Happy 30th B’day To Chez Nous

DSCF0058 (590x492) Three decades later, it’s still pretty hard to guess what inspired a French chef named Gerard Brach to take one look at Humble TX and say, “This is where I will build my culinary empire!” Or even “This will be an outpost of la belle France!” Yet thanks to a young couple of food and wine Francophiles, who also happen to be a couple, Brach did and Chez Nous still is. We stopped by last night to help Stacy and Scott Simonson celebrate the restaurant’s 30th birthday, but the party actually goes on all this month. DSCF0038 (590x443) Chez Nous is more than a blast from France – it’s also a blast from the past. Seldom has more love been poured into any project than Stacy and Scott pour into their former pentacostal church on a residential side street that now is home to leather-bound menus, waiters in tuxedos and a wine list that’s mostly from the Mother Country. Surely, day to day, the newest and least French thing about Stacy and Scott is their role reversal – she being the chef running the kitchen (as Gerard Brach taught her to) and he running the dining room. 20140913_202251_resized (590x443) 20140913_202324_resized (590x443) To love the food at Chez Nous – like this medium-rare duck breast or this medium-rare rack of lamb pictured above – you really need to love French cuisine. But unlike many other “ethnic” cooking styles, loving French does not mean you have to love “curry” as with popular notions of Indian food, soy sauce as with popular notions of Chinese and even red sauce as with popular notions of Italian. French cuisine is such a huge and overarching body of food knowledge that almost anything that isn’t overtly something else is, quite persuasively, French. 20140913_210035_resized (590x443) 20140913_210012_resized (590x443) The latter truth is seldom truer than when it comes to dessert at Chez Nous. In general, diners want tradition in their mouths for this final flourish of a celebratory meal – despite the wacky desserts we see around us in some chef-driven restaurants these days. Not so with the walnut tart served here (how very French, to sneak in all that fresh fruit) or with the lush cheesecake. Still, if it happens to be your celebration as well as the restaurant’s, you really should give the kitchen its 25-minute headstart and let them make you and serve you a souffle. I can think of few things in any restaurant more timeless than that! DSCF0056 (590x443)

Sullivan’s Without A Single Steak

20140828_190653_resized (590x443)

There it is, right in the name: Sullivan’s STEAKHOUSE, that longtime bastion of club-like masculine gorging, all about low lights, dark wood and stiff drinks. All that is still there, of course. And if the Texans hadn’t been on the field last night, half of them would probably have been there too. But what I discovered from dishes like this hot-and-sweet Shanghai fried calamari is that it’s entirely possible to have a wonderful meal at this particular Texas-based steakhouse without letting lips wander anywhere near a steak.

20140828_190809_resized (590x443)

Sullivan’s, of course, is part of the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, operators of the high-end Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse along with the much newer (AND much younger) Del Frisco’s Grille that I loved from the first time I went to one in Dallas before tracking down the location in New York City. What these adventures have taught the company is that non-meat options sell. Dishes like the Cajun-spiced seared tuna draw in not only vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians (which I guess last night was all about) but larger parties with one holdout whining to go anywhere else.

20140828_194139_resized (590x443)

Though the seared tuna appetizer (or entree) might be the most obvious place to “go Asian” after so many sushi experiences, another of the best must be the Hong Kong-style sea bass. The delicate, flaky white fish is served lightly Asianized atop a generous serving of crisp-tender bok choy with splashes of soy-garlic-ginger sauce splashed around the plate. More than most, the sea bass captures Asian cuisine’s near-fetish for lightness, balance and flavor poetry.

20140828_195035_resized (590x365)

If you are dreaming of a bit of “chew” to make up for all the ribeye you’re not having, you can do lots worse than ordering Sullivan’s “seasonal” lobster tail trio. Personally, I’m hoping it stays “in season” at least for the rest of my life.  It’s one way to get your lobster fix without cracking open a whole bunch of shells, and the selection of broiled, buttery scampi-style and tempura-fried really couldn’t be better. The Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay I ordered couldn’t have been better either.

