A Weekend at the Lake

Chef Albert Roux, photos by Jeff Balke.
Chef Albert Roux in the kitchen; photos by Jeff Balke.

After attending a very, very, very soft opening in October 2008, I was invited to the grand opening of Chez Roux — the principal restaurant at the newly redeveloped La Torretta del Lago resort on Lake Conroe — this past weekend.  You can read an in-depth review of the resort itself and its many restaurants over at the Houston Press, where Margaret Downing — our editor-in-chief — hashes out the details.

For my part, I wasn’t overly impressed with either the resort or Chez Roux.  I enjoyed meeting Chef Albert Roux once again; he is an impish, charming little man who doesn’t take himself too seriously, a refreshing quality in a chef of his [extremely high] caliber.  A lot of the dishes were very good — braised short ribs paired with a stunning Cotes du Rhone, octpus cooked in its own ink (a personal favorite of mine), a terrine of foie gras and a mish-mash of other ingredients that was too fatty but had a lot of potential — but so many more of them were downright pedestrian.  Teriyaki quail was a low point, as was a smoked salmon wrapped around salmon mousse — far too much salmon in one bite.  Other dishes were decidedly old school, such as puff pastries in a morel cream sauce.  Delicious?  Yes.  A bit banquety and stuffy?  Yes.

kitchen
Serving straight from the kitchen. Busy, hot, crowded, but wonderful fun.

The resort?  In a nutshell, I was one of the very few people there without an entire matching set of Louis Vuitton luggage and I don’t have a deep yet vapid interest in The Hills, so I was bit out of my element.  La Torretta del Lago caters to a very specific demographic:  Bill and Muffy Wasp, who are going up for the weekend to golf and “spa,” respectively.  They will also inevitably dine in one of La Torretta’s several on-site restaurants — perhaps even Chez Roux — and not understand or care about what they’re eating, but they’ll be sure to pay lots of money for it because they’re being seen in “the right place.”  So, really, it’s a win-win for everyone!

As you may imagine, I clawed my way out of the resort as quickly as possible on Sunday morning.  Choosing not to stick around for breakfast, I instead ended up at a charming little place next to Conroe High School called Egg Cetera.  The owners previously operated restaurants in Maui and San Francisco, so I’m a bit confused as to how they ended up in Montgomery County, but glad.

The restaurant serves an entirely fresh, all-organic menu.  Everything is made from scratch at Egg Cetera: sauces, dips, salsas, etc.  The seafood is freshly caught.  The eggs are hand-gathered yard eggs.  The one single item that’s not organic is the milk, but the high quality of the ingredients shows in the amazing food.  What’s even more impressive is the unpretentious nature of the place and the extraordinarily low prices.  Talking to the owner afterwards, I suggested she needs to open one of these in Houston, like, yesterday.  I’m planning a more extensive write-up — with pictures — of Egg Cetera (and a few other spots we hit while up in Conroe) in the Houston Press next week, so keep your little eyes peeled.

In the meantime, enjoy these pictures that my good friend Jeff Balke took at Chez Roux.  If anything, at least their presentation was stunning.

Previously mentioned terrine.
Previously mentioned terrine.
Salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon.
Salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon.
Busily plating food in the kitchen.
Busily plating food in the kitchen.
The wine vault at Chez Roux.
The wine vault at Chez Roux.
Braised short ribs with mashed potatoes.
Braised short ribs with mashed potatoes.
Sinfully good.
Sinfully good.

Bière française: existe-t-il?

…et s’il fait, est-il bon?

That’s the question that one of my favorite bloggers, Croque Camille, has bravely attempted to answer in a recent post about French beers.  An American ex-pat pastry chef living in France, Camille is living the dream while eating and drinking her way through the bounty of incredible foods and wines that France has to offer.

But I posed the question to her one day: are there any good French beers?  It’s a reasonable question, as one always hears about French wine, but never French beer.  Their neighbors all make fantastic beer — Belgium, Germany, even Italy — so why not France?

Camille and her husband purchased a few French microbrews and began their journey towards discovery.  Their first beer, Etoile du Nord — a hoppy blonde that sounds terribly promising at first glance — is reviewed here:  Worthwhile French Beers.

Does it live up to the standards set by French wine and cuisine?  Find out for yourself…

Le Mistral

Jenny (I’m Never Full), Fulmer, my mother and I went to Le Mistral on Sunday evening, hoping to round off HRW at our favorite French restaurant.  Apparently, that wasn’t in the cards, since they’d already run out of the one menu item that we all came to try: the double pork chop with apricot chutney.  Le sigh.  The replacement menu item was the terrifically boring chicken.  Le double sigh.

