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Monday, February 27, 2012

What fish is this?

Fish under miso with guts and glory fried rice, MoneyCat Brunch, Houston, TX
In the blog 29-95, J.C. Reid writes about the introduction of the Gulf Wild Tagging to track fish "authenticity". It's an interesting technology, but I take issue with some of the logic used to defend the need for such tracking.

1. People who subsist on fish as a primary source of nutrition are not the ones demanding expensive fish species (otherwise, they can't afford it) - in fact, these are the kind of folks who manage to be creative with cheap fish like pollock. The main folks who are aghast at consuming some other species are folks who eat fish as an option or a luxury.

2. One of the reasons why certain fish are so expensive is because demand outstrips supply - fishing for them is unsustainable. Thus, the more leery people are of ordering an expensive species, the better for sustaining the stock. Fishermen go through greater lengths to procure the less available fish stock because of the perceived greater value; if the demand is lessened, they won't be pressured to do this.

3. The section about "branding" being damaged? The assumption there is that fish species is the key to consumer experience. For some fish - eel, catfish, sardine - that may be the case, but as noted, most people cannot tell what the species of fish is after it is cooked, since so many additional factors are at play: cooking method, accoutrements, prestige of restaurant, etc. And these other factors carry far more weight to the average consumer.

Fish being prepped for sushi/sashimi at Uchi, Houston, TX
Now, I have no objection per se to the efforts being made to fight fraud - after all, if one orders mako shark and gets dogfish, well, that's wrong. But have no illusions that this is an effort to protect culturally perceived relative values - with the same arbitrary standards that once held back the California wine industry from worldwide recognition, and now hold back the widespread use of Gulf seafood in sushi/sashimi restaurants.

Enforcing honesty among purveyors is a priority. But the impetus behind the fraud lies in an assignment of status that is not necessarily linked to actual flavor.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Local Liege

I enjoyed a wonderful Liege waffle while visiting Denver a while back, and lament the fact that they aren't as prevalent to find in Houston. After all, a well made liege waffle not only requires special equipment (the Belgian style waffle iron) but also special ingredients (pearl sugar) and a modification of the quick leavened waffle batter (a yeast raised wet dough). I did have the opportunity to sample two specimens in Houston recently, however.

One of the newfangled "gourmet food trucks", The Waffle Bus dedicates its menu to waffle sandwiches (which ostensibly use waffles as the platform to stuff items therein), but during my visit, they offered Liege waffles as a special (with "imported sugar"). I ordered one for $5.

A liege waffle from the Waffle Bus.
Just from the picture, I can tell at least two things wrong: as a waffle containing lumps of sugar and caramel, one shouldn't be served with more powdered sugar. Much less a tub of Nutella - maybe a shot of insulin? And the other is that this was cooked on the intersection of an iron meant to cook four waffles - meaning a significant portion of this waffles was burnt and inedible. The waffle itself was flabby and fragile, lacking the robust chew of a Liege waffle dough. All in all, this was more burnt candy than pastry. Still, though, there are no other regular Liege waffles offered in Houston, so, no competition, right?

Don't count out the chains.

The Jamba Juice Sweet Belgian Waffle (at IAH Terminal E). Has more calories than a smoothie, but one shouldn't be counting calories while having a Liege waffle anyway. 
Warmed gently in their toaster, this is a pretty reasonable example of a Liege waffle. It lacked the caramelization and strong texture of the Waffle Brothers, nonetheless, this was reminiscent of the Belgian original. Albeit blander, and a bit sweeter. Not unlike the relationship Panda Express has with Chinese food. Quite apropos to airport cuisine, come to think of it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Vegetarian definition

Vegetarian thali platter, Shriv Sagar, Houston, TX
Living in Texas, vegetarians tend get a bit of a short shrift. The meat-eating cuisines of Europe - from Germany to France to Poland - agonize over what to serve vegetarians, much less the more restrictive vegan lifestyle. Older cookbooks afford a heavy reliance on cheese and salads; while in Germany, I was served a plate of shrimp when I ordered the vegetarian special.

Vegetarian special, Hugo's, Houston, TX
The biggest confusion I see with vegetarianism is that the term defined by what is not eaten rather than by what is included. Carnivorism means someone exclusively eats meat, locavorism only on "local" products (some people put that an arbitrary radius of 100 miles). Vegetarianism, however, is practiced by excluding something, and its definition becomes elastic in that form. It's possible to a vegetarian meal without vegetables of any sort, botanically speaking. Say, for example, an all fruit and beer meal.
Fried stinky tofu, Yummy Kitchen, Houston, TX
Except tomatoes. Because they're legally vegetables. And the yeast in beer are not even plants, they're fungi (which are evolutionarily actually closely related to animals).

Waffled carrot latkes with oven roasted applesauce. No schmaltz was used. 

Addendum: I have to include this NPR article reporting that meat eating is now so pervasive in India that vegetarianism is becoming archaic there.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Palm oil

Although not as prominent as the chile pepper and corn, milk, cream, and cheese products are important part of Mexican cuisine (and the cheese part is significantly amplified into the descendant Tex-Mex adaptation). So, when I spotted a bottle of something called "Creamy Mexican Blend" in a store the other day, I was a bit puzzled. Blend? Why not just cream or crema?

A look at the ingredients reveals the reason: palm oil. Basically, butterfat, the primary fat in milk and cream, is quite valuable. It is, after all, used to make butter, and if you were Norwegian, you hoard the stuff. Palm oil has a hydrogenation profile similar enough to butter that it is often used to substitute for it in baked goods (for example, girl scout cookies). Some even contend that it may be "healthier" (they'd be wrong).

Palm oil itself is a key ingredient in many African dishes, but has since morphed into an enormous industry worldwide, with oil palm plantations carrying significant impacts on the environment in Southeast Asia. And, at least in places like Mexico, it's replacing traditional crema - and somewhere in Texas, we're importing it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Uchi: Sweet endings

I had gone to Uchi Houston with the express purpose of sampling every dessert item on their menu. I've bemoaned before about the relatively sparse dessert landscape in Houston restaurants, and Chef Philip Speer assembled some rather compelling items in the short dessert section of the menu. Composed, multicomponent desserts are a rare thing in Houston, but I do think that there may be a prescribed formula in the Uchi Houston desserts. See if you can detect the commonalities.  

Lemon gelato with pistachio. Brightly flavored, brilliant use of the beet glass, and toasted pistachios.

Fried milk with chocolate semifreddo. Basically, a deep fried chunk of custard. And who doesn't like that?

Keffir lime cremeux, ash sorbet. 

Miso apple sorbet, peanut butter semifreddo. I particularly enjoyed the freeze dried apples. 

Smoked maple panna cotta, apricots. This was a special menu item; the use of the fried shiso leaf was smart. 

All of them displayed a play on texture using various hydrocolloids, and fortunately, not one used a foam. And no baked cakes were involved. It's a gutsy display of flavors and textures - worthy of saving room for.

If the tea was better, I would recommend it as a dessert-only meal destination.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Uchi Houston: Detail and Execution

Disclaimer: Aside from gratuity, thus far, I have not paid for the meals at Uchi Houston. I thank the staff of restaurant for their generosity. And apologize if I sound ungrateful.  

Foie gras nigiri

Prior to going to eat at the new restaurant Uchi in Houston, I heard quite a bit of hushed excitement - the media even covered the day by day construction of the building (in part because it is built on the site of a former restaurant of some historical significance). Now that it's opened, Uchi buzz is all over the blogosphere and twitterverse. 

I was there for the media preview. And a follow up dinner. 

For the record, I've never eaten at either Uchi or Uchiko in Austin, the original restaurants that earned Tyson Cole his James Beard award. And perhaps that lack of prior history colors much of my expectations and evaluation of the food in Uchi Houston. 

Yokai berry - a fruit/fish salad with dinosaur kale.
Discussing the food with other diners tends to bring up nostalgic recollections of how any one particular dish or "tasting" compared with its incarnation in Austin. I came away with the impression that most of the menu reproduced the Austin versions faithfully - in fact, few could tell what would have been created new for Houston. 

Cauliflower tempura
Let me get to the point: Uchi's greatest strengths lie in that impeccable attention to detail, and near flawless service. I sincerely believe that the staff wants only to see happy customers, and that is is very valuable to the restaurant dining experience. Most of the dishes I had were cleanly executed, with subtle flourishes that are the hallmark of precision. Save for a few items (and there were many we sampled, as the kitchen kept flinging complimentary dishes at us) all items were some of the best examples of those preparations available. 

The few klunkers:

For a Japanese-themed restaurant, Uchi Houston offers one kind of tea. "Green". Served with lemon wedges. It had a tiny bit more character than hot water. 
I didn't particularly care of the "Ham and Eggs" maki roll. The three sauces muddled the flavors, and the piment d'Espellete, a prominently premium spice, was lost in the mix. 

These Northeastern oysters were served with a dollop of lychee granita on top, and whole spices (fennel, pepper) in the ice underneath. Whole spices do not release their aroma in cold, so I was puzzled by the use. I suppose it was meant for a visual presentation, but the granita did nothing for the flavor, and the shucking left shards of shell in the specimen I ate. And I found myself preferring Gulf oysters. 

The promising:

Uchi uses a strong list of potential ingredients, and a deft hand at execution. The rice used was well cooked, and respect for it showed in separately presented koshi-hikari from sumeshi. The fish was never served ice cold, the rice came somewhat warm. Little details that are treasured in the appreciation of Japanese minimalism. 

I inquired about the bottarga found on each prep station, and found out that the restaurant makes its own bottarga. From sea urchin roe. Uni bottarga. But it's only used in one dish. 

Boquerones nigiri with shaved bottarga. I like oily fish like mackerel. And the bottarga was a nice salty umami tang to the whole thing.

Unlike many places, an order of nigiri at Uchi is one piece - essentially one bite. But we truly enjoyed this eggplant nigiri. Well charred, the creamy texture offsets the nuttiness from the sesame. 

 Gyutoro - wagyu short rib, slow cooked for 72 hours to resemble the texture of toro (tuna belly). The acidic soy citrus gelée complemented the fatty beef nicely. But at $10 a piece, it's actually more expensive than toro maguro. And I have to wonder - cooked for that long, did it matter if it was wagyu beef?
I did find that the kitchen tends to be formulaic in some dishes. For example, there's this fondness of mixing fruit and fish (see Yokai Berry above):

Tuna on compressed watermelon, with basil and cilantro. The dressing used thai chiles, which added an aggressive heat in the end - an effect which may be somewhat unpleasant for some. But I appreciated the use of large flake salt crystals that brought out the sweetness of the fruit, and the knife work that produced tuna slices which matched the watermelon in texture. 

Walu-walu. A large chunk of cooked escolar, atop a tangy dashi with preserved citrus. Escolar is a forgiving fish to cook with, and this was a pleasant enough dish, if rather mild. And it was a fairly big chunk of fish.

This sushi chef special is a salad of the gyutoro components, with seared fish, sea urchin and citrus segments. A symphony of indulgent flavors.

The other thing in use was a combination of fish sauce and caramel, a familiar enough flavor combination in to the Viet-influenced Houston palate.

Bacon and onions. Perhaps the best thing about this dish are the beautifully fried onions, which tasted like the most ephemeral and intense onion chips imaginable. The salty fish sauce caramel lying beneath was a good counterpoint to the fatty pork belly, and the grilled micro-scallions were an impressive touch.

The staff was proud of the underrated brussels sprouts preparation, which seem to have been glazed in fish sauce and lemons, and then dry heat cooked (fried perhaps) until the leaves get that crispy caramelization. I detected a somewhat lingering bitter aftertaste that was ameliorated by sprinkling on a little salt. 
When asked what I thought of the dishes, I responded honestly: I was impressed by the careful execution but thought the flavors where squarely in the safe zone. Inoffensive, classic, playful at most. This isn't necessarily wrong in the Japanese ethos, but I have a feeling that Uchi Houston is gingerly taking its very tentative first steps. Could the need to recapture the familiarity of the Austin Uchi experience be a guiding principle? After all, why mess around with a winning formula?

Jar Jar Duck: Duck, candied kumquats, nasturtiums, served in a jar filled with rosemary smoke. One of the more inventive dishes at Uchi, although at $30, costs a lot more than a whole Peking duck with the trimmings. 

Yet, there was something in the menu which I found particularly exciting, and I've reserved that for a separate posting.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

Adjectives in menus

Backyard vegetable curry from Nabi Houston.

Free range.
Hand gathered.
"Scratch made".

These are buzzwords that are prominently advertised on menus and catalogs. We get them repeated to us by waiters and chefs.  Although they say nothing about the quality or taste of the food - after all, something can be all these things, and still taste bad - why is this such a powerful advertising tool?

Romanesco, the fractal flower.
Because our cultural perceptions trump flavor when objectively measured. Something as simple as water, dressed in plastic and advertising, can take on qualities of affluence even labelled as cat piss (in French).

Sensationalist news have a field day reporting the pervasiveness of fish fraud, where restaurants substitute a less expensive fish for a different one advertised in the menu.

But what's the story here, the elephant in the room, is that most people, unless told ahead of time, cannot tell the difference between pollock, tilapia or red snapper, particularly when breaded and fried. Meaning that as far as flavor is concerned, there's very little value in using more expensive white fish - it's mostly a function of manipulating expectations. 

This point is further illustrated by the brilliant taste test conducted by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt comparing American high fructose corn syrup sweetened Coca-cola with the vaunted cane sugar sweetened Mexican Coke. The key conclusion here is that it's the label that determines preference - not the subtle flavor difference (and there is a flavor difference - although tasters actually preferred the American Coke in blinded tastings). In a recent study, children will reject cookies made with chickpeas only if they are told that they have chickpeas in them .

Cultural expectations overwhelming objective perception applies to wine, where tasters report better flavors if they're told the wine is more expensive, or start using red wine adjectives when white wine is just colored to look red. It's very human - it extends beyond food and drink: when blinded, expert violinists cannot tell the difference between a Stradivarius and a more modern instrument - even if they own the latter instrument.

So, those buzzword are essentially superfluous as far as the flavor is concerned. The main question of relevance is: Does the dish taste good? Using those adjectives serve to obfuscate this main issue, and perhaps disguise flaws by playing up the expected virtues.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Losing delectables

Sometimes, it's heartbreaking to see what gets discarded. 

Lechon: whole roasted pig
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a party where the main event was a whole lechon , a festive sign that I think should replace the iconic roast turkey. Unfortunately, the animal is carved from the back, meaning that much of the delicious belly meat is wasted (or is it being reserved for the kitchen staff?). But even worse, I see guests cutting off the crispy skin and fat, and discarding them. The horror.

Calamondin: juiced and preserved
Then again, most folks will juice a calamondin, and discard the rest of the fruit. I've found the rind and skin to be quite delicious, and have made marmalade with them. But I am also trying the salt preservation with calamondin akin to what is done with lemons. I'll report back with the results once they are ready.