I’m a Pho-natic

…in case you didn’t know.

And speaking of that hot, yummy deliciousness, check out my post on Houstonist today about two of the newest pho restaurants in town:

One Pho the Money, Two Pho the Show

Quick recap:  Pho 24 in Chinatown is awesome.  Pho Huy in Spring Branch is — surprisingly — awesomer.

P.S.  If anyone is looking to get me a Christmas present (besides this oven…gah), I’ll take one of these:

That is all.

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For Your Consideration

Two more food articles from today’s Houstonist:

Houstonist Bites: BB’s Cajun Kitchen

Houstonist Was There: McCormick & Schmick’s Grand Opening

I can’t recommend BB’s Cajun Cafe highly enough.

Mc&Schmick, on the other hand, is just another Mc&Schmick.  As you can probably tell from the article, I couldn’t think of anything else to say about it other than that.  I felt it uncharitable to mention that they charged for cokes at a grand opening when the wine and champagne was free, or that their appetizers were extremely pedestrian and boring.

Oh, wait.  I did just mention that.  Oops.

A Link a Day…

…keeps the vultures at bay.  What?  It’s practically the same sentiment.

Busy day around the office means a short post for y’all.  But here’s my most recent review on Houstonist of the newly-reopened Nori Sushi Bistro, which I’m…not a fan of.  Yeah.

Houstonist Bites: Nori Sushi Bistro

Oh, well.

In other news, we have few new Houston food bloggers on the scene!  They’re on the blogroll over there to your right of course, but just so’s you’ll know who’s new and who’s decrepit (like me), here’s a few links for you:

Houston Foodie

Shabak’s Kitchen

M’s Culinary Experiments

Go show them some love, y’all.  Peace!

Na Zdrowie!

A few of the loyal Chowhounds and I met up last night at Polonia, one of the few Polish restaurants in town — really the only Polish restaurant in town, as far as I’m aware — for what I’m sure will become a cherished Election Night ritual in decades to come: pints of Pilsner, tons of cabbage and CNN on the big screen under a huge Polish flag.  I mean, that’s how you spent your election night, right?

Polonia

Before heading in for our feast, however, Peggy and I sampled the wares at Polonia‘s sister deli next door.  Although it may seem difficult to imagine, there are quite a few jars of sauerkraut lining the shelves at Polonia‘s deli.

Pickles

Even more surprisingly, there is roughly a metric tonne of sausage available for purchase. Kielbasa? Yes. Kabanosy? Yes. Kabanosy suche? YES. No need to do a crazy, eager waiting dance for days as you wait for your kabanosy to dry out — they sell it pre-dried here.

Sausages

Aside from sausage and sauerkraut, there is the traditional bounty of food one would expect in a Polish deli: jars of beets, freezers full of many varieties of pierogi, Princessa bars, bottles of carbonated water, to-go containers of bigos and gołąbki, and assorted Polish memorabilia.

I purchased some fresh kabanosy (which will go well with the bottle of Żubrówka that’s chilling in my fridge) and a yellow greeting card with a piano on it that says Serdeczne Życzenia.  I have no idea what that means.  My Polish is extremely limited, as you shall learn later.

Bar

Soon, our other Chowhounds showed up — Ruthie and Victoria — and we ended our shopping excursion and headed into the restaurant.  Inside, most of the tables were full of jovial families and couples, while a harried but charming waitress worked her way through the small, cozy dining room.  A bar stood in one corner, with only one beer on tap: Pilsner.  The breadth and variety of vodka behind the bar was staggering, though.

The menu at Polonia is like a guided tour through Poland’s best cuisine.  You’ll be hard-pressed not to find a dish that isn’t represented, from barszcz all the way to paczki (which are only available on weekends, however).  As a result, we were faced with the difficult task of choosing only four dishes off the menu.

Combo Platter

As you can see, we were more than up to the task. The combination platter presented a tidy solution to our dilemma, containing a heart-stopping mixture of pierogi, kielbasa, gołąbki (cabbage rolls), bigos, meat loaf, baked pork, duck legs and several cold salads.

Potato Pancakes

What’s that? Oh, you thought that was all we ordered? Amateur.

