Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review of Antonio's Italian Grill

I was afforded the opportunity to eat at this little Italian Restaurant located at  1105 Center St, Deer Park thanks to my fiancee's family.  Nothing like a little family gathering to go out to eat to a new place, or in this case, a place familiar to the family, but not to me. 

As soon as we were seated I noticed that there were little bowls filled with oil (which I correctly assumed was olive) and spices.  This is always a good sign for an Italian restaurant as this means that some kind of bread will be sure to follow and you will have bread to dip in your olive oil, the Italian version of chips and salsa. 

Sure enough, shortly after we were seated and before our drink orders were taken, a waitress emerged carrying baskets of warm bread.  In each basket were two versions of bread.  One was the common elongated loaf which as pre-cut.  It was a soft garlic bread.  The other version was a singular piece of bread shaped like a triangular puffy pillow.  The crust was a harder than the other bread, but still quite soft.  It was also sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.  These pre-meal appetizers left me with high hope that the rest of the meal would be quite enjoyable.

The salad course, on the other hand, was quite a disappointment.  As with many restaurants, you got a dinner salad ahead of your entree with your choice of dressing.  When I asked what the choices of dressing were, I got a very pedestrian choice of ranch, Italian, Thousand Island, and blue cheese.  I naturally chose Italian since we were at an Italian place and since it was the closest thing to a vinaigrette.

When our salads did arrive it was easy to identify them as the standard iceberg salad mix with a few bits of shredded carrots.  I think I even managed to find half a grape tomato in there somewhere. When I finally took a bite all I could notice was the tang of the dressing.  I don't know where they got it, but it was too much acid and not enough oil.  The salad was nothing to get excited about. 

On to the entrees.  I ordered Spaghetti Dimare.  Spaghetti noddles, calamari, shrimp, mussels, and clams tossed in a light tomato sauce.  My fiancee ordered the Tuscany Grilled Tuna.  This promised to be a delight since it was a grilled tuna steak served with fettuccine noodles.  My fiancee's sister ordered a Stuffed Chicken Florentine, which was a chicken breast stuffed with cheese and spinach.  Her boyfriend ordered a Char Broiled Steak Pomodoro.  I must say these were really quite a hit and miss bunch.  After the initial good start, I was surprised by these dishes.

My dish was quite good.  The tomato sauce was a nice compliment to the sea food.  It did not overpower the complex flavors hidden within the mound of pasta.  Truthfully I only had two complaints about the dish.  Fist of all, it could have used a little more of the wonderful seafood.  A lot of volume was taken by the shells of the clams and mussels that were left in which made for nice presentation.  However, sometimes it seemed I had to dig to find what was the main thrust of the dish.  The other complaint that I have is that I really wish they would have deveined the shrimp.  To me, deveining shrimp just shows that you are willing to go the little extra for your diner.  You also have to worry that sometimes undeveined shrimp tasty a little crappy.  Well, what do you think is in the shrimp "vein"?  I would call this dish good.

My fiance's dish was kind of a disappointment.  When I read grilled tuna, I was expecting a tuna steak that had been nicely grilled on the outside but still leaving a beautiful red center.  Boy were my fiance and I surprised to find that the tuna had been completely cooked through.  Sigh.  I have always said that if you want well done tuna, might as well get it out of a can.  This was no exception.  While the taste was indeed good, you lost some of the subtlety of a rare to medium rare tuna.  Not to mention that it was a bit dry.  The pasta was good, but it just could not detract from the over cooked tuna.  Sigh, yet another dish that did not live up to its potential.

My fiance's sister's dish was one I only tasted slightly.  From what I could tell, it was not bad.  The spinach and cheese mixed together nicely and had a good flavor.  The chicken was not overdone and rubbery.  So, I guess that the Chicken Florentine passed.  At least it did from the small morsel I had.

The Char Broiled Steak Pomodoro is one that I have to report on only by hearsay.  From the account of the person who ate it, the pasta part of the dish was good.  The steak was not.  The steak was, like in a good deal of restaurants, over cooked.  He had ordered it medium well.  When he got his steak, it was more like well to over done.  Here is a little tip I have picked up over the years.  When going to a restaurant for the first time and ordering steak, order your steak a degree of doneness under what you really want it.  Chances are that the restaurant will err on the side of caution (read liability) and over do your meat.  (The exception to this rule is steak houses since it is their business to cook steaks right.)

So overall, I would not count this experience as unpleasant.  However, I don't know if I would go back there on my own.  If I did, I would just have to try something different.

