Archive for May, 2007

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca: The Lone Star of Texas Pizza

May 31, 2007

When you live in a box, or more precisely a box-like apartment, you should think and eat outside it. In a city like New York, this an easily implemented and often rewarded policy. When visiting relatives in the heart of Texas’ big-box land, you should also deliberate and dine far from where you sleep. Unfortunately, it’s a riskier proposition in Houston’s suburbs and one that carries far less likelihood of a good return.

This is not to suggest a lack of hidden and not so hidden pleasures outside the 610 Loop. Hundreds of tantalizing and tenuously regulated taquerías and donut shops beckon in every strip mall, gas station and garden center parking lot.  For instance, given my druthers, I could definitely spend a few days working my way up and down Spring, TX’s 1960 Road.

Unfortunately, sometimes one man’s druthers aren’t the deciding factor. Sometimes, even the most self-absorbed foodie must recognize that not everyone wants to sample goat tacos in a driving rainstorm while propping up a floppy tarp with his horchata glass. Sometimes he must concede that many people would not deem it advisable to rise at dawn to Frogger across a sidewalk-less thoroughfare in order to reach the day’s first strawberry-frosted crullers. Yes, sometimes, friends and family come before foodie adventures. Sometimes you need to go with the consensus choice, even at the expense of strip mall bacon cheese kolaches for lunch or intersection vended calf tongue taquitos for dinner.

So on my most recent visit to Houston, I abandoned Mexico and the Czech Republic for the pleasures of Italy, heading into the Loop to the critically acclaimed Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca. After a long drive and a short wait, I headed up the creaky staircase to a well-spaced comfortably lit room built with all the logic, or lack thereof, of Pippy Longstocking’s upside down house. Fortunately, clean-flavored unoaked Sicilian white set me straight and reminded me that I wasn’t there to suss out the building’s structural integrity. I was there to eat.

Food soon arrived, and the wine turned out to be an apt selection. With beets and horseradish and walnuts, it tamed the burn. With Brussels sprouts and pecorino it brought out the slightly muted flavor of a vegetable I used to loathe and now can live with. Finally and most surprisingly, it pulled even more piggy taste out of fat flecks on a plate of speck.

After finishing this lovely meal of small plates we decided it would be quite reasonable to order a second dinner. No surprise, I ordered pizza. Taleggio, arugula and pear slice toppings made for a fresh, earthy and light combo, just savory enough to feel like a main plate without any heaviness on the palate. It’s the kind of juxtaposition of ingredients that at first seems strange and quickly comes to seem inevitable. I particularly liked the long finish of the taleggio, perhaps the most complex cheese taste I’ve ever had on pizza. Only the crust disappointed. Leather’s fine as a backnote in wine, but not as a texture for crust. It resisted all but the firmest entreaties from knife and fork. Perhaps the humidity affected the dough that night; it just wasn’t right. Fortunately, most everything else was.

A bottle of Valpolicella washed down samples of a friend’s margherita pizza and washed away any crusty quibbles I still had. With one seltzer drinker and one slow-sipper in the crowd, I ended up enjoying more than my share of the night’s wine special. It was probably the most profound taste of the meal, alongside the beets perhaps, and left me confident that good Italian wine lists need not be limited to the coasts nor to the wealthy.

Dessert was inexpensive and impossible to refuse. Gelato came in interesting flavors but didn’t strike me as particularly memorable. The texture lacked the signature creaminess of good Italian ice cream and the flavors the intensity and commitment of both artisanal American and traditional Italian ice cream. Nonetheless, nothing reproachable, just not up to Laborotorio di Gelato standards. Little is.

I would have stayed for grappa but those who won’t eat tacos in the rain are also disinclined to watch me slug back hootch while they contemplate the drive back. Sometimes and in some places—Texas being one of them— restraint can be an act of foodie heroism. Besides, there’s no better place for a digestif than snugly back inside the box, or in this case, back in big-box land.

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Sunny vs. East Side Mexican: De Mole Routs Maz Mezcal

May 19, 2007

In the spirit of both masochistic (Yorkville) and adventurous (Sunnyside) dining, I put the Michelin recommended Maz Mezcal up against the Chowhound championed De Mole. Both have dumb names. One won’t leave you nauseated and poor.

Today’s loser by a long shot, Yorkville’s Maz Mezcal, proves once again why the area is a dieter’s best friend and a foodie’s worst nightmare. You’re more likely to catch fresh yellowtail in the East River than a decent ethnic meal in this deoxygenated culinary dead zone. In short, the Upper East Side is always on the wrong side of the tracks. De Mole’s Sunnyside, on the other hand, is right underneath them. On to the winner.