We all decided just to make a meal of it and forget about HRW (sorry, End Hunger Network…).  I’m glad that we did, because the food we ended up ordering off the regular menu was wonderful.  The service (as Fulmer and Jenny have already pointed out) was severely lacking that night, but the food more than compensated for our appallingly clueless waiter.

In lieu of a full review here on she eats., I’ve posted the review and photos on Houstonist.  I figured that since it wasn’t a HRW dinner after all, I was free to review it on its own merits, which I did:

Houstonist Bites: Le Mistral

Towards the middle of our dinner, Cleverley Stone (Ms. HRW herself) came and joined us at our table.  She’d been there with another party earlier that evening, but I’m glad she chose to round out her evening with us.  Aside from being an all-around fun dinner guest, we gleaned all kinds of juicy restaurant news tidbits that we aren’t yet allowed to share.  But rest assured that as soon as Cleverley makes them officially public, I’ll let you know!

Go check out the review at Houstonist and I’ll see y’all back here tomorrow…

Houston Restaurant Week: RSVP Now!

In case you somehow missed the news, Houston Restaurant Week is upon us.  August 11th through the 17th is right around the corner, and with only seven days and 52 restaurants to choose from, you’d best git bizzy if you want to get a table.

Refresher course: prix-fixe menus at each restaurant are $35 each.  Some restaurants have a set menu, others allow you to choose your courses from a short list.  Some offer wine free of charge, others don’t.  The $35 doesn’t include other beverages, taxes or gratuity (and you’d better tip!).  $5 from each meal goes directly to the End Hunger Network, which provides nutritious meals to needy people throughout Houston.

The participating restaurants and their menus can be found here:

http://www.houstonrestaurantweek.com/Menus-2008.htm

My write-up (with many more details) can be found here at Houstonist:

http://houstonist.com/2008/07/28/houston_restaurant_week_help_end_hu.php

Chowhounds are busily organizing RSVPs for certain restaurants, which can be found here:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/houstonCH/message/1119

You’ll see that we’ve got VOICE, *17, Arcodoro, Gravitas and a few others covered.  Other reservations will come soon, so anyone who wants to accompany us for an evening will have their choice of venues.  Please feel free to chime in here or on the Chowhounds board if you want to come along!

I’m in charge of events at the lovely Le Mistral, where we’ll be eating dinner at 7pm on Tuesday, August 12th.  I have six spots reserved, so whomever wants to come had better grab your place fast!

Thursday Answers, Part Deuxsie

Answers to Tuesday Trivia, Part Deuxsie are here!

Well, well, well.  Someone swooped in late this time and got Every.  Single.  Answer.  Correct.  Who, you ask?  The answer, after the answers:

  1. The egg came first, of course!  The egg as a form of sexual reproduction is at least one billion years old, much older than the first birds, which arrived on the scene about 100 million years ago (the chicken as we know it, for example, has only been around for four to five thousand years).  Reptiles, on the other hand, have been laying eggs for over 250 million years.  Ridiculous, age-old question solved!
  2. Champagne was invented by a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon.  Because champagne doesn’t sound all that fancy when you simply call it “Pierre” (let’s open a bottle of Pierre to celebrate!), the famous champagne-maker Moët et Chandon adopted the monk’s title and last name when they began selling this brand as Dom Pérignon in 1936.
  3. They traditionally belong to the lily family, Liliaceae.  A bone of contention over the years in scientific circls, most botanists have now moved the onion and the leek into the Alliaceae family, while moving the asparagus into the Asparagaceae family.  However you slice them, though, they’re all still in the Liliopsida (lily) class and still one big, happy, delicious family.
  4. Castor beans don’t belong in that equation.  While useful for a good number of other things, they are not a legume, as were the others.
  5. The sauces are hollandaise, béarnaise and mayonnaise.  The complex science behind emulsified sauces makes it hard to imagine that anyone ever managed to make a hollandaise in the first place, and involves such Scrabulous words as “flocculation” and “colloidal system.”  It will certainly make you appreciate Hellman’s in a whole new light.
  6. BONUS:  Speaking of Hellman’s, mayonnaise is the only emulsified sauce that must be made at room temperature.  Hollandaise and béarnaise must be cooked, since they are both made with butter (which is, of course, solid at room temp.  Mayonnaise, on the other hand, is made with oil and egg yolks.

