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

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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:

Avalon Diner: Sticking Around for Another 70 Years…Hopefully

I’ll cut to the chase.  Despite what you may have heard, Avalon Diner is not closing.  Avalon Drug Store, next door, IS closing.  Our beloved diner is NOT.

You can read more here, at Houstonist.

Now who wants to get a butterscotch malt this weekend to celebrate?

The Weekend In Food

Friday

6:00 pm:  Heading over to the Volcano for preliminary crawfish strategizing.

7:00 pm:  They have Divine No. 6 on draft!  MJ rocks for cluing me into this.

7:10 pm:  And it is truly divine.  Sweet but with dark underpinnings, hoppy but slightly fruity, tangy but grounded.  So many descriptions, so little time.

8:00 pm:  Time to head home and get some rest for tomorrow’s activities.

Saturday

6:00 am:  Richard wakes me up, already dressed in his running clothes for this morning’s race.  He’s like a very excited puppy.

6:02 am:  As soon as he leaves the room, I fall back to sleep.

6:30 am:  Richard wakes me up again.  Excitement has turned into annoyance, as we are now running late.

6:35 am:  Leave the house with no makeup on, without brushing my hair and wearing the shirt I slept in with some ratty old jeans.  No coffee either.  I am looking HOT.

6:50 am:  We’re at the trailhead for the race…  Where is everyone?

6:55 am:  Ah, yes.  The race actually starts at 8:00 am, not 7:00 am.  Now I’m annoyed, too.

7:00 am – 7:45 am:  Sit in parking lot, mock early-morning cyclists with their clackety shoes and uber-tight shorts.  NO ONE wants to see your junk through Spandex, especially this early in the morning!  Get some decent clothes!

8:00 am:  Race starts.  I wave goodbye to Richard and read the NY Times on his Blackberry while he’s gone.

8:27 am:  Richard returns, super sweaty and upset about coming in 12th place.  I think 12th place is fantastic, if only because I couldn’t even finish a race, much less come in 12th.  Once again: wildly divergent opinions abound.

8:30 am:  Richard horks down two bananas and a bag of plantain chips, douses himself with cold water and declares that he’s ready to leave.

9:00 am:  Home again.  Just enough time for a shower and a little breakfast before heading out again.

9:30 am:  Why is it so damn hot in this house?

9:35 am:  Richard has turned off the air conditioning AGAIN.  I stomp off to grumble at him.

9:36 am:  Richard defends himself by saying that he’s freezing.  I counter by informing him that it’s because he’s sitting naked, directly underneath the air vent, while reading the sports section.  He defends his right to sit naked; we compromise by relocating him to a position that’s NOT directly in the path of the air conditioning.  I ask if he’s considering taking a shower today, or just letting the sweat dry into one of our upholstered chairs.  No answer.

10:30 am:  Fed, showered and dressed.  Checking email.

11:00 am:  Leave house to pick up BBQ from super-secret location for Chowhound’s BBQ Smackdown at 12:30.  Richard is still naked, reading the sports section, as I leave.

11:30 am:  Get to super-secret location, where order for brisket and ribs has already been placed and confirmed.  They are CLOSED.

11:31 am:  Super-secret location no longer a secret.  VIRGIE’S BBQ ON GESSNER, YOU SUCK.  Thanks for closing with no notice and not calling to let anyone know you wouldn’t be able to provide the order which had been placed well in advance, and which had been confirmed just 12 hours prior.  Ass clowns.

11:35 am:  Call Jenny, panicking.

11:40 am:  Jenny calls in a rush order to alternate BBQ restaurant.  I drive from Gessner and Tanner (NWish Houston) to Kirby and 59 in fifteen minutes flat, without using I-10 at all.  I have never been so proud of myself.

12:00 pm:  At Goode Co. BBQ, picking up order of ribs, brisket and jambalaya.  They have packed everything as requested in unmarked containers with no Goode Co. packaging, and the order is perfect.  They are so awesome.  Begin mad rush over to Washington Avenue for BBQ Smackdown.

12:30 pm:  At Pearl Bar on Washington, nowhere to park.  Eventually park by homeless guy who gets excited when he sees me carrying two giant boxes of food.  When he realizes they aren’t for him, he spits at me (AT me, not ON me — so no big deal, really).

12:30 pm – 3:00 pm:  BBQ Smackdown underway.  Excellent turnout of Chowhounds — about 30 people here to judge the contest.  Hanging out with I’ve Got The Munchies, Eating Our Words, I’m Never Full and Food In Houston as we chow down.  Pearl Bar is very cool, with great jukebox and assortment of board games and hula hoops.  Like a bar for six-year-olds.  Nothing in the Smackdown is blowing us away yet, but the sides that people brought (like the coleslaw that was specially made for us by Houston’s, and the summery couscous) are very good.  An awesome afternoon, all in all.

