Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Houston Restaurant Weeks: La Casa Del Caballo

There are restaurants you drive by a million times and never stop - for no specific reason. We finally stopped at one such place during Houston Restaurant Weeks at La Casa Del Caballo. This building has had many names, and it's known in Houston as one of those 'cursed' locations from the many restaurants it's housed, and from an infamous fire.

Once the last garishly decorated, mediocre suburban Tex-Mex shuttered after four months, the building sat again for a while. Finally, in moves a genuine Mexican steakhouse with a good pedigree: La Casa Del Caballo. The owner, a northern Mexican, would grill for family and friends in his backyard. 

While more elegant than a backyard, the authenticity is undeniable when the smell of mesquite greets you upon entering the building. It reminded me of some very old-world restaurants in Italy and Spain. Nice!

The meal was very good overall, with some pretty outstanding elements. 

The tortilla soup with crispy tortillas, fresco cheese and guahillo pepper strips offered amazingly deep chile flavor. Really rich with umami goodness. 

I hardly ever have steak, but this is a steakhouse so the 6 oz. eye of the ribeye seemed appropriate. While a bit more medium than medium-rare, the quality and flavor more than made up for it. It was simple and simply gorgeous, with four different sauces to enjoy alongside it. I liked combining the tangy red onion and creamy avocado sauces. These mesquite grilled veggies were divine - I could have had a huge mound of them.

Greg's chicken enchiladas had that amazing red chile sauce on them, and it reminded him a little bit of New Mexico - we both really enjoyed it. And the crispy tortilla housing the chicken was impressively tasty and super-crunchy. The chicken inside was fine and predictable.

For me, the chocolate and white mousse was a pleasant texture - no grainy feel - though I didn't really finish much of it (I prefer very dark chocolate).  

Greg's Caribbean dark rum cake was moist and flavorful, and that sauce was super-delish.

I'd say we give this place a strong three stars. The decor is quite nice, quality of food is quite good, and plating is unimaginative. We hope they make it as there are plenty of steakhouses, but not northern Mexican ones.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hatch chile remoulade - an August treat

It's August. You know what that means, right? It means Houston is wicked hot with that humid 'air you can wear.' And our very furry dog pouts all month long. 

But apart from that, it's HATCH CHILE TIME! Being married to a dude from New Mexico means that I've now taken on board this annual tradition of sourcing, roasting, peeling and freezing as many Hatch chiles as our constitutions and patience allow. 

We've learned a few things from our mistakes:

  • Drag out a big fan and point that sucker right on the person manning the grill (the person not manning the grill is in charge of beverages)
  • Get hot chiles - they're better
  • Be ready to roast them ALL at once
  • Plunge them into ice cold water as soon as you've blistered the skin
  • Let them sit for a while so the skin is ready to part with the rest of the pepper
  • Remove the tops and skin, give them a final rinse and drain, and freeze them in small portions

The night we roasted our chiles, I made a nice little remoulade which we smeared on some shrimp hatch chile burgers, and used as dip for our sweet potato oven fries. Delightful! 

Hatch Chile Remoulade
2/3 cup mayo (use a good brand or make your own)
2 tsp. of ketchup 
1/4 tsp. of Sriracha (or less)
1 hatch chile, roasted/peeled/diced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
A few dashes of Van Roehling's Campfire Dust, or seasoned salt plus pepper 

Mix everything together, then adjust any of the ingredients to your liking. 

Let it sit for a bit. Use on sandwiches, add to macaroni or potato salad, mix in your crab cakes, or whatever your imagination dictates! 

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Houston Restaurant Weeks: Hearsay Gastro Lounge

Continuing the Houston Restaurant Week marathon, we made a return visit to Hearsay Gastro Lounge after a very long absence. It's not that we don't adore this place - it's just that there are too many other choices. We were SO happy we went - the place was packed, and the food was outstanding. 

First, the building. Lots of history dating back to 1852. Three fires, a few hotels, a factory and a couple of restaurants later, this place has a few stories to tell. And the way it's designed, you could absolutely be right in the middle of New York. 

Then, there's the food. The taste and portions were both amazing. Here we have crispy calamari, which was light and non-oily - just how it should be.

The beet salad with feta was dressed perfectly, and the beets were delectable. 

The salmon was seasoned and cooked perfectly, as was the asparagus (really crunchy and bright-tasting). That sauce - wow. Decadent! The risotto was super-creamy and provided perfectly flavored forkfuls along with the salmon. 

The massive burger and huge mound of fries looked a bit daunting to me, but Capri reports that it was perfectly done. While not the best fries I've ever had, they were perfectly respectable and made more interesting by the addition of Parmesan and rosemary.

As chicken picatta goes, this was a fine specimen with chicken that actually tasted like chicken, fairly pleasant mashed potatoes and an excellently lemon-y sauce. The spinach was the unfortunate victim of over-salting.

While I'm not a dessert person, this massive slab of cheesecake was one of the best I can recall. That perfectly light texture and a complete lack of graininess are key to this deliciousness, as is a crust of the exact right thickness. YUM! Greg enjoyed a gorgeous chocolate cake layered with mousse. 

