expensive? Absolutely.
In general, though, omnivorism, encouraging inclusion of a diverse definition of food, maximizes the options of what are available to the diner, depending on the particular circumstance. A self-imposed restriction, particularly if it subscribes to a community, outsources the responsibility to choose.

Canned vegetarian "choplets". 

Science proceeds apace. We know now that a little bit of sugar helps establish dietary satiety, and some fats provide cardiovascular protective effects. And at the end of the day, whether something is healthier for you is a question of taking personal responsibility, to take the item in context with your life.

But sodas, most supplements, alkalized water, and "organic"? Waste of money.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What ever happened to them?

Here's a blast from the past: 
The guys from Eepybird were among the first internet video pioneers, who hit upon using the propulsive force of putting the rough textured Mentos candies into carbonated beverages to make kinetic and performance art.

They have since secured sponsorships (from Coke and Mentos, of course), and gone on to making additional kinds of art, but there's something truly mesmerizing about that explosive fizz of adding Mentos to the bottle.

Their latest? Human propulsion. I think gas is still cheaper for the mileage.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Be Distinct

More often than not, prepared food is reviewed on the basis of archetypes. Most restaurant reviews and subsequent discussions center are dishes that can be found in common - hence never-ending hairsplitting over minutiae of the ideal steak, hamburger, banh mi, spaghetti, pizza, General Tso's chicken, pad thai, brisket, burrito, or California sushi rolls. In a vicious cycle, restaurant proprietors feel trapped within these archetypes, and seldom venture out to producing items distinct and unique for fear of disconnecting with prospective customers.

Thus, discovering dishes of distinction is a phenomenon to be celebrated.

Cup of awesome. Drinking chocolate from Cafe Luz. 
I've written before that what most people call hot chocolate is actually hot cocoa. Fact is, hot drinking chocolate is a very rare thing to find most places in America, much less in our little corner of Houston.  For the colder months, Cafe Luz is offering drinking chocolate, and it is very much the real thing. Rich, thick, and wonderfully restrained in sweetness, this is the sipping beverage that warms the soul and calms the mind. Treated this way, the complexity of the chocolate blooms, and one appreciates the multitude layers of flavor with every sip. Don't quaff this, take your time.

About the only thing that would complete the experience would be some hot churros.

As a bonus, I learned that the chocolate itself was roasted and prepared in the Houston area. Tejas Chocolates are based out of Spring, and are not (only) chocolatiers, but also chocolate makers. They import beans, roast and process them here to make their single source bars (also sold at Cafe Luz). I don't subscribe to the "local for local sake" ideals, but I do agree that the time is ripe for artisanal attention to chocolate preparation. Chocolate making joins in synchrony with the passion of the emergent artisanal coffee movement, the burgeoning craft beer brewing industry, and the mature cheese and wine industries. Surely, a market for the possible range of possible flavors, textures, and applications for distinct chocolate products can develop in Houston and beyond.

Monday, December 12, 2011

European Chocolate

When you hear the phrase "European Chocolate", what country do you think about? Belgium comes to mind easily, as does France and Switzerland. Spanish chocolate carries a somewhat different connotation.

However, many other European countries make chocolates - including those not conventionally thought of as chocolate makers. I took a sampling from four locations, and conducted blind taste tests. I chose bars that were specifically just labeled dark chocolate, no inclusions, and were sampled at room temperature with sips of water. Tasters came to remarkably similar conclusions. 

Wedel, from Poland. Dark, rich, complex, this chocolate's flavor evolves as it melts on the tongue. 

Ülker, from Turkey. More bitter notes suggest the inclusion of coffee, but surprisingly enjoyable. 

The Polish and Turkish chocolates were consistently ranked on top, often changing spots depending on the taster, but  they definitely were considered head and shoulders above the other two.

Dorina, from Croatia

Laima, from Latvia - a remarkably sweet bar for being dark chocolate. 
The lower ranked chocolates, from Croatia and Latvia, were not inherently poor chocolates, but when tasted alongside the other two, highlighted their poor notes. Laima, in particular, was chided for tasting almost like milk chocolate. 

These bars are usually more affordable than their more famous Swiss or Belgian brethren. Enjoy - Poland, in particular, has a long history of chocolate making, with competition between the Wedel and Wawel factories. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Skirting the bottle

America has an addiction to the bottle. Well, the other bottle: bottled water. In some situations, bottled water is justified - you're off someplace with no tap, or maybe you're in the desert. But to most people, bottled water is just a luxury item, a marketer's weapon used so glibly on an obliging public. Leave it to Penn & Teller to spell it out in entertaining terms (watch for the serving of Agua de Culo - they didn't translate that one).

The travesty of bottled water is documented in multiple ways since, not only as an economic issue but potentially an environmental hazard as well. No matter, though, as the allure of bottled water is its luxury cachet. 

How would you like VERY expensive bottled water under the tree this holiday season? 
Bottled water with its exorbitant premium over regular tap water is also a cash cow for some retailers. Some establishments refuse to even offer tap water, forcing patrons to purchase bottled water (although I understand this is against regulations). But the backlash against the ubiquitous plastic water bottle is slowly afoot.

From the cooler at Pete's Fine Meats.
Boxed water, anyone?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Two little fishies

Exmoor Toasts, Feast, Houston,TX
I've read about the Exmoor Toasts at Feast in Houston. People wax rhapsodic about the combination of anchovy, clotted cream and toasted bread, and I was eager to try them. I've eaten at Feast before, although I didn't get to try Exmoor Toasts back then. But I had great hopes - the unconventional combination (which is potentially kosher if pork fat was excluded) seems promising.

Sadly, to my own palate, the toasts were ... nondescript. The oily fish, combined rich clotted cream, lost its flavorful punch, while canceling out the distinct luxurious notes of the cream. As my dining companion quipped, it may as well have been cheaper cream cheese. Only the crispness of the toast provided any counterpoint. A bit of parsley and lemon would have brought the dish forward. Not that it was a bad dish by any means, I simply found it serviceable and unremarkable. Which is only a poor point given the exalted expectations.

In contrast, a recent visit to Friends' Kitchen (9889 Bellaire) yielded this comparably priced plate of fried female capelins. The smelt, many pregnant with roe, where crusted with rice flour, and seasoned with a melange of chiles and sichuan peppercorns. The fish were eaten bones, fins and all, and each bite was redolent with a punch of mala and a riot of textures from crunchy to meaty. The fish was as addicting as popcorn, and substantial enough to be a meal.