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2011: a year in food

With growing responsibilities at home I’ve had little time for long format posts this year (catch me on Twitter & Posterous), much less travel abroad, and yet this has been one of the best food years in recent memory.

If I was to sum what I learned in 2011: 1) the restaurant world got flatter and 2) US is quickly becoming a fascinating place to eat. Great restaurants didn’t just magically appear this year, in fact some have been open for some time, nor are they on every street corner in America, but restaurants run by the most committed chefs seem to be getting better. More than ever before restaurants around the US are emerging as serious dining destinations. There are at least three – Town House, Manresa and Saison – that give me the rare high you experience when you encounter exceptional cooking at the best restaurants in the world.

This will come across as overly simplistic (or entirely too obvious?), but technology is the reason why eating today is so much more fun than 10 years ago.  Internet usability in the last 5-6 years has finally reached the point where its now much easier for serious eaters to find the sort of meals that used to occur only once or twice in a lifetime.

But technology has opened up the world to chefs just as much as diners. Cooks in the most remote corners of the country now explore their ambitions past their geographical confines and their peer group often spans the length of the world. If you pay attention, you’ll notice great restaurants emerging all across America. If this trajectory continues, within 5 years most people will live within 4-5 hour drive of a chef doing really special work. Early indication this may be true – my best of 2011 list shows a growing number of dishes from Houston (although few were cooked in actual restaurants). Even more telling, the map of restaurants I’d love to visit is beginning to show more places in flyover country, while major cities (namely NYC) lag behind.

In other words, 2011 is just a hint of what’s yet to come if you eat in US. 

1. Controlled decomposition at Saison (SF)

Since my first meal at Saison at the beginning of 2011 I’ve watched Josh Skenes relentlessly raise standards. The food was already beginning to show great promise, but then something clicked and it surged into becoming one of the best restaurants anywhere.

Like Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s, Skenes is currently exploring the depths of flavor by aging proteins and alternately using smoke, fire and curing applications – in fact not only with fowl, but tuna and beef. The results can be quite stunning.

Wild pintail duck aged 21 days, best persimmon ever, pomegranate, olive – Saison, SF

This wild duck was hung for 3 weeks and served rare with a minimalist backdrop of sweet, tart and salty.

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The effect was ethereal – amplified essence of duck, meat texture resembling a rare veal liver (I consider this a good thing) and what Skenes described as the best persimmon he’s ever tasted. I’ll go a step further and say this was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. 

Pigeons aged 18 and 43 days, huckleberry – Saison, SF

This was the second time Josh Skenes prepared his carefully aged pigeons for me and they were spectacular. It’s both entertaining and unnerving to watch the cooks pass the birds around the kitchen, smelling and poking with each turn. You get the full funk of decomposition when the pigeons are in the roasting pan, and everything you know about food tells you that you’re smelling spoiled food. And yet it’s not. The flavor is deep, complex, pronounced, like eating a well developed cheese.

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While others prefer the funk and complexity of birds aged longer, I like them a bit younger. The one aged 18 days still had a lush texture, but already had pronounced notes of cherry and chocolate that make these birds so special.

Bluefin Tuna Belly – Saison, SF

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Show stopping dish – bluefin tuna with fat and sinew lightly roasted and smoked over the embers (process which takes several days), shallots, and heirloom onions, served with a shot of tuna bone “marrow”  and a nori dusted crisp. Gold leaf adds largely unnecessary bling, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The intense focus on ingredients at Saison approaches only two other restaurants I’ve visited in the US: Urasawa and Manresa. There are few restaurants I’d rather eat.

2. Brilliant compositions at Town House (Chilhowie, VA)

You know a restaurant is special when by the 4th course you begin to plan the route of your return. Five months after I visited Town House for the first time this year, I was back – this time with Justin Yu. We concluded that Town House should be viewed every bit as destination worthy as Noma. It really is that good.

Where Saison is focused on isolating the singular depths of flavor in exceptional ingredients, John Shields is a master of composition. His dishes are complex, layered and highly nuanced, in the end coming together as a whole that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.