Antonio's Italian Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 27, 2007

Pico's Traditional and Contemporary Mexican Cuisine

If there is one thing I missed as I have lived in the USA for most of my life it is that there is a lack of good, authentic Mexican food. Or at least that is what I thought. Growing up in a Mexican household and actually visiting my family in Mexico practically every summer, I had access and grew up eating the most delicious and authentic Mexican food directly from the source. However, when I moved to Houston, I thought my connection to the real deal was gone. Then I went to Pico's. This charming little restaurant located at 5941 Bellaire Blvd is my connection to meals of my childhood long past.

The decor of the restaurant is an interesting amalgam of Mexico. The outer facade reminded me of trips to Acapulco. There is a thatched roof covering an outer patio with a blue fountain in the middle. When the weather is agreeable it is nice to sit outside, enjoy pleasant drinks and even more pleasant company. As you walk inside you are funneled into a mini corridor with a half wall on the left and a counter with cash registers on your right. The half wall contains multiple large containers with varying ingredients common to Mexican cuisine. Directly in front of you as you walk in is the bar. There is some seating close to the bar, but the main dinning room is to the very left. Separated from the bar area, the dining room resembles something of a courtyard to me with melon colored walls decorated with Mexican artwork and vibrantly colored plates. There is at least a Trio group playing and singing music there. The decor and the music really set the atmosphere for a quite pleasant evening.

This trip to Pico's was not my first. However, this was the first time I was trying to look at the delectable meal laid out before me with an objective eye. Lucky for me, I was also surrounded by friends, so I could take a glimpse into their Mexican culinary adventure. As I had dined there before, I had already had and fallen in love with Pico's version of Cochinta Pibil. This is shredded pork seasoned in achiote(annatto) and orange juice, making it a perfectly balanced sweet and tangy mix. It is served with pickled red onions. But like I said, I had already had that before and wanted to check out some of their other fare.

At the onset I was torn between ordering the Chiles en Nogada, which are roasted and stuffed poblano chiles which are then cooked in peanut sauce with olives, almonds and raisins, covered with a cold creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranates. This dish is usually called the national dish of Mexico because the green chiles, the white sauce and the red pomegranates give it the color of the national flag.

The other dish I was considering was the Filete al Chipotle. This is an 8 oz. charbroiled piece of tenderloin smoothered in Chihuahua cheese and topped with a chipotle and parsley sauce. Can you see why I was torn? In reality it was an easy choice to make. My tongue was screaming for the tender beef doused in cheese and sauce. However, my Mexican pride was pulling at my heart strings to try the chiles, since this would be the first time and what kind of a Mexican would I be if I had never even eaten the national dish?

Well, in the end, it was neither of these dishes that won out. No, it was a daily special. When the waiter came by to take our order, he dutifully informed us of the specials. The one that caught my ear was the Pescado Tampico. It was described as a sauteed fillet of red snapper topped with a delightful mixture of pico de gallo and lump crab meat. I was hooked. Seeing as how red snapper is one of my favorite fish and then it was being topped with crab meat and pico de gallo, how could I lose? Well, I was not disappointed.

When my plate arrived I gazed upon the fillet topped not only with the aforementioned combo of crab and pico de gallo, but also with fresh avocado slices and accompanied with freshly grilled vegetables. The fish was perfectly cooked so it was nice and flaky. The avocado, crab and salsa mingled together as if they had always meant to be playing ever so gaily on my palate. The mixture of juices made the perfect sauce as it pooled gently around my vegetables which were ever so masterfully grilled. They were nice and tender, the sweetness of the veggies balanced with the slight bitterness of the char marks.

One unexpectedly pleasant thing I discovered was that with the usual suspects of yellow squash and zucchini, I found some grilled carrots. Now, normally I am not a fan of cooked carrots because I don't like the mushy, over sweet flavor, but in these I found a new way to appreciate carrots. They had retained some of the crunch that makes carrots appealing to me, but were still tender enough to cut easily. The sweetness was accentuated by the grilling, but not over powering.

Like I said, I was happy with my selection. I was now curious of the choices of the people around me. I asked my fiancee how her chicken mole enchiladas were. She let me have a bite. From that one bite I could discern that while the mole was indeed tasty and edible, it was a bit too tangy for my taste. Like I said, it was good and I took another couple of bites, but it just did not live up to expectations. Maybe it was the slight sourness of the cheese, and yes the cheese is supposed to be that way, maybe it was because of what I was eating and not having cleansed my palate, but the mole is something that just did not excite me tonight.

Another friend of mine tried the Cochinita Pibil on my recommendation. He was happily satisfied with it. My next task is to ask my mom how to make said dish and share this with my friends. The humorous part about the cochinita was when I instructed my friend how to eat it. I "informed" him that the best way to eat the dish is with the pork placed in warm corn tortillas and topped with the pickled onions. The onions add sourness to the pork and wrapped up in the corn tortillas just make the best tacos one has ever eaten.

