Sunday, October 30, 2005

 

Southwestern University Homecoming and 10-year Reunion

Last weekend Amanda and I went to Georgetown for her ten-year reunion. There were lots of happy memories, several small children to show off, and lots of food.

Friday night—wine tasting

Homecoming kicked off with a blind Texas wine tasting. The school hosted the event in the ballroom of the student center (I asked Brian Jackson which groups the wine tasting was for. “Ah,” he answered, “this is for old and/or rich people”). They had 12 wines in four categories for tasting. They were mostly Texas wines, but a few Californian, French and Italian wines were thrown in for fun. The panel that guided us through the wines included a wine writer, a wine collector, and a sales representative—all who graduated from SU—the president of Llano Estacado, and the owner of Flat Creek Estate Winery.

I didn’t go for the Texas white wines. My favorite of the Sauvignon Blancs was a Sancerre Vielles Vignes. I had two picks from the Chardonnay group: I liked the Sterling Chardonnay to go with food, and to drink by itself I picked the Saint Veran Terroirs de Davaye (2003). I did like the Texas reds, though. My favorite of the Cabernets was the Llano Estacado ’02, and the best blend was the Fall Creek Granite Reserve.

We also picked up a few hints from the Texas wine experts. Do not get Hill Country cabs; the area doesn’t grow good cabernet grapes. And because the Texas vineyards are still relatively young, Texas blends tend to be the best. Many of the larger wineries have hired “pedigreed” winemakers from California, Europe, and Australia who know what they’re doing.

Friday night—Monica’s 701

After the wine we went to the square with Brain and Thomas for dinner at a new restaurant called Monica’s. This is where we learned that a few things have changed in Georgetown since we were there, specifically their liquor laws. No more private club memberships to get beer and wine. Now anything goes.

Monica’s was having a rough night. Amanda reserved a table on the second-floor patio overlooking the square and confirmed the reservation Friday afternoon, but when we got there we were told that the patio was being used for a private party. Instead we got a table in the middle of the dining room with a too-bright security light right over it. I think other parties may have been having a hard time, because when I went to the bathroom I could here someone (chef? owner? patron?) yelling in the kitchen: “You guys are fucking embarrassing!”

The food was tasty, though. I ate a Monica’s salad, which had strawberries, bleu cheese, pecans, and maple balsamic vinaigrette over greens. For my main course I ordered the Southwestern roast pork loin with chipotle cream. The meat was overcooked, especially disappointing because I asked the waiter how he recommended it be cooked. I was weary of ordering it medium, but he said it was best. He was wrong. The chipotle cream took me back to my Deep Ellum Café days, when I’d order the Black Bean Ravioli just for the chipotle cream. I’d also have it over mashed potatoes, bread, or grilled chicken. I was also curious about the “tamale mashed potatoes” that came with the pork. What could that mean? As it turns out, it means exactly that—they crumble up a tamale (pork, I think) and whip it into the mashed potatoes. They even stick the corn husk on top for presentation.

For dessert all four of us split a piece of chocolate malt cake a la mode.

Saturday morning—Monument Café

Monument is also celebrating it’s tenth anniversary. Monument is your basic diner-café, except they avoid the greasy spoons and add high-quality ingredients. All their milk is organic, all their eggs are organic and from free-range nesting chickens, and they advertise that their steak is Kobe beef, though I don’t believe that. It does give them an excuse to charge $12 for steak and eggs, though. At ten in the morning we had to wait 20 minutes for a table. I had two yard eggs, sausage, hash browns, wheat toast and coffee. I ate every bite, even though I knew what was coming.

Saturday afternoon—Salt Lick

Just two hours after breakfast we got in line for the homecoming picnic on the school lawn, catered by Salt Lick. Lots of barbeque places like to call themselves “world famous” and “the best in Texas.” Salt Lick is the real thing. I ate brisket, sausage and pork ribs with the Salt Lick sauce—extra thick, heavy on the molasses and light on the tomato. And who could pass on the cole slaw and potato salad? Not me, I promise you. You may be weary of barbeque catered from almost two hours away, but have no fear. We spotted the portable smoker behind the Fine Arts building—this stuff was fresh. I seriously contemplated seconds, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it. After lunch we took a long walk around campus to keep our arteries from turning to stone. Semi-successful.

