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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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 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.

 

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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First Taste of Songkran Thai

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dallas Chef Cooks Contemporary Mex

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Churrascos’ Big Adventure

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By all available evidence, father and son chefs Michael and David Cordua have embraced the opening of their fourth Churrascos location as a chance to rethink, well, just about everything. And they rethought in several contexts at the same time, including all the changes they’ve seen while opening eight restaurants in the Houston area over the past 25 years, the ups and down of their non-Churrascos concepts (Americas, Artista and Amazon Grill) and their first serious plans to expand the family’s brand into other parts of Texas.  The result in the new Memorial Gateway development: a Churrascos that feels more new than old.

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Have no fear: the star of the menu at the Cordua’s latest Churrascos is still… the churrasco, and a bizarre wonder it remains. Inspired by gaucho grilling on the pampas of South America, this technique has been filtered through the family’s homeland in Nicaragua and upgraded dramatically in terms of beef cut. It is like making fajitas with filet mignon, except certainly better. It’s been the Corduas’ signature for nearly all their quarter-century of making diners happy.

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There are striking new design touches in the new Churrascos, which along with the new Vallone’s should quickly turn the Memorial Gateway into a first-class dining destination. Cordua restaurants have been design-driven for years, going back to the first New World wonderland called Americas on Post Oak, no longer with us. But this latest Churrascos marks the first time they’ve managed to get the bar front and center (tremendous energy flows from that alone) and the first time they’ve installed a true open kitchen. Needless to say, with their expansion plans, the goal this time was to create a basic design that will work over and over again.

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Nothing about the restaurant, however, is more striking than its new menu items – which should fit happily for diners around the beloved churrasco and the family’s category-creating tres leches. Pictured at the very top, for instance, is one of several versions of arepa, orginially a kind of street-food griddled corncake proudly claimed by Venezuela and Colombia but here almost a personal pizza. The version pictured is even called a margherita, to be make that point. And I love these new “popcorn scallops” atop beet risotto, drizzled with popcorn espuma and given crunch by beet chips.

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Another proof of food minds free to wander is this plate of fried calamari, that standard of Italian-American restaurants everywhere. Forget the marinara this time, though. These crunchy delights come sided with fried cheese squares, pork crackling (which for the Corduas and many of their customers translates as “pork crack”), spicy black bean sauce and the Nicaraguan pickled cabbage called vigoron. If anything, the new Churrascos menu is the most daring yet when it comes to showcasing Michael Cordua’s favorite childhood flavors, such as the black-bean-and-rice gallo pinto that now centers the tray of vegetables served to each table.

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A change that has clearly excited the Corduas is the culture’s broad embrace of Japanese sushi, Italian crudi and other forms of raw seafood. By that measuring stick, Latin ceviche tends not strike folks as scary at all. The new Churrascos looks way beyond traditional Mexican ceviche, and even beyond the trendier Peruvian variation, to make ceviches filled with tastes and textures that haven’t exactly shown up here before. This trio, for instance, is crazy-good for its verde (blue tilapia with cucumber agua de chile, green apple and crispy kale); its ahi tuna with a crispy rice croquette, citrus, red chili and an unexpectedly Mediterranean blend of basil and black olive puree; and its lobster-rich spin on campechana with lush avocado and crunchy pork chicharron.

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Taquitos, which got their first revolutionary fresh look at Artista with softshell crawfish, take another leap forward on the new Churrascos menu. Here the shells are formed of malanga (South American taro root) chips and filled with pulled pork, pineapple pico and crema fresca. The effect is light and tropical, like beach food in the middle of a multi-zillion-dollar big-city real estate development. And the wood its served on reflects the rustic, reclaimed feel of table and wall at every turn in the restaurant.

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There are several terrific seafood entrees at the new Churrascos, starting with this pargo de lujo: grilled or pan-roasted Gulf Coast red snapper with jumbo lump crabmeat, shrimp, basil and a habanero citrus beurre blanc, all set atop a mound of clean-your-plate mascarpone mashed potatoes. Another excellent choice is the lobster and scallop in a light tomato broth, made memorable by delicate tamale dumplings that have been steamed (Yucatan-style) in banana leaves.