Before digging into the combination platter, we ordered a serving of potato pancakes (appetizer portion), two bowls of barszcz and a bowl of sour rye soup. All were huge hits as they were passed around the table. Ruthie’s germane comment on the barszcz was that it tasted “…like a bowl of health.” To her point, the dark ruby-red barszcz was very brothy — much more so than I’m used to — but had hearty meat-filled dumplings to offset its thinness.  The tangy sour rye soup with its chunks of sausage and hardboiled eggs also drew rave reviews, as did the utterly comforting potato pancakes.

What Were We Thinking?

Along with our combination platter, we also demolished a plate of golonka (braised pork shank) and some veal schnitzel.  The golonka was the favorite of the night, the pork falling off the bone with only the lightest breath and its silky, paprika-spiked sauce being eaten by the spoonful.

For my part, I enjoyed the bigos and the gołąbki the most.  I’ve never tasted bigos quite like Polonia‘s, which was much sweeter and vinegary than I’m used to.  Instead of only sauerkraut, they add shredded carrots and apples to the mix, which — along with the traditional juniper berries — lend it a sharp sweetness that’s addictive.  I could have easily eaten the bigos as a meal on its own (and probably will next time I’m there).

Pilsner

And I realize that we should have been enjoying a nice vodka with our meal, but while I love and appreciate the Polish people and their culture, I’m simply not that in love with it.  I just can’t sip vodka throughout a meal; your mileage may vary.  We stuck with the cool, sweet Pilsner that perfectly complemented the meal — a good thing, too, since it’s all they have at Polonia.

As we wound down our meal, discussion turned to why I like Polish food and why on earth I speak Polish.  While that’s a long story, the night ended with me attempting to teach Victoria and Ruthie a few choice phrases.  I considered teaching them something highly useful, such as “Ja nie mam nogie…” but settled instead on the simple “Thank you” and “My name is Ruthie.”

Victoria managed “Dziękuję” quite handily, even if it sounded more like “Jane cool ya” when spoken aloud.  Ruthie, on the other hand,  ended up mnemonically remembering “”Nazywam sie Ruthie” as “nauseous upchuck Ruthie.”  That said, when she stopped our waitress to proudly display her newly acquired linguistic skills — “MY NAME IS RUTHIE!!!” — the waitress understood her Polish immediately and grinned from ear to ear.

“Who taught you that?” she asked.

“She did!” Ruthie grinned back, pointing at me.

“…her?”  The waitress stared at me quizzically.  “Czy mówisz po polsku?”

And at that point, my Polish skills ground to a halt. “Nie.”

“Nie?”

“Nie. Ja nie jestem polski.”

More staring. And then the waitress just walked confusedly away.

Now, this is a bit like walking around with a great green balloon tied to your wrist, and someone asking you, “Hey, do you have a green balloon?” And you responding, “No. No, I do not.” And then trying to pop that balloon really fast, while they’re still staring at it.  Awkward…

That lesson in linguistic diplomacy notwithstanding, I couldn’t recommend Polonia more highly.  Wonderful food, reasonable prices, friendly service and — most importantly — the best bigos this side of Krakow.  Bonus:  Check them out for yourself this weekend and you can catch some hot, fresh paczki.

Smacznego!

Feast-ing

Feast

There isn’t much more left to say about Feast that hasn’t already been said.

A restaurant like Feast wouldn’t seem to mesh well with the Houston dining scene upon only a cursory glance: strange items like pork cheek and dandelion green salad, black pudding and whole breaded pig’s trotter dot the menu.  Mostly, these are items that the average Houston diner has never eaten, much less encountered on any menu, anywhere.

But upon closer consideration, this is exactly the kind of comfort food upon which this city thrives.  It’s rustic, unpretentious, hearty fare that your grandmother would have made if only she’d been slightly more adventurous, English, and been trained up by Fergus Henderson.  What could be more inviting on a crisp October night than a bowl of oxtails with carrots and mashed potatoes?  Or a velvety dish of lamb shanks with roasted potatoes and kale?  This is truly comfort food taken to the next level.

Dining Room

The dining room, too, is just as inviting, with simple wooden tables and chairs under a low-slung beamed ceiling.  A fireplace filled with candles give off a warm glow equalled only by the warm greeting you get when entering Feast.  Walk up the pleasantly creaky stairs to the second floor and out onto the balcony, where you’ll be surprised to find an amazing view of not only Montrose, but also the twinkling skyline of downtown Houston, which seems close enough to touch.

