Dimassi’s vs. Dimassi’s

Dimassi’s, Houston, Texas (Katy Freeway location)
December 26, 2007

Dimassi’s, Houston, Texas (Richmond/610 location)
December 29, 2007

If it were up to me, I’d probably eat Mediterranean food every single day of the week. So when two separate groups of friends wanted to try Dimassi’s this past week, I eagerly accompanied them.

The original Dimassi’s location at Richmond and 610 has been a favorite haunt of mine since high school. The decor has changed a few times over the years, from the original “Assisted Living Facility Bland” to the current design scheme, which looks like my Egyptian friend Amin’s mother’s sitting room, if the sitting room were the size of a high school cafeteria. Not exactly beautiful, more quirky and fun and a testament to the heritage of the owners and patrons. But even with the changing decor, the food has remained consistently wonderful despite the fact that it’s all served buffet-style. I attribute this to the vast volume of people flowing in and out of this location daily; the food has to be fresh, since it’s going so quickly.

The newer Dimassi’s location took over the old west Houston outpost of King Fish Market after Chris King decided to pursue other ventures (which, by the way, what the hell? where are you, Chris King? I miss your crazy local commercials…). King Fish Market was a big loss to our restaurant scene: always busy and always good, it was a favored happy hour location for the entire neighborhood and an easy and pleasing answer to the age-old “…I don’t know…what are you in the mood for tonight?”

King Fish Market was cheerful and welcoming inside, so when I heard that Dimassi’s would be filling out the abandoned restaurant, I was elated. Now I wouldn’t have to brave Galleria-area traffic when I craved good baba ganoush and falafel! But when I first entered the reinvented space, I was disappointed to see that the Dimassi’s redecorating team had torn out the beautiful stained glass bar (I know that there’s technically no need for a bar in a Middle Eastern restaurant, but I’m sure it could have been repurposed as something…) and replaced the entire area with hideous, commercial kitchen-grade flooring and three extremely unaesthetic buffet tables. The walls had all been repainted with dark clashing colors and random lamps and wall art had been hung haphazardly throughout the now-derelict looking facility. It looked absolutely, unredeemably hideous.  Continue reading Dimassi’s vs. Dimassi’s

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J. Alexander’s

J. Alexander’s, Houston, TX
December 19, 2007

As with so many of my restaurant excursions, I did not intend to end up at J. Alexander’s for lunch yesterday.  It happened only because the other occupants of the car had suddenly decided that Thai food was too “different” and the accessibility and familar food of a chain restaurant beckoned to them from Westheimer (seriously, sometimes I really struggle with my very nice but very sheltered and timid coworkers).  And so it was that we wound up directly across the street from the restaurant I never wanted to leave the day before (Bistro Le Cep) and, sadly, in an entirely different culinary universe from the one that Bistro Le Cep inhabits.

If it’s not already been well-established, then let me get this out of the way right now:  I strongly dislike chain restaurants.  Thank God I live in a city like Houston where they can be deftly avoided in favor of locally-owned and operated establishments.  I’d be utterly screwed if I lived in Dallas.

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There are a few chain restaurants that I will go to, knowing full well that they serve microwaved Sysco products cooked by a person a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from an orangutan.  On those occasions, I’m doing what is fondly referred to as “giving up” because I’m exhausted or preoccupied with other matters and I’ll eat whatever is put in front of me.  However, I don’t often make a conscious choice to eat at chain restaurants.  Yesterday’s meal was a perfect example of why I maintain this practice. Continue reading J. Alexander’s

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.

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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.

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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.

Three New Faces In The Crowd

I’m a little late to the party on this, but I felt it worth mentioning anyway…

Rhea Wheeler (the Houston entrepreneur-cum-restauranteur responsible for the award-winning Ibiza) is opening a “mixed-use” restaurant in Midtown that will include — among other things — private wine lockers, an upscale restaurant, a club and a sushi bar.  While that should be interesting in and of itself, what really intrigues me is the location.

No, it’s not new construction!  I know — unheard of!  It’s…wait for it…in the old Boy Scout headquarters on Bagby.  No news yet on what the restaurant will be called, but I’m giddy with anticipation.

The real estate and development hawks over at Swamplot have additional details here: Secret Midtown Boy Scout Sushi Location Revealed.  The headline itself just makes me giggle.

