Hungary Getting Hungry for Bocuse d’Or Competition

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After an evil 20th century of two world wars, dismemberment of empire, one or more revolutions (depending on your definition) and finally a new kind of freedom, the people of Hungary are rediscovering their favorite cuisine. Believe it or not, it’s Hungarian food.

This Central European country’s love affair with its own recipes, its own products and definitely its own wines will be on display May 10-11, 2016, when the culinary world comes calling for the Bocuse d’Or chef competition. Though some of the dishes the chefs will be cooking are French – the very name “Bocuse” requires a reverence for classical technique long taught in French or with a French accent – don’t be surprised if the Hungarian love of paprika sneaks in, along with produce, along with sausage and other meats, along with Hungary’s passion for its heritage.

“A Hungarian gastro-revolution has been in progress for decades,” says chef Zoltan Hamvas, who serves as president of the Hungarian Bocuse d’Or Academy. “The best people of the profession are united in order to renew Hungarian gastronomy. The organization of the Bocuse d’Or European final selection in Budapest will be an important milestone for our revolution.”

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A “revolution” certainly seems appropriate, as we learned recently sitting at a back table with Hamvas and fellow Hungarian chef Tomas Szell, honored with Bocuse d’Or success this past year. To talk about Hungarian cuisine with these two chefs is to talk about Hungarian history, and that’s to talk about the 20th century. Early on, after World War I, that meant the loss of national pride in the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – not to mention the loss of territory that gave Hungarians some of their favorite food products. After making another poor choice of allies in World War II, Hungary found itself part of the Soviet zone behind the Iron Curtain. This it didn’t enjoy one bit.

However, unlike others who didn’t enjoy being Soviet satellites, the Hungarians did something about it. They launched an ill-fated revolution in 1956, eventually crushed by Soviet tanks just as the Prague Spring would be crushed a dozen years later. If the Soviet overlords were anti-Hungarian-culture before the 1956 revolution, they despised it after and sought to erase it from the earth. Fat chance of that, fired back the Hungarians, even when it had to be in stunned silence. Hungarian cuisine, however, became an almost-banished affair.

Beginning with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the coming of freedom, along with the sometimes-baffling free market economy, in 1989, the people of Hungary slowly re-embraced their roots in both food and wine – literally with a vengeance. In wine, it meant clearing out the cheap grapes that covered hillsides and the ineffective techniques that produced high volumes of low-quality Soviet wine, replanting not only with better grapes but with native ones. Legendary regions like Tokaj could again demand global attention, thanks to a combination of native-born and imported winemakers from France and even California.

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In food, as originally in France and Italy and then decades ago with New American and specifically California cuisine, the emphasis was on local and traditional. Paprika started to turn up outside chicken paprikas and goulash, the two most famous traditional recipes – a reminder that this most “Hungarian” of ingredients came in with the hated Ottoman Turks during 150 years of occupation. So things go in the Old World. Today, a glance at a Bocuse d’Or promotional booklet turns up so much more than paprika. There’s water, salt, honey, pork from “happy” Mangalitza pigs, lamb, Herend porcelain to serve from (we enjoyed a visit to the factory), and the high-octane fruit spirit known as palinka. Hungarians are rightly proud of all these things. Whether you’re indulging yourself with Old World fine dining at Gundel in Budapest, restored some years back by Hungarian-American restaurant guru George Lang, or spooning up stew in the humblest country café, someone will tell you about what grows nearby and why it’s the best version anywhere.

Hungary is hopeful that, with the most talented chefs coming from all over Europe for the Bocuse d’Or competition, more and more of them will become aware not only of Hungarian history and culture but of foods and wines they can put on their menus back home. “This offers Hungary enormous opportunities and genuine marketing value, which will help the development and professional recognition that is increasingly important in the area of cuisine,” says Budapest mayor Istvan Tarlos. “Hungarian cuisine is one of the highlights of Hungarian culture. It is varied withy creative foods that offer a unique and characterful world of flavors.”

