Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cafe Express

I don't get to Houston or Dallas much (okay, except for the State Fair!), so I was unfamiliar with Cafe Express when I received an invitation to the soft opening of their first Austin location, and 18th overall. Located in the old La Madeline spot at 35th and Lamar, Cafe Express has completely transformed the spot from it's French bistro origins into a modern establishment enrobed in glass windows. Their website says "Cafe Express has always been distinguished by its 'made-from-scratch' philosophy. Every day we chop our own vegetables, and we make our own chunky chocolate brownies from scratch." That's a fairly impressive statement, and I would hope not to find any pre-chopped food service bags of vegetables in their walk-in cooler! 

A little after 7 pm on a Friday, my friends and I were warmly welcomed, and told to order whatever we wish and to enjoy the evening. So for three of us, we did order a good amount of food (though one in our party is pregnant!). Here's the rundown of what we ate and how it fared:
Shrimp Campeche with Avocado & Chipotle Sauce -- A bit too sweet for my tastes. The tomato-based sauce tasted like it was made from Heinz Sweet Chile Sauce. 
Fresh Guacamole, Chipotle Salsa & Chips -- The guac had good texture, consistency and taste, and I am not a big avocado eater. The salsa was a bit flat, though it did have a nice roasted, smokey flavor.
Creamy New Potato Soup -- Great flavor, we pretty much licked this bowl clean, but a little thin in the consistency department; chunks of potato in the bowl were nice too.
Caesar Salad (on the left in photo) -- This was the one main disappointment of the meal. Very fresh, but what typifies a Caesar salad is the bit of anchovy (or anchovy paste) in the dressing. This had none of it, no depth. I don't know if I would have known it was supposed to be a Caesar dressing if I hadn't been the one who ordered it.  It seemed like a Caesar dressing you'd get with your salad at Wendy's; bummer, 'cause I love a good Caesar.
Veggie Chef Salad  -- This almost made up for the Caesar! Here's the description of the salad: "fresh romaine & spring mix lettuce with avocado, glazed pecans, fennel, grape tomatoes, jicama, croutons, pickled carrots & onions with creamy parmesan dressing." Yum! This was great, and we unanimously agreed on that. Lots of "goodies" in the salad, a good tasting dressing. You can add shrimp or chicken to it. It also had the appropriate amount of dressing on it -- it wasn't drowning in it. I almost always ask for my salads with the dressing on the side (even Caesars sometimes) because restaurants generally put way too much for my taste. I thought about asking for it on the side when I was ordering, but I decided against it, as I wanted to see if they could pass the test, and they did. With flying colors. 
Danish Blue Cheese and Smoked Bacon Burger --  This was a large burger. Grilled nicely, so still very slightly pink inside. Nice crisp bacon, blue cheese didn't overpower. Very tasty. Fries were good too. Next time, I'd like to try their sweet potato fries.  Side note: any of the burgers listed on the menu can be a beef patty, ground turkey, chicken breast or veggie burger. 
Mediterranean Salmon (top left in photo) -- A grilled salmon fillet on French green beans, with spicy lemon parsley sauce and artichoke hearts. I am generally not a fan of restaurant salmon unless it's wild caught, but this was fairly decent -- moist and not overcooked. I commend them for not over cooking the green beans, as it would have been an easy thing to do, especially since they place the hot salmon on top of them. I didn't get any spice to speak of in their parsley sauce, and my friend had already squeezed lemon juice on top of the dish when I tried it, but it did all taste fresh.
Spanish Chicken Romesco (bottom left) -- Grilled chicken breast with rosemary garlic butter & Spanish-style Romesco sauce (puree of roasted red peppers, almonds & garlic), with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. This was pretty delicious. I love Romesco sauces, and my friends weren't familiar with it so I got to explain what it was. It was a huge chicken breast (you can't really tell from the picture, but it was thick; I wonder if this will be the normal portion size) that was grilled perfectly, still moist inside, and when I ate my leftovers the next day, it was still good. The mashed potatoes were very smooth and flavorful; the spinach certainly benefited from some salt & pepper.
Fresh Limeade -- good and tart, and not too sweet.

Chunky Chocolate Brownie -- had espresso in it, which was a nice touch.
Dreambar -- their version of a seven-layer bar, tasty, but not outstanding. Crust a bit too crumbly.
Chocolate Lava Cake -- OMG! We all about died! This cupcake is soooo rich with it's chocolate ganache, and then you dig into it, and it's got a cream cheese filling in the middle. There's no way I could eat that thing on my own! The only downside, I needed a glass of milk!

They also have a super variety of condiments available; you don't often see these in a restaurant that's a step up from fast-food.
Overall, it was a great evening, and from the moment we walked in, the entire staff couldn't have been nicer. Everyone was friendly and accommodating, and apart from what appeared to be a little glitch in the computer system when we ordered, it seemed that things went smoothly.

Eeek! Here's the ironies of ironies. I was just verifying on the internet that the company (Schiller Del Grande) is Texas-based (they are, based in Houston), and found a 2004 article on their site. They have sold a 70% interest in Cafe Express to Wendy's International. I had no idea when I wrote that previous statement about the Caesar dressing, but NOW it really makes me wonder! It also makes me wonder if they really are chopping all of their own vegetables on a daily basis. I may never know for sure, but I will return with the hopes that the employee friendliness, freshness of the food, and portion size is still intact. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

State Fair of Texas

Ahhhh, the State Fair up in Dallas, and all the fried goodness it brings! Three friends and I made a Wednesday pilgrimage to the fried food mecca..... complete with our own supply of digestive enzymes & Tums! After a donut stop in Salado at Roy T's on the journey north, here are the fried highlights.