Deciding the winner this time was extremely difficult, and let’s discuss why.

The Grumpy Chef came in fast and strong, beating everyone else to the punch with his answers.  However, his answers to numbers 5 and 6 used “aioli” in place of “mayonnaise.”  Now, knowing that The Grumpy Chef is European (although he, like my husband, would probably argue that he is “English” and not “European”), I understand his tendency to use “aioli” instead of “mayonnaise.”  It’s very common across the pond to use those two words interchangably.

However…  Aioli and mayonnaise aren’t quite the same thing.  Traditional aioli is made without egg yolks, and uses garlic as the emulsifying agent instead.  I know, I know — I’m nitpicking, especially for a contest where the prize is NOTHING.

That said, I have awarded the prize for this week’s contest to Pooh! and her late, but correct, answers.  And a very honorable mention goes to my adored Grumpy Chef (seriously, if chefs could have groupies, I’d be one of his).

Pooh! runs a blog with all manner of humorous observations about life, Houston and life in Houston.  Go pay her a visit!

The Grumpy Chef runs a blog called “Who Dares Cook” about being a chef in the UK.  It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the kitchen and what the chef really thinks of you:  “I am a Chef. A good Chef living on the edge of insanity within an Industry full of morons and aristocrats! Everyday, customers rain down on my establishment to cause chaos, mayhem and anarchy with their ill-conceived ideals of what is right in an environment like mine. Believe me, the customer ain’t always right. I also have blue eyes and a temper Satan would be proud of.”  He does not mince words.  And he is hilarious.  Go pay him a visit!

Stay tuned for the next round of Tuesday Trivia next week.  Til then, happy eating!

Au Revoir, Chef Schmit? J’espère Pas…

Cleverley’s blog greets us with sad news this morning:  Philippe Schmit is no longer with Legacy Restaurants.

Most of you will remember the equally sad revelation this past November that bistro moderne was closing, as the Hotel Derek’s new management clearly had no idea of the quality and talent that they had under their own roof with Schmit and and no ability to appreciate that fact that bistro moderne had succeeded — triumphantly succeeded, at that — where so many other restaurants had failed in the past.

Houston foodies waited with baited breath to see where Schmit would land and when he took the rather unusual step of partnering up with Legacy Resturants (the company which operates Tex-Mex haven Ninfa’s and sandwhich chain Antone’s, among others), we cocked our heads but still sighed with relief: “He’s staying here!”

Cleverley made a rather prescient observation in her blog about the move back in January:

In culinary terms, this is a rather unconventional relationship move for Schmit. I am reminded of another top-level, high profile, fine dining, celebrity Houston chef who formed a relationship with a mostly non-fine dining group with promises of his own signature restaurant in the future. When he found himself cooking Tex-Mex in a trailer, he hit the road – quickly. This happened a few years ago and it all turned out OK for this chef. He is doing superbly now. Now I’m not drawing any comparisons, I was just reminded of this story.

I think she could start a psychic business on the side if this whole restaurant guru thing didn’t work out for some reason.

So here we are, back to November again, waiting and hoping that Schmit will remain here, in the city that loves him, despite the way it’s treated him in the past year.  Stay with us, Philippe!  We promise we won’t hit you no more, baby!  We’ll change!  And, hopefully, give you that signature restaurant you’ve long deserved.

Image courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.

Cestrian Pleasures

It’s been a while since I wrote about our recent trip back home to England (Richard’s home, not mine).  I’ve been busily parsing through the ridiculous amount of photos I took and trying to cull the best ones out of the lot.  They aren’t all food-related, but neither was our vacation.  Today’s trip back through Chester is simply an assortment of my favorite photos that I wanted to share with you.

Chester Street 
Tudor-era timbered buildings and the Eastgate Clock.

While I don’t consider myself that worldly of a traveler — I’ve only been to a few countries in Europe, briefly took jaunts into Canada a couple of times, and have visited Mexico about as often as you’d expect any other Texan to — I still found myself utterly dumbfounded when it came to Chester.  It was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for, and unlike anything I had thought it would be.  If you’re planning a trip to England any time in the future, I can’t emphasize this enough: go to Chester.  You won’t be disappointed.

St John's Church
St John’s Church, outside the city walls.

