Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Don't Mess with Rexes.1

We finally made good on our promise to visit friends in Houston and ended up having two of the best dinners we've had so far this year. (Although I'm hoping they'll be eclipsed by our Copenhagen swing next week -- stay tuned!)2

Dave and Corinne picked Anvil and Uchi for Friday night, and we loved both.  Anvil's extensive repertoire was full of interesting cocktails, particularly Adam's off-list daiquiri made with rum agricole (a variation on the Hemingway Daiquiri that Corinne ordered) and my Passing Deadline made with Four Roses bourbon, Lacuesta sweet vermouth, Lustau East India Solera sherry, Salers Gentian, and Xocolatl mole and Angostura bitters.  Cocktails in Houston (at Anvil, later that night at Beaver's, and the following night at the delightfully named The Pastry War) were all surprisingly inexpensive given their quality, compared to the prices we're used to in DC and NY.

Uchi's menu had so many tempting dishes that it was immediately clear that this was going to end up in massive ordering, but everyone was hungry and game.  (Never let Adam take control of shared plates ordering unless you're willing to assume the over-ordering risk.)

We started strong with the flounder sashimi -- loved the slightly sweet crunch of the candied quinoa.

hirame usuzukuri: thinly-sliced flounder sashimi, candied quinoa, olive oil

The special oysters were good, but the solid icy dome would have been better as a granita, Rose's-style.
kaki to kotsuzui: oyster, celery, tomato, lime

Adam and I enjoyed both pieces of uni, but preferred the creamier one (on the left, I think).  (Can't remember which was which, however.)
uni hokkaido, uni santa barbara

The smoked baby yellowtail was so good that we ordered it again near the end of our savory round -- delicious smoky flavor, crunch from the yucca chip and almonds, brightness from the asian pear, and just generally awesome.
machi cure: smoked baby yellowtail, yucca crisp, marcona almond, asian pear, garlic brittle

The seared escolar was another winner -- great use of yuzu, nice light contrast with the salad on top.
bara mutsu crudo: seared escolar, carrot, negi, yuzu

The salmon was probably my list favorite dish to that point in the meal.  Although it wasn't bad -- I liked the crunchy quinoa for contrast to the soft salmon and the yuzu -- the chunks of fish and pear were so large (plus whole blueberries underneath) that it was sort of hard to integrate all elements together.  I think it would have worked better as more of a salad (emphasizing the kale) or a tartare (emphasizing the salmon).
yokai berry: atlantic salmon, dinosaur kale, asian pear, yuzu

The snapper was on the heavier side -- to be expected from the description -- and good, but nothing exciting or complex.
gulf snapper: snapper, spinach, coconut, maitake

The amberjack was the most disappointing dish of the night because the fish was overcooked (normally difficult in a pouch!).  The broth underneath was lovely, however.
sakana mushi: amberjack, shishito, fiddlehead fern, kimchi

Corinne, who loves scallops, was a particular fan.  Good use of citrus -- a frequent theme of the meal -- but the mushrooms weren't really doing anything, and I totally forgot that the dish was supposed to have ebi until I reread the menu.
thai hotate: scallop, hon shimeji, lime, ebi

Another solid-but-not-standout dish, sort of Italian-tasting.
unchiviche: salmon, striped bass, tomato, bell pepper, garlic, cilantro

Surprisingly good -- the tomato worked.
bincho kunsei: albacore, carrot, jalapeno, tomato

The roll was good but unmemorable; Uchi definitely shines in the composed dishes.
zero sen roll: yelllowtail, avocado, shallot, cilantro, tobiko, yuzu

The escolar was well cooked, and basically tasted like the best teriyaki ever.
walu walu: oak-grilled escolar, candied citrus, yuzupon, myoga

Obviously, I didn't try this, although it sounded delicious.  I miss bacon.
bacon tataki

Given my general apathy towards rice, I hadn't been keen on ordering this one, but it was great.  Reminiscent of bibimbap, but more savory and delicious than any I can recall.  The rice got a nice crunch on the edges.
hamachi nabe: baby yellowtail, koshi hikari rice, farm egg, soy broth

The brie was so good, a classed-up cheese-stick twist on brie and apple.  (If I recall correctly, we considered ordering more but were too full/distracted by wanting dessert.)
brie ringo: tempura-fried brie, apple chutney, sweet potato crisp

The sprouts were drenched in caramel fish sauce, which made them less crispy but addictively sweet-savory.
brussels sprouts: crispy brussels sprouts, sweet chile

All of the desserts were fantastic; there's some definite talent in the Uchi pastry kitchen.  One of the best collections of interesting desserts that I can remember, with no clear consensus winner.  The peach-and-blue cheese special was a beautiful composed cheese course; we were glad we snagged the last two and disappointed that there weren't more.  The carrot okashi -- a Japanese-inflected deconstructed take on carrot cake -- was someone's favorite, and I didn't even mind the trace coffee flavor.  Both sorbets were great: the apple-miso was awesome, and I also loved the tart lime balanced by a bit of spice and the sweet crunch of baby meringues.  The waitress brought us the lemon gelato to round out our collection, which we hadn't decided to order but nonetheless enjoyed (lovely but less creative than the others).  
jizen okashi: peach, blue cheese, huckleberry, almond okashi

carrot okashi: carrot, brandy, yuzu, coffee

peanut butter semifreddo: apple-miso sorbet

lime ash sorbet: chocolate croquant, thai chili, meringue, kaffir lime

lemon gelato: pistachios, white balsamic

Brunch the next morning at Hugo's, which was generally good but didn't wow us like either of our dinners.  However, the cricket tacos were great, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a good photograph of the little critters.  (It turns out that edible insects rival a shellfish apocalypse for a culinary experience that tickles me.)