It was about 11:30 am when we arrived, so the first thing on the agenda was the original Fletcher's Corn Dog! Yum! It should be noted that we each bought our own corn dogs, and then everything else we split four ways so we could maximize the effectiveness of trying as many fried items as possible.
Next was Fried Lemonade....I think I'd describe it more as tasty lemon cakes with lemony syrup. They were pretty tasty. 
Fried Grilled Cheese, complete with a little cup of tomato soup & potato sticks, had potential, but it was incredibly greasy on the crusts. On the right are the Fried Peaches & Cream, which was pretty darn good! It was canned peach slices, battered & fried, with whipped cream and a cup of cream on the side.
Hard to go wrong with a Tater Tornado! The only thing I semi-regret not getting this year, was the sweet potato done in similar fashion, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Had it last year, and it was great!

Wow! This was the only fruit we saw (well, saw some chocolate dipped bananas....); as in the only thing with any nutritional value what so ever, and melons are mostly water. This was a booth in the Midway with gorgeous cut melons, and they had aguas frescas. The pineapple was absolutely fantastic! REAL fruit! No corn syrup and totally refreshing. Had a sip of the lemonade one too, and it was great. 
The Fried Frito Pie won this year's award for Best Tasting new item. And you know what? It was pretty good! They take large Frito chips, top them with homemade chili (that, according to the order taker), somehow batter & deep fry them, and then serve them with  side packets of sour cream & salsa.
Then there was the Fried Beer, this year's winner for Most Creative. Well, people, take note, creative does not equal tasty. And one word for these raviolis filled with Shiner Bock beer: DISGUSTING. About the most foul thing any of us have ever tasted. Flat, stale, warm beer comes oozing out when you take a bite. They were so bitter tasting.... and the dough was like cardboard. And not sure about the "queso" they were served with. Bleah. Each of us took one bite each and were immediately revolted. But we had to try them.... Does Shiner really know their product is being used completely inappropriately??
After the beer debacle, we found the Fried Black Eyed Peas, which were just like soy nuts. Bit of an earthy, dirty taste to them. Sort of fun to eat because they were nice & crunchy, but something I'd go back for. 
 Fried Lattes were next up. This is sort of a misnomer.... there's some sort of pastry dough that's lightly fried, and then an espresso ice cream  on top, with whipped cream and a syrup. The ice cream part had nice strong coffee flavor to it, but the fried dough was.... meh.
 And with our stomachs in various stages of disarray, and with only a few food tickets left, we searched in vain for the Fried Moon Pie stand we had spotted earlier, but couldn't find it, so we settled on the classic Funnel Cake. Unfortunately, this funnel cake was a touch on the soggy side.... it had been sitting around for a bit. I don't think it really mattered, because at this point, we were all feeling dirty and greasy.
In between the various rounds of food, we saw various other fair attractions, some which warranted pictures (baby animals!) and some that did not (the auto show....sorry).

There's the annual butter sculpture. Yes, those two football players (OU & UT) are made completely out of butter. That's a refrigerated case, and during the beginning part of the fair, the artist is inside there, making butter come to life! (I am just now noticing the sign; this artist is from NY. There's no one from TX who can do this?)
And the greenhouse area with HUGE carved pumpkins!

The petting zoo is always full of ADORABLE critters! I took more pictures of them than I am posting! This little lamb was so cute.
Two joeys. The mama (or at least I am assuming the mama) was also hopping around the pen.
 I loved this camel's eyelashes.
Baby alpacas, with unfortunate hair cuts.
 Pot bellied pig!
This breed of sheep have 4 horns each! 
Mama sow and her piglets.
Of course, I couldn't help thinking that suckling pig is very, very tasty....

We stopped in West for kolaches on the way back. And after a sausage one today (the day after the fried food bonanza), I will be sticking to fresh fruits and veggies the next several days!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Had lunch at Apothecary on a recent Saturday, my first time there (4800 Burnet Road). By day, they are a coffee house and by night, a wine bar. Their full menu of food stuffs seems to carry through the entire day. It appears to be a concept that's working; one person in our lunch party is quite fond of the place, and wants to have a birthday celebration there; another has told me the wine bar is quite nice. It's not a huge place; it's got a large bar and various tables, plus a couple picnic tables outside. It's a darker interior, which I think by night, would give it some nice ambiance.

For lunch, they were running a salad and half sandwich special, so I got the Caesar salad and the brie, pear, and honey panini with truffle oil and arugula. I asked for a light dose of truffle oil, and our server repeated that back to me as he wrote it down, so I know he got it right. When the food was delivered though, it was our server and someone (one of the chefs?) from the kitchen, the plate was presented as "brie & pear with no truffle oil," so somewhere, someone didn't read the ticket correctly.
The panini used a nice bread that didn't tear the roof of your mouth; it could have used a bit more brie & arugula, not to mention truffle oil, but the flavor without it was good. The salad was not over-dressed, had nice crisp Romaine, and a distinct yet not off-putting anchovy taste in the dressing. The mark of a true Caesar dressing! We split a pumpkin spice creme brulee for dessert, which had a great creamy texture, no lumps or egginess. The flavor seemed a bit more chai and fall-like than pumpkin, which was fine for me, as I am not the biggest lover of pumpkin flavored desserts.  A tirimisu was also brought to the table by the same guy who brought out my sandwich; he said give it try, it was made last night. So we indulged. The mascarpone had good flavor, but the lady fingers were too soggy. Overall, I'd say the food was solid, but not exceptional.
Just looked at their wine list, and their September one is still up. No prices given, but it does say wines start at $5 a glass, and they have happy hour specials. Will have to get back up there to check out the night-time ambiance and of course, the wines!