Late Saturday afternoon—back to Monica’s

Amanda and Brian had to help set up for the class reunion, so Thomas and I went upstairs to the bar at Monica’s. He had two margaritas, I had two Johnny Walkers. Our bartender and the two regulars sitting next to us were in the mood for shots, so we also had a Bit o’ Honey, a layered shot of Frangelico and Bailey’s that tastes a lot like the candy. We had a brief conversation about the difference between Face Erasers and Mind Erasers, and I got to tell my story about Todd’s “Slow Death by Dylan” at the Balcony Club. [Todd invented a special drink with a short story for a name, but the drink’s nickname is Slow Death by Dylan. Every time I had one I’d ask him what’s in it, and he’d always tell me. By the time I finished the drink, I’d forget the ingredients. Don’t order a SDbD if you’ve already been drinking, and make sure you have a designated driver at the ready.] The bartender also pulled out her study guide from the Texas Bartending School and showed us some of the other foul-tasting shots with foul-sounding names she’s learned: the blow job, gator cum, naked on the bathroom floor. I declined samples.

Saturday night—reunion party.

Still full, I didn’t eat anything at the party. I had a few Saint Arnold’s Ales.

Late late Saturday night—Kerbey Lane

It wouldn’t be a true Southwestern reunion without a jaunt into Austin. About ten of us went to Kerbey Lane for Kerbey Queso and Ginger Pancakes. I had a BLT, a Shiner Bock, and a long nap on the way back to Georgetown. Thomas was snoring in the back seat. Thanks for driving, Amanda.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

 

Minute Maid Park

By now you've probably heard all you care to about Game Three of the World Series: the roof was open; it lasted 14 innings and was the longest-ever World Series game (you might also remember that we were in the longest-ever playoff game about a week ago); the Astros lost; Astros manager Phil Garner said some harsh words.

The only details you're missing are the ones that only I can provide--what I ate at the World Series.

We arrived at the ballpark early, around four o'clock, to avoid some traffic and get a good parking spot. With lots of time on our hands, we decided to try out Nine Amigos, the horribly-named restaurant in the park with a balcony overlooking the field. Rather than wait 20 minutes for a table, we sat at the bar. I had two Shiner Bocks, Amanda two margaritas. From her facial expressions I gathered that the margaritas weren't very good. Surprisingly, the chicken and beef quesadillas we split were pretty good. They lacked the greasiness that so many quesadillas have, and the meat wasn't bad. The presentation also looked better than most quesadillas, with two stacks of triangles instead of the pizza-style single round piece cut up. We took our time eating these and talked with the near-drunk businessman sitting next to us. When a guy sat on our other side and showed everbody the baseball Brad Lidge signed for him, we split to see if we could go find a ball player to autograph something for us. The Astros had just gone back in the clubhouse, but we did get a semi-famous actor and sports fan to sign our commemorative ticket holder. It's going to be a thank-you for Amanda's coworker Mike, who helped us sell our other tickets on E-bay.

Still full from the quesadillas, I didn't eat anything else until my routine Cracker Jacks in the seventh inning. (I drank a Bud Light in the fourth.) I always have Cracker Jacks in the seventh, and for this special occasion they had larger bags. This particular bag also seemd to have more peanuts than usual, but I'm not sure my perception wasn't distorted by the excitement of the event.

I got hungry again around the tenth, but didn't eat anything else. I just would have thrown it up from the stress of the game.

I hope the Astros win tonight. Other than the obvious reasons, I want to make sure that the park is able to use all the food they've ordered for Thursday. We went to Opening Day this spring, and the food tasted like leftovers from the previous year. I don't want that happening again. Go Astros!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

 

Cosmos

I hate to contradict Josh's story, but I watched most of the game last night at Cosmos Cafe. Amanda got home in the second inning and picked me up. First we went to Texadelphia, but it was SRO. So we drove back toward the house to go to Sixth Street. Full. Onion Creek a few doors down--full. We ended up at Cosmos. Not that Cosmos is bad, mind you, but the televisions are a little small. We got a booth near a tv and ordered some food.