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Reborn Brennan’s Mixes Old and New with Audacity

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Like everybody else of any age born in New Orleans, I’ve been going to Brennan’s – or at least knowing about the iconic French Quarter restaurant – forever. It was, for me and my family, a special-occasion kind of place, not the sort of fried seafood hangout we went to at the lakefront every Friday night because that’s what Catholics did in those days. A self-proclaimed French restaurant started by an Irishman, Brennan’s was a place for celebration. That meant I was sad a couple years back when the doors shut, presumably forever, the result of warfare among the three brothers who’d been running the business that their father started, and their now-grown children. And it meant I was elated last fall when Brennan’s reopened after a multi-million dollar renovation carried out by the brothers’ wildly successful cousin, Ralph Brennan, and business partner Terry White.

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That’s not to say I have no pleasant memories of time spent with Owen Jr. (invariably known as Pip), Jimmy and Ted Brennan. Quite the contrary. Owen always seemed burly and brusque to me, until he started talking about his city – then I knew why he headed up many of the best tourism promotions boards. After he invited me to sit with the family at the annual Bacchus Carnival ball, I liked him better still. And there was Jimmy, the restaurant’s wine guy, and the years of predictable jokes about putting an Irishman in charge of the alcohol. Best of all, for me, there was Ted. The bespectacled brother invited me every few months to come have lunch, usually to chat without any fathomable agenda. I heard in detail about his battles to lose weight after replacing cigarettes with Haagen-Dazs, as well as about his surrender to tourists who kept complaining the turtle soup wasn’t “Cajun enough.” Perhaps for the first (and hopefully last) time in human history, New Orleans sherry-kissed Creole-not-Cajun turtle soup became hot and spicy.

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Despite the charismatic presence of Ralph Brennan and the talent of executive chef Slade Rushing, I expected this born-again Brennan’s to be a cleaned-up version of everything it used to be – a new, improved time capsule, as it were. Yet since the old Brennan’s, for a thousand reasons right and wrong, hadn’t kept up with the times, the new partners decided it was time to play catch-up. By all accounts, the legendary Breakfast at Brennan’s (which runs through lunchtime) does feature egg dishes and other traditionals, but dinner is an ambitiously updated version of itself. In addition to the buttery-lush BBQ lobster pictured at the very top, appetizers include a nice roasted oyster dish with smoked chile butter and Manchego cheese in the crust. And entrees, in addition to the weird but beloved filet of beef Stanley – steak with bananas? – jump off the page with this bacon-roasted venison loin. The oh-so-tender, medium-rare medallions show up with tangy cabbage choucroute, chestnut butter and a reduction of red wine and bacon.

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When it’s dessert time at Brennan’s, you have every reason to look around for someone willing to set some bananas on fire. Bananas Foster was invented here, and while most at least semi-fancy New Orleans restaurants take a stab at the dish, Brennan’s is again one of the best. Still, whenever my heart takes me down Memory Lane, it’s strawberries more than bananas I want. Crepes Fitzgerald was also invented here, and quite an invention it is. Delicate crepes folded around sweetened cream cheese get covered in a sauce of macerated strawberries (preferably from the town of Pontchatoula near New Orleans) and flambeed in kirschwasser cherry liqueur. This dessert isn’t even on the menu yet but the dining room staff is more than capable to turning it out at your request. There are so many things to remember here – too many, maybe. Yet I have a suspicion the memories being made now will end of trumping so many of the ones that came before.


The Best Street in New Orleans Is Memory Lane

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On this last, most extravagant weekend of Mardi Gras – or Carnival, to be precise, since Mardi Gras is only one day, Fat Tuesday –  I went “home” to New Orleans for a mixture of business, pleasure and parade traffic. After so many years of going there for weddings, baptisms, graduations, divorces and funerals, it’s a bit hard sometimes to tell what I’m supposed to be feeling. Yet with all the purple, green and gold of the Carnival season swirling around me, I knew I was feeling… a lot.