Oxheart had been our primary pick for Houston dining, thanks to a rave NYT review that put it on our radar over a year ago.  We always want to try as many dishes as possible when the menu looks good, but while there is a longer seven-course tasting menu, the vegetarian ("Garden") menu is only four courses.  However, our server easily agreed that we could do one of each per couple; we swapped on the two-dish courses and shared on the three extra courses from the tasting menu.

The best part of the vegetarian first course was the shredded lettuce, which was dressed in a fantastic smoked creme fraiche.  The lettuce was great on its own, and excellent mixed with some of the sweet, tender roasted carrots.  The different preparations of carrots was a cute idea, but the carrot elements couldn't match that lettuce.  The fritters were tasty -- reminded me vaguely of the spinach patties that I make sometimes -- and went nicely with the surprisingly good dill sauce.  (Even Adam liked that sauce, and he's not a big dill fan.)
preserved heirloom carrots cooked in onion bouillon,
with raw and caramelized carrots, carrot top fritters, dill, and lettuce

I know that I really liked this dish -- and found the sourness of the green strawberries to be pleasantly interesting -- but I don't really remember anything more specific.  (I'd read an interview with the chef from a year or so ago that talked about how influenced he was by his time in Copenhagen and how Relae was the model of restaurant that he wanted.  Although I didn't appreciate this until later, this was probably the most "new Nordic" dish.  Green strawberries appeared at ever single meal that we had in Copenhagen, generally to excellent effect.)  Adam correctly ranked the first course dishes as (1) lettuce, (2) sour strawberries dish, (3) everything else on the carrots dish.
sour strawberries and green tomato dressed in malaysian flavors,
with parsnip, and rau om

This bowl of onions (off the tasting menu) reminded me of L'Arpege's onion gratin -- just rich, oniony deliciousness.  (I've been known to eat caramelized onions on their own, so perhaps I was an easy sell.)  Amaranth on top added depth to the breadcrumbs, and the fresh oregano was great (especially as oregano isn't immediately an herb that I think to pair with softened onions).  We scrapped up every bit.
spring onions warmed in milk and butter, with 'syrian' oregano and breadcrumbs

Adorable little biscuits made for a tasty bread course.  I kept thinking that the lemon marmalade was more bitter than I'd prefer, and yet I kept going back for more.

We had the peas twice, once on the vegi menu and later subbed for roast sirloin (which Dave and Corinne really enjoyed) on the tasting menu.  Good enough that we didn't mind, the grilled peas on the bottom got a nice bit of char, while less-cooked peas on top added a bit of crunchy contrast, loved the bits of preserved lemon.  I think the green and white sauces were spinach and some sort of root vegetable?
snap peas grilled over apple wood, with preserved lemon, aka miso, and snow pea vierge

The grouper was well cooked and lightly smokey -- almost always a plus for us.  Great use of mustard, nice sourness.
'snowy' grouper smoked over mesquite, with collard greens, mustards, and pickles

Another course off of the tasting menu that came on its own.  As mentioned, rice isn't usually my thing, but this was surprisingly good -- the fermented green garlic added an interestingly sour contrast.  I wasn't totally in love with it, but I'm always hesitant to be too critical of a dish that has a substitution or omission for our dietary restrictions.
'louisana brown' rice cooked in chicken fat [olive oil],
with fermented green garlic, toasted nori, and cured gulf blue runner

The stew was fantastic, rich without being too heavy, with different kale textures (although the crisp sort of melted in).  Adam commented that it seemed like a better iteration of what the disappointing brassicas dish at Saison was trying to be.  The horseradish dumplings were surprisingly light and creamy.  It's telling that both menus ended the savories with this dish.
a stew of fermented vegetables and 'winterbor' kale, with braised and crisp 'lacinato' kale, horseradish dumplings

Adam and I split on which of the two lovely desserts we liked best.  Adam preferred the lemon parfait, which probably was more interesting, but I loved the moist, almondy tart, with sweet (but not too sweet) cherry tomatoes subbing in for more traditional berries or cherries.
lemon parfait with herbed oats, candied lemon, and texas cider

tart of 'juliet' tomatoes and frangipane with vanilla ice cream

We did wine pairings, which were very nice, but at the end of the meal Adam asked to see the wine list.  He was intrigued by the "barnyard" description of El Pais de Quenehuao 2011, which wasn't quite accurate, but we ended enjoying the funky, oxidized red so much that I took a photo of the label so that we'd remember it.  (When cleaning out my camera pre-Europe, I happened to notice that the label was strikingly similar to a bottle label that I'd photographed at the Inn at Little Washington last fall because we had also really liked that wine (thanks Casper!).  Turns out they're both made by Clos Ouvert -- a connection that I wouldn't have made but for the photographs.)

We loved the casual, warm space, friendly service, and especially the food at Oxheart.  Houston made for a great food weekend; it's always fun when an anticipated meal doesn't disappoint, and Uchi was an unexpected bonus.

1 Proclamation by a billboard advertising the Houston Museum of Natural History that delighted me on our drive from the airport.
2 Spoiler: they were. (Finishing this post-Copenhagen.)


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