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Houston Chronicles: The Food Tour

What comes to mind when someone mentions Houston? Don't think about it. Respond emotionally. Probably you said something that included "Texas, oil, Gulf Coast hurricanes, cowboys, barbecue, and Tex-Mex". Maybe you also remembered that Houston is home to an important complex of medical centers and that NASA's Johnson Space Center is nearby.

Now add really good food to that list.

Houston has come of age. Serving up plenty of hamburgers, barbecue, enchiladas, and carnitas, Houston's food scene stays connected with its Western traditions. But the food landscape now includes a range of restaurants serving the cuisines of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. There are plenty of upscale restaurants and many affordable, neighborhood joints.

On a recent trip to Houston I took an eating tour of the town and I have some recommendations to pass along.

If you have money to splurge, be sure you stop at Voice (Hotel Icon, 220 Main, Houston, Texas 77002; 832/667-4470). Opened just last fall, it was immediately crowned best new restaurant by Texas Monthly.

Chef Michael Kramer
demonstrates his love of farmers' markets produce and local purveyors in a menu he describes as "Modern American". The menu changes frequently, the better to highlight what's fresh and seasonal. Besides the a la carte regular menu, he offers a nightly tasting.

For our tasting we had several of what are already regarded as "classics" at the restaurant. A demitasse cup of richly flavored Mushroom Soup "Cappucino" topped with truffle foam and porcini powder. In his Patchwork of Baby Beets--a witty riff on the paintings of Joan Miro-- he thinly slices and quarters half a dozen beet varieties and pairs them with locally made Chessy Girl goat cheese and what the chef calls a beet caramel reduction of beet juice and seasoned balsamic vinegar.

Of the appetizer courses, the Potato Gnocchi was the perfect comfort food, the soft pillows--and although it's a cliche to describe gnocchi "pillows" that's exactly what these were, light, oblong, airy pillows--floated in a chanterelle-prosciutto broth, sharing the bottom of the sculpted bowl with perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts.

The entrees included North Carolina Black Sea Bass with braised artichokes and hedgehog mushrooms. We also had the Honey Lacquered Duck Breast with competing sweet (pear mostarda) and peppery (black pepper gastrique) sauces. The last entree was Chef Kramer's signature dish, a Herb Marinated Rack of Lamb. The meat was deliciously tender, having been finished, sous vide, in a garlic and thyme marinade.

Desserts favored the chocoholic with white and dark chocolate in many forms: warm chocolate cake, hand made caramel and raspberry chocolates, white chocolate panna cotta. Just to show that his enthusiasm for chocolate didn't limit his imagination, Chef Kramer included a refreshing quenelle of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with crunchy graham cracker shavings and a scoop of raspberry sorbet topped with fresh, plump raspberries.

Happily Houston boasts a well-developed Vietnamese food scene, the result of the influx of Vietnamese refuges--the "boat people"--in the mid-1970s. One such place is a standout: the family-run, very affordable Huynh Restaurant (912 St. Emanuel, Houston, Texas 77003; 713/224-8694) in the revitalized Eado (East of Downtown).

With her mother, Van Bui, and brother, Binh Dang, in the kitchen, and her younger sister Cindy serving out front, Anny Dang recently re-opened the restaurant in the new location. What's on the menu is traditional Vietnamese home-cooking, the food that mom Van Bui made her family when they lived in Quang Ngai two hours south of Da Nang.

With entrees averaging $6.00-7.00, come with friends so you can sample the large menu. All the familiar Vietnamese dishes are available at Huynh: spring rolls (Cha Gio Viet Nam, Goi Cuon, and Goi Cuon Thit Nuong), beef noodle soup (Pho Dac Biet), chicken noodle soup (Pho Ga), bbq pork on rice (Com Chien Xa Xiu), chargrilled shrimp or chicken on cold vermicelli noodles with julienned vegetables (Bun Tom Nuong or Ga), and grilled pork chops on rice (Com Tam Thit Nuong Bi Cha). They are all delicious because the freshest ingredients are used and you can tell a caring hand has prepared the food.

Look deeper into the menu and you'll find dishes a mother feeds her special child. Chargrilled pork (Banh Uot Thit Nuong) wrapped in soft rice noodles. The chewy wrapper contrasts with the crispy sweet pork inside. Duck (Goi Vit) mixed with shreds of fresh vegetables and herbs, topped with crispy, fried onion rings. A spicy dish (Xao Xa Ot) that can be made with tofu, shrimp, or chicken; we had the shrimp, stir-fried with a sauce of hot chili paste and lemon grass. And half a fried chicken wittily called the Phoenix (Com Phuong Hoang), because it's cooked twice--first roasted, then fried--served with a mound of steamed rice and a side of Korean kimchi and--most amazingly--topped with a farm fresh sunny side up fried egg. When the egg is cut open, the yolk runs down the chicken and onto the rice.

As we were driving out of town, we stopped to pick up some treats for the road at Crave (1151-06 Uptown Park Boulevard, Houston, Texas 77056; 713/622-7283), an upscale cupcake store tucked into the Uptown Park Mall just off Highway 610. Ever since the Magnolia Bakery in New York popularized cupcakes with inventive flavors and adult prices ($3.25), cupcakes have had a resurgence across the country.

Crave is the latest example of this excellent trend where traditional recipes are improved by using high quality ingredients, like 85% butterfat butter, imported French sprinkles, and fresh fruit.

Made fresh daily and avoiding preservatives and artificial flavors, Crave's cupcakes emphasize natural flavor over sugary sweetness.

The Hummingbird has a classic Southern mix of pineapple, pecans, and bananas with a cream cheese frosting. Fresh strawberries are added to the frosting in the Strawberry cupcake, which probably accounts for it being a best seller. There's even a cupcake riff on the Hostess Ding Dong. The Chocolate and Creme cupcake is made with imported chocolate, filled with marshmallow cream, and topped with dark chocolate ganache. This is definitely not the Ding Dong of your grammar school days.

When I visited Houston several years ago to tour the Johnson Space Center, I thoroughly enjoyed myself because I am a huge fan of the space program. In those days the most you could hope for by way of a meal was good barbecue and authentic Mexican food. That's still true, but now Houston has a whole lot more to offer the hungry traveler.

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