De Mole’s 5 Maravillas

1) BYOB a la Mexicana:

They’ll open and refrigerate your beer for you for a nominal fee (75 cents) and whip up margaritas if you bring the tequila. Yes, an inhouse blender is at your service, along with fresh and tasty Mexican limes. All you have to do is cross the street and stock up at the friendly neighborhood liquor store (which is also much cheaper than the Manhattan equivalent).

2) Squeeze bottles of salsa to shame Bobby Flay:

Yes, the chubby cheeked food actor has made a career out of artful Pollock splashes on the plate, but “What’s in the squiggles, Bobby?” Surely nothing as good as these salsas verde and roja. Both are fresh made, fresh tasting and just hot enough to wake up your tongue without subsequently numbing it senseless.

3) Luscious licuados:

If only General Santa Ana hadn’t surrendered, we’d be drinking these right sized light and frisky fruit shakes on the way to work instead of Jamba Juice’s gallon growlers of Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flaked ersatz codliver oil. Yes, the limeade is spectacular as well.

4) Squash Blossom Quesadillas:
Meaty, flavorful, under three dollars and completely unrelated to the Taco Bell style of Tex-Mex tortilla sandwich. This real deal quesadilla runs along the border of empanada and taco in shape and texture and surpasses both its kin in flavor. Light touch with the cooking lard means you’ll walk not waddle out the door. No late night fat sweats either.

5) Orange Flan:
The fruit used in this concoction lingers floral, bitter and honeyed on the tongue. Not even a suggestion of the Jersey-spawned Bubblicious monochrome ethyl methyl ester extract that helped Chili’s take Mexican desserts to their Platonic nadir.

Maz Mezcal’s Monstrosities: If the food doesn’t make you ill, the bill will. For those who insist on eating in Yorkville, see my separate posts on the subject. We do have a few places that merit a detour.

Five Points of Virtue at Five Points

May 12, 2007

Another in my series of Lads who Lunch leisure meals. This time, at Five Points, the best thing to hit Great Jones Street since Don Delillo. www.fivepointsrestaurant.com

1) Value in the Village:
20 dollar prix-fixe tasted like twice the price. No wedding dinner salmon or chicken on this three courser (Modern and Nougatine take note). With the exception of an oleaginous tartar sauce splooge, every component was clean flavored and beautifully plated.

2) Freshness First:
Seasonal squid and soft shell were young and frisky. They tasted of themselves and in consequence required minimal intervention.

3) Creativity:
Best deployed citrus notes since early Dan Barber. Tartly dressed squid was highlighted, not hidden by stipples of sweet and sour. A crunchy shredded salad under the crab added one more texture point to an already complex soft creamy crispy interplay.

4) Generous beverage service:
Glass of Riesling was closer to a quartino. Carried me through to the panna cotta and rounded out the sobremesa time. Second beer was brought to table when first seemed short. No questions asked. Happy to tip accordingly.

5) Décor:
Flowers were fresh, extravagant, beautiful and understated, much like the food. Open spaces at both ends and great Andalusian airflow were Euro-cool without the exchange rate problem.

The Faults:
Didn’t look for them and didn’t find them. An unslick but well-oiled machine.

Landmarc-TWC:

May 11, 2007

Landmarc TWC’s Best and Worst 

 5 VIRTUES:

1) Excellent innards
Landmarc’s Marc Murphy is arguably the best and only mid-priced organ meat master in the city. Bone marrow is generously portioned, easy to eat with available instruments and paired with the perfect salt and bread (texture and taste of both are spot on). Foie gras is equally good, and a pleasingly priced treat. The latter dish could create a legion of toddler food snobs, that is, if foodie parents were willing to share with their tri-toothed offspring. Sweetbreads are also a standout, though not quite in Parea’s league.

2) Just juice: Visionary Wine Pricing
You’ll drink more and better than you have any right to expect in New York for this kind of money. Half bottle selection is among city’s best. Full bottles are even better priced, and the list is superbly curated. There are even some bargain magnums for large parties. Lack of upselling on beverages and gouging push for extras make this the anti-Hanson (Steve).

3) Baby Love
Babies and toddlers are embraced but not coddled. Your server is not your sitter nor will he pretend to be.  That said, he will bring a spoon for baby to play with and help shift steak knives out of harm’s way.  Cheerios strewn kids’ section (really the whole place in the early evening) is remote enough for screamers and squirmers and close enough to big windows for grownups wishing to enjoy the remarkable city views.  As a bonus, the constant motion of the runners is Ritalin to the toddler set, who watch transfixed by the live action entertainment.

4) Simple, relatively reasonable dessert selection
Easy to say yes, easy to say no. Good not great options make dessert sampler an excuse to add some table time but not a shackle if you run out of Cheerios.