In addition to the mixed-use restaurant (which I’m not-so-secretly and desperately hoping will be Scout-themed — can you imagine the possibilities of the staff uniforms alone??), Wheeler is also opening a downtown gastropub called Hearsay and another Midtown restaurant, to be called the White House.  All three are being established in “historically significant properties,” which gives me a small hope that perhaps we won’t tear down every single structure built prior to 1980 during this building frenzy that has currently enveloped the city.

Hearsay will serve — as expected — gastropub fare, which is classic English pub fare done in a much more upscale manner and with the addition of unexpected, high-end menu items.  Gastropubs began making headway in the United States in 2004 after being imported from the U.K. with great caché, the food trend equivalent of The Beatles.  Houston, being a bit behind the times in most things, has been somewhat slower to cotton on.  As previously noted, The Red Lion has made a feeble attempt at this trend.  Let’s hope that Hearsay does a better job, because I’d love to have a quality gastropub in town.

The White House is still a bit shrouded in mystery, too.  All we know at this point is that it will be located in an eponymous white mansion on Austin at Elgin and will serve “Texas cuisine,” a descriptive phrase that annoys me almost as much as the hollow “California cuisine.”  We’ll see what comes of it.  As for now, I’m hoping for something a bit like The Inn at Hunt Phelan in Memphis which, despite its rather dull and pedestrian website, is actually beautiful inside and out.  The Inn at Hunt Phelan, a restored Civil War-era mansion, specializes in Creole/southern cuisine and their food is subtly magnificent.  You might see where I’m drawing a few parallels here.

Rhea Wheeler appears to me to be almost the antithesis of Tilman Fertitta (whose vile, greedy building projects and painfully, nauseatingly gaudy yet utterly-devoid-of quality restaurants are permeating the city).  Wheeler’s zeal for good food and his seemingly true appreciation for the city make me eager to support his restaurant endeavors, entirely absent of any acclaim that Ibiza has received.  That is to say: even if Ibiza weren’t the huge success that it is, I love the direction that Wheeler is taking and I’ll happily follow him along the journey.

Whose mami? Umami. UPDATED

It would seem that I’m not the only one tearing into this poor Chronicle staff writer over his recent article on the “dangers” of salt.  Apparently, Mr. Ackerman borrowed heavily from other sources to write his piece, including a 1997 article from the FDA’s magazine, FDA Consumer.  And here I thought his limited knowledge of the five basic tastes was deplorable.  But there are always new depths to plumb when it comes to the Chronicle

You can read more about the developing story from my fellow Houston bloggers here:

Chron reporter borrows without attribution (blogHOUSTON)

Press catches Chron writer in plagiarism (Lone Star Times)

Salty sourcing from the Chron (HouStoned– The Houston Press)

Whose mami? Umami.

The Houston Chronicle printed an interesting article this morning on “deadly salt” (yes, the actual headline contained the ridiculously salacious phrase “deadly salt”).  The author, Todd Ackerman, provided the following insight on why giving up salt proves to be difficult for most people:

It is almost impossible to prepare a meal without salt — it preserves food by inhibiting bacterial growth, offers technical advantages in the kitchen such as raising the boiling point of water, and, as one of the four taste categories, adds flavor or heightens existing flavor.

Unforunately, Mr. Ackerman forgot that there are actually five basic tastes or tastebud receptors: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami.

Umami, which was first identified by the scientific community in 1908, describes the taste of meaty or savory foods.  Although the Western world has only embraced umami as a fifth taste since 2002, it’s still common knowledge that there are now five basic tastes.

That’s okay, though, Chronicle.  You’re only about 100 years behind the times; I’m sure there are lots of events that you need to catch up on.  For example, were you aware that in 1966 a man walked on the moon?  I know!  It’s crazy!

So while you’re off playing catch-up (and from the look of things, this could take a while) might I suggest hiring a fact-checker?

On Shopping

Another thing to love about living in Houston (aside from the abundance of great restaurants): the highly-affordable cost of living.

I just bought all of the groceries needed for the next three nights’ dinners, and I paid $36.12.  I figure that works out to about $12.04 per meal, or $6.02 per person, for the following dinners:

  • Porkchops with caramelized onion sauce, with a side of creamed spinach
  • Homemade, peasant-style (that is, extra veggies, yay!) spaghetti bolognese
  • Hearty tomato and white bean soup, with a side of cheddar cheese & chives beer bread

Gotta love high-quality, low-cost groceries!