The Meat Sweats

The sixth day straight (out of ten) of working, walking, networking, schmoozing, live-blogging SXSW and shooting bands can sometimes lead to impaired judgment and poor decisions. Mental exhaustion will do that to a person. Which is what led me to think that ordering – and then consuming – 17 ounces of T-bone at Hoffbrau Steaks would be a good idea. I’ll just let the pictures below speak for themselves.

Parnters in crime: Brigitte, Hala, Dave, Marc and Adam.
World famous for one thing, and one thing only: steaks.
There's no menu at Hoffbrau. You eat what they have. Including this very garlicky salad.
Adam decided to be a rebel and ordered extra onion rings with his meal.
Hoffbrau is more than a bit lost in time, in a comfortable and comforting way.
Hala was ready for her steak.
My rare T-bone (yes, it's sitting in a pool of butter) before...
A brief interlude of steak fries, each one the size of an ear of corn.
...and my steak after. The gristle was happily consumed by Adam, as we all watched in horror.
Shiner Bock beer, salad, steak fries and T-bone grand total: $22, including tip. Not bad.

While the steak was tasty (after I sopped up all the grease with some spare bread and disposed of it), I still prefer my steaks cooked on a real grill – not a griddle – and definitely much smaller. I had a vicious meat headache within minutes of finishing it, and sweated it out walking the umpteen blocks back uphill to our hotel afterwards. The good news is that after all that protein, I had enough energy to finish off the day without consuming any caffeine or any of the terrifying energy drinks that every SXSW party seemed to have on hand like party favors. (Oh, wait – those were party favors. Ick.)

Still, the next time I’m suffering from sleep deprivation and a fuzzy head, I’m letting someone else choose both the restaurant and my food. A responsible someone else. Who’ll choose a salad and some fruit. Anyone?

Moonshine in the Afternoon

Martini with ruby red grapefruit juice and champagne at Moonshine
Ruby Slipper Martini with ruby red grapefruit juice and champagne at Moonshine

I’ve made a few recent weekend trips to Austin — for work both times — but managed to have a little fun on the side while I was there. This most recent trip to the Hill Country was for the Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL) and just to answer any questions you may have, let me just say this: I saw exactly one band over the course of three days, subsisted on nacho cheese Doritos and Red Bull in the media area and worked for a good portion of the weekend with my laptop in a clear plastic garbage bag to protect it from the torrential rain.

The highlight of that particular weekend was getting fresh carnitas tacos (with pickled habanero peppers!) and elotes slathered with mayonnaise and parmesan cheese delivered to the tent courtesy of an Austin taco restaurant whose name I shamefully can’t remember (I think I was distracted by fighting for the last plug on the lone power strip so my laptop didn’t die). And after the last band played on Sunday night, Groovehouse and I packed our gear, hiked out of Zilker Park and back to our car, where we promptly deposited a heavy load of cameras, lenses, batteries, docking stations, laptops, iPhones, power chargers and all manner of 21st century detritus before walking to Shady Grove for a late dinner.

It was far from the best meal I’ve ever had, but we both dove headfirst into our veggie burgers and salads, clinging desperately to the promise of roughage cleaning out our systems from the trash we’d shoved into it all weekend. I reflected later on the poor quality of my Thai noodle salad and how eagerly I devoured it, thinking that I should never, ever, ever review food when famished.

The trip to Austin before the three-day endurance sport that was ACL was decidedly more relaxed, however. I was in town at the request of Robb Walsh, serving as a preliminary judge for the 19th annual Austin Hot Sauce Festival. I chronicled my misadventures on Sunday in a recent post on the Houston Press, if you care to read about how sick I got somewhere around sampling my 200th salsa. The highlight of that trip was a meal at Moonshine, the pictures from which are below.

And they still look pretty damn delicious, if I do say so myself.

Continue reading Moonshine in the Afternoon

Oldies & Goodies

Because we all know that nothing says “oldie” or “goodie” like a deep-fried Oreo.

Oldies & Goodies

From this weekend’s World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Cookoff at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Oh, what’s that? You want to see some actual barbeque? Look no further:

Sausage, Brisket & Ribs: The Holy Trinity

Sausage, brisket and ribs: the holy trinity of Texas barbeque.