5) Hot snail salad
Sounds like a particularly appalling pornographic endeavor. Thankfully, it is in fact a delicious and daring dish that speaks to Murphy’s creativity. A plate possible only in a food-obsessed city ready to treat an exotic protein as nourishment not stunt food.

5 TO FIX:

1) Unevenly trained staff
I don’t need to memorize the cheese options for my burger; you do. I’ll also place more faith in your wine and food suggestions once you master simple pseudo-Continental waiter French. “Sancerre” and “Gruyère” shouldn’t exceed the pronunciation skill set nor slip the memory of any hooked on phonics trained server with a half meg of RAM upstairs.

2) Poorly-marked bathrooms
Steel cauldron men’s room is, I assume, a vestige of the Jean George disaster that used to fill this space. Ugly, unclearly marked and miles from the vaguely labelled ladies’ room. It’s doubly hard to tell standup from sitdown bathrooms when so many toddlers stray from parents in both spaces. Better signage needed now.

3) Restaurateurship: The Devilish Details
There’s a reason why Nieporent, Meyer, and yes, Hanson, have done so well. They make you forget the details of dining because they never do. I don’t want to consider the chain of events that brings condiments to the table with the burgers rather than with dessert; I just want it to happen. I don’t want to wonder where waiters go when idle; I just don’t want to watch them stand around bored while I eat. I also don’t want to think about how to pace meals in such a large restaurant; I just want mine to be paced right. Don’t let me see you sweat. We’re all rooting for Murphy, but he needs to turn that goodwill into great results before patience wears out, else this will be one for Midwestern museum-quality cafeteria in a mall with windows.

4 and 5) Blessedly, the good far outweighs the bad.

Parea’s Spartan Delights

May 1, 2007

5 Best and 5 Worst at Parea Restaurant (www.parea-ny.com)

Kalos: The Good

1) Lush and Lusty Lamb chops: The classic Greek meat was a revelation. Rich and meaty as beefsteak without any of the usual heaviness. Cooked to specification, generously portioned and worthy of a second order.

2) Lickable lamb ribs with orange zest: The braised flesh yielded to gentle pressure, releasing far more flavor than I ever thought could be squeezed from Little Bo Peep .

3) Superlative Sweetbreads: Perhaps the most delicious dish on the menu. Richly roasted with smoky flavors, strong meaty mouth feel and wonderful seasoning. Better than Eleven Madison Park’s sweetbreads, better than Landmarc’s, better than Blue Ribbon’s.

4) Stellar Greek Whites: The native grape wine selections were resin free and flavorful. Priced well below expectation by Gramercy area standards, they delivered far more surprise and delight than I would have expected.

5) Friendly Front of House: Servers and maitre d’ were warm, honest (I don’t care for ouzo either) and flexible. They seated our incomplete party, brought appetizers to keep us busy while we checked Blackberries and generally helped ease a few awkward moments of thumb twiddling down time.

Kakos: The Bad and The Ugly

1) Octogenarian Octopus: A Greek place without fresh seafood is Eater Deathwatch-worthy. Our ancient creature of the sea was richly sauced, lovingly plated and godawful. I cannot accept gamy tentacles as anyone’s idea of haute cuisine, particularly at the peak of weekend service. Someone should have noticed the half-full platter we sent back and asked if there had been a problem. I fear they already knew.

2) Leathery Langoustines: When young and beautiful, langoustines look and taste good anywhere from raw to roasted. These old-man stenched, manky numbers were beyond repair and confirmed that the octopus disaster was a trend, not an exception.

3) Desultory Donuts: Much praised in print, ours were greasy and off temperature.  This is a common and delicious dessert item and could and should have been much better.  Greek coffee was a pleasurable counterpoint, but pricey for what it was, Turkish coffee with nationalist pretenses.

4) Off Atmosphere: Empty at eight upon our arrival and just filling as we left at ten. Parea feels like a lounge with food, not a restaurant. I don’t mind if the place goes disco late at night, but don’t make diners feel like they got to the party too early. This isn’t Madrid. Some of us do eat before nine. For a room to be loud and empty is merely a triumph of bad thinking.

5) Monochromatic Color Scheme: Three white sauces with white pita on white plates may work in a beautifully decorated flawlessly executed seafood restaurant on an intimate Greek isle. Here it felt like a platter of paint samples. Thankfully, the sauces, particularly, the feta and lemon, didn’t taste like High Gloss Benjamin Moore.

Takeaway: Stick to the turf and you’ll eat like a hero.  Venture into the surf and you may wake up feeling like you’re swimming with the fishes.