As I have said before, this was not my first trip out to Pico's and I am sure it will not be the last. I think next time I will try the Chiles en Nogada.

Pico's Mex-Mex Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Oven baked fish with a citrus buerre blanc

Oven Baked Fish with a Citrus Buerre Blanc
Serves 4-6

2-3 lbs. white fish fillets   (Tilapia, cod, snapper, sole, flounder, halibut)
1/2 cup white wine
2-4 Tbls unsalted butter
1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to  375-400 degrees.
Place fillets in a shallow baking dish or cook sheet.
Season fillets with salt and pepper to taste.
Moisten fish with wine and pour around the fillets.
Top with pats of butter.
Bake for approx. 10-12 min. or until fillets are opaque, firm and flaky.
Remove from oven and season with the juice from the lemon. (for extra lemon flavor, season with lemon zest too)
Serve with Rice pilaf and asparagus.

This recipe also works great with salmon. 

This is one of those recipes born of necessity.  At work I had some tilapia and no really recipes for it.  I wanted to do a little more than just season the fish with salt and pepper and maybe a little lemon juice.  I noticed that we had a little white wine left over from another recipe so I decided to add it to the pan I was baking my fish in.  I also thought that a little fat never hurt anybody and makes fish tasty, especially if that fat is butter.  And since I was going to squeeze fresh lemon juice on the fish anyways, I decided to keep that part of the equation.  I always like to add my lemon juice on any fish i cook at the end after it comes out of the oven or is done in the pan.  That way you get a fresh and light zap with your fish.  I think this recipe is a pretty nifty one. 

Monday, July 16, 2007

FuFu Cafe

This quaint little Chinese cafe with only twelve tables, the largest of which sits only six people, is lacated at 9889 Bellaire Blvd wedged into a little shopping center of Chinatown surrounded by an Iranian cafe on the left and a bakery on the right.  This is place where the dumplings are bountiful and the the entrees authentic(or at least as authentic as we can get here).  I got the chance to share this meal with friends and future family.  There is only one word that I can really use to describe the experience.... WOW!! 

     We first started by ordering a round of dumplings.  Well, in truth we ordered four different sets of dumplings.  The first set to come out were the pork dumplings.  Sixteen little nuggets of pork meat encapsulated in a heavy, thick dough like won ton wrapper.  These dumplings were quite delicious.  The wrapper itself was worth it.  If you didn't know any better you would think it felt like uncooked pie dough.  But the taste is quite different.  It was chewy and delectable and was only the first layer.  The pork held in the middle was nice and perfectly seasoned and almost melt in your mouth tender.  These dumplings were made for dipping sauce.  Oh, and the beauty of the dipping sauce is that you made your own from a combination of red and black vinegars, soy sauce and Vietnamese red chili paste. 

     We had two other sets of dumplings, that while they were good, they were not exactly noteworthy.  No, the Pièce de résistance were the steamed pork buns, otherwise known as "soup dumplings".  These culinary innovations are pork dumplings that have been stuffed with pork and a gelatinous form of cold broth so that when it is steamed, the broth melts and leaves you with a dumpling filled with hot soup.  There are four to an order and come out steaming hot.  I learned ahead of time that the strategy to these is patience.  You have to wait until they are no longer steaming to really enjoy them.  Otherwise, you get a mouthful of hot soup that scorches your mouth and tongue and pretty much ruins the rest of your meal because you can no longer taste anything.  The only real way to eat these delicious morsels is to pop the entire thing in your mouth and chew.  And once you do, prepare to be in dumpling heaven.  The broth is flavorful and rich.  You can almost feel the gelatin in your mouth.  The pork was once again perfectly seasoned, moist and appetizing.  The wrapper was like the one for the pork dumplings.  All the components were good by themselves, but as a whole... The make an astonishing combination.

     Next we ordered some typical entrees and some not as typical.  On the menu were general Tso's chicken, sweet and sour pork, walnut chicken,  kung pao chicken, and two dishes involving wide rice noodles and beef.  Now, all the food was good.  But the things that stand out the most to me were the two things that are probably most common in your everyday, run of the mill, please the white people Chinese food buffet.  The genral Tso's chicken and the sweet and sour pork were superb. 

     First, let me turn my attention to the sweet and sour pork.  This sweet and sour pork was not your typical greasing fried  pork nuggets smothered in glow in the dark, fluorescent pink sauce.  Oh no, this dish was made with real culinary effort.  The pork was slice thin and probably just dusted with flour before fried and then covered in a pungent sauce based on honey.  Sweet and sour, yes, but not like anything you've ever had before.

     Next is the general Tso's chicken.  This chicken was the quintessential definition of juicy moist inside with a crunchy, crispy outside.  The sauce was absolute magic.  Thick enough to be a sauce, but not so thick it could be considered pudding.  It was tangy, spicy, and sweet all at the same time. Each bite was pure delight. 