Chester was originally founded in A.D. 79 as the Roman city of Deva Victrix.  Deva was originally built as a fortress, but a civilian settlement eventually grew up outside the enormous walls that the Romans built around the city.  As such, Chester has an assortment of ruins and artifacts that most other English cities do not.  There is, for example, an excellent amphitheatre that is still being excavated, as well as a very well-preserved section of Roman baths.  The thick, fortress walls that the Romans built beginning in A.D. 120 stand to this day; Chester has the most complete city walls of any other city in Britain.  Although the walls have been repaired and entire sections were rebuilt during medieval and Victorian times, they are nonetheless shockingly imperious and impressive.

Richard and Wall
Richard about to climb up to the walls and begin our walk around the city. 

One fantastic way to observe Chester is from the walls themselves. You will get an unparalleled bird’s-eye view of the city as you orbit from your stony path.  Any time you feel like going down and visiting a part of the city that appeals to you along the two-mile walk, simply exit through one of the many sets of stairs down into the mad bustle below.  A visit to Chester can be split into simple parts this way; most things can be reached while walking along the walls:  The Rows (the main shopping area), the Chester Cathedral, the River Dee and the Roman ruins.

Chester Rows
The Rows.

The Rows are perhaps the most important visual representation of Chester.  They are very unique in both their design and their antiquity.  The best way to describe it would be:

They consist of buildings with shops or dwellings on the lowest two storeys. The shops or dwellings on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Those on the first floor are entered behind a continuous walkway, often with a sloping shelf between the walkway and the railings overlooking the street.  — courtesy of Wikipedia

In the picture above, you can see the white picket railings of the “continuous walkways” and the tops of the signs for the shops below them.  The walkways ingeniously allow you to shop and walk throughout the city while keeping dry, since rain is an ever-present (although not unpleasant) part of life in Northern England.  The Rows themselves date from the 17th century, although most were built far more recently, in Victorian times.

The Crypt
The Crypt, a pub in The Rows dating back to A.D. 1180. Yes, it really was a crypt at one time.

This part of town also houses the most exquisite restaurants and pubs.  Richard and I had a terrible time choosing where to eat lunch and finally settled on, of all things, a French bistro that was absolutely heaving with people.  By this point in our trip, we’d had plenty of meat pies and heavy ales and desired something a bit lighter.  French bistro food sounded ideal.

Easter Time
We shall never forget what time of year we visited England…

We found a table for ourselves on the first storey (second floor, to us Amurricans) of cafe f.b., Boulangerie et Cafe Françaís on Northgate Street.  Their menu was simple and straighforward: an assortment of freshly-made sandwiches served with the soup du jour, potato-leek.  I went with the bacon and Brie sandwich, along with a cup of tea to warm my bones back to normal body temperature.  The sandwich was every bit as delicious as you’d expect something with those ingredients to be: toasty French bread, with thick, dusky strips of English bacon (so different from our own) and hot, bubbly hunks of Brie on top, melting down to the plate.  The potato-leek soup was heavy yet fresh, thanks to the strong taste of the leeks.  It was the perfect meal to fuel us on a cold, rainy English afternoon with much more walking ahead.

Fruit Stand
Fruit stands throughout the city, at every turn.

Second part of our Chester trip to follow tomorrow… 

Bistro Le Cep

Bistro Le Cep, Houston, TX
December 18, 2007
 

I’m on a slow, occasionally frustrating path to introducing my somewhat reluctant coworkers to something other than what is nuked and passed off as food at the Alonti cafe downstairs or at the utterly horrifying Olive Garden across the street.  To that end, I suggested Bistro Le Cep for lunch yesterday.  And — to my surprise — they agreed.

bistro-le-cep.jpg

Since it was a last-minute decision, we didn’t make reservations.  But the folks at Bistro Le Cep were more than accommodating, seating us immediately even though the restaurant was thoroughly packed.  This was a marked and welcome departure from our debacle at that other French bistro a few weeks ago.  A few of my dining companions were amused to see that one of the daily specials at Bistro Le Cep was wienerschnitzel, a typically Austrian dish (although they actually said “German” and I had to restrain myself from being that unsufferable twat who corrects people on things they didn’t really care that much about in the first place), and this is one of the things that I love about the Bistro.

Bistro Le Cep doesn’t limit itself to only Bourguignonne or Provençal cuisine; it takes the best dishes from each region in France and crafts them into delicious, little one-night-stands that you can have with an adventurous andouillette from Cambrai or a handsome cassoulet from Castelnaudary or even some stoic spaetzle from Alsace.