The menu changed slightly around a year ago. Instead of a list of different burgers, they now only have the "build your own burger" option. I had mine with lettuce, tomato, mayonaise, sauted mushrooms and swiss cheese. The burgers at Cosmos aren't bad, but they're not the best. Just a basic burger. Amanda had the "Manta Ray" sandwich, which is grilled chicken with Jack, avacado, cilantro mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. Both came with fries (soggy and room temperature). I had a St. Arnolds Ellisa IPA and Amanda had, um, red wine. I can't remember which one.

Cosmos is a neighborhood joint with decent burgers. They have live music often. (Big Band night is the best. They cram twenty guys on the stage, spilling onto the dance floor. The average age of the players must be somewhere around 92.) They have local regulars who sit at the bar and smoke three or four cigarettes per drink. They have a friendly bartender, one who isn't uncomfortbale yelling "Sit down Albert, you bitch!" when Oswalt strikes out Pujols. They host a darts league, which last night meant seven people taking turn after turn after turn at the two dartboards. One night I saw more than fifteen people lining up for darts. The waitresses wear t-shirts advertising the bar's address: 69 Heights Blvd.

Though when you walk into the bathroom a framed poster of Cosmo Kramer greets you, the bar is not Cosmo's. It's Cosmos, and the walls are decorated with pictures of stars, planets, comets, and a space Manta Ray. I'll bet you didn't even know that there were manta rays in space.

But Cosmos can be more than a burger and beer joint. They make great martinis and cocktails. The goat cheese terrine with garlic, pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes is a great appetizer. The soups are often tempting, and the Green Chili, spicy and brothy, cures a hangover as well as anything else I've tried.

Jermemy may remember Cosmos as the place where Benjamin had one too many Boiler Makers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 

What's in the papers

Today Robb Walsh explains the dangers and rewards of being a celebrity restaurant critic. I remember Dottie griffith of the Dallas Morning News explaining how near-impossible it is to remain anonymous, because waiters job-hop so often that almost any place will have at least one person who's seen her before. [That reminds me of our favorite waitress in Dallas. I think her name is Marta, but I forget. She waited on us at three different restaurants over two years. We'd walk into a new place, and there she'd be.] My readership is still small enough (what, six people?) that I don't expect having this problem. Unless, of course, I have to reserve a table for Josh next to mine, and a table for Molly next to his. That might get me noticed.

NYT falls over itself this week to praise Rachel Ray. Oops, I mean Rachel Ray. I started out a Rachel Ray fan. I've only seen her "30 minute meals" show a few times, but I've seen plenty of "$40 a day." She's enthusiastic and thorough. She reminds us that good food doesn't have to be expensive. She allows people other than herself--waiters and clerks and diners and such--to have their face on tv. But after a while she just gets to be annoying. Really damn annoying. Emeril still holds the "most annoying tv chef" title, but he's spent years working on that. He got trained as a chef and opened several great restaurants. He got a tv show that was meant to bring the excitement of cooking to folks who don't drive Volvos and eat french cheese. And then he wouldn't drop the catchphrases. And he got sloppy. But Rachel Ray jumped straight to the catchphrases and sloppiness without ever being a chef or working in real kitchens. She's made a career--a lucrative one at that--out of picking up Emeril's worst habits. Just once I'd like to see Emeril taste a sauce live on television and say "Damn, that's too much garlic!" Just once I'd like to see Rachel Ray eat at a place and say "Damn, that sucks. I'd pay forty dollars just to never have to come back here. What a mistake!" But it ain't gonna happen. More "Mmmmmm! This is sooo awesome! I lovethis place!" Except for the background scenery and the dish in front of her, every episode is exactly the same. Now really, how cool is that?

NYT also features wild game in Texas Hill Country. About the article, let me just say that everything it says about venison is true. One bite of good venison makes you weep, wondering why you've wasted so much of your life on so much beef and chicken.

Hunting story number one: my first Thanksgiving with Amanda's family in Huntsville made me a nervous wreck. About every ten minutes I'd hear a shotgun blast from folks hunting wild turkey in the nearby woods. No one else seemd to notice the gunshots right out the back door, but I flinched every time.