     I don't think I have ever enjoyed Chinese food as much as I have before I went to this place. In fact, I must return because I don't know if ordinary Chinese food will do now.  If nothing else, the soup dumplings make the trip worth it.

  Fu Fu Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Deliciously Decadent

Today at work we created something deliciously decadent.  What is better than a perfectly grilled steak?  How about a perfectly grilled steak topped with a chile lime butter?  Yeah, that would be good, but what if you added lump crab meat tossed in more chile lime butter?  That would be a version of surf and turf so good it would be outlawed in the deep south.  The moist and juicy beef played the perfect canvas to the topping of crab, butter, chile and lime juice.  The sweetness of the crabmeat masterfully combines with the acidity of the lime juice and spiciness of the chiles.  One would think that the two together would be too rich, but the combo was quite good.  I can't say it was light, but it was not overwhelming.    The way to make this is quite easy.  Make your chile lime butter ahead of time (recipe to follow).  Grill your sirlion to your preference seasoned only with salt and pepper.  As you turn your steak to grill the other side, put a couple of dollops of the butter over the steak.  If you don't have a grill, you can do this under the broiler.  When your steak is done cooking and resting, add a little bit of the butter to a saute pan and let it heat up.  Toss about 1/4 to a 1/2 pound of lump crab meat with the melted butter so that the meat heats up, then top your steak with it and enjoy.

Chile Lime Butter

1 Tbls Cooking Oil
1 Shallot Minced
1-2 Serano Chiles finely minced
1-2 Jalpeno Chiles Finely minced
1 Medium Lime juiced and zested
Salt to taste
1/2 stick of butter softened

In a small saute pan heat oil then add shallot, chiles and zest.  Cook until you can smell them and shallots are translucent.  Add the juice of the lime and then adjust salt.  Remove the mixture from the heat and mix with the softened butter.  For best use, take the mixture and make a roll from parchment or wax paper then set in the refrigerator overnight or in the freezer for two hours. 

In a pinch, the butter can still be used soft, but it will keep much better and have more use once hardened.  This compound butter is very versatile and can be used on fish, shellfish, beef, chicken, pasta... In other words, just about anything you can come up with.

Pan Sauces

Many people don't know what they are missing when they cook something in the pan then discard what's left.  Those are the most scrumptious bits stuck on the bottom loaded with flavor and are perfect for making pan sauces. In a few simple steps I will give you the keys to making your own pan sauces.

The fist step is to cook whatever it is your are cooking in a large enough saute pan to hold your liquid for your sauce.  Use enough fat (oil, butter or a combo of both) to cook your protein, but not so much that you have a puddle of fat left in your pan.  If this is the case, then just drain some of it off.  After your protein is cooked, remove it from the pan and hold.  You now have the foundation for your sauce.

The next step is kind of tricky because it involves the fat left over from the initial step.  There should be some fat left from when you first started cooking.  The tricky part, especially if it is your first time making a sauce, is to gauge how much fat you need.  You are going to use this fat to saute the additives to sauce. The additives add highlights of flavor.  They can range from capers or pepper corns, to garlic and shallots, to aromatic herbs and vegetables.  When, sauteing these, you should cook them just until you can smell them.

When you can finally smell your additives, then you add liquid such as chicken stock or wine.  You don't need a whole lot of liquid.  Usually about half to a full cup will do, depending on how much sauce you want to do.  When you add your liquid to the hot pan, it will dislodge all the tasty bits that were left on the bottom.  You can help the process by stirring the liquid and scrapping the bottom of the pan with a whisk (it will come in handy later as well).  This step is called deglazing the pan.   Now you just let the liquid reduce by half to 3/4 of its original volume. Some would say let the pan be almost dry, but I think it makes a fuller sauce to have some liquid. 

The last step is the hardest because it requires patience.  What you are going to do is add butter.  This is called mounting a sauce.  The butter gives the sauce flavor as well as shine and thickens it up.  You will need about half a stick to a stick of butter.  The key to adding the sauce is to break it up into small pieces and adding it slowly.  Cut the butter into about eight to twelve small pieces.  Then whisk the butter in one piece at a time, making sure that the butter is completely incorporated into the sauce before adding the next piece.  Another key to the butter is to make sure it is as cold as possible.  If you can cut the butter and keep it in the refrigerator until you need it.  If it starts to get hot, stick it in the freezer. 

After all the butter is incorporated, adjust the seasonings on the sauce.  The sauce should be nice and thick and coat the back of a spoon easily.  If it is still a little thin, then add a little more butter.  If you add too much butter, the sauce will break and be grainy.  You can try to fix it by adding a bit more liquid.  With a little bit of practice, you can be making pan sauces in no time.