Thursday, January 26, 2006

 

Critic's Notebook

Not my notebook. We ate at Aires over a week ago--and I took notes--but I still haven't got around to writing anything about it. I guess that's my biggest comment about Aires right there.

Browse the NYT critic's notebook where Frank Bruni plays waiter for a week. Maybe things are different in Cambridge Mass, but I think he leaves some of the typical waiter experiences out of the report. He doesn't mention any fights or screaming matches between waiters. He doesn't talk about the sex between waiters. He doesn't talk about sneaking free booze from the owner or expensive booze from the customers. He doesn't tell you how to add and delete things from your ticket to increase tips in a Andy Fastow kind of way.

The only thing he writes about that reminds me of my years waiting tables: waiters completely make up their favorites and suggestions. When I worked at Franki's, people often asked us about our favorites. I chose the pork medallions with blackberry sauce as my recommended favorite months before I actually tried it. Not the most expensive item on the menu, but close. It was also very fast and very pretty. Julie (speaking of sex, booze, and screaming matches) always said that Franki's Schnitzel was her favorite. I knew her for seven years and never once saw her eat one. I think she just said it to suck up to Franki.

At Deep Ellum, I recommended whatever Chef told me to push that night. Next time you ask a waiter, especially one you don't know, what he or she recommends, just remember that you're really asking: so, what's not sold well for the past few days, is on the edge of going bad, and will either be soup or garbage tomorrow morning?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

 

Saveur 100

Here is the Saveur 100 list.

Note the several Texas contributions. Also note Houston's own West Alabama Ice House. I've never actually had a drink at West Alabama Ice House, but I drive by it all the time and know a few things about it:

1. The sign boasts "Since 1927," a few years before Prohibition was repealed. Technically, it could have been an ice house that only served ice and not booze. But really. When have you seen a large quantity of ice that was neither carved into a swan nor had beer cooling in it? I'm pretty sure no Houston ice house ever had ice carvings.

2. Several off-duty sherrifs got in a bit of a gunfight at WAIH. They fired around 40 rounds and didn't hit anybody. Perhaps beer really can bring peace to the world.

Monday, January 16, 2006

 

Update: The People Are Hungry

I wasn't the only one who noticed the popularity of the NYT mac and cheese recipe. (To be fair, Amanda noticed it, not me. But she doesn't have a food blog, does she?)

Slate's Sarah Dickerman filed a piece on Friday about the "weirdly popular recipe." She considers the major questions, but doesn't spen too much time there:

Has it been a slow news cycle? (Samuel Alito—shown up by cheddar.) Have I underestimated the cultural cachet of the word "crusty"? Or has the nation just settled into its annual post-holiday hibernation, when thoughts turn to stews, casseroles, and Super Bowl fare?

What Dickerman does instead, like any good chef/freelance writer, is make the recipe. Twice.

"Crusty" is no exaggeration; the two cups of cheese used to top the casserole shrink-wrapped itself around the uppermost elbows. Eaten piping hot it was a little chewy and a little crispy; after the dish had cooled just a hair, the top layer had firmed to a leathery shield. The noodles below sweated fat, which collected unappealingly at the bottom of my earthenware dish. On my first attempt, I took the high road and used the all-cheddar option presented in the recipe. Bits of cheese clung clumpily to the elbows. Cheese that's not processed—and especially cheddar—needs help to achieve an ideal state of ooziness. And without the moderation of something creamy—ricotta, crème fraiche, or I think, ideally, white sauce—that much cooked cheddar loses some nuance and tastes a bit caustic. When, on the second go-round, I used a mixture of American cheese and cheddar, the texture was smoother, but the dish tasted unpleasantly unctuous: more fatty than cheesy.

Dickerman concludes that the recipe so popular among the East Coast Liberal Elite is "off." It just doesn't have enough liquid to make a good macaroni and cheese. If I could actually cook and not just say bad things about other people's food I might come to the same conclusion. Who knows?

Bonus. I still remember the first sentence I ever read from Sarah Dickerman, and it still grosses me out.

As a restaurant cook, I consider myself something of a garbage expert: a surprisingly big chunk of my day involves sorting through leftover food, sniffing it, tasting it, and—if it's no longer fresh—dumping it into a big, heavy-gauge plastic garbage can.

I know what she means: she constantly looks though the pantry and walk-in to see what's in there and decide if and how to use it. But the image that sentence brings to mind, based specifically on the words "sorting though leftover food," is one of a chef sniffing at the leftover scraps from my plate after I've eaten and deciding if she can pass them off to the next diner. Lucky for the next diner I rarely leave leftovers.

 

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca

Last weekend I had dinner with Amanda, Phil, and two of Phil’s friends at La Dolce Vita, the just-opened pizza restaurant owned by Marco, as in Da Marco. It was Saturday night, and according to Phil they had only been open for a couple of days. Since Phil was (but is no longer; I’ll miss that house) living three blocks away, he had been there every night since it opened. It’s on Westheimer just a few blocks east of Montrose, across the street from Sorrento and next door to where the new Indika will be. It’s the two-storey house that used to be a Moroccan restaurant.