20140828_194230_resized (590x443)

These days, a big part of the steakhouse experience – and a big part of steakhouse profits other than alcohol – are the a la carte sides. As a fairly traditional steakhouse, Sullivan’s serves mostly large “to share” mounds of starches and cheese. Our server was even pushing the lobster mac and cheese, though it sounded a bit too much like “Would you like some lobster with your lobster?” Opting for sides like the green beans in cashew butter and the grilled asparagus is one great way not to fill up around the main event.

20140828_203219_resized (590x443)

For many these days, dessert IS the main event – and Sullivan’s gets that. Just about every greatest hit you can think of is on the menu, which shows up with listings of dessert wines, after-dinner drinks, high-end-top-shelf-small-batch this and that, and “dessert cocktails.” I opted for a glass of Cherry Pie pinot noir and this warm “blondie” topped with butter pecan ice cream. Truth be told, this dessert is very sweet – sweeter than I wish, in fact. But as I sat thinking back over Pescatarian Night at Sullivan’s Steakhouse  while sipping my pinot noir, I couldn’t think of anyplace that ever went broke serving Americans desserts that were too big or too sweet.

First Taste of Songkran Thai

20140604_193106_resized (590x443)

When I heard that Chef Jett, a.k.a. Junajett Hurapan, was returning to his Inside the Loop fan base collected during his Gigi’s days after two-plus years building up BLU in Sugar Land, I was pretty excited. After all, his cooking style tends to be light, flavorful and well-balanced – a function of a self-proclaimed “Thai guy” who has been cooking everything but lo these many years. By the time last night that I enjoyed his coconut sticky rice with slices of sweet mango for dessert, I knew this was a homecoming in more ways than one.

20140506_133356_resized_1 (590x443)

20140506_133211_resized_1 (590x443)

In the Uptown Park space most recently occupied by Tapas 1252 and directly across a comfortable courtyard from yet another Cafe Express, the new place called Songkran Thai Kitchen seems destined (I hope) not only to survive the restaurant wars but to spin off other branded concepts. After all, Songkran is a major Thai holiday, both religious and secular, so the name seems well-poised for celebration. Local artist Robert Gutierrez has taken that idea and run with it, from the angel that greets from a mirror hung behind the podium to the serene Buddha (pictured above) who waits along the restaurant’s back wall.

20140604_184147_resized (590x443)

20140604_184218_resized (590x443)

20140604_185256_resized (590x443)

After so many years of cooking “modern Asian” in New York and Houston – when he wasn’t busy cooking Greek, Italian or French – Chef Jett sounds proud to be cooking the traditional foods of his homeland. For the start of your meal, these dishes include Heavenly Beef with sriracha sauce (a particular favorite from the menu at Gigi’s), tod mun shrimp cakes with kaffir lime and cucumber relish, and tom yum goong – what might be the best soup on the face of the earth.

20140604_190204_resized (590x443)

20140604_191512_resized (590x443)

20140604_193130_resized (590x426)

When it comes to entrees, there are plenty to choose from. One of the most popular so far is the pla sam ros (crispy whole red snapper with a sauce/glaze of tamarind flavored with chile, garlic and basil. There are also five Thai curries, including this delicious clay pot filled with crispy duck surrounded by red curry and chunks of pineapple. When dessert times rolls around, thanks to Chef Jett’s pastry chef wife Jira, you can get western items like molten chocolate cake, or you can opt for Thai treats like the one built around coconut sticky rice or this one featuring “pearls” of tarot immersed in coconut syrup. Whatever your sweet pleasure, it’s a safe bet the angel who welcomed you to Songkran Thai Kitchen is still watching over you.

20140506_133126_resized_1 (443x590)

 

 

 

 

Corner Table Turns One in Houston

20140520_120409_resized (590x443)

Corner Table, in the River Oaks space long associated with The Brownstone, opened in Houston a year ago with a lot of different talking points. First, it was several entities or atmospheres in one: a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, a live music venue, an upscale lounge, and hell, probably a few other things we’re forgetting since they happen past our bedtime. In terms of cuisine, the menu talked a lot about gluten-free and even paleo. Still, as the above scallops smoked in a Cuban cigar box make clear, it didn’t take chef Bruce Molzan long to make sure Corner Table was all about interesting and delicious food.

