Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sylvia's... The Enchilada Queen's Third Location (Or Is It?)

Why would anyone review the opening of a "third location" for a restaurateur?

Sylvia Casares in front of her pueblo-style
stove at the entrance to Sylvia's

In a town with millions of citizens and thousands of restaurants... AND a HUGE Hispanic population, it's puzzling that there are so few chefs/restaurateurs who present truly authentic REGIONAL Mexican cuisine. Along with fellow restaurateurs, Hugo Ortega and Arnaldo Richards, Sylvia Casares (a second-generation native Texan), in her Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, presents authentic REGIONAL Mexican cuisine.

So, here's Sylvia's, a third location for Casares and the same regional enchiladas, moles and traditional offerings such as Huachinango a la Veracruzana (Snapper Veracruz) are served there, but the new name and concept are raising the flag that says "Hey! I have far more depth than that!"

Casares is hoping that Houstonians will note and enjoy her Mesguite Grilled Ribeyes, Beef Filets, huge Bone-In Pork Chops (served with a beautiful dark mole), South Texas Quail, tender inside skirt steak Carne Asada (simply marinated in soy and garlic) and Grilled Fish. Have you ever had a group who would like to go out for Mexican food and there's one hold-out who just doesn't care for "Mexican food"? This could be your destination.

At a "media Dinner" hosted by Sylvia on her grand opening (Is that OK for full disclosure?), various members of Houston's print media, as well as food bloggers were treated to this facet of Sylvia's self-taught and studied expertise and repertoire.

As this is not a "review", as such, I offer a Galerie de Cuisine below of photos of the focus of this side of Sylvia Casares, "The Enchilada Queen". :

Galerie de Cuisine

This, believe it or not, is a side salad.

Mesquite-Grilled Quail

Mesquite-Grilled Fish

Moist Mesquite Grilled Pork Chop

Mesquite Grilled Ribeye


Gorgeous Mesquite Grilled Beef Filet

If there was ever a "destination side", it would be
this Tex-Mex version of Potatoes Au Gratin!

Sylvia's "regular" Tres Leches.

Chocolate Tres Leches



Sylvia's

1140 Eldridge Parkway
Houston, TX 77077
832-230-3842




Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sal y Pimienta Kitchen


 “With Meat this Good, the only Seasoning Needed is Salt and Pepper and a Great Chimichurri” -  Chef Gianfranco Percovich
 
Sal y Pimienta Parilla
 
Chef Gianfranco Percovich, a native of Uruguay, grew up in his family’s restaurant there.  After moving to Houston to follow his dream, he joined the Cordua Restaurant Group. He was part of the team that opened Americas in The Woodlands and designed the wine list. With more than ten years of experience under his belt in Houston, he created a concept of his own, and opened the highly acclaimed Tango & Malbec South American Cuisine in the Galleria area in December of 2010.  After over five years of great success with Tango & Malbec he sold his interest to open his new concept, much more casual, and recently unveiled Sal y Pimienta Kitchen.
Open Kitchen with Wood-burning Grills
 
On our visit, young Japanese customers at the bar were taking selfies; there were couples; a long table of friends and dates; young families were all seen enjoying their evenings and the orgy of wood-grilled meats that were constantly drifting among the tables. Surprisingly, in spite of the open concept dining room being packed, the noise level wasn’t deafening.

Sal y Pimienta's Bar Draws Interest From the Street Via Full
Wall Floor-to-Ceiling Windows
 
Percovich came by to introduce himself and to apologize for the temperature in the dining room (two of the four A/C units were on the fritz that night).

Empanadas al Horno

Trying to stick with traditional South American specialties not widely served in Houston restaurants, we started with Empanadas al Horno (Uruguayan/Argentinean pastry stuffed with chicken, cream of corn, grass-feed ground beef, aji rojo and spinach), which were flaky and aromatic.  The Matambre Arrollato  (veal flank steak cooked for three hours, thinly cut and stuffed with spinach, carrots, hard boiled eggs and spices) was a delicious complex layered terrine with egg yolk “eyes” in the middle staring up at its admirers. 

Matambre Arrollato 
 
Ceviche is a common dish in Houston and served in almost every Mexican and South American restaurant here, but Percovich’s fresh, cool Flounder and Shrimp Ceviche (delightfully) was not drowned in lime that made us pucker, but had such a light citrus touch that we could almost imagine the fish’s heartbeat. We certainly appreciated the tingle of the mild flavor of jalapeño against the shrimp and flounder. Sal y Pimienta Parilla, a mixed grill of beautiful grass-fed beef (aged 40 days), sweetbreads, kidneys, grilled chicken breasts, inside skirt steaks, lamb chops, steaks as thick as pot roast and so much smoky tender MEAT made my meathead spin. Two types of Argentinian sausage, including Blood Sausage, were excellent. Blood (black) sausage suitable for my taste isn’t easy to find… and it seems to be all about the texture. This one had a slightly coarse “mouth feel” that was pleasant and satisfying.
Niman Ranch Tomahawk Steak. 
 
One unique cut – which my wife suggested looked like a brontosaurus leg – was the Niman Ranch Tomahawk Steak.  It was presented in its entirety, then carved skillfully at the table… although the menu claims it serves one, there was easily enough for two in the prime bone-in steak.
Carving the Niman Ranch Tomahawk Steak for Two Tableside
 
The beef (and food in general) at Sal y Pimienta is of such quality that the only seasonings applied to all meats there are salt and pepper – hence the restaurant’s name and Percovich’s statement that, “With meat this good, the only seasoning needed is salt and pepper and, of course, a great chimichurri”
 
Percovich said that he is proud of his selection of wines from small wineries and of his team’s ability to craft distinctly unique pairings.

Butterscotch Crème Brulee

Dinner concluded with a very moist Quattro Leches and a Butterscotch Crème Brulee and a rich perfectly brewed espresso. Service was attentive, water glasses were continuously refilled; every need was attended.

Quattro Crème Brulee
 
An outdoor dining area will be open soon and those who stroll the Centre will be attracted to the friendly, popular end of the walkway location. Parking is relatively easily managed from an $8 valet stand nearby. The valet parking is neither managed, nor owned by Sal y Pimienta and serves more than one restaurant. Customers line up like hungry sharks to get their cars, but it still took only around 5 minutes to get our car back.

 We were impressed.


818 Town and Country Boulevard

Suite 105

Houston, Texas 77024

281-907-0412

www.SalyPimientaKitchen.com

 

 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bradley's Fine Diner (BFD) introduces Blue Plate Specials




Blue Plate Specials are there while they're there and gone when they're gone:


Since BFD opened, it has been a favorite of mine. For specific reasons, please see the link at the end of these brief comments for a full review of the restaurant and its regular menu items.

We had lunch there today and were able to try three different Blue Plate Specials from the past few of days. In my opinion, all three were hits and they made me wonder what specials were to come in the days to come (as what other restaurants might call "Today's Special"). There is usually only one Blue Plate Special special per day

I saw a press release a couple of weeks ago sent out on behalf of the architect of the menu (Chef Bryan Ogden) and the daily choice of specials based upon what's fresh... what's good... and what's interesting on a given day.  The original kick-off of these specials included a meat loaf sandwich: a sliced prime beef sandwich; and southern fried chicken in several days.


Today's specials started off with a creamy tender Beef Short Rib Sandwich. After slow-braising for 12 hours, the beef was shredded (a la pulled pork shredding) and topped with sauteed onions and red bell peppers. I felt that as a standalone component, I would have liked to have seen a little more seasoning on the beef... however, the total package with the beef and the condiments was a winner. The outstanding memory was the tenderness of the rib meat, yet its ability to still deliver a nice "mouth feel". The grilled house-baked sour dough bread wrapped it up quite nicely.



Next, we had what might be called (but wasn't) a Texas-style Philly Cheese Steak. Grilled-medium USDA Prime inside skirt steaks (marinated perfectly) was served with sauteed onions, bell peppers, aged white cheddar, bell peppers and was "sandwiched" (again) between grilled sour dough slices. Now, I called it a Texas-style cheese steak, but frankly, that isn't giving it its due. I think that anyone who has eaten a good Philly cheese steak must tell you, if he's honest, the well-done thinly sliced rib eye on a Philly Cheese Steak doesn't even come close to a perfectly cooked PRIME skirt steak... juicy... tender... and flavorful. This sliced "steak" sandwich was truly over the top from a flavor standpoint.


Our third special was a Fried Atlantic Cod sandwich. The cod was fried crispy, yes very moist in the center... it was topped with a creamy Cole slaw and served on a house-baked bun. I'm not very big on ordering fish sandwiches, but I would actually consider this one again, if it were still on the menu as a special (assuming that there were not a beefy alternative).

I suggest on a given day that if you would like to be delightedly surprised, go and take your chances. Otherwise, give them a call and inquire to see what the day's Blue Plate Specials are.

For my full review of Bradley's Fine Diner on my blog, go to:

http://www.culinaryhouston.com/2014/04/bradleys-fine-diner-is-bfd.html


Bradley's Fine Diner
191 Heights Blvd.
Houston, TX 77057
832-831-3959
www.BradleysFineDiner.com





Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Olive Garden Introduces New Menu Items and Improved Presentation

 
There are some hits and some misses. Hits were big and misses were slight:

Olive Garden threw a little media party in The Woodlands, north of Houston... just for food and restaurant bloggers. They were introducing new menu items to us after they had been selling them to customers for a month or two. That's always a good idea (when possible), so that the kitchen staff gets it down and the servers know what they're serving, as well as how to romance them to diners.

We were asked to try so many dishes in such a rapid-fire presentation of them, so I'll cover the memorable offerings with reviews and comments about them... and photos of most of them. First of all, I want to offer congratulations to Olive Garden for raising their bar on presentation. Most dishes were creatively presented to us.

'Twas a wonderment to me that I would find my personal favorite wings in Olive Garden! These Italian-seasoned Calabrian Chicken Wings (baked and tossed in herbs, Calabrian essence with pepper flakes and lots of garlic) had a sane amount of heat... were bursting with flavor and could be improved only with the addition of a big screen TV for sports. BTW, the wings come with a simple Gorgonzola dipping sauce that I chose to taste (delicious) but not use. These wings need no softening of their heat, nor dilution of the coating tossed thereupon.


Calabrian Chicken Wings

Many go to Olive Garden for the endless Salads and Bread Sticks. I'm not one of them, but I eat my share when there. That institution has been upgraded by the addition of optional Salad Toppers for an additional $2.99. Those include Antipasti Italian Meats and Cheese... OR, Roasted Tomato Caprese, which we sampled. With fresh mozzarella bites, roasted tomato, bell pepper basil and kale, this would be my go-to salad there in the future.

Salad with a Caprese Topper

There are some new lo-cal dishes and the Chicken Abruzzi, with only 520 calories is stellar. Not a typical low calorie compromise, this is a full-flavored order-again dish with grilled chicken strips, a clear, rich broth and kale, cannellini beans and perfectly cooked "garden vegetables". I loved this dish, yet found the fact that while the kale leaves were really nice, the inclusion of the tough under cooked stems was off-putting for me. That's a very simple fix for the restaurant and this remains one of my favorites there. Either trim the leaves of the stems, or cook them a little longer.

Chicken Abruzzi

Chicken Primavera with Giant Fusilli

I was pretty impressed with the Chicken Primavera with Giant Fusilli. The sauteed chicken was not at all overdone and the same goes for the veggies.  These aren't from a frozen bag. The fresh asparagus was crisp. It and the other veggies (zucchini, snap peas, etc.) were cooked in a white wine marinara just enough to shout "We're here and we're fresh." The fusilli were cooked to al dente perfection and the marinara clung to it quite well.



Pappardelle Pescatore

The Pappardelle Pescatore with perfectly sauteed shrimp, bay scallops and clams tossed with pappardelle pasta, fresh tomatoes red pepper cream sauce was pleasant and I enjoyed it... however, I kept wondering why the teeny clams were there. If they were there to impart their flavor to the sauce, then it worked. If they were there for presentation, then it worked.  If they were there so you can eat the clams, then use bigger ones. I love clams.

Build-your-own Cucina Mia

A new menu component is called Cucina Mia. Diners build their own creations from six different pastas.  Then they add a house-made sauce, choosing from five (including a seasonal selection. Then, they add a selection from five toppings including Chicken Meatballs, Sausage Meatballs, Meatballs (regular Italian) or shrimp.

My build-out included Chicken Meatballs (not juicy enough for me... but it's chicken), a creamy sun-dried tomato sauce (delicious)... on a bed of large Pacheri pasta. The dish and the method have great potential... but I got what I chose. The minor disappointment for me was probably a fluke in the kitchen and it was that the giant, thick Pacheri pasta was far too big to be served as al dente as it was.  But, then I don't know if this was a one-of-a-kind mistake by a cook on MY dish, or a standard. My worthless suggestion would be to cook the pasta a little longer.


Other dishes tried are below in the Galerie du Cuisine. Reviewing them all exceeds the amount of time I have expound upon them. I recommend a visit to Olive Garden to check out the new menu items.

Galerie du Cuisine

Polenta Shrimp alla Greco


Bucatini with Spicy Diavolo and Shrimp


Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich (with a Diavolo sauce)


Wild Berry Layer Cake

Olive Garden
 Everywhere
www.OliveGarden.com












Sunday, May 11, 2014

Giacomo's Cibo e Vino in Houston

Giacamo's neighborhood Italian cafe... better late than never.



Driving past this River Oaks area eatery always peaked my interest, but never enough to make the turn. When a friend suggested Giacomo's as a spot to meet for lunch, I jumped at the suggestion, as my curiosity could finally be put to rest.



I am not extremely fond of restaurants sitting right on a busy street like Westheimer, but upon entering the front door, I wasn't aware of that.  On the patio, while the cars could be heard, the trees and shrubs hid them from view and their presence wasn't overpowering.



Now that I have been there, I feel that I have wasted time and money by passing it up for so long. The first delight was that the quiet little neighborhood Italian cafe is owned and run by Lynette Hawkins of long-extinct La Mora fame. I remember her for the Portabello mushroom starters that drew me in to her Montrose restaurant in those days. Now, alas, not on the menu! But... she does wonders with creminis!

So, as James was virtually a regular at Giacamo's, I asked him to order for me and in writing this review, I am a little hampered by the fact that we discussed each facet of the meal... and we agreed on our assessments of them. In fact, I read his blog  Mise en Place and it was hard to use other words to describe the lunch!

Mozzarella in Corrozza

Our first appetizer was Mozzarella in Corrozza, which was basically a mozzarella cheese sandwich with a truly heavenly and lemony caper sauce that literally made the dish. In fact, in my opinion, it saved the dish. I (we) found that the fact that the mozzarella wasn't melted was a little off-putting, but not a deal breaker. This little problem was (I'm sure) a fluke that, in the future, can be avoided when the order is placed. BTW, there will be a future order of it on my next visit. Capers, in my opinion, can make a durian edible.

Tortelli di Bietola

My pasta course was Tortelli di Bietola (Swiss chard, ricotta and goat cheese-filled ravioli, generously bathed in a sage butter sauce). Chard is rapidly becoming the go-to dark green veggie in the culinary world... surpassing the very common spinach of the Florentine dishes that populate Italian menus today. Thanks, James. The ravioli were thin and tender enough to tongue into submission and the simple sauce with fresh sage leaves was perfect. The dish was obviously spirited to our table immediately upon plating it, as the dreaded frisbie effect was far from setting in and the nicely sized pillows separated and slid effortlessly onto my fork. It is a truly well-done dish and probably should be a must-order on a first visit.

Gnocchi di Funghi 

I slipped a few bites of James' Gnocchi di Funghi on my plate. "Gentle giant" came to mind. The cream and gorgonzola sauce was big, bold, yet soft... and the muskiness of the creminis softened the flavor of the cheese. For a guy who NEVER orders gnocchi, I saw the error of my ways. However, as it always is with gnocchi, it is all about the sauce and this sauce is all about dressing up potatoes (beautifully) to go out.

Again, I wish I had visited Giacamo's earlier, but as they say... better late than never.

Giacamo's
3215 Westheimer
Houston, Texas
713.522.1934
Open Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Lynette Hawkins, Proprietaria
No Reservations
www.giacamosciboevino.com/




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bradley's Fine Diner IS a BFD!

Why did the Funky Chicken cross the road?




Actually, it didn't cross the road, it's at the other end of the strip center from BFD (Bradley's Fine Diner). Roughly four months after opening their chicken-every-single-way operation, Funky Chicken... and a couple of months before their upcoming May opening of Ogden's Pour Society in Memorial City, Bradley Ogden Hospitality has opened an edgy farm-to-table comfort food restaurant, Bradley's Fine Diner. Menus are paper and adjusted daily to offer the morning's fresh finds from local suppliers and farmers.

Chef Bryan Ogden at the helm during our visit. Dad, Chef Bradley
Ogden was out and about on our visit.

Sally and I were media guests of BFD a few days after opening to the public and, frankly, were taken aback by the contemporary approach to old standards, such as pot roast, pork belly and other comfort foods "all dressed up".

As my wife admonished me to, I gladly add the word "unpretentious" here. Throw it in wherever it seems appropriate. It will fit almost everywhere.



When asked the significance of the tree trunk chandelier, 
Chef Ogden replied "We thought it was cool."

In a casual, warm setting crowned with a funky (sorry about the word "funky") tree trunk chandelier overhead, we were greeted throughout our three-hour evening by smiling and knowledgeable servers, managers and mixologists. It didn't seem like three hours to US, but I have no doubt that it seemed like much longer to our hosts.

Mixologist Brittany Austin pointed out that their 
philosophy is to produce "modern takes on
classic cocktails that are American-driven and inspired...
yet meet the standards and quality of our cooking"

I need to point out that cheerful staff visits to guests tables were going on all over the room... NOT just for someone there to write an article about them and evaluate the food.

Hello! Sustainable Caviar, Herd Gnocchi and 
Citrus Creme Fraiche

Not on the menu, but delivered to our table, was a playful amuse bouche of sustainable caviar, herb gnocchi and citrus creme fraiche. I could have played with this for hours, calling for refills frequently, but alas, it was quickly followed by creative Spring Garlic Hummus starter.

Spring Garlic Hummus


A simple Spring Garlic Hummus with grilled and herbed flatbread and a savory olive relish ($9) started an evening of offerings that quickly morfed into a parade of very familiar dishes done in very unfamiliar ways.

Bone Marrow Toast

Another starter took a childhood favorite of mine to another level altogether. Bone Marrow Toast ($10) was an ample (very ample) spread of roasted beef bone marrow on grilled sourdough bread (did I say that all bread at BFD, including hamburger buns is house baked?), then sprinkled with peppery fresh arugula and pickled red onions. While, as a child, my servings of bone marrow were usually from soup bones, the additional dimension of roasting the bones made this creative variation on the marrow particularly inviting.

Popcorn Rock Shrimp with Chili-Lime Aioli

Popcorn Rock Shrimp ($14), sweet and juicy then fried in a thin, yet crispy batter. They were presented with a chili-lime aioli. The contrast between the sweet, rose-colored rock shrimp and the standard Gulf of Mexico shrimp (nothing is wrong with Gulf shrimp) is obvious in this dish and the temptation to serve it with a pedestrian tomato-based sauce was resisted in favor of a slightly tart limey aioli that perfectly balanced the sweetness of the rock shrimp. I kept wondering why we see so little of this delicate cousin of our standard Galveston Bay and Gulf of Mexico shrimp on Houston restaurant menus.

"Shake & Bake" Frog Legs


As a child, flashlight-in-hand, I roamed ponds on our property and gigged the croaking bullfrogs there in anticipation of an evening's meal of this chicken-like meat. Half of the fun was trying to keep the whole frog legs from hopping out of the black cast iron pan as the heat caused the detached leg muscles to contract. Quite an adventure. At BFD, the adventure is in the eating, as savory "Shake and Bake" Frog Legs ($22) are served with sunchoke, wild fennel and fresh celery leaves. Boneless and crispy, this is the perfect way to introduce the wary and uninitiated to the wonders of these former hoppers.

