Thursday, December 30, 2010


The new, swank W Hotel, just opened the beginning of December. Their fine dining restaurant is Trace, and a basic website has just made it up in the past couple days. If you enter through the main lobby of the hotel, it's a little bit of a maze to get to the restaurant -- narrow passageways and dark curtains. The bar/hostess area also had a darkish feel to it, and then walking into the main dining room, you're met by a pop of neutral colors (silver and white) and mirrored walls. There's a combo of comfy looking booths, a long deep bench with tables up against it, and tables also by the windows. I can see how breakfast in there could be a light-filled experience with the window facing east, and the sun reflecting off the mirrors and white chairs.

Trace has someone on staff whose job is to locate local foods.  And I finally get it, the name *Trace,* as they can trace the origins of all of their foods. They have trained their staff extremely well, as our waiter, Scott, was extremely good at describing dishes and answering off the cuff questions. Like, yes, that is Texas Olive Ranch olive oil at the table with the bread.

The occasion was actually dinner on Christmas night. My family was in town, and I wanted to go to a place that wasn't $65/person for a buffet (Four Seasons, Driskill). Fortunately, my family are adventurous eaters, and we all studied the menu for quite some time. I should have kept a copy of the menu, as now, five days after the meal, my brain is slightly sketchy on some of the dishes, and what's posted online at present differs wildly from what we had. (Sorry!)

We started with the charcuterie plate, which featured prosciutto, sopressata, chorizo, two pates, pork rilettes (lightly breaded and fried; not pictured), pickled daikon and cabbage, and three mustards. I believe the sopressata and chorizo were from local salumi maker Salt and Time, who I have posted about before; not sure if the prosciutto was theirs too. Overall, an incredibly tasty assortment of meats, particularly the country pate and rilettes. The pickled veggies and particularly the molasses mustard were great accompaniments. 
I opted for a couple smaller sized plates, starting with the winter greens salad with hazelnut vinaigrette and baby roasted beets; for a salad, it was fine. Could have used a bit more hazelnut input. I chose the braised pork belly and a side dish of mashed potatoes. The pork was outstanding. The piece was a great combo of caramelized meatiness and melting, rendering squishy fat. The dish was also made interesting by the addition of caramelized bananas and pineapple pieces, and the pork was served on a lemongrass spear. I could have eaten a lot more of that pork! (It was a small serving!) The mashed taters were slightly chunky, which to me, is a good thing.
Also at the table was a plate of creamy grits with wild mushroom ragu and a two-hour sous vide poached egg; a grilled sea trout dish, skin on, with root veggies and I believe sumac; poached octopus  and chorizo....too salty on the octopus (though tender), and the texture of the chorizo links seemed a bit off -- not firm enough, and I am forgetting a dish.... a soup? Apart from the octopus dish, everything else was well-consumed. We weren't stuffed to the gills, but not still hungry either. We split one dessert amongst the four of us; I was rather tempted by the chocolate covered peppermint ice cream (described as their take on a Klondike bar), but we settled for the apple cobbler with huckleberries and lemon and thyme (?). It was an extremely deep bowl; the cobbler topping seemed a bit underdone. I think from the description, we thought the lemon and herbs would be mixed in with the apples, but it was actually a sorbetto or ice cream on the side.

Overall, it was a very nice experience with all of the staff very friendly and welcoming, and solid plates of food. So, solid, but I am not sure how memorable in the long run.

Pre-holiday Eats

So now Christmas is past, and my relatives have returned to their homes. Exercise? Take down decorations? Nah! Time to get a little caught up on food posts!

Two weeks before Christmas, I had lunch with a friend at Ichiban, a place I hadn't been to in years. My friend has a newborn, so we avoided the lunch rush, and were able to get one of the traditional tables where you remove your shoes and sit on the floor, as there was a lot more room for the baby carrier. Ichiban has combo of Japanese and Korean foods, along with a sushi bar. We both got bento boxes, and my friend got some extra sashimi that she couldn't eat while pregnant, which she said were decent, but not outstanding. For just under $10, you get plenty of food with the bento. It starts with the miso soup and a salad. I got the bento with the Korean spicy pork bul gogi, which didn't really taste spicy, and it did have the feel of something that was cooked earlier in the day. Accompanying the pork were several pieces of nicely fried tempura vegetables, 4 pieces of a California roll, 2 pieces of sushi, 2 dumplings, and rice. The tempura was probably the best thing on the plate. The rest of it wasn't bad, it just wasn't memorable in any sense, except for the amount of food and the price.
What does intrigue me about Ichiban is their online menu. Their website is incredibly rough, claims to be a temporary site, but what's fascinating about it to me is you can text your lunch order to them, and they'll deliver within a 5 mile radius. It tells you how to order by item code; my pork bul gogi would have been "LB3". And if I wanted 2 of them, plus another dish, text: 2LB3, LK11. I've never seen this style of ordering, but something tells me this is common throughout Japan.

The week before Christmas, while out running errands, I stopped at the new Soup Peddler to go outlet at South Lamar and Manchaca in the new *Austinville* enclave. Cute buildings, I thought one one be for the soup and the other for Juicebox, but no, the larger building houses both food establishments, and the smaller one is the loo. They had been open about a week when I visited. It was one of those blustery December days, which was unfortunately a bit exacerbated by the wind tunnel that's created between the two buildings. They've got a chalkboard up with your choices....and what, you ask is a Bouktouf? Well, I don't really know either. As a restauranteur, wouldn't you want to have a menu that explains what things are to the customer? Especially for those customers who aren't familiar with your product? Vegan chili or Frito pie? Does that mean you can either have your chili in soup form or frito pie form? This form of menu, with little to no explanation, leaves me lacking.
And disappointingly, what was also lacking was flavor from my caldo de pollo soup. It did have a nice grease slick on top. Large chunks of potato and carrot, some chicken, but there wasn't much to the broth. If you go digging into Soup Peddler's website, the caldo apparently has cumin, cayenne, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice as it's flavorings. I got exactly zero of that. The other problem I experienced is that if the person in front of you orders two smoothies, there was only one person making things. So I had to wait several minutes to get a Styrofoam cup of soup handed to me. This was during lunch hour, and hopefully by now, they've worked out the kinks in that one, as there were others standing around waiting. (I took the soup home and poured it into a bowl for it's picture....see the oil on top?) The young woman working the register was perky, and when asked, did explain that bouktouf is an Algerian soup with squash and lemon.
The week of Christmas, another friend and I had dinner at Tandoori Bistro, a new Indian restaurant, housed in an old Mexican one (JoJo's?), next to the La Quinta Hotel at IH-35 and Oltorf (SE corner). I had heard (on Yelp?) that the woman who owns the place does a lot of Indian catering and needed a larger commercial kitchen, so she decided to open the restaurant. They specialize in Punjabi and Gujarati cuisine, both provinces in the northwest, bordering Pakistan. The place has been there about a month, and still has the feel of the previous occupant. It's a pretty large space, and it wasn't that busy on a Tuesday night. There are 3 large flat screen tv's on the walls and I think a neon beer sign, giving the place a little bit of a sports bar feel.

Arriving just before 7 pm, we took advantage of their half-price appetizers (5 - 7pm), and got the bataka vada, or fried potato fritters. The waitress also brought papadums with two sauces, mint and tamarind chutnies, both different from what I have had in the past. The tamarind was more watery, and didn't really have the distinctive sweet and twangy taste that I love. The potato fritters were a bit dried out, and I guess not surprisingly, since they are potatoes, a bit devoid of taste.  Our waitress was very friendly, and when asked for main dish recommendations, she happily pointed out a couple items, and even saying she had recently returned from a several year stint as a vegetarian, and was enjoying the lamb dishes. I picked the lamb biryani and my friend the chicken tikka masala. 
Essentially biryani is sauteed or stir fried basmati rice with various spices, vegetables, and meat/paneer. This was a decent sized portion, but just didn't have a deep flavor base. The lamb, cut into small cubes, was right on the border between tender and a bit chewy. I had a couple little bites of the tikka, which I thought was way too sweet, and almost had a canned flavor.... canned tomatoes, maybe? So kind of underwhelmed, unfortunately.

My family is from New Mexico, so our traditional Christmas Eve dinner is tamales, pinto beans and pecan pie. I got tamales from a co-worker who made them (quite good, especially when steamed, not done in the microwave), and made the beans with a ham hock, and the pie with Dai Due (should be, but currently doesn't seem to be working) leaf lard in the crust. Christmas morning, we had croissants and morning buns from La Patisserie (along with bacon and fruit salad), and we went to Trace at the new W Hotel for dinner, which I will post later.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Foreign & Domestic

From the get go, I have heard nothing but high, high praise for the new eatery Foreign and Domestic up on 53rd (North Loop) and Avenue H. (Also named newcomer of the year by the Statesman.) I've tried to go once or twice before, but the plans fell through. Finally, the stars aligned! The plan was to met a friend there at 5 pm, right as they opened for service. I arrived a hair before, and discovered she was already there, and while not officially opened, they graciously welcomed both of us in and sat us. The place has a homey, but stylish, diner feel. It's not a very large space, I am thinking back now, about seating for 40, plus some at the counter. The wide open kitchen is straight ahead, and the chef's activities are the focal point of the room.

I will certainly need to go back and try an entree (and as luck would have it, I should be there next week for dinner with a BFF!), but I was beyond thrilled with all of the appetizers we had. Furthermore, their wine list is very decently priced, so we got a bottle of Vino Herminia, a tempranillo/grenache blend. Foodwise, we started with the Gruyere popovers, which come two per order, and are about as big as your head! They come hot, with a fine shaving of Gruyere on top; nice and crusty on the bottom where they sat in the pan, and light and eggy inside.
Now, while the little quilted canning jar and rye bread may not look like much, it was a thing of beauty! If I remember correctly, the waiter said it's about 70% foie gras with the remaining 30% chicken liver mousse combined together to make a velvety spread, with a port gelee and a "crust" of toasted hazelnuts. I don't know if the chicken livers were already in mousse form when blended with the foie, or if the liver + liver = incredibly smooth, succulent, tasty concoction, but THIS is how I'll eat liver! The sweetness from the port gelee plays off the richness of the foie, and combined with the hazelnut crunchies (they called it hazelnut crumble, not sure what it was combined with, but it worked), the texture, mouth feel and not to forget flavor, was truly fantastic. But darn if I had to share it!

Next were what looked like tater tots sleeping under blanket of ham.What they were, were squash fritters. What kind of squash, I am not sure, as it wasn't named on the menu, but I'd guess butternut in this case. So a puree of squash and ricotta salata (an aged, lightly smoked cow's milk cheese), made into tater tot form and fried, sitting on an apple cider reduction with Speck ham on top. The menu mentioned dried shrimp, which I didn't detect, either in the squash or on the plate, but it could have just been there to give more depth and umami-like qualities to the fritters, as opposed to a shrimpy flavor. Nicely fried, good contrast of flavors with the natural sweetness of the squash, the saltiness from the ricotta salata (and perhaps the dried shrimp) with the savoriness and saltiness from the Speck and finally the sweetness from the cider.
And of course, there is always room for dessert! And when bacon is featured, chances are pretty high that I will go for it! So a chocolate root beer float with bits of bacon in it, a chocolate-covered strip of bacon as your garnish, and a fried pork rind on top. That's right, you read it correctly. And it was heaven. Thick and creamy. Nice pieces of bacon in it (tasted like a good quality smoked bacon, not unlike Nueske's, but something tells me F & D probably smokes their own). Not too sweet. Very unusual and very delicious.
Our waiter Ben was very attentive.  Granted we did get there early, and were the only ones in there for the first 15 minutes, but even as things picked up, he would come peer over my companion's shoulder every few minutes to see if any beverages needed refreshing or plates removed. F & D's menu sometimes leaves you guessing at the complete descriptions of the dishes (case in point, the foie gras & squash fritter dishes), which I think is probably intentional on their part. Gives the dishes some mystique. But use your waiter to your advantage -- I asked about the foie dish, and he told me how it was prepared, and the ratio of foie to chicken liver, and I should have asked what kind of squash the fritters were made from. Regardless, everything was delicious. Maybe for dinner, we'll sit at the counter and watch them cook. Either way, I know the future meals will also be fantastic.