Canapes

The appetizers on hand this past Friday night were decadent: back fat (yes, the menu says “back fat”) wrapped around walnuts and parsley, grilled sweetbreads, chicken liver pate with cornichons and my favorite of the night, Welsh rarebit.

The pork back fat was so completely antagonistic, but I couldn’t stop eating it. You know deep in that rational part of your mind that you don’t need to be popping pieces of white, dimpled fat into your mouth like Skittles, but the fat was so luscious and had just the right amount of give without being too spongy or chewy.  The hard bite of the salty walnut in the middle was the perfect accompaniment.

The Welsh rarebit, too, was heavenly: a thick spread of savory cheese sauce over a piece of toast drenched with Worcester sauce.  Perhaps the bite of the Worcester sauce was too tangy for some, but I loved the way it complemented the velvety cheese with its sharp aftershock.

Scallops, Salad and Wine

Soon, we moved on to the first courses: scallops baked with a cream mushroom sauce and the aforementioned pork cheek salad with dandelion greens, roasted shallots and garlic. The pork cheeks were redolent with fat and glistened up at us from the bed of bitter greens, mixed in with a few croutons that had been similarly soaked in pork fat. Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that if you don’t like pork, or pork fat, Feast might not be the best place for you.

The scallops were good, but had nothing on the salad. I ate so much of the salad that I feared I’d ruined my appetite for dinner. The pork cheeks reminded me ever so slightly of the piping hot, fresh chicharrones that you can get from the old school Mexican markets around town. You know the ones: grab a bag and eat them with a dab of hot sauce while you do your shopping and they’re gone before you know it. Each bite of the salad was different, never knowing exactly what combination of textures you’d get from one to the next.

Peg had brought a lovely Radio-Couteau shiraz to share with us, and its heady, smoky smell drifted pleasantly over the table as we eagerly awaited our next course: the pigs.

Twins

James Silk, butcher-chef extraordinaire and co-owner of Feast, brought along his sous chef to carve the beautiful suckling pigs that Peg had requested for her birthday feast. They were small, delicate things yet the aroma was intoxicating. Inside the roasted pigs was a traditional sage and onion stuffing, which made your mouth water and your mind wander fondly to holiday meals past.

James Still Hard at Work

James made quick work of the piglets, as he plated the trotters, the stuffing and the delicate loins. Some of us couldn’t wait, however, and absconded with one of the heads. Soon, a group had formed around the head, as it was dismantled for the fresh cheeks, chin, ears and other savory parts.

Heads Don't Last Long Around Here

As we passed around the platters of roasted pork and stuffing, the side dishes were brought out. Steamed carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts, dusky kale with anchovies and melt-in-your-mouth mashed potatoes, which tasted as if they’d been made with equal parts potatos and heavy cream. All of the sides were outstanding, especially the Brussels sprouts, which are so rarely made well. These were roasted quite simply and still had a slightly crunchy bite to them.

No More Room for Lamb

The lamb was a late but welcomed arrival to the table. As we tasted our first bites, there was a general confusion over the slightly sweet melange of spices used to prepare it. Joanne finally asked James when none of us could figure it out, and we were surprised to hear that it was a combination of mace and juniper. The mace is a throwback to traditional English recipes of yore, but tasted fresh and new when used here with the juniper.

With Custard, Please

By this time, the clock had long since struck 10pm, but we weren’t going anywhere. Peg had obtained some ice wine during her latest trip to Canada that not only scored a perfect 100/100 in a recent tasting but is also entirely unavailable in the States, and Feast had graciously agreed to create a dessert to pair with it.

Their creation, a divine apricot and date crumble, appeared at the table in warm dishes alongside a jug of thick, creamy custard. The room fell mostly silent as we ate, a combination of exhaustion after our long feast and the warm crumble filling our mouths and bellies, keeping our tongues busy with more important activities than talking.

Exterior

I’ll be making a return trip to Feast very soon, as James has promised a steak and kidney pudding — a dish which, owing to its suet pastry, is exceedingly difficult to find in the States — if I give him a few days advance notice. It’s a dish that fits Feast nicely: the most rustic of food, made with bits and pieces that are in keeping with the “nose-to-tail” mantra of the restaurant. But even if there weren’t promises of the tantalizing dish, I would still be returning to Feast again and again and again.

Sandy’s Market

I’m gonna be honest: my most favorite thing about writing articles for Houstonist is the fact that I get to put in these super-nifty slideshows (that stupid Java-unfriendly WordPress will not allow me to do).