3:15 pm:  Winners are announced.  Of the six participants in the blind taste test (in two different categories, ribs and brisket), Pierson’s won the brisket by a long shot and Luling City Market won the ribs by a slim margin over Pierson’s.  We are all surprised at how low we ranked Goode Co. BBQ (fifth and sixth).  Other contestants included Kozy Kitchen, Burns BBQ and The Swinging Door.

3:30 pm:  Cleaning up BBQ mess.  What to do with all this extra sauce?

3:45 pm:  Heading right back to Kirby and 59 to the Volcano for the Houstonist Crawfish Boil.

4:00 pm:  Crawfish boil prep is in full swing with other Houstonist staffers.  Much chopping of veggies, sorting of spices, separating wristbands and purging of live crawfish is underway.

5:00 pm:  Monica and I have the easy job, sitting in the A/C and putting $5.00 all-you-can-eat wristbands on people.  Feeling bad about other Houstonist staffers in the heat, boiling crawfish and handing out beer flats to hungry, demanding people (especially Groovehouse, who has the nasty, back-breaking job of purging the crawfish).  Richard is here, though, “supervising” my wristband activities to make sure I don’t put them on too tight, too loose, catch arm hair in the sticky part, etc.

6:00 pm:  This place is a MADHOUSE.  I’m glad we have 500 pounds of crawdads, cause there are a LOT of people here.  Caroline Collective peeps come and go, as do a few Dynamo staffers.

7:00 pm:  Passed out the last of the wristbands.  We are officially not selling any more wristbands, so as to conserve precious few crawfish resources we have left.  Start collecting trash and used beer flats, taking to dumpster, rinse and repeat.  Yay!  Jenny is here!

8:00 pm:  Taking a break to eat a batch of mudbugs with Richard.  They are SO GOOD.  Bargas is the boiling badass.

8:30 pm:  Richard goes home, as I prepare to get back to work.

9:00 pm:  Help with the last few batches.  Spill boiling water on my foot while removing crawfish from pot.  Ouch.

9:30 pm:  Last batches of crawsfish are served.  People seem to be satiated.

10:00 pm:  Houstonist staffers sit down and eat last few flats of super-spicy crawfish, drink frozen screwdrivers and veg out.

10:30 pm:  Residual cleaning of boiling area and help to load the propane and propane accessories into Bargas’ car.  Glad it’s a rental, cause this crap is dir-tee.

11:00 pm:  Foot still on fire, but holding a frozen screwdriver against it seems to help.

11:30 pm:  Talking into the night.  Very tired, but very happy with crawfish boil and turnout.  Houston and Houstonist both rock.

Sunday

Day spent in bed, miserable from back cramps, aside from a few waking periods to do grocery shopping and watch a double-feature starring the brutally-hot Ryan Gosling.  Lars and the Real Girl and Stay — both highly recommended.

How was your weekend?

Crawfish: The Food of the Gods

 

That’s right, mudbuggers!  It’s time for the best crawfish boil this side of New Iberia.

Houstonist (my other home) will be hosting a $5.00 All-You-Can-Eat crawfish boil, complete with corn, potatoes and elusive Houstonist staffers, this Saturday evening beginning at 5:00 p.m.  We’ll be boiling 500 pounds of crawfish (500 pounds! ye gods!) at Under the Volcano in Rice VIllage.  Our boilmaster, a Louisiana native, is quick to point out that we will be boiling the crawsfish the “correct” way, which is to add the super-spicy seasonings directly into the water.

Speaking of super-spicy, The Volcano serves some of the best cocktails and frozen concoctions in town to help put out that fire after you’ve put a pound or two of crawdads away.  Plus, there wil be lots of friendly people and cool Houstonist schwag to make the evening well worth your while — especially for only $5.00!

For more information, head on over to Houstonist’s website and RSVP if you plan on coming.  Hope to see you there!

tenacity

My mother and I headed over to Randy’s house last night to finally experience “tenacity” for ourselves.

I think the evening can be perfectly described with Misha’s statement at the end of the night:

*taking last bite and then a long, contemplative silence*

“I have to go back to eating regular food tomorrow, dammit.”

The evening was perfect, from the come-as-you-are attitude to the endless bottles of wine to the invitation to help yourself to anything in the fridge to the absolutely phenomenal food.  If there’s one thing better than eating great food, it’s eating it with other people who appreciate it as much as you do but in a totally non-judgmental way.  Conversations were varied and amusing, people ate with their hands and no one had a single air of self-consciousness about them.  It was the ideal supper.