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When it’s dessert time at the new Churrascos, you probably should turn to Cordua classics like the tres leches, or at least to ever-evolving spins on classics like the family’s tequila bread pudding. After tasting all I tasted last night, however, I opted for “simple” ice cream. And of course, it wasn’t that simple. Both the taste and the texture are pure island coconut, and it’s served in a caramel tuile that reminds me of the importance of sugar in those half-forgotten tropical economies. Sugar, among other great gifts, gives us rum. The new menu at the new Churrascos, now offered at the three older locations as well, gives us many great things as gifts for the holidays. It’s proof positive that what’s old can indeed be new again.

 

 

 

 

 

Ronnie Killen at Recipe for Success

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In pursuit of its main mission, teaching kids how to eat healthier foods and resist the billions spent on marketing to convince them otherwise, the nonprofit known as Recipe for Success invites Houston area chefs to teach cooking classes and, on the first Monday of each month, serve up dinner with wine to raise money. It’s an under-the-radar thing mostly; but thanks to the quality of chefs like Killen, the rightness of the cause and the intimacy of the dining room, these Chef Surprise dinners sell out often as not.

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As I discovered last night, there are a lot of excellent reasons to attend dinners upstairs at what’s come to be known as Recipe House. Of course some chefs are more talkative than others while they cook, but prime among these reasons has to be spending quality time with the chefs. Killen got to talk not only about what he was doing on each course but about what’s happening at his wildly popular Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, as well as update diners about Killen’s Barbecue. He’s hoping to get the place, scene of a weekend “pop-up” BBQ joint with long lines, open before the end of the year.

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There’s no reason to think Chef Ronnie was nodding to my New Orleans roots, but he did follow up the wonderful ahi tuna-wonton tacos pictured at the top with a bowl of roux-dark gumbo that was both traditional and quirky. Since the guy has barbecue cooking most days of the week, using smoked pork as the “seasoning meat” made total sense. Still, I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted gumbo with blackeyed peas in it before. It may or may not have been good luck, but it sure was great taste.

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As the chef explained, some of the dishes he served at Recipe House were inspired by things he’s working on for Killen’s Barbecue, and others were inspired by big hits at Killen’s Steakhouse. The Gulf blue crab cake with lemon butter was one of the latter. It was good enough for even me – who swore he’d eaten enough crab cakes to last a lifetime – to respectfully reconsider. From the crunch outside to the smoothness inside, it was God’s perfect crabcake.

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Normal people don’t do “tastings” the way chefs do, inviting 15-20 suppliers to bring in their wares for sampling side-by-side. The goal, naturally, is for the chef to pick (and purchase) the whatever-it-is he or she likes best. We got a little taste of such tastings at Recipe House, as Killen cooked up New York strip from two very different beef regions – so-called mishima from Strube Ranch in Pittsburg, Texas, and a USDA Prime wet-aged steak that’s corn-fed way up in Nebraska. Not surprisingly, both were great. But yes, they were quite different from each other.

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The beef portions were such that no one in the dining room required more meat. But really, what do you expect of a chef with a steakhouse and a soon-to-open barbecue restaurant? Killen served up a satisfying pork belly with much of the fat rendered out by low-and-slow time in the smoker. Equally wonderful were the Bing cherry and port wine barbecue sauce, the sauteed Swiss chard and, best of all, the cayenne-kicked creamed corn.

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To paraphrase those bankcard commercials, what’s in your dessert? As the meal at Recipe House wound down, Killen pulled out the course he personally was most excited about: pumpkin bread pudding drizzled with a very dark caramel, studded with cayenne-spiced candied pecans and finally ladled with those beloved “three milks” that give tres leches its name. All in all, dinner with Ronnie Killen (including charcuterie and coffee service by Revival Market) was a big success for a great cause. And since I had seconds on that creamed corn, nobody can say I didn’t eat my vegetables.

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