Great composition defies explanation, so I won’t go into descriptions. Instead, I recommend you make plans to visit Town House this year. Here are some of the standout dishes:

Beef cheek… pastoral, cow’s milk, roasted hay, farro and grasses – Town House, Chilhowie VA

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Shucked oyster, nasturtium, horseradish, niagra grapes, preserved elderflower – Town House, Chilhowie VA

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Dungeness crab in brown butter and butter whey, onions, chestnut cream, crisp scallop, pork stock – Town House, Chilhowie VA

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3. Manresa: better than ever (Los Gatos)

Saison and Town House vaulted to the top of my list of great restaurants in the US, but Manresa remains my favorite for one reason: I feel really good there and never tire of the food. The cooking continues to evolve and get better (press finally caught on), and even after numerous visits I look forward to returning every time.

Three dishes from my pitch perfect tasting in October:

Pine mushroom steamed with egg, spot prawn and Malabar Manresa, Los Gatos

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Razor clams, chestnut, roast chicken jelly
Manresa, Los Gatos

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Potatoes in goat’s milk curds and whey, a seaweed persillade Manresa, Los Gatos

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Pigeon and foie gras baked in salt, homemade walnut wine – Manresa, Los Gatos

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Here’s why you should be glad David Kinch will continue to age his fowl just long enough to highlight natural flavors without compromising texture (long after every extreme aging of proteins becomes a wildly overused technique in lesser restaurants): his salt baked pigeon is as spectacular as it is at Saison. They taste completely different and I am glad to have the opportunity to eat both.

4. Jeremy Fox dinner at Saison (SF)

I missed Jeremy Fox at Ubuntu, so I jumped at the opportunity when I realized he was cooking at Saison while I happened to be in town. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the year.

Update: apparently this was more of a collaboration dinner between Fox and Skenes than a solo effort, which officially makes me a Saison fanboi.

Wild fluke, brassica leaves, buds and flowers, perilla – Jeremy Fox dinner at Saison, SF

You rarely come a dish so well composed without it becoming muddled – pristine fish and textures at play, accented with slightly bitter, floral and grassy notes. 

Purple asparagus, ravigote and wild caviar (full frontal)
Jeremy Fox dinner at Saison, SF

 

 

 

 

 

Another great dish that featured a giant asparagus stalk with big, bold flavor. Bread crumbs provided texture and really put this dish over the top.

5. Belgian Beer Dinner by Justin Yu and Justin Vann (Houston)

It’s incredibly exciting to see a young, talented chef return to Houston after working his way through some of the best kitchens in the world. Justin Yu spent time at Ubuntu under Jeremy Fox gaining his deep appreciation for vegetables, then staged at In De Wulf, AOC and Geranium, making sure to eat through the best restaurants in Paris, Belgium, Denmark and England in the process.

When Justin left Houston a few years ago his plan was to return to open the sort of honest Italian restaurant embodied by Flour + Water in San Francisco. When he came back, he was taken by Relae and Commis, both casual and yet gastronomically ambitious. This year Justin he will open Oxheart in Houston, which will take a look at the Gulf Coast region through a new naturals lens (for lack of a better term). Based on the dishes I had from him in 2010 and 2011, it will be one of the most important openings in the Southwest region in years.

This dinner, intended to reflect his influences from Scandinavia, was one of the best overall dining experiences I had this year.

Fresh cabbage, red miso, pickled potato and dried cabbage

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This entire dinner was incredibly strong and along with my meals at Saison, Townhouse and Manresa worked as a end-to-end experience as well as on the strength of individual dishes.

Carrots “cooked well”, mustard and carrot greens puree, hazelnuts, raisins, dried mushrooms

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One more dish that may be representative of what you’ll find at Oxheart from a dinner focused on Gulf by-catch:

Mother-In-Law, sunflower seed “risotto”, sprouts, gremolata, ash yogurtGulf Bycatch Dinner

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6. Dan Hunter vs David Kinch (Royal Mail Hotel @ Manresa, Los Gatos)

The restaurant at the remote Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, Australia has tormented me for years as the destination I desperately wanted to visit.  If not for David Kinch and his efforts to expose emerging global talent to US audiences through special dinners at Manresa (Redzepi was featured in the past) I might not have had the chance for some time to come. The tremendous dishes I had from Dan Hunter has the opposite effect than one I wanted to achieve – I now want to visit Royal Mail even more than before.