20140520_115858_resized (590x443)

We stopped by the place yesterday to sample a few items, some old and some new, some following ownership’s health-conscious party line and some that seemed sheer indulgence. Perhaps best of all, as with these pork and  duck confit spring rolls with sour cherry sriracha sauce and kimchi, some simply blurred or even erased the line between these two, often-warring camps. Those, as usual, are the dishes we like best.

20140520_120539_resized (590x443)

One of the menu’s best surprises just might be the organic hummus with a mound of char-kissed housemade basil flatbread for dipping, plus plenty of Sicilian green olives and sundried tomatoes lying about the plate. So many people make so many kinds of hummus these days that it’s hard to recall that first excitement of discovery. Taste this hummus and you will remember. Be sure to take home the leftover flatbread to eat with, well, just about anything.

20140520_120457_resized (590x443)

In keeping with the more rigorous aspects of Corner Table’s mission, the pastry chef here is actually paleo. And that means she was the perfect person to cross over from the restaurant’s voluminous desserts to create a spin on pad thai that is both vegan and raw. It’s a fascinating dish, even down to the cashews replacing the peanuts. In lieu of noodles, there’s a pile of super-thinly sliced vegetables. No shortage of bright colors on this plate, and definitely no shortage of bright crunch.

20140520_120431_resized (590x443)

From the paleo portion of the menu – actually, such dishes are wisely presented as part of the “normal” list now, not so dramatically set apart – there are two dishes that look a lot alike but taste entirely different. My favorite is this lamb gyro. But honestly, I can’t say I’d have any trouble making a meal out of Chef Bruce’s paleo fish tacos either.

20140520_130126_resized (590x443)

One of the craziest things about Corner Table, going back to the same pastry chef, is its insistence on showcasing upwards of thirty desserts every single meal every single day. What’s a fair average for most restaurants? Maybe eight? Here, your server turns up with a packed platter of colorful things to choose from. We chose…

20140520_132225_resized (590x443)

Chef Bruce found some nifty peaches at a farmers market and turned them into one of the best cobblers ever. Many (but hardly all) of the desserts are re- and/or reverse-engineered to avoid some of the common dairy components, letting them go out into the world as vegan, gluen-free or paleo. Plus, even if you’re too full for dessert (can’t say that I ever am), at Corner Table there’s always a crispy-crumbly macaroon and a spoon dipped in chocolate to “wash down” your espresso!

20140520_132710_resized (590x443)

 

 

 

Dallas Chef Cooks Contemporary Mex

Komali_©Marple_6N2A4904 (590x393)

Like an old neighborhood rediscovered and even reinvented by a new generation, Mexican cuisine in Texas is undergoing a pretty serious renovation these days. And in the larger cities, like Dallas, chefs and restaurateurs with varying degrees of money and resume are investing generously in making sure that the old looks (and tastes) new again. Thus the culinary adventure in Dallas that goes by the name Komali.

Komali_©Marple_6N2A4894 (590x393)

All of this, from the almond-crusted shrimp to the pan-seared crabcakes with arugula salad and grilled corn, is the handiwork of a new chef named Julio Peraza, who’s been brought in by Komali owner Abraham Salum, who also happens to be a chef himself. Peraza just launched his first menu filled with “contemporary Mexican,” and all Dallas is abuzz with how far we’ve traveled from enchiladas and tamales – without for one moment leaving those wonderful flavors behind.

Komali_©Marple_6N2A4837 (590x583)

In new dish after new dish, like these soul-satisfying blue corn empanadas, Peraza shows not only that he’s really from Latin America (in this case, El Salvador) but that he’s a solid fit alongside owner Salum from Mexico City. For a long time, it seems, food in the Mexican capital has been growing and evolving, borrowing sophisticated techniques from other world cuisines, while also retaining the authentic tastes of the countryside. It is such a good thing for us diners when that happens.

Komali_©Marple_6N2A4799 (1) (590x393)

“We are still the same Komali, just better,” offers Salum. Since Peraza is a veteran of fine-dining restaurants in San Francisco, West Hollywood and Las Vegas, and since his mentors include Kerry Simon Cathouse, Gary Danko and Michael Mina, you should expect some  modernist fireworks on each and every plate. What surprises and delights is how much good sense and good taste Peraza and Salum have applied to the entire process of updating every Texan’s favorite cuisine.