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As it turned out, I was eating a lot too. When I wasn’t holed up at the small, graceful Whitney Hotel (in the 1909 building that was home to the first Whitney National Bank), I was taking camera and appetite to the streets. This meant a mandatory muffaletta at Central Grocery near the French Market, and this also meant an original spin on the French galette du roi, or kingcake, at Croissant D’Or.  Kingcakes have evolved from this puff pastry filled with almond paste, but it’s nice to travel through time once in a while. And speaking of traveling through time…

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Needless to say, I love New Orleans’ Old Guard restaurants, starting with the oldest, Antoine’s. It was here, after years of hearing about my parents’ dinners without us kids, I asked to be taken for my 16th birthday. And it was at nearby Arnaud’s that I was hired to write the first of my many restaurant cookbooks, researching until the owners themselves called me with questions about their history. And it was at Brennan’s around the corner, only a handful of weeks ago, that I toasted with champagne the reopening of an indispensible New Orleans classic.

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I remember… sitting in K-Paul’s at that small table by the kitchen with chef Paul Prudhomme and watching as cook after cook brought him things to taste. “Nah, John,” he’d say, glancing at me over a forkful of pecan pie, “this crist just ain’t quite right.” Over time I got to know Chef Paul pretty well, and over time he got to know me – finally telling me I should become a food writer. “You be good to food,” he advised, “and food’ll be good to you.” And I remember the pleasantly scruffy bar at Tujague’s. In fact, forgetting what year it is, I was caught unawares by a black-and-white photo tribute on the wall to my late friend Steve Latter. On behalf of his restaurant, every few months, Steve would invite me in to drink and eat with him, always like he wanted some company, always forgetting to ask for media coverage. I liked him so much, I gave it anyway.

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Block after block, the memories… I remember strolling through the French Market with my parents on Sundays, all of us dressed up for Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, my navy blue toddler outfit covered in powdered sugar from beignets at Cafe du Monde. The produce always looked better in the French Market, as did the long-gone fresh fish and meat, than any of it ever did at the A&P. And of course I remember music everywhere, somebody always playing something. It is amazing to me that virtually everything I remember from that life is still available. It seems all those wonderful things should have disappeared by now, along with the faces of so many who have. But they haven’t disappeared.

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And finally… It’s important to remember, as the city cascades toward Fat Tuesday, that for every all-too-public New Orleans there is an oh-so-private one, one you can glimpse only if you stick your nose through open doorways and wait for your eyes to adjust to the shadows. I ALWAYS stick my nose through open doorways, whether it’s to glimpse the numberless inner courtyards where real lives have been lived for centuries or to gaze through bars at the small, lovely garden behind the Cathedral. Jesus gazes out from here over, well, everything. Yes, it’s worth remembering that Mardi Gras is a religious holiday. In other words, God doesn’t need to save us from Mardi Gras. God GAVE us Mardi Gras. Not to mention… a thousand and one Memory Lanes.

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First Taste of Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar

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We knew we’d end up happy when the octopus showed up. Why is it that – while we here in the States know only octopus that’s tough, rubbery and tasteless – the people who inhabit the Mediterranean coast know how to make it not. So it is with the octopus roasted with rosemary, garlic and fine herbs over sauteed escarole and capers at the new Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar. And so it is with chef Giancarlo Ferrara, cooking his own region’s food at last in a restaurant he can call his own. In fact, with him in the kitchen and his wife working the dining room, he almost could be back home.

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There’s a lot of seafood served at Amalfi – on the map, the place is the Amalfi Coast, after all. Yet there was also a lot of seafood at the chef’s previous gig, many years preparing the Sardinia-influenced cuisine of Arcodoro. Sardinia being an island. Still, for all the training and practice, this chef brings to his roasted octopus and his lobster tail segments with arugula, fresh orange and chive pink pepper dressing the sensitivity and sensibility of one who grew up on the water.

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Regional specialties aside, what is Italian food to most Americans if not pizza and pasta? Ferrara and his wife Lisa are smart enough to give us what we want. There are pizzas starting with a classic margherita and running to the one I want to try next – Italian sausage and rapini. Can I add mushrooms to that? And while there’s no pasta offered quite so Little Italy as spaghetti and meatballs, there are these agnolotti stuffed with smoked buffalo mozzarella and ricotta, and paccheri with a hearty-winter ragu of braised Berkshire pork ribs.