Tomato on toast, handmade sheep’s ricotta – Royal Mail

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7. June 11th @ Bootsie’s – Tomball, TX (now closed)

Few chefs have the natural ability to match wildly diverse flavors with as much ease as Randy Rucker (Richman happens to be a fan). The result can be a wild ride – dishes are created on the fly in rapid succession, never to re-appear again, creating the sort of dining cadence that makes you think of a kitchen as a jam band, where anything can happen on any given nights.  With every visit, the cooking, while not always as even (or predictable? sterile?) as in kitchens that polish their menus for months, always has extreme highs that more than offsets any rough spots. Then there are times when everything just works. 

The same 10 day stretch as I was fortunate enough to have great meals from Tarver King at Ashby Inn in Virginia, Brushstroke in NYC, and an Omnivore dinner by Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s in Brooklyn and Giovanni Passerini of Rino in Paris – it was Bootsie’s that delivered the dinner where nearly every dish was a blockbuster. I’ve had too many dinners at Bootsie’s in 2011 to take notes, and Randy isn’t the type to print commemorative menus, so here are a few shots of the dishes from that night:

Virginia clams steamed in their own liquid, clam gelee, mint flowers (Bootsie’s, Tomball TX)

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Lamb heart, shiro shoyu (Bootsie’s, Tomball TX)

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Bootsie’s is now closed, but Rucker should be back with a new restaurant in Houston’s museum district in 2012.

8. Charleston Ice Cream – McCrady’s, Charleston

One of many stupid mistakes I made this year was missing the heritage grain dinner held at McCrady’s in October, despite being in Charleston (at least I was at Husk) the night it was held. The few dishes from this dinner I had the following night at McCrady’s were my runaway favorites of the night.

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The flavors in this rarely seen preparation of Carolina rice called Charleston Ice Cream were simple and pure – rice, butter, flowers. The work Sean Brock is doing with Southern ingredients, especially grains, is nothing short of visionary – one of many reasons Charleston will continue to be a serious dining destination for years to come.

9. Hen of the Woods Mushroom, Egg Emulsion
Pilot Light Dinner (Houston)

Seth Siegel-Gardner (another talented chef who recently returned to Houston after working at Gordon Ramsay, Aquavit, Fat Duck and Viajante) had a highly successful run at Kata Robata this year where omakase dinners at the sushi bar turned into an exciting “restaurant within a restaurant” serving some of the best food in the city. Since then, he has teamed up with Terrence Gallivan (most recently an executive chef at Alta in NYC) to form Pilot Light Restaurant Group, expected to open a yet unnamed restaurant in 2012.

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This dish from one of their dinners at the Revival Market, built around an earthy hen of the woods mushroom and rich egg emulsion, is one of my favorites of the year.

10. Moneycat Brunch (Houston)

For the last few months of 2011 this Southeast Asian learning pop-up brunch by Justin Yu and several co-conspirators gradually became one of my favorite food experiences of the year. It’s hard to say whether it’s the imaginative neo-Asian cooking (oddly missing in Houston), amazing donuts & coffee, or the offbeat Chinatown location that made Moneycat so successful, but by the end of the line the non-existent restaurant was stacking up press accolades and regularly running out of food.

Fried Gulf Whiting, miso garlic butter, fish “guts and glory” fried rice 

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Pandan braised brisket, romaine lettuce

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11. There are just too many great dishes from this year to exclude from this post. Here are some of the my favorites:

Nasturtium seemed to be everywhere in 2011. This preparation at Saison was the most interesting. The leaf is buttered and pressed flat and cooked until crisp. The effect is visually striking and provided great texture offset to this dish.

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I asked David Kinch if he was referencing soba with this dish. He paused for a second and said “no, I just wanted to make a cold noodle dish”.  See how that works?

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I wanted to love Kajitsu in NYC, but the cooking felt flat (lack of salt?). Their signature house-made tofu is spectacular, however:

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Chicago dining tends to be predictably “molecular”, but this exploration of summer corn flavors and textures at Phillip Foss’ unfortunately named El has the sort of ingredient focus that makes me excited to return in the future.