Komali_©Marple_6N2A4827 (590x393)

In keeping with current trends, there is emphasius at Komali on the fresh and fresh-tasting, as opposed to the also-good, slow-cooked gravies that mark Mexican country cooking. At any given moment, there’s one or more ceviches you will want to try, especially as the summer temps in and around Dallas heat up. If you want something earthier all the same, Komali’s appetizer list offers plenty of options, including pork confit quesadillas, Oaxacan-style tamales with Poblano rajas and even Mexican “street corn,” grilled with chile powder and lime juice.

Komali_©Marple_6N2A4866 (590x393)

For all his travels and class-act experience, Peraza knows that Dallasites, Texans in general and Latin Americans even more generally than that, all share an abiding love of red meat. One of the better entrees is a grilled New York strip that “goes native” with mushrooms and a French-inspired but happily not-French tasting potato-poblano gratin. “We are taking very traditional dishes but refining what we are putting on the plate,” Peraza explains. “We wanted to showcase how simple and beautiful the cuisine is, while also taking it to the next level.”

Komali Contemporary Mexican Cuisine, 4152 Cole Ave., Ste 109, Dallas TX, 214.252.0200, www.komalirestaurant.com

Photos by Kevin Marple

 

 

 

 

Contemporary Mexican in Big D

20140416_115216_resized (590x443)

Trying to serve “contemporary” and “elevated” Mexican food in Texas is always a challenge, since nine out of ten diners (I counted) are not at all sure they want to leave their nachos and burritos behind. Still, South Texas native Genaro Silva Jr. has been figuring out how to make Dallasites happy since opening his first restaurant here in 1980. If you ask me, after tasting a dozen items at his three-month-old Genaro’s Mexican Cuisine and Cocktails, he’s definitely picked up a trick of two. I could have made a lunch, for instance, out of this incredible ceviche of bay scallops, tiny shrimp and snapper in a sauce of lime, cilantro and habanero. But no… of course I didn’t.

20140416_122754_resized (590x443)

As usual with such things, it’s hard to tell at Genaro’s exactly where “Mexican” begins or ends. To Silva, it means his menu is everythine he feels like eating – and that includes lush butter sauces that would make a Frenchman jealous and more than a few  back-fence borrows from Italy. But there are, be reassured, tacos. These wonders on homemade tortillas include brisket (not smoked like Texas barbecue, thank goodness), lengua (beef tongue, cooked close to forever until it’s very tender) and, my favorite, cochinita pibil steamed in banana leaves as in the Yucatan.  The fact that head chef Rene Sosa is from Merida provides the Good Housekeeping seal of approval as far as I’m concerned.

20140416_120333_resized (590x443)

Unlike the most common Tex-Mex places, Genaro’s is seafood-centric – which follows from the simple fact that its owner is. I might also add: seafood-serious. It’s difficult to imagine any high-end seafood restaurant in Texas doing a better job with sea scallops than the ones pictured above. They are sweet, neither under- nor over-cooked, with just the lightest brush with searing on top. Just to make things interesting, they are positioned atop Israeli couscous given Spanish flair with a touch of saffron.

20140416_124339_resized (590x443)

If you think patron is a codeword for tequila, you need to sample shrimp al patron at Genaro’s. As with the sea scallops, there’s no question that the shrimp are the best and freshest available, cooked perfectly. The sauce involves tomatoes, obviously, but also lime, onions, garlic and habanero peppers, and the entire business goes over strips of yellow squash and zucchini. Along our Gulf Coast peppered with terrific shrimp dishes, this will have to rank as one of your favorites.

20140416_125235_resized (590x443)

If fresh Gulf seafood is your middle name, or if you wish it could be, you’d better make a seafood festival of it and order the snapper al mojo de ajo as your main course. I’m usually reluctant to do so, since so many restaurants do a poor job of cooking one of our most precious resources – and others, frankly, aren’t using real snapper at all. I think this tender, flaky, juicy snapper might be the best fish I’ve ever put in my mouth, anytime or anywhere, after a long lifetime on the Gulf Coast. The namesake garlic and the tequila-lemon butter sauce don’t hurt one little bit.

