Dinner for Eight

…not to be confused with Dinner at Eight, my favorite Rufus Wainwright song.  You should listen to it.  Right now.  Before you go any further.  Go on; I’ll wait here.

Great!  Now, about this dinner.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not every day that I eat seven course dinners.  And it’s not every day you meet someone so talented in the kitchen that it makes you want to go play in traffic for the shame of it all.  Last night, those two things collided quite amazingly when we had dinner at Shannon‘s house.

Describing the Feta

Our gracious hostess, describing the process by which she debrines Bulgarian feta cheese.

Shannon, one of the newer (and younger!Houston Chowhound members and a recent transplant from St. Louis, kindly issued an invitation a few weeks ago for a dinner at her home.  We should have known what to expect when we received an elegantly printed menu in our email inboxes a few days prior to dinner: seven courses, all of which sounded magnificent and none of which were anything like you’d typically find in a restaurant, much less in someone’s home.

Place Setting
Place settings.

When we showed up yesterday evening — myself, Ruthie, Jenny, Joanne, Robert and his wife — we were all greeted by the intoxicating scent of freshly-baked brioche and another, less familiar aroma.  I soon discovered it was the first course: Ash-e Reshteh, Iranian bean and noodle soup.

First Course
Topped with crispy fried onions.

The soup was an immense hit right off the bat. None of us had ever had Iranian bean soup before. Except, of course, Shannon’s husband, who is Iranian and who serves as a huge inspiration for her cuisine. The soup — which normally has ground beef and is cooked with beef broth — was a vegetarian version of the traditional Iranian recipe made with kidney and garbanzo beans, which made it both immensely healthy and hearty. The copious amounts of dill and parsley managed to keep it from being too heavy, though, and lent a refreshing crispness to the soup.

Continue reading Dinner for Eight

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Costa Blanca, Spain

I haven’t written anything about our recent trip to Spain here at she eats.  Some of you may be wondering why.  Some of you may not have realized that we went there at all, as quiet as I’ve been.

A bit of background: Richard and I went to Spain in late March to visit his parents, who have a home there close to Alicante.  Gill and Dave have happily retired to sunny Spain from somewhat-less-sunny England, which is where we bookended our European portion of the trip (Houston to Chicago to Manchester to Alicante to Manchester to Chicago to Houston…phew!).

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy our trip to Spain.  On the contrary, I enjoyed it so much that I find myself almost at a loss for words when trying to describe our visit.  The Costa Blanca just isn’t the type of place that one can write about effectively.

How do you put into words the way the air felt and smelled, fresh with the feel of the sea but also thickly seductive with the heavy scent of orange blossoms from the endless orange groves?  Or the fact that the sun shined differently there, lighting everything with a clear blaze that never got hot?  Or the way the sea looked under an infinitely blue sky, the two of them magnifying each other and creating colors deeper than I could describe?

Let me just share some photos; after all, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Spain Set 1

Clockwise from top left:  (1) Branches against the beautiful sky.  (2) Sand artist on the beach at Torrevieja, with the Mediterranean behind him.  There were several other sand artists that day, all of whom would put our Galveston artists to shame.  (3) The church in the town square at Torrevieja.  (4) View down to the reservoir that provides drinking water to Benidorm and several other Costa Blanca towns.  The vantage point is from the Castell de Guadalest, an amazing 11th century Muslim-founded town high up in the mountains.

Spain Set 2

Clockwise from top left:  (1) The craggy mountains of the Costa Blanca, which looks a lot like the American Southwest in many ways.  (2) The golf course and restaurant patio of a lovely club that Dave belongs to outside of Rojales.  (3) The bell tower at Guadalest.  (4) Roses against the ruins of the castle at Guadalest.

Spain Set 3

Clockwise from top left:  (1) Dinner at Baybrook’s in Benijofar.  My unbelieveably delicious pork tenderloin medallions, pan-fried and glazed with blue cheese, served on a leek and mushroom ragout.  Not your traditional Spanish pork, but oh-so-good.  (2) Honey and almonds for sale.  (3) Gill’s haddock tower at Baybrook’s.  (4) Halal foods were available in most shops, which only makes sense this close to North Africa.

You can view the photos in their original sizes (and more photos from the trip) by going to my Flickr account.  I do need to write more about Spain, but I’m afraid that today’s schedule isn’t going to allow for that since I am quite prepared to write an entire novel on it.  I’ll have to keep it short for today, but promise to write more soon!