The list of appetizers brought the words “Italian tappas” to everyone’s mind. It’s a large and varied list of small dishes. We all shared a handful:
--shaved brussel sprouts with radish and pecorino: the salad was bitter and tangy, making it a great way to start out.
--fingerling potatoes with a spicy marinara sauce: at least the waiter said it was spicy. I didn’t find it spicy at all, and Phil—who could drink Tabasco—found the description offensive.
--a salad made of parsley leaves and pancetta: fresh greens and bacon? Can anything be wrong with the universe when you’re eating a bacon salad? No, of course not.
--diced beets with horseradish: we each had one bite of this and no more. Though there was nothing wrong with it, it had no excitement and little flavor. There wasn’t enough horseradish to add the smallest bit of spiciness, and beets are, well, beets.

By this time were aware of two major problems that will need to be fixed. For one, the waiter answered “I don’t know” to a lot of our questions about the Italian terms and ingredients on the menu. He did little to find answers, but was content with “I don’t know.” Surely this will fix itself over time. The other problem is that Dolce Vita doesn’t serve bread, and bread seemed a necessity with all our little bowls of sauces and oils left over from the appetizers. The waiter did sell us a round of focaccia pizza dough for four bucks, but that’s hardly the way to get people to return.

The main course at Dolce Vita is pizza. Two people can easily share a pizza, but we ordered one each to get a better sample size. There were lots of to-go boxes at the end. I had a pizza with prosciutto and arugula. The ingredients were fresh and perfectly proportioned. The crust was crispy with just the slightest bit of charring from the wood-burning oven. It went well with a glass of Merlot. Another quirky thing about Dolce Vita: they don’t slice their pizza. Something about drying it out. Although this reasoning doesn’t work for me—it dries out just as much after I cut it with a knife as it would if they cut it with a knife—I like the effect. The fact that you’re not getting familiar little triangles adds to the lengths they go NOT to remind you of Dominoes.

For dessert we each got a bowl of gelato. You can choose up to three flavors. I had dark chocolate, Mexican vanilla, and pistachio.

I think Dolce Vita is going to work out just fine. In fact, I think it’s going to work out too well. Despite its still being in “soft opening” phase, the place was full. And though it’s much more casual than Da Marcos, the beautiful people have already found it and made it their own—the two Ferraris in the parking lot were identical, down to the racing stripes. Oh well.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

 

Goodbye to Andy (kind of)

Our favorite waiter at T’afia, Andy, has moved on. He’s now working at Rouge. We’ll go over there for dinner soon. Let me remind you why Andy is our favorite:

1. He waited on us our first time we went to Boulevard Bistro. When we went back a second time, at least a month later, he remembered our faces and the wine we had last time. It made us instant regulars.

2. Remember the story, in Remains of the Day, about the butler in India who calmly told his boss that dinner would be delayed because of a tiger under the dining room table? A few minutes later a shotgun blast is heard, and the butler returns to whisper that the problem has been solved. A live spider in my mother-in-law’s salad wasn’t quite as extreme, but Andy handled it with just as much finesse—and without firearms.

See you soon, Andy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

 

Food in History

My sister gave me a wonderful book for Christmas, Food in History by Reay Tannahill. Tannahill has exhaustively researched almost every aspect of the diet of every civilization from around 10,000 BC to around 1986 AD. Tannahill has also fit the analysis of that research into 400 pages, so it’s brief and brisk. Allow me to repeat a typical passage, this one on dates and figs in 3000-1000 BC:

The fig, a native of western Asia and another fruit with a high sugar content, was also popular in the Near East and along much of the Mediterranean, although the tree did not have the 370 uses of the date (On the other hand, its leaves were a more convenient size and shape for the specialized requirements of the Garden of Eden). Sometimes, however, it fruited well where the date did not, as in Greece, where it found a place in the diet of rich and poor alike, particularly in winter in its dried form.
“Nothing is sweeter than figs,” Aristophanes declared, and their reputation spread far beyond the lands in which they grew until, in the third century BC, Bindusara, king of the Maurya dominions in India, wrote to Greece asking for some grape syrup, some figs and a philosopher. Grape syrup and figs, he was told with cool courtesy, would be sent to him with pleasure, but it was “against the law in Greece to trade in philosophers.” (pp. 50-51)

And so it goes. It’s neither the chemical step-by-step of On Food and Cooking nor the too-broad brushstrokes of a high school World History primer ("Egyptians ate wheat, Greeks ate grapes, Romans ate Greeks"…that sort of thing). Food in History is a detail-filled narrative with enough anecdote and humor to keep even the casual diner engaged.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

 

Pictures from Josh's visit

I try to give you a sense of what it's like to eat with me. But Josh gives you pictures. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

 

The People Are Hungry

In the midst of Ariel Sharon's stroke and major blasts in Iraq, the two most e-mailed articles in today's NYT are about...macaroni and cheese.