As we settled into our booth, admiring the homey warmth of the place, we were quickly and cheerfully attended to by a waiter who, when asked by my coworker which dish would make her happier — the salade Niçoise or the salmon — existentially informed her that while they are able to serve her a delicious meal, they could not manage her happiness and that it was hers alone to determine.  His off-the-cuff philosophy of self-fulflling happiness was the bright spot of my day.

bistro-le-cep-2.jpg

My companions ordered their dishes and I was pleased to note that most of them were trying authentically French dishes — an order for coq au vin on one side, an order for lapin aux haricots verts on another.  My foie de veau aux pommes avec confit d’ oignons arrived looking like something out of a 16th-centrury tapestry hanging in a castle; it was indecently large and sumptuous-looking.  I ate with abandon.

The foie de veau was delicately rich and the taste of the slightly musky liver flooded my mouth with a rush.  Paired with the apples and onion confit, it was sophisticated in its simplicty, yet somehow still decadent.  I was transfixed.  You’d think I’d never had liver before, with the way I was raving about the dish.  In retrospect, it might have even been a bit embarassing.  But such are the hazards of eating out with me.

Everyone else apparently enjoyed their dishes as much as I enjoyed mine.  Before we knew it, we had all cleaned our plates and were peering around at each other curiously, as if we’d just emerged from a group trance.  There was no sharing of bites or pecking at the plate next to you; we had all simply and greedily enveloped ourselves in our own little, rabbity or chickeny worlds before finally falling back into our chairs, exhausted and sated.  Afterwards, we all sipped the Bistro’s delicious coffee, which tasted slightly of chicory, and resumed any polite discussions which had fallen by the wayside during our food orgy.

Now that’s what I call a good lunch.

All photos courtesy of Bistro Le Cep’s website; I didn’t take these myself, sad to say.

Cuisine Cartography

I graduated from college with a degree in cartography.  Like many other post-grads, I’ve found very few real-world applications for my degree (at least, ones that pay enough to live off of…) and so I work in a completely different field now.  That said, I still have a deep appreciation for the art of cartography and the beauty of maps.  Take, for example, these fascinating maps of food (and be sure to click on each heading to visit the page where I found these lovely maps):

Totem Foods of North America

totem-foods.jpg

I’m kind of startled to see that Houston (and San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, the entire Valley, etc.) falls into the “Gator Nation” belt.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love alligator as much as the next person.  But I definitely wouldn’t categorize it as a Totem food here.  And I can’t imagine trying to serve someone alligator in the Valley.  Houston’s close enough to Louisiana and the swamps of East Texas for alligator to be fairly standard cuisine, but that’s not true in points west.

In reality, the whole portion of the Gator belt starting with the Texas-Louisiana border and heading west should be an amalgamation of the Corn Bread & BBQ Nation and the Chile Pepper Nation.  Mmm…  Now who wouldn’t want to live in that nation?

Continue reading Cuisine Cartography

Bistro Provence

Location:  Bistro Provence
Date:  November 14, 2007
 

Robb Walsh, who is quite possibly my favorite food journalist and who we Houstonians can proudly call one of our own, has a timely review of Bistro Provence up at the Houston Press.  I say “timely,” because I just ate there for the third time two weeks ago.  I had mixed emotions about my last visit, so I’m glad to see that a professional food critic has vindicated my feelings about the place, whether he knows it or not.

We took my Day Job boss to Bistro Provence for her ten-year anniversary with my company.  Since there were six of us, I called the restaurant the day before our lunch to make sure that they could accomodate six people during their busy lunch rush.  The person who answered the phone sounded harried and uninterested at the same time, even though I made sure to call around 3:30 pm (hoping to catch them in between the lunch and dinner rushes).  He snootily told me that they don’t accept reservations, something of which I’m very well aware, and I told him so.  He responded with, “Okay, then you know we don’t take reservations.  Just show up and you’ll be seated.”  And then abruptly hung up the phone.

The next day, the group of us showed up at 12:30.  The parking lot was full, as always, but we were heartened by the fact that several tables outside on the popular patio area were empty.  Inside the restaurant, several other tables were empty as well, but they were all two-tops: nothing large enough to accomodate our group.  Every table seemed to be inhabited by — quite fittingly — actual French people enjoying their traditional long lunches with bottles of wine.  The boss loved the quaintness and “authenticity” of the place, and she happily agreed to wait for a table.

…this was a bad idea. Continue reading Bistro Provence