Hunting story number two: I actualy went hunting once. They woke me up at 3:30 in the morning and dropped me off at my stand, up in a tree, to shoot the boar that came below. At some point I opened my eyes and realized that I had fallen asleep, standing up, ten feet above ground with a loaded shotgun in my hands. I knew how silly and dangerous the situation was, so I put down the gun and went back to sleep--on my back this time. The other guys, one of whom had shot an Axis buck from 250 yards away, were not impressed with me. I finally did shoot a (beautiful, snow-white) deer, but it was from the passenger side of our host's pickup truck. Also unimpressive. But with the shooting done my stomach getting hungry for lunch, I opened a can of beer while the carcasses were being skinned and drained. It was good and cold, so I had another one. Then the guys pointed out that it was only 9:30 in the morning, and I must be some kind of drinker to have beer this early, especially after all that I drank the night before. Manliness resotred.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

 

Brad Lidge Tacos

Today's Houston recipe is Brad Lidge Tacos. It doesn't really matter what ingredients you use. What's important is that they be perfectly executed, delicious, and just the right size. But then, at the last sumptous bite, you choke.

Monday, October 17, 2005

 

Super Size Me

I finally saw Super Size Me this weekend.

I expected more gross and disgusting imagery. I had the impression that there was going to be lots of barfing and scatology, but only saw one vomit scene. Instead, we see a lot of Morgan Spurlock saying things like "I don't feel well" and "my liver is fat" and "My head hurts." It's not the shocker I thought it would be. Maybe I confused it with Jackass.

The premise isn't all that shocking, either: when you eat nothing but McDonald's for a month, your body goes nuts and you get fat. The extreme ways in which the body goes nuts shocks the doctors in the movie, but I don't think it shocks too many of us that have eaten McDonald's in the past year (I had some Chicken McNuggets, I think, for breakfast in Las Vegas this May).

I enjoyed watching the moive, but I didn't really learn anything or have any kind of epiphany I can share.

So instead, I'll try to think of things I could eat every meal for 30 days:
* seared foie gras with apples
* Amy's Ice Cream--mexican chocolate with nutter butters
* Black Cod the way it's done at Nobu
* Peter Pan extra crunchy peanut butter
* Wheat Thins with smoked Gouda
* Mussels and frittes
* Franki's carrot soup
* duck confit

Maybe I can arrange some Super Size Me meets French Women Don't Get Fat experiment: if I eat nothing but a super-rich and fattening food for every meal, but only eat a small portion and have two glasses of red wine with it, will I lose weight? Sounds tempting. Josh, can you make it Houston for an entire month?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

 

New Things

I'm sure you've been on the edge of your seat wondering about Saturday night. Yes, we went to Charley's. Yes, we had our usual drinks. Yes, we had a calamari appetizer. (And I forgot to mention that the calamari has fried green things in it: they drop pieces of basil right into the batter and fry it up with the squid. So every third bite is especially flavorful.)

But we also learned something. Feeling a little indulgent, we ordered not only the split appetizer but also salads. And this is where, apparently, Charley's draws the line. As soon as we asked for salads, the bartender pleasantly but firmly suggested we sit at a table for so much food. They still sat us in the bar area, but there was to be no salad at the bar itself. Only one course at the bar, it seems. Next time we'll know. I also confused a detail in my earlier description of Charley's. The waiters wear white dinner jackets, white shirts, and neckties. Not tuxedos. The 1979 ghosts were not there, though there was another couple that seemed to know all the staff and spent at least 20 minutes--at the table--talking on a cell phone.

Thursday night we went to T'afia to congratulate Monica on the Best Restaurant award and to make sure that Andy is still there, as he was thinking about moving. He's always thinking about moving. One of the dishes we had was an albondiga, something I'd never heard of before. It was a large meatball, made mostly of boar. It also had some sort of breading, and I think it had been fried a little as a finishing touch. Inside the meatball was a whole hard-boiled egg. I know that lots of meatballs and meatloafs have egg in them, but I never knew you could just put one smack dab in the middle, whole, like that. What a great idea! The combination of wild boar and boiled egg made these by far the tastiest meatballs I'd ever eaten (sorry, Dad. Thursday night was always your meatball night, too). They were served with a basil aioli. The aioli was good, but I ate most of it with bread, not the meatball. The meatball didn't need any sauce.