So go and check out today’s slideshow — and article, too, I guess — on Sandy’s Market, the best grocery store-slash-health-food-store-slash-buffet in Houston:

Houstonist Bites: Sandy’s Market

Oh, yellow bell peppers and chickpeas…  How I adore you.

The Days of Mediocre Food and Roses…

sans roses.  Which makes the days even less enjoyable.  Meh.

The week has been filled so far with ample opportunities for good food, and yet everything has fallen short so far.  I hate weeks like that.

Monday afternoon was the perfect day for a lunch outside, luminous blue skies and cool weather glittering brilliantly across the city.  Except that I spent my lunch hour on a dingy couch in a shady inspection sticker place off Long Point, sitting in uncomfortable proximity to a man in a “U.S. Army Artillery Unit” gimme cap with dirty socks pulled up to his knees, who muttered incessantly to himself in between short bursts of yelling, “Hey, boss!  Heya, boss!  Heya!”  I don’t even know that he had a car there to be inspected.  And I ended up failing my inspection after all that.

Monday evening was spent in a private room upstairs at Del Frisco’s Steakhouse.  On hand was plenty of free wine and hors d’oeuvres.  Wine?  Good.  Hors d’oeuvres?  Should have been good, but were frustratingly mediocre: overcooked lobster, well-done steak, fried asparagus with sickeningly sweet sauce.  Then again, what kind of complete jerk complains about free food?  Well…me, I guess.  I ended up eating a stray granola bar at home later on.  You willingly eat a grotty old granola bar, but complain about free lobster?  you may ask me.  Yes.  The difference?  I expect the granola bar to be mediocre.

Tuesday’s lunch was…oh, wait.  I didn’t get a lunch break on Tuesday.  I spent the morning at that squat, hideous, unapologetic trash-magnet, the Harris County Courthouse on Chimney Rock, and had to work through lunch to halfway catch up on the piles of crap littering my desk.

Tuesday evening was slightly better.  We (myself and some fellow Houstonist writers) started out with drinks at Gingerman.  All things are made better by Gingerman.  I had a crisp, refreshing pint of Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA (oh-so-hoppy and delicious) and enjoyed the gorgeous weather with my gorgeous Houstonist friends.  We ordered the spinach-artichoke dip, but ended up getting a bowl that looked as if it had been grabbed off another table, half-eaten and then nuked.  It was disgusting.  We ate it anyway.

Feeling that we should attempt to procure some better food, we headed directly across the street to that quaint little Italian market/restaurant D’Amico’s.  I hadn’t eaten at D’Amico’s in years, but had some very fond memories of a smashing walnut and wild mushroom risotto that I’d ordered several times with exceptional results each time.  Scanning the menu, I was sad to see that they seemed to have taken it off and replaced it with a walnut and wild mushroom tortellini instead.

I ordered the tortellini, looking to get that elusive walnut/wild mushroom fix any way I could.  We sat under the darkening sky outside, laughing, bitching, telling stories and generally being far too philosophical for a Tuesday night.  The company, at least, was fantastic.  The food, not so much.  We all happened to order various tortellini dishes.  And we all agreed that the tortellini was far too doughy, the fillings too dense, the sauces too watery, doing nothing to hold the dishes together.  Once again, frustratingly disappointing.  I think it’s too soon to claim that D’Amico’s has jumped the shark, but I’m only giving them one more shot after that.

Today’s lunch was a last-minute bite at Berryhill’s.  I used to be a huge fan of theirs, especially their happy hours and their tamales, but my feelings for them have become extremely lukewarm in recent years.  Today’s lunch just reaffirmed my waning affections.  The fish tacos had almost no cilantro in them (you will not deny me cilantro!), very little red cabbage and disgustingly over-fried, eeeeenormous portions of fish.  Let me elaborate briefly on the “over-fried” part, if you will: there was more liquid in the tacos from the grease dripping off the fish than from the almost non-existent remoulade sauce.  Horrid.  At least the hot pickled carrots were reliably good (although one never truly knows how long those have been hanging around…).

Tonight’s dinner will most likely be whatever I scavenge out of the cupboard when I finally make it home.  I swear to God, this week better shape itself up food-wise unless it wants me to give up food blogging for a while.  But there is hope yet: the weekend is still to come!