20140416_123341_resized (590x443)

All the same, when you’re ready to stray off the seafood reservation, some magnificent experiences await. With a good red wine within easy reach, I’m sure I’d be happy with Genaro’s chicken in mushroom sauce or its sauteed quail in honey-chipotle sauce, or even its ribeye or New York strip. But really, how am I going to pass up this non-Mexican-sounding lamb shank, braised in red wine for 18-20 hours. If you or I were braised in red wine for 18-20 hours, we’d be falling off the bone too.

20140416_130137_resized (590x443)

Nomenclature gets interesting when it comes to dessert. There’s a very satisfying queso napolitano, sort of a denser version of flan with a lush caramel sauce. Still, since the chef insists the thing has no cheese and I can’t think of anything “in the style of Naples” about it, I prefer simply eating it to reading its name on the menu. The pastel de tres leches pictured above is a home rum, less soaked in the “three milks” than many versions and definitely worth whatever the calorie count might be. After lunch at Genaro’s with Genaro Silva himself, whatever “inner Mexican” I’ve discovered living in Texas feels more contemporary and elevated already.

 

 

The Viva Big Bend Food Festival

20130425_140401_resized (590x443)

I have two engagements in Houston that weekend – one being Earth Day, which I’m totally for! – otherwise my car would be pointed due west to the dramatically beautiful Big Bend region. The second annual Viva Big Bend Food Festival attracts hundreds, and this year maybe thousands, to an appropriately quirky collection of tours, tastings and all-round fun in the towns of Marfa, Alpine, Marathon and Fort Davis. An offshoot of a popular music event of the same name, The Food Festival takes place April 10-12.

marfa maid 1 (522x453)

“The Viva Big Bend Music Festival year has been a huge success – far beyond my expectations – and I’m very proud that the event had such a significant positive impact on area businesses,” says event organizer Stewart Ramser says, publisher oif Texas Music magazine. “I’m equally excited about the food festival, which combines three great things: food, music and far West Texas.” As pictured above, one of the weekend’s highlights is a tour and tasting at Marfa Maid, a place that raises goats to make milk to make cheese.

bb tacos (590x443)

The three-day event kicks off on Thursday, with an opening night party at Railroad Blues in Alpine, as well as the Tito’s Cocktail Tour. On Friday and Saturday, attendees can choose from a wide range of activities, including: an authentic cowboy breakfast at the Fort Davis National Historic Site, “Dining Along Historic Highways” presentation and parties at the Big Bend Brewery and Plaine/Cow
Dog. A whiskey tasting, pre-dinner happy hours, cooking classes and tours will also be featured. In addition to Marfa Maid, there will be tours of Big Bend Coffee Roasters.

DSC06500 (640x480) (590x443)

Nationally renowned Houston chef Monica Pope (James Beard Award nominee, a competitor on Top Chef Masters on Bravo in 2010 and winner of Best Chef at the 2009 Houston Culinary Awards) will be at hosting a class and dinner on April 11 at the Gage Hotel. Many of the activities are free and open to the public. Former Alpine resident Aura Mae is coming in from the Pacific Northwest for a special dinner at the Century Bar & Grill in Alpine on Saturday.

gage bedroom (490x367)

Viva Big Bend Food Festival is sponsored by Budweiser, Shock Top, Big Bend Brewing, Holland Hotel, The Maverick Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, The Gage Hotel, City of Alpine, City of Marfa, Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce and Big Bend Telephone. The media sponsors are Marfa Public Radio and Texas Music magazine. The website for the event, www.VivaBigBend.com, features additional information. Viva Big Bend’s Facebook page and Twitter account are also a source for updates. If you stay at the rustic-elegant Gage Hotel in Marathon, you can ask for my old room if you want. As you can guess from the photo above, I recommend it highly!

marathon sunset (590x443)

 

Our First Taste of Cook & Collins

c&C fried chicken (590x443)

American Comfort Food. Besides not knowing what that exactly is, I’ve always been mildly mystified by the number of disparate dishes that have turned up at my table beneath that generic-sounding banner. And then, there’s the tendency of chefs these days to deconstruct, reconstruct or “elevate” any food that sits still long enough, and my confusion is only compounded. Happily, there’s little or no confusion at the heart of Cook & Collins, which opens tomorrow in the Midtown section of Houston, as the fried chicken pictured above with mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuit proves beyond a reasonable doubt.