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Opening in the final months of 2014, Amalfi has gained quite a following among Houstonians living in the Galleria, Memorial and even Energy Corridor areas – always as relieved not to venture Inside the Loop as Inner Loopers are not to venture out of it. One of the best dishes at Amalfi has to be the Madagascar colossal prawns with zucchini risotto, joined now as a personal favorite by fall-off-the-bone ossobuco braised in Taurasi wine and sided with both thyme risotto and crisp-tender sauteed broccolini.

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The crowd at Amalfi seems to appreciate a lot of dessert choices; tiramisu and all the other greatest hits are here, most of them seeming worth a try. But one of the finales most embraced so far is the so-called Trilogy of Hazelnut. The sampler is a living-breathing Nutella festival. There’s a lush warm cake (one of the best molten chocolate things we’ve ever had), plus a panna cotta and a scoop of gelato, all with easy access to a caramel sauce. As God is my witness, as long the Trilogy is available at Amalfi, I’ll never get tiramisu again.


First Taste of New/Old Pico’s ‘Mex-Mex’

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Whenever a restaurant that’s been popular for years moves closer to its current customer base, it’s big news – especially for that customer base. So it was as people who’d been driving “way out” to Bellaire from River Oaks, the Museum District and West U welcomed their old friend Arnaldo Richards and his Pico’s to a busy corner where one of the innumerable Ninfa’s spinoffs used to be. Happily for all of us, Richards brought lots of hyper-fresh Gulf seafood with him for the “long” journey.

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Richards, who is originally from Mexico despite his British surname, first attracted local attention in Bellaire by emphasizing that his food was not Tex-Mex. Doing so in a state that loves Tex-Mex, and indeed tends to reject any other version of Mexican food, was pretty gutsy. But he started using the phrase Mex-Mex, and it stuck – at the original restaurant in Bellaire as well as at a strip-center offshoot on Katy Freeway. As dishes like the warm mariscada up top and the cold campechana below it make clear, Richards is underlining his Mex-Mex-ness to this day.

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There is a tendency in restaurants that set themselves above some perceived ethnic entry level – Mexican, Chinese, Indian or whatever – to do so by going all “fancy.” This typically means better ingredients as well as more labor-intensive (and cross-cultural) presentations, like this elaborate tower of seafood. Happily, with an abiding love of Mexico’s regional cuisines, Richards focuses more on flavor than appearance. It’s a focus we always support. The tower is quite delicious, complete with a tropical splash of diced mango.

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It’s not, thankfully, that Richards is afraid of his food “tasting Mexican” – virtually every dish on his extremely large menu does taste Mexican, a little or a lot. He’s not even afraid of siding gravy-covered, melty cheese entrees like these red and green sincronizadas with tomato rice and refried beans. It is that he works hard to make us realize that Mex-Mex food is more than what we thought it was. The duck with two different mole sauces is one case in point, as are the steaks that make up a surprisingly generous section of the menu. Virtually all possible proteins seem happy to be here, unlike the beef-beef-beef that’s a signature of the vaquero traditions of the Mexico-Texas frontera.

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If there’s any single sign that Pico’s is here to stay in Houston – or indeed that it deserves its rebaptized name “Arnaldo Richards’ Pico’s,” it’s the desserts that show up at your table. Yes, you can get good flan here, or even the tres leches that long ago replaced sopaipillas as the go-to Tex-Mex finale. But you can also get lush, decadent German chocolate cake and cheesecake that’s taken to the tropics on vacation by a topping of guava jelly.  These are all made, we’re told, by Richards’ sister, with considerable dollops of love. Since on any given night at this new/old Pico’s, you can meet Richards himself, his brother Alex and his daughter Monica, eating too much dessert made by his sister seems like, well, icing on the cake.



Work of Art: My First Taste of the New Bistro Menil

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Having enjoyed a preview at chef-owner Greg Martin’s home a few months back and then a hardhat tour of the construction site, I figured it was high time to sample the real deal. Winning out over 11 other bidders to create a restaurant on the grounds of Houston’s world-famous Menil Collection, Martin and Co. have gotten the window-crazed Bistro Menil open just in time to enjoy the flourish of holiday dining. I have every reason to believe, based on last night’s dinner (not to mention the lemon curd tart with Italian meringue pictured above), this “flourish” will last for years to come.

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To hear people talk these first few weeks, you’d think the duck rillettes and the eggplant fries with anchovy aioli were virtually the only things on the menu. They ARE wonderful ways to start a meal – the former falling somewhere on the French scale between a creamy pate and a charcuterie plate. In fact, their presence shows a greater-than-usual commitment for somebody opening a “bistro” these days to actually serve bistro cuisine. For comfort and relative (to fine dining) quickness, Bistro Menil is an authentic bistro indeed.

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As I love any and all pizzas in theory, there ought to be a law that states: Don’t put pizzas on your menu unless you want me to sample one or more. With my excitement to try many different things, I only got around to one pie last night, one of the more traditionally Neapolitan (Italian sausage, roasted beech mushrooms, tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella). I like Italian flavors best on a pizza, but I can also see myself traveling to Provence with the tapenade, eggplant and goat cheese, or to Spain with the manchego, jamon and “brava sauce.” Hopefully it tastes like patatas bravas.

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In my mind and memory, wintertime, bistros and the white bean stew called cassoulet are a single thing. Spinning off from the original, Greg Martin has given us a cassoulet with a Texas trwist, including a hunter’s paradise of duck confit and venison sausage. When it comes to choosing a side dish, you can get a house salad but go instead for the cold zucchini with parmesan and pancetta – it’s light, subtlely lemon-kissed and amazing. The Costa Brava snapper, taking us to Spain, is something special and, like all the “main entrees,” it comes with your choice of two sides.  We selected the bistro potatoes and the terrific roasted cubed vegetables, combining seasonal butternut squash and carrot. Talk about a winter wonderland!

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When you’re serving a museum (the Menil) as well as a neighborhood (Montrose) as well as a very large city (Houston), the next best thing to Ladies Who Lunch must be Ladies Who Dessert. That probably explains the ridiculous 17 desserts on the Bistro Menil menu, more items than in any other category. And since I could try only so many after things like pizza and cassoulet, I opted for that light-sounding lemon tart and the less-light-sounding-but-delicious-anyway buttermilk blackberry cake. Chef Greg Martin, after spending the last couple decades at Cafe Annie and finally creating dishes for all the Cafe Express outlets, thinks we need almost unlimited choices. After last night’s dinner, I’m oh-so-tempted to agree with him.


Born-Again Citrus Making SA Waves On the River

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You know you’re hearing significant culinary news when San Antonians tell you about an exciting new chef doing exciting new things, especially when that chef is cooking in a hotel – on the tourist-frenzied Riverwalk. Whenever locals leap over so many hurdles, real but mostly imagined, to go get some dinner, you know the excitement is real. So it is with the work French Laundry veteran Robbie Nowlin is doing at Citrus inside the Hotel Valencia.

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Then again, Citrus has a tradition of creating local and regional celebrity chefs – against all odds, it would seem. Early on, and for several years, Jeff Balfour ran the kitchen – and he is now about to open his own restaurant in the revitalized Pearl Brewery development, a renewal so huge that San Antonio’s powers-that-be extended the Riverwalk to get there. Today at Citrus, whether you’re tasting Nowlin’s surprisingly rustic Gulf shrimp-Iberico chorizo cazuela or his play-on-flavors “genoise” (cake) of foie gras with honey-poached cranberry, butternut squash puree and “compressed” radicchio, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Or in your grandmother’s San Antonio eiher.

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Chef Nowlin has cooked off-and-on in San Antonio for years, most recently at Las Canarias, the signature dining room of La Mansion del Rio virtually next door. You might say he was every bit as “poached” from Las Canarias as his elite lobster creation. After being poached in butter (not mere water or stock), the meat from Maine gets a setting of black trumpet mushrooms, caramelized cippolini onions and glazed baby beets. The coolest thing on the plate is the “pomme Maxim,” an old-fashioned French technique that essentially gives us potato chips on top.

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It is, of course, a signature of contemporary, elevated cuisine (as epitomized and popularized by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa) that nothing just shows up in front of you. The chef is expected to flirt with as many unexpected flavors, use as many cooking processes and indeed dirty as many pots as possible. So it is with Nowlin’s remarkable duck breast entree. The breast is dry-aged in-house then drawn into an Asian-kissed combination of “crispy fried rice,” eggplant, cucumber and radish. That swizzle on the plate out-front is a “sauce japonaise” – a Japanese sauce, in French.

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As the chilly weather sets in, diners might want something more substantial than many of the delicate dishes chefs like Nowlin tend to set out – but in his case. that should be no problem. Braised lamb shank is about as substantial as you can get. The meat, covered in an intriguing “mustard seed glaze,” finds itself sharing the plate not only with a pureed version of piperade from Provence (it traditionally has sliced sweet peppers) but with picked eggplant and a lovely salad of frisee and cashews. I could lunch on a bowl of that salad all by itself.

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If you close your eyes and taste the dessert titled simply Lemon Curd, you’ll know exactly what you’re eating – the best lemon meringue pie ever. But if you open your eyes, there’s no lemon meringue pie in sight. Such is the trompe l’oeil joy of desserts crafted by pastry chef Andrea Morgan. The pie is evoked by a “streusel” of crushed, scattered pie crust, brilliantly enough. I particularly love the torched maple marshmallows, reminding me of the best campout in human history.  As with every dish by Robbie Nowlin, there are food memories on every plate at this new version of Citrus. They never look the way you remember them, but they are rich, deep and beloved memories all the same.



‘Breakfast Market’ in Warsaw a Total Foodie Fantasy

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Each weekend at the Targ Sniadaniowy in Warsaw (and now four additional Polish cities), people who love flavor for flavor’s sake turn out to taste, talk and buy. Translated as “breakfast market,” the event and/or destination combines the best parts of farmers market, gourmet shop and pop-up restaurant, letting Poles raised on their hearty native cuisine taste things not only from that menu but from as far away as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil, even from Ethiopia and Mexico. Want to know how successful Targ Sniadaniowy has been? The company has been invited to launch a version – in Paris!

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Polish cuisine involves a huge love affair with smoke – something Texans may find we have in common. Yet except for smoked sausage (kielbasa is a Polish thing, after all), many of the applications are a tad foreign. No fish, for instance, avoids a smokehouse around here, and there are many smoked cheeses and even smoked butter. Both smoked sausage and smoked fish are represented at the market. There’s even a smoked fish sausage, which obviously splits the difference.

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Staples for home cooking like ridiculously good bread and ultra-fresh produce abound at Targ Sniadaniowy – which now, in addition to Warsaw, takes place on weekends in Krakow, Gdansk, Posnan and Sopot. In fact, as the breakfast market expands into each new city, it seeks out the best vendors from that area, rather than relying on its tried-and-true. “People in Gdansk don’t want food from Warsaw,” offers food blogger Kasia Marciniewicz as she shows me around with manager Filip Nakrewicz. “There is huge local patriotism.”

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Still, a clear crowd favorite at the market are the people known colorfully as “feeders,” which must be some too-literal English translation of food vendors. The Targ may be the most “ethnic” eatery in all Warsaw, due at least partly to the low cost of entry compared to opening a restaurant. Many concepts, like Abyssinia serving Ethiopian cuisine and Burritos Locos serving Mexican, are born of men from those countries married to Polish women. I loved my burrito made by Fernando from Mexico City, who upon hearing I was originally from New Orleans, asked if I cheered for the Saints over the Texans or the Cowboys. Then, with an impish wink, he boasted about his food. “It will taste like you’re in El Paso,” he laughed. “Except I will be legal.”


The Baklava Trail At Greek Festival

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You’ve got to respect a meal that’s been in the works for not minutes or even hours but for months. So it is enjoying lunch or dinner at the Original Greek Festival in Houston, which opened to an ever-hungry public last night and continues through Sunday afternoon.  As I figured out pretty quickly, the honey-soaked and buttery phyllo dessert called baklava that’s baked and frozen, baked and frozen for months by volunteers for Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church is only the tip of the Opa! iceberg.

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A gyro (sometimes called a “gyro sandwich”) may well be the most “Greek” dish on the face of the earth – which is kind of funny considering it was invented in America using then-new American food technology. Today, if you travel to Greece – as I do every chance I get – you can hardly pass a street corner or read a casual menu that doesn’t feature the gyro. I crave the damn things, with that cooling tzatziki yogurt-cucumber sauce, and the version dished up at the Greek Festival is certainly one of the best I’ve had in Greece or here, in its native land.

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Still, if you want something substantial at the heart of your Greek Festival experience, and especially if you plan on drinking lots of excellent and fun Greek wine, you need to order a Dinner Plate. Other than the styrofoam, everything about this collection of pastitzio, tiropita, spanokopita, meatballs (keftedes, if you prefer) and salad speaks of being handmade by tireless church ladies. The flavors might say a mouthful about centuries of interaction among Greeks, Turks, Venetians and North Africans. Or you might just shut up and eat.

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Greeks love to cook meat (or fish, on islands or along the coasts) on skewers. The general notion is known as souvlakia or simply souvlaki. In Greece, the preferred meat tends to be lamb or, more and more each time I visit, pork. In Texas, it of course tends to be beef. These Texas-sized skewers are made of beef tenderloin (“more or less filet mignon,” I heard somebody call it) that’s been marinated in red wine, herbs and spices, then grilled over coals in a production line. This being Texas, souvlakia is one of the few things at the Greek Festival that’s cooked by men.

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Speaking of wine, the theme song of the industry in Greece might well be “You’ve come a long way, baby!” While ancient Greece probably didn’t invent wine (thanks, archaeologists, for bursting MY bubble), it was certainly the first place in history to develop a wine culture. After generations of faring poorly and apparently caring about little except alcohol, Greeks are now making some of the more exciting vintages on the planet. Don’t think about that, though: just pull a bottle of crisp white moschofilero from the ice, and enjoy!

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Greeks are born with some serious sweet tooth, which means that in Texas (where the words “too sweet” share dusty shelf space with “too rich” and “too thin”) Greeks have made themselves at home. In addition to the baklava at the center of so many Greek dessert fantasies, there are cookies like these finikia. You can get boxes of any one pastry from the nice Greek ladies, or mixed boxes, or just indulge in the beignet-like fried doughnuts called loukoumades, pictured below. Unlike in New Orleans, these are dipped in warm honey before being coated with powered sugar. And the sugar is sifted with ground cinnamon. In the spirit of Greeks living anywhere and talking or thinking about anything, the idea seems to be: Why on earth have less when you can possibly have more?

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Southern Food And Beverage Museum

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As the world certainly understands by now, New Orleans is home to many wonderful things to eat and drink. But if you want to understand how that eating and drinking are not mere pleasure but culture – not only in New Orleans but across Texas and the rest of the South – the brand-new Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans is the place for you. I attended the ribbon cutting and am happy to report: Yes, you can get hot sauce with that.

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Almost as fascinating as the museum is the building that houses it. The structure was long known as the Dryades Market, one of a network of “city markets” that existed in New Orleans before the advent of supermarkets. Abandoned for decades, this former market is now viewed as an exemplar of a neighborhood, known as Central City, that’s on the rise again – post-Katrina, post-Recession, post a whole lot of things. The renovation by Woodward Design + Build is truly striking, a testament at all levels – financial, political and visionary – to a “Can Do” spirit that is still somewhat new to “old” New Orleans.

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Getting anything with so many moving parts open by a certain date is heartwrenching (as I learned covering the World’s Fair in New Orleans as a young UPI reporter in 1984), and everybody stressed how many great things are still in storage. Not least, there’s the Museum of the American Cocktail that will be housed within SoFAB, as the larger museum is colorfully known. Set up for the ribbon-cutting, however, were small exhibits showcasing each state in the South (I told them the Texas one needed to be bigger!), along with creative evocations of Southern cultural touchpoints like coffee and oysters.

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More twists and turns are still to come, as the opening remarks by famed California chef Jeremiah Tower made clear. There will be lectures and cooking demos in a lovely kitchen space, a separate kitchen to service an on-site restaurant and even a lovingly restored wooden bar for making, of all crazy things, cocktails.  It’s amazing how much New Orleans can accomplish when it sets its mind to it – and when it so clearly loves the subject matter. In truth, I never wanted the South to “rise again.” Here, curated and showcased in New Orleans, is the best South, the one that actually deserves to be embraced by its children forever.

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