Chilled Pea Soup

Chilled Pea Soup ($10), another upgraded variation on a staple I have always loved was served (a la Vichyssoise and Gazpacho) as a refreshing cold Summer soup. Theatrics add to the experience and the soup is served in stages at BFD. First, is the presentation of a chilled bowl with cracked wheat salad, goat cheese and almonds nestled in the center. Then the chilled vibrant green pea soup is poured ceremoniously from a tea kettle to finish the presentation with the wheat salad peeking through the surface. It's as delicious as it is fun to watch while it is built in front of you.

Rhubarb Glazed Pork Belly

I can't say that, growing up, I was an aficionado of pork belly, except as thick-cut bacon with my eggs. Today, pork belly is the trendy food of the gods and is seen center-of-the-plate in fine dining restaurants everywhere (quite often slow-cooked sous vide). BFD's Rhubarb Glazed Pork Belly ($15) stands tall proudly as if to claim (rightly) that it's on the level of Filet Mignon and it's presentation, taste and creativity back that boast up. There is pork belly that is 70% fat and there is pork belly that's 70% MEAT. This is the good one!  Atop a bed of creamy organic grits, adorned with charred scallions and hickory nuts, the rhubarb glaze is playfully drizzled across it for sweet & sour notes and a gorgeous presentation. What a fun dish!

Bradley's Yankee Pot Roast

While I'm on "comfort food", it's time to talk about a dish that everyone in America will quickly claim is a favorite! The aroma of pot roast permeating the entire house as it slowly cooks in the oven is a fond comforting memory in most families. That's how Bradley's Yankee Pot Roast ($28) teased my senses when placed in front of me. But, it didn't really LOOK like pot roast! More formal, I thought. Perched atop smooth Yukon Gold/radish mashed potatoes, it was complemented by baby carrots and English peas. Who would've thought of blending the horseradish we have grown to enjoy with pot roast into a creamy puree of potatoes as a bed for the beef?

Pan Roasted Atlantic Black Cod

HELP! I was really full and looking for a dessert when the Pan Roasted Atlantic Black Cod ($38) was proudly placed on the table. With sweet coconut Carolina rice and a rich green curry sauce enveloping Gulf of Mexico shrimp, I was happy eating a little of it all in each bite... yet I was constantly treating the shrimp curry as a separate entree then savoring the huge moist flakes of cod likewise. Each component was fine as a standalone dish, I thought. Playing with my food, I knew after a few bites that it would be in front of me on my next visit.

Award-Winning Bradley's Oak Grilled Chuck Burger

As an afterthought, one might remember back in 2010 when Esquire magazine did a list of the best burgers in the U.S.. At that time, Chef Bradley Ogden was busy wowing diners in his restaurant in Las Vegas. Indicating that simple is simple and less is more, Esquire picked Ogden's burger as the "Best Burger in America".  Served here at BFD as Bradley's Oak-Grilled Chuck Burger (on the Bar Menu) is his local Akaushi beef, caramelized grilled onion burger. Served on a house-baked bun and accompanied by BFD hand-cut fries, tangy house-made ketchup, house-made bread & butter-style pickles and buttery bib lettuce, this burger is all about the beef purist who is more interested in the quality of the beef than whatever salad one might pile upon it in a burger.

Dark Chocolate Banana Cake

Finally, in the nick of time, came a Dark Chocolate-Banana Cake, drizzled with caramel... sprinkled with hazelnuts and accompanied by malt ice cream. It was a decadent treat, served with a cup of cappuccino to top off a truly a roller coaster ride of exciting offerings. Oh, did you know that sometimes a little amuse bouche shows up at the end of a meal, also? That would be the smooth, creamy butterscotch cups with little rosemary short breads tucked into them. My life was complete and so was the meal.

Men's Room! If you can't perform under
pressure, don't look at the lady on the wall.

See you again... I promise.


Bradley's Fine Diner
191 Heights Boulevard
Houston, TX 77007              
(832) 831-5939   
www.BradleysFineDiner.com