Sunday, May 28, 2006

 

Some short notes

As the new addition gets imminent and Amanda's doctor acts like she's going to order bed rest soon, we've been hitting the regular places hard while we can. Here's a summary of the weekend:

At Hugo's Friday night I made a decision. When people ask me where to eat in Houston, I no longer ask a battery of questions trying to pinpoint the asker's mood, tastes, and price range. For now on, I simply answer Hugo's. It's got plenty of familiar dishes, and it's got flavors you won't find many other places (corn fungus, for one.) It's a nice place to dress up and feel fancy, it's a nice place to wear jeans and feel comfotable. It's not cheap (main courses run $13 to $30), but the bill is never as high as I expect it to be based on the quality and quantity. In a state where every restaurant claims to have the best margaritas, Hugo's really has 'em. The basic Hugo's Rita is out of this world, and the specialty margaritas just get better. You can get them made with Mezcal instead of tequila if you want. Hugo's isn't above the tacky advertising banner tied to the building, but instead of "Tuesday Night Half Price" or "Best Margaritas Within Two Blocks," Hugo's banner reads "Squash Blossoms are Here!" How could you not love a place like that? (Hugo's does have one problem: they ignore my pet peave/anti-fetish against molded rice.)

Last night we went back to T'afia. Amanda had a "mocktail" made from peach, banana, and mango nectars. Later she switched to one made from blueberry and pomegranite juices with soda. We al shared (there were four of us) a cheese plate, but nobody told us what cheese were on it. Amanda and I had salads made with endive and spinach, and our friends Phil and Jim had salads made with chicory. Main courses: carmelized beef cubes with sticky rice; curried shrimp with vegetables in pasta; seared tuna with lime-soy sauce and ginger carrots; grilled beef tenderloin with tamarind steak sauce and macaroni and cheese.

Today we had a late lunch at Houston's. At 2 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, there was a twenty-minute wait. I am always amazed at how popular that place is. They're known for their egalitarian ideals--no reservations, every server helps each other out, always smoke-free--but today we saw how committed they are to them. The chef, with his name on his jacket and everything, was walking the floor sweeping trash. I have never before seen a chef do this before.

I don't know how much dining there will be for a while. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, May 26, 2006

 

Spec's Wine Warehouse

Houstonians’ mouths are watering just upon seeing this post’s title, but let me explain Spec’s Wine Warehouse to the out-of-towners.

Spec’s is a local chain of liquor stores that’s been around since 1962. And the Warehouse, located in midtown, is the Mother Ship. (All further references to Spec’s refer to the Warehouse; I can’t speak to the little strip center stores all over the area). When Spec’s reopened after an expansion and makeover, it had 80,000 square feet of retail space, making it the largest liquor store in the country. And it’s not just alcohol: they have a gourmet deli and food shops where you can find hundreds of cheeses, specialty chocolates, and a crapload of oils and vinegars. It also has store-roasted coffees and fresh produce. Their humidor has over 900 different types of cigars. Feel like speculating? You can buy Bordeaux futures.

And the booze? There’s just so much booze. It would take days to count bottles in the aisles, so I did some research on their web site. The warehouse has 7085 wines. Almost all are available by the bottle or case. This is, to be honest, a very conservative count—I couldn’t get the American Chardonnay or American Pinot Noir pages to come up, and that’s got to be worth another 500 labels. The staff are extremely knowledgeable, but you have to find the right people. Not long ago I went in looking for a bottle of California Cabernet, between $15 and $20, that would go good with chocolate. The salesman quickly showed me three and explained the difference in taste. He even asked about the chocolate. But another time Amanda asked about a specific label and the salesman, with a patronizing look over his glasses, asked “So, do you like white or red wine?”