We were lucky to have so many fresh, organic ingredients on hand last night.  All of the herbs used came out of Randy’s own garden, and the wild hog that we feasted on for the fifth course was killed by Randy’s brother last week.  The fish were freshly caught, the fruit was from local markets and the vegetables were of the highest quality.

Now, first I have to apologize for the photos.  You all know the sob story by now.  But I’m sure that — at some point — Food In Houston and Tasty Bits will have much, much better photos up, and you can see what the food actually looked like.  Until then…

Tilefish in Ginger and Lemongrass

Canapes: tilefish marinated in ginger and soy sauce with lemongrass and basil.

 

Butter and Thyme

Bread and butter sprinkled with salt and flowering thyme.

 

Randy and Butter

Randy prepping the butter to go out on the table.

 

In Kimchee Consomme

First course:  tilefish tiradito cured in yamabuki miso and lemon verbena in a kimchee consomme with Thai chilis.  Fiery, salty, rich — tasted of the sea, in a very good way.  We ate the fish first and then greedily drank the remaining kimchee consomme from the bowl.

 

Jenny and David 

Some of last night’s guests: Jenny and David, to the right.  Jared Estes and Justin Bayse, both formerly of the ill-fated VIN, in the rear.

 

Gulf Crab and Foamed Dashi

Second course:  gulf crab, foamed dashi and garlic flowers.

 

With Smoked Vichyssoise

With the addition of smoked vichyssoise, of which Randy left an entire pitcher on the table.  A fight nearly broke out to get seconds from the pitcher…  Okay, not really.  The vichyssoise (potatoes and leeks) was so delicate and flavorful, completely unlike traditional vichyssoises which are bland and uninspired.  The smoking process completely transformed this dish.  The gulf crab and the heady dashi all blended perfectly.  This was perhaps my second favorite dish of the night.

 

Smelling the Dashi

Witness me inhaling the scent of the dashi and smoked vichyssoise.  I smelled it for a full two minutes before I finally ate it.

 

Roasted Peaches

Third course:  Roasted Gundermann’s Farm peach, red Komatsuma lettuce and a eucalyptus-lime meringue.  The liquid on the plate is a fenugreek-peach puree, with tiny fenugreek seeds scattered throughout among the cinnamon basil leaves.  Robert brought a fantastic bottle of sweet and spicy Selbach-Oster riesling that went perfectly with this sweet and spicy dish.

 

Randy Prepping

Randy prepping the next course while Megan supervises.

 

Toasted Gnocchi

Fourth course:  My favorite dish of the night.  Toasted bacalao gnocchi, trumpet royal mushrooms, pea shoots and parmesan cheese.  Technically, trout was used in place of cod in the bacalao gnocchi.  It had been salted for five days and infused the gnocchi with an altogether different flavor.  The dish was earthy, salty, savory, and deeply powerful.  The pea shoots were an ideal accompaniment to such strong flavors, with just an essence of baby pea and a light, fresh taste.

 

Randy and Sous Justin

Justin helping Randy; once a sous, always a sous?

 

Compressed Pork

Compressed pork, from the wild hog that Ronny (Randy’s brother) killed last week.  The pork was braised in Coca-Cola and Indonesian spices over several days, then put into a terrine with some added pork fat since the hog was so lean.  Although I don’t have a picture, it was our Fifth Course, toasted and served with preserved Japanese cucumber in the Aquavit style.

 

Lemon Balm Gaspacho

Sixth Course:  Frozen lemon balm gazpacho with opal basil.  The gazpacho was an infusion of sixteen different ingredients, ranging from grapes and cucumber skin to basil and vinegar.  It tasted almost buttery, and highly fragrant yet refreshing.

At this point in the night, we had a final aperitif: a moonshine-style beverage that Randy had made almost three months ago and forgotten about in a jar in a cupboard.  He called it a parfum.  Like the gazpacho, it was composed of many different ingredients, such as Meyer lemon flowers, lavender, cardamom, peppercorns, star anise and vodka.  Unlike the gazpacho, one sip could have powered a small city.  It was fiercely strong, highly herbal-smelling, cloudy and completely different from anything I’ve ever tasted.  That could have been the mantra of the night, in fact: Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

 

Confluence of Chefs

Randy prepping, Justin making an escape, and Jonathan Jones of Americas in The Woodlands.

 

Strawberries

Seventh course:  Strawberries in yogurt with chocolate mint and espresso grounds.  A perfectly sweet and simple way to end the night, after a tornado of other courses, all of which completely expanded your views on how ingredients interact with each other and how seemingly-opposite flavors can truly work wonders together.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; we are lucky as a city to have the likes of Randy Rucker and his merry band of renegade chefs.  They are changing the way that Houston views food, one artfully-crafted plate and one astonished person at at time.