Monica says a cookbook is in the works. Basshole pointed out that she's been "working on a cookbook" for a long time. But this week she was using words like "agent" and "publisher." It seems that Robb Walsh is really behind her, and his publisher is somehow related to her agent, and a real deal is in the works. We'll see hot it goes.

Speaking of Robb Walsh and Basshole. Basshole also says that Walsh sometimes seems to enjoy it a little too much when he says awful things about places. It's true, but it makes for some good food writing. This may be my favorite restaurant review ever. Is he enjoying it when he interviews meat purveyors to prove his point? Yes. Am I enjoying it just as much? Yes.

Friday, October 07, 2005

 

What I Ate Tomorrow

Let me go ahead and tell you about tomorrow night. Tomorrow night we're going to the Symphony (Chopin's first piano concerto), and the symphony almost always means Charley's 517. Charley's is half a block from Jones Hall, so we can get there early to get a good parking spot and walk over for dinner before the show. We always go to the bar, we always have--you guessed it--a Grey Goose Cosmopolitan (Amanda) and a Manhattan (me). We always split a calamari appetizer. And we always have a good time. (Sure we've strayed. Once we went to Biraporetti's, once we went to the Lancaster Bistro, but we go to Charley's more than 90% of the time.)

The best way to describe Charley's is Old School. It's a windowless cavern with wood panelling stuck in 1979. The waiters wear tuxedos or black suits. The martinis are shaken at the table in individual shakers. The menu consists of steaks, basic seafood, and other steakhouse-y fare. I'm told they have good burgers on their lunch menu. You feel liked you've stepped into a dining room from Dallas (the television show, not the city). It's definitely a place that caters to the oil guys from nearby the nearby oil buildings. It's smoking friendly, has murals, has leather-bound menus, and has at least one closed-off back room available for functions. Even though we just have an appetizer at the bar, they set up full place settings for us, including a little vase of flowers. Even though we just have appetizers at the bar, they've never treated us any differently than the regular customers spending a hundred bucks.

And my favorite part is the 1979 couple. This couple, mid to late 50s, has been there every time I've been save once. All the waiters and managers know them by name and spend long periods of time standing at their table talking with them. Talk about Dallas: he wears a tight grey suit with a vest and a tie that looks 20 years old. Every time. She wears some type of dress a la early '80s. Even their haricuts are from a by-gone era. I have a theory that this couple aren't even people--they're the friendly ghosts of an oil executive and his wife who just can't stand to leave the veal parmesean and cabernet of this world and go on to the next.

When I go, I'd like to do something similar, though probably not at Charley's 517.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

 

Two Below

My beer-rep neighbor knocked on the door yesterday and gave me two unmarked bottles. The bottle caps said "New Belgium Brewery," but there were no labels.

It seems that New Belgium--the people who bring you Fat Tire, from Colorado--has a new brew coming out in a few weeks, and nice neighbor gave me a sneak preview. He said it's called Two Below, and that it's supposed to be a "winter warmer."

I think Two Below will indeed make a good winter warmer. It tastes like an ale, but I can't be positive about that. It's very yeasty, a lot like a pale ale, which is something I enjoy in a beer. You can just look at the bottle and see plenty of bubbles. But Two Below has another layer, undertones that are more fruity and tangy than a typical pale ale. This layer reminds of some of the stronger Oktoberfest beers I've had from German breweries. So imagine mixing a pint of Bass with a half pint of Salvatore. And then drinking it during a baseball playoff game. Good, eh?

I only had one of the two bottles, so I didn't get the full warming effect. But give Two Below a try when it comes out. It's not as complex as, say, a good French wine, but it's got more layers than the stuff you get down at the Stop n' Go.

And I also recommend getting a beer industry insider as a neighbor. As quickly as you can.

[Still writing from work. I'll be fired soon, no doubt.]

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

 

You don't have to take my word for it

You may remember that T'afia is my favorite place in town. Here's what the Houston Press said when they named T'afia "Best Restaurant" in their annual Best of Houston Awards this week:

"If your definition of a great restaurant is a posh dining room where airhead waiters suck up to rich people, try the new Tony's, or one of Tilman Fertitta's high-end swank-aterias. But if you want to visit the epicenter of Houston's food scene, go to T'afia, the minimalist restaurant in Midtown where the service is informative, not kiss-ass. Want to try some of the most innovative cocktails in the entire country? Check out the aged ratafia concoctions and the melting essences behind the Plexiglas bar. Want to find out about the latest in Texas food products? Order T'afia's "local market tasting menu," which might include home-cured duck prosciutto with Texas tangerines, Pure Luck Farm goat cheese with toasted pecans, or shavings of locally made Brown Paper Bag chocolate with poached East Texas pears. Want to buy some of these fabulous ingredients to cook with at home? Visit the weekend farmers' market in T'afia's parking lot, where chef Monica Pope encourages Houstonians to support the local artisanal food scene by buying the same organic heirloom vegetables, handmade breads and chocolates, fresh-roasted coffee and other high-quality ingredients she serves at the restaurant. While other top chefs seem to be aiming ever lower in hopes of getting rich, Pope is quietly and single-handedly creating a market for the kind of high-quality foods the world needs more of. We are incredibly lucky to have a chef and a restaurant this enlightened in Houston, Texas."

Congratulations to Monica, Andy, and the gang.

 

Tour de France

Skip is a partner at Amanda's old firm. He's a francophile and a wine collector--he's got several thousand bottles in his house. Every year, he and his wife host a Tour of France party.

At the Tour of France party, six stations are set up in six rooms, each representing a region of France. This year there was an Alsace/Savoie room, a Champagne room, a Bordeux/Bergerac room, a Loire Valley room, a Rhone/Provence room, and a Burgundy/Beaujolais balcony. Each region has up to four differnent wines (except for the single champagne). There is a nice person in a tuxedo shirt and bowtie at each station to pour tastes of the wines, and there is also a buffet of finger foods. I don't need to tell you that this is one of my favorite events of the year.

I won't bother you with the complete tasting notes, because there were seventeen wines in all, and because I'm not that good a wine taster. But I'll share my favorites, considering they're available and affordable.

If you like a jammy, tannin-full red wine with strong black currant flavors, then the 2001 Chateau Grand Moulinet (Pomerol) is for you. It's a fill-your-mouth-with-flavor wine, something to go with red meat, wild game, or long nights of Scrabble. It's a Robert Parker kind of wine (I think. Correct me if I'm wrong, oenophiles).

By far my favorite of the evening was the 2003 Chateau de Saint Cosme Gigondas, one of the Rhone wines. I wrote down that it has a touch of wood, but Amanda says that a ton of wood is more accurate. It coats the entire tongue and mouth without provoking a strong reaction the way the Chateu Grand Moulinet does. It's not a "burst" of flavor, but definitely a full flavor. It's got a warm, long finish that lingers on the back of your tongue. I'm not very experienced with French wines, but this is the type of wine I think of as quintessentially French. It's complex and subtle, yet you don't have to think for ten minutes to know what it tastes like. Only an '03, this has got to get even better after sitting for a while.

I also really like white wine, and the 2002 Chablis Vocoret Pere & Fils was wonderful. Amanda's notes say "slightly sweet; full-bodied; buttery nose." I know that citrus-y whites, like the ever-present Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, are really in right now as a reaction against heavy, buttery chardonnay, but I still like the butter. This wine was served outside on the balcony/patio, and it's a great summer night wine. Never mind that it's October and summer nights should be over by now.

Wine tasting can be very intimidating, and there's always the voice in the back of your head that says it's mostly made up. I remember reading an article years ago that asked how we can taste the rose bushes and the blackberries, but we never taste the manure or pesticides. That being said, this is a great opportunity to try to figure out how wines stack up against each other. One of the most educational experiences I've had is the year we got to go to one of Skip and Shirly's dinners where the wines are chosen for the party. Six of us tasted ten different Cotes du Rhones and compared notes. Amazingly, our top three choices were almost unanimous. I thought I was crazy when I thought one of the wines tasted salty, but everyone noticed that the wine smelled like olives. These things only come out through experience or by carefully choosing the wines you'll taste together.

Or better yet, by letting Skip and Shirly carefully choose the wines you taste together.

[I apologize that I can't provide links for the wines. Our internet at home is out, and my internet at work blocks any page related to booze.]

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