Even better: the recipe has been sent even more than the story it accompanies.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

 

Eating for Three

Friends, an announcement: Amanda is pregnant, and Baby Holloway is due on July 4.

This will probably mean the end of Ben Holloway Eats. From what I’ve heard, newborns usually take away the means and opportunity for eating out. At least for a few years.

But the opposite is true until then. We’re making a list of places we want to hit before the little one arrives. Already on the list: Aries and Da Marco.

(And now you know why Amanda was napping so much when Josh was here.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

 

Watching Josh Galban Eat

So this time it’s real. Josh really did come down for a few days to watch me eat. I suspect he wanted to eat a little himself, since he made a few requests: chicken fried steak and tex-mex.

Josh made a stealthy entrance—he walked right past me at the airport and I didn’t see him. After a text message and a phone call we were together and ready to go.

We started off light and homey. Wednesday afternoon we just had some chips and dip for lunch with a few Anchor Porters and Shiner Bocks. Josh and I went to Onion Creek for a few more beers while Amanda napped.

Wednesday night we took the first request. Hickory Hollow, just two minutes from our house, has fantastic chicken fried steak. The portions are huge (consider sharing a half order with someone) and the sides are perfectly unhealthy. For example, try the Hot Tots: fried balls of mashed potatoes. Hickory Hollow, however, serves their chicken fried with brown gravy instead of cream gravy, and all three of us found this unacceptable. Amanda went online for an alternative. Barbecue Inn won the Houston Press award for best chicken fried steak a few years ago, so we went to find it. Barbecue Inn is located at Yale and Crosstimbers. I’ve never been in that part of town before. I don’t even know what it’s called. But Phil asked if we went armed when we told him where it is. Phil lives in the Montrose and regularly has prostitutes walking the street in front of his house. Phil hires a homeless crack addict as a handyman. Phil doesn’t call any neighborhood bad. Except, apparently, where Barbecue Inn is located. The Inn, as I now call it, has been open since 1946. It looks to have been renovated and redecorated in the mid ‘60s. I’d go to Baghdad for another serving of the chicken fried chicken I had, so I can’t even imagine how the steak is. I got mine with fries, Josh and Amanda had theirs with baked potatoes. All three of us were disappointed that they didn’t offer mashed potatoes, so maybe the chicken fried steak search has yet to end.

We slept in Thursday morning in lieu of breakfast, too full from the night before. For lunch we went to another place I’d never been, Irma’s. Irma wasn’t working the floor Thursday, but she usually does. Irma’s has no menu, just five or six items of the day. Phil met us there before going in to work. We had some queso (good but not exceptional) and guacamole (spicy and full of vegetables) to get us going. I had a cheese chili relleno, Amanda and Phil had enchiladas mole, and Josh had seafood enchiladas. What impressed me about the food was the amount of random and tasty vegetables in everything. All the sauces and sides had all types of fresh stuff in them. The homemade lemonade with fresh fruit was amazing. I never would have thought to have lemonade with tex-mex, but it seemed the perfect complement (Josh had iced tea—bad call). For dessert we split a plate of sopapillas. Not the airy puffs of nothing or the sugar-coated chips that some places serve, but honest to goodness sweat bread with honey and cinnamon. These were the best sopapillas I’ve ever eaten and ever will. I’m certain of it. Our waiter was very friendly. In fact he was downright touchy. He didn’t lay a finger on Amanda, but Phil, Josh and I each got a firm pat on the shoulders or two. It was after Irma’s that we started complaining of being uncomfortably full. But Josh had come all this way to see me eat, so we couldn’t stop there.

After Irma’s we drove a little out of town for a giant case of surreality.

After getting our asses back into Houston, Josh and I went to Sixth Street Bar & Grill for some beers while Amanda napped.

Amanda suggested gulf coast seafood for dinner, so we went to Goode Company Seafood. I’ve talked about that before, so I’ll just get to the point: Amanda had gumbo and a side of fries, Josh had a fried shrimp/grilled catfish combo with rice, I had a fried oyster/grilled catfish combo with fries. By this point we were all complaining loudly about being uncomfortably full.

After dinner we took Josh for a drive to see some of the sights.

With only one meal left, we had to think of something good. Amanda suggested biscuits and gravy and Josh, despite the overfull feeling, thought it a beautiful idea. So Friday morning we drove over to Café Artiste. Amanda and Josh each had biscuits and cream gravy. I had an English muffin and Canadian bacon—I guess I was feeling international. I had a cup of real coffee, and Josh ordered an iced coffee, which came in a tall soda glass and looked pretty girly. We spent the whole meal making fun of his drink.

And then we took him to the airport.

What a treat it was to have Josh come and visit. Most people in Josh’s situation—nobody ever goes to visit him—might be pissed. But Josh just uses up those frequent flier miles to visit us instead. I’ll bet he’s still full.

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