March 29, 2010

Guest Restaurant Review: Get a hold of yourself, it's French Laundry

Okay folks.  Brace yourself.  When my cousin told me that they were going to French Laundry, I cried a little.  I've heard amazing praises about this place, and if you need to make reservations three months in advance, I can't even start to imagine how good this place is.  French Laundry has two options - a nine course tasting menu or a nine-course vegetable tasting.  They say that no single ingredient is repeated.  Chef Thomas Keller is the brains behind this treasure cove, has received bounds of accolades and multiple America's Best chef titles, even helped with the movie Ratatouille, and per my Kathy and Carol, he didn't disppoint this past weekend!

Also, their meal lasted for FIVE hours.  Seriously?  Is this place heaven?  Okay, let's get on to their experience:  (Thanks to Kathy and Carol for these delicious pictures and descriptions so we can have a small taste of what they experienced!)

"Ok! We splurged and had wine pairings! We split 4 1/2 bottles between the 3 of us who drank.  But we started with sparkling champagne.  The glasses on the table were overwhelming! OMG, we ate and sipped wine from 11'ish - 4pm! Right across the street was Keller's farm! There were chives, greens being grown, and a green house too! sigh... (Can you tell just by this paragraph that we are related? Ha!)

So we started out with the salmon in a cone, which had a creme fraische in the center of the cone. mmm...quite yummy. So, the salmon cone's texture was interesting...squishy salmon, with crunchy cone and a tart'ish filling in the cone. Next was a pear dish with compressed pear (ball) and some sort of 'shroom reduction. Quite lite tasting. The pear peices was light, and the compressed pear was sort of firm, but not necessarily more pear flavour, if that makes any sense.
Then a cheese dish, 3 different slices paired with different parts of vegetable. The cheese! well, I love cheese, and it was a flavourful cheese, mildly pungent...of course. Then my favorite was the lobster tail with a dark reduction sauce. OMG, the best, tenderest lobster meat I have EVER tasted! I'm not sure it was cooked! ;) Mmmmm, I'm in my happy place right now, thinking about it! heehee.
Then there was peking duck. It was not what I imagined of Chinese peking duck in that it was definitely not crispy. The duck meat squares had a soft rind of skin on it and the meat was tender, not over poweringly ducky flavor, with a hint of that peking spice.  It was ok but I'm not a fan of duck.  Next, was another meat dish - the lamb! It was medium pink. I did try a small wedge of it and tasted like what I imagined lamb to taste like...I lathered up the sprigs of veggies with the lil' tender bite. I promptly gave the rest to the meat eaters of the group, who gobbled it up!  Below are some additional pictures.
Next was dessert. We all had a different one. Mine was the dark round disk on top. It was like a chocolate peanut butter goodness with a crunchy round disk on top. Not sure what the other folks had. Also pictured below is a caviar panna cotta."

March 22, 2010

Restaurant Review: Kata Robata - Omakasa

First off, take note of the smiling faces and hidden full bellies in this picture.  Four very happy folks. And behind us, the venerable Chef Horiuchi Manabu with an equally big smile.  We give good company on a Tuesday night!  We went for the "omakase" experience at Kata Robata, which means "it's up to you" in Japanese.  This means it's up to Chef Hori on what you will be eating for dinner.  He'll ask what you like, don't like, want to try, etc and then creates dishes for you until you throw your hands up, going "stop, too full!" His dishes will be from on and off the menu or if he has some fresh fish, he may try to put something together for you!  When I think about his signature dish - I DIE. I DIE HAPPY.  So good.

Omakase costs around $60-80 per person and he focuses most of his time on you.  You sit at the sushi bar, chat with him and watch what he makes.  We went middle of the road and set a budget with the waiter and chef prior to starting.  Additionally, they also have a sake pairing for each dish and this can bump up the cost to over $100 per person.  We had 10 dishes and they were all very tasty.  Don't fret by the size of the dishes when they come out (yes, I know we live in Texas) but you'll be surprised by how full you are afterwards.  :)  You need to call in advance when you make reservations to ensure Hori-San is available.  They typically only do omakase during the week as the weekends get a little too busy. 

A little about Chef Hori (as we called him during our meal).  He's one of the few Japanese sushi chefs in Houston.  He studied for five years in Japan, .has been a sushi chef for 14 years, came to the US nine years ago and is now the executive chef at Kata Robata.  When I asked why he become a sushi chef, he answer was a simple "because I love sushi!" followed with a chuckle. Good answer! Super nice and friendly, explained everything that we ate and overall, just gave us a wonderful first omakase experience.  MMMM-kay, let's get on to the many delicious dishes!

Monkfish pate with jellyfish and noodles sits on top of a few slices of japanese cucumber slices and pool of ponzu sauce.  I was a little perplexed when I heard monkfish pate but it was very good!  Creamy texture and even better when you take a bit with some of the jellyfish and cucumber.  The fishiness is quite strong but not overwhelming. 

This is a japanese red snapper carpaccio/sashimi with grapefruit, pecans, microgreens which he sprinkled with a mixture of freshly ground pink peppercorn and sea salt. This was incredibly light, had a fresh sweet flavor and actually, one of my three favorite dishes of the night. 
Sashimi platter of (starting on the left going clockwise) fatty tuna, Japanese jack, New Zealand salmon and yellowtail. These were so fresh and it was also my first time to try the fatty tuna, jack (for everyone) and new zealand salmon.  My favorite hands-down?  Jack fish!  It was firm and a little buttery without being too fishy.  This is seasonal and they just received so yum, yum!  The Jack was my second favorite dish of the night.
You'll notice we have a combination of cooked fish and sushi/sashimi.  Chef Jean-Philippe Gaston handles the cooked food while Chef Hori is the sushi master.  This fried scallop sits on a bed of spinach puree was a nice break to the fresh fish. There HAS to be some type of cheese or cream in that spinach because man, it was smooth, silky and delicious!
Lobster ceviche with mango reduction and geoduck clam. This was a light, fresh dish after the heavier fried scalllp. The geoduck is interesting in that it's somewhat like firm jelly if that makes any sense. I've seen it before in Asian markets. It's a big clam with this long, windy arm comign from it. By itself, I was not a fan but with the lobster, red onion, avocado and a scoop of that yummy mango sauce, hrm, it's a brillant burst of fresh, creamy, fruity combination in your mouth.
Red snapper cheek and filet on a bed of mushrooms. My god, the mushrooms. I think this was so good we barely paid any attention to the fish. Ha, poor snapper!  I kid the fish was good but not fantastic.  Unfortunately, the filet was a tad overcooks so it was a little dry. The cheek, however, was what Hori referred to as the Japanese chicken wing!  There is that one thumb size piece embedded in the little nook of bone - ahhh, the prize!  It's soft and tender and that one piece makes that cheek so good that you wish you could have the other cheek just to have another bite.
Blue fin tuna tartar with golden roe. I'm not a huge fan of tuna but man, after tonights fatty tuna and then this blue fin goodness, yeps, I'm a fan now.  Don't be mistaken by those chips on the side - you probably thought they were taro chips right? Nope! They are burdock root and lotus root chips! 
So, you may be deceived by this picture. Unagi you may think? Ha! Fooled! This is Chef Hori's signature dish, which by the way, I think I asked if every other dish was his signature until he finally said, it's coming, be patient! =) It's FOIE GRAS (yes, I said foie gras) on seared scallop with a tiny bit of rice.  Then the one one in the back is foie gras on seared yellowtail.  Okay, how do I explain this. I first took a bite of the yellowtail, and I literally said, omg, wow, this is amazing.  But wait....then I ate the foie gras with scallop and I DIED. Seriously, I DIE.  It was this buttery combination of goodness, a slight saltiness combined with the smooth creamy flavor of the scallop. Wow, really, just wow.  Obviously, this was my favorite dish of the night. I want more!
Okay, I'll be honest. I was pretty full at this moment and he somehow knew to ask if we were full.  However, my friend had to ask if we could try their famous pork belly. Yum! 
So, I think I will pass on dessert the next time I go. They were not so spectacular that after such an amazing meal, I was a tad disappointed in the dessert. Mind not, I was still able to finish every bite. Waste not right? So, when I took a bite of the strawberry and red bean panna cotta topped with a strawberry and cilantro mix, I laughed out loud and asked Ross to hurry and take a bite and tell me what he thought it tasted like. I kid you not, this tasted exactly like Strawberry Hi-Chew! Texture was a little grainy and off to me but the  cilantro topping made up for it.  The other dessert in the back some type of chocolate cake with orange fluff and dressing. 

Overall, this was downright freakin fantastic. Service was great, they were there to clear our plates, fill our drinks and Chef Hori was informative, very humble, had a great chuckle and personality!  If you've never experienced an omakase dinner, this is the place to do it with a true Japanese sushi chef, who couldn't be nicer or more fun with some amazing food. Also, thanks to Fefo for taking these pictures for me!

March 20, 2010

Tomato & Egg

This may look a little perplexing but this was one of my favorite side dishes growing up.  It's so simple and when you eat it with a hot bowl of rice, so good!  My mom has made this dish since we were itty bitty.  I know the combination is a little odd but for as much reason why wendy's frosties and french fries or sea salt and chocolate go so well together, cooked eggs and tomatoes do too.  These are best when the tomatoes are nice and juicy - not the firm ones.  What makes this dish so good is when the tomato juices ooze out while cooking and then mix with the eggs.  Also, green scallions make this much tastier and add a nice hit of color to the dish as well.

Tomato & Eggs
recipe from my mom

2 large tomatoes, cubed
4 large eggs
1 green scallion, chopped - white and green parts (I didn't have when I made but definitely add it if you have)

1. Clean tomatoes and cut into small cube sizes.  Heat pan with a little bit of oil.  Once hot, add in the tomatoes including all the tomato juice.  Sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar over the tomatoes.  Let it cook down until they are soft and start sizzling.  Sprinkle with a tad of salt. 
2. Beat the eggs together - well.  Then when the tomatoes are ready, pour the eggs into the pan.  Let it sit to cook for about 30 seconds and then lightly scramble the eggs with the tomatoes.  I take my spatula and move it from the outside in and make a J.  When the eggs are almost cooked, turn off the heat and add in the chopped scallions.  Lightly incorporate and then serve!  I love this with hot rice. 

March 15, 2010

Restaurant Review: Brasserie Max & Julie

To celebrate a belated birthday for my sister, the whole gang went to Brasserie Max and Julie for a fun french dinner. This is a sister restaurant to one of my other favorite places in Houston, Cafe Rabelais, and was also highly recommended by a coworker, who loves food just as much as me.  This place is in the same location where Aries use to be - another old favorite that sadly went away - so I was aware of the atmosphere and setting.  Its small and intimate with both an upstairs and downstairs seating area.  Also, I appreciated that for such a small place, they didn't try to cram as many tables as possible.  That means, no hitting other people or having to scoot your chair when another table is arriving and leaving, which I find way too common in many places. Service was great - they were prompt with menus, bread and water refills.  Our waitress was helpful in what she highlighted as the key traditional French dishes and which ones she liked.  I'd probably stray from the fish dishes as they weren't as good and I'm not highlighting below.

Now, on to the food!
Cassoulet: Waitress highlighted that this is a very traditional French dish. I guess I wasn't paying too close attention and missed the part where she said that its all beans. Ha. I like beans, don't love them, but if you do, then you should order this dish.  There were about six pieces of different sausage and also a leg of duck.  Duck was a little dry but the different sausages where a nice touch to the creamy and somewhat bland beans.

Beef Bourguigon: My sister had this dish and the flavor of the stew/broth was pretty delicious!  You can taste the veggie and the wine they added.  Coupled with the hearty pieces of veggies and beef, this is a good dish to get especially for a cool night out.

Steak au Poivre: Or pepper steak. Brother in law got this dish, cooked medium.  Not the best steak I've ever had (dad's still hits out of the park) but still good enough that I wouldn't be completely disappointed if I got this. I think the best part of this dish was the Pommes Dauphines, which are basically mash potatoes puffs, in a ball and lightly fried.  YUM.

Canard Roti au Miel Lavande: Peking duck in lavendar and honey.  I think this was probably the best dish out of the group. I did not taste the lavender so much as the honey but the duck was cooked perfectly and went well with the complement of veggies.

Souffle: We ordered the souffle at the beginning of the meal and was not disappointed. It was shared and consumed pretty darn fast!

Overall rating, I give this place a 3 out of 5. This is attributed to my dish that I didn't quite like so much.  Cute atmosphere, good for a small group, and the service is friendly and right on.

March 10, 2010

Sorta Lemon-y Chicken

You all know I love my dark chicken and the many different ways to cook and eat them. This dish is fairly simple but make sure you have a good ventilation system in your kitchen.  I was scrambling to open up my windows to make sure my smoke alarm didn't go off!  Or, I think this is a clear sign I need to invest in some more corningware or even a dutch oven - hooray!

This dish can be served with a slew of sides.  Best with some steamed carrots, cauliflower or green beans - all of which I had none.... Sigh.  So my staple of plain white rice it was! 

I'd adjust a few things on this recipe. First, I'd actually squeeze in lemon juice and the zest of one or two lemons. I mean, this dish is called lemon chicken and if that citrus bang doesn't hit or even nudge you when you take that first bite, might as well just be called baked chicken.  So flavor was a little too faint and its probably attributed to the overwhelming power that is called soy sauce.  So less soy sauce, more lemon and more honey to balance the more lemon.

Lemony Chicken
Serves 2
Recipe adapted from Cook, Eat, Love

Four chicken thighs
1/3 cup hot water (or chicken stock)
Splash of olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
Fresh thyme, pull off from about 4 or 5 sprigs and give a rough chop to release aroma
Splash of sherry vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
5 tbsp honey
1 lemon, finely sliced
1 juice and zest of one lemon (Extra that I would add)

1. Wash and then thoroughly pat dry your chicken.  Combine the S&P, garlic and thyme in a bowl. Then sprinkle this on the chicken - stick some under the skin as well. Do not take the skin off.  This will help when you brown the chicken and add flavor to the sauce. 
2. Heat some olive oil in a pot and brown the chicken so you get a nice browning on both sides. This is where my kitchen started to smoke!  Can you see from the below picture? Make sure you turn the vent on high or have some windows open.  Ha!
3. Once brown, add the vinegar and let it quickly bubble and reduce by half.  Then add in the soy sauce and honey (I mixed my soy sauce and honey together first before adding).  Make sure this mixes well with the vinegard and move around your chicken so they are nicely distributed and coated.  I like to flip my chicken a few times to make sure.

4. Add 1/2 cup of hot water (or chicken stock) and add the lemon slices (make sure you wash and dry the lemon before slicing.  Who wants dirty lemon slices in their food!). This is where I would add in the juice and zest of one lemon. Turn your heat to medium, let it bubble and reduce. This should take 5-10 minutes.
5. Take off heat and then serve immediately with fresh veggies or rice. Make sure to spoon some of the sauce on the chicken and the rice.

Side note: Cleaning this pot is no bueno.  I highly suggest you take the chicken out, serve with sauce and then immediately soak the pot in warm water while you are happily eating your meal.

March 01, 2010

Restaurant (Coffee Shop) Review: Catalina Coffee

I absolutely love coffee.  It's the first thing I make when I wake up.  If I don't have it, I feel off and the day will be the pits.  Perfect morning?  Using freshly ground coffee in my french press, heating up my soy milk in the microwave for a minute so it starts smelling of yumminess, a teaspoon of sugar and then the coffee.  After a quick stir, there's a slight foam on the top and when I take that first sip, I catch myself saying out loud, "mmmmm, that's good." 

I've heard of Catalina coffee through my Houston Chowhounds group where this is always their stop for their coffee crawls.  Friends have also raved about this place.  So, after our Urban Race this Saturday, a good, hot cup of coffee sounded so just right.  I had the normal latte and they even put a fun little flower on top - picture above.  Added a packet of raw sugar and after a few sips, it definitely wakes you up!  Ross had the cortado, which was even stronger, pungent and just made you smile. 

The atmosphere is pretty relax. Don't worry about parking - it may look tight from washington but drive around to the back lot and there's plenty of parking spaces.  It's a small little shop with a few tables scattered around.  When we went on Saturday around 5 pm, there were people reading the newspaper, working on laptops or studying.  The baristas were very friendly and even gave us some more insight on why you shouldn't drink decaf coffee.  Overall, this place is pretty cute. I need to come back a few more times and actually have my coffee there to fully experience the atmosphere. 

So overall thoughts: If you like coffee and tired of the $4 starbucks coffee, you best check this place. Yum!