Have a wonderful weekend, and happy eating!

Phoenicia Specialty Foods

In the comments section of my recent post on the closing of Cost Plus, a reader asked if I’d ever been to Phoenicia.  My reply was that it’s like a second home; a definite favorite in the sprawling Houston grocery store/supermarket scene.

Entrance to Phoenicia
Entrance to Phoenicia.

Phoenicia Specialty Foods (or, just Phoencia, for short) began its life as a small deli / market on the wide, fierce river of pavement that is Westheimer, way out here in the boonies of West Houston.  I remember stopping by there for shawarmas and pita bread during high school and relaxing on their small patio on warm days, watching the Westheimer traffic flow by.

Pastries
Bakery.

These days, the Phoenicia empire has relocated across the road to a store that is roughly the size of an airplane hangar.  Inside, the shelves on the right-hand side of the store reach all the way to the two-story tall ceiling, piled high with enormous bags of lentils and tins of eggplant and jars of curry and boxes of fruit-flavored tobacco.  The left-hand of the store beckons you with a butcher, olive bar, bakery, cheese shop, fresh produce section and tables to sit at and people watch as you idly munch on hummus and fresh pita bread.

Phoenicia
Just the beginning…

Phoenicia stocks much, much more than just Middle Eastern food these days.  They also have a brilliant selection of European and Latin American foods, especially from the Eastern European countries.  And as such, your fellow shoppers in Phoenicia resemble nothing so much as a miniature United Nations convention.  It’s a vivacious and cheerful crowd, and the different languages spoken drift throughout the store like music.

Kebobs
Meat counter.

The butcher shop inside Phoenicia stocks some of the freshest meat in town.  Very reputable opinions other than my own hold that there is no better place to buy fresh lamb, which is hard to come by in most stores.  And if you’re looking to be a huge hit at your next party, grab a tray of their baklava and bring that to your hosts.  Additionally, their wine section is stocked with wines that I’ve rarely seen in Houston, including many Eastern European and Russian wines that I’ve only encountered in one other store (the excellent Moscow Market on Dairy Ashford).

Mmm...Baklava
Baklava.

The original Phoenicia Deli is still located across the street, at Westheimer and Kirkwood, as a reminder to never forget one’s roots.  Go and grab a bite to eat there, and then trek across the road to visit the big sister.  It’s best not to visit on an empty stomach anyway.

Tobaccos
Fruit-flavored tobacco.

More photos below the cut… Continue reading Phoenicia Specialty Foods

Oh-oh-oh, Oh-oh-oh, I Love Sangria Wine

Good grief.  And I thought the TABC was bad.

In Virginia, serving sangria could land you in jail 

Serving the traditional Spanish beverage of sangria could land you in hot water in the southern state of Virginia, but lawmakers were debating Thursday whether to legalize the tapas bar favorite.

“We have a code in Virginia that says no distilled spirit may be added to wine or beer prior to a customer’s order,” Kristy Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agency, told AFP.

“A lot of restaurants like to pre-mix a drink in the morning and have one big batch to serve throughout the day. It’s the pre-mixing that makes it illegal,” Marshall said.

Violating the code, which dates from 1934, a year after the end of the Prohibition Era, when alcohol was banned in the United States, is a “class one misdemeanor, punishable by a 2,500 dollars fine and/or 12 months in jail,” Marshall said.

And from today’s Chronicle:

Since 1934, the state has prohibited mixing wine or beer with spirits. Frances McDonald, vice president of La Tasca Spanish Tapas Bar and Restaurants, found that out the hard way when his Alexandria location was cited for violating the sangria ban in 2006 and fined $2,000.

McDonald and managing partner Shana McKillop appealed their case to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Thursday before going to the Capitol to urge legislators to pass a bill legalizing the red wine, liqueur and fruit concoction.

What’s a tapas restaurant without sangria?  Heresy!  Although it appears that if you’re ever actually in Spain, you should avoid sangria served at tapas bars like the plague.  Hmm.

More importantly, what was the impetus behind such a law back in the 1930s?  Anyone have any idea?  Mixing spirits with spirits…maybe.  Maybe.  But mixing wine and spirits?  Was there some kind of dangerous Kir epidemic in 1930s-era Virginia, where people were abusing their wine cocktails and causing untold damage to persons and properties? 

And why has Virginia taken so long to repeal such a strange law?  Then again, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code has an entire section devoted to “Offenses Related To Bingo,” so I guess we can’t really throw stones.

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