As much as I love Saison, I find their efforts to add more luxury ingredients, such as truffles and golf leaf, to be a distraction. Then again, I can’t deny being completely taken by this simple presentation of lightly smoked caviar and chicken gelée. Few people consider caviar “comfort food”, but I immediately think back to the day my father walked in on a snowy Moscow day with a kilo of contraband caviar, direct from the processing plant. Growing up in USSR had it’s surreal moments. You often hunted multiple stores for milk and eggs; bananas were rare and prized treats. Yet caviar, while not exactly easily obtained, somehow felt much more ordinary than a mango.

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Another dish from Manresa? Yes. Ice milk, coffee with just pressed olive oil – presented as an amuse, rather than a desert course, was as simple as it was stunning. Dishes like this make the trip to Los Gatos a must for anyone serious about food.

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I don’t remember the specifics of this dish at Bootsie’s, but I do remember it bursting with vegetal flavors and lush textures.

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Grant Gordon is another talented young chef emerging in Houston, taking on the challenge of returning a Tony’s – a dinosaur of a restaurant (think Le Cirque) – to greatness. So far he’s succeeding brilliantly. The night my companion and I ordered every option available on the tasting menu, minus the $125 Straw and Hay, White Alba Truffles, the dish showed up at the table anyway courtesy of the restaurant. This and other pasta courses put Tony’s in contention with Quince and Vetri for some of the best pasta in the country.

Sushi in the mid-range in NYC is still far better than what you can get outside standard setters like Urasawa. My standby in 2011 has been Ushiwakamaru, but my single visit to Sushi Azabu makes me wonder if I’ll have a new favorite in 2012. This Red Sea Uni was unlike any I’ve had – exceptional sea urchin with an unusual cherry finish. I’d be back just for this bite alone.

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These smoked chicken wings are one of many reasons why I continue to think Husk in Charleston is one of the best casual restaurants anywhere.

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Sons and Daughters in San Francisco got even getter in 2011 than the year before. The cooking is incredibly solid and stays far from tilting at gastronomic windmills. This is the kind of restaurant I’d love to see in Houston and visit once or twice a month.  Raw local albacore, espelette, caviar, puffed rice:

4505 Meats stand at the Ferry Market in San Francisco. Best burger just about anywhere.

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Ashby Inn in Paris (no, not that Paris) Virginia stays off the radar for more people who travel for food, but it’s worth a visit. Tarver King’s cooking is closer to Cyrus than Manresa, but it’s it has one huge benefit – it’s on the way from DC to Chilhowie.

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Another stop on the DC t0 Chilhowie trail – the flavors at Thai Siam located in the middle of nowhere in Virginia might be a notch above Lotus of Siam. I was three hours away from this place a few months ago and I seriously considered driving out just to get my hands on more of this chili dip.

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Can’t promise that I’ll post with any more frequency this year, but you can always find me on Twitter: @tastybits.

The End.

January 16, 2012   6 Comments

Open Letter to the City Council of Houston

This is a copy of the letter I sent to the City Council of Houston today to express my opinion that the newly proposed parking ordinance will hurt Houston restaurant and bar operators. This issue has been covered extensively and deserves your support. Please write a letter to the council today. It doesn’t need to be long. Simply tell them that this is important to you. Even a small number of voices will counterbalance the few residents along the Washington corridor that drove many of these changes to parking requirements.

You can reach the City Council members at these addresses:

mayor@houstontx.govdistrictc@houstontx.gov;
AtLarge3@houstontx.govAtLarge4@houstontx.gov;
AtLarge5@houstontx.govdistricti@houstontx.gov;
districth@houstontx.govatlarge1@houstontx.gov;
districtb@houstontx.govdistrictd@houstontx.gov;
districta@houstontx.govatlarge2@houstontx.gov

Learn more about this issue from OKRA.

Open Letter to the City Council of Houston:

I’m writing to you with regard to the city ordinance currently under review that proposes to significantly raise the parking requirements for restaurants and bars.

I’m not in the restaurant industry and I’m interested in this issue purely as a concerned citizen and voter. My story is typical of many Houstonians: I migrated to this city over 20 years ago and have become a relentless booster for my adopted home. 10 years ago I started a software company, which has since raised over $30M in venture capital and created nearly 200 highly paid jobs to this city. Houston is not a major software development center in US, but operating a business in this city has given me a natural advantage few regions can offer. I’ve enjoyed the benefits of low real estate costs, moderate taxes, high quality of life for my staff and virtually no barriers as a business operator. By every measure, my Houston experience has been exceptional.