Under a Texan Sky

All hail the mighty state!

Big Expectations; Little Results

Little Big's, Now Open

I finally made it to Little Big’s this past Friday night after an evening spent at West Alabama Ice House with some friends. After having our fill of Shiners and bikers, nothing sounded better on a cool night than to relax on the patio with some hot sliders.

As expected, the place was a madhouse when we arrived at about 8:30.  Parking wasn’t an issue — surprisingly — but the barely-contained chaos inside was.  It was difficult to tell who was in line, who was waiting for their food, who was just milling about drunkenly…but we managed to get our orders in without too much difficulty (although with a lot of yelling; it’s extremely noisy inside the small space).  My three sliders — one beef, one chicken and one mushroom — and butterscotch milkshake came to $10.25.  A bit much for three twee burgers and a shake, but these are supposed to be top-shelf sliders after all.

We took our seats on the patio and began the wait.  The patio itself is every bit as relaxing as anticipated, the smell of freshly-cut wood under the sprawling oak trees, the breeze rustling through the leaves, the hypnotic sights of red-lighted traffic and wild pedestrians wandering up and down Montrose — I could have sat there all night.  Good thing, too, because that’s about how long it will take to get your order out.

Forty-five minutes later, the first name was called.  By this time, we’d run through a sickly sweet frozen sangria and a bland frozen White Russian.  Both were deemed barely drinkable by the group, but we continued to suck on them for lack of anything else to eat or drink.  My butterscotch milkshake was still nowhere to be seen.  When I finally heard my name called, I anxiously ran in to grab my sliders — only to see someone else pick them up from the unattended counter and abscond quickly with them.  Bastard!

The counter attendant came back and I said, “I think someone just ran off with my sliders.”  He looked at me like I was an escaped mental patient — they’re just sliders, lady, take your meds and get the fuck out of my face, read his expression — and went back to handing out the baskets of sliders that came up.  I stood there awkwardly, unsure of what to do next.

“You called my name…” I trailed off.

“What’s your name?”  Gruff and irritated.

“Katie.”

“No, we didn’t.”

I looked back at my friends for confirmation that I wasn’t crazy.  “Yeah, you called her name,” one of them piped up.

“Nope.”

I continued to stand there nonplussed as he called out the names of all my friends who’d ordered after me, and handed out their baskets of sliders.

“No, seriously.  You called my name.  Can I just get the next basket that comes up?”  He ignores me completely.  In the back, the crew is working feverishly to get sliders off the grill and into the baskets.  I start to feel like an asshole, watching them work so hard as I complain.  But it’s been forty-five minutes.  And I’m really hungry.

The next basket comes up on the counter.  It has one of each slider: my exact order.  The attendant has his back turned to me.  So I do what any red-blooded American would do.  I took it and left.  Screw you, counter attendant.  You aren’t doing your job and you’re acting like a prick.  AND I’M REALLY HUNGRY.

Steeled by my freshly-acquired sliders, I go to the register to try and resolve my missing shake issue, only to have my head want to explode when the girl behind the counter snottily tells me: “We called your name for, like, ten minutes.”  I looked back at my friends in disbelief; they’re equally as adamant as I am: “NO, YOU DIDN’T.”  Which is it, Little Big’s?  Calling names and not having food ready?  Or not calling names and having food ready?  Choose a crappy customer service style and stick with it.

The girl throws the shake together quickly and thrusts it over the counter to me.  We are equally irritated with each other by this point.  But at least I have my food.

Outside, the chowdown begins.  Group assessment is that the chicken slider is surprisingly good, maybe even the best of the bunch.  The chicken is tender and juicy, lightly battered and perfectly offset by the sweet yeast roll and sour bite of pickle.  The beef slider is underwhelming.  The beef seems to be overcooked and chewy, with only a few wispy onions as an accompaniment.  The spicy remoulade sauce that I picked up from the condiment bar helps, but I end up not finishing it.  The mushroom slider is good, but the molten cheese inside is undersalted and bland.  Fortunately, the French fries and yeast rolls are out of this world.

