Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Friday, May 15, 2009

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.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Chez Roux, La Torretta del Lago Resort & Spa, Lake Conroy, Texas

When Albert Roux and his brother Michel arrived in London in the early-1960's their future was uncertain. They had a grand ambition to open a world-class restaurant specializing in high-quality, classic French cuisine in a country that famously preferred fish and chips. Le Gavroche was instantly recognized for the quality of its preparation and attention to detail and began a revolution in English cooking.

Chef Albert Roux recently turned his attention to America when he opened Chez Roux on the grounds of La Torretta del Lago Resort and Spa (http://latorrettadellagoresortandspa.com/), 600 La Torretta Blvd., Montgomery, Texas 77356 (936/448-4400), on the edge of Lake Conroe, an hour north of Houston. He chose the location of the renovated La Torretta because of his long friendship with the owner Ronnie Ben-Zur.

Chez Roux specializes in a cuisine Chef Roux developed with his son, Michel Jr., at Le Gavroche. Using sauces made with jus and reductions, the menu relies entirely on market-fresh, organic, hormone-free ingredients. The elegantly intimate dining room seats 65, with a chef's table--a banquette on the mezzanine overlooking the kitchen--that seats an additional 10. Meals can be ordered either a la carte or prix fixe. There is dinner service Tuesday-Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Lunch is available for special parties.

In March I interviewed Albert Roux in the kitchen of Chez Roux.

When you began your career, you were famous for introducing classic French cuisine to England and mentoring well-known chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsey. How has your cooking changed over the years?

What I am doing here is very much the way my son, Michel, cooks at Le Gavroche today. My first cookery book, La Nouvelle Cuisine Classique, was very much oriented to Escoffier. There was no roux, no flour. Nevertheless, it was rich because we used quite a lot of butter and cream. Now we have entered a new phase, using pure jus and reductions so the natural flavors predominate.

You've said that you want to use all organic, farm-fresh ingredients at Chez Roux.

Yes, absolutely. If you are a great chef but you do not have good raw ingredients, you are nothing. In the U.S. you can move food around quickly. For example in London if I buy foie gras from France, it's only seven hundred miles, but it will take two days to reach me. Here, I order salmon from Alaska and the next day it's in my kitchen.

What is available in America is fantastic. I went to Pike's Place Market in Seattle. They had to drag me out of there. We were leaving the next day and I smuggled through customs two big bags of fruit and vegetables. Everything had another dimension. Peaches, beautiful peaches, white and yellow. Tomatoes. Cherries, so heavenly perfumed. And the big salmon, aye ya ya. The Copper River salmon is the best in the world.

In Texas there are very good food purveyors. I went to the Houston farmers' market. It was a revelation to see the army of believers there. Those people are never going to make a fortune, but they are very very proud of their produce, as they should be.

You have the best beef in the world. The veal also is absolutely first rate. We've found some beautiful duck, squad, and quail. The game here is fantastic.

Chickens, that's another matter. The quality of your chickens is bloody awful. But there are some that are good, the happy chickens. They haven't been in a cage. They have not been fed with hormones. They've been allowed to scratch in the earth and find the little worm and they taste infinitely better.

What do you import from Europe?

Some cheeses come from Europe. 30% of the wine list. But my aim is to use 95% of the product from the U.S.A.

After all these years, do you still enjoy cooking?

Absolutely.

When you eat at home, what do you cook?

It's very very simple food. On a typical weekend in the country, Friday night we arrive in mid-afternoon. We'll have a steak, just grilled, sauteed potatoes, a little Bearnaise sauce, a nice salad and fromage frais, mixed with cream and herbs. Saturday morning will be breakfast at about eleven o'clock with a glass of champagne, scrambled or fried eggs with baked beans--I love baked beans--it has to be Heinz.

Heinz Pork and Beans?

Oh yes, that's the best thing in the world. We'll also have nice crispy bacon, American style. Then a grilled tomato with a bit of olive oil. And that's it.

Dinner would be focused on the wine. I have an excellent cellar. On Saturday afternoon I'll look around and pick out a bottle. With a top wine you don't want a rich cream sauce, just a simple little jus. During the first four months of the lamb season, a leg of lamb or rack of lamb roasted, new vegetables from the garden--I have a beautiful garden--a bit of cheese and a bottle of wine and that's it.

I've been told the kitchen at Chez Roux doesn't use conventional gas stoves.

That's correct. The kitchen is green. We are ruining the world and it doesn't even belong to us. It belongs to our grandchildren and the children of our grandchildren and at the rate we're polluting it, there will be no world to pass along.

Do you notice that we're sitting in the kitchen and it isn't hot? The prep chefs are not sweating or perspiring. Why? No excess heat because the stoves use induction heat. As soon as you lift the saucepan, the heat stops.

In a conventional kitchen, the first thing the chef does is he lights all the burners, ovens, and the salamander, even the ones he doesn't need right away. And they will stay on until the kitchen closes for the night. This is a bad habit.

Why waste the energy and throw the money away? We save money on the consumption of energy and also on the retention of staff. Employees stay longer because if you work in a very pleasant environment, they tend to stay longer and that saves money as well.

How much time will you spend in Texas?

I am due to come four times a year for two weeks. But my feeling is, I'll be here more often. If I get too depressed by the weather in the UK, I'll jump on a plane and spend a couple of weeks in Texas.

As a chef, what have you learned about America?

Never deny yourself. The blessing of America is it is a continent with all the seasons, with many people who care about food. That makes it such an enjoyable experience to cook here.