Over the last few years I’ve met a number of chefs and restaurant operators, hearing their stories along the way. I’ve been surprised that their Houston experience is far different than my own.

I’ve learned that people in the restaurant industry are often highly trained, but put in a lot of work for relatively little pay. Many have no medical coverage or job stability. Very few get rich and not all make ends meet, and yet many of them continue to open new businesses, create jobs and become essential building blocks of any community around the city. This is where their experience diverges from my own. Opening a restaurant or bar in Houston is a difficult road, putting our most essential businesses at a huge disadvantage. The proposed Off-Street Parking Ordinance takes this disadvantage to a whole level.

Joel Kotkin, our favorite urban planning expert, promotes Houston as a model of a modern day megalopolis, which erects few barriers to business and allows neighborhoods to self-organize and evolve along their own chosen path. This is the essence of the ethos of this city – Houston is the place where men create their own luck, unencumbered by excessive government and fear of failure. Only this isn’t true for restaurant operators. The deck against them is stacked unusually high with city ordinances, regulations and requirements that were, no doubt, well intentioned at the time of passing, but have a crippling effect on ability for small business owners to survive today.

The proposal presented by the Planning Commission on Off-Street Parking Amendments recommends that the parking requirements are changed, but rather than stimulate small businesses in our neighborhoods the net effect will instead be extremely detrimental to the city as a whole. Parking requirements for restaurants and bars are increasing by 25% and 40%, even as parking requirements for shopping centers are decreasing. The fallout from this ordinance will have a dramatic effect on Houston. Fewer small operators will start new businesses, no new jobs will be created in this segment and within 10 years Houston will look like a caricature of itself – a concrete wasteland filled with big box stores, strip clubs and chain restaurants.

I’m not going to list the reasons why this parking ordinance is unnecessary and detrimental to job creation in Houston, or attempt to enumerate alternative approaches. I urge you to read the well-articulated position paper published by OKRA, a new organization for independent restaurant and bar operators. But I do want to tell you about two chefs attempting to start a business in Houston.

Justin is a young chef, a Houston native who spent the last few years working and training in the best restaurants around the world at a great personal expense. This is a typical path for chefs who want to be the top of their profession and the costs incurred along the way would surprise even those who carry the financial burden of modern day college education. Early in 2011 Justin returned to Houston to contemplate his next step. He has a restaurant concept, financial backing and a background in navigating the complexities of the Houston real estate market gained from his experience in the family business. And yet Justin spent much of this year looking for a suitable restaurant space with adequate parking, rather than operating his business. Nearly a year later he has found a grandfathered restaurant location and secured a lease – only weeks away from giving up on Houston and leaving for California. His restaurant will finally open in spring of 2012, marking a full year of not generating income, paying taxes or creating jobs in Houston.

Under the current parking ordinance Houston came very close to losing a potential business owner to another city due to unnecessary parking requirements. With increased parking requirements, Houston will most certainly lose this type of business and restrict the growth in our tax base at the worst possible time.

Terrence is another talented young chef who worked under some of the best chefs in the world and until recently lived in New York City. Earlier this year Terrence made a difficult move, leaving arguably the most prestigious restaurant city in US and came to Houston. Terrence’s story reads like that of Allen Brothers – in large what attracted him to Houston is our reputation as opportunity city. Only unlike Allen Brothers, Terrence is spending his time in Houston learning about parking ordinances, rather than building his dream business. Under the new parking ordinance a potential business owner like Terrence will likely stay in New York, a city with its own set of difficulties, but no onerous parking restrictions for restaurants.

My hope is that one day you, as city leaders, take on the task of making it easier for restaurant operators like Justin and Terrence to create new jobs. Today I hope that you simply do nothing and vote against this unnecessary increase in minimum parking requirements. In this economic reality, especially when Houston unemployment stands at 8.5%, the city of Houston simply cannot afford to hurt small businesses.

 

Misha Govshteyn

Founder and VP of Emerging Products
Alert Logic, Inc.