The butterscotch shake, on the other hand, is abominable.  It tastes as if someone melted down a batch of Werther’s Originals into a tub of Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream (for those of you who don’t know, Blue Bunny is just about the nastiest ice cream on the market).  It is vile and appalling.  My friends all agree.  It’s undrinkable, as well as the third drink of the night to be deemed horrible.  Clearly, Little Big’s strength does not lie in their drink-making abilities.

I’m reluctant to go back on another Friday night (or Saturday night, for that matter).  I think I’ll go again on a weeknight, when it’s a bit calmer, and give the sliders another shot.  Those cooks were stretched to their limits on Friday, and I think the sliders suffered as a result.  Hopefully it will net a better experience this time around, as I seem to be the only person so far who isn’t blown away by their efforts.  Wish me luck!

Triple Bypass Burger

Behold the monstrosity upon which I gorged myself last weekend:

Triple Bypass Burger

This is the Triple Bypass Burger, found in its natural habitat at Dry Creek in the Heights.  I had brunch there with my friend Jen on a chilly Saturday that meant I needed more sustenance than could be provided by a paltry omelette, but still required some kind of “breakfast” in my “brunch.”  Thus, the bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg you see before you.

At the tender age of 28, I tend not to worry all that much about such piddling adult issues as arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and LDL levels, but perhaps after this meal I really ought to start.  Unfortunately, for as good as the fried egg, cheese, bacon and all the fixings were (including the perfectly spiced chipotle mayonnaise), I had exactly the same problem with the patty and the bun that Robb Walsh had only a year ago.

The waitstaff at Dry Creek will inevitably ask you how you want your burger cooked and — just as inevitably — it will always come out well done.  It’s like some sick joke they enjoy playing on people.  And the bun was as crumbly as ever.  Not one to despair long over crumbly buns, I simply washed it down with some of the divine Shiner Black that Jen had cleverly brought (since Dry Creek is BYOB, after all) and set about enjoying the onion rings, which are always spectacular.

Next time I’m baking some of these bad boys beforehand and packing them to go.  Problem (mostly) solved.  I can’t pack my own meat, after all.  …or can I?

Dam Good Food

My best friends and I have been best friends for going on 22 years now.

Christmas 2008
I’m the one in the green footie pajamas.

As happens when you get older, move away, get real jobs, get married, have children and find your lives filling up with the kind of activities that aren’t as important as they seem at the time, we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like.  So when we do find ourselves in the fortuitous situation of all being in the same city — and free of family and/or work obligations on the same night — we enjoy the hell out of that night.

This past Saturday night, I took my friends to Beaver’s for dinner.  Even the ones who live in Houston had never been before, so it was a treat to get them out there.  The thing I like about Beaver’s is that you get the feeling of having a special meal in a cozy, out-of-the-way spot without any of the pretentious trappings (and without the pretentious prices).  The waitstaff, bartenders and chefs are all serious about their trades, and it shows in every aspect of your meal.

The drinks, in particular, at Beaver’s are stunning.  This is old news, of course, but I tried a few on Saturday that were new to me.  The Rosemary Rickey is an old favorite, so I branched out to their Southern Gimlet (good if very strong) and later to a Mayahuel Fizz, a margarita-style mixed drink made with mezcal, rosemary syrup, foamed egg whites, lime and a dash of bitters.  Although small, it’s a revelation.  You’ll never want to drink another margarita anwyhere else, ever again.

Mayahula Fizz...or something.
Mayahuel Fizz, garnished with a sprig of rosemary. 

I would be writing this mini-review for Eating…Our Words if only Robb Walsh hadn’t done a smashing piece on Beaver’s only a few short months ago.  You should go and read it —  Busy Beaver’s — not just because it’s a spot-on review, but also because I really have nothing else of merit to add to what he wrote.  The place has improved drastically since Jonathan Jones took over and has genuinely returned to its intended purpose as an upscale icehouse/BBQ joint that takes its food seriously yet still has a fun time.

On Saturday night, I ordered the house special: a whole roasted pig.  My jaw dropped when the waiter described the special, until he quickly assured me that the entire pig wasn’t delivered to the table, only select parts.  Damn.