This lunch experience reminded us that we need to visit Hearsay more often, and that it's a good thing Houston Restaurant Weeks is only for one month. My workouts can't keep up with the lunches!
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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Houston Restaurant Weeks: RDG + Bar Annie

August is beastly hot in Houston. Fortunately, there's something in H'town that makes the sizzle month bearable: Houston Restaurant Weeks! Instead of just one week, we get to enjoy amazing restaurants throughout the whole month. This year, our strategy is to seek out the restaurants with outstanding lunch menus. By focusing on lunch instead of dinner, we get to enjoy more restaurants for the same budget, and often the portions are the same as they are at dinner. 

Best of all, this benefits the Houston Food Bank since a donation goes to them with every meal. Last year set a new record, with more than $1.2 million raised. Wowza. We Houstonians sure love our restaurants. 

We hit Eleven XI first, and I must say it was nothing short of outstanding. Every morsel of food was thoughtful, soulful and artful. I even went outside my usual parameters to enjoy a petite braised pork shank atop the best coleslaw I've ever had (it tasted almost like there were both fennel and mustard seeds mixed in). Greg mooned over his grilled oysters with heirloom tomatoes, pecan pesto, Parmesan and bacon. In total, we enjoyed three courses for a mere $20 each.  

This week, we enjoyed a very pleasant meal at RDG+Bar Annie. It's been ages since we've been there, partly since we have so many great restaurants closer to home and partly since there are just too many top-notch places to hit. We both started with the pea and mint soup finished with creme fraiche. The pea flavor was super-fresh, and the mint was obvious enough to really map to what you'd imagine as the classic British summer flavor. The watercress was a little unnecessary as the garnish, and the mouth feel was a tiny bit oily (maybe some ham protein in there? or maybe olive oil?). 

Greg opted for the hanger steak, a perfect medium-rare with an amazing demi-glace. I adored the striped bass with artichoke pesto, tomato butter sauce, shaved fennel and lemon. The fish was cooked perfectly, the fennel was wonderfully thin and the tomato butter sauce was frankly decadent. It almost tasted like the younger version of a remoulade. Who wouldn't love that? 

Greg finished with chocolate bread pudding (moist, pleasantly dense, not overly rich) and I enjoyed pecan pie topped with ice cream (balanced flavor with a nice sturdy crust). 


All I can say is that if you're going to be a foodie, this is one of the best places to do it!

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Monday, August 5, 2013

A sentimental journey

Ever take a trip that includes many moments that trigger your most sentimental self? Our recent vacation in upstate New York proved to be way high on the sentimentality scale, if there is such a thing. For me, this trip was wonderful in that I could recreate some of my childhood, enjoy being in the present moment with loved ones, and also think of a future which I know will change - one which admittedly includes some poignancy. 

For me, the sentimental journey was full of laughter, great weather, superb meals, and long walks with hubby. It was a break to really stop and smell the flowers, deeply inhale the scent of pine trees, and revel in the magic of fireflies hovering over the emerald grass at night - hardly daring to breathe, lest I diffuse the enchantment.

On another level, it was a time to be thankful for all the years I've been fortunate to have with some very special people. Dad is about to turn 98 and his physical health is astonishingly good, thanks to nearly incessant puttering in the yard. It doesn't matter that he doesn't really make a dent in the weeds and that the twigs and branches fall faster than he can get to them. I'm just thankful that my folks have a really big yard for Dad to enjoy. 

My mom is about to turn 79, but you'd never know it. She looks so much younger, acts younger and is super sharp. Dad knows how lucky he is to have her. She keeps everything together for them, and I'm so thankful that Dad has her since his dementia sometimes provides interesting challenges.  

After a thoroughly enjoyable hometown week with the folks, we headed to the Adirondacks where I've always believed my soul truly lives. My family has been going there for more than 40 years, and I've made it there nearly every year of my life. 

Schroon Lake is the town where my aunt and uncle first summered in the 1940s, where everyone would flock there to escape the oppressive New York heat to drink in the cool mountain air. After owning a camp in this town, my aunt and uncle found and purchased a run-down old place and thus adopted the project of Montparnasse, built in 1842. 

Everyone thought they'd taken leave of their senses, but I think it was a brilliant move because that little old house in the bend on the road includes some of the most gorgeous forest, stunning pond frontage and best memories imaginable. 

Even though my uncle is no longer with us, he is very much with us when we're visiting at Schroon Lake. My aunt, who now lives in southern California, on this trip declared this is her last summer at Montparnasse. Hearing her say this made me at first upset, thinking that somehow she's given up, but then I realized that she is just tired. And she misses her best friend. And, after all, she's 95. It's not an easy trip to make anymore. 

I'm sad she can't make it now to the big tree. It's a massive skyscraper of a pine tree with two trunks a mile and a bit up the road from the house. It holds court with its lofty branches over the surrounding forest. My aunt and uncle would make sure that anyone who visited them - anyone they really liked, that is - would be invited to hike up to the big tree. Upon touching the tree with both hands, one would be assured of one day returning to this very special place.   

I guess at the end of the day we're all just sentimental fools. The trick is to balance out not living in the past with accepting a future which must be different. It won't include the same loved ones, but we can always hope and pray we'll end up together in the end. 

And that, gentle reader, is the circle of life. 

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