c&c angry birds (590x443)

To what I’m sure will be the delight of many (not to mentiion those simply happy to have something to eat other than beer and tequila in the neighborhood), chef-partner Jared Estes and exec chef Josh Shobe are not afraid to make food that tastes like one or more wonderful things we remember. In fact, many dishes at Cook & Collins send your memory on a quest to figure out what wonderful taste this reminds you of. For instance, the starter called Angry Birds, made with crispy chicken thighs, sweet heat, pineapple, almonds and cilantro, is a tribute band devoted to every order of “boneless wings” you ever downed in some less food-savvy sports bar.

c&c red eye fries (2) (590x443)

c&c oysters (590x443)

Other great ways to start a mea here, or to keep one going if yours is a grazing sort of crowd, include the Red Eye Fries and the Oysters Rockefeller Fondue. Both meet the American Comfort Food standard – not being in any way “light,” something that can be said of virtually nothing on the Cook & Collins menu – and both are impressive. The first is a spin on Texas chili fries, except with the chili made with bison instead of beef, a proudly self-proclaimed “cage-free egg” on top and a generous splash of Mexico’s Valentina hot sauce. The second dish turns a New Orleans classic upside down, making for creamy spinach dip with fried oysters on top. If you ask me, battering and frying improves any oyster. Or maybe anything.

20140118_181957_resized (590x443)

c&C pork porterhouse (590x443)

c&c  buffalo meatloaf (590x443)

Since some of the same people opening Cook & Collins were and/or are involved in launching Crisp in the Heights, it’s no big shocker that the pizzas here are terrific – five different spins on “flatbreads” that include the eye-opening version of Hawaiian called Pig Popper Sweet Heat. Still, nothing in the flatbread category can keep me away from the pork porterhouse (with bourbon baked apples, a Johnnycake-style flapjack and “cowboy caviar,” a.k.a. black-eyed peas), or the bison meatloaf. Yes, they call it buffalo here, thus keeping the old error alive; but they make up for that with garlic mashed potatoes, creamy spinach and “melted” onion broth.

c&c butterscotch and oatmeal cookie (590x443)

c&c bread pudding (590x443)

Like anyone in for a penny and therefore in for a pound, the kitchen at Cook & Collins shows no reluctance to add desserts directly to our waistlines. In addition to a darkly amazing Cookie Dough Brownie with Nutella fudge and “burnt” mashmallow, there’s the ultra-saltisfying Butterscotch Pudding Jar sided by oatmeal raisin cookies, and the even-more-so Caramel Apple Bread Pudding. The latter features raisins soaked in rum, as all raisins should be, and something called “maple caramel.” The biggest epiphany, however, is this bread pudding’s crispy-crunchy topping. It’s as though somebody sat up nights trying to figure out a way to make bread pudding even better. I’m starting to feel more American, and indeed more comforted, already.

Cured Arrives in San Antonio

20140102_141643_resized (590x443)

Chef Steven McHugh had me at “cabrito sliders.” Then again, he might have had me at “cabrito tacos,” had they been on the menu. Or maybe simply “cabrito,” especially considering that the goat he uses comes from the Farmers Market that blossoms each weekend just steps away from his kitchen in the ever-expanding Pearl Brewery development. Most of all, the sliders are distinct and welcome reminders there’s a lot more to McHugh’s week-old San Antonio restaurant than the cured meats known in France as charcuterie and in Italy as salumi. No, not salami. Though salami is a kind of salumi. But that, as the Italians are quick to remind us, is un altra storia.

20140102_141033_resized (590x443)

The restaurant’s name, Cured, is a joyous pun: alluding to one of the main menu components – as in this sampler of meats like rilletes, pate, verrine, even “pork butter” – as well as to something far more personal, McHugh’s life-changing victory over lymphoma. That event made the self-described “Wisconsin farm boy” open to the idea of seeking his future away from New Orleans (where he’d worked for mentors like Ralph Brennan and John Besh) in the second largest city in Texas. To McHugh and his New Orleans-born wife Sylvia, San Antonio has more than just lots of people. It, like New Orleans, has terroir.