This Little Piggy Went to Beaver's
Whole roasted pig with kale and beans.

The parts I received were wonderful, with only a few rather tough exceptions.  A large, delicious chunk of pork loin was accompanied by a generous portion of crispy fried pork skin.  A few cuts of tender pork butt (the shoulder, not the actual butt…) and a few not-so-tender cuts of other shoulder meat rounded out the plate.  The entire collection was presented on a bed of sauteed kale and slow-cooked beans.  Although the beans could have cooked for longer (they were a bit too al dente for my preferences), the flavor was amazing — tangy and sweet without being cloying — and the dusky kale served as a perfect counterbalance.

My friends, for their part, enjoyed their macaroni and cheese, brisket sandwiches, fried pickles, beer-cheese dip and other assorted items as much as I’d hoped they would.  Comfort food taken to the next level was the keyword of the night, and we all had a wonderful time.  If Beaver’s continues this strong run, they could easily become my favorite restaurant of 2009.

La Torretta: A Preview

Getting ready to head over to a pumpkin-carving party in a bit (and getting ready to get incredibly messy pumpkin guts all over me as I hack-job a perfectly good pumpkin with my complete lack of artistic skills), so no long post today.

But I just returned from an overnight stay at La Torretta del Lago, the new resort that’s opening up in Lake Conroe in only a week, and wanted to share some pictures from our dinner last night with Chef Albert Roux.  Enjoy!

Menu

The rest of the pictures can be seen at my Flickr account: La Torretta set.

A full write-up will come soon. Until then, barn swallows!

Washington Avenue: A Long Day’s Journey Into Tacos

AIEEEEE!  It’s finally posted!  Go to Houstonist and check out my latest Urbanist article (with lots of photos), which took far too long to write than it should have.  Topics covered include:

  • the new Benjy’s (not to replace or be confused with the old Benjy’s)
  • El Rey Taqueria
  • The Daily Grind
  • Max’s Wine Dive
  • Pearl Bar
  • Guadalajara Bakery
  • …and more

And here’s a link for your browsing pleasure:  Urbanist: Washington Avenue.

/self-promoting off

VOICE, A Prelude

This is not a review of VOICE.  Not yet, at least.

Aside from the little issue of trying to forcibly extract the evening’s photos from my camera as it groans and bleats and emits tiny, rasping death rattles, I simply can’t be unbiased about the restaurant.  Which is unusual.

I’m a pretty unbiased person by nature.  Even when I start feeling twinges of favoritism towards a person or object or food or beverage, I always remind myself that I will lose out, ultimately, in a game of favorites, since it tends to close one off to the rest of life’s possibilities.  I enjoy playing Devil’s advocate.  Some call it arguing; I call it “seeing all sides.”  I think you get it.

But we were so terribly spoiled and pampered at VOICE last night — in the absolute best, most non-pandering, non-grating, non-superficial way — that I have no idea how to write a “review” that isn’t tinted with an overly rosy glow.  I feel like it would read as if I were a 13-year-old, gushing about her first crush.  I’m going to take all of this into consideration for a while, and will hopefully emerge with a post that isn’t obscured by my feelings towards the place.

That said, however, our experience last night was unparalleled.  The warm service, the endlessly beautiful interiors, the voluptuous wines and expert pairings, the visits from Chef Kramer and his keen crew, the heavenly amuse bouche, the dusky mushroom soup, the tender and submissive short ribs, the exotic five-spice ice cream, the creative cocktails and clever platings — everything was wonderful.

You see how this could quickly devolve into a love letter to VOICE, right?  Let me put some restraints on, and I’ll hopefully be back tomorrow with an even-handed (albeit highly positive) review.  See you then…

Image courtesy of http://www.hotelicon.com.

*17

Location: *17 at the Alden Hotel
Date: August 11, 2008

It’s been a while since I’ve done an honest-to-goodness restaurant review, and what better time to do so than Houston Restaurant Week?  So let’s get back to form for a little bit while I dish about our evening at the much-ballyhooed *17.