 

December 7, 2011   No Comments

Lunch at Feast (Houston)

If you’re ever in Houston, Feast should be one of the restaurants at the top of your list. For the level of cooking the place is a bargain, especially at lunch or if doing a tasting menu, which clocks in at mid-$50′s. But the real draw is the food, for which there is still no analog anywhere in US. This is British food through the Ferguson Henderson prism and on a good day it can be unbelievably good. Today was one of those days. The lineup:

  • Exmoore toasts
  • Brawn and piccalilli
  • Bone marrow, parsley salad
  • Suet crusted tongue and brain pie, bubble and squeak


It was a real pleasure to see James Silk back in Houston. Feast never stopped being Feast in his absence, but it’s a better place with Richard, Megan and James at the helm.

Posted via email from tastybitz’s posterous

 

September 16, 2011   4 Comments

Absolute Mission (SF)

I ended up at Mission Chinese by accident. The unpredictable baby is unpredictable, so dinner plans and reservations are always up in the air. The place is a dump, which I almost certainly essential to it’s appeal. Same food in a nicer setting would invite far more criticism. But in the hull of Lung Shan it sort of works. I expected Mission Chinese to the ironic take on an Americanized Chinese restaurant – a San Francisco answer to Torrisi. But they are doing their own thing at Mission Chinese and I actually ended up liking the place. Flavors are loud, ingredients are a step or two above a typical Chinese take-out joint. The dishes real like stunt food, but are really more about cultural kitsch than making a fashion statement. Given the great cooking you can find in San Francisco, I am not sure I am going back, but it’s fun. I could think of worse ways to spend a night out.

I started with Tea Smoked Eel, constructed like bánh cu?n from pulled hamhock, rice noodles, Chinese celery, cognac and soy. With slightly mushy texture the eel wasn’t handled as delicately as in your favorite sushi house, but it has a nice flavor. The tough hunks of raw Chinese celery ensure that the roll falls apart as soon as you take the first bite, but it doesn’t really matter. It tastes reasonably good either way.

I could not resist ordering a General Tso’s Veal Rib as a main course, which ended up being a hunk of meat big enough to feed me and the party of two I was sharing a table with. Picture three large veal ribs, smothered in General Tso’s sauce, chile flakes, leeks and mostly raw green onions. No fewer than 5 people asked me what I was eating as soon at this dish hit the table.

 

I am not 100% certain why baby cows had to die for this dish, as any subtlety of veal was absolutely clobbered by the sauce, but it has a great play on texture. Crisp, almost charred outside reminiscent of burnt ends on well prepared smoked brisket, followed by a layer of fat, and an extremely tender interior with a mouth feel of soft baby back BBQ ribs. I offered much of my food to my randon dining companions, but they were far too shy and ended up eating the whole thing myself (though I did score some tender cumin lamb from one of their plates for being a gracious table mate).

Mission Chinese doesn’t serve dessert, but I did manage to find Friday Pie, a home-made pie stand a few blocks away on Yelp (not every Yelp user wants to destroy restaurants and carrers – often the site is quite useful). It wasn’t the stuff of legends they used to serve at Bootsie’s, but the pies had a savory crust and were very good.

All in, not a bad night in the Mission district.


September 11, 2011   2 Comments

The Missing Ingredient (Part 2)

I ended my last post by asking:

how is it possible that in a city distinguished by it’s rich multi-ethnic cooking traditions much more so than restaurants that push the boundaries of food, a crop of young chefs emerge out of nowhere and manage to ignite such excitement? Where do they get their inspiration, their drive, their training?

Few will disagree that Houston lacks a layer of restaurants that operate at the level of French Laundry, Alinea or Eleven Madison Park. I love to eat in this city for more reasons than I can count and this will always be my home base (unless I am forced to leave), but it would be much less appealing to me if I lacked the ability to get on a plane and visit a city like Copenhagen, where cooking today is reaching stratospheric heights. Restaurants that aim to compete at that level and deliver a mind-melting dining experience simply do not exist in Houston or even in Texas or the Gulf Coast (though New Orleans is starting to show promise). This isn’t a problem in itself – how often does one really need or want to eat like this – but this gap in ambition to compete with the best in the world does have residual effects.

Role of fine dining (I hate the term, but it’s unavoidable in this context) is not limited to fleecing the special occasion crowd or the expense account set. That may be how restaurants make money, but it’s rarely why the best chefs push themselves trying to put out stunning food. Best restaurants in the world almost always have a chef at the helm with something to prove. Food at the highest level requires intense discipline and concentration. Ambition is a key ingredient, because no one gets rich cooking like this, the hours are grueling and pressure is intense.

I am not going to attempt to psychoanalyze people who obsess about their craft and put themselves through this level of pain. My point is that these kitchens generate a stream of superbly talented cooks, who go on to become chefs and retain the lessons they learned their entire careers. They may not open a fine dining establishment of their own (Bryan Caswell is one example), but they do apply what they learned in places as varied as noodle shops, burger joints and casual restaurants that serve outstanding, often innovative food at much lower prices. This trickle down effect is happening all over the world, but it requires restaurants operating on a level Houston lacks today.

Most exciting cooking in Paris today happens far from ultra-haute kitchens that have come to define the city’s culinary tradition. Today, you are more likely to find inspired, flawless cooking in a tiny bistro run by a chef, a cook and a dishwasher for 35 euros, than you are at the high end restaurants that charge ten times as much. But look closely at the backgrounds of these chefs who go tilting at windmills with reckless abandon and you will find considerable time spent in Michelin three star kitchens.

Spot Prawns at Yam’tcha
(Paris, via L’Astrance + various kitchens in Hong Kong)

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Paris. Ask any serious eater or chef to pick a city with most progressive cooking and rapidly evolving culinary identity and you will often hear "Chicago".  What people rarely mention is that it took Charlie Trotter nearly 20 years to prime the city with diners who understood and appreciated high end food and chefs who could execute at his level. Many of the city’s most talented chefs, such as Graham Elliot, Homaru Cantu and numerous others came through his kitchen. Grant Achatz, maybe the most celebrated chef in US today, describes his experience as at Charlie Trotter’s as foundational:

“I had never been exposed to that relentless kind of pursuit of perfection before. I didn’t even know it existed.”

Texas had it’s share of promising chefs on the cusp of brilliance when the Southwestern movement reached it’s peak, but while Charlie Trotter single handedly shaped the dining public and cooks in Chicago, chefs like Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and Robert Del Grande have little to show for their legacy. Each is a successful restaurateur, but save for a pseudo-protégé in Bobby Flay and a fast casual chain that inspired an acquisition by Wendy’s, the footprint left by the giants of Southwestern cuisine is best illustrated by this exert from Hannah Raskin’s story:

Fearing and Pyles are mystified why their ideas didn’t catch.

"It’s an interesting question," Fearing says. "Stephan and I have talked about it. Both of our trees of life are huge. But it’s not like other cuisines, where people left Charlie Trotter and kind of did Charlie Trotter in their own style. It’s funny that people would love me and wouldn’t do Southwestern cuisine."

To further underscore the difference between recognition and a restless pursuit of perfection, Fearing continues:

"Stephan and I took it to unbelievable heights," theorizes Fearing, who wonders whether young chefs are paralyzed by their unspoken answer to the question: "Would I ever get it like Dean and Stephan got it?"

It’s hard to ignore the weight of enormous ego in that statement, but hubris isn’t the only reason why Southwestern chefs failed to inspire a generation of young cooks (I’ve never met Robert Del Grande, he could very well be a fantastic guy). Food has to evolve for any chef to continue to be relevant and Southwestern cuisine has been stagnant for years, which does nothing to inspire young cooks. Simply put, you won’t find someone with Charlie Trotter’s impact in Houston and that’s what accounts for the missing ingredient in development of a well rounded food culture in the city.

Dr Pepper Braised Short Ribs, Mashed Potatoes, Onion Rings at Fearing’s (Dallas)

So where do Houston cooks turn for inspiration and training at the highest level? More and more turn to cities with a wider spectrum of restaurants than Houston. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact I hope to see more of it. If you dig one level deeper into backgrounds of great chefs, you’ll find impact of not one definitive mentor, but many chefs in many kitchens in numerous countries. The simple reason is that to learn from the best, you have to go beyond your locale in any field. Great food comes from experience cooking and experiencing food around the world and chefs that capture our attention in Houston have already began along this path. The real problem is that Houston lacks the infrastructure to support and encourage them along the way.

Bryan Caswell, who spent much of his early career in high end restaurants under Jean Georges. Caswell purposely walked away from fine dining and chose to develop much more casual restaurant concepts, but the foundation he build over those early years is instrumental to his success today. Here’s Bryan on the support he received when he expressed his desire to work beyond Jean Georges kitchens:

I started spitting out names of big name chefs like Alain Passard, Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat; when I was done, he (Jean Goerges) softly said, “OK.” Whoa, I thought. “But Chef,” I said, “where would you have me go?” I wanted his input, his advice. That’s when his eyes lit up and he began to talk about technique. “You’ve already worked in Europe,” he said, “and the last five years you’ve studied at school and trained with me all things based in French technique. Go to Asia and every day a new and foreign technique will reveal itself.” After five months in Hong Kong and Bangkok, I completely understood what Jean-Georges meant.

Unfortunately, such conversations rarely (if ever) happen in Houston and cooks who want to learn beyond our city have to forge their own path, which doesn’t always lead them back home. A few years ago I had a conversation with Randy Rucker, who has a well documented frustration with lack of ambition in Houston. When I asked him who in Houston he thinks has the most potential he said "the best cook I know in Houston isn’t even in Houston". He was talking about Seth Siegel-Gardner (see: Just August), who at the time was working his way through kitchens in Chicago after some time under Marcus Samuelsson, and later went on to stage at ViaJante in London and Fat Duck in Bray. Today Seth is one of the most promising young chefs in Houston and was recently named a Rising Star by Star Chefs. Seth has made Kata Robata the most exciting restaurant in Houston, but will restaurateurs reach out to him and give him how own place where he can really work to his full potential? I hope they do, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Foie Gras and Sea Eel at Kata Robata

You are likely to find experience gained around the world among people with strong foundation in pastry and baking, as well. Rebecca Mason developed her strong foundation through work in New York and later Paris, at what is now a Michelin 3 star Le Bristol (check out the photos of the bread service). More recently, Karen Man returned from time spent at Bouchon Bakery, French Laundry and numerous kitchens in Belgium and Denmark. The level of obsession she has developed in her field is approaching pathological – exactly the quality you want in someone who can finally bring great bread to Houston. Here’s Karen on her time as a stage at the French Laundry (and more here):

At the time I started my 3 month stage at The French Laundry, I could not realize the impact the experience would have on my career.  I had some previous experience in bakeries and restaurants, but I consider this to be the “beginning.” With the discipline and attention to detail, there could not have been a better way to mold me.

Bread by Karen Mann, Cheese by Houston Diarymaids at
Wood Duck Farms (Houston)

This drive to perform not only on the local, but national and worldwide stage is something missing in Houston restaurants today, but it is often found among the renegade chefs who take their professional development into their own hands. Examples of this are abound. When LJ Wiley left Yelapa in November of last year, he soon turned up staging at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Marea in NYC. Justin Basye, the talent behind the success of Stella Sola, also came through the kitchens of Blue Hill as well as Restaurant August in New Orleans. Fine down influence extends as far down the casual spectrum as mobile kitchens – the celebrated taco truck by the Eatsy Boys is manned cook who spent time at Cyrus in Healdsburg and Fat Duck in Bray, among others. 

The impact of what these chefs have learned in their travels is already felt in Houston. In the same year when I had amazing meals at places like Noma, Le Chateaubriand and The Sportsman, one of the my favorite dishes was the poached Gulf shrimp prepared by Justin Yu at the Just8 dinner.

Gulf Shrimp, Onion, Sunflower Bottoms, Ash Yogurt at Just8

Will his three months staging in  Belgium and Denmark and eating through France and England take his cooking to yet another level? That’s what I hope to see at the Belgian beer dinner this weekend, which sold out less than an hour after being announced. I suspect the answer is yes. Considering that before leaving Houston Justin was turning out burgers and hot dogs at the Lake House at Discovery Green (you can read more about his experiences along the way here), watching him evolve his cooking has been incredible. I hope to see more and more cooks in Houston take the same path.

More and more Houston chefs are making the decision to go beyond Texas to gain experience and I hope they continue to do so. The full natural bounty of the Gulf Coast region is still largely untapped and Houston is unique in it’s position as a major metropolitan and international hub with a set of characteristics that could pave the way for our emerging as a truly great food city. All that we’re missing is that one key ingredient. Restaurants with ambition to be the best on the world stage.

March 22, 2011   5 Comments