20140102_141540_resized (590x443)

Like all talented and thoughtful chefs, McHugh brings to his food at Cured a lot of what he learned, most recently launching Luke for Besh on the San Antonio Riverwalk. He definitely understands the big, bold flavors that both South Louisiana and South Texas invariably demand. This dish, for instance, is a total blast from his New Orleans past: boudin noir (yes, “black” blood sausage), served with an adept spin on pain perdu, which in French means “lost bread” but is French toast to you and me.

20140102_141745_resized (590x443)

The ever-popular Bandera quail, served all over Texas but a local food in San Antonio, turns up once removed from its usual bird shape, transformed by classic technique into a kind of French roulade that resembles loosely bound sausage. The meat is delicate and delicious after pan-searing, and given even more local character by mole grits to go with those bright orange tubes of “carrot marrow.”

20140102_141927_resized (1) (590x443)

It’s worth noting, amid all the talk of foods being “local” at Cured, that foods tend to be seasonal as well. In fact, unless you have a lot of greenhouses handy, all local foods tend to be seasonal. Among the winter vegetables on the menu, there’s this eye-popping pumpkin and pepper salad that’s already emerging as a major hit. Accents for taste and texture include smoked pecans, preserved celery and local goat cheese.

20140102_151906_resized (590x443)

When dessert time tolls around, McHugh sidesteps the usual array of six or seven items for three he believes Cured can do very well. And based on this evidence, I think the guy’s onto something. Above is a tribute to the citrus of the Rio Grande Valley, all done up as a custardized fruit tart with a side of Meyer lemon sorbet and kumquat tuile. And below is one of Cured’s best sellers so far, called simply Winter: a carrot and cardamom cheesecake (in a glass jar!) with quince caramel and apple creme brulee. Winter has never looked so bright, colorful or delicious.

20140102_152313_resized (590x443) (2)

 

 

‘Colonel of Truth’ At Funky Chicken

DSC08412 (590x443)

One of the last places I ever thought I’d run into legendary California chef Bradley Ogden was a fast-casual fried chicken joint in Houston. It certainly never occurred to me that such a place would be his. Yet so it went over lunch today at Funky Chicken, the two-day-old eatery Ogden has opened here with his chef-son Bryan and their business partners. For those of us brought up on Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices, and especially for those of us raised in New Orleans on Popeyes, Funky is a chicken of a different color.

20131206_143406_resized (590x443)

Funky Chicken features roast chicken as well as fried. And even the fried is, almost miraculously, gluten-free, using some kind of non-flour where the flour in the batter should be. Non-wheat flour, that is. Yet even more than that, and even more than the dozen sustainable touches in the restaurant and the plates and bowls food is served in, the single most “California” thing about Funky Chicken is the quality of ingredients. Fast-casual food has almost no right to be seasonal or farm-to-table, but that’s exactly what a lot of the food here is.

DSC08409 (590x443)

There is a generous supply of sides, ranging from traditional potato salad and cole slaw to a couple of vegetarian specialties made with quinoa and Israeli couscous, plus healthy things like kale. But just when you think Grandma would feel like a stranger in a strange land at Funky Chicken, out comes what might be the best made-from-scratch chicken pot pie I’ve ever tasted. There’s a layer of biscuit at the bottom soaking up goodness and another on top that’s crisp and golden brown, with a fresh-tasting stew of white and dark meat, carrots and even broccoli (green peas being out of season, Ogden explains) in the middle.

DSC08414 (590x443)

There are two amazing desserts – one being (a definite theme here) a homemade-tasting cookie that today featured an odd-sounding but incredible combination of chocolate chips, crumbled Heath bar, marshmallows and cracked pretzel sticks. The other sweet finale is even better, a spin on white chocolate bread pudding that’s more about the custard than the bread. Chef Ogden says he’s been doing nothing but tasting in the kitchen the past few days, so he’s happy to help me polish off the chicken pot pie followed by the bread pudding like it’s a real meal at a table. After decades in some of the finest and fanciest kitchens in San Francisco and beyond, the guy clearly knows his way around a fried chicken joint.

DSC08413 (590x443)