I met up with some fellow Chowhounds and a random assortment of industry folks at *17 on Monday evening for the first of my three HRW dinners.  Arriving early, thanks to the magic of the newly-widened eastbound lanes of the Katy Freeway, I relaxed in the lobby of the beautiful Alden Hotel while I waited.  The lobby is dark, sleek, soothing, a perfect arrangement of clean lines and stark yet welcoming furniture — the epitome of a modern boutique hotel.  The enormous light display on the rear wall cycled quietly through an array of ambient colors that cast a dim, exotic glow across the entire lobby and into the restaurant.  Despite the mahogany tables and chocolate-brown sofas, I felt as if I were in a spa.

Alden Lobby
Lobby at the Alden Hotel.

A little after 7:00, I ambled into the restaurant and took the first spot at our ten-top table.  The service was highly attentive, perhaps because I was one of only three tables in the entire restaurant.  I figured that it was simply because it was a fairly early dinner (by downtown standards), and expected the restaurant to be full by 8:30 or 9:00.

The rest of the party trickled in and, eventually, we were all at one table by 7:30.  I’m Never Full sat beside me at the head of the table, Tasty-Bits flanked me to the right and Great Food Houston sat next to him.  A sommelier and a bartender from area restaurants sat at the other end, while various other enthusiastic foodies filled in spaces between.  It was a group made for dining.

Table for Ten
Our little group.

I had already perused the heavy wine list at this point and chosen a Sauvignon Blanc, turning down *17’s sommelier’s tantalizing offer of a wine pairing with the three-course meal.  I’m on a budget, I reminded myself.  In retrospect, it may have been a cheaper option considering the course the evening took…

Glasses
Wine glasses at the beginning of the night.

There were two options for each of the three courses.  While we contemplated our choices, the kitchen sent out a delicate amuse bouche to our table: tuna carpaccio on a crisp, rosy slice of watermelon radish.  The thick, briny taste of the tuna was perfectly supported by the tart sweetness of the radish.  I tried to savor it for as long as possible, knowing that we wouldn’t get more of the tiny treat.  If only the rest of the courses had been as captivating as this one little amuse bouche, I would have been a very happy diner.

Sadly, they weren’t.  And I wasn’t.

Dinner Rolls and Tuna
Amuse bouche with lovely fluffy dinner rolls and salted butter.

For the appetizer, our choices were a salad of Animal Farms baby lettuce, organic olive oil, aged sherry vinegar and shaved radishes, or a cream of heirloom tomato soup with crispy pork belly.  You could almost hear the bells going off in peoples’ heads at the mention of “crispy pork belly.”  Nearly the entire table ordered the soup, greedily awaiting that nugget of pork.

However, we were heartily disappointed when our soups arrived to find that no one’s soup — not a single person’s — contained even a shred of pork belly.  Not even some bacon.  Not even some Bac-Os.  Not even some Beggin Strips.  Nothing.  We stirred our small bowls of soup discontentedly, as one diner made the prescient observation that the soup tasted exactly like a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato with some sherry thrown in for flavor.  It was disappointing, to say the least.

Cream of Tomato Soup
Cream of heirloom tomato soup WITHOUT crispy pork belly.

After our soup, we waited — somewhat deflated, but still eager — for our main courses to arrive.  I’m Never Full and I couldn’t decide between the Alaskan halibut with homemade pancetta and corn pudding or the New York strip with bordelaise sauce, pureed potato and sauteed arrowhead spinach.  So I ordered the halibut while she ordered the steak, with intentions of sharing the entrees.

After a rather long wait, our entrees finally arrived.  Except that mine came out as steak instead of halibut.  I sent it back (which I rarely do), only because two steaks would defeat the purpose of sharing, and waited another ten minutes for my halibut to come out.  All around me, people were digging in to their entrees with abandon.  That abandon quickly dissipated, however, as I started to hear quiet, disgruntled mumbles from around the table.  Is your steak cold?  Mine’s cold!  Is this it?  Five pieces of corn?  Where’s the pancetta?