You can find 160 US beers, not to mention imports. Do you, like me, enjoy single malt Scotch? Spec’s has 237 of ‘em. These include all the major label scotches, all the minor label scotches and an ever-changing selection of specialty bottles. Apparently, you can buy a barrel of, say, Laphroig today at the distillery. You can then store it however you like, even refusing to filter it the way the distillery will before bottling it. Then, 12-30 years later, you can bottle and sell it for yourself—at Spec’s. More of a vodka fan? Well, Spec’s has over 60 flavored vodkas.

You get the picture. When we have friends visit from out of town (Hi, Josh!), we make sure to take them by Spec’s. But my trip to Spec’s this afternoon had a specific goal in mind: free samples. You can usually find samples of something at Spec’s, and on Friday evenings you can find a lot. I often hear people say that they can get a full meal just by sampling the freebies at Spec’s. I often hear people say they can get quite drunk on the giveaways. So I decided to try it out.

Today’s food selections were really quite poor. The first sample table is only about ten feet inside the front door. Today it had Mom's Pasta Sauce served on little pieces of French bread. It also had a ginger marinade and a teriyaki marinade served on bread. They were good for building up a base, but not spectacularly tasty. The woman manning the table also offered some Snow Mint Sparkling Water. I made a horrible face and told her it tasted like bubbly mouthwash. She made the same face and said she hates it too.

The only other food samples available today were Ya Ya Rah Rah organic crackers. The Ya Ya Rah Rahs were available in four flavors: flax seed, spinach curry, Sicilian herb, and some other kind with flax seed. When I say the crackers taste like cardboard, I mean only recycled cardboard. Virgin cardboard has slightly better taste and much better texture.

The drink selection was more promising. I had some DeKuyper Strawberry Passion Pucker, served with Sprite. It’s syrupy sweet, and you can’t taste the alcohol at all. Kids these days can’t even make their own trashcan punch? I commented that this flavor makes it dangerous, and the woman handing out the samples replied, “No! It’s only 15% alcohol. No problem.” I won't say that the Pucker tasted bad. In fact, it reminded me of the Big Red soda I used to love as a kid. But I didn't drink 30 proof soda when I was kid, and I can't imagine drinking it now.

Tucked back in the wine section was a young woman with three different wines. I had a little bit of 2001 Whitman Cabernet Sauvignon, from Walla Walla, Washington. I would have guessed the price at around $20 (unlike the Strawberry Passion Pucker, the alcohol was really strong in the cab), but she says it goes for $43. She had a 2001 Whitman blended red wine called Narcissa, also from Walla Walla, and a bottle that looked similar to the Whitman bottles, but is French. These were also okay but overpriced.

The Antigua Cruz tequila (fancy web site) also runs for about $43. Today I had my choice of Silver, Reposado, or Anejo. I had a shot of the Anejo, and it was the only sample I actually considered buying. It has a woody, smoky flavor, and less of that greasy-ish taste. I didn’t have the other varieties, but I know from previous experience that I could have asked and received at least one shot of each.

Next to the tequila booth I had some Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum. He also had some Parrot Bay Coconut Rum, but I passed on that. The guy handling the rum was the only enthusiastic of the sample people. Perhaps he had too much of his product, perhaps the others hadn’t had enough.

That was it. While I could, with a little effort, have gotten myself drunk on the free samples, there’s no way I could have filled up on food. Maybe I got there too early (5 pm)? Maybe it was just an off day? I don’t know.

But I did walk out with a six-pack of Full Sail I.P.A., so the half hour spent at Spec’s wasn’t a complete bust.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

 

Glass Wall

There was a t-shirt trend I noticed early in the school year at the high school I work at. For the first two months or so, kids were wearing lots of self-referential t-shirts. "This Is my Party Shirt," says a popular one. Another one, pink, says "Don't Laugh. This Is Your Girlfriend's Shirt." A green shirt, also for boys, says "Pimps Wear Green Shirts." The concept is cute for about two minutes.

What does this have to do with food? Nothing. But it's the first thing I thought of when I walked into Glass Wall the Restaurant and saw the giant glass wall that separates the bar from the dining room. The glass wall reads, in large etched letters, GLASS WALL THE RESTAURANT.

It took me a few minutes to get over the superficial flaws. The menu, whic is updated often, says "May Session." The wine list--a thorough list with over 150 selections with a price range from $30 to $180--is called "Wine Session." I suppose that "session" is supposed to let me know that the food is seasonal, but it sounded too much like a school semester. The wine list also names Shepard Ross as "general manager/wine guy/human being." Like plenty of other new places in up-and-coming neighborhoods (I can still count full liqour liscenses in the Heights on one hand), Glass Wall comes across as trying a little bit too hard. The wine list is impressive, but the wine storage room with glass walls that allow you to see the bottles and the humidity control air conditoner is not.

I forgot the superficial flaws when I saw the menu. Glass Wall, thankfully, is not trying too hard with the food. It's basic American favorites done well: New York Strip, double pork chops, rack of lamb, salmon, sea bass. The food has all the familiar and comfortable appeal the dining room tries to upend.

We went with our friends Sue and David. We had a bottle of Dr. Konstatin Frank dry reisling from the finger lakes region in New York. This is the first New York wine I've ever had, because they're just recently allowed to be imported to Texas (that Supreme Court is good for a few things, I guess). I had a tuna tartare appetizer. Sue had the roasted beets with mint yogurt and says it's "fabulous." David had a crab cake.

I wanted the pork chop for my main course, but Amanda and Sue ordered it first, and I didn't want to be too repetitive. So I had a roasted chicken with a perfectly crispy skin and juicy meat. It was served with two vidalia onion rings. It also came with brocolinni, but I found it too salty. Amanda and Sue loved the pork chops, and I loved even more the goat cheese potato cake that came with it. David asked if he could just choose a few of the side dished from various entrees, and our waitress had no problem with that.

With the main course we had a bottle of Buochaine pinot noir from Carneros. I've actually been to the winery, and it's one of my favorites. It's not a big or beautiful winery like Opus One or Artesa, but the folks running the place were the most charming and helpful people I've come across in Napa. Bouchaine has a second label called Buchli Station that's pretty good and more affordable.

For dessert, Amanda and I split a strawberry rhubarb crisp with vanilla gelatto. I have a weak spot for strawberry rhubarb (thanks, Grandma!), so I don't know if I'm being very objective when I say it's the best dessert I've eaten in a year.

Our waitress was slow and impersonal, but I have to give credit to the general manager/wine guy/human being. As he walked past our table with both hands full of wine glasses, I accidentally made eye contact. He immediately stop mid-dtride, came back to the table, and made sure everything was okay. He thought I was giving him a look because we needed something.

Parking is very limited, so my heart goes out to the folks who live on 10th right off Studewood. But the folks on 6 1/2 and 7th, near Fitzgerald's, have been putting up with it a long time, and the neighborhood is still worth the occasional beer bottle or crowded street.

[Please excuse all the typos, but I just got home from dinner, and I'm sleepy and boozy.]

Monday, May 15, 2006

 

Another Lame Sneak Preview, because I Haven't Got Anything to Say

It's true, John, I am getting hungry. Last weekend we were in the Dallas area for my sister's college graduation, and the weekend before that we were in Fredericksburg for a wedding, so we haven't had a lot of time to eat at new and/or exciting places. I'm still itching to eat at Bistro Moderne, but it keeps not happening.

Possible topics later this week: The Glass Wall, which recently opened a few blocks from home in the Heights; stealing D Magazine's idea for a single-elimination tournament for best hamburger; my (unanswered) application for a freelance reviewer job with AOL City Guide; how the food in Fredericksburg is never as good as you expect it to be; the cute little kids who won a James Beard award.

And though it's not food related, I may also open up my "Guess what Bush will say next" contest to the blog. [Note to those who already entered: yes, I'm for real. A copy of Bushisms goes to whoever guesses correctly. And no, I didn't catch any of the entries in tonight's immigration speech.]

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