When my halibut arrived, I was highly disappointed to see that not only was there only a tiny smear of “corn pudding,” but there was no pancetta at all.  It was a pathetic repeat of the soup and its promised pork belly.  It occurred to me later that the pancetta might have been tucked away with the bits of corn, but I certainly didn’t see or taste it if it was. The halibut itself was fine, but nothing extraordinary.  It had a crispy sear on one side, which I loved, but the accompanying corn pudding (too runny for my tastes) and bits of corn were underwhelming.  It felt as if we’d stumbled into a small tasting menu by mistake.

Halibut
Alaskan halibut with corn pudding, NOT with pancetta.

The steak was an improvement over the halibut, but had issues of its own.  I’m Never Full immediately pointed out that they weren’t, in fact, New York strips at all.  They were filets.  Taken out of context, I would prefer a filet over a strip any day of the week — no contest.  But within the larger context of the night, it was yet another menu item lost in translation.  *17 seems to have an inordinately difficult time coordinating what’s on their menu (and what comes out of their waiters’ mouths) and what actually comes out of the kitchen.  It was their third strike of the night in this respect, and I almost shut down at this point.

Our steak wasn’t cold, thankfully, as most other diners’ were.  It was actually cooked perfectly and the sauce bordelaise that formed a dark, seductive puddle on the plate was divine.  The potato puree, however, had a unappetizingly mealy texture that reminded me of reconstituted potato flakes.  And the sauteed arrowhead spinach didn’t taste as if it had been washed thoroughly.  However, compared to the sad corn paste on the halibut dish, they at least formed cohesive and complete side dishes for the steak.

Steak
“New York Strip” with potato puree and sauteed arrowhead spinach.

Woozy with wine and unfulfilled promises at this point in the night, I had stopped looking forward to dessert.  That was probably for the best, as my chocolate fondant with vanilla bean ice cream was every bit as underwhelming as the courses before it.  The chocolate fondant was a simple flour-less chocolate cake that was in desperate need of some salt.  It tasted flat and bitter.  The vanilla bean ice cream tasted exactly like Blue Bunny vanilla, which I once bought in a Kroger’s because they were out of Blue Bell ice cream and have regretted purchasing ever since.  Gritty, overly sweet and altogether unappealing.  The coffee ice cream that I’m Never Full ordered was slightly better, with a strong coffee taste, but with that same grittiness.

Chocolate Fondant
It looked good, right?

It was now close to 10:30 and all around me, people were debating whether to call Reef and try to get some better food to finish off the night, or just go and get some sliders somewhere.  I wish I were kidding.  Those of us who actually ate all our food were massively disappointed with both the quality and the tiny portions.  Tasty-Bits made good on his threats and ended up eating Whataburger chicken strips off the hood of his car before trekking home.

As we continued taking stock of our night, we realized that the restaurant never had filled up, despite my earlier expectations.  We were one of only five or six other tables throughout the night, making the kitchen’s thoughtlessness towards the food even more surprising.  When mentioned the lack of other guests to I’m Never Full, she expressed the same surprise at the low turnout.  When she’d called to make our reservations, in fact, she had been told that the restaurant was booked up for Monday night.  Not at all true, it would seem.

Settling Up
Oh, right… We still have to pay.

Settling up was another mini-disaster, as none of us had remembered to bring cash.  I suppose it’s only karmic, then, that we caused a minute amount of grief for the restaurant as they had to split the bill between eight credit cards and some hastily pooled wads of cash.  The shock of the night came when we got our wine bill, an amount which I shall never disclose to anyone, suffice it to say that I’ll be drinking iced tea at my dinner at VOICE tonight.

I have much higher hopes for VOICE, hopes that have been bolstered by fellow Chowhounds’ enthusiastic and upbeat reports from their own dinners there.  *17 was such a let down that I’ll be heartbroken if VOICE is, too.

And while other people — professionals, who are much more attuned to the fine dining scene and much more experienced than I am — have given *17 high marks in the past, I’m afraid I won’t be a repeat customer in the future.  I hate to say that when they’ve graciously participated in such a wonderful event as Houston Restaurant Week and when the service truly was very friendly and hospitable, but — as I’ve said so many times in the past — I go to a restaurant first and foremost for the food, and *17 simply didn’t deliver.

Don’t want to take my word